This post will make little sense without an EARLIER POST, so head there first if you haven’t already.
In the months that followed January 2010, I entered an internal storm. As always, hindsight is helpful, and six-plus years now provides enough distance to see that what I was experiencing at that time was a wrecking ball. My identity was being deconstructed, and God himself was the one swinging the ball progressively lower until every level of my construction was flattened. At that point, a rebuild would take place. But I lived in that state of demolition for nearly 18 months, and it rattled even my typically-steady nerves.
- What was going on?
- Was I stressed out? I didn’t think so.
- Was I having a breakdown? That didn’t seem right, but something was definitely being taken apart.
At times, I believe that one of my best qualities is a simple ability to “keep trudging”. If I did anything right during that stretch of time, perhaps it was to pray my weak prayers, to find quiet ways to ask friends for support, and to trudge on, trusting God that He was up to something I could not see or feel any hint of.
Somewhere in that span, I began preaching a series on Jesus’ parables. I selected a couple handfuls of the stories I felt most inclined to dive into, striving to include selections all over the spectrum ranging from best-loved to least-known. In that mix was the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), a Sunday-school classic that it simply seemed wrong to exclude. All I had done was created a series outline as reasonably as I knew how. How could I have known my entire landscape was about to shift?
I love the labor of preparing to preach. I love sitting slowly with Scripture, soaking in it and conversing about it and spinning it around and around, in the hope of discovering angles and views that will breathe life into my self and my circles. I feel that pleasure almost every week. Even when I hate preaching, I love it. (Can I get an “amen” from any preachers out there?) But I was not prepared for the grip that Luke 15 was about to wrap around my life.
For months, I became fixated by this parable. It was an outright obsession, as I accumulated books, music, artwork, and more. I felt as though I’d discovered a rosetta stone, capable of interpreting the very-intense-but-beyond-words state of my heart. This story’s message was set to translate the disorientation that I had been living in. Why did my heart feel so off? I had found my answer.
Careful readers of “The Parable of the Lost Son” have long observed that it is more rightly titled “The Parable of the Lost Sons”. The story of the young and rebellious boy, who is received back home by his father, has touched hearts for two millennia. The power of this tale will never wear out for all who feel they are too far gone. And if I’d have told the tale, I’d have closed that portion with, “And they lived happily ever after.”
Except that they didn’t. Or at least we don’t know for certain.
Surprisingly, that most-famous portion of the parable is merely the preface for the real story. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a stunning story. It’s just not the main part of the parable. The heart of this story beats within the chest of the older brother. And by the end of the parable, we are faced with a few stunning considerations.
Apparently there are at least two ways to get lost. The first and most obvious path involves rebellion and running. It is a blatant turning from God, marked by dogged disobedience and desire to be one’s own master. Any reasonable mind expects this path to end a million miles from home, in a pigpen or worse. Everyone knows you can get lost this way.
But there is another path. The parable suggests not-so-subtly that just as one can get lost by trying to do all the wrong things, one can get lost by trying to do all the right things.
One can get lost by being rebellious, everyone knew that. But one can get lost as well by being rigourous. Who knew that?
Shockingly, the son who never stepped outside the yard has strayed farther from home than the one who ran to distant lands. In the closing scene of the parable, we are speechless to behold that the careful son — the measured fellow, the boy who cautiously strove to walk the straight and narrow — has arrived at a point where his heart is closed to the joy of his father. He does not wish to enter it, and he is the lost-est one of all. In fact, he is so lost that the curtain falls without even granting us assurance that he ever joined the celebration of his father’s kindness. What a mind-blowing consideration that the love of the father was sufficient to welcome the scoundrel back into sonship, but we conclude the story with no certainty that the lost-er boy would enter the same seeking love.
It would be impossible for me to express the force with which that story struck my life. Mack trucks have been softer; middle linebackers have been gentler. Scripture describes itself as a double-edged sword, sharp enough to penetrate right into our core. I testify to that truth. I’ve got the scars to prove it.
How does one stay so close to home and yet reach a place of utter lostness? How does one maintain the same mailing address as the Father yet fail to cultivate in himself a heart with resemblance? My experience suggests that one arrives at that place by being more religious than relational, by functioning more as a servant than as a son, by being more bent on duty than compelled by love.
There are numerous Bible characters that I would love to imitate, multiple examples after which I aspire. But five years ago I spent a way-longer-than-was-enjoyable time in a season of unsettling and undeniable conviction: “You are the older brother.”
Gratefully, the Father wants that boy to come home too.
So I started walking.