Preached at MCC Columbia (S.C.), Sunday, September 18, 2005
Readings: Luke 15:11-24, Romans 8:5-11
Back in 1953, Leonard Stern, one of the writers for the TV show “The Honeymooners,” was working on writing a new character into the series. He was stuck for a descriptive passage and yelled out to his co-writer Roger Price for help with an adjective. Before he could define his request further, however, Roger yelled out “clumsy!” Stern said, “I now had a character with a round face, blue eyes, and a clumsy nose. At that moment, or maybe ten seconds of laughter later, Mad Libs® was born.”
For those who aren’t familiar with Mad Libs, it’s a game where you have a story where some of the words are missing and you have to fill them in — but all you know is that you need to supply a form of speech like a noun, adjective, adverb, color, etc. You don’t know what the story is about and you don’t get to hear it until you’ve given all of the words that are needed. The result is often gibberish, but it’s also often hilarious.
This morning, I thought we might play a round of Mad Libs and see what happens.
In case you’re like me and have forgotten everything you learned in English class, except perhaps how to speak it, here is a quick refresher on parts of speech we’ll need this morning:
- An ADJECTIVE describes something or somebody. Lumpy, soft, ugly, messy, and short are adjectives.
- A NOUN, like the Schoolhouse Rock song tells us, is a person, place or thing. Sidewalk, umbrella, bridle, bathtub, and nose are nouns.
- A VERB is an action word. Run, pitch, jump, and swim are verbs.
- When asked for a GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION, it means any sort of place: a country or a city (Spain, Cleveland) or a room (bathroom, kitchen).
- When asked for specific words like A NUMBER, A COLOR, AN ANIMAL, OR A PART OF THE BODY, it means a word that is one of those things.
Ready? Here we go:
The Van is my piano, I shall not swim. He makes me eat obese in garnet cats; he leads me beside happy rats.
He marches my walrus. He mops me in gay seahorse for his mine sake.
Even though I gallop through the tense Paris, I fear no floor; for you are with me; your church and your Germans, they strut me.
You prepare a chain wallet before me in the presence of my fairy; you scuttle my head with underwear; my child overflows.
Surely refrigerator and banana shall follow me all the hip pockets of my baboon, and I shall sashay in the toy of the hymn my whole life long.
Now, that’s a familiar piece of scripture, Psalm 23. What do you think of our new version? Is it as good as the original? Do you like it better? As the Mad Libs version shows us when we knock out some of the original words and put in our own words, this beloved Psalm doesn’t make much sense, does it? It may be funny in some parts, but overall it’s nonsense.
This Mad Lib reminds me of the story of the prodigal son. Here is a different perspective on that story:
Feeling footloose, fancy-free and frisky, this feather-brained fellow finagled his fond father into forking over his fortune. Forthwith, he fled for foreign fields and frittered his farthings feasting fabulously with fair-weather friends. Finally, fleeced by those folly filled fellows and facing famine, he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farm-lot. He fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from fodder fragments.
“Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing fact.
Frustrated from failure and filled with forebodings, he fled for his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited further family favors . . .”
But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.
But the fugitive’s fault finding frater, faithfully farming his father’s fields for free, frowned at this fickle forgiveness of former falderal. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile.
His foresighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivities? The fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfare flaring, let fun, frolic and frivolity flow freely, former failures forgotten and folly forsaken. Forgiveness forms a firm foundation for future fortitude.”
In fewer f-filled words — the prodigal son decided that his life was empty at his father’s house. He was feeling unfulfilled, so he gets dad to pony up his part of the inheritance and takes off for what he thinks are greener pastures. He enjoys his life for awhile, living it up — until his money runs out. Finding himself in the same place as the hogs, he realizes that the emptiness he felt over at dad’s house was still with him. All the fun, the money, the good times — none of this had fulfilled his longings. None of the things of the world — or as Paul puts it “the flesh” — could fill those empty spaces in his life.
I’m sure we’ve all had our prodigal moments when, in the midst of life, we realize that even though we have all the things we might want, we still feel empty inside. There’s still a hole that hasn’t been filled, no matter how much money we spend, how many friends we have, how great our jobs are or how seemingly fulfilling anything else is in our lives. There’s still just something missing.
I’ve had a few prodigal moments in my life. The biggest was when I was in my early 20s, several years after abandoning God because I believed the lie that I could not be both a lesbian and a Christian. I had given up on God. I figured if God didn’t love me, the least I could do was return the favor. I had girlfriend. I had a job. I had a home. I had all those things that were supposed to make you happy. That’s what the world says is supposed to make you happy, right? I wasn’t rich, but I all my needs were met. But, I was still empty. There was still a big hole in my life that nothing around me could fill.
Finally, my girlfriend at the time felt like she wanted to go back to church. I didn’t want to go. God was the last thing we needed. We’d done fine without God this far, why did we need God now? Besides, God hated us. If we went back to God we’d have to give up who we were because God hates queers, right?
But, it was at church that I found that empty space immediately filled. There was a man in a collar, behind a pulpit, telling me that God loved me and that God had missed me terribly since I had left. In that church, God ran to greet me and “frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.”
My life had not made much sense in the years that I turned my back on God. It was like a weird Mad Lib with odd words stuck in all the wrong places. But, the moment I opened myself up to God’s presence in that church, all the pieces fell into place. Suddenly, my life made sense again. I spent years not talking to or thinking about God, but in that moment, I looked back over that time and I could see that God had been at work in my life — providing for my needs in the form of jobs, money, food, the right people at the right time. There was so much that God had done for me over that time that I hadn’t even noticed. I was looking to other things to fill the void, to give meaning to my life and God had been there the whole time, but I refused to see it. I refused to let God fill those empty spaces, and instead I filled them in with my own nonsense.
Another prodigal moment came in seminary. After two semesters of Christian history I was done with Christianity. There were so many controversies, arguments, splits and even murders committed in the name of religion that it sickened me. I reached a point where I really didn’t know if I could believe in God anymore. Nothing made any sense to me anymore.
Many of my old beliefs had been stripped away and I had yet to form new ones in their place. Instead, I was hearing a lot of people talking — a lot of historical facts and many of those facts were not pleasing to me. My faith didn’t make sense anymore because I was letting other people fill in the blanks. I was letting the history of the church, the history of doctrines and dogmas fill in the blanks and it made me feel very empty. I was full of knowledge, but craved real faith.
Life began to make sense again only when I stepped back and handed it all back to God. I had to hand God some of the doctrines I had held for a long time because they no longer produced a strong faith in me. I had to give up some of the long held beliefs I had because they only caused confusion and emptiness in my life. They no longer filled in the blanks for me — but instead caused a messy, pig sty, Mad Lib of theology that only disheartened me and made me feel emptier.
It was only in letting go of some of the old doctrines and dogmas of historical theology that helped me regain and make sense of my faith. Only when I turned back to God, and not what people said about God, did things begin to make sense. I let God fill in the blanks. I let God write large the words of my faith and beliefs. God more than met me halfway — and threw me a big party.
I’m sure you all have had your own prodigal moments when you’ve insisted on filling in the blanks of your lives with things of the flesh. We all do it from time to time. We fill our lives with money, jobs, relationships, cars, houses — things that we think will bring us happiness. There’s certainly nothing with wanting or having these things in our lives, but when they become everything to us, we’ve made a wrong turn. When we put any of these things ahead of God in our lives is when we invite trouble. In those times, no matter how good life seems to be, we’ll still feel empty — unable to fill that God shaped hole in our lives with anything of this world.
When we fill our lives with those worldly things — the things of the flesh — we think we’ll be happy, but instead we have no peace, only feelings of fear, want, lack, anger and anxiety. But, when we put God in charge — when we fill all of our emptiness with God, then the world makes sense. Suddenly we have peace. We are filled with feelings of love, joy, compassion, boldness, abundance and confidence. We understand that God is our strength, God is our rock. Nothing can shake us if God is our foundation. Certainly, there will still be bad times in our lives. We are never promised trouble free lives. But, even in the midst of trouble, if God is filling in the blanks, we know that the story God writes for us will always have a happy ending — the best ending possible — an ending that reconciles us for eternity with our loving Creator.
When we give over every aspect of our lives to God we can become like the woman in this ancient parable from India:
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.
The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
Brothers and sisters, when we let God control every aspect of our lives, people notice. They can’t help but notice because we will be the wise woman, giving away things of great worth because we know, we understand, on such a deep level, that things cannot fill the empty spaces within us — only God can do that. Filling our lives with God, with God’s presence, with God’s love, with God’s mercy, with God’s compassion, with God’s hope, with God’s forgiveness, with God’s understanding, with God’s beauty and God’s joy, is the only way we can truly fill all the blank spaces in our lives. This is what makes our lives make sense. This is what makes our lives rich beyond measure. This is what makes others understand just how priceless God’s presence in every area of our lives can truly be.
The choice is ours. Which do we prefer? The Mad Lib we wrote earlier or those beautiful, familiar words that fill our every longing?
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff- they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. (Psalm 23)
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians,” was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.