A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

25 Years a Christian

Twenty-five years ago today, I gave my life to Jesus.  I had just turned eight years old when I went before the congregation and committed my life’s steps to walking upon the way of the King, and was immersed into the salvation story God has been authoring from the very beginning.

Later in the day, my family went to visit my grandmother at the hospital; as a birthday/baptism present, she gave me a Bible and a gun (it was the Upper Peninsula).  Inside the cover she wrote to always trust in the LORD, be faithful and prayerful.  She passed away a few weeks later.  Except for some brief target practice, I’ve never used the gun; but the Bible’s story has always weaved its narrative into my ways of thinking and living, constructing me (I hope) into one of its many characters struggling to keep up with Christ.

Twenty-five years is a long walk.  Today, as I hold up and take a breather, coffee in ridgehand, look back over the ridges I’ve crossed, and while thankful for this trek I’ve trod, I remain even more amazed at this path that was pioneered at all.  This way God instigated and shaped, led and lighted with His creative prowess, holy commands, the characters He called, and Christ most emphatically, is alive with a wealth of grace which preserves all that has come before and perseveres all that shall come ahead.

It is by no means my own private journey, but a path of pilgrims.  By God’s grace we have awakened upon this way and are in awe of its worldly windings.  The way is not always scenic and pretty; it can often be downright desolate.  But it is not abandoned.  A King and his community walks these roads.

In this week of Thanksgiving, we’re all catching our breath and surveying the scenery of our stories.  Then we’ll walk on.  Every step we take will be character we make.  As pilgrims upon the path of Jesus, I pray our every step into his footprint will mold his character into ours, that this whole walk will reflect the One who wrought this wondrous way.

Grace and peace of Christ to you.

 

 

What is motivating you to Christian living? | Matthew 6:1

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus gave his disciples instructions for a kingdom kind of righteous living that would actually embody the Law’s holy essence, surpassing the hypocrisy displayed by the scribes and Pharisees. To guard his disciples from this same corrupting hypocrisy, Jesus now transitions to the attitude or mindset by which kingdom righteousness is maintained and embodied. As a type of introductory statement, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…”

As followers of Jesus, we must practice righteous living; as members of community, righteous living must be practiced before people. Where we risk corrupting righteous living with hypocrisy, however, is when we begin living it out “to be noticed” by people.

We all have a need to be affirmed or valued; to be acknowledged by someone outside ourselves for doing what is right. Initially, we usually look for this affirmation from parents, peers, or mentors; if, however, not eventually grounded in glad submission to the sovereign God, it can inflame into an insecurity that fluctuates between two different, albeit connected extremes of motivation.

One extreme could be a debilitating sense of self-loathing or self-abasement where we see ourselves as worthless or unlovable, going through life in constant need of someone’s encouragement, though never convinced or satisfied with it.

The opposite extreme may overcompensate for the insecurity by earning affirmation through arrogant means of intimidation or domination by trying to impress others or narcissistically showing off how righteous or spiritually competent or affluent we are.

What both extremes add up to, however, is life fearfully lived with the “Sovereign Self” as our center, teeter-tottering back and forth in an imbalance of ravenous insecurity that projects a deceiving version of ourselves comprised of hypocrisy rather than holiness. “Beware” Jesus says.

He continues to warn “otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

The implications are perilously clear: why should we receive a reward from the Father when we weren’t working for one? Like the Pharisees and scribes, if the sum of our ambition is to be called “Pastor” or treated like some “church godfather” or super-Christian or spiritual expert, we should not expect anything from the Father because it was people’s respect and praise we were craving all along. In a sense, it’s as if Jesus is saying “I hope that earthly esteem was satisfying, because that’s all you’re getting.”

Jesus’ comment is a beacon in our obsession with Self, a restorative call to live life with the Father as our center, his glory and worth as our motivation. When Jesus began this message, he said “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify you Father who is in heaven”.

We live kingdom righteousness, not “to be noticed by [men], but “before men in such a way” that when they see our good works, it is the Father who is delighted in, enjoyed, and magnified in their minds and mouths.

As the perfect image of the Father, Jesus is the focal point that centers us in the Father; following after Jesus, prayerfully and obediently, forms Christ in us so only Christ will be revealed when his works are done before men.

We are not the source of salvation. Why would we ever want to distract people from him who saves by becoming someone’s idol? Through careful, prayerful contemplation, it is crucial we examine ourselves to understand exactly what is motivating us to kingdom living. It is not enough to assume or assert we do it for God’s glory; we really do have to do it for God’s glory.

Jesus himself eschewed fame, letting the salvation substance of who he was and what he taught ferment into a full bodied bouquet of blessedness within the people’s awareness. Following Jesus keeps us grounded in his cross-shaped humility, purging hypocrisy and fostering holiness. As we evade the limelight to shine out his light, we embody a righteousness that could captivate a wandering world to the Savior at its center.

Deep beneath and within the layers of you, what is motivating you to Christian living?

 

Shakespeare, Scripture, and ‘All the world’s a stage’

Shakespeare has been appearing on my radar a lot lately. I recently drove past a billboard with his portrait saying “Shakespeare—words never had it so good”. There’s a new play at a local theatre I believe has combined all of his plays into one integrated performance. Othello was a crossword puzzle clue today. A friend confided the other day he’d like to read all of Shakespeare’s works before he died, a desire I also share. I also conveyed this same goal to my sister in a recent conversation.

One of the most avid readers I know, she replied deftly “Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read, but watched. It’s like reading a recipe book; all the ingredients are there but you have to make and taste the dish to really experience it.”

It made much sense to me. When Shakespeare wrote, it wasn’t books but scripts of lines for actors to learn and perform on stage for all to see and experience. The entertainment of its day, the stage offered drama, distraction, imagination, enlightenment, and camaraderie to the masses. Not as polite as today’s modern theatergoers, the energy of the audience often created the atmosphere in which performances took place, helping draw them into the story and making them, too, participants. The entire experience was a feast for the senses for all involved, both actors and audience. As a Bible student, I see this dynamic as distinctly similar to approaching and applying Scripture.

The Holy Scriptures are not a disjointed collection of randomly written sentences blabbering on about some impersonal deity. They are revelation of the main character, LORD, and the story He is framing around His epic cast of human characters. Much of the story concerning them is one of estrangement, from both God and each other; the story God is crafting, however, is one of salvation. Each Bible book—whether history, statute, wisdom and prayer poetry, or prophecy—bears witness to the salvation story and it’s saving Storyteller who sanctifies His characters.

If we are to be participants in the salvation substance of this story, we need to get into character. The sacred Script has assigned us our parts; as the Body of Christ, who is the image of LORD, our role is to embody the holiness of the main character. Our lives are now passion plays proclaiming salvation’s hope. Both as individuals and congregation, we demonstrate the vitality of salvation living by enacting these words which give shape to salvation life.

Scripture is meant to be read; but it is certainly meant to be experienced in those who conform to the character of Christ and seen in those whose lives are enactments of salvation.

Jesus had his own “All the world’s a stage” line when he told his followers “you shall be My witnesses…to the remotest part of the earth”. With the curtain thrown open, unveiling our place of performance and participation, the salvation show must go on.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of enemies | Matthew 5:43-47

As Jesus moves to conclude his commentary on the surpassing righteousness his disciples shall embody, he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

The first part of Jesus’ statement is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 where the Israelites are commanded to not hate their brethren, countrymen, or the sons of their people, but to love their neighbor as they love themselves. What did this love look like? They were to leave certain sections of their crops for the poor to pick during harvest; they should pay wages when and to whom they were due. They were to act with complete integrity without lying, stealing, or showing partiality instead of fairness. There was to be no mockery of the disabled or any slandering or standing against a neighbor. In these ways and others, each Israelite was made personally responsible for the corporate harmony of the covenant community.

The second part of Jesus’ statement, however, is no Law quote. But considering Israel’s unique sense of heritage and how the land of the people had long been occupied territory with the Roman Empire’s presence creating an atmosphere thick with tension and hostility, it’s easy to see how the circumstances may have helped nurture a resentment or hatred for their enemies that was deemed generally acceptable. While “hate your enemy” was not commanded or explicitly taught, the sentiment was pervasive and everybody generally understood it and acknowledged it’s “when the chips are down” mentality. Jesus did not.

Speaking much to the culture’s contrary, he said “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Love your enemies. The Leviticus 19 text Jesus referenced had already established what loving their neighbor looked like; Jesus extends its content to be applied also to enemies. That means using our resources to be hospitable or giving them needed sustenance. It means treating them fairly, not getting back at them. It is likely the Jewish community, much as we often do, limited their definition of neighbor to their sphere of likeminded individuals; but as Jesus later conveyed in his story of the good Samaritan, neighbor is determined by proximity, not preference. Even if those in our proximity are enemies.

Pray for those who persecute you. When we tell enemies “I’ll pray for you”, we often say it smugly as something of a retaliatory attempt to seize moral high ground, a sort of self-vindication; if we actually do take time to pray for them, it’s sometimes done with hope they will feel our pain or repent of putting us through it or that they will “see things our way” or that “justice be done”. The Leviticus 19 love was to shape within the individuals of the covenant community a sincere desire to see and effort to make each of their neighbors prosper in holiness and harmony with God, each other, and creation. The same desire and effort for our enemies is nurtured by praying for them. Love and pray; to do for our enemies what we would do for ourselves. But why?

Jesus continued “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier peacemakers beatitude, but how or why does loving our enemies and praying for their peace reveal us to be the Father’s children? Jesus explains “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, are creatures who live within and benefit from God’s blessed creation. Creation is a context that connects us all, a familial framework of lifeforms. If we all live beneath the Father’s sun and receive the Father’s rain, we are revealed as sons or agents of the Father by being a brother to creation, evil though it may be. When we love and pray for our enemies, we are participating in the Father’s redemptive work to bring his estranged sons back into the family fold. Love and prayer, for neighbors and enemies, is the work of witnessing redemptive reality.

We all understand the difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do; in many ways we’re often incredulous to these words. I think Jesus understands that. So he proves his point with some provoking questions: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

If Christ’s kingdom community only loves cliquishly, we neither proclaim nor produce redemptive reality; “what more” are we doing than perpetuating a standard that possesses no cross-shaped magnanimity for bringing humanity into redemptive reality? Participating in redemptive work requires from us a love and prayerfulness that goes the distance, suffering long the hostility of our fellow creation for their sake. When we consider the weight and vastness of eternity, loving and praying for our enemies is not too much to ask. What’s more, when we begin to perceive our enemies as fellow creatures whose redemption Christ is pursuing, we stop seeing them as enemies.

Love and pray. Jesus would do both of these for his enemies while hanging upon the cross. This way of love and prayer for enemies is a cross-shaped lifestyle in which we constantly crucify our “Us vs. Them” prejudices in order to bear witness to what brings us together and restores us as children to the Father’s blessedness.

What if my testimony is boring?

I’m a preacher’s kid and proud of it. I was in church a few days after being born, gave my life to Jesus on my 8th birthday, was always active in youth group and other church activities; when it came time to go to college, I set off to Great Lakes Christian College to become a pastor. It was there I began to encounter a much broader community of Christians than I ever had before.

One guy had been healed of a brain tumor. One girl was recuperating from drugs; another guy came to Jesus after a failed suicide attempt. Another went from having his mind and body thrashed by drugs to becoming one of the most hardworking Hebrew and Greek students at the school. Each of their stories and testimonies left listeners desiring to know God better and in awe of who God was and what He could do in the lives of those who came to Him.

But listening to their testimonies also created or exposed an insecurity in me, an idea that my testimony was generally boring; having grown up in church all my life, never getting in with the bad crowd or doing bad things, and just being a generally nice boy, I felt my story was too boring or simple to be a blessing to those listening. This insecurity also seemed justified when I began noticing that churches and ministries never had a believer share their testimony with an audience unless it was impressive. Realizing my story didn’t have this inspirational “wow” factor, I just felt insignificant. On one occasion, when everyone in a group was asked to give their testimony, I vaguely exaggerated a detail to make my story seem a little bit cooler or significant; it wasn’t.

But that all changed one night in a guy’s meeting where we took turns each week giving our testimony. I just told my story as it was, straightforward and simple. Per the custom, the other guys prayed over me when I was finished; when a close friend and brother prayed, his words reached deep into my heart. He said “Thank You, Father, for saving Jon from what could have been.”

I have never looked down on my story since.

A year later I was working at a youth camp and got to share this lesson with a young camper who was experiencing that same challenge. On the last night of camp, he blessed us all with his simple and significant story.

Ascertaining your own value and significance is difficult to discern at times because it takes time to dig through layers of insecurity or other value systems we interact with each day, but if we can get to the heart of the matter, what it often comes down to is the simple truth that you are loved. I know that phrase gets tossed out there tiredly these days, but that’s likely a reflection of how many of us are in need of its reality. We are not loved because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us. Our lives, identities, and potential are something of a self-portrait of who He is; it is in the appreciation of that portrait we discover the significant story we have to tell.

Are you able to see yourself as God sees you? Are you letting that reality shape yours? If you know the tale you’ve got to tell, don’t keep it to yourself.

Testify!

Kingdom righteousness in the context of integrity | Matthew 5:33-37

Continuing his discipleship commentary on embodying kingdom righteousness, Jesus turns to the swearing of oaths, saying “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the LORD.'”

This adage Jesus shares is rooted in various Law passages (Lev 19:12, Num 30:2, Dt 23:21,23). The Law never commands its people to make vows, but should they do so, it says they must fulfill them, especially if they take the vow in the name of the LORD. By Jesus’ time, however, the LORD’s name was seldom invoked for reasons of reverence or paranoia. Instead, when they made vows or took oaths they would swear by esteemed abstractions they would use to vouch for their character and lend to their credibility. For example, if a man vowed or promised to lead a more righteous life, to take on some great responsibility, or to make some great sacrifice, he might swear, as Jesus would reference, on the holy city of Jerusalem, Heaven or Earth, or perhaps on the virility of his hair. In this way, should they break their vow, the LORD’s holy name would not be impugned.

Be that as it may, one can see the silliness in exploiting social landmarks or facts of nature to vouch for one’s credibility, as if any of these have anything to do with the integrity of one’s character. Jesus cuts through the silliness with his solution: “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.”

As places and things are under God’s sovereign control and not ours, and since those places or things have nothing to do with the integrity of our character, Jesus’ solution is to swear on nothing, to make no oath at all. The inherent value of these things we swear upon but do not own or control reveal nothing of our value or character, thus do nothing to establish our credibility; Jesus’ next instructive, however, reveals what does: “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’…”

It is the simple integrity of our character that establishes our credibility. Our credibility or integrity of character are not dependent on places or nature, but on us, on what we have chosen and choose to do. Ourselves are the only ones over whom we have control, so ourselves shall be all we present as credibility of our character.

Since Jesus’ solution both dismisses this empty conventional practice and replaces it with an actual standard of righteousness, we again see the kingdom reality he is establishing on earth is one in which we, his followers, are charged to possess a standard of integrity that surpasses that which is conventionally acceptable. Kingdom residents are bound to the standard of the King, to maintain an integrity rooted in his righteousness.

This can be lived out in different ways. For starters, decide to live out kingdom righteousness deliberately. Sometimes I wonder if we approach our days or situations conflictedly, hoping we’re faithful by accident; enough of that. Be righteous on purpose. Another way is to dispense with drama. Have you ever noticed how drama plays into how we negotiate with God (“God, if I do that, please do this”) or how we talk big about how righteous we’re going to live (“I’m gonna stand for Jesus”). Dispense with the drama; let your hands and feet do the talking. Live righteously simply because it is right to do so. The one who determines to do it deliberately does so because they are shaped by the standard they’ve witnessed Christ set without compromise. Another way is to simply do righteousness today. A side problem with making vows was they inherently forced the vow-maker to be responsible for the future; but just as they had no control over nature or places, they certainly had no control over the future. God does not require your promise of righteousness for tomorrow, just actual righteousness for today.

After conveying this simple standard for kingdom integrity, Jesus adds “anything beyond these is of evil.”

That’s because anything beyond a simple yes or no can often become either an exaggeration of or excuse for one’s character. The wholeness of one’s integrity is comprised of conviction held and conveyed with simplicity, with no reason to make more out of what one has already made clear.

As residents of God’s kingdom, we are to be a people who are so careful with our thoughts and words, so deliberate with our choices and commitments, so as to display an integrity that does not compromise the righteous character of Christ. Hopefully, such carefully cultivated integrity will reveal a heavenly Father whose own integrity, as sovereignly sworn by Himself (Hebrews 6:13-20), has opened to us the way of salvation.