I was working through a theological reflection today. As I was doing so I couldn’t help but reflect on a conversation between my wife and I earlier this morning. We were discussing the prodigal, his brother and why the church seems to “celebritize” the prodigals at the risk of ignoring the many faithful brothers or sisters. For context, my wife identifies with the brother and I identify more with the prodigal.
The first part of our discussion was centered on when the church inadvertently celebrates loss. This happens when the church celebrates a story of pain and heartbreak, because of the significance of the event. E.g.: the person is idolized. Such a celebration of negative life experiences can wrongly push people into becoming an ‘elite spiritual aristocracy…that claims ‘special gnosis (knowledge)’ (Peterson 2005:61). Conversely this could also lead to a false theological understanding about what it means to be a Christ-follower.Even though narratives full of despair, brokenness and scandal are worth sharing, they are never cause for jubilation. At least this has been the reality of my experience . For example: ‘It sucks’ (to use the urban meaning) to stand before people and tell them about the abuse and mistreatment I have experienced.
To share painful memories with others is painful and risky to do. However, testimony should energize dialogue. This is because sharing identifies each of us with the ‘suffering community which is the sacramental community’ (Chan 1998, p.113). The circumstances which lead to renewal are not something to be envyed, used for entertainment or plated in gold. They are circumstances which are to be mourned and grieved. In my view any expression of church which unwittingly places the prodigal, or the broken and their story above other brothers and sisters, absolutizes their pain, ignores the power of lament and betrays a healthy sense of pastoral care.
Instead our celebration should be wasted on the God ‘who created a way of life out of this chaos and misery, countered death, breathed life into creation and creatures’ (Peterson 2005:24).Our painful stories are significant, they are stories that need to be heard, not worshipped. Otherwise our focus remains squarely on the cross, consequently we are barely able to move our focus from it to the resurrected Christ. He is able to recognize us in the midst of the twisted mess of anxiety, fear, feelings of worthlessness and rejection. By restraining ourselves from worshipping the story we move past the ‘infrastructures of consumerism’ (Brueggemann 1993, 2:II), towards being like Christ, where we can recognize each other in the midst of their own stories.
This makes room for an equal, authentic and honest witness: After all ‘we are approved by God entrusted with the Gospel, so we speak not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts’ (1. Thess. 2:4 ESV).The church should lament. They should rejoice and weep (Jn. 11:35 ESV) with the prodigal, whilst not ignoring the stories of the quiet faithful ones, who stand steadfast in the background. Otherwise the Church caresses the pain and poor choices by popularising them, proving that they do so only in order to fund street cred and feed antidotes to nominalism.
Bruggemann on the Psalms of disorientation
Brueggemann, W. 1993 The bible and post-modern Imagination, Fortress press MN, USA
Chan, S. 1998 Spiritual theology InterVarsity Press Downers Grove IL
Peterson, E. 2005 Christ plays in ten thousand places Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing Co.