A line in a Wall Street Journal article on the earthquake in Pakistan caught my attention the other day. “Islamic groups from across the country have arrived in vast numbers. Some bring relief supplies, others simply harangue poor goat-herders and simple tillers of the soil to tell them that their misdeeds brought about this catastrophe.”
It occurs to me that the Islamic radicals may confront us with the reality that simple belief in God is not the central and critical question. How we function as human beings, how we live with one another, how we face the future, has much more to do with how we think God relates to our world.
Does God do earthquakes and hurricanes? Following Katrina the expressions of both television preachers and simple folk would lead you to think that the answer is “Yes, he does.” And, of course, there is basis in both Bible and Koran for talking that way, for the assumption that God manipulates history and nature to reward and punish.
It is almost instinctual to think of God as punitive. A mother tells how Jerome, her nine-year-old was asleep one night in his room upstairs. She was sleeping in her room nearby. Suddenly she was awakened by a thunderous crash. Apparently a truck had veered off the road and crashed into the side of the house. Mother’s first thought was for her son and she called, “Jerome.” Jerome called back, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.”
I want to submit that with Jesus a seismic shift takes place in this view of God as policeman, ruler, judge, especially in Jesus’ name for him. “Our Father who art in heaven…” Moreover, equally critical, is the kind of Father Jesus paints God to be. It is particularly important to be clear about what he means, what kind of father he is talking about, asking us to pray to. In light of what the word might mean to a child or adult who has known only an abusive or absent father. In light of what that word may suggest about the role of women and mother. More about that later.
Nowhere does Jesus present a vision of God as Father with more power than in his parable of what has become known as the parable of the Prodigal Son. It might better be called the parable of the waiting Father. Simple story on the face of it. It is a story about two very different places where we may live and the consequence for our own sense of identity and worth. Not places really. States of mind.
Younger of two sons asks for his inheritance ahead of time, and so father divides his estate between them both. This was not uncommon in that culture. But it was done with one proviso. The sons were to stay home and take care of the father until his death.
But then the younger son does the unexpected. He turns everything he has inherited into ready cash, and heads for a far country. Now what is so wrong with that? When on occasion I have discussed this story with young people, they really can’t see any problem with his departure. After all we live in a culture which believes that it is a good thing, sooner or later, for young people to separate from home and go off on their own.
Be that as it may, we only understand Jesus’ story if we remember that this is not primarily talk about a human father and family, and how to parent. Human fathers and mothers and sons and daughters may have something to learn from it. But it is not, in first order, about them. It is about God and how he relates to us and our world.
It is about God and us. And the far country where we spend a lot of time inside our heads. The far country is a state we are all tempted again and again to live in. The far country is life on our own, lived by our own resources and according to our own desires. It is the place of the autonomous man and woman.
In a way we have been too hard on the prodigal son. “Squandered his property in dissolute living,” is a pretty harsh translation of the Greek. It just means that he went through his fortune spending it rather casually and freely. And he certainly is not to blame for the famine that hit, reducing him to hunger. And he doesn’t go on welfare even then. He scrounges up a job feeding pigs, a most disagreeable task for a boy who still has traces of his Jewish heritage in him.
So what is so wrong about the prodigal? The same thing that is wrong about you and me much of the time. We forget the obligations and responsibilities of the father’s house, as well as our dependency upon him for strength and company. We fall into living a totally independent existence where we follow our own whims and passions, give ourselves to our own ambitions and pleasures.
The far country is life without father. It is life where we no longer take the love and will of God into account as we style our days, shape our relationships, pursue our labors, engage our politics. It is life where He is no longer thought of as a factor in the tasks and responsibilities of the common day.
Now, from the perspective of Jesus and his story, this has always been a temptation for the individual as well as the human community. But I find the far country an even more powerful picture of the increasingly secular world. By definition it is a culture where God is not taken into account. It is a world apart from God.
Oh, we remember him from time to time, and salute him on an occasional Sunday. But he so easily ceases to be present in our daily reflections, a factor in the way we function.
And the interesting thing about this Father of Jesus is this.
He lets it happen. He does not dominate and control. He does not maneuver and intervene. He simply lets it happen. Let’s us go our own way….until we discover what we have lost. And what is that?
Is it not our true identity, an authentic sense of who we are and why we are here, and what we ought to live for?
Isn’t it in a way astounding? In a culture where God is increasingly tucked away in a private and personal sphere as an individual matter and choice, there has never been as much focus upon the exploration of the self, upon nurturing a sense of worth, growing self-esteem, becoming a real person.
Visit the self-help section of your favorite bookstore. You will find volumes focused on the self. But I dare you to find a book on self-discovery, that sees the problem as fundamentally a matter of relationship to God. Is the high school culture where our young spend most of their waking hours permeated by a sense that religious commitment is the most important thing we can learn? And how many young people headed for marriage really believe that a common vital faith in God is absolutely essential to their life together. And where in the boardrooms is there real awareness that moral responsibility is absolutely essential to the future of personal fulfillment, no less the market system. And are our political hopes and future at all driven by a sense of obligation to eternal values.
The far country, the secular world, is a state of mind in which we forget to take God into account, in which we seek to manage on our own. And the result according to Jesus’ story is, no matter how many books we read and gurus we run after, is misery. He ends up a nothing. Nobody gives him anything to eat. Nobody gives a damn about him.
Thank God, it works that way. Life does tend to be self-correcting. Sooner or later as we go our merry, self-confident way in the far country, the famine does hit. Life trips us up and reduces us to some kind of helplessness, or need, or longing that we can’t satisfy at the supermarket or the therapist. The market wipes us out. 911 takes us to the emergency room. The robust little guy falls ill. The gal taken for granted walks out on you. We retire and they take the nameplate off the door. Maybe that is why the young have some difficulty understanding the story. Sounds kind of good out there in the far country, all that freedom and fun. Not because they are dumb, but because they have not lived long enough to learn the folly of trying to make it on your own.
Robert Raines has a wise word here. “The gentle, imperceptible work of the Spirit may have been working in a man’s soul for years from his youth on, but again and again the explosion of new life comes in the middle years: when a man has lived long enough to learn something of the intractability of life, of his own gross limitations, or the mortality of all things; when life has hurt him or struck him down or just bored him; when he has discovered that he isn’t going to be president of the company, ever, then he begins to understand his need of something or someone…he begins searching. How can a man be born again when he is old? But that’s precisely when it happens!”
So what happens? The prodigal, hungry, tired, worn with care, the text says, comes to himself, his real self. Realizes who he is and where he belongs. He heads for home. And so do we all. When world collapses around you, you head for home. It is no accident that Jesus uses this image to talk about our return to God. We head for home. And what do we find?
Affirmation. Embrace. The discovery that in spite of the indifference and foolishness, in spite of mistakes and weakness, in spite of the twists and turns the road has taken, in spite of the pride which took us out on our own so long ago, in spite of the failure of others to come through for us, we are accepted and valued anyway, deeply, by the One who put us here and who has waited for us and who always welcomes us home as his son, his daughter. He doesn’t force himself on us. He lets us wander wide if we will. But he is there watching and waiting, ready to welcome home…in love to our real and permanent identity as child of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer found this home in the midst of a Nazi prison where he was stripped of identity and name, ministry and mission. “Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once. A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
A friend once said it to me. “No matter the twists and turns in my life, no matter the disappointments with other people, what I learned in Sunday School long ago, that I am a child of God, has been the one anchor that has saved me, kept me going.”
Which brings me to this business as to whether we need to give up Jesus’ name for God as sexist, encouraging patriarchy.
Certainly there is that danger if you are a literalist, can’t see the meaning behind what is clearly a metaphor, but a powerful and important metaphor because it speaks of relationship in a way that no abstraction can do. Speak of “mother” if you will, or Father-Mother as our Christian Science friends always have. But sense God as personal and present, and welcoming home. I never noticed it until someone called it to my attention. We stood a year ago in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia before that incredible painting of Rembrandt of the Father welcoming the Son home. The son is kneeling and the Father is placing his hands on the shoulders of his son. And if you look closely, one of the hands is masculine and the other feminine.
Affirmation… but there is something else here, implicit, but equally important. The renewal of life with and for father. He is back home in the relationships and duties, the obligations and restraints from which he fled to the far country, that he wanted to be free of. Without both there is no real return home. God is present to our lives as both embrace of us as we are and calls to us to become more than we are.
A philosophy professor, a brilliant man who had studied widely abroad, a man of acute sophistication and learning, was typically an agnostic, refusing to commit to any system of thought or way of life lest it destroy his so-called independence of mind. When his second child was only a few months old, she took ill with a bad fever and was placed in a hospital. Because the mother was exhausted, the father sent her home and stayed overnight in the child’s room. As he sat there feeling helpless for one of the few times in his life, his mind raced from one thing to another. He began to ask himself about the direction of his life, what he was living for. Finally, in the midst of worry and grief, he began to hum an old Sunday School hymn. You know, it is dangerous to learn these old Sunday School hymns. They can come back to haunt you.
“O Jesus, I have promised, to serve thee to the end. Over and over that simple song rang in my head, until finally I found myself bowing and praying, ‘O God. I did promise, but I have let the years and the learning draw me far away. In searching for the truth with a little “t,” I have lost the truth of life.’” He says he made there an inner surrender which came as a relief and peace. His daughter recovered and a few days later left the hospital. But he said later, “That was not the heart of the issue for me that night. Of course, I wanted her well, but it was the realization in those dark hours of what really counted in life, what I must live for. That made me whole again.” Here is a man who came all the way home.
Home in God is the experience of the peace of forgiveness and renewed purpose for our days. For my part, I have not found this a momentous, once in a life-time event, but rather the story of most of my days. Don’t you find it so? Sooner or later on any given day I find myself forgetting where I came from and to whom I belong, find myself trying to handle everything on my own, go at things on my own terms, yield to my own ambitions and passions. And the result is inevitably doubts and confusion within, trouble and frustration without. Until at last I come to myself and who I truly am, and turn toward home again, trusting myself to the love and purpose that always waits for me, ready to welcome me home. .