In his earlier years, Benjamin Franklin once worked setting up a line of forts to defend the northwestern frontier for America’s thirteen original colonies. The chaplain of one fort complained to Franklin that the enlisted men were not attending his prayer services.
Franklin remarked that since the men were entitled to a ration of rum each day, the chaplain should become the rum steward and then dispense the rum rations immediately following morning prayers. The chaplain followed the suggestion. Later Franklin wrote in his diary, “Never were prayers more generally or more punctually attended.”
That story may be apocryphal, but the truth is, we attend church for many reasons. The things which motivate us to pray are perhaps even greater in number.
If you looked closely at Helen, you could tell that she had once been quite attractive. The toll she had paid for the life she had lived was severe. Yet as terrible as the years seemed to have been to her, they could not erase the suggestion of what had once been great beauty. In her gnarled hands was the suggestion of delicate grace. Her hair, now yellowed with age, must have once been quite golden as it caught the rays of the sun.
Her voice cracked as she spoke. The words came with great difficulty. “I would like to pray,” Helen said, “but I wonder now if God will hear me. When I was young and attractive, I turned my back on God. Now that I'm getting old, have lost my health through an incurable illness, and have nothing left of life's pleasures, I find myself turning to God. There is nothing else. But why would He want me under these circumstances?
“When I had to sacrifice my pleasures to be one of God's children, I chose not to. Now that I have nothing to sacrifice, I am ready for God. I am bringing Him nothing but my need. It is a poor bargain for him. Will He want me now?”
We always assume the prodigal son was a young man when he returned to his father's house. The Bible does not give his age, either at the time of his departure or his return. We do know that he was the younger of two sons and he was tired of waiting.
Hostile and rebellious, he wanted instant independence. When he, like Helen, decided to stop denying himself life's pleasures, he went whole-hog. In fact, he ended up feeding hogs, competing with them for their slop during a time of famine.
We usually think of him as still possessing his youth, although humbled by his circumstances. Perhaps he was now quite advanced in years, stooped by his poverty. When he thought of returning home to his father's house, the words may not have been articulated with the clarity of a young man. They may have been the mumblings of a man worn out by years and by hardship.
“I will go home to Father,” he thought, “but I have nothing to offer him. The years of riotous living have wasted anything I could contribute, but I will go home regardless. Maybe my Father will take me on in the position of his lowest servant. At least I would have enough to eat.”
When David looked back over the mess he had made of his life a life that included adultery and murder among his violations of God’s law he made this very powerful observation: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”
Do you have anything to offer to God? Is a broken heart, a broken spirit, all you have left? Then offer it. You may be young, thinking there are years ahead, but from God's point of view, you are looking at nothing but anguish and despair. God will say with even greater anguish, “You had the need. I would gladly have accepted your broken heart, but you would not offer it.”
What Helen was asking, what the prodigal son was asking, is, “Is it too late?” There is an immeasurable distance between late and too late. Whatever you have, offer it now. God will not despise it. He will not reject you.
David Sisler's newspaper column, Not For Sunday Only, is in its 13th year of weekly publication. For reprint permission, or to subscribe, contact Mr. Sisler at firstname.lastname@example.org.