“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!'” (Luke 15:17, N.K.J.V.)
Many years ago, back when I was 12 or 13 years old, my cousin Tony and I attended the local carnival one night in the town of Spruce Pine. Since we weren’t old enough to drive, Tony’s mom Belle drove us. Actually, she didn’t drop us off at the carnival site. We hadn’t eaten supper yet, and so she took us to a restaurant that was located close to the carnival.
The restaurant was called City Drive-In, and it was one of those places where you not only ordered from your car but also ate there after the waiter brought your food out to you. I don’t remember what Tony or Belle ordered, but I ordered a footlong hot dog all the way and a side of fries. That’s what I always got at City Drive-In. They had the best footlong hot dogs in the history of the world.
After we finished eating, Tony and I got out of the car and walked the short distance across a big wooden bridge to get to the carnival site. The first ride we came to was one of those Rock-O-Plane rides. It looked like a ferris wheel except that each of the seats had a steel cage built around it. There were eight cages in all and each one could hold two riders. The cages were designed in such a way as to allow them to rock back and forth. The idea was that the two riders would shift their weight together to get their cage rocking as the ferris wheel went round and round. Each cage was enclosed to keep the riders from falling out. Tony and I had a big time trying to get our cage to flip over completely, but we never could make that happen.
To unload each cage once a ride was finished, the ride’s operator would stop the ride completely, start it up again for a second or two to bring a cage down to the unloading platform, and then unload that cage. Immediately following the unloading, while the cage was still there at the platform, the next two riders would climb into the cage to begin their ride. The operator would then start the wheel again for a second or two to move that cage up one slot on the dial as another cage was brought down to the platform for the same unloading and loading.
As the operator systematically worked our cage down toward the platform, Tony and I were already plotting what ride we should tackle next. But then something strange happened. Evidently, the operator lost count of how many cages he had unloaded and reloaded, and so when the cage Tony and I were in finally worked its way down to the platform, the operator didn’t unload us. Instead, he started the ride back up again in full swing and away we went for a freebie round two.
Like Tony, I was thrilled that we were getting a free ride. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize that my stomach was quickly becoming an active volcano. That footlong hot dog and those fries were not at all happy about my back-to-back rides on the Rock-O-Plane. I looked over at Tony to see if he was getting sick, but he was so busy working hard to get that cage to rock back and forth that he didn’t even notice that his partner was turning green. I tried to tell him that I wasn’t feeling well, but he obviously didn’t grasp the severity of the situation.
Since I hated to spoil his fun, I tried my best to soldier on through the ride. I knew, though, that my only chance at not throwing up was to make the ride as stable as possible. So, I told Tony that I was about to puke and that he needed to quit trying to rock that cage. It must have been something either in the sound of my voice or in the color of my face that made him realize that I wasn’t joking, and he promptly honored my request. What followed were several harrowing seconds of us trying to keep that cage as stationary as possible and me trying not to lose my supper as the wheel took us round and round.
Try as I might, however, my condition was too far gone, and so at some point the inevitable happened. In an explosion on par with that scene from the movie The Exorcist, up came that hot dog, those fries, and anything else I had eaten in the past year. It went all over me, all over Tony, and all over the inside of that cage. Horrifying doesn’t even begin to describe it. I still remember the shirt I was wearing that night. It was a Carolina blue t-shirt that I had gotten during a family vacation at Myrtle Beach, SC. It had a logo of Myrtle Beach on the front of it and my name (R-U-S-S) on the back. I loved that shirt, but you can believe me when I say that it didn’t look nearly so good with the front of it covered in upchuck.
Finally, mercifully, our ride came to an end, and this time the operator kept his count correctly and brought our cage down to the platform for the unloading and reloading. I staggered out of that cage looking like Jonah after the whale had spit him out, and Tony was right behind me trying to disassociate himself from me as much as he could. He didn’t stand a chance, though, because at that moment we were the only two people in Mitchell county who were covered in the former contents of my stomach. As we walked down the platform, two new riders climbed into our cage, and I heard one of them shriek in horror. I didn’t dare look back or try to explain myself. I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. All I know is that our cage was surely off limits for the rest of the night unless that ride operator had a water hose close at hand.
As you might guess, our big night at the carnival was over at that point due to the fact that we both needed a shower and a change of clothes. All we could do was retrace our steps back across the big wooden bridge and start looking for a payphone in town so we could call Belle to come get us. (If anyone reading this is too young to know what a payphone is, just Google it.) Needless to say, having to go traipsing through the streets of Spruce Pine in search of a payphone, while we were covered in puke, wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience for two fine young men who were just beginning to notice girls. Conservatively speaking, the whole night probably set both us back at least two years in terms of confidence in social settings.
After a while, though, we did get to a phone and call Belle to come get us. She showed up shortly afterward and couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of what had happened to us, but I saw nothing funny about it. As for Tony, I couldn’t have blamed him if he had opted to never speak to me again. To his credit, though, he didn’t ostracize me for life. First cousins are good that way, you know.
But now we come to the application of this gross story from my youth. Just as I really, really, really needed to get off that Rock-O-Plane ride long before I actually got off it, perhaps you are on a ride of your own right now that is downright unhealthy for you and those around you. I’m talking about a ride of sin, specifically that pet sin of yours, that has had you going around and around and around for years now. Don’t you think it’s long past time that you quit with that sin and got off that ride?
The turning point in Christ’s famous story of The Prodigal Son comes when the son, who finds himself alone, virtually penniless, and working a rock-bottom job, looks around one day and basically asks himself, “What I am doing with my life?” As the exact quote from the story puts it: “he came to himself.” Putting it in more modern language, the fog lifted, the blinders fell off, and the light bulb above his head lit up.
Sadly, there are hordes of people out there who consistently choose to stay aboard their rides of sin rather than disembark from those rides. It doesn’t matter how gnarly the rides get, how much puking takes place, or how many other people get hit with the projectile puke, these folks stay on their rides. Here’s hoping that you aren’t so foolish or so stubborn and that you embrace the Savior, Jesus Christ, who is standing at your ride’s platform waiting with open arms to help you off the ride and into a better life. Like the prodigal son returning to his father, you’ll find that Jesus will meet you with love rather than judgment, mercy rather than rebuke, and forgiveness rather than condemnation. For that matter, he’ll even help you clean up the mess you’ve made. You see, you don’t have to stay on that ungodly ride on which you find yourself. There really is a better life out there for you if you want it, but you first have to come to yourself and want it.