Thursday, October 23, 2014

Will the Real Prodigals Please Stand Up -- Part II

"It was fitting to celebrate and be glad,
for this your brother was dead, and is alive:
he was lost, and is found."
Luke 15:32

I recently had the privilege of reconnecting with my uncle after many years. He was still living at home with my grandparents when the first of us grandchildren came on the scene. My folks lived out in the country and we came to town for our check ups and vaccinations. My uncle said on one of those trips  that my brother received a shot in his rear and was quite upset about it. He also said that I tended to have a lot of jealousy and I piped up after my brother complained of the pain he was experiencing,  "Well, my bottom hurts worse than your bottom."

We laughed when he told us the story, but when I came home I thought back to my preschool years. I remembered being jealous and comparing my life with that of my siblings. If their shoes wore out, I thought I should get new shoes as well. They both had dark hair and I had blond at the time and was frustrated by that. I even remembered trying to count the number of spankings we each had gotten. I was sure I got more than either one of them did, but when I said that to my mom, she told me that was far from the truth because they could just say my name and I toed the line. I don't fully understand what drove me to make the comparisons and to feel slighted so early in life. But I do know that sibling rivalry has been around since the fall, beginning with Adam and Eve's kids. Reading through the old testament we can see it happened over and over and over.

Because God is a relational God, there is a familial spiritual bond among believers and plenty of jealousy. That familial connection may have been why Jesus chose to tell the religious leaders a parable of two brothers to make His point when the religious leaders resented His relationships with the publicans, the tax collectors, the ill, the demon possessed, and those that were counted as sinners.

In Part I we looked at the first part of the parable that concerned the prodigal who left home, squandered his inheritance on immoral living, and eventually ended up slopping pigs for a living. While slopping pigs, he realized they were eating better than he was, spurring a longing for home. And home he went, humbly asking for the position of a servant, only to be met with a warm welcome and restored to the position of a chosen son.

In this latter part of the parable, the older brother comes in from the fields to hear the sounds of a great celebration taking place. He calls one of the servants over and asks what the celebration is about. The servant tells him that his younger brother had returned safe and sound. I think these words reflect the servant's understanding of the father's heart who had scanned the horizon, hoping for the return of his son. The older son becomes angry and refuses to go in.

The first time I read this story, I thought maybe his anger was out of a protectiveness of his father who was obviously hurt by the child that left home in that manner. But when the father came out and talked to the son, we get a clearer picture of the state of the older son's heart. He is angry because the son who left and squandered the inheritance and lived an immoral life style is being celebrated and he wasn't. He reminds his father of how He stayed and of all the work he has done for him and ends his statement with a complaint that no party had ever been thrown for him. 

Man, I sort of wish he were angry because of his loyalty to his father. For, I am a loyal person and I could relate to that and it would still look sort of righteous. But, I must confess that I do relate to the brother because of his comparisons of his life to his brothers. I relate to his judgments. I wish I could say I didn't, but I can't. There have been times I have worked my heart out, and not been given the accolades I hoped for, only to have someone new come along and do one one project and receive all sorts of praise for what they did. I resented it a little, maybe even a lot.

For a long time I even prided myself on being a nonjudgmental person. But then at some point, a sweet Christian lady said to me, "We all make judgments, Wendy, every single day. Sometimes the judgments help us make good decisions and sometimes they don't and they are sinful." I was uncomfortable with her statement so I paid close attention to the thoughts that run through my head for a few weeks, hoping to prove her wrong.

After a few weeks I came to the conclusion that what she said was true, especially in regard to myself. I made judgments about food when I classified them as good and bad.

I made judgments about clothing. Sometimes those judgments were appropriate and helped me buy modest pretty clothes and sometimes I ended up judging a person's heart by what they were wearing.

I judged myself harshly for having normal feelings and for being human, not perfect. And I found that frequently I called myself very negative judgmental words--words like stupid idiot and dumb.

Walking through stores, I found myself judging women by their clothing, their size, the cleavage they showed, the kinds of tattoos adorning their arms, and their hair styles.

I judged parents by how they handled their children in public. That one bothered me because I was a mom of five kids in eight years and I know first hand the facts. One day they could be perfectly behaved and people would compliment me. Then the very next cat I was paying for the chocolate bar snatched and eaten when I wasn't looking, hiding in clothing racks and scaring people, and constantly begging for something not on the shopping list...and I at times was that parent impatiently berating a screaming toddler, more concerned about what others thought than about the heart of my child.

I also judged a homeless person without even knowing his story. I stepped around him and looked away not even giving him the dignity of a smile or eye contact that every human craves.

I judged someone's words without even letting them finish their statements, something I hate done to me.

It grieved my heart to find myself to be exactly what I prided myself in not being. To put it bluntly, there was a whole lot more Pharisee in me than I ever wanted to admit. But to face the truth and pay attention to my thoughts instead of pushing them aside had its rewards. It helped me to move towards a purer humility and helped me come to grips with my daily need for God's mercy and grace. It helped me realize there was the potential to see the face of God in every one of His image bearers -- even those I once thought the most unlikely.

I looked back on my life and realized I often chose the churches I attended by how at home I felt. By that, I don't mean they were extra friendly. I mean that most of the people looked just like me, had the same educational back ground I had,  believed most of the same doctrines I believed, dressed like me, and acted a whole kit like I act.

Around the time I had the conversation with my friend, a therapist suggested I find a support group for eating disorders and there wasn't one in my community at the time. She referred me to a ministry called Truth Ministry that ministered to those struggling with addictions and codependency. When I first walked in, I noticed judgments were screaming in my head and I was so stressed by it that my disordered behaviors actually increased. I looked for reasons to quit and my therapist said it was my choice, but she thought I should talk to the pastor running the ministry so I could take ownership of my decision. He was awesome and helped me sort out my feelings and identify changeable problems, calming my anxiety enough that I stayed at Truth for quite awhile.

While there, I heard stories that melted my prideful heart allowing God to fill it with more compassion and love. While there, I saw hardened hearts softened and saw people extending grace at the same time they were holding each other accountable in such a beautifully balanced and loving way. I even shared my story one night and when the pastor prayed for me at the end I heard a bunch of sniffles.  I had expected a few ladies to cry, but it was the biggest burliest guys who made me nervous crying! Afterwards they came up to rejoice over what God has done in my life and shared their stories with me and I began to see them through God's eyes. I began to recognize His image in these people who were so broken by their addictions. They were so honest and so transparent. They were so hungry for God and His Word.

It hit me that all the years I had spent in church, I had been working hard to earn God's love and to cover up things like my pride, my sin, and my self-centeredness, and my judgments, all the while hoping I would be celebrated. I loved that group because it was there that I realized that God loved them just like they were. And God had loved me just like I was all along. There was nothing I could do to earn more love and nothing I could do to lose it. The business of trying to earn His love was put to rest...and that felt so good. There I began to believe bit by bit that I was being celebrated daily by God.

While at Truth Ministry, I bumped into a friend I hadn't seen in awhile. She came with another gal who was covered in tattoos and seemed like a tough gal. The friend introduced her as her sister, April, and believe me those pesky judgments were screaming loud and clear. Over time I got to know April and her great big heart, driving home the lesson that we are all equal in our desperate need of grace.

A few years later April became ill and passed away. Her funeral was exactly what I desire all churches to be, and what I imagine heaven already is -- a mixture of people from all walks of life. A place where addicts sit next to the church people who seen to have it all together. A place where the poor are seated among the rich. A place where the tattooed are sprinkled among those conservatively dressed. A place where those with nose rings and all sorts of piercings are scattered among those with traditional jewelry. A place where the wounded are actually tended to, a place where differences are celebrated, and a place where every prodigal is rejoiced over for being restored fully to his or her place at the King's table.

It became obvious that those at the funeral had one thing in common. When a friend began to sing, their  eyes leaked as they grieved the loss of their friend and contemplated all God had done in April's life and in the lives of those she loved and served.

I know the church can be a place that draws people in with grace and helps them grow into the people that God created them to be. The church can look a lot more like that motely crowd at April's funeral because we all have Jesus in common. But, we must recognize and acknowledge the older brother's heart that tends to dwell in us. If we acknowledge the Pharisaical tendencies, God can pull us back into His grace where we can return to joy.

For me, moving past judgment took my recognizing my desire to be loved, acknowledged, and accepted was something that was written on my heart by my Creator and then accepting His truth. The truth that God has lavishly and consistently met those needs through Christ! It is accepting that He truly celebrates me with open arms every time I come to Him. It is in understanding of those things, that I don't tend to wander back into being a spiritual prodigal like the older brother who remained judgmental, resentful, fearful, and jealous.

So if I were sitting in church as I do almost every Sunday and heard the pastor say in his invitation, "Will the Real Prodigals Please Stand Up!" I would be standing both with the younger brother who strayed and with the older brother who stayed. I wonder if you would be standing with me?         

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Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!