“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall be open to one another.” (From Meditation XVII by John Donne)
Today’s passage is “The Prodigal Son.” I think Tim Keller was right in suggesting that “The Prodigal Father” would be even more appropriate. However in a religious culture largely bent on saving souls from Hell, the traditional focus on the wayward son is predictable. Recently I have been learning more about the father and the elder brother as God has been writing new chapters in my life. In a real way, MwM is simply my commentary on these new chapters.
I wasn’t a youngest son. I was an only son, and I was a classic prodigal. I didn’t ask my father for any share of his estate, but I did take enough of it to get myself the heck out of my home town and off to college where I faced an unprecedented opportunity to squander time and money without restriction. Sweet freedom! Or so I thought.
I, too, spent everything I had and experienced a severe famine of sorts: it was a famine of the soul. In that season I didn’t even know what I was hungering for. All I knew was that, somewhere deep within, I was dying. In the desolate landscape of my heart, no one was giving me anything that my spirit could digest. My attempts to nourish my soul with hard work, reading, and eastern meditation each promised hope but did not deliver.
Then I came into real contact with Jesus Christ—the one I had heard about in those Presbyterian Sunday school classes. This Jesus was different though. He wasn’t just the Lord of Easter bunnies, Christmas trees, and high church. This Jesus was the Lord of Life. Incredibly, he rescued me from my toxic and condemned life.
All I did was say to Him, “Since I am destroying it, You can have my life.” To my utter astonishment, He imparted something into my deepest being that began to undo and remake me. I was no longer starving, and a peace that surpassed anything I had ever known filled me up. To this date, I account for this miracle by simply saying, “The Lord of Life miraculously and mysteriously imparted His own Life into me.” I became a new creation in Christ only because the Holy Spirit took up residence in my heart. It’s that simple.
But then, glowing brightly as the restored prodigal, I decided I had to commit to a way of life that was pleasing to God (where did I get the idea that He wasn’t pleased with me?). And I heard the preacher say that the laborers were few, so I reasoned that He was calling me into those fields white for harvest. Yes, this was it: “I have been called into ministry!” (It rattles me to this day when I hear people, particularly young ones, utter this phrase. But, that is another chapter, which I will call “How I Was Called Into Ministry–And You Weren’t” (much sarcasm intended).
Sarcasm excised, my story should be titled, “Confessions of an Older Brother—How Prodigals Become Elder Brothers.” The short version: many churches and ministries are starving for laborers to enter into the harvest fields of their defined visions. In the execution of their vision, in the hirings and the firings and the preaching and the teaching, it is all too easy to make human doings out of human beings, pharisaic elder brothers out of innocent and authentic prodigals who were legitimately restored to their Father. The problem: modern western Christianity is not reproducing disciples who each understand their indispensable kingdom calling. It is reproducing (not surprisingly) church attenders who exist apparently to fund real ministry with their tithes (where in the living Word did this vision come from?).
This unfortunate mutation into elder brotherhood can happen as we begin to think, as I did, that our labors (not we ourselves) give God pleasure. As Adam’s descendants we are born into this world with a crisis of identity that, unfortunately, can survive our rebirth as Christians. How does this happen? We were evicted from Paradise and exiled into a land where we learned to survive by our wits. However, that eviction notice was branded into our souls and predisposed us to feeling rejection. At the core of our being (let’s call that place our identity) something says, “I am unworthy.” This misshapen identity magnetically attracts religion, which most churches will gladly exploit to fuel their version of the original vision.
Note: In my writing religion is any system of thought or practice whereby the thinking or the doing of it causes me to think that I have gained the favor of God.
We compensate in any and every way to avoid that singular worst case-nightmare of being rejected again. Let’s imagine our new convert’s entrance into the kingdom. He is legitimately born anew: Christ has entered his life and begins putting things right in his heart. However, this poor soul is exposed to a shrunken vision of Christianity wherein he has been saved and is called to nothing more than survival—the church attending mentality—while the world Jesus died to save continues its inevitable slide toward immorality and judgment. The believer’s role is to submit himself to the covering of the Pastor’s authority and vision. In this vision the kingdom grows as we invite our friends and family to church so that they too can avoid hell and get to heaven.
The insecure soul has had no spiritual father to tell him the rest of the story and how he is destined to find his place in the Father’s ever-expanding kingdom. He hasn’t had a father who can remind him that he is now God’s very own beloved new creation. The culture of spiritual poverty this poor lamb is subjected to is sustained by many heresies. The biggest is that even though he has been born again, he is still, in his primary nature, a “sinner” with a wayward bent. Another lie, following close on the heels of the first, is that God is justifiably angry and wields the rod quickly and harshly. The idea of a laughing or smiling God is inconceivable.
Our new convert with his young heart is grateful that he has been accepted into the fellowship of the righteous. The rejection that still operates within his saved yet unconverted heart, finds that fellowship (especially new found attention) is a balm to his loneliness and search for meaning. He may not be doing the soul-math consciously, but he has calculated in his heart that he now belongs, and he will do whatever is necessary to continue belonging. The insecurity of his heart has not been dealt with: it has only been appeased. The identity that should have been forming in-Christ alone is now attached inordinately to the group.
As time passes and the convert is faithful in little, he inherits much responsibility. Our prodigal is becoming a leader inside the shrunken vision of their local church. The value of having some visibility and receiving kudos for his labors has not escaped his insecure heart’s notice. However in his moments of reflection (which are incredibly sparse now that he is a leader), he is haunted by the notion that he has lost something precious and, if he could be honest, still feels isolated. Something is missing. But—pastor has assured him that hearing this disturbing, fleeting voice is normal. His council: “Just keep being faithful and God will reward you–if you remain faithful (especially in regards to tithing).”
Pastor was right (as always). Over time the disturbing voice diminished. The problem was that in its place a hardness and rigidity of spirit took shape. Where there were once innocent questions, there are now mostly dogmatic certainties upheld by collections of Bible verses. Even though he has never spent any meaningful time with him, the disciple has become like his pastor/mentor. (We always do.) He is busy and has less and less time for people (just like Pastor). Of necessity, he becomes further isolated from people: ministry obligations consume all his time. And, he thinks to himself, “I am being paid less than minimum wage. Given the pressure, pastor (and God?) place on me to perform, there is an inordinate weight of responsibility on me. If only somebody (preferably Pastor) would say thank you occasionally!” And as to how he feels about God–he dare not express that. His identity, his purpose, and his livelihood are all dependent on not rocking that religious boat.
Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 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.’ (Luke 15:25-27)
If I may personalize what comes next:
I became angry and was not willing to go in; and my father came out and began pleading with me. But I answered and said to Him, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ (adapted from Luke 15:28-30)
The real heart of my complaint sounded like this:
Because you have expressed your joy and love openly and extravagantly to my so-called brother, I am reminded that this is always how you are with everyone but me! I’m the reason this place keeps running, and You have not treated me fairly. (the lie embraced by the insecure heart)
At this point in the story, Jesus leaves us hanging. In a real sense, 2000+ years after the original telling, this is where we find ourselves today. We have those who label themselves Christian yet misunderstand God and what he endeavors to do in this age. If the earth’s future depends on the vision of us elder brothers, we have great cause for concern.
Father, would you continue putting this world to rights, renovating our hearts, sweeping them clean so that no demonic lies can return there, imprisoning us in walls of our own pious delusion. Restore identity to your sons and daughters that we might be a generation of people who live out of Your Life within us. May we live as the sons and daughters of a new creation—kingdom children and co-heirs with You, those who see Your delightful smiling face and who never sacrifice a thing in regard to true righteousness and holiness. Amen.