Prodigals All

 

Happy Father’s Day to you if you are a father, have had a father, or have loved someone who is a father! I read some interesting research this week that showed that being a dad makes men happier and more satisfied with their lives—and apparently most dads would choose time with their kids over any other kind of Father’s Day gift, including golf clubs or a new phone (that’s something to remember for next year). The statistics also showed that having a positive relationship with your dad gives you, as the child, several important things that can help you throughout your entire life. For example, kids with good dad relationships have higher IQs, do better in school, can create successful long-term relationships, engage in fewer risky behaviors, are less likely to be bullied or become bullies themselves, and overall are happier and less anxious or depressed throughout their lives. That’s a whole lot of benefit that blossoms from one loving relationship!

In the many years I’ve been a chaplain, I’ve noticed something else. The roles our dads played in our lives—and the type of dads they were—often have some connection to our earliest thoughts about God. If dad was a strict disciplinarian, we might have pictured God as a deity who expected us to follow the rules—or else we’d be in big trouble. If dad was relaxed and playful, we might have found it easier to think of God as softer and caring, forgiving and compassionate when we messed up. If Dad was absent or aloof, maybe working all the time or just not in the picture—which was the case with my own dad—it might be hard to grasp that there is truly a God who loves us tenderly and above all else wants to be in relationship with us. The journey to a deeper faith often parallels the spiral strands of our DNA, as spirit helps us discover and heal the images and experiences that have either drawn us close to God or kept us at arm’s length.

An experience I had in my 30s taught me something about how God helps us unknot and understand tangled relationships—whether they’re with family members or with God. A friend mentioned a neighbor of hers who had taken a bad turn as she underwent treatment for breast cancer. This had caught the doctors by surprise—they had found the issue early, she was young and healthy, and they had no reason to believe she wouldn’t do well. My friend said she was worried her neighbor had given up. I said I’d pray for her, and I did, and her story was very much on my mind and heart for several days. One morning, praying for her, I saw a mental image of myself, taking my guitar into the hospital and singing for her. “Oh no, God,” I said. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I’ll pray for her, but not go there. Not sing.” But still that image persisted. I felt a bit sick to my stomach about it. Finally I decided I’d take it to the next step and surely I’d get a no. No one in a hospital was going to let some stranger bring a guitar in and play for a patient she didn’t know.

To my shock and dismay, the nurse in the oncology department loved the idea. “We are all believers,” she said, when I told her I felt God had laid a concern for this woman on my heart. She put me on hold while she asked the unit manager. It wasn’t policy, they told me, but they’d sneak me in. The patient would be there the next morning for radiation at 9:00am. They would let me into the room right after she was finished, and no one else would need to know.

So here’s where the real problem came in. I didn’t expect this to be possible. I was counting on the world to tell me no so I wouldn’t have to do it. And now I was terrified. I tried reasoning with God, I prayed a dozen ways trying to get myself out of it. But my heart knew what it knew. That way wouldn’t have opened if God hadn’t intended it. I asked God at least for some word of assurance, something I could hold onto to calm my fear of looking completely ridiculous and perhaps upsetting a sick and struggling woman.

Jeremiah 1:6-8 was the answer I got. It’s our Old Testament reading for today: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to sing, for I am only a girl,” I said. “But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a girl’; for you shall sing whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” I wrote that verse on a slip of paper and put it in my wallet and looked at it at least 100 times before 9:00am the next morning, when I took my guitar to the staff entrance in the oncology wing and was led into a hallway to wait until her radiation was complete. Then the nurse and the unit manager led me in and I stood there before this puzzled woman. “You don’t know me,” I said, “But I feel God has put a concern on my heart to pray for you and tell you this: God loves you and wants you to get better. And for some reason unknown to me, I’m supposed to sing for you, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I do it badly, but with your permission, I’m going to do it.”

She smiled and said it was okay to continue. So I got out my guitar and, hands and voice shaking badly, I sang her a song I’d written for children called, “In Your Beautiful, Beautiful World.” When I finished everyone in the room was wiping away tears. Honestly, I just felt like passing out, I was so relieved it was over. The woman came over and hugged me and asked my name. When I told her it was Katherine, she teared up again. She said that was her daughter’s name, and her daughter was close to my age and apparently I looked a lot like her. They’d had a falling out two years before and hadn’t seen each other since. Her heart was obviously broken about it.

I never saw her again, but I did hear through my friend that soon she began responding well to treatment. She beat the breast cancer, she reconciled with her daughter, and the last I heard—which was many years ago now—she had sold her house and moved with her husband to Arizona to retire. I never did learn why God felt it was necessary that I sing that day, but God taught me something big about trusting as I stepped into mystery. God also taught me that I didn’t need to be afraid, because God WAS in fact with me, delivering me, and I was able to sing or speak or whatever else was needed, simply because God was in the moments and God was directing for us all. God knew the healing, the reconciliation, that needed to happen, even if I didn’t. That experience was a huge gift for me because it showed me that God is intimately involved in the unfolding details of our lives and that God can be depended on, unconditionally. That was a big heart-opening lesson for a little girl whose own father hadn’t been involved in her life.

Our New Testament reading today is of course one of the most beloved of all Jesus’s parables: The prodigal son. This story has everything—a rebellious, impetuous youth; a stalwart, righteous, duty-bound brother; a father overflowing with grace and compassion—all set against a backdrop of law and tradition. Some theologians say this parable is the very essence of the gospel. In my commentary, Richard Foster says, “This parable is a watershed of the Bible. Either God loves like this or he doesn’t. Jesus is adamant that God’s love for us is indeed spectacular—so our love must mesh with his and be equally spectacular.”

In this story of the lost son, the younger son is a renegade, headstrong, full of himself, and what’s worse, disrespecting his father by wanting his inheritance now. His father accepts this without argument and gives him his share and the boy goes off and wastes it foolishly, leaving him ultimately in a starving state. It occurs to the boy—as self-preservation–that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s house, so he goes back, not because he wants to apologize or he’s had a change of heart, but because he’s starving. He was thinking through what he would say to his father, asking to merely be treated like hired help, when his father rushes out to meet him on the way, gushing with love, wrapping a robe around him, overflowing with joy that his son has come home. Full relationship restored. No conditions. No price to pay. No apologies needed.

One of the things that touches me here is that the father was obviously waiting and watching for his son’s return. How else would he see him while he was still far off? I can envision a father, praying, hoping, watching the far road, perhaps every day at the same time—perhaps multiple times a day—asking travelers for word of his son, watching dust clouds on the road to see if the boy he loves will appear.

When he returns from working in the fields, the oldest son is indignant—the righteous one, the dutiful one—because he is the one who always did everything right, and no one has thrown a party for him. He’s the one who deserved it. You may be able to relate to the older brother’s position—especially if you’ve tried really hard to do everything the right way and sometimes feel over-burdened and under-appreciated. He had never given himself the license his foolish younger brother had taken, to go and blow everything on wanton living without a second thought. He must have felt the younger boy didn’t deserve such a loving welcome. He hadn’t earned it. It wasn’t fair.

But the father’s joy at the return of his son is just pure overflowing love, the essence of grace. There’s no recrimination, no judgment, no lecture. He sees no dark spot on this boy who had made such unwise choices. He’s just glad his son is alive. He’s just glad he’s back. He just loves him.

The saddest person in this parable—and the one who will struggle most to receive the grace he needs–is the righteous older brother who is so focused on himself that he can’t share his father’s joy or feel compassion for his wayward brother. He is locked—like the Pharisees—into measuring and meting out grace as something someone earns by doing the right thing or behaving the right way. He hasn’t yet learned that that’s a conditional love and that’s not the way God our Father operates. God’s love is unconditional, pouring out continually, from one, to the next, to the next. That kind of pure love just has to celebrate itself. And when we turn in its direction—whether it’s in a radiation room or on a dusty roadway outside of Jerusalem—we are met and embraced, enfolded in overflowing joy, pressed against the heart of the One who has been watching and waiting for us to begin the trip home.

George Fox said once—and I no longer remember where, but I learned this in seminary—that the best way to fully understand scripture is to try on all the roles for yourself. In the parable of the prodigal son, I can see where in some areas of my life I have the attitude of the older brother—trying to do everything right, working hard to measure up, doing my best to follow all the rules. And I also can be the younger brother—not so much squandering inheritance on wanton living but more eating too many KitKat bars or avoiding something I know I need to do. I am so grateful—and I count on—the constant golden loving light of the Father that calls me back to remember who I am, to remember I am loved, to remember He never leaves me. I invite you to spend a little time with the Prodigal Son as it bubbles up for you, too. Where could you use a little more grace in your life? How could you help those two brothers in you reconcile? The answer begins and ends in the One who runs to meet us on the path, celebrating our return, joyful and complete now that we’re found.

 

RESOURCES:

  • OT Jeremiah 1: 4-8
  • NT Luke 15: 11-32

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