The Prodigal and the Pigs

A few weeks ago I stopped by the barn because I saw my brother walking alongside it. He had a terrible scowl on his face and I asked him what had happened.

“I got attacked by a stupid pig!”

He had grabbed one of the piglets to tag its ear. Apparently the mama didn’t take too kindly to that and came after him. He fussed about having to wrestle free from her and shoo her off of him. He frowned and then we both laughed about how sore he would be the next day from struggling with an 800 pound angry sow.

In the Christian church we tell the story of the Prodigal Son with great regularity. There are plenty of interpretations of the story but all end with good news. The story tells that the ne’er-do-well son finds himself among the pigs, having grown so hungry that he wishes he could eat their slop. It is then that he realizes he must go home and face his father’s disappointment and wrath because he cannot continue living among the swine.

No, I am no prodigal son. My way of leaving home and gallivanting did not involve claiming an inheritance before it was time nor turning my back on my family. My sojourn included, instead, serving as a priest to parishes around the Southeast and as a chaplain to schools. My return home was not about a child who once was lost then returns home to be found. For me it was simply time to come back to the land of my ancestors.

Before my grandfather had a family he had a butcher shop. He ran it with two of his brothers and a partner. The rack that held rolls of butcher and wax paper in his shop now hangs on my parents’ kitchen wall. Across from it, against their giant hearth, is the large bracket of hooks that my grandfather once used to hang meat for drying and displaying to sell. Today the hooks have been repurposed to hold baskets of treats for the dog, paper and matches for lighting a fire, decks of cards and games to play with the grandkids, and more.

The building in which my grandfather’s place was located still stands in my hometown downtown. However, it has not been a butcher shop since he closed the doors. In our more modern times, it has been a coffee shop and offices, businesses of some kind or another, and holds now, I think, a portrait studio for little babies.

By the time my mother came along my grandfather had expanded his business ventures to include several farms, the most important of which was his childhood home. The small farm he owned in town is where he raised my mother. He made sure he kept plenty of horses and other animals for her to ride and chase. On that property now sits a Walmart and Starbucks, ready to serve any number of people who have no idea of the origin of their bacon. All the same, they gobble it up in their sous vide egg bites, especially with a side of cold brew.

In my travels away from the farm I have served parishes in small towns and big cities. When I stepped out of Duke Divinity School into the ministry field, fresh faced and full of ideas, I thought my calling was to share the good news of God and nurture others on their faith journeys. In addition to that good work, I also found myself running vestry meetings, learning best practices of bookkeeping, navigating the ins and outs of marketing and advertising, teaching myself desktop publishing for producing newsletters and bulletins, and doing one million other things never once mentioned to you in seminary. A particularly enlightening moment during my first year was the Saturday afternoon I learned all about septic systems as I mopped up the floor of the men’s bathroom. There is much they don’t teach you that suddenly, becomes pivotal to your work as a minister and God‘s house. However, for years “erosion mediation,” “farm zone,” and “bush hogging” were not terms I needed to call upon often.

But now I have come home and find myself back with the pigs. Last fall my brother and I worked with a team to prepare a hog for a friend’s barbecue. Our grandfather had scars on his legs from when he fell into a scalding vat in one of his slaughtering houses. My brother and I stood next to a large 50 gallon drum full of boiling water and watched as one of the workers dipped the freshly killed hog into the water and pulled it out again so we could scrape the bristles from its hide. This gives the hog that wonderful pink skin everyone thinks of when they picture a pig and not the rough, hairy, dark reality of what a real pig actually looks like. My dad made a comment about how proud my grandfather would be if he could see that two of his grandchildren had taken up the family work, continuing in his line.

It might be that for most people the idea of slopping hogs and tending pigs would make them want to go home, far away from the smells and sounds of the pig pen, as fast as possible because anything would have to be better than such a messy job. For me, home is exactly there, hearing the hogs snort and grunt when we fill the trough with grain or watching the mama pigs fling the babies out of the way when it’s adult swim time in the piggie pool.

I made my sojourn in the world and loved serving God‘s people. I still work part time for the church and visit many on Saturdays and Sundays to preach, fill in for traveling clergy, or lead workshops and retreats. But now most of my time is spent on the farm. It is healing to be home and gather up the scraps from my kitchen as I prepare the meals I love to cook. As I wash produce in my sink, I look out the windows of the house my great grandfather built more than a century and a half ago. In front of me I see the old horse barn with its thick logs and tin roof. No one remembers who built it but it has housed horses and ponies for generations and now my children take their turn to step out, peppermints in hand, and talk to the animals.

After my brother and I laughed about his run in with the mama pig, I walked into the barn and saddled up to the trough. I dropped in those wonderful peels from carrots, potatoes, and onions, making a fantastic meal for the hogs. I listened as they snorted and grunted, fussed and moaned, poked and prodded at each other. Among that slop and by those pigs I felt home, down to the bottoms of my soles.

Returning home, wherever that may be and for whatever reason, means finding oneself; rediscovering the root and core of who we are. I have loved the work I have done, near and far, and discovered new things about myself in every place. But nothing speaks to my whole self or helps me discover the totality of who I am in a holistic way nearly as much as returning home.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Katherine Grice says:

    Mary Demmler, loved hearing about you returning home. We still have our Mississippi farm rented to the same family when our did died many years ago
    We still go out on occasion to stir up old memories. Katherine Grice


    1. So glad you can go and steep in those memories!


  2. hemmerjr says:

    It’s great!!❤️


  3. I appreciate your feelings and thoughts of your heritage -a very rich one!


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