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.

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