Seeking and Finding Grace

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15:11-32

Grace is much harder to understand than we think it is.

I remember talking to a friend a few years ago about the parable of the Prodigal son. He couldn’t grasp it. I don’t recall all the details of our conversation, but I remember him remarking how unfair it all seemed.

I found this odd but remarkably perceptive. In my Christian upbringing, “grace” was in the air we breathed and the water we drank. “I’m better than I deserve” as Dave Ramsey puts it so pithily. He could speak for all of us: warehouse churches, independent baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, fundamentalists, progressives, Catholics, Anglicans. We emphasize different aspects of fallenness, injustices and individual sinfulness, but we all seem to agree that we are somehow better off than we deserve. “Have a blessed day.” And we do!

Now, I don’t find this a bad thing. It’s all true, of course. We are better than we deserve. At least theologically understood.

Nonetheless, I’ve never really been able to put away my friend’s confusion about the Prodigal Son. There’s something refreshingly honest about his critique. Most Christians might admit to being an older brother sometimes, but we never question the fundamental goodness of the father’s compassion on the Prodigal and rebuking the older brother’s harshness. But my friend wasn’t willing to concede this point so quickly. Didn’t the older brother deserve better treatment?

Here’s the thing about the Parable: If you’re thinking about what you deserve, eventually you miss the point.

The point is this: even in light of all that is true about you—the good and the bad you’ve done—where do you really want to be? Do you want to be happy?

That’s an odd question, perhaps. Let me explain.

There’s a trick, of course. It requires understanding what kind of happiness the parable offers us. For the Prodigal, it’s finally realizing that happiness was never really possible apart from his father. He realizes that happiness can’t be achieved on one’s own terms. Happiness must be accepted and received, it cannot be manipulated and taken. This is the hard lesson he learns. Even with disposable income, sexual license, and a smorgasbord of pleasures (the things that, if we are honest, all tempt us to some degree), he couldn’t achieve the happiness his soul longed for.

The Prodigal returns, though. The shocking thing about it is that the very man the Prodigal betrayed stands ready and eager to offer lavish forgiveness. His father lays a royal robe on the Prodigal and promises a lavish feast. Happiness indeed!

Perhaps the Prodigal and older brother can be better understood when we understand the two qualities they represent: sins of the flesh and self-righteousness. Both require a different response. Sins of the flesh push us towards guilt; an obsession over our own sinfulness to the point that we fear coming to God for what we have done. Self-righteousness is ignorance of our own sinfulness that leads us to choose not coming to God because we think we don’t need him.

The Prodigal’s sins are all obvious: lust, greed, sloth, selfishness. They’re the kinds of sins we usually recognize for what they are. The very obviousness of them makes repentance easier. Why? Because we can’t hide from the consequences and guilt.

The Prodigal wakes up one day and realizes, “How foolish this all is! Haven’t I been looking for something that, the whole time, my father had in abundance? Aren’t all the riches and treasures I desire with him? Isn’t the affection and love I want in his arms?” The Prodigal wakes up.

Importantly, he shows the right response to feelings of guilt: true repentance, turning back from sinfulness and towards God. The Prodigal realizes that his father is the only man who can heal his wounds. Rather than hiding, he comes into the light—filth and all.

The older brother is given the same opportunity albeit, to a different sin. His is self-righteousness or self-justification. This is a far trickier and more subtle problem. In fact, it’s one that the parable leaves unresolved. We simply don’t know what comes of the older brother.

Self-righteousness is harder to repent of, because, unlike “sins of the flesh,” self-righteousness hides its true nature. Most people, when confronted with their greed, will stop rationalizing and admit to being wrong. But what about when our sinfulness turns out to be following all the rules?

The older brother stands aloof. In his eyes, he was always faithful to the father. But in the end, the older brother’s faithfulness was manipulation. The older brother didn’t share the father’s loves. A truly faithful older brother would have been as overjoyed as the father was that the prodigal returned. But he moped instead. He probably wanted the Prodigal whipped and chastened.

But the father gives the older brother the same offer: “weren’t you with me? Isn’t all that I have yours?” Think about it this way: wouldn’t the father have given the older brother the same treatment as the Prodigal? One is left with the impression that the older brother merely had to ask for it! Yet he stands aloof in his pride.

Now there is a simplistic reading of all of this. It’s something like this: “if following the rules doesn’t matter in the end, why bother with all this religious duty? Won’t the father just take us all back in the end if we say the right thing and are truly sorry?”

Responding to this requires a more contextual reading of the parable. It requires introducing the third son: the parable’s narrator, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the parable’s unstated third son and the son who loves the Father most completely. While the Prodigal finally returned to the father, Jesus fully obeys and remains completely in the Father’s will. The Prodigal only understands after years of hard living and hurt what Christ already knew from the beginning. Which is that, in the end, all you ever really wanted was the Father’s love and to love the things that the Father loved. The world can offer you nothing!

This answers the grace dilemma i.e. if God forgives me in the end, what’s the point of doing all this hard stuff? Jesus’ life and passion prove that a son who truly understands grace doesn’t ask that question. For Christ, the question was, “what is my Father’s will?” not “what can I get away with?” or “what’s the least I can do to get by?” People who ask those questions don’t know the Father’s love!

Christ’s faithfulness and obedience also passes that of the older brother. Unlike the older brother, Christ shows us what real obedience and faithfulness look like. Christ shows us that obedience is finally about knowing the Father’s heart. “I am the good shepherd. My sheep know the sound of my voice.” The older brother stands back and tisks at the Prodigal. Christ pursues him and lays down his life for him.

Yet, the beauty of it is that Christ dies for the self-righteous too. If only they will come. So whatever end we come from, there is grace for those who really want it.

So the parable puts the question back to us: Do you want to be happy and experience God’s love? Good, don’t worry about how you look when you get there. No one who finds God is clean. But everyone who finds God is honest and let’s Him clean them and finally honor them. It’s humbling but freeing.

“And if he has set you free, you will be free indeed.”

Social Media: The Promise That Couldn’t Deliver

I remember when all my friends left Twitter.

Sometime in 2009 or 2010, a good chunk of my friends created Twitter accounts. We actually used them the way that the site was originally intended. Meaning, we hung out with each other online.

Then, it stopped. I don’t remember when, but sometime before I deleted my Twitter account in 2013 or 2014, it seemed like all of my friends just stopped tweeting.

My theory is that there was a great Twitter sorting effect.

Twitter started out with a lot of promise. Like all social media platforms, it offered us a way to keep up with our friends and see who our friends were connected with.

Then, somehow, Twitter was no longer palatable to the not-so-online masses. Twitter became a place where you either understood its strange humor and jargon, were a kind of pop intellectual, were a robot or troll, were independently famous, or were a journalist.

Unlike other social media platforms, Twitter prioritized having something to say. It didn’t have to be profound. But it needed to be retweetable. The trouble with that model was that most of us didn’t have much to say. Or at least, most of us couldn’t find an audience who would listen to what we had to say.

I’m inclined to agree with this take:

I think for many of us Twitter started as the porch — our space, our friends, with the occasional neighborhood passer-by. As the service grew and we gained followers, we slid across the spectrum of privacy into the street.

Where I think this take misfires is that it speaks from the “pop-intellectual” perspective I referenced above. Pop-intellectuals tend to be academics. They have things to say, and people to say them to: mostly other academics. So you can see how a tweet taken out of context can get these folks into a lot of trouble.

For all of the talk of abuse on Twitter, though, there’s the reality that a lot of us were never abused on Twitter. That’s probably because we were simply too anonymous. Nobody bothered to harass us, because no one was paying attention to us anyway.

As the commentator above points out, correctly in my view, the small neighborhoods that made up Twitter in its early days simply disappeared. For those of us who didn’t belong to one of Twitter’s arcane subgroups, or weren’t a “real life” celebrity, there really wasn’t a network left to connect with.

In its transformed state, Twitter really isn’t social media it’s just media. Its users are performers on a national stage.

The real social media is still Facebook. Of course, to use the analogy above, that social media platform is all neighborhood and no street.

Permanence and Saying “Goodbye”

House Mountain in Triptych. Used with permission from the artist, Avery Reed.

I hope to quit this world in Stone Wall Country
And as the years roll ’round
My bones will turn to limestone
And my soul will look down
On the blue haze hills of Stone Wall Country
And on the Valley green
To watch the golden fields of Autumn
Turn to Winter white and clean
And then blossom into Spring

Robin and Linda Williams, Stonewall Country

I wrestle with a need for permanence. Moving away from Lexington this past week, my home for seven years, has made me wonder: will I ever really feel at home anywhere? Or if I do, can it really last? And if I can’t make it last, why bother trying again?

Now, I recognize that seven years isn’t really so long in the grander scheme of things. Many live in the same house, street, town, or state their entire lives. But, seven years feels like a long time for a 30-year-old. Even so, it feels like I could stay much longer. There’s still work to be done! Yet, I’m left feeling that even if I stayed for a lifetime that it wouldn’t be enough.

Wresting with temporariness and permanence seems a central struggle in the Christian life. Without some sticktoitiveness, performing the “one anothers,” so critical in the New Testament, becomes impossible. How can you “bear with one another” if you only show up to Sunday service once or twice a month and then leave the church after a year? Noone really notices if you leave. Eventually someone realizes, six months, a year later, “Oh, Bill hasn’t been to church in a while.”

This points to the need for commitment; commitment that probably makes us less comfortable than we’d like to be. Commitment to a local body requires the Christian to hang in when conversation gets awkward or people get needy. The church, in the end, isn’t a club for successful people. And, if you’re going to build relationships and yourself be ministered to, it will require effort and some amount of permanence.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, writing for National Review sums it up well: “We are often called up to give much more than we want, and in turn we often get much more from life than we bargained for.”

Yet, this isn’t the whole picture. Along with all the commands and exhortations in the New Testament for robust Christian community, experience shows the impermanence of the same communities. The earliest Christians were forced out of Jerusalem. Another group of early Christians was expelled from Rome. All down through history, Christian communities grow, thrive, and eventually decline. Consider that many of the earliest churches have long since gone extinct. Others have disappeared in our lifetime.

The Bible isn’t unmindful of this. My point is only this: if you put your hope in an earthly Christian community, you will finally be disappointed. Now, far greater minds have wrestled with this issue. And that’s not really my main point here. But it begs an important question: how should we respond to the impermanence of Christian community?

Stairs near VMI in Lexington.

As usual, the Bible side-steps this question and insists on obedience. It seems to say, “yes, what you’re building here can’t last forever. But, that’s not what matters.” Consider Jeremiah 29.

There, the prophet Jeremiah writes to the exiled Israelites living in Babylon. Rather than telling Israel not to bother unpacking, the prophet instead tells them to “build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Seemingly odd advice for what would prove only a seventy year stay. (Remember that the Israelites journeyed in the Sinai wilderness for forty years earlier in their history) The command to build is coupled with a promise: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

The lesson: your acts of obedience now are preparing you for a promised future.

The Apostle Paul certainly knew this. He spent the last thirty or more years of his life on the move. Acts puts Paul in Ephesus for about three years. That’s about the longest he stayed anywhere after his conversion. But Paul didn’t use the shortness of his stays as excuses to avoid community. And he knew the pain of departing from community.

In one of its most poignant passages, Acts records Paul’s meeting the Ephesian elders while passing by Asia Minor. After saying final farewells, “[Paul] knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship.”

Paul knew that he wouldn’t see these, and other faithful companions, in this life. Yet he didn’t lose heart. He could write that “our inner self is being renewed day by day” even though our bodies waste away.

It’s the kind of thing that gives Christians hope as they move, travel, and change. Life is full of change: seasonal change, relational change, and life stage change. A truism being that the only constant is change itself.

Christians get a better promise. Paul tells us that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

The loss of our friendships and loved ones is real. But to Christians, it’s only a small setback on the road to glory. And continuing on that road prepares us for “pleasures forevermore.”

To my Lexington friends, I say: God be with you. I will always treasure my time with you.

Woods Creek, near Washington and Lee’s campus, in the fall.

The Difficulty of Prayer

Colossians 4:2

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.

Why is prayer so difficult?

Remember the disciples at the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus, in the last hours before the dreadful crucifixion, asks them to pray. It doesn’t go so well. They fall asleep.

I can relate. So could C.S. Lewis. In one of his final books, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis tackled the issue:

Well, let’s now at any rate come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while we are reading a novel or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us.

That sounds about right. I’ve often felt the wish, the willingness, to do anything other than pray. My guess is that this is a universal experience. So, why do we not want to pray?

I think the problem goes to the root of how we relate to God. I’ll explain.

C.S._Lewis_Plaque_on_the_Unicorn_Inn_-_Bob Embleton
“Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them.” C.S. Lewis. Photograph courtesy of Bob Embleton. Wikimedia Commons

Prayer is communing with God. There, that doesn’t sound so bad!

But, a bit more reflection muddies the waters. Who exactly is this God that we are communicating with, after all? That turns out to be difficult to answer. The Bible tells us unexpected and seemingly contradictory things about the trinitarian God.

We are told that this God is our friend, helper, comfort, and salvation. But he is also a judge, an avenger, and describes himself as jealous. He is a consuming fire! What explains these multifaceted descriptions of God?

Remember God’s words to Moses in the desert in Sinai: “I AM who I AM.” In other words, no metaphor, no descriptor can fully account for God. He is self-referential and all other titles and descriptions—while capturing part of his nature—never fully and completely describe him. We are communicating with a being that is so other than us, that he transcends our ability to describe him.

And that leaves us, whose days are like grass, to attempt communicating with a transcendent, holy being. We, who struggle with sin, imperfection, and earthly troubles and worries, are told—commanded, actually—to communicate with God without ceasing. Why? What does this transcendent God want to do with us?

I think God’s telling us to pray shows his most distinctive characteristic. The Hebrews called it hesed. It is often translated as loving-kindness. In fact, God twice uses this word to describe himself in Exodus 34:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love [hesed] and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love [hesed] for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

This begins to explain the mystery of prayer. God wants us to communicate with him! He is compassionate and longs to show us mercy. As 2 Chronicles puts it, “[I]f my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Sunrise over Mt. Sinai. Courtesy of Mabdalla. Wikimedia Commons.

God’s compassionate character explains Paul’s admonition to the Colossians to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” We continue steadfastly because we have faith that God wants to hear from us and that he will answer us in the best way he can.

Be hopeful. Be thankful. And—don’t quit!

He who is patient and kind hasn’t quit on you.

The Flying Fish, Legalism, and Sabbath

Luke 6:5–9

And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Traditions can be dangerous.

In first century Palestine, the Pharisees had instituted extensive regulations concerning the Sabbath. These came about through oral tradition passed down over the centuries. These regulations resulted in odd prohibitions. One example is the restriction against carrying any burdens on the Sabbath. Unfortunately, these regulations eventually twisted the Sabbath’s purpose and caused major theological error.

After all, why do the Pharisees want to prevent Jesus from healing on the Sabbath? It’s because they were observing religious traditions without an inward change of heart. They raged at Jesus because their hearts were proud and arrogant—they had no desire to follow God when he really walked among them.

The Pharisees would have done well to remember David’s words: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

During springtime a few years ago, I walked by a greasy spoon called the Flying Fish. The restaurant had a sign out front that said, “your destination all through Lent!” Now, humor aside, I can’t help but think that the Flying Fish missed the point of Jesus’ teaching about religious traditions in Luke 6.

In fact, the Flying Fish fell into a similar error to that of the Pharisees. The Flying Fish offered its customers a way to observe Lent—a religious tradition—without any real sacrifice; without any real change in heart. People who ate at the Flying Fish on Friday’s during Lent traded meat for fried fish, hush puppies, and French fries. Hardly much of a sacrifice!

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Lent is an empty tradition. Far from it. Undoubtedly, many millions of Christians use Lenten sacrifices and abstentions to draw closer to Christ. But we must not be mistaken: those who achieve closeness to Christ during Lent don’t do so because they’ve technically followed Lent’s minimum standards. They grow closer to Christ because they approach Lent out of reverence, devotion, and a desire to please God. For them, no sacrifice or abstention is too great (nor too small! Remember the Widow with the two coins).

But they also know that if there is no desire to know and please God, no amount of sacrifice or outward devotion will matter. For God is greater than our traditions. We cannot put Him in our debt by observing traditions.

God is not fooled by our outward religious activities: church attendance, charitable giving, fasting. God looks directly upon the heart. And if we aren’t prepared to follow God in our hearts, we aren’t fooling him by following religious traditions.

Little Gidding

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.