How do you know you are alive?
When I say alive, I mean more than being breathing bodies with heartbeats. I don’t just mean surviving. I mean living. If you are focused on simply getting enough food, not getting shot, or healing from an illness, then your energy is so focused on surviving that it’s almost impossible to focus on truly living, on thriving.
This may be the case for some of us, but many of us have the privilege to do more in life than simply survive. So what does true living look like? How do we know when we are alive?
Philosophers have debated this question. They have come up with answers such as Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” And then there is “Ubuntu” a Zulu word meaning, “I am, because we are.”
Being alive is not something we think about much. It’s like air, we are always surrounded by it, and we breathe it in all day long without much thought. We only notice it when it is stripped from us, or if breathing in air is a struggle. An uncomfortable symptom of anxiety is trouble breathing. It can feel like you can’t take a deep breath, or it can manifest in the form of hyperventilating. It can become necessary to learn breathing techniques, counting while breathing. Breathing in your nose and out your mouth.
A fish only misses water when it is on land.
We think about life more when we are face-to-face with death.
The story of the prodigal son has sparked the attention and imagination of people for thousands of years. Why? What is so gripping, so relatable about this story?
I wonder if empathy is what attracts us to this parable. Part of what makes us alive and human is the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another, feel what they feel, even if the characters were formed out of Jesus’ imagination.
While empathy is a good thing, this can get us in trouble, because I wear boots, tennis shoes, or flats, not dusty Middle Eastern sandals. We can’t seamlessly copy and paste ourselves into a story with an audience that lived a life so incomprehensibly different from our own.
What is frustrating is that even the most knowledgeable scholars create an incomplete picture of what this story meant to its original audience. They argue with one another and I am left confused how I am supposed to responsibly bring this story to the pulpit.
However one of the beautiful aspects of this story is that it seems to transcend culture and appeal to something basic, something central to what it means to be human. Maybe it’s the empathy thing again, this story evokes emotion. It is vibrant with longing, jealousy, recklessness, hunger, kindness, and exuberant joy.
No matter who these characters are meant to represent, or if they aren’t meant to represent anyone at all, this story still highlights the importance of and the Divinity within human connection, human relationships.
At our most basic level we were created for relationship. We are pack animals, or at least pair-bonding animals. We learn who we are within the context of relationship. I am because we are.
So we can somewhat relate to all of the characters, the youngest son’s longing for adventure, for self-discovery. The jealousy and frustration of the loyal and hardworking oldest son. The father’s uninhibited ecstasy of being reunited with his child.
I have been learning about attachment theory while listening to the book, Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships, by Sue Johnson. Attachment theory is the idea that the bonds we form in infancy with our primary caretakers create a lasting blueprint—of sorts, that can determine how we relate to our loved ones our entire lives. Attachment theory is more complicated than this, but there are three basic styles of attachment: securely attached, anxiously attached, and avoidant attachment.
While reading the story of the prodigal son, I started to wonder if we could see these attachment styles in the three main characters of this text. The youngest brother, the one who wants to strike out on his own with an abundant inheritance, could be considered as an avoidant attached individual, meaning he struggles being close to others. Those who are avoidant generally respond to intimacy with a desire for space. They need connection, they want to be close, but when closeness is offered they end up shutting down and pushing others away.
Anxiously attached people on the other hand, desperately fear the loss of a bond with another. Like the older brother, they desire closeness, and become incredibly stressed and anxious if this closeness is threatened. They frequently wonder if their loved one truly loves them, or if they are just going to pack up and leave one day.
It seems as if the older brother fears for his relationship with his father. He seeks reassurance that the work he is doing, the bond he is fighting for, is not in vain. He protests that his brother’s reckless rejection of his family is rewarded while his efforts to keep the family afloat have been ignored. Plus his brother taking off might have triggered or cemented his fear that loved ones will just leave. His trust in his family is crumbling.
The father, on the other hand, is portrayed as someone who is securely attached. He feels connected enough with his family that he is not threatened when one son leaves. He keeps an eye on the road because he trusts that his boy will be back. He isn’t flustered when the oldest brother makes a scene of jealous defiance during the party. He knows that the older son needs reassurance that he is loved and cared for, and always will be.
The father knows how to give both space to his avoidant child and loving attention and security to his anxious child.
What is beautiful is that according to the research that Johnson has worked on is that this blueprint of attachment that affects our behavior with loved ones isn’t so embedded within us that it cannot be changed and worked on.
When anxious and avoidant people allow secure people in, when they let themselves be fully loved and known, then they become more secure themselves. They can be aware of, and resist their basic fears of losing their identity or losing their relationship and rest in the comfort of a loving, reliable bond.
What’s more is, based somewhat on Johnson and somewhat on my own opinion, I am convinced that this security of a strong bond doesn’t necessarily need to just be found in another human. No, I am not talking about bonding with a squirrel, sorry to disappoint. J
But what if we so completely trusted and rested in the idea of a secure God that we allowed that bond help heal where our other bonds have been threatened or broken?
Our relationship with a loving God could help us connect with other no matter what our attachment style is. If we know that we have a reliable place we can return to then we can be emboldened and feel free to stray, to learn, to explore. Or we can feel free to be as close as we would like, closer than we could be with a human. We could pour out our heart to a God that is always near.
A secure relationship with our God could allow us to become that sounding board, that safe space, for our loved ones. The love and security we receive from our relationship with God could pour out and benefit our other relationships.
I like to think that both brothers could not help but be transformed by the shocking, over-the-top love that their father freely displayed. My favorite part of this story is the image of a stately, wealthy, well-respected Middle Eastern Jew gripping his robes, exposing his ankles (quite the scandal), and running with abandon towards his son whom he has deeply missed.
This father basically broke every social norm the entire way through this passage, ripping down boundaries that would separate him from the love of his sons. It is comforting to think about how unashamedly this father poured affection over his son.
When he and his son were reunited, he crumpled onto him, burrowing his head into his boy’s neck, kissing him over and over. There was no hint of anger at his son’s irresponsible behavior. No contempt or disgust at the ways in which his boy brought humiliation and shame on the family.
Even though this boy:
1. Basically wished death on his father by asking for his inheritance while his father was still alive.
2. He squandered these savings as if the work it took to raise them meant nothing to him.
3. He possibly hung around prostitutes (at least according to the speculation of his angry, jealous brother, so who knows if this was actually true).
4. He hung out with non-Jews, doing work that was considered unclean.
5. Finally, he had the audacity to come back to a community and household that miraculously extended the grace not to shun him from the beginning. So he was really pushing his luck, coming back with the expectation of being allowed back into the community.
All of that, all five solid reasons to be upset with his son, didn’t seem to matter to the father. All that mattered was that his boy, who essentially chose to be head to his family, was now home, and very much alive.
What if this father, with his indifference to punitive cultural expectations, and refusal to let shame dictate his actions, could serve as a model for how to love one another and therefore be fully alive?
I am not talking about ignoring all wrongs inflicted by loved ones, but rather emulating this father’s example of how to rise above a culture of shame. What if refusing to let shame entangle us with doubts, insecurity, and fears was a way to be fully alive? To thrive?
Maybe Jesus knew his followers were susceptible to a culture of shame and wanted to provide a model, through the father, of how to truly live and thrive. So what would it mean to take seriously the challenge to no longer allow shame to dictate our actions, our feelings towards our loved ones?
Maybe those who are avoidently attached would let themselves melt into the embrace of a loved one, finally realizing that the cultural expectations of “independence” and “not needing others” are lies fed to us by a culture obsessed with selfish and lonely notions of what it means to be an adult.
Maybe anxiously attached people would be less inhibited by the opinions and judgments of others. Maybe they could learn to see the strength that lies within their endless well of love and affection.
Shame tells us that our bad actions make us bad people. That our identity is rooted in and ruled by the grip of sin.
Shame tells us that we are to be embarrassed of who we really are. And that if we actually unmask our façade of a put-together existence, if we let ourselves be vulnerable and true to who we are, that others would find us to be “too much,” or disgusting or annoying, or embarrassing.
Shame tells us to run away from commitment because we are unworthty of love and acceptance.
Shame says, “you don’t make mistakes, you are a mistake.”
Shame is a liar.
It is a voice that only poisons our existence. It is not helpful and there is no room for it within the all-encompassing love of a God who—like the father in the story—doesn’t care if we are dirty, if we smell like pigs, if we are starved for affection, if we are weird, if we are jealous, or if we have pushed everyone away.
The God that Jesus believed in does not care about the ways we have strayed from the path.
This God only has room for shame-free joy for when we thrive.
Brené Brown is an expert in the subjects of shame, vulnerability, and human flourishing. She calls people who thrive, “whole hearted”. Brené tells the story of a time when she and her daughter were in a department store. At home, they would often break out into dance parties, but not so much in public. But at one point Brené was noticing all of these perfect moms with their perfect daughters, and she was starting to become aware of her own imperfections, right when her daughter declared an impromptu dance party because of a fun song playing in the store.
Her daughter started breaking it down, pulling out all of her funky moves. Shame bubbled up within her, her face got all hot as she saw the perfect mom’s horrified looks, pulling their daughters away—as if her daughter was spreading a deadly disease. She felt herself start to reprimand her daughter, to give her a dirty look for her embarrassing behavior, when her daughter said, “Come on mama, do the robot.”
The innocence and lack of self-consciousness in her daughter’s voice melted the shame within her. She thought to herself, “screw it” and busted out her finest robot.
Shame is not an engrained part of our human existence. Shame is taught. Therefore shame can be un-taught. It can be replaced with the knowledge that our loved ones will be there no matter what.
And if that isn’t true for you, then trust that you have a Faith community that sees you, that will support you, that not only will accept your true self, but wants to know you—all of you and all of your funky glory.
We can make space, embrace, all of who you are because we trust in a God that is shame-less in her fatherly, motherly, covenantal bond of love. A God that runs, ankles bare, robe hoisted towards us. A God that burrows into our neck, kissing us, weeping with joy when she sees us flourish, when he sees us come to life.
A God who says, “You are always with me. All I have is yours. Let’s celebrate and be glad. Because you were once dead but now you are alive! You were lost but I found you.”
So celebrate, dear ones. Dance. Love unashamedly. You are alive. So live like it. Find joy in the flourishing of others. Know that you are not alone. We will not leave you. We will give you space to be yourself. So dance, breathe, and be free. Fly knowing that we are here for you when you land. Fly knowing that if you feel lost God is always with you and will forever find you and bring you home. Dance knowing that God will always be your home.
A Parable and its Baggage
The Parable of the Prodigal Father: An Interpretive Key to the Third Gospel (Luke 15:11-32) Trevor J. Burke
Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15
Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships
Dr. Sue Johnson
Revisiting the Parable of the Prodigal Son for Decolonization: Luke’s Reconfiguraiton of Oikos in 15:11-32
The Gospel of Luke: Judith Lieu
The New Century Bible Commentary: The Gospel of Luke
The Parable of the Prodigal Son and Modern Motivational Theory
Stephan S. Rothlin and Bruno S. Frey
 This story is from a series of talks Brené Brown did called “The Power of Vulnerability.”