Category Archives: relationship

Son or Slave?

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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.”

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

Walking With God

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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.”

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, Part II—Soaking it In

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Hot tubA couple weeks ago I said different ways of reading the Bible could be compared to taking a walk, driving a car, or flying across the country. Just as different modes of travel will give different perspectives on the land, so each way of reading the Bible offers unique insights.

Today I want to talk about one way, but I’m going to change the metaphor—from taking a walk to soaking in a hot tub. Some might call this meditation; but because that word can scare some people away, I prefer to use the hot tub image: we soak in the Word (the Bible) so that we can soak the Word in.

Soaking in the Word means sitting quietly with a short passage for a long time. Maybe it’s a dozen verses; maybe only one or two. Read it. Read it again. Read it aloud. Read it in different translations.

Then sit quietly. Does one word or thought penetrate your mind? Look again at the text and find that word or phrase. Turn it over in your mind. Chew on it, as it were.

Read the passage again, slowly. What’s happening in your heart? …your mind? …your soul? Do the words encourage you? Do they bring refreshment or peace in the midst of chaos? Or is there a challenge in them—a behavior to change, a sin to confess, a relationship to mend? Talk with God about what you are sensing. Ask for forgiveness, courage, or strength; or say thank you for the encouragement. Praise Him for reaching into your soul.

Finally, sit quietly with God. Sometimes I imagine Jesus sitting on the couch with me, or across the table, just being quiet and enjoying each other’s company. Other times I imagine myself curling up in Abba’s—the Father’s—lap and resting my head on His shoulder. Enjoy God’s presence.


Further thoughts: I’ve been spending some time soaking in Colossians 3 over the past few weeks. It is a rich, challenging, and encouraging passage. Let’s look at the first few verses.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-3, English Standard Version)

If then: Sometimes if means, maybe you have, maybe you haven’t; and sometimes it means, since or because. That’s the sense here—Because you have been raised with Christ…. There is a confidence here, a certainty about our relationship.

So what? So, seek…[and] set your minds on things that are above, not … on the earth. It’s a matter of perspective. Am I seeking only what’s on earth—job, security, home…? What does it look like to seek what’s above—the things of God? What does He want me to seek?

Take some time today to soak in this passage. See what God does in you.

Spiritual Rhythms: The Word, part I

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Before my wife and I were married, I spent a summer in Europe while she remained in California. In those long-past days before email and cell phones, at a time when international calling was expensive and minimum wage was a fraction of what it is now, the primary way we communicated was through letters; our words would be read days, if not weeks, after they’d been written.

Growing in relationship with God demands that we read his words—his Word. 

If you want to know God, you need to read his word to his people—that is, the Bible. Seems easy enough, but considering that the Bible contains sixty-six individual books written by dozens of human authors over a period of some 1,500 years—the most recent being roughly 2,000 years old—the natural question is, where to begin?

Many people say you should start with the book of John, or perhaps one of the other four narratives of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But if you’re new to the Bible, then I suggest following Fräulein Maria’s advice from The Sound of Music: “Let’s start at the very beginning”—Genesis and Exodus. You see, Jesus was a Jew, and Genesis tells the story of the beginning of the Jewish people. And since Jesus came as a sacrifice to save people from sin, Exodus—the story of God saving the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt—lays the foundation for Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Then read John. Or Matthew, which was written to a primarily Jewish audience.

But another question to ask is, how do I read the Bible? The Bible is unlike any other book you have ever read. It is an anthology of sorts, with each individual book telling a complete story; yet the collection as a whole also tells a complete story, and each book contains a part of that broader story. Perhaps the best way to answer the question, how do I read the Bible?, is this: Read it the same way you would see the country. The whole country. What country? Yours or mine, whether the United States or Nigeria or India.

If you want to see the whole country, you will need to do it in different ways at different times. At times you will fly over from one corner to another; you’ll only get 35,000-foot glimpses of most of the land, but you’ll see it from a unique perspective. Other times you’ll take a car; you’ll see more than flying—mountains and rivers, deserts and oceans, cities and vast spaces of empty land—but most will still be zooming past at sixty miles per hour.

Then there are times you will just walk. You’ll never get out of the city or the forest or the desert, or wherever you started walking, but you’ll see the details; you can sit for hours on a beach and watch the tide slowly roll in, covering the rocks and tide pools you explored earlier in the day; you’ll gaze in awestruck wonder at the intricacies of a rose just before it bursts into bloom.

Reading the Bible is like that. You’ll be reading of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, then fly back to the first Passover meal in Exodus. Or you’ll read the entire book of Romans in one sitting and you’ll see the changing topography of Paul’s treatise. And sometimes you’ll sit and soak in the creative beauty of a single verse or a paragraph, turning each word over in your mind like a rosebud between your fingers.

We’ll explore this more in future posts. For now, though, decide where and how you want to begin, then begin. If you’re just getting started, set yourself a reachable goal: read 5-10 minutes a day, three days a week.