Category Archives: acceptance

Family Reunion

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Racing, shameless, breathless, the old man never took his eyes off the ghost as he ran. It must be … but it couldn’t be. His son? A bewildering tangle of relief and horror, of joy and fear, muddled his mind. The face, though sunken and empty, unmistakably belonged to his son; yet the unfamiliar silk rags hung limply from an unrecognizable frame gaunt with starvation—not the chiseled proportions of a youth born to the hard work of a rancher.

He nearly fell over reaching for his son, but the boy had collapsed at the old man’s dusty feet. From a throat parched and dry came the word he’d longed for months to hear: “Father….” Like sweet, cool water pouring over his head, the word refreshed his heart, bringing life where death had dwelt.

Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

If he heard the words, he paid them no mind. Lifting the boy to his feet, he held him tightly, fearful of letting go, of once again losing his son, of waking from this dream at the end of a nightmare. “Father….” His son lived!

With arms around each others’ waists, father and son walked slowly home. No more words passed between them. Both choked back tears, the thoughts of each absorbing the past months, wondering what the next would bring. A servant, in wide-eyed wonder, emerged from the house. “Quick!”, the master commanded. “Bring sandals and my best robe! My son has returned! My son is alive!

As the boy bathed, washing off months of deceit and despair, the father barked orders to other servants: “Butcher the calf! Set the tables! Assemble the musicians! Tonight we celebrate!

And so they did. And no funeral, no memorial, no celebration of life, before or since, was ever such a party. Life had returned to the valley of death.


This is Part IV in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find the earlier installments here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs
Part III: The Prodigal Father

The Prodigal Father

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When the long-expected words came, the sting of them stole his breath.“Father, I cannot stay any longer.” The boy was a delight: free, adventurous, always joking, always smiling. But those traits that made him so easy to love—and to like—were the very things that now pulled him away. “I want to live,” the boy said, dragging out and emphasizing the live. “I want my inheritance. Now.”

And in living, the father thought, he puts me in my grave. Like a butcher’s razor-sharp knife, his son’s words cut deep into his soul. He gasped for breath, steadying himself on the table as strength nearly left his legs. The labored pulsing of his heart masked the shame he ought to have felt at his son’s rejection. With his free hand, he reached for the boy’s shoulder and drew him close. No arms encircled the broken, weeping man. Weakly, he called a servant and gave the order to divide the flocks. The servant, feeling his master’s shame, did not look in his eyes.


Dark nights passed in sleepless misery. With each new dawn, he stood scanning the distant horizons, hoping beyond hope the nightmare was over and he would see his son’s silhouette against the sunrise. At dusk, he stood again — staring, wishing, longing.

The boy had run away once before, when he was young. Scarcely taller than a ewe, he’d wrapped a few loaves and some fish in a bag, scrawled a note, and set out. He was gone some hours; but before dinner his mother found him, sitting on a rock with his arms around his knees, looking over the swollen Jordan. “I can’t swim,” was all he’d said, before walking home, hand in hand with her.

Now the father sat often on that same rock, staring across the fabled waters. As the days drew into weeks and the weeks to months, he’d sent messengers throughout Judea in search of his youngest. Always they’d returned, unable to meet his hope-filled eyes. East, across the Jordan, in the land of Perea…perhaps this is where his son had gone.

Meals were quiet now. His wife and younger son had always made the table a lively place, but she had died long ago and now… now it was just he and Reuben, his older, ever-faithful son. Reuben reported on the condition of the flocks, where the best grazing lands were now, where the wolves were attacking lately. He’ll do well when I’m gone, the father thought. He choked on the final word. Gone? I am already gone; my boy has taken my life. It was right for Reuben to keep account; after all, all that remained was his—or would be, when his father was at last buried next to his wife.

Buried. A final resting place. A place to mourn, but also to remember. He had sat Shiva for his wife—the seven days of mourning Moses had commanded—but had returned often to her tomb when being a single father to two boys had gotten the better of him. There he remembered her smile, her gentleness, her wisdom. There he found the grace to love when the boys fought, to forgive when they wronged him.

He’d gone often, almost daily, these past months. Now his son, too, was dead—must be dead—but there was no tomb for him, and so no place from which to remember. And it was from there that he looked up and saw the specter in the distance: an emaciated and tattered figure, empty handed and bare footed, head hung low.

And the old man ran….
This is Part III in a series looking at the story of the Prodigal Son. Find parts I & II here:
Part I: It Wasn’t Hard to Leave That Day
Part II: Alone with the Pigs

I Have Loved You…

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RejectedThere’s nothing like a job search to make you feel inadequate. You spend hours polishing a resume in order to highlight your strengths and accomplishments and capabilities. You scour the internet for job openings that might be a good match—in the process realizing that 99% of the postings include at least one thing that should disqualify you. You apply anyway, taxing all your creative abilities to write an inviting, compelling cover letter. (Computers, by the way, have not made the search process easier on applicants. But that’s another story.)

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a response; too many employers don’t send anything to applicants they’ve rejected. But if you do get a response, it will likely say little more than “thank you for applying” and “we’ll keep your application on file for six months.” Often, especially if you happen to be applying for a pastoral position, the letter will praise your apparent skills and experiences before saying they’ve ruled you out. Those are nice in their own way, though you soon realize that they point more to your ability to present well on paper than to the church’s diligence in considering something beyond your resume.

Eventually, your skin thickens, your heart hardens, and your cynicism grows. You start applying for jobs you don’t want with companies you don’t know in places you’d never want to live. You’re not really interested, you just want to find out if you’re interesting, if anyone is willing to talk with you. Unfortunately, some of those places are willing—and then, after a couple emails and maybe a phone call or two, your integrity gets the better of you and you have to tell them no.

And all the while, you keep getting turned down by the places you really would like to work, where you think you would fit well and bring some good. And the mindset of failure settles in. “If I’m really as good as all these reject letters say,” you start to think, “then why won’t anyone talk to me?” You begin to think they’re lying: you’re really not all that good.

Then one day, in a conversation with a friend or a coach or a mentor—as you’re trying to be detached from the emotions of the search, yet vulnerable with them at the same time—he does something that spins you around. “I want you to be silent,” he says, “and listen for what God may want to say to you.” And though you’ve tried to be quiet and listen before, something is different this time. You actually hear something—or at least something comes into your mind that might be from God. And though you don’t want to too quickly break this brief and holy silence, you do.

I have loved you with an everlasting love.

“Very interesting,” he says. “I heard those same words.” Together you search your Bibles to find the context of those words, landing in Jeremiah 31:3. It’s a picture of God appearing in the wilderness to a quarrel-weary and anxious Israel (formerly known as Jacob), and reassuring him of His presence, love, and faithfulness: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” No matter what you do, Israel, I love you; I will always be faithful. Not because of anything you do; not in spite of any of your failures; but simply because my love is everlasting…because I am love.

And so, in the midst of a wearying, discouraging, fruitless job search, you hear the voice of God saying to you, too, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” When it feels like you’re not good enough, you hear God saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” And when yet another reject letter shows up in your email, you know, “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” It’s something to hang onto.

stamp_approved_T

3/26/14

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“Thirty-four years ago today…” – a phrase often heard in my home, only the number changing. It was the annual birthday greeting for my brothers, sister, and me; for years the first words heard in the morning or, after leaving home, on the phone when the annually-expected call came. “Thirty-four years ago today….”

With four kids in the family, each year marker was spoken four times, at roughly two-year intervals. Because of our moves, those markers were voiced in different homes, different states, different countries: twelve in Minnesota, Texas, and Canada; fourteen was heard in Texas, twice in British Columbia, and in Los Angeles. Three heard sixteen in Canada—one of those in a hospital bed—and one in Germany. And eighteen…only three times spoken.

That Canadian hospital bed was but a precursor to a more permanent rest that would strike before the third of us would reach that magic number of adulthood, the age at which one could drive and vote, the rite of passage so long anticipated. Three months early; three months premature—no, more than that: a life cut short too young, too much left undone.

And so, the “…years ago today” shifted, from June 30 to March 26. Reset. In 1981 it was, “a year ago today;” in ’85, “five years ago today.” For years, phone calls and cards came on that day, bringing with them the burden-bearing encouragement that even a distant friend remembers – and cares.

We remember thirty-four years ago today: the call, the drive, the airport, the bittersweet reunion…the words, “He’s gone.” The memories are vivid, like an old rerun but in HD.  And yet….

Slowly, over time, as the anniversaries drifted into double digits, the phone calls and cards on that day stopped. The wounds of death healed, leaving their mark like an old, familiar scar, but without the chronic pain of an open wound. And then one day, a call – and a realization: “I hadn’t thought about it.” Not a forgetting, but an awakening; the hole in the heart, the hole in life, had become so familiar, so normal, so present that it no longer demanded constant awareness. It’s just there. Life has gone on around the hole; the hole itself is no longer the center of attention, no longer the defining element. Shaping, yes; defining, no.

And as life goes on we celebrate this: his life began…thirty-four years ago today.

Resurrection Stories

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He is risen! He is risen indeed!

Peter’s Story

Fear bred denial.
Denial gave way to loss.
Loss brought forth doubt, disillusionment, confusion.
Then, a glimmer of hope…but only a glimmer.

Mary came running, breathlessly exclaiming “I’ve seen the Lord!”

Could it be? Fear mingles now with a breath of hope, and suddenly, there he is! No turn of the key, no opening of the door – he’s just…there!

A greeting of peace; a cryptic breath about the Holy Spirit, and then…more waiting.

A day passes. Another. Six days, and we’re beginning to think it was just the shock of the crucifixion; that we hadn’t really seen him at all. But then again, just as before, he’s there with us!

Again, the greeting: “Peace be with you.” This time he focuses on Thomas, who didn’t believe we’d seen him – and whose doubt we were beginning to carry, to be honest with you. He invites Thomas to touch his scars; he holds his hands out to all of us, but we believe…at least, I think we do.

It’s been a while now, though. The days pass as in a fog. Was that it? Is it all over now? What happens next? What do we do?

We stayed in the house for a while – partly from fear of the Jews and the Romans, and partly because that’s where He has shown himself twice before. But as the days pass we’ve begun to venture out more. Finally the monotony is too much. We have to do something. I have to do something. “I’m going fishing.”

“We’ll go with you.”

Seven of us, fishermen all, prepare the boat. It feels good to be back on the water, back among the nets and ropes and smells that I grew up with. To hear the creak of the oars in their locks, the gentle lapping of the water at the hull.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. I’ve been in this boat a thousand times, spent hours beyond count on this very lake, but something’s different. Something’s wrong, but I just can’t put my finger on it.

The night – and the nets – drag on, each as empty as the other. Have the fish moved? Have I forgotten so quickly the best spots? We’ve tried the deeps and the shallows, the coves and the open waters, all to no avail. But the nagging sense that I – not just the boat, but I myself – am in the wrong place tempers what frustration I should be feeling at the futility of our night’s efforts.

And then, with a faint glimmer of sun barely visible over the low eastern hills, a voice comes from the near shore: “Children, do you have any fish to eat?”

“No.”

“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.”

There’s something familiar about that voice, those words. Too tired to argue, to hungry to not try, we haul in the empty nets from the port side and throw them to the starboard. Scarcely have they hit the water before they fairly drag the boat backward. Fish!

Straining against the sudden weight, John, always the perceptive one, always the first to recognize, identifies the stranger on the shore: “It’s the Lord!” he gasps.

With an eagerness that surprises even me, I grab my cloak and dive in, half swimming, half wading the hundred yards. I need to see him, to hold him, to have just two minutes alone with him. What will he say? The last time our eyes met was when that rooster crowed; in the house I couldn’t look at him, though I felt his gaze burning into my soul.

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Our Story 

Denial. Doubt. Disillusionment.

They weigh us down like an anchor. In spite of our calling to something new, we retreat to the comfort of the old and familiar. But something doesn’t feel right anymore. If we’re lucky (or perceptive), we realize that we can’t go back. I remember the pain of that realization the Christmas after graduating from high school. Six months after leaving, I was back at home…and surprised to learn that life had gone on quite well without me.

But Peter’s absence wasn’t just from home or family or job. He had left those things three years earlier, but his triple denial had separated him even from the One for whom he had abandoned all.

The doubt and disillusionment may be with Jesus – or it may be with ourselves. Like Peter, our doubt may be about our own unworthiness to serve the master. Will he really accept me, after I denied him? Can he really forgive me?

But as with Peter, the master – Jesus – stands by the shore and calls to us. Hungry as we are for purpose and meaning and love, he waits for us with a warm fire and a meal of grace. Whether we dive in to get to him
or row patiently, ploddingly, he waits, ready.

No matter how – or how often – we have denied him, Jesus forgives.
It is not an easy forgiveness, for Jesus or for us. It cost him his life; it costs us our pride…and our lives, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:24)

And it is not a painless forgiveness, for Jesus or for us. He suffered untold horrors on his way to buying our redemption. For our part, we would just as soon move on from our denial – to leave it in the past and forget it there.  But Jesus won’t allow that; as Michael Card writes:

Jesus is not only the perfect Savior; he is also the perfect Friend. And here he demonstrates perfectly what friendship entails. He has commanded [the disciples] to forgive; now he will perfectly demonstrate it. His painful questions are meant to restore Peter to his proper place. Painful as the questions are, they are an expression of Jesus’ creative forgiveness. Jesus’ questions open a wound in Peter’s soul, a wound that can be tended to and healed only by being reopened. (Michael Card, A Fragile Stone, pp. 124-5)

This morning as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, his victory over death, we also invite the pain of his healing forgiveness. As symbols of the pain he endured to purchase that forgiveness, we share together the bread and wine of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

“Do you love me more than these?”
            Eat my body.

“Do you love me?”
            Drink my blood.

“Do you love me?”
            Follow me.

With each question, the surgeon’s knife cut more deeply into Peter’s pain.
With each answer, the infection of his denials is removed.
With each new commission, Jesus sutures the wounds, reassuring Peter – and us – of his forgiveness and acceptance.

Today, this Easter morning, accept Jesus’ forgiveness.
Today, join in the resurrection story by accepting the new life that only Jesus can offer.