Thursday, March 30, 2017

a far country, part 1

"The Prodigal Son," Pierre de Chavannes, 1879, National Gallery of Art

The Word for today:
Luke 15
mark this: Luke 15:13
Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living.
I was 23, footloose and fancy free, when I visited a friend who'd garnered a good job in Washington. I stayed for a couple weeks. During the day, while he worked, I roamed around D.C. Then at night we'd make our way through the Georgetown bars. I had anything but biblical parables on my mind.
Until one day when I ventured into the National Gallery of Art. I fancied myself the artistic type back then. I looked the part and played the part. You know -- sensitive and temperamental and all of that. I impressed myself, if no one else.
I love art galleries. I spent the entire day at the National Gallery, and didn't even make it past the first floor. So I returned the next day, and spent all day again. On the third day, I was there when they opened. I poked around for about 20 minutes, and then I was stopped.
I was transfixed by a single painting. I stood in front of it for the next hour, until a security guard interrupted my trance:
"You gonna stand here all day?" It was spoken as a real question, not as a suggestion that I should move on.
"I can, can't I?"
"Sure. That's why they hang 'em on the wall. Are you alright?"
"Yes. Thanks. I'm fine."
I have tried to reconstruct that scene and its emotions, to recall what I was thinking as I stood there all afternoon. I would not come to faith in Christ until decades later, but I've often wondered whether a seed was sowed that day.
I do know that my thoughts that day were not what we call religious, or even contemplative. They were more sensual than philosophical.
I'd like to say that the painting stirred repentance, but there was none of that. What it stirred were my own memories--the residue of stale alcohol on a dry tongue; the sun rising too round too bright too hot too soon; the birds too loud, the bees too busy; the faint scent of assignation hanging in heavy, ripe air; an estrangement from my own shadow. Those were the thoughts the painting dredged up.
The next day, I was back again. There were a few things about the painting that I wondered about overnight, so I found myself in the same spot.
I hadn't been there for 15 minutes when I heard a voice beside me. It was the security guard, again:
"Luke 15."
"Luke chapter 15, in the Bible."
"I know, it's the prodigal son."
"Yes, the prodigal son. But it's more than that."
It would be a long, long while before I found myself reading Luke 15. But now, having read and taught that story a thousand times, I am still spooked by what the guard had said:
"There's more than that."
There sure is. And tomorrow we'll suggest just a few of the story's endless implications.

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