Every Family’s Story – Welcome to the Feast


“The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home.   . . .  Jesus will make our world a perfect home again.  We will no longer be living ‘east of Eden’ always wandering and never arriving.  We will come and the father will meet us and embrace us and we will be brought into the feast” (Tim Keller, in The Prodigal God).

The parable of the two lost sons is a story for our time. Whether we identify with the younger son or the older son (or both), people everywhere long to experience home, hoping for the warmth, joy, and love that the word implies. Tim Keller says that this longing for home is not a neurotic fantasy but a reality. The Garden of Eden is our original home. God is our “original Father.” The ultimate secret of this story is this:  there is a homecoming for all of us because there is a home.

According to the world Jesus lived in, the elder brother should have gone looking for the younger son and offered to bring him back at his own expense. After all he would now inherit everything that remained of the estate.  When his father says, “Everything I have is yours,” it was literally true. But Jesus, the true elder brother, fulfills the expectation of the community – beyond their comprehension.  He didn’t go just to the next country to find us; he traveled all the way from heaven to earth.  He was willing to pay more than his inheritance; he gave up  his own life.  As Tim Keller says,

“According to the Bible, because of our true elder brother, God is going to wipe away all death, and wipe away all suffering, and wipe away all tears, and he’ll give us new bodies that run and are never weary.  And it will be the ultimate feast” (The Prodigal God.)

Do you have a hard time seeing  yourself as one who is, and  always has been, loved by God. Do you believe you will always be welcomed home with joy? Do you believe the Gospel in your head but continue to be driven by approval, power and influence, fear, anger, or a lack of self-control in your heart? Do you believe that everyone is welcome to the feast that God prepares? 

This story is not really about a prodigal son, it is about a prodigal God. The word prodigal does not mean wayward or disobedient; it means “recklessly extravagant.” In the story Jesus told, the father’s love was “reckless” because he refused to reckon or count the sins of his sons; he welcomed them with love. We have a prodigal God – a God who is famous for extravagant love and reckless grace, spending everything on something of value: you and me.  We are called to swim joyously in this extravagant love – and extend it to others.

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Look for earlier posts in this series:  Part 1 ;       Part 2;      Part 3;      Part 4

 

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G.K. Chesterton and Me

I recently read an excerpt  from a G.K. Chesterton essay about his being bored to death during a long train ride. He moans that he had no books or newspapers,

“not even a pencil and a scrap of paper with which to write a religious epic. There were no advertisements on the walls of the carriage, otherwise I could have plunged into the study, for any collection of printed words is quite enough to suggest infinite complexities of mental ingenuity.”

And then (drum roll), he remembered to look in his pockets!  First he pulled out  “piles and heaps of Battersea tram tickets. There were enough to equip a paper chase. They shook down in showers like confetti.”  Then came a  pocket knife, a box of matches, a piece of chalk, and a coin, all of which provided topics for musing that made the train ride tolerable.

Now, I don’t keep stuff in my pockets. I don’t even carry a purse. And I NEVER (well almost never) go anywhere without a magazine or a book! But Mr. Chesterton is right to say that “any collection of printed words provides stimulation and enjoyment.”  So I collect quotes. 

I have copied or typed or cut out or added to a computer file hundreds, perhaps thousands, of quotes since I was a teenager. When I got married and moved out of my bedroom, I took with me spiral notebooks full of quotes. I still have one of those! I also have a file full of papers of all sizes in shapes, many of them scraps I used when I couldn’t find a decent sheet of paper. These are stored where my sons can easily find them as they clean out my house after my demise. Perhaps the quotes will help them understand their mother’s causes, motivations, hopes, and dreams – and close companionship with books.

Other than the pots of colorful blooms on my tiny balcony that fill my soul with joy, I find no greater pleasure than coming across a compelling thought perfectly expressed. I greedily read it, write it on paper and in my heart – and then muse on it.   Sometimes these quotes grace the wall behind my  computer or sit in stacks beside it; I might need them some day and can’t bear to store them away. Sometimes those quotes provoke a comment in an e-mail or create the concept for an entire blog post. Other times (as regular readers will know), I fill an entire post with quotes I just have to share with someone.

I love learning that G.K. Chesterton and I share the blessing of finding solace and intellectual and emotional stimulation in printed words. I think  that, if he were still alive, he and I would also share a sense of loss as people turn to tweets and Instagram and selfies to share their thoughts and experiences and neglect the beautiful discipline of writing meaningful words in an elegant way. 

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Every Family’s Story – A Father’s Love

The Father’s response to his younger son:  “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 lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (Luke 15: 22-24).

The Father’s response to his older son: “My son, you are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and alive again; he was lost and is found'” (Luke 31-32).

“Where in the world have you been!”  “Why didn’t you let me know where you where?”  “You look awful.  What have you been doing?” “Did you spend all your money?” I suspect that many of us might assault our son or daughter, the returning failure, with words like these if he or she returns home, an obvious failure.  

But what does Jesus tell us that the younger son’s father did? He ran to greet his long-lost boy, threw his arm around him, and kissed him. While his son pours out his guilt, his father calls for a ring and sandals and preparations for a celebratory party. And when his older son, angry and bitter, complains about the father’s heartwarming welcome to his useless brother, the father says, “Everything I have is yours.  But we also need to celebrate your brother’s return.  The lost has been found.”  

Through this parable, Jesus implies  that this father is our model for abundant living. This is the way God looks at us . . . and the way we are to look at others. This father has more than enough love to go around.  He even says that everything I have is yours – to the son who demanded his inheritance and now returns, as well as to the son who stayed home and benefited from everything his father has and was. With forgiveness in his heart and rejoicing in his voice, he offers both of his sons a home.  His love is so abundant that there is no room for judgment; his mercy is so wide that it covers everyone, his grace is so complete that it spills out of him.

This is how God feels about us. While we shudder before him because of our sin, or hide from him because of our guilt, or dare to blame him for his unfairness, or accuse him of not caring, he is running toward us with his arms wide open to welcome us home.  This is our example, our inspiration, our  opportunity – and our joy.  This story must leap to our minds and hearts when we are tempted to cast a critical eye,  speak a hurtful word,  hold a bitter grudge, hoard our treasures, shove our way past the “other,” or hide our forgiveness in a deep, dark well.

God says to each of his children, “My son, my daughter, you are always with me and everything I have is yours.”  

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Look for earlier posts in this series:  Part 1 ;  Part 2;  Part 3 For  information on  Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.eck out more information on  Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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The Mark of a Great Disciple

“The mark of a great ship handler is never getting in a situation that requires great ship handling skills” (Retired Admiral James Stavridis in his new book Sea Power).

I heard this gem during an interview with Admiral Stavridis  on NPR’s Morning Edition. It immediately caught my attention. At first, I thought about Donald Trump, whose lack of knowledge of the relationship of a president to the Congress, the Supreme Court, the FBI, and even the news media (and evident refusal to gain that knowledge) has caused him to be swept up in a whirlwind of controversy in his first six months in office. A corollary to the comment on a great ship handler could be:  The mark of a great president is never getting in a situation that requires great presidential skills. 

And then I thought of  Eugene Peterson’s definition of discipleship:  “a long obedience  in the same direction.” Our spiritual formation requires a commitment to training, to daily becoming more like Jesus, to choosing to walk in the Way of Jesus.  If, as  apprentices of Jesus, we develop the wisdom, the maturity, and  the skills to live obediently “in the same direction,” we will never face a situation that requires us to quickly learn discipleship skills to survive.

For example, if  we have practiced a life-long commitment to the truth, we probably won’t get caught in a huge lie that affects all our relationships.  If we have practiced forgiveness, a sudden betrayal won’t result in a lifetime of bitterness.  If we have practiced the example of the “good Samaritan,” we won’t face a crisis if a family of color or a Muslim family moves into our neighborhood.  

The Christian life is the daily choice of a lifestyle, not just the choice of a set of intellectual concepts. Perhaps the mark of a great disciple is never getting into a situation that requires great discipleship skills.

 

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A Cloak of Perfection

This blog now  hosts more than 640 posts.  I’m re-blogging this post from September 9, 2015  because it deals with our number #1 spiritual problem – the endless search for perfection.

All this preoccupation with your own imperfection is not humility, but an insidious form of spiritual pride. What do you expect to be? A saint? There are desperately few of them. And even they found that faults, which are the raw material of sanctity remember, take a desperate lot of working up.

You know best when and how you fall into these various pitfalls. Try and control yourself when you see the temptation coming. Never allow yourself to be pessimistic about your own state. Look outwards instead of inwards: and when you are inclined to be depressed and think you are getting on badly, make an act of thanksgiving instead because others are getting on well. The object of your salvation is God’s glory, not your happiness.”  (By Evelyn Underhill in An Evelyn Underhill Anthology)

In the part of the world in which I live, preoccupation with our own imperfection is the primary stumbling to spiritual growth.  We are devoted, mostly subconsciously, to the idea that we must be “continuously improving” (a phrase popular now with manufacturers and businesses.)  This false narrative relies on the false perception that the better we are the more God will love us and approve of us.  Not only is this a gigantic narcissistic assumption (how can a creature make its Creator do anything?), but it is a sad misunderstanding of the nature of God.

As Underhill brilliantly states, this idea of becoming perfect (flawless skin, efficient digestive systems, errorless parenting) is an “insidious form of spiritual pride.” She then goes on to explain that there is a way to overcome this attitude.  It involves training. We train ourselves to listen to the nudge of the Holy Spirit when we are wrapping ourselves in the cloak of perfection.  We train ourselves to change our attitudes, remembering that God doesn’t require perfection. We train ourselves to choose not to drown in the muck of perfectionism. We train ourselves to step out of our preoccupation with ourselves to look at others.

While we are outside of ourselves we may have an opportunity to grapple with Underhill’s last statement:  the object of our salvation is God’s glory not our individual happiness  – which makes the concept of perfection unnecessary anyway.

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Every Family’s Story – a Jealous Brother

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. but when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'” (Luke 15: 25-30).

Jesus is the consummate story-teller and Luke, his faithful scribe and editor, brings those stories alive for every reader.  Here we overhear a young man complaining. He has come in from the fields because of talk about his wayward younger brother’s return home. Elder brother is angry! He is jealous!  He is ungrateful!  He sounds like all of us:  “It’s not fair!” he says. “You love him more than you love me!” he claims. “He doesn’t deserve your help!” And then, as we all are wont to do and despite his father’s pleadings, he plays a passive-aggressive game. He refuses to join the welcome home celebration for his brother.

Doug Greenwold from Preserving Bible Times says that the elder brother “seems to have a Ph.D in legalistic morality. In this observant Jewish world, compassion was  withheld from anyone who did not behave like [the village did.]”  The elder brother has played by the rules, but what did it get him? His father seems to ignore his faithful service in the excitement of welcoming and loving his younger brother, the one who threw the rules to the wind and has now come home – expecting to be included in the family’s circle of love again.   

Oh, how I ache for this bitter man! The hurt he feels flies off the page. For many years, I too, lived in scarcity. I saw only the unfairness in my life. I was jealous from afar of any love shown to others. I was sad and bitter because no one in my family seemed to notice what  I did or care how hard it was to accomplish. God offered me the same abundant love that he gives everyone  but I refused to accept it. Like the elder brother, I was helpful and obedient on the outside, but angry and lonely on the inside.  

Many younger brothers (and sisters) find their way into the church by the grace of God. But the church seems to house many more resentful older brothers (and sisters) who want others to work for their grace – especially when it doesn’t seem they deserve it. They want people to follow the rules and traditions, even those they have invented.  Love is not part of their equation – except that the hurt from real or imagined lack of love is what motivates their attitudes.

And now our nation, too, is full of angry, loud “elder brothers” (and sisters), people who refuse to others what have what they themselves have struggled so hard to attain.  They worship a God who is exclusive; it is obvious to them that God would want only people like them  in his Kingdom. They wrap their arms around themselves, stamp their feet, and offer only shame and blame to offer the outsider.

In her latest book, Anne Lamott asks:  “Did the older brother go into the feast for the prodigal brother?  We don’t know . . . . The parable doesn’t end with the answer.  It ends with a question:  Will the older brother do the deep dive toward family and mental healing, breathe in all the joy and mercy he has seen, and go into the feast?  Will you? Will I?”  (Hallelujah Anyway, Rediscovering Mercy). 

If we don’t take our own “deep dive” into the love and mercy of God, we will never be like Jesus. If we do step into God’s welcoming arms, we will be able take our eyes off ourselves and look deeply into the heart of another – especially “the other” who needs what we are jealously guarding – the abundant gift of a loving God. 

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Look for earlier posts in this series:  Part 1 ;  Part 2.   For  information on  Margaret Adams Parker’s Sculpture Reconciliation which is located on the campus of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina.

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Patterns

Recently I watched a TV show focused on the difficulty of understanding the Trump presi- dency. One commentator offered a suggestion as to why many of us are so puzzled (and aggravated) by the president’s  words and actions.  He said that the human personality is triggered to look for patterns; if we don’t see any pattern, we try to create one. When we can’t see or create a pattern, we become anxious. President Trump doesn’t fit any past pattern of governing. He also doesn’t fit the values that Christians hold dear. Hence the enormous anxiety we feel – which leads to the need to continually dissect the president’s behavior.

That comment stuck with me because a few days earlier I had described to my husband my need to create new routines (patterns) to accomplish common tasks. The memory I have relied on for decades and the pattern of living I am accustomed to are not as reliable as they used to be.  So I am developing new rhythms and patterns to make sure that I can keep my life in order.  My intention is that every day of the week has a pattern.  Obviously things “come up” that deviate from the pattern. I don’t freak out when that happens because I know I can get back on track. This lifestyle may seem boring to some – too much routine and not enough spontaneity.  To me creating patterns of order ensures that what I need to get done will get done so I can be spontaneous when the opportunity arises.

God as a Pattern-Maker

As I was musing about patterns, I was reminded that Creation is really patterns writ large (or tiny) throughout the known universe – and assuredly throughout the unknown universe.  Our Creator God imagined beauty and order in the symmetry and/or repetitiveness of patterns in flowers, butterflies, zebras, snow crystals, spider webs, leaves, peacock wings, pine cones, four-leaf clovers, and bee hives. 

Given our inherent preference for patterns, it is no wonder that continual spiritual formation depends on our creation of patterns. We can intentionally “try out” various soul-training exercises, but if we don’t form a pattern for using them,  it is harder to form a spiritually mature life.

♥  I have learned the lesson of patterns from the prayer of examen:  reflecting at the end of the day about whether events or decisions were life-giving or life-thwarting and then deciding how to implement more of the life-giving  and eliminate the life-thwarting. 

♥  I learned the pattern of forgiveness one angry day decades ago.  As I sat on the edge of my bed, I was very forthright with God.  “If you want me to forgive her,” I said, “you’ll have to make it happen!” I soon realized that I was exactly right.  My role in forgiving is to make a conscious choice; making that choice a spiritual reality is the work of the Holy Spirit.  Since then I have had daily opportunities to repeat that pattern:  be alert to the need to forgive, make a choice to forgive, and await the peace that comes from forgiveness.

♥  Memorizing the 23rd Psalm and saying it every night has created a pattern in my brain and in my heart.  These words fit together now . . . if I leave any out I have messed up the pattern that my brain depends on.  Counting my blessings every night is a way of relieving the anxiety and frustration of life never coming together “properly.”  The pattern of looking for, relishing, and then expressing gratitude for my blessings brings joy back into a sour world.

It seems that the idea of creating patterns is part of the image of God in us.  Our unruly thoughts,  emotions, and behaviors can be tamed if we imagine for ourselves patterns in every experience of life – then fit ourselves comfortably into them.

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From My Reading

You have now heard the gospel that you are accepted by God where you are, that he put you there. You’re in your world to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth—and it is God who makes that possible. You accept the fact that you are finite, that you make mistakes, that you’re not perfect. And in so doing you get on with the work that God has appointed to flow through your life as you become the person he intended you to be.

You see, God has very high aims for you and me. His aim is that each one of us becomes the kind of person he can empower to do what we want. I am going to say that again. You and I are being trained and cultivated and grown to the point where God can empower us to do what we want. Now you recognize that a lot of work has to be done on our “wanter” before that can happen. But that is what life is about. And that’s what we are learning to do as disciples of Jesus Christ” (Dallas Willard in the Renovare Weekly Digest for April 26, 2017).

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“Faith is not a commodity God pours into us but a condition that wells up in us as we go step by sometimes fearful step into the steady practice of the Jesus way. The bigger the step, the weaker in faith we are apt to feel. And the weaker we feel, the more apt we are to experience God’s capacity. Doing what we feel we cannot do, but doing it anyway, proves that what ultimately matters is not so much our faith in Jesus as his faith in us. We can do what is ours to do because God has the capacity to see us through” Kayla McClurg in Sea-
son and Scripture: Luke, Ordinary Time C).

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The key to the fourth Beatitude lies in understanding what the word “righteousness” means. To our post-Puritan, post-Victorian ears, righteousness is a synonym for virtue. It means being moral, behaving correctly. But in Israel of Jesus’ times, righteousness was something much more dynamic. Visualize it as a force field: an energy-charged sphere of holy presence. To be “in the righteousness of God” (as Old Testament writers are fond of saying) means to be directly connected to this vibrational field, to be anchored within God’s own aliveness. There is nothing subtle about the experience; it is as fierce and intransigent a bond as picking up a downed electrical wire. To “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” then, speaks to this intensity of connectedness.

Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. (Cynthia Bourgeault in  Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations from her book,  The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message).

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