[special_heading title=”Defining Moment” subtitle=”by Timothy J. Mooney” separator=”yes”]About ten years ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon with my parents in Atwater, CA. We talked, caught up on our lives, ate Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs until there was no room left, then made room for her lemon meringue pie. After all of that we were worn out, and we all fell into chairs or the couch like listing boats. Across the room Mom pulled out a magazine. Dad, the oldest and wisest, after a bit of around-the-house puttering, actually laid down for a nap.
In the unhurried moments that followed, I became aware of Mom and Dad in their particularity; aware of them as human beings apart from any utility to me. I watched Mom flip backwards through the magazine, her face displaying slight hints of “that looks nice” or “doesn’t look interesting.“ I noticed the lines in her face had deepened around her infectious smile. Then I noticed her hands; how strong they were from playing piano every day of her adult life. And I wondered how deeply my mother’s life had been defined by music.
Then my mind wandered to Dad. His Parkinson’s shake and shuffle had become more pronounced, but he had laughed hard over lunch, and his eyes had sparkled again, as he recounted escapades from his days in Italy in WWII. On the floor near the front door, so I wouldn’t forget, was a video tape Dad had made for all of us. With the help of government archives, war-films, national newsreels, personal and family photographs, and Dad’s own voice recorded during a phone interview, a company made a video personalized around Dad’s life called, “When I Went to War.” My father grew up in the hollers of West Virginia, a teacher and counselor all his life, and he had been and done everything at church except preach and sing soprano. All of that had formed him.
But so much of who he was – the sense of himself, his memories, his manhood – was formed by his experience in Italy. WWII was my father’s defining moment.
The story of the prodigal and the elder sons is a story of defining moments. The prodigal chose to play the rebellious son and sow wild oats. That defining moment yielded a bitter harvest of pig-slop. And by wasting his life, he had become pig-slop. But that realization provided him with another defining moment. He decided to return to his father’s home, in order that he might make something of himself.
The elder chose to play the good son, and sowed dutiful oats. But he also sowed seeds of self-righteousness. The harvest of that defining moment yielded bitterness and envy. And he had become self-righteous and ungracious, a different form of pig-slop. He, too, faced another defining moment: would he choose to stay at home in a different way in order that he might become compassionate and generous? The prodigal came home. We don’t know if the elder son decided to finally be at home.[callout_box title=”The spiritual life is one of defining moments. And Jesus’ journey towards his death was a defining moment for him. ” subtitle=””]The spiritual life is one of defining moments. And Jesus’ journey towards his death was a defining moment for him.
In his ministry, Jesus is defined by his vision of the Kingdom of God. That kingdom was governed by God’s gracious love, was intended for all people, and was lived out in relationships of compassion, acceptance, and justice. It was a vision of the way God created us to live. That vision rubbed the religious leaders the wrong way. The more he lived out his vision of the Kingdom, the more Jesus found himself at odds with those in power. He would have to make a choice: change his rhetoric and behavior, or face trouble. His chose to be true to his vision of the Kingdom of God.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced a defining moment. As he knelt and prayed, he was still free. If he desired, he could still run away and hide, or he could soften his position in order to stay out of trouble. Or he could fight. But he chose to continue to live by his deep-seated experience of who God was and how God intended us to live. That vision of life, was more significant than his solitary life, and by choosing to continue to live according to that vision, he probably knew it would cost him his life.
On the cross, Jesus faced another defining moment. Unlike his prayer in the garden, he was not free. The only freedom he had now was his own thoughts and emotions. He cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet even on the cross, he stayed true to his vision of God’s kingdom when he said, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” These defining moments, completed or filled-full his identity, his character, his sense of being the Beloved Son.
In Jesus’ story of the prodigal and the elder, and in Jesus’ own story of going to the cross, we are invited to look at our own defining moments. Like the prodigal, have we defined ourselves by being rebellious? In what ways have we wasted our lives? What feels like pig-slop? Is it time to return to deeper values? Or, like the elder, have we defined ourselves by being a good person? To dutifully do everything right? In what ways have we become bitter, envious, un-generous? Is it time to come into the feast of graciousness thrown by the father? Are we ready to be at home in a life-giving, generous way?
Are we, like Jesus in the garden, facing a defining moment where we are still free enough to choose without compulsion? With no one else watching, whom will we choose to be? How will we use our time, our talents, our money? How will we choose to live? Will we be true to our deepest self? Hold a grudge or let it go? Admit a wrong, or cover it over? Be involved or stay indifferent?
Or are we, like Jesus on the cross, facing a defining moment in which our only freedom is our thoughts and emotions? In the face of loss, suffering, and death, will we choose to bless or curse life? Will we allow resentment and bitterness to fester? Or we will find our way to forgiveness and generosity?
In the story of the prodigal and elder sons, there is someone else who faces defining moments: the father. At the beginning of the story, he lets go and wishes Godspeed to his youngest son, rather than hold on and control him. And when he returns after squandering everything, the father chooses to run toward him in reckless rejoicing rather than demand acts of contrition. He restores rather than reproaches. He throws a party instead of a tirade. And when he hears of his eldest son’s reaction, the father goes out to his son rather than wait for the elder to come to him. He entreats rather than berates, he invites him to claim the abundance that is also his. “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
And in Jesus’ journey to the cross, there is someone else who faces defining moments: God. God allows suffering, even death. God also allows human freedom. The terrible side of allowing freedom is seen in the religious and political leaders who choose injustice and murder. But the glorious side of allowing freedom is seen in Jesus who chooses to love and forgive. Without that freedom love is not possible. And though God allows suffering, God suffers alongside those who suffer. And in the darkest hour, when it seems God is most absent, that is when God is most present. God transforms death into life. In the cross, God is defined as one who is with us in life, in suffering, in death, and beyond death, for nothing shall separate us from the love of God.
When the prodigal son had his defining moment when he “came to himself,” part of that realization was to remember whose he was. He was his father’s son. Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks back at his own defining moments, and sees, too, that it is whose he is that matters most:
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would walk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I really then all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing around my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
The prodigal, in his moment of coming to himself, knew, like Bonhoeffer, that who he was, was defined by whose he was: he was his father’s son. And the father’s words to his eldest son say the same thing: “You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
The defining moments that Jesus faced, would be impossible, could not have been met, without the little moments that didn’t seem particularly important at all.
Like the moments when he pulled off by himself to pray, meditate, rest, gather his thoughts when people clamored for his attention; like the moments he treated each person he met, even outcasts, as persons of incredible worth. The truth is, each moment is a defining moment. What we do with the present moment shapes us, shapes others, and shapes the world. Our thoughts, every moment, are our prayers.
But have you noticed? The big defining moments occur when we are not at our best. They arrive when we’re tired, aggravated, lonely, confused, overwhelmed. When your buttons are pushed, it’s a defining moment. And it often means doing the last thing you want to do. My friend puts it this way: “I had to face the ‘I don’t want to’ monster. “I don’t feel like praying!” Better pray. “I don’t want to talk about it!” You have something that needs said, or needs to be heard. “You better listen to me!” Better take a timeout.
The defining moments of playing piano for my mother. The defining moment that was WWII for my father. Our defining moments. Seemingly insignificant or monumental, these moments define us, make us who we are. To know that throughout his life Jesus went through defining moments, insignificant and monumental, helps us face our own defining moments with hope. For the Spirit is present in every moment, ready to assist us.
It’s Father’s Day. And we give thanks for Fathers. But father, is also a verb: to create, found, originate, generate. Defining moments, these moments, create, generate our lives. What will we do with this defining moment? Who will we choose to be? Whose will we remember we are? Amen.