Thursday, August 27, 2009

A New Understanding of the Prodigal Story

I've heard many sermons on Luke 15, the story often called the parable of the Prodigal Son or even the Prodigal Father. Years ago I read Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which examines the story from several different perspectives. I've studied the parable many times on my own and in groups. But I had never seen Christ as the "renewed older brother" until this week.

I am reading The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, and late in the book, he writes that when Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal (wasteful) Son, He preceded it with two other parables. In the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, someone goes and looks for what was lost, searching desperately until they find it. But in the prodigal son's case, no one goes looking, and when the wasteful son returns to the father, his self-righteous brother is angry. His brother coming back and being restored as a son means less inheritance for him. Jesus was telling these parables in the presence of the Pharisees (religious elite) and "tax collectors and sinners" (religious outcasts), and clearly the role of the older brother in the story is meant for the Pharisees.

The end of Jesus' story, it's punchline, shows us how the older brother misses the true heart of God, the heart of compassion and mercy, as he refuses to celebrate the return of the lost brother. But his misunderstanding of the Father's heart was revealed much earlier in the story when the older brother does not go out and search for the younger. If the older brother truly knew the father's love for him and for his brother, that love would have compelled him to go and find his little brother. If the older brother had known the celebratory spirit of the father that rejoices when lost things are found, he would have tried to get the welcome-home party started much sooner.

Jesus is the older brother as he should have been, and we are all the younger. If any brother had the right to say to the Father, "I've done it all right, and I'm not going to share my inheritance with those losers who have already squandered what you gave them," it was Jesus. Yet Christ is the true Son, and He knows the Father's heart intimately. He knows that the Father's love and inheritance are things to be shared, and He knows the joy of celebratory love. And so Christ went to find us, right in the midst of our lostness, before we knew we needed to come home, and invited us back. He is an ambassador of the loving and merciful heart of the Father, who longs to restore us to our place as sons and daughters of the King.

As I read Luke 15 this morning, I wept. They weren't tears of guilt that said, "Man, I just don't seek out the lost younger brothers enough." They seemed to be tears of understanding. Somehow the older brother missing the heart of the Father revealed more clearly to me how Jesus embraces and emobodies it. We were sought, we were given life and sonship. And that gift didn't just cost the Father, it cost the Older Brother. To welcome us back as sons means that we now have an inheritance, an inheritance that should be Christ's alone, but that He joyfully shares with us. And to give us that inheritance cost Jesus unbroken fellowship with the Father. It cost Him heartache and rejection. and it cost His very life. I want to make my home in Christ and in the Father, that I might join in the search party. Not out guilt or shame, but compelled by love, a son who has been welcomed and wants to welcome others, even at cost to myself.

Odds and Ends

Does anyone watch Wipeout on ABC? Wednesday is my longest day of work (7 am until 8:30 pm) and when I come home, I am toast. Watching people bite the dust over and over again on an abusrd obstacle course, all the while being mocked by Sports Center anchors is just what the doctor ordered. I was crying last week watching it, barely able to breathe.

Not that I can watch NASCAR anymore since ESPN robbed it from the working man and put it on "Big Cable" (we only have "Big Cable", featuring ESPN, from December to March for Tar Heels Basketball; the rest of the year we have "Baby Cable with about 8 channels), but two top ten finishes in a row for Dale Junior has been nice to see.

On the sports note, watching the sagas unfold at Louisville and Memphis (and by extension UK) makes me thankful for Roy Williams.

Last year I had pictures of my mutant carrots. This year, may I present the eggplant that looks like a person.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Life the Blob

In 2001, Diane and I moved to Glenwood to answer the call of incarnational ministry, because we believed strongly in living among the people that we wanted to love and reach out to. Then, a year and half ago, I began working for our church, which is 3 blocks away from our house - the commute is amazing! I was given the role of Director of Outreach, which seemed like such a good fit - I was already reaching out in the neighborhood and loved the poor, and so now I could just extend those into my work week. I would be working with our Wednesday dinners for the homeless, helping handle calls for financial assistance, and working with our outreaches to youth in Glenwood. Last week I realized how that sometimes is more than I bargained for, more than I really want. On the good days, I am glad to be seen as "the pastor" on Silver Avenue, and I welcome the opportunities to extend church ministry at the home and vice versa. I love the chances we have to hang out with the youth if they come to our home.

On other days, I wish there were more separation. It's hard for me each day when I pass one of the women who was asked to leave our winter shelter (along with her daughter), seeing them living in a rooming house infested with drugs. It's hard to see some of the men and women who come to the dinner, knowing that they are barely making rent or living in a home without water or lights. Our wonderful housemate and friend Suzanne, who hangs out with our kids, eats dinners with us from time to time, and is also our teammate on the Glenwood ministry team, also reports to me as her supervisor at church.

And so it hit me that my life sort of all runs together, and it sometimes is more wearying than satisfying. I wonder if it might help to have a different role at the church so that my work role was a little different than my neighbor role. Or perhaps I just need to be content to live in the tension. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The tension of blessings

I realized recently that one of the blessings and trials of living where we do is that I am constantly reminded of my wealth and privilege. To know that we are the only family on our block who owns our home and two cars is humbling. To have kids come to our three-bedroom, one bath home and talk about how big and beautiful it is reminds me of the true blessing it is that my children have such wonderful rooms to call their own. In an uncertain economy, I know that if things go south for us financially, we have family who can help us out, a safety net that most of my neighbors don’t have. I know that as a white man, I have access to people and opportunities that many around me simply don’t have. When I see the family situations around us, when I see the havoc wrought by children born to single moms too young to care for them, when I see the brokenness of unmarried couples trying to live out a commitment that they have never fully made, I realize how blessed I was to have the parents and family that I have. When I see the lonely, I appreciate the gift of wonderful friends.

Seeing these things are hard on my heart because the temptation is to feel guilt for all that I have been given. They are a trial because I can’t drive around the corner without seeing a household that is broken and in need of healing and no hope in sight. They are a trial because some days I just don't want to see anymore, but there isn’t a day that I can miss it because I know so many of the people and situations going on around me.

But these realizations are a blessing because it keeps my heart grounded and thankful. It reminds me of all I have been given and leads me to places of contentment that I could not reach living elsewhere. I am reminded that all that I have is a gift from God, nothing that I earned, and that makes me more and more likely to part with what is “mine.”

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Transformational community

I’ve recently been studying 1 Peter with some dear friends, and I have been greatly encouraged to press forward in ministry with our Glenwood Team here in Greensboro. Peter writes his letters to “exiles” and there are many times that those of us who live in Glenwood “on purpose” feel like exiles, strangers in a strange land. To feel like a stranger even when you are home can take a toll on your soul, and I take great encouragement from Peter’s exhortations to put my hope not in the seen but in Christ, my living hope who has won my salvation and my eternal place with the Father.

But I began to notice even more that this hope is to be shared in the context of community; that we are to express and experience this hope together, not in isolation. The gospel has transformed us from the inside out to love each other deeply, from the heart (1:22), and the evidence of our transformation doesn’t show up in our religious checklists but rather in how we treat one another.

Peter spends many of his opening lines reminding the church of all they have been given in Christ, and he exhorts them to live holy lives. But the way that this holiness plays out is not in the music that we listen to (or don’t listen to), the TV shows that they watch (or don’t watch). Instead, the standard of holiness isn’t found on a morality checklist but rather in whether or not we are loving God and loving one another. If love is our standard, what to watch/listen to/do will take care of itself., because we will want to obey God and honor our neighbor. Peter does give a checklist, but his list deals with relationships – how are we speaking to one another; are we sowing dissent by our words; are we guarding our hearts from anger and envy. Holiness is revealed in community.

And Peter reminds the church that their witness to the people around them is tied to Christ indwelling their community. Each believer in Christ is a living stone, he says, and everyone knows that you can’t build a building out of just one stone. But when you have many stones, you can put them together to make a dwelling, holy to God and displaying His power and love.

He tells them that they are a chosen people, not merely individuals, but a chosen community that belongs to God, and that the end result of our community should be glory to God, advancement of His mission on earth to seek and save the lost.

Too often I think of myself as a chosen person, an individual pressing forward on my own little path with my own little tasks to accomplish. But God has given me so much more than that. He has brought me into a community, a people, that can reveal the love and Christ in ways that my life on its own cannot. One of the greatest weapons and deceptions of satan is to make Christians believe that they are alone in their journey of faith. To isolate and divide, to cut us off from those who exhort us to run the race (Hebrews 12:1) is an excellent strategy, because the power of unity in community is transformational, both for God’s people and for the watching world. I think that God is moving our Glenwood Team towards this standard. There are days when we may feel like exiles, but we are not alone. We are part of a chosen people, a community raised up for the glory of God, and the blessing of living here is that it is so much easier for us to see our need of one another.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

I Needed That

Tonight is the last night of GUPY, and we had quite the celebration. Our friends Gene and Lisa Brown had the entire team over for beer-soaked brats on the grill and an amazing dessert that combined chocolate chip cookies and cheesecake. Then we headed downtown to The Idiot Box, an improv comedy club, and were joined there by some good friends from Grace. The show was excellent, and it just felt good to laugh for an hour and half (it made me want to get back into improv, and, by the way, I love the look on people's faces when they hear that I used to perform - I guess I am just not funny anymore). And as the show was ending, bluegrass musician Sam Bush was cranking up a free concert right across the street, filling downtown with banjo, mandolin, and guitar. While I get really bored during their more progressive "jam" songs, the bluegrass flowed freely for the most part, and I was thankful to be treated to a free concert of my favorite music.

I'm not usually one to write "this is what I did" blog posts, because I don't think that it's particularly interesting for other people to read highlights of my Saturday night. But after a very tiring summer, this night with the GUPY's, with friends from church, and with co-laborers in Glenwood was very sweet and refreshing. Good food, laughter, and music do wonders to lighten the soul, and I am so thankful to have the memory of this night with the GUPY's. It was simply a good gift from God from start to finish, one that was right on time. I needed that.