In a Far Land

Prodigal (2)This is the second of four messages on the Prodigal Son. For last week’s message click here.

Last week I attended the inaugural Frederick Buechner Religious Writer’s Workshop. If you don’t know who Frederick Buechner is, I encourage you to find out. He’s a the author of over thirty books, none of them large, but all of them densely packed with wonderful insight into the human condition, written in some of the most beautiful prose you will ever read.

He’s 89 now and was unable to attend, but his grandson Noah was there. This kid is just 18 but has already published a play that is going into production at over 50 companies worldwide, and is working with some well-known actors on a play that is destined for Broadway.

What’d you do in high school?

The workshop was at Princeton, which you didn’t really need to know, but it’ll explain why you’ll hear me walking around saying, “I went to Princeton.” Got the t-shirt and everything.

Anyway, I went up there not knowing a single person, which is fine with me. I am comfortable hiding in a crowd. What a lot of you don’t know about me is that I’m an introvert, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m shy, although I was painfully shy as a child. I’ve grown out of that, for the most part, but not completely.

I can still get a little anxious in certain situations.

Like when I attend a workshop in which I don’t know a single person.

The day before I left I looked at the schedule and noticed that the first event was a worship service, followed by an hour-long reception before dinner.

Great. Take a vocation that attracts an inordinate number of introverts and make us stand around eating cheese, drinking wine—just to mess with the odd Baptist in attendance—and talk to one another.

I’m standing in line, alone, not talking to anybody, feeling a little awkward, marveling at the fact that there is cheese that doesn’t come in individually-wrapped slices, when this young woman gets in line behind me and starts talking to me.

Extrovert to the rescue!

Turns out that she is the daughter of one of my favorite writers and bloggers, a professor of biblical studies at a university in Philadelphia. In the course of our conversation I asked her what kind of writing she did, and she said a little bit of blogging but that her dad has proposed that they write a book together.

I asked her what the book was about, and she told me that her teenage years were pretty rough, that in fact her parents sent her to a boarding school in Arizona for two years, which ended up being a good thing for her.

She said, “My dad and I were really, really close growing up, and we still are, but there was a period of time when we barely spoke to each other. Dad and I are talking about writing a book about that experience to help other families going through the same thing.”

Well, there’s certainly a market for that kind of book.

If you’ve ever parented a teenager, you know how difficult it can be. It’s tough even when things are going well, but when you have a child who is struggling to find themselves in the world and you see them following paths that you know will lead to destruction, it’s excruciating.

You don’t know what to do. Everything you do seems to turn out wrong. If you say something, they get mad and dig in even further with their behaviors.

If you don’t say something, they keep on with their destructive behavior and resent you for not caring enough to try to stop them.

You try to get them help, and unless they want the help—which they generally don’t—they are infinitely creative in the ways they will subvert everything that you try to do.

And at a certain point you wonder, “Who is this person?”

This can’t be the same kid who used to snuggle up with you for bedtime stories, who used to put on your makeup and play dress-up in your clothes, who would sit next to you while you are watching a ballgame on TV and mimic your ever move, crossing their legs when you cross yours, standing up and cheering when your team wins an important game when they don’t even understand what baseball is.

And now they can’t stand to be in the same room with you.

The 1989 song by Mike and the Mechanics, The Living Years, really captures this conflict from a son’s perspective. The song addresses a son’s regret over unresolved conflict with his now-deceased father.

Every generation
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
I know that I’m a prisoner
To all my Father held so dear
I know that I’m a hostage
To all his hopes and fears
I just wish I could have told him in the living years

Crumpled bits of paper
Filled with imperfect thought
Stilted conversations
I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got
You say you just don’t see it
He says it’s perfect sense
You just can’t get agreement
In this present tense
We all talk a different language
Talking in defense

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts

© Imagem Music LLC O.B.O. Michael Rutherford, Rutherford Michael Ltd., R And Ba Music Ltd.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is about that struggle, at least in part. We aren’t told what happened between the father and the son that caused the son to tell his father that he wished he was dead and then took his inheritance and ran to a far land.

We don’t know what caused the father to think that this was a better alternative than the kid staying at home.

And yet we do. Not the details, but we know the situation. We know how bad it must have been that separation, disengagement, and exile became the better alternatives to staying together.

Sometimes you send them away, sometimes they run away, and sometimes they are in a far land even when they are living at home.

God knows, he’s felt that pain. The prophet Hosea wrote that the situation between God and Israel got so bad that God named them, “Lo-ammi”, not my people, “for you are not my people and I am not your God.” (Hosea 1:9 NRSV)

This is where this parable is so powerful. I said last week that this parable is both the story of Israel as well as the story of each of us, and maybe it wasn’t clear then what I meant. This is the story of each of us, but it is also Israel’s story.

Because of Israel’s sin—their forsaking God for other gods, their neglect and even exploitation of widows, orphans, the poor, and the powerless, God sent them into exile in Bablyon.

We say it that way, but, really, they sent themselves. For most of their existence God protected them from themselves, punishing them just enough that they would repent of their behavior. They would prove over and over, however, that it wasn’t real repentance; it was just pain-avoidance, They just kept going back to doing the same things over and over again.

So, finally, God let them suffer the consequences of their sin, let them bear the full brunt of their addiction to violence and injustice and idolatry.

When he called them, Lo-ammi, “not my people,” he wasn’t disowning them, he was just removing the protection that came with being the chosen people of God.

And soon they found themselves weeping beside the waters of Babylon.

But they weren’t the only ones weeping. When a child runs away to a far land, the parent left behind feels like they are in exile as well.

And when the pain gets bad enough, you see what’s really important and what’s not. You remember the little boy dressing up in a suit so he can look just like dad, and you start longing for them to come home.

And in that moment, forgiveness happens. You don’t even choose it, it just happens. When the pain of separation is greater than the pain caused by the sin, you forget about the sin and long for the relationship to be restored.

In Hosea God can’t even hold out for a whole chapter. By the end of chapter two he is saying, “And I will have pity on…and will say to Lo-ammi, ‘You are my people.’” (Hosea 2:23 NRSV)

So there comes a point at which the father gets over the fact that this boy of his has taken his fortune, given his father the finger, and run off.

And he begins looking down the road, looking to see if maybe, just maybe, that boy will round the curve and head home.

And day after day, nothing. But he never gives up. Never stops hoping. Never stops gazing down the lane, waiting.

Meanwhile, the boy realizes what a fool he is. He realizes that the best place to be is home, and the worst place to be is anywhere else.

He begins to wonder if going home is even possible. Maybe. Certainly not as a son, but maybe as a servant, but that’s OK. He figures it’s better to be a servant at home than to be a son in exile. He figures that forgiveness is too much to ask, but maybe he can at least live among the slaves at home.

Not realizing that all this time he’s been forgiven. Forgiveness is no longer the 11325492_10152802351310163_509798704_oissue, exile is.

The problem with humanity isn’t that we aren’t forgiven, it’s that even though we are forgiven, we are still away from God.

So the boy decides to take a chance. He could have given up, but he didn’t. He decides to take a chance and go home and see what would happen.

I left off a section of the third verse of The Living Years. Let me finish it. Here’s the third verse in its entirety:

So we open up a quarrel
Between the present and the past
We only sacrifice the future
It’s the bitterness that lasts

So don’t yield to the fortunes
You sometimes see as fate
It may have a new perspective
On a different day
And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
You may just be O.K.

Neither the father nor the sons gives up, they don’t give in, and they end up better than OK.

The young woman at the workshop gave me her father’s email and told me to email him. I figured, however, he probably gets unsolicited emails all the time from people he doesn’t know, so I’m not going to bother him

The next day she finds me and says, “You didn’t email him! I told my dad about you and that you would be contacting him, and this morning he says you didn’t do it!”

Geez. So that night after I was back in my hotel room I sent him a quick email. He responded the next morning, and among the things he said you could hear gratitude that I befriended his little girl and was helping her just a little bit to navigate this world called adulthood.

A father is grateful to anyone who helps his son or daughter. You are never an anonymous stranger when you do that.

There’s something you need to notice about what the son says in verses 17-18:

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘

Three times in two verses he calls him “father.” When we get to the elder brother in two weeks we’ll see the contrast, how he doesn’t use the language of family—“this son of yours.”

But the younger son does. “Father.”

See, the relationship was always there, even in a far land.

As long as you know who your Father is and know he’s still is and always has been your Father, there’s always hope.

Images by Emily McCoy Bish

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