Image of God, IX: Running to Meet Them
While the runaway was yet far off, his father ran to meet him, and welcomed him home. —Luke 15:20
In this sermon series called Image of God, Jo and Katie and I have been thinking with you about what it means to be the image of God toward, and to see the image of God in, those who walk the way with us, and we’ve talked about some hard things. It can be challenging sometimes to be the image of God toward and to see the image of God in, the other and the different: the other gender, another race, another language, another ethnicity, another religion, a different class.
But what about being and seeing the image of God in our most intimate relationships? What about being and seeing the image of God in our families? This should be the easiest of all, right? To see the image of God in those who are most precious to us?
In a slim but important little book called The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis points out that many adults who are courteous and kind in public suddenly lose their manners when they come home at the end of the day. They become loud and pushy, or indifferent and absent. They show disdain or contempt. Ironically, sometimes we are most unkind to those we love the most. It’s because we can, right? We have to be nice at work or school, but our children are trapped; they have to love us, or at least stay with us even if they don’t.
John Gottman is a famous marriage therapist in Seattle who will invite married couples to what he calls his Love Lab, and he puts them in a room that looks like a studio apartment except for its hidden video cameras and microphones.
Dr. Gottman asks them to act natural while they’re discussing an issue that has been difficult for them. Dr. Gottman says that after watching them for five minutes, he can tell which couples will almost certainly end up divorced. The success rate of his predictions is 91%.
The definitive indicator he looks for is contempt or disdain. It’s the raised eyebrow or the scowl of disgust or the vocalized scorn or the aggressive sneer. Contempt is just another way of saying that we have failed to see the image of God in those we live with and love.
And so for Father’s Day, I thought we might learn something about being and seeing the image of God in our homes by looking at one of the most famous fathers in the history of literature.
Because it isn’t easy—is it? Ray Romano says that “having children is like living in a frat house: nobody sleeps, everything’s broken, and there’s a lot of throwing up.”
You’ve heard what Teddy Roosevelt said about being a father, right? When President Roosevelt moved into the White House in 1901, his daughter Alice was 17 years old and instantly became the biggest scandal in the District. She chewed gum. In public. She smoked cigarettes. In public. She took her pet snake to formal dinner parties. She ran up huge debts by losing at poker and indulgent shopping. She was sort of like the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ little story: she “squandered her inheritance with riotous living.”
She would burst into the President’s executive office in the middle of a meeting with a visiting dignitary and when one of those visiting dignitaries asked the President if he couldn’t keep Alice on a tighter leash, Mr. Roosevelt responded: “Mr. Wister, I can be President of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I can’t possibly do both.”
So we could all probably use some help in our parenting. A man had two sons. The younger son says, “Father, give me right now the inheritance that will rightfully fall to me when you are dead. I want it now. I don’t want to wait till you are dead.”
And you can plainly tell how disrespectful and cruel this request is in ancient Palestinian society, right? This simply was not done. Not to put too fine a point on it, the younger son is telling his father to drop dead. “I wish you were dead right now.”
The father should have known better. He should have refused. It is not wise to distribute your legacy prematurely. Notice that this is the same plot device Shakespeare uses in his masterpiece King Lear. Lear is not quite dead but he is a tired old man and decides to retire from the throne and to distribute his estate to his three daughters way early. And from then on everything goes to hell in a handbasket for everybody until by the end there are more bodies littering the stage than in any other Shakespeare play except Titus Andronicus.
Well, you know the story. Things, predictably, don’t go well for the young man. Jesus tells us that the younger son “squandered his inheritance in riotous living.” Riotous living.
After not too many months he’s out of money, out of food, out of friends, and out of options. There’s nothing left for him to do but come crawling home in disgrace.
And then one of the most beautiful lines anywhere in the Bible or outside it. Jesus tells us that the father runs to meet his son while he is yet far off. And then the ring, the robe, the feast.
So how does The Waiting Father run to meet his son—actually, eventually, both his sons—while they are yet far off? How do we as parents run to meet our children while they are yet far off?
Well, first, that father’s parenting strategy is very flexible. You know this: in parenting, one size does not fit all. Isn’t it remarkable that two or more children from the same gene pool and the same domestic environment and the same parenting strategy end up becoming such vastly divergent human beings?
I love the way the ABC sitcom Modern Family tells this story. Do you watch Modern Family? Is it still on? Somehow Phil and Claire Dunphy, using the same genes and the same environment, the same nature and the same nurture, end up parenting Haley, the wanton, rebellious hellion; and Alex, the compliant, conscientious valedictorian. And we won’t even mention Luke, the charming but clueless runt of the litter.
By the way, this is neither here nor there, but do you notice how much we learn about family from television? I stumbled on the most wonderful webpage this week: “The 50 Most Definitive Family TV Shows, Ranked in Order.” Fifty! Modern Family is #18. Can you guess which show is #1, the most definitive Family TV Show in the last 60 years? The Simpsons. Oh boy!
Anyway, the father in Jesus’ story has managed to produce two vastly different personalities from the same gene pool and the same environment, the same nature and the same nurture: the prodigal and the parsimonious, the grunge runaway and the Brooks Brothers Wharton MBA.
This patient, flexible father, who for Jesus is a cipher for the lavish grace of God, never stops seeing the image of God in his prodigal son even after the young man tells his father to drop dead and then runs as far away from home as it’s possible to get and then disgraces himself with prostitutes and pigs, with wine, women, and song. Always a second chance.
But the father isn’t finished yet. Neither does he stop seeing the image of God in his older son when this pinch-penny guardian of all that’s right and fair whimpers and whines and locks himself in his corner office with his Blackberry and refuses to come to the party. “All that I have is yours,” the gracious father tells his righteous, rigid elder son. “All that I have is yours. Welcome your brother home. We thought he was dead, but he’s alive. He was lost, but now he’s found.”
You know that before I agree to marry a young couple, I make them pass a test: 165 multiple-choice questions. I send a web-link for you to open, you click the little boxes on the web page, click SEND when it’s just right, the computer scores your answers and gives you a grade and sends the results to me, when I print out the report it’s 28 pages long.
One of the most important categories is parenting, of course; almost every couple I marry plans to have children. So sometimes when we talk about parenting I tell them that every father owes his children two gifts: High Expectations, and Lavish Grace. Rules and Forgiveness. High hopes for grand achievement at school, at church, in athletics or the arts if that’s what they’re into, in kind and generous brotherhood or sisterhood to the other offspring in the brood, in friendships, in service to the community.
But then also understanding when inevitably the child falls short of those high expectations. The father in Jesus’ perfect little story deftly manages his family with this tricky but integral combination of Expectation and Grace.
One last thing and then I’ll quit. I wasn’t sure I wanted to share this story with you, but I told this story to Ralph Smith, and Ralph said I should tell the rest of you.
When my father died two years ago at the age of 87, I Googled his name to see what imprint he’d made on the wider world during his lifetime. Google barely knew he existed. He was such a mild and unassuming person. He was born in Africa, where his parents were Baptist missionaries. His father died of Yellow Fever when my dad was eight months old. He and his mother stayed in Nyasaland, to carry on the work of the Gospel. Nyasaland is called Malawi today.
In 1938, when Hitler started getting aggressive in Europe, and his U-Boats started sinking all British and French shipping across the Atlantic, my grandmother sent my father home, because there would be no American civilians crossing the Atlantic until the war was over. He didn’t see her for seven years.
My father made it safely back to the States, but his first American girlfriend, also a missionary kid, made the same passage on a different ship, an African freighter called the Zambezi, and halfway across the Atlantic, a German U-Boat commander signaled the Zambezi’s captain and said, “This is a courtesy call. We are going to sink your ship. Get your passengers into lifeboats and we will not bother them.” So my father’s little friend was stranded in a lifeboat in the Atlantic for 19 days. Eventually she was rescued by an Allied ship and she made it back to the States.
My grandmother asked her sister, my dad’s aunt, to care for him stateside till she could come home from Malawi, but Aunt Cora said no; she didn’t want to be bothered, so my father spent his entire childhood and youth in a missionary kids’ school in South Carolina. It was not a nice place. My father’s childhood was straight out of a Dickens novel: he was David Copperfield, or Oliver Twist, or maybe Homer Wells from Cider House Rules.
Two weeks before I was born, he started working for a Fortune 500 company and worked for the same employer until he retired 35 years later; he never got very far up the corporate ladder; he was always a small cog in a large machine, but he never missed a day of work, and he was never late once.
When I grew up, I married the girl next door. Her house was on my paper route, two blocks north of my house on a main artery in my hometown. Kathy had to drive or walk past my house to get anywhere—to school, to church, or to the grocery store. She probably drove or walked past my house every day for ten years.
She remembers that if she drove past my house between 5 p.m. and 9-Dark-30 any evening, there Dave would be playing ball with my brother and me: baseball during the summer, football in the autumn, basketball all winter, no matter how cold it got. We would shovel the driveway of snow to clear a court; when our frigid, chapped hands turned blue and cracked open with sizable sores, we just bandaged them up and went out again.
Google does not know he exists. Well, that’s not quite true. His name comes up three times: his obituary, of course; in the White Pages, where every American is listed; and in an online newsletter for a nonprofit. He’s in the list of donors. At an orphanage.
Yet he had the most magnificent impact. For the last 30 years, I have been asking myself the same question over and over and over again. This question comes upon me unbidden. It is precognitive. It is not thought; it just comes, without my knowing when or how or from where.
My frequent question is WWDD. I know, a lot of us ask the WWJD question—What Would Jesus Do? I do too—a lot.
But I have a second WW question: What Would David Do? Or What Would Dad Do? When I have a complicated parenting quandary, that’s the question I ask myself. If I can convince myself that what I am about to do for or with my son is what David would have done for or with me, then I can rest in the knowledge that it is probably the right thing to do.
I always wondered where he learned to be such a great father; he never had one of his own; he was practically an orphan. Yet he was always running to meet me while I was yet far off. I didn’t deserve that. I never deserved that. But it was mine from the day I was born.
I hope the same is true for you, but even if it wasn’t, make it true for somebody else.
C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1960), pp. 42-43.
John M. Gottman, with Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Crown, 1999), pp. 2, 29
Ray Romano, Reader’s Digest, July-August, 2017, p. 97.