Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Prodigal Son 6. Unapplauded Love

The story of the prodigal son:

As usual, I was thinking the other day about the prodigal son story, and I remembered a particular insight that I really wanted to share. As Henri Nouwen observes, we may identify with the younger prodigal son, or we may identify with the disapproving elder son, but God is calling us to a place where we identify with the father; the further along we get living in the kingdom of God, the more we walk in the father's shoes.

The father in this story bears a particular burden, in that he loves his sons in a way that they do not comprehend nor do they respond in kind. He makes extreme sacrifices, even to giving away half of his life's wealth, only to see it thrown to the wind to the one he entrusted it to. Still he loves. No one applauds him for still loving, no one notices that he has the world's biggest heart. He has entered a phase in life where he loves his sons for different reasons than that.

Notice that it does not seem that this icon of a father, this father who so selflessly loves, the icon of fatherhood, is able to turn out perfect and moral and well-behaved children. This is actually profound; The father, who really represents God Himself, cannot and does not control his children, and as you would imagine, they tend to get into trouble.

This is not his greatest burden, however. Let's reread this portion of the story:

“So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” Luke 15:20-24, NIV.

Notice this: no one else was watching to see if his son had returned that day. He was alone in his concern, in his hope. No one else ran to kiss him. No one else did anything except marvel that he still cared for him that much. We can imagine the servants looking on, puzzled, and thinking, "the fattened calf, NOW, for him?!"

Here is another great example of a man with this father's heart, who stood alone in loving his son, the story of David and his son Absalom. Here, after Absalom had betrayed him badly, and had almost stolen the kingdom right out from under him, and forced him into exile, was his response upon learning that in the ensuing melee, Absalom had been killed:

“And the king covered his face and cried out with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you. For you have shown today that princes and servants are nothing to you; for I know this day that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” 2 Samuel 19:4-6, NASB.

Joab his advisor, and the whole nation, were irritated at David for so mourning the death of his enemy; but David did not view him so. David stood alone in loving his son, in mourning his passing.

So the heart of a father is helplessly compelled against all reason and against all counsel to always love. Others stand ready to condemn, to judge, to be done with the boy, but the father never thinks so. Even the father's child who is the very object of his love does not understand at all; the prodigal in the story imagines only judgement, and David's son actually tried to exile him and kill him! Indeed, David had a heart after God's own heart, which is not always easy or full of rainbows and cotton candy! The father always hopes, always forgives, and is always moved by a powerful longing and hope and will to bless. It is a lonely and often sad position, but a powerful one. So is God always towards us, towards you, towards me, and so do we become more and more as we mature in Him. Condemning voices may arise against us, true voices, persuading counsel that is compelling and right, but God is more powerfully compelled by His compassion and concern. As we learn His heart toward us we begin to have this same heart towards others. This is the true heart of the pastor, the true heart of the husband and father, this powerful and sometimes irrational love that never never grows cold or runs dry. We cannot expect others to understand, it doesn't work that way, the heart of the parent towards a child is different than every other relationship.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Prodigal Son 5. The Responsible Son

The story of the prodigal son:

Sometimes, did you know, other people get blessed instead of you? Sometimes other people much less deserving than you prosper and are honored. Sometimes, God likes to forgive and bless other people to whom you would rather see "justice" meted out. Sometimes God just will not do the right things on the right schedule!

Let's take a look at another parable:

““For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ “They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’ “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius. “And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”” Matthew 20:1-16, NASB.

The guys hired early in the day are upset because somebody else got blessed, someone less deserving than them. We all have such a sense of exacting justice about what authorities should do for us! Jesus is teaching here, the kingdom of God is about blessing people who don't deserve it; if you don't like that kind of thing, heaven is going to be a very uncomfortable place for you!

The elder brother in the prodigal son story has the same syndrome. He has an exact sense of justice concerning who should be accepted, who should be blessed, and who shouldn't. Doesn't he have a point? If you think about it, the dynamics of this scene are absurd! No one could be more irresponsible than his brother; he took his entire inheritance, and burned through it in perhaps a few months. Then he returns in shame and rags, and his father doesn't even scold him at all! In fact, he celebrates his return! The elder son, solid and faithful, was never celebrated, but here is this fool who is dressed up, and there is the tent full of music and dancing!! They're DANCING!!! Yet here he is, he never left, he never did anything wrong, and yet he was never celebrated, never the center of attention. No one danced, no music was played in celebration for him, for consistently doing the right thing.

Should he sin all the more that grace might increase? Shouldn't he do some dramatic wrong so he can also get a party? What good is the father's answer here - "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours." That's it? It doesn't even feel like anything is different for him after that speech; nothing feels like it is really his, and he is still stuck here with nothing except the responsibility, and no stinking party, not even a goat. He is angry, he gets no reward for his hard-earned responsibility and his brother gets fattened calves and music and dancing for his foolishness. The world is turned around, his father is a fool!

In Numbers, we have the strange story of Balak, who tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel:

“Now God met Balaam, and he said to Him, “I have set up the seven altars, and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.” Then the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth and said, “Return to Balak, and you shall speak thus.” So he returned to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, he and all the leaders of Moab. And he took up his discourse and said, “From Aram Balak has brought me, Moab’s king from the mountains of the East, ‘Come curse Jacob for me, And come, denounce Israel!’ “How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how can I denounce, whom the LORD has not denounced? “As I see him from the top of the rocks, And I look at him from the hills; Behold, a people who dwells apart, And shall not be reckoned among the nations. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, Or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, And let my end be like his!” Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but behold, you have actually blessed them!” And he answered and said, “Must I not be careful to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?”” Numbers 23:4-12, NASB.

If you read the context, here is a group of people who have been forced to wander in the wilderness for many years, whom the ground swallows up, who have been disciplined and punished and who complain bitterly about all of it. Yet, even unknown to them, God defends them against enemies, and calls them blessed! I wonder if the Israelites would agree?! This is the same spirit as the elder brother; they and he do not see that they are blessed, and the blessing they have and will have are not recognized by them, they do not perceive their position and give thanks. Thus, when someone else is blessed, the brother becomes angry, because what he sees is that this person IS blessed while he IS NOT.

What we really see between these two brothers is this: they both resent their father. They deal with that resentment differently - the younger acts out and parties and squanders, and actually leaves. He is brash and foolish. The other, in his resentment and quiet angry responsibility, stays and smolders. Neither likes the way the father handles things, it is just that the older brother is able to maintain a veneer of respectability while the other wears his discontent on his sleeve. The only difference is how they act out or handle their discontent and ingratitude.

Here is the thing to learn from this: can we look on God, our Father's blessing and mercy and grace given to someone else, when we ourselves do not feel celebrated or recognized for the moment, and rejoice? Do we like to see others celebrated? Are we envious when others are noticed, received, forgiven, paraded, honored? Can we walk in the quiet knowledge that we are loved and cherished by our father when that is manifested in a common and undramatic, daily sort of way? We will be very uncomfortable in heaven if we can't dance and enter the celebration with all the angels when the Father bestows blessing and honor and grace on another sinner. Heaven is all about grace, and that means there is going to continue to be a lot of blessing flowing to people who do not appear to deserve it. We can choose either to rejoice and celebrate, or to resent and sulk. The father's will is for all of us to rejoice and dance. Isn't He wonderful?!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Prodigal Son 4. The Son's Return

The story of the prodigal son:

Henri Nouwen, in his marvelous little book "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons", makes the observation that if you look very closely at Rembrandt's painting of the return of the prodigal son, there is something funny about the appearance of the son. Given his circumstances, one would think that his hair would be long and matted, his beard grown out, his shoeless foot blistered and calloused. However, if you look carefully at his face in the picture (larger version here) you notice that his face is more like that of a baby, an infant.

Having gone out from the father, having done everything he thought he wanted to do, having been pressed down with shame and failure, having come to the very end of his options, and even having overcome his fear of condemnation and shame, the son returns to find this beautiful acceptance, this belonging, this welcome from his strong and stable father. There is a rest, a new and quiet contentment, there is finally safety, back in the embrace of his father.

I am reminded of Psalm 131:

“(A Song of Ascents, of David.) O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever.” Psalms 131:1-3, NASB.

Despite the critical gaze of his brother and others around, the son's eyes are closed and his thoughts are quieted in the final authority and safety of the father's love. In the picture, the older son stands apart, and above, the father and his brother, looking down with an air of scorn. When we have erred, when we have sinned, many voices real and imaginary would dissuade us of the rightness of the father's embrace. Many voices and critical looks would tell us that we have crossed the line, that we ought not now receive the Father's mercy and love. It is not enough that we tell ourselves this, others remember our mistakes, our shame, others look with disapproval on our return, of our Father's acceptance of us and mercy and tenderness towards us.

Yes, it not just our own conscience which weighs us down - it is the imagined or real disapproval of others that can prevent us from entering into the lavish love and embrace of the Father who loves us and forgives us. We hide and do not return, as much from fear of the elder brother as from fear of the father's condemnation. This fear is justified, as the father does not condemn, but others really do condemn!

Notice however, that in the story, the prodigal son does not need to defend his return to the elder brother - the Father defends him. All he needs is the safety of the father's acceptance and love, and the father's authority over his forgiveness. The other brother can and did challenge the father about whether it was right that the younger son should be so easily and lavishly received back, but it was the father's heart toward the prodigal that was the final word about the situation. We do not need to and cannot defend ourselves against the voices of condemnation; His word is final and His word is gracious and forgiving.

So the fateful and feared moment comes, and the errant son returns with trepidation, and enters the the father's embrace like a babe newly born. Now how quickly the father restores his dignity! Bring the best robe, put it on my son! Put a ring on his finger! Sandals for his feet! Set the feast! How extravagantly and publicly the father establishes his place as his esteemed son, how extravagantly he celebrates his return! How overwhelmed the son must have been! The robe and especially the ring are symbols of stately rank, eminence, and social distinction. The son expects to slink back in shame and be put up as a servant, but beyond merely accepting him back and hiding him away, the father dresses him up in a way that publicly establishes his eminence and importance. The father wants to make sure that everyone knows that his son is back, and that his son has been received with honor and joy!

Behind the prodigal son's back, notice that even there he speaks to defend, to edify, to build up a network of acceptance. The elder son comes to question the honor the returned scoundrel receives, but the father reasons with him. Can we not expect that our Father similarly defends us in secret conversations and against unheard condemnations against us?

And so, we come expecting that our own mistakes will prevent us from receiving the father's provision, and yet Jesus teaches us that beyond our wildest expectations God seeks to quickly and publicly restore our dignity and our eminence, speaks with authority to the voices of condemnation, and is genuinely overjoyed with us! He really does love us, it is in His heart to embrace us, clothe us, establish us as His children, and to defend us. This, according to Jesus, is the Father heart of God towards us!

So, if you have read this, and someone asks you what it was about, I want you to go away with this - remember the image of the prodigal safe and at peace in the father's embrace. Through the stress and turmoil of his own mistakes, his own condemnation, his fears of his father, his fears about his brother and others, his father's acceptance and love are his safe place in the middle of it all. While he was wrong, clothed wrong, in the very midst and bottom of his sins and consequences, while he still smelled of the road and pigs, his father embraced him, and he was safe at rest. Remember this beautiful image.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Prodigal Son 3. The Prodigal FATHER

The story of the prodigal son:

The free dictionary defines prodigal this way:

1. recklessly wasteful or extravagant, as in disposing of goods or money
2. lavish in giving or yielding prodigal of compliments

I think we get words like prodigious, product, productive, from the same root. We've heard the term 'prodigal son' so many times associated with sin, with squandering wealth and opportunity, that we equate it more with evil than with extravagance. The real root of the word tends toward the idea of extravagance.

So, let's take a different look at the father in the story. When the son asks for his inheritance, does the father say, "well, I'll give you a week's worth of money to go out and try living on your own." He gives him everything. When the son returns, he doesn't say, "get him inside and give him some of that soup." No, he runs out, he falls on his neck, he calls for rings and robes and sandals and fattened calves and feasts. When the older son complains, he says, "everything I have is yours." This is a man of extravagance; the prodigal son is much like his father. He has added wisdom to his extravagance, but he is not a cheap, stingy, withholding man. This is a man who is generous, who throws parties, who is passionate and unafraid to show it.

More than that, this is a man who loves deeply. He obviously mourns the absence of his son, and is overwhelmed with relief at his return. He is not even trying to be reserved about celebrating his son's return. He spots him coming while he is still a long way off, which means he must have been in the habit of going out and looking. He is therefore obsessive about him, and while for all practical purposes it might seem his son was dead, he did not give up hope.

Shall we expect less extravagance from our Father in heaven? Jesus is teaching us, this is what He is like! It was not enough that He made the whole earth, He made an entire universe which is so vast that the earth is not even a speck of dust in comparison. He made the earth itself drip with opulent life and provision, and made us to be vastly intelligent and mysterious creatures. In fact, Solomon says in Ecclesiastes that He has set eternity our hearts. This is not a stingy God. We can expect extravagance and blessing and quick passionate forgiveness and abundant provision when dealing with Him. We have a rich father who loves to give and who loves to throw big parties and who loves us very very deeply and isn't afraid to show it. What could be better than that?!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Prodigal Son: 2. The Mindset of the Prodigal

The story of the prodigal son:

The son who wished the father would die, who only wanted his money, who left and squandered his whole inheritance, at last came to himself. That's what it says, "he came to himself." We tend to think that he squandered everything and then immediately came home, but notice that once he was broke he still did not come home. He still stayed away, he sought employment, any employment, demeaning employment. His estrangement was not merely hedonistic - this is a very important observation! It took more to bring him to himself. It was not until there was famine, and he was starving, that he turned and faced the truth about himself. We cling tenaciously to our mistaken ideas about our lives, our autonomy, our freedom, and it takes a great deal to bring us to a change.

However, there is another factor. We see this in his schemes to return - he fears his father's attitude towards him. He thinks, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ This was not a sudden or one-time statement; he had on ongoing deep-seated assumption that he could not return to his father because he was no longer worthy to be called his son; we see this in the tenacity of his isolation.This fear was a more powerful motivator than his bankruptcy. Even though the father freely gave him his inheritance, and obviously had a kind and uncontrolling heart, still he feared his condemnation. More than anything, we fear condemnation, we fear the voice of our conscience, and we project this fear onto God. Though He has gone to great lengths to show mercy and grace, though the scriptures are full of it, we imagine Him to be a smiter of the evil, a celestial hater of people such as us. We imagine that He looks down waiting for us to do something wrong so He can judge us. This is perhaps the most tempting and the most harmful and evil graven image we can produce - the harsh and hating God. Just like the son, we imagine many many things about God which prevent us from seeking intimacy with Him until our situation becomes truly unlivable.

So, where his sojourn away from home started out as a hopeful assertion of his freedom and manhood, it sustained itself because of shame and fear. So many times we stay in the place of bad habits, of terrible circumstances, of what amounts to slavery, not just because we are strong-willed, but because we fear to step out of them since we are ashamed of what we have become. And we write that shame onto God's script, we imagine that He is the source of that shame. We imagine that our own self-judgement is our Father's judgement. It is actually the shocking nature of this story that it is NOT the father's judgement.

So our sojourn into self-assertion, our foray into freedom, our squander and failure, becomes not so much a stubborn thing of the will, but a fear of change because of shame. Like Adam and Eve, we hide from God shivering naked under a bush sewing our fig leaves of excuses to cover our guilt and embarrassment. Like them, like the son, we imagine only God's disappointment, His judgment, His anger, His rejection. We become isolated and shut up to pointless and joyless tasks and work to cover our emptiness, our loneliness, our shame. We sieze on every form of law, the more stringent and hopeless and demeaning the better. We think to cover our shame with pointless fig-leaf promises of repentance and humility, when in reality nothing we do can cover us. Fig leaves do not sew well and do not cover well, and neither do the promises and excuses of the prodigal.

The prodigal thinks it will please his father, it will smooth things a bit, if he says that he is no longer worthy to be his son. How enormously he misunderstands his father's heart towards him! This is almost the most insulting thing he could throw at the father, to denigrate and belittle the father's powerful feelings towards him. When we think in a way that projects harsh loveless judgment onto God, we miss the mark so badly. The things we think will please God are often nothing more than fig leaves which cannot be sewn and will quickly rot away. It is not that he hates fig leaves or despises our efforts, it is that He loves us in a direct and powerful way that does not need such excuses or efforts.

In closing, I want to observe that the prodigal son's motivations were atrocious and infantile. He left with selfish and rotten motives, he came to himself with the same selfish and rotten motives, and he stepped over his shame and returned home because of desperate and selfish motives. He still did not want to be his father's son, even when he returned! His heart was wrong wrong wrong from beginning to end. In returning the way he did, it was a terrible misunderstanding of his father's feelings towards him to think that the same father who would not withhold his inheritance would so easily disown him. When we come into bad circumstances and make resolutions and promises to God, it is not from right motives! We do so because we project lovelessness and harshness onto God, as if that is the only way He will take us back, as if He has no actual love for us! But, the father said nothing of this, cared nothing for this, didn't even listen to the promises and excuses. He doesn't care that our motives are wrong! He will take us back, with joy, without a single thought of our selfish excuses and motivations and ridiculous wrong conceptions about the way He sees us. Of course our motives are wrong, they will only get set right by being with Him; how else could this work? He loves us. That is the point of all this! He pines for us, He longs for us, He constantly thinks of us, He wants us back in His arms so bad! WHATEVER brings us back to Him, He accepts us! Stop thinking that the prodigal had to go through all of this to come to the end of himself so he could get right motives and then return. He never had right motives. It is too great a burden to tell people that God will take them back once they have suffered enough and have learned right motives. No one has right motives. The right motive is that He loves us, and we never return to Him truly believing this. His love for us does not reside in our motives or our faith. HE loves us. Despite our pointless efforts, despite our stubborn and powerful shame, despite our promises that we can't fulfill and our false and ridiculous humility, He takes us back, He will in time straighten us out, He loves us greatly. The prodigal returns knowing none of this, and as we each stand now, we are yet in the prodigal's shoes. We do not know how much He pines for us, how much He loves us, we come making ridiculous excuses and with pointless puerile plans that will be swept away by a great and grand love.

If this all doesn't get us weeping and crying then what does it take? What a beautiful faith we have as Christians, what an exquisite thing all of this is to believe!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Prodigal Son: 1. The Father who Doesn't Control

I've been waiting eagerly to get to the parable of the prodigal son, as it is the richest and most profound teaching about the father heart of God in all of scripture. Everything up to this point has been leading to this teaching. Let's start by reading it:

Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. “And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. “And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. “But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. “Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. “And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.

“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! ‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, “and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’ “And he arose and came to his father.

But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. ‘And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; ‘for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. “So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. “So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. ‘It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’” Luke 15:11-32, NKJV.

First let's set the stage. We have a man who is a father, with two sons. He seems to be fairly well off, a landowner with enough inheritance in the balance to make at least one of the sons obsess over it. When a father has some wealth, the children inherit that wealth when he dies. What this son is saying, is that he is tired of waiting around for the father to die, give me my portion now! It could not be a more stark example of raw greed and selfishness. What he is really saying is, I don't care one whit about YOU, I want your MONEY!

Now, here is the amazing thing - the father actually gives it to him! He doesn't take offense, he actually complies! What you would expect him to say is something like this: "You rude and impudent little rodent, do you realize how hard I've worked to get to this point? How dare you ask this!" Instead, he gives him his portion. What could have been going through his head? He could see that his son was eaten up by a lust to get out of there, to see the world, to make his way. He could see that he could not be content staying where he was. This father was not going to try to exercise a level of control that would make his son a slave, like a man in prison. He would let him go, and because he had a very great love for the son, he did not take offense.

God does not withdraw His giftings from us even though He knows we will misuse them! Talent, provision, etc. The richest and possibly most exciting time of this son's life was when he was walking off away from his father, loaded with his inheritance, full of confidence in his own abilities, ready to take on the world. It is a very important component in the way God works - he is not controlling, not manipulative, He does not withdraw blessing. This is a very peculiar and strange aspect of the story.

Now, the son was gone a long time. He did not leave for a minute or two, he left for a long enough time that he burned through his entire inheritance with loose living. Given provision with no wisdom, he squandered it all. He was gone long enough, and the father knew him well enough, that he figured he was all but dead; he had given up hope. We see this in his statement, "for this my son was dead and is alive again." He had truly, genuinely, definitively left the fold. I think this is a point we all know in our conscience - we have been blessed, and are gifted, and have been given much, and we have squandered it away on pleasures and comforts and our lives and times are empty and fruitless. We take what our Father in heaven has given us and use it for our pleasures and comforts and idleness, and eventually we regret the shape our life takes. He does not withdraw His blessing and we think this is the stamp of His approval, and even though we misinterpret it still He remains firm in not attempting to control us.

Here is a key to the father heart of God: He is determined to let us freely choose Him. He does not manipulate, he does not trick us into righteousness. He does not withhold blessings or close and open doors to force us down the right path. He is very determined to allow us our freedom. He lets us make our own mistakes, even profound mistakes, he does not hold us back against our own hot desires. Just as Satan tempts us, and is more interested in our inward desire, so also God, in a benevolent way, is interested in our desire. If we come to Him, if we remain with Him, if we return to Him, He wants it only to be with our true heart. He is determined that we come to Him such that all other options have been found wanting - we only want to be in His house. If we are not truly thus, He does not want to prevent us from making our own way. To Him, the crying prodigal returning broke and starved and naked is far more preferable to a rich son held hostage and shut up to an unwanted blessing. We are never held hostage, never tricked into the kingdom. He is the Father who doesn't control.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The God who Loses Things

Reading Jesus' parables, it seems God is always losing things!

“Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” And He told them this parable, saying, “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. “And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”” Luke 15:1-10, NASB.

I am fond of saying that God is not co-dependent, nor is He some kind of control freak. He certainly has the power to control, but it seems to be quite important to Him that He play hands-off. He lets us choose our own way, even if it means making terrible mistakes, big mistakes. However, Jesus seemed to like these makers of mistakes, these sinners, and they seemed to like Him. There was some fondness going on here which offended the established religious legalists. They grumbled! For God's sake, He is EATING with them!

If your message, your hope, your belief, your soapbox, doesn't belie a fondness for real people despite their apparent lack of religious reputation, and if people of a non-religious or not so obviously moral persuasion don't seem to want to hang around with you, you might actually be on the wrong side of Jesus' persuasions on this. He likes people. Notice that it was not Jesus who called anyone a 'sinner' here; he saw lost coins and lost sheep. These are things of value which have been misplaced. It is the religious establishment which brands them 'sinners'. Where the religious people see scandal and seek separation, He sees value and seeks restoration.

I am glad, because I count myself a sinner. I am the lost sheep who wanders. I am hoping He is the kind of God who persists in seeing my value, who rejoices to find me, who goes to battle for my worth against the religious who seek my condemnation. If I am anything beyond that, I seek to be His physician's assistant, to be part of the rabble hanging around Him that they grumble about.

His liberality with giving us freedom and autonomy may lead to a lot of us getting lost, but His desire and longing is to find us, to celebrate us, to restore our place and establish our worth. Contrary to the fears of our conscience, He does not focus on the errors we make, the trouble we are, the shame we bear. He focuses on our intrinsic worth, on our restoration. He truly and always loves us.

I am the one who is forever and always loved by God. The creator and king of the universe likes me. It is all going to be OK; I may be a bit lost in the woods from time to time but He knows how to restore me, He wants to restore me, He sees that I am missing and by His initiative and power He seeks me. I am resting in His love and power, and in His knowledge that despite my anonymity and poverty He sees my worth. I am real because I am loved by the only One who matters.