Category Archives: God

Son or Slave?


With weary steps he trudged homeward, the twin burdens of leadership and famine weighing on his shoulders. Yet another shepherd had left, weary of the near-constant attacks by wolves and lions. Their normal prey—herds of deer and wild goats—had been decimated by the drought, forcing the predators to brave the slings of the increasingly-wary shepherds. But the hyper-vigilance took its toll, too, and many of the hired hands simply walked away, seeking respite from both sun and battle.

Yet hope grew with each passing day. The rainy season so long absent was near, and reports from the west had often included signs of increasing clouds. He had even seen a few himself when gazing toward the unseen sea. Passing tradesmen, with their stories of adventure and excitement, had made him wistful for the same. But his home was here, his father was here, his responsibility was here.

The evening shepherds on their way to the fields were silhouetted by the sun as it dipped into the distant Jordan River valley. They were just slipping on their outer cloaks against the gathering dark and cold as he came upon them. Their voices were unusually animated, but in a brief space between words, a breeze from the east carried the faint music of … celebration? He asked what it was about.

“Your brother has returned!”, said one with unmasked wonder.

“They’re starting to party!”, said another. “They even butchered the fatted calf!”

Brother? Returned? He stood staring after them as the shepherds hurried on their way, then he stared down the path toward home. The old anger rose again in his heart. Venomous words gathered in his throat as he started once again, his pace quickening with every step until he was almost running. More than once he stumbled over an unnoticed stone as the blinding resentment returned.

Suddenly he was outside the house, his whole body shaking with adrenaline and the anticipated confrontation. The pungent aroma of leeks and peppers mixed with roasting beef and insulted his nostrils. Joyful sounds of lutes and lyres, cymbals and drums, struck discord in his now-raging breast. A servant passing just inside the window noticed him—noticed the reddened face—and found his master.

“My son! Come celebrate! Your brother is home!” The old man came running, as breathless in his enthusiasm as the son in his anger. His brow glistened in the lamplight, wet with the perspiration of the dance.

“Brother? I have no brother!” Spittle flew from his lips, spraying his father’s face and tunic. “That lech is dead to me – dead to you!”

“Yes, he is dead – was dead. But he has returned. He lives again!”

“Yes, he lives – lives with whores and rakes! He lived it up on your hard-earned money. What he didn’t throw away on women, he guzzled until he awoke in his own vomit. You’ve heard the stories as well as I have. He dragged your good name through the mud and dung and threw away your life’s work.”

The father looked down in shame-filled remembrance. A tear coursed down into his beard, mingling with the spit that still clung there. He knew all too well the bitter truth of his son’s words, and gathering both thoughts and feelings, he quietly acknowledged that truth. “Yes. He did.” Then, looking up again, he continued. “Yes, he shamed me, humiliated me. He buried me that day: told me I might as well be dead. But that’s not the half of it.”

“And this is how you reward him?”, the son interrupted, anger rising with his father’s admission. “You squander the fattened calf just as he squandered your estate? And here I’ve worked for you—slaved for you—all these years and you’ve done nothing for me! I’ve done everything you’ve asked, never left your side. I even did your work while you sat all day on that rock looking for him. And you never so much as offered a goat for me to enjoy with my friends.” Wrath and spit dripped from his mouth.

“Yes, you have been with me. You have been faithful and wise and industrious. You have managed the flocks far better than I could have in this drought. You have even managed to increase them; no one does that in a famine! You saved us. And I have been lost these past months – as good as dead myself. But your brother was dead, too. And his was a death worse than death itself. Like Cain of old, he killed another but was condemned to walk among the living. The stench of death clung to him, overpowering his drunkenness, his vomit … even the pig slop. The shame he brought to me hung from his shoulders everywhere he went; as he lay naked with each prostitute, the one garment he could not remove was that shame.”

“He deserves the pigs!” The son spat.

“Perhaps. You said you slaved for me these years. That is all your brother has asked now to do: to live here as a servant, to sleep in their quarters and eat their meager portions. But he is no servant, he is a son. My son. My blood flows in his veins just as it flows in yours. And today he has come home. Today he has come alive.

“If you would be a slave, then I free you from all obligation. If you, like your brother, would be free to live as you wish … all I have is yours. But you are no slave in my eyes. You are my flesh and blood, my son – my dear son – my first-born. And I love you, just as I love your brother.

“Come. Eat. Dance. Celebrate. Rejoice in resurrection.”

Family Reunion


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

Walking With God


220px-hannah_whitall_smithMy knowledge of God … advanced slowly through many stages, and with a vast amount of useless conflict and wrestling, to the place where I … discovered to my amazement and delight His utter unselfishness, and saw it was safe to trust in Him. –Hannah Whitall Smith (emphasis mine)

I opened a new (to me) devotional book this morning and read these words from 19th-century Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith. Though I know very little of Smith’s life or spiritual journey, her description of that journey jumped out at me. How often have I wrestled with God? How often have I felt conflict in my relationship with Him, convinced God wanted nothing more than to squelch my enjoyment, my desires, my dreams?

Of course, none of those feelings of mine are rooted in the truth of Scripture that I have so long read and studied. My accusations fly in the face of such promises as “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4) and “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). Still, in the dark, discouraging days, it is too easy to blame God.

Learning that “it [is] safe to trust in Him” is a lifelong process. It is a journey of discovery that involves both pain and delight – just as we learn to love, know, and trust a husband or wife. Smith puts it this way:

“I simply mean becoming acquainted with Him as one becomes acquainted with a human friend; that is, finding out what is His nature, and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”

Learning to know and trust God can involve “useless conflict and wrestling” or it can begin by believing He is trustworthy, then proving it over the course of a journey taken with Him and “finding out His nature and His character, and coming to understand His ways.”

Another Prince, Another Pauper


prince and pauperTwo men came to Jesus, each with a request. One man was blind and poor, and wanted to see; the other was rich and sighted, and wanted eternal life.

Both requests were good and right, and Jesus offered answers to both. So why did one man walk away praising God and the other walked away sad?

The difference between the two men was not in their wealth, but their heart. Yes, the blind man was poor; unable to see, his only income was the coins he begged from passersby at the city gates. Yet his poverty went deeper than his wallet. Downtrodden and outcast, all that his blind eyes could see was the rejection of those walking past him each day. And it was in this poverty of spirit that he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” His request was both simple and impossible: I want to see.

The rich man may well have been one of those who tossed a few coins at the nameless, faceless beggars he daily rode by. Doubtless honored both for business savvy and his commandment-keeping righteousness, his request was no less honorable than the blind man’s: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though both petitions were good, the difference between them was stark. Where the blind man knew he was could do nothing to bring about his own healing, the rich man believed his prayer could be answered by some good deed, some noble gesture, some further mark of his own power and wealth and righteousness. His perfect eyes and fat money-purse blinded him to the poverty of his own soul.

Jesus answered both men’s requests just as they wanted him to: He did for the blind man what he knew he could not do for himself; and he gave the wealthy man a very simple task – a good deed that was very do-able yet proved impossible for the seeker of life.

There is a deep irony in these two encounters (read them in Luke 18:18-43): a penniless blind man sees his poverty, and purchases by his faith the new eyes that no king could ever afford. Across town a wealthy man, blind to his own destitution, refuses to trade his affluence for the only thing that could make him truly rich.

It is easy to read these stories in the Bible, to celebrate the healing of the one and groan at the obstinacy of the other. But God does not want us to merely read, cheer, and groan. He wants us to see ourselves in His Word, to decide how we will respond. Who are you?

Are you the man without eyes, convinced of your unworthiness and the impossibility of your situation? Or are you the one with both eyes and money, wondering what else you can do to earn God’s favor and presence?

Will you come to God in helpless faith, pleading for mercy first and sight second? Or do you come with wallet open, looking for yet another spiritual tax deduction?

Will you walk away with Jesus, glorifying God? Or will you just walk away, sadly looking for an easier way?

Going It Alone


Ethiopia vista

Jordan is the type of separation where there is no fellowship with anyone else, and where no one can take the responsibility for you.1

How many years had Elisha walked with his mentor, Elijah? Seven? Eight? How many times had he witnessed the power of God come down through the words and deeds of the great prophet? Countless times. And now….

For days now, Elisha has known the time was at hand. Three times the prophet had told his young protege, stay here while I go into the city. Three times, Elisha has refused, insisting that he stay by his side. And in each city, the locals remind him that his master’s days are numbered. I know, he says. Shut up and don’t remind me! And now….

Now Elijah has disappeared, taken up miraculously from before his very eyes. Chariots. Horses. Fire. A whirlwind. And when the tumult dies down, Elisha is alone. Alone on the banks of the river they had crossed together only moments before.

The thunderous drama of the prophet’s exit only magnifies the deafening silence in which Elisha now stands; Elijah’s billowing cloak, now lying in a dusty clump on the parched ground, the only sign that he’d ever been there. And now….

Such spectacles do not come frequently in our lives, but the times of aloneness are all-too-common. We leave the spiritual height of a mission trip and, on returning home, find that no one really understands, and too few even seem to care. We meet God at a mountain camp, only to return to the doldrums of daily life back at sea level. We are fêted well as we say goodbye to a ministry we have loved and prospered, then find ourselves alone and waiting by the Jordan for some sign that we are not really alone.

And there on the banks of our own Jordan, as Chambers says, “you have to put to the test now what you learned when you were with your Elijah. … If you want to know whether God is the God you have faith to believe Him to be, then go through your Jordan alone.

Think about that for a moment: Do you want to know whether God is the God you think He is? You can only know it when you get alone. No one can know it for you. Friends, mentors, a spouse… they can all tell you it’s true… that God is true. But only you can know it.

In order to know he was not alone, Elisha had to pick up the prophet’s cloak and put it around his own shoulders. What is that cloak for you? Perhaps a Bible that has sat too long untouched. For me it was a Jacob-like wrestling match with God (see Genesis 32:22-32).

Pick up the cloak and know the truth of what you believe.

1 [Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest, Aug 11. See 2 Kings 2:1-25.]