Tuesday, September 13, 2016

“This is How a Human Being Can Change”
Part 2:  Parable of the Prodigal Father

In my previous post I shared about the overwhelming experience the prodigal son had when his father welcomed him home with a lavish celebration. Instead of condemnation and judgment, the wayward child received love, affirmation, and forgiveness. The father basically ignores his son’s flimsy plan to be considered a servant instead of a son, and orders the servants to prepare a feast, which is the father’s way of saying, ‘We are witnesses to resurrection! I thought he was dead, but he is, in fact, alive!’

I want to delve deeper into the actions of the father. How would you describe them? If you were in his shoes (sandals really) how would you have reacted?

The problem with this question is that those who are really familiar with this story are typically church-goers who have been taught what to say in response to a particular interpretation of the story:  we human beings are the prodigal son who have been forgiven by our Heavenly Father and welcomed home with forgiveness. We tend to downplay just how radical and scandalous the actions of the father really are.

Maybe we’re too familiar with it. Maybe we really don’t see ourselves as being as bad as the prodigal so we can’t really identify with him. (But what about the older brother?!?!) Maybe we have missed the point of the parable, which is to usher us in to its story and have us experience first hand what is going on within its world. Maybe we don’t want to do that, and are content to sit and watch what is happening without really being involved in any real, challenging or life-altering way.

How we interact with these characters, how we have experienced their experience is critical to how we understand it. Personally I have been the prodigal far too often, probably more than I realize! When I consider how my foolish, reckless, shallow, and self-centered actions have so often landed me in the pig sty and left me starving for any kind of emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual nourishment, I am continually astounded at the mercy and grace of the Father, who is more eager to forgive than I am to seek his forgiveness, and who – more often than not – comes to me in the form of real human beings who love and support and encourage and walk with me through those times to welcome me to the other side where there is healing.

On the other hand, if we see the father’s actions from the point of view of the older brother, then the father was indeed foolish. Words like impetuous, unwise, foolhardy, and irresponsible come to my mind. The son has obviously sinned and needs punished for it. How else will he learn from it and correct his behavior? If there is no punishment, then does that mean we can do whatever we want? This sort of retributive justice is exactly the way the older brother was thinking:  both the father and his brother’s actions are offensive to his sense of justice, hard work, and fairness.

However we may choose to see the father, Jesus makes one thing is clear:  This is who God is. Jesus tells this story (and two other parables at the beginning of Luke 15) in order to demonstrate to the religious authorities of his day exactly the kind of Messiah he was. They had expected a great warrior with political skills and a charismatic charm to woo the masses. Instead, they got a “man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief,” whose political ambition was summed up in the phrase “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is near!” And whose fighting skills included turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, letting Caesar have his money that-he-so-obviously-loves-because-he-put-his-picture-on-it, and praying for those who persecute you.

Not exactly the prize fighter they were hoping for.

He tells this story to say:  this is who God is, this is who I am, and this is who you are. So if the prodigal’s father is God, then the kind of love the father has is the kind of love that forms the very heart of God’s identity and being. If you want to know how God loves, see the reckless and extravagant behavior of the prodigal’s father. See how he doesn’t care what others may think of how he loves us. See how the judgment and condemnation of others, the older brother, simply do not matter. See how the Father doesn't condemn or shame his older son because he is only interested in being in a relationship of love with all of his children. For those who have experienced this, Paul’s words are true:  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1, NIV)

No condemnation.

I don’t think we emphasize this enough. God doesn’t condemn Us. He is not angry with us. He is not nursing wounds or pointing fingers to blame or to shame. God is a lover, who restores us to our proper relationship with him:  daughters and sons who have come to our senses and returned home.

When I read this parable (or have it read to me in church) it is so tempting to always identify with the prodigal, the child “who has thrown away your money on whores” (Luke 15:30, The Message). It is tempting to mentally and spiritually remain in the role of the prodigal, the selfish, demanding, petulant juvenile who has the audacity to ask for more.

And certainly that has been me. I won’t go into all the gory details (You’re welcome!) but needless to say I’ve done my share of wasteful living in childish behavior and interests. I can be as selfish as anyone else. I can be demanding, care-free, and wasteful without bounds or borders. I can prodigal right along with the best (or worst?) of them!

The point is, I have found myself there many times. The good news is that I’ve always found myself eventually wandering back home, poor and tired, defeated and empty, hopeless and depressed, only to find myself embraced by my Father, who just wants to celebrate my return. He doesn’t go into a litany of what I’ve done wrong, to remind me of it, to shame me for it, to watch me wallow in guilt and self-loathing. I know it all too well and have done enough of that to myself. So none of that. He only wants to celebrate my return. He only wants to love me back into his family and treat me like his beloved child. I can imagine that he has cried tears of joy at times. All because I came home. Me? Really? Yes! What an image!

As powerful as the experience of being welcomed home is, it’s not the only experience this parable encourages. There’s the older brother, of course, and there is much I could continue to say about my judgmental attitude and the limits I place on God’s grace and forgiveness toward myself and others, but I’ll save that for perhaps another time.

The father has more recently become the most intriguing character in this little story. I’ve come to the conclusion that the parable could also be rightly referred to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Father.” The son essentially said, ‘Since you’re not dead yet, go ahead and give me my share of the inheritance.’

And what does the father do?

He gives it to him.

The gall! The impudence! The irresponsibility! The audacity! We want to describe only the son this way, but I challenge you to see how that’s also a pretty accurate description of the father. We aren’t used to this sort of behavior from a parent, much less God. God isn’t supposed to let himself be taken advantage of like this! God isn’t supposed to let his children walk all over him and let them get away with this sort of reckless and disrespectful behavior!

By definition prodigal means “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. Having or giving something on a lavish scale.”

The father allows the son to have the money to waste. Does he know what his son will do with it? Of course he does! He’s the child’s father after all! Not only does he give him money to waste, he spends even more money when he welcomes the sinful child home – not with a stern lecture about responsibility and understanding the value and function of money, but with a lavish and joyful (wasteful!) party in which all work on the farm ceases and they kill the “fattened calf” to celebrate his return.

Again, the older brother rises up within me. It offends my moral sensibilities to have the father act this way toward someone I know to be in the wrong. It is obvious to everyone that what the child has done is wrong. His behavior is shameful! He is not appreciative of what he already has! His uncaring demand for more is morally repugnant. That boy doesn’t care one bit about me or our father! He’s only looking out for himself, to do what makes him happy. And that is very, very wrong.

Yes. The older brother is technically correct. His younger brother has sinned greatly and has brought shame and disgrace upon the family.

But it seems to me their father brings even more shame and disgrace upon the family by NOT disciplining his son. By not rejecting him, by not having him thrown out for being the wasteful mooch he is, by not behaving according to the standards of the morality police, the father is behaving in a prodigal way as well.

It seems the father  is more interested in being in a relationship of love and mercy and forgiveness. The father chooses relationship over rejection. He chooses love over punishment. He demonstrates mercy rather than condemnation.

There’s no doubt about it:  if the father is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love, then God is reckless, lavish, and prodigal with his love. In the face of such brazen, impudent and obvious sin, God loves. That’s really all he does. He loves. He forgives. He welcomes.

And in doing so, he sets an example for how I am to be.

And that’s the real challenge of this familiar story:  to become like the Father.

The late Henri Nouwen captured this so well in his challenging little book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He wrote

What of the father? Why pay so much attention to the sons when it is the father who is in the center and when it is the father with whom I am to identify? Why talk so much about being like the sons when the real question is: Are you interested in being like the father? It feels somehow good to say: “These sons are like me.” It gives a sense of being understood.

But how does it feel to say: “The father is like me”? Do I want to be like the father? Do I want to be not just the one who is being forgiven, but also the one who forgives; not just the one who is being welcomed home, but also the one who welcomes home; not just the one who receives compassion, but the one who offers it as well?

God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.

I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.”[i]

Am I interested in becoming like the Father?

I first read this book many years ago but only recently it has come back to me. Funny how God will show you something only to have you put it on the shelf for a while, until a more appropriate time, until you’re ready for it. I suppose I’m ready now. It’s a bit frightening, honestly. “Become the Father.” Wow. Wasn’t that Adam and Eve’s desire? To be like God? Yes, but they were doing it in a manipulative and demanding way, fueled by the adversary's doubts about God’s good intentions toward them. They were trying to be like God on their own terms. That never really works out well.

God invites me to become like him. He wants me to grow up and be the one who forgives, who welcomes, who lavishly loves and celebrates others as they are amazed by his abounding love and generosity.

Besides, how can others know the Father’s infinite grace and love if I do not show them? However inadequate I feel most of the time, I am the hands and feet of Christ. What if others will only know they are loved by God if I love them? What if others will only see their value and worth as a human created in God’s image if I see their value and worth?  What if others will only know mercy and grace and forgiveness if I show them mercy and grace and forgiveness?

In the Father’s world great sin requires greater grace to forgive. Reckless rebellion requires a bold and heroic love to overcome. The impudence and arrogance of evil calls for an explosion of lavish forgiveness and mercy that stops our shallow excuse-making in its tracks and overwhelms us with what we think we don’t deserve.

And I am called to do just that. To love, to forgive, to welcome and embrace, to heal and show mercy, to speak kindly and have compassion, to advocate for the needy and the poor and the disenfranchised, to view those who are not like me as worthy and deserving of God’s love, even though they may believe they are not. Even though they may reject me. Even though they may ridicule me or mock me for what they perceive to be weakness. Even though they take advantage of my kindness. Even though they continue to sin against me.

Am I interested in becoming like the Father? You betcha. I’m sick and tired of being the sick rebel and the tired judge.

Become the father.

It’s time to ascend.

[i] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 122-123

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

“This is How a Human Being Can Change”
Part One

Change is an inherent part of life. I often hear from people that they don’t do well with change, that it’s usually unpleasant and uncomfortable, and they’d rather just go about their business as it is right now, thank you very much.

I know this because those “people” are me. There have been times when I’ve embraced change, usually because it’s what I chose and was hoping would happen, like graduation or starting a new job. Other times the change chooses me, and it is often unexpected and disagreeable.

The spiritual life is no different. There are expected developments and changes in my relationship with God:  I am growing more patient, loving, and appreciative of small blessings in life and am (hopefully!) less judgmental and impatient with others. This is to be expected. To put it simply:  if intentionally living as a follower of Jesus means anything, it means more good and less bad, more love and less fear.

But there are times, and it seems these times happen more often than not, when the change is sudden and unexpected, when God shows up in ways that are totally unpredictable, times when we could not possibly be ready for him even if we knew he was coming! Like Saul on the road to Damascus, or the shepherd boy David being chosen as the next King, or Moses seeing a burning bush in the desert.

We are shocked. We are very often terrified. We are challenged as we discover that while God is certainly good, he is also wild and free, defying expectations and constantly exceeding the boundaries of our meager expectations.

And afterwards, we are never the same.

This has been my experience. Allow me to focus and elaborate through a familiar lens.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s gospel is familiar to perhaps even the most casual church goer or reader of the Bible. I have heard more sermons preached and lessons taught on this parable than perhaps any other.

With few exceptions these sermons and lessons generally follow the same line of thinking:  each one of us is the prodigal, the sinner, the wayward child who has sinned against God. But God forgives us if we return to him. Now that is definitely good news, but is there more?

Yes. I think there is MUCH more going on here.

What continues to startle me is the audacity of the son. “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard this so many times that it’s become a bit too familiar and has lost some of its punch. But can you hear the audacity? He’s essentially saying, ‘Dad, I wish you were dead already so I could get my money and go do whatever I want. You know what? Nevermind, I can’t wait. Give me what’s coming to me now!’

The nerve of this kid! He has the gall to demand his inheritance money while his father is still alive. The father, however, doesn’t respond as I want him to respond! He goes ahead and gives his child the money. The least that could be said is the father, in giving in to his spoiled child’s demand, is foolish. The text doesn’t explain why and Jesus gives no clear indications or motivations the father might have. He simply says “So he divided his property between them.” The boy makes an unreasonable and utterly selfish demand, and the father acquiesces. If we saw this happening today, we’d say the boy needs whipped and the father needs a backbone!

The boy takes takes what he has so selfishly demanded and wastes it on “wild living.” I can only imagine what this looked like. Actually, I don’t have to imagine. I’ve been there. Such “wild living” is why I crammed what is normally a four year college degree into 5½ years!! When I went to college I was given a great amount of freedom and I ran with it. Naked. Through the streets. Drunk. Actually, while I can neither confirm nor deny getting drunk and running naked through the streets, I will most definitely confirm this:  Thank God there were no smart phones with cameras and videos and instant access to social media in my college days!!! Because it was not all sunshine and roses. I’m not proud of it, and I’ll spare you the gory details; needless to say it got pretty ugly.

The boy seizes the day and  lives wildly for a time, indulging every desire and craving he had. But it didn’t last. There was a famine in the land, and like the foolish grasshopper who didn’t prepare for winter, he “began to be in need.” So he gets a job. A desperate job for a desperate boy. He’s slopping pigs, a dirty and unclean animal according to Jewish teaching. So he begins to feel sorry for what he’s done and decides to return home to his father, where the hired servants eat better than he is on what he’s earning, and promises to do better.

Wait. What? No, actually that doesn’t happen. Notice the prodigal doesn’t come home because he’s sorry for what he’s done. He doesn’t apologize to his father because he has seen the error of his ways. He’s hungry. And not for righteousness either! The boy needs food! I’m not saying that’s a bad motivation or somehow not good enough, but it’s not the stereotypical reason we may sometimes imagine:  he’s sorry for what he’s done and he wants to do better. None of that here. The child is still thinking only of himself and what’s good for him. He’s hit rock bottom and he’s desperate to get out. Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not condemning him or judging or shaming him. This is just a diagnosis. To diagnosis is not to condemn.

This plan to return to his father is seem to be an indication that this is probably not an isolated incident. It’s probably the most extreme incident so far in the boy’s life, but not isolated. He is an audacious child. He is selfish and only looks out for what is good for him. Not only has he insulted his father, but he is once again preparing to take advantage of his father’s generous nature and, perhaps, bring an even greater amount of shame upon his father. This isn’t just one act of disrespect and arrogant rudeness. It just might be the boy’s nature.

But if the boy is arrogant and rude and demanding, then the father has, perhaps, fed that nature and allowed it to blossom. If the boy is audacious, then the father may be an overly indulgent softy. Perhaps he has spoiled the child by continuously giving in to his demands and allowing him to have whatever he wants. No wonder the boy acts as he does!

The son does think, however, that his rebellion and sinfulness has been too brazen, too audacious. The boy has displayed such impudence and offense that he could never be treated as a son again, but he just might be able to be hired on as a servant. Maybe. There’s no guarantee here. After all, according to Jewish law the father had every right to have his son stoned to death (see Deuteronomy 21:18-21) for what he had done. I’m not sure how often that happened, if ever, but it was apparently allowed.

It seems the boy’s brazenness and audacity actually pay off and serve him well in this situation:  instead of skulking about in shame and despair, self-loathing and depression because of what he’s brought upon himself, he hatches a bold plan. He thinks, ‘If my father was so willing to give me my share of the inheritance in the first place, then perhaps he is also willing to let me come home. Not as a son, of course, not after what I’ve done. But at least as a hired servant. Maybe I can convince him to do that!’

And here is, perhaps, where the son shows just how out of touch he is with his own father. He really doesn’t know his father at all. He is completely ignorant of the kind of generous love – I would say scandalous love – that characterizes his father.

Instead of treating his son like a hired servant, the father throws a lavish celebration to welcome him home. He has a fatted calf slaughtered for food. Work on the farm stops, and his servants and family are called to attend an extravagant impromptu banquet to celebrate his son’s return. The father doesn’t listen to his excuses, and doesn’t shame him for what he’s done. There’s no guilt trip or any condemnation or judgment at all. There is only relief. And tears of joy. And celebration. Shocked but pleasant surprise. Laughter and smiles.

I thought he was dead, but my son is home, alive and well. And that alone is reason enough to celebrate!

I am very tempted to move on to elaborate on the love and mercy and forgiveness of the father, but I think there is more here to be discovered with his child. Consider the words of C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Am I “far too easily pleased” by the childish and immature pursuits that can so easily engross me? Of course I am. I think most are. I think because I cannot imagine how much larger and more satisfying and deep and meaningful is the next stage in our spiritual development that I focus my attention on what is pleasing and satisfying and comfortable in this immediate moment with little or no thought as to how God is calling me to become more of who he has always intended me to be. I am so often driven by unnamed desires that cry out for satisfaction and relief. I want pleasure and fulfillment and bliss. And I want it now!

But I cannot see how often those desires are petty and shallow and lesser than what is being offered by my Father. Why am I so willingly accept a lesser status, an inferior experience of God? Why am I so often content with “drink and sex and ambition” and “mud pies in a slum” when there is “infinite joy” to be had?

Maybe, just maybe it’s because I am too much acquainted with my own failings and shortcomings, my own darkness and shadow-nature that I fail to see what singer songwriter Rich Mullins calls “the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.”

Sometimes that love is overwhelming. It’s too much to be taken in at once. Especially if I’m dwelling in my own failures and shame and self-doubt and fears. There is a point where I can become too comfortable with that darkness, too at ease with that soul-sickness, to at home in self-punishment and loathing.

I’ve been there. It’s not an easy place to be, but if you spend too much time there then, believe it or not, it just might seem normal. Even natural. Like this is how it should be, for me at least. Because, you know, I don’t deserve anything better. Look at what I’ve done! You begin to see that what you’ve done is just an expression of your inner being:  this is who I am! I can’t help it! Sooner or later you begins to convince yourself there is nothing better, that all that talk of love and forgiveness and “infinite joy” is just talk, a fantastical delusion people adopt so they don’t have to face the cold, hard truth of reality:  this is the way it is and there’s no changing it so don’t even try.

So what happens? Why does the prodigal child return home? Despite his audacity, he was, for a time at least, plagued by the same crippling shame and self-doubt I have experienced in my life. He didn’t return home immediately. When famine and destruction hit and all his so-called “friends” left him, he went through a period where all he could do was “feed pigs.” This was his lowest moment, his rock bottom. A terrible place to be, but for someone like the prodigal it’s also the best place to be. Extreme and reckless behavior often lands us in the pit, and often that’s the best thing that can happen. Why? Because it’s in the pit where that moment of clarity can come, where the sun can shine in our darkness – however briefly – to let us know there is a way out after all.

The text says “he came to his senses.” What an understatement. But there it is. The moment of clarity. The insight he so desperately needed. The catalyst that fuels the ability to make a different choice. As an addict will testify:  he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. So he did something about it. That point of light illuminated his circumstances and he was able to say ‘This is not where I want to be anymore.’

The ancient Persian poet Rumi so often speaks to me in ways few can. Consider his poem entitled “The Worm’s Waking.”

This is how a human being can change:

there’s a worm addicted to eating
grape leaves.
                        Suddenly, he wakes up,
call it grace, whatever, something
wakes him, and he’s no longer
a worm.
            He’s the entire vineyard,
and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need
to devour.

I still have a very satisfying sense of relief when I read that poem. It’s a reminder that I am waking up, that I continue to see that where I am right now is not ultimately where I want to be. Oh I’m happy, happier than I’ve been in a truly long time. But this is not the destination for me. There is more. There is a continual return home to the Father where I am shocked and surprised and overwhelmed by the generosity and recklessness of his love. I thought I was audacious and bold in my sinning, but I could never even begin to touch the “reckless raging fury” of my Father’s love for me.

Thank God for that.