Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Ambassador's Plate

The underside tells me the elegant plate is Limoge. Rimmed with gold, it bears the state seal of a Gulf nation. On it a lop-sided chocolate cake that drools with icing and sprinkled M&Ms. A joyous thing, a gift from the housemaids in 1701. These Filipinas are Christian, and far from home. We don’t know them, but a believing security guard assured them of welcome at our table on Christmas Day. We were delighted, but word came that they were refused time off for this feast of their faith. They stopped in with the cake on Christmas afternoon. Baked it and snuck it out while the Ambassador was away. Didn’t stay long lest he return and find them absent.

It is the day after Christmas. The cake half-eaten reveals the fancy plate, and I examine it and wonder how to get it back to them without getting them in trouble.

The doorbell rings and there they stand, all smiles. “We need the plate!” I laugh. We chat briefly. They worked together in Morocco before UAE. Liked it there. “Abu Dhabi?” “Not so much.”

Liking fleeting angels they are gone, these young believers placed by Jesus in the heart of that state official’s home.

Christmas table

Curt and I traveled during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Were home for just seven fast days before the Christmas feast. No time or head-space for any big plan. We prayed and only a few came to mind to invite.

As we took our places at the table I looked around and marveled. Pawan, Ehab, Naomi, Alfonso and Marli had joined us other years. This year Pawan brought two brothers who also work in UAE. Khadka is a new friend who helps with
housework, and he brought his wife. What joy to serve him for a day, and to sit together and play a game. Mike moved to UAE last summer. Jenn joined our household in October. All these, book-ended by four Bidingers. Nepal, Brazil, Switzerland, Japan and Peru, Jordan, Albania, and the US. A housemaid, a military advisor, a jeweler, a midwife, an urban planner, a security guard, an office boy, an oil guy, teachers and laborers, housewives. Christian, Hindu and Muslim.

Some we invited; some found their way to our table. I say Jesus invited them. I recall His banquet story
in Luke 14 where this rich guy invites all the expected guests to a feast and few could be bothered to come. So the host sent to the streets and brought in the people no one would think to invite. Not that our friends had refused our invitation, but I was humbled and awed at the company Jesus chose. People we would never meet to invite in the normal way. Rich fellowship of nations, the essential dignity of all people, and a common invitation to take a place at the table of the Kingdom of God.

Glorious celebration of God come in human flesh!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prodigal lovers

I want to tell you more about those parents….

You would enjoy them, I think. George and Martha are intelligent, lively, full of laughter and comfortable with themselves. Companionable in marriage, but outward-focused so that others are encompassed by their love rather than made to feel intruders on a private thing. The most mundane aspects of business and home become celebrations of God’s goodness when George and Martha are around. Whether things are calm or crazy, these two radiate inner stillness so that in all parts of their life and business generosity and compassion ripple out.

Martha—well, she’s a tad counter-culture, dressing softly with a glimmer of makeup. She exudes the artistry and fun
of it. She and George both love the countryside. Their house rings with conversation and laughter as others find rest, safety and shelter there. Though life and home are ever full, George and Martha always seem to have time to listen, to make place, to pray.

These two have suffered much pain and prayer over both of their children. Though onlookers question their prodigal generosity, George and Martha are not fools, nor are they sentimental. They see both Grace and Hazel for who they are: immature, greedy, competitive, lustful, foolish and lost. It’s a place of great weariness, of restlessness—overwhelming at times with the sadness that neither child shares their vision or wants to grow to be like them and to grow to take their place.

As Grace returns home, and as Hazel is forced to confront her shallow understanding of the love and gift it is to be a child of this family, parenting has also become a place of fresh hope.


The Prodigal Story is a Kingdom image. Even as they take and waste their parents’ prodigal generosity, neither child perceives what it means to be a child and heir—the call and the potential to one day step into their place. Neither child desires to be like the parents. And so BOTH the older and the younger miss tremendous blessing, and the whole community suffers loss.

God, as our Father, invites us to grow up into His likeness, to become increasingly worthy partners through ever greater appropriation of His endless love and resources. These resources, He says, are already ours, but we:
• see them as scarce
• see them as insufficient
• see the Father’s ways as foolish and wasteful
• see the Father’s priorities as boring
• think our own agendas and plans are better
• compete with and judge our siblings
• dwell in fear of loss
• can’t wait until the Father releases His grip and lets us own in it all and run things our way
• miss the whole point of our adoption as heirs, that is, that children are to grow up into the character and responsibilities of worthy parents.

Again, let me invite you to spend time with this parent Jesus describes in Luke 15. What does it mean to you to be a child and an heir of this Person? By your choices, actions and responses—your treatment of His love and bounty--what role have you cast Him in?

I wonder what He will say to you through this story as you contemplate Him.

The other daughter

Back to George and Martha.

Their youngest is home, safely at rest in her room. In their relief and joy they prepare to celebrate. Can’t wait for Hazel to get home--how thrilled she will be to share the family joy!

Hazel is the older daughter. To bolster the family business, she studied community development with emphasis on cottage industry. She works and lives on the estate in a small house set apart from the other buildings. Hazel is a valuable asset as she focuses her energy on development and resurrection of arts and crafts native to the area. Her vision is towards expansion, to increase the impact and profitability of what her parents have created. She puts in long hours, coming and going as she scours the region.

Hazel is her own woman, creative and effective, but always maintaining boundaries. She is less than close to her parents and judges them less business-minded than she likes as she pursues a stronger model and prepares for the day when she will take over.

Hazel was horrified when George undermined their financial base to give Grace that crazy spa. From a place of weary loneliness she watched her parents pray relentlessly for that ungrateful beauty while Hazel toiled to recoup the loss. She can be biting in her criticism: “Get over it! She’s gone! Move on!”

In truth, she doesn’t much like the family business. Still, it’s her inheritance, and it’s already been halved and squandered. So Hazel keeps her options open, alert to a better offer elsewhere, planning what she will do once her parents are out of the picture. Meantime, though a daughter of the house, she insists on a business arrangement. She has made herself an employee with salary, contractual rights and duties, benefits and paid holidays. She toes the line, and makes sure her parents do, too.

Just as she has stayed with the business, she has stayed with her parents’ faith—interpreted in her own self-protective style.

In fact, Hazel is due back from a two-week mission trip this same evening. Not quite in time for dinner, but George and Martha are delighted she will make it home by dessert—in time to celebrate.

Hazel reads their joyful text as the plane taxis towards the terminal. Can’t believe it. She’s angry. “It’s late! I’m exhausted! I’ve paid my dues, and now this?!” The house and grounds are packed with cars; alive with light, music, laughter. Hazel pulls right by and heads straight to her cottage. And yes, when she clears her front door there is explosion and tears.

But it’s not so easy to escape, to hide. Martha was alert for her car, and both parents leave the party to find her. “What’s going on? Didn’t you get our message?”

Cornered, Hazel turns cruel. “All this time I’ve stayed with the business! Gave up good offers and worked to salvage what your blind stupidity squandered! Put up with your naïve generosity! Stuck with your church, and even supported your missions. Look at me! I only just got back—again—but no grand welcome for me! I’m just staff to you!”

“Hazel! You’ve always been here! This house, your ‘employment’—that was all your idea!Your holiday—it’s up to you. We don’t expect you to do all this. No big hooplah for you? How we’ve longed to celebrate, but you don’t enjoy our company. We respect that. We give you your space.”

“And, Hazel, there’s plenty in this business to go around. You didn’t know that?”


Spend some time again in Jesus’ prodigal story recorded in Luke 15. This time you might take the position of the elder child. How does that child perceive the parent? The family wealth and heritage? His or her position in the household? Community, talents and gifts? Could it be that you are, or have been, that child?

What do the parents’ words of regretful love bring up in you?

A prodigal homecoming

Though never my experience, I am told by some that they struggle to place themselves in the stories of the Bible if the actors are not of their gender. Men read right past stormy Martha, mournfully barren Hannah, or reflective Mary. Women are put off by soldier images, the man Abraham willing to kill his son, Adam laying blame for human sin on Eve, kings like David and Soloman with their many wives, twelve men as Jesus’ chosen, and sometimes even by the Fatherhood of God.

So here’s my offering:

“Martha, I can’t believe it! Are you sitting down?” Sarah, from the next farm over, was on the phone. “I just saw Grace coming up the road towards your place!”

“What? Grace? What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t sure at first. It’s been a long time, and she looked, well… beat. Bedraggled. Nothing like her usual flash and energy. But I’m sure it’s her!”

Martha and her husband George are farmers with a big place in the Italian countryside. More than farmers: their love of beauty, growing things, and good food can’t be contained. The estate expresses their vibrant appreciation of goodness. Besides vineyards there are flocks and orchards, a small winery and a really fine restaurant. Their deep faith in Jesus pours out in a love for people just as vital, splashing and bubbling outward to draw a whole community of craftspeople and employees who joyfully join this celebration of heritage and flavor. A separate house with lovely aspect provides retreat space for guests who seek solitude to pray and listen, drawing writers, weary well-doers, and other mystics of the quotidian.

George and Martha have two grown daughters. Hazel and Grace grew up surrounded by the beauty of the land, the exuberant bustle of creative endeavors and hospitality, and the people, conversation, peace and good books so natural to their parents’ life of creative faithfulness. Surrounded by the nurturing affluence of their parents’ love and example.

Grace is the younger. Beautiful and trendy, she experienced the farm as a small place, a limited place. She couldn’t wait to get away to university where she gave herself over to wild experience and all the “latest” of this and that, returning home less and less often. Upon graduation Grace announced that the family business wasn’t for her, and asked her parents to set her up in another business, a luxury spa in a resort town by the sea. People couldn’t believe Grace would ask such a thing. But George quietly emptied accounts and took out a mortgage to purchase Grace’s dream. “I want to let her choose.” He was disappointed. Concerned for his headstrong beauty. But peaceably certain of his path.

Grace took her father’s gift and left. Never truly interested in business, she used the spa to gain attention and status. Fast social life, flashy spending, gambling, drugs. Handsome men who would use her and leave her as the money dried up. She lost the spa within a couple of years, but kept the lifestyle by selling herself as a high-class prostitute. Well, high-class at first, then descending as her appetites increased and her body wasted and wore out. The men turned ugly and sometimes violent, until she could bear it no more. Nervous and undone, Grace could barely hold a job at a roadside diner. The boss was stingy, wasting no compassion on this one who had held herself so high and fallen so far. A day came when Grace noticed herself eying leftovers on customers’ plates.

Appalled, Grace reflected on the warm, intimate restaurant at her parents’ place. How much better to wait tables there where staff were treated with dignity and tips were generous. Or to weave in the craftshop, or even shovel stalls as a farmhand. Her parents were enterprising and successful in such an open-handed way that the standard of living had risen in the whole locality!

Galvanized by shame and memory, Grace decided to go home. She didn’t dare phone ahead for fear she would be rejected, so she hitch-hiked and then walked the back roads of the last five miles, all the while rehearsing her little, pleading speech. Wondering if she really dared to ask. Counting on her parents’ goodness.

Martha dropped the phone after Sarah’s call. “George! George!” her cry rang over the courtyard. “It’s Grace! She’s just up the road! She’s coming!”

George dropped what he was doing, and the two RAN down the road to meet Grace. Martha falling on the roadside with Grace in her arms, unable to stop caressing her and weeping; George kneeling over them as tears streamed down his lined, tanned cheeks.

Grace tried to say her little speech, but George was busy with his phone, texting the whole town. Everybody from local government officials to businesspeople to the hired hands in the fields and the security guy at the gate got the news. “Grace is back! Come! Come tonight! Rejoice with us!” Phoning the restaurant manager: “Cancel all reservations! We’re taking over the restaurant for we MUST celebrate!”

They helped Grace home to her old room, kept ready for this day. A long and fragrant bath, delicious sleep in the familiar bed, beautiful new garments brought in from the designers’ shop. Rejoicing, they prepared a banquet as Grace rested in the richness and welcome of their love.

You recognize Jesus’ oft-told story of the lost son (Luke 15). Most dub him the “prodigal” son, but I think that misses Jesus’ point. The young man is surely foolish, wasteful, and self-focused, but he gives the word “prodigal” a bad name. “Prodigal” means lavishly, extravagantly, even foolishly generous. Could be with money, but could also be with love, with welcome and forgiveness. I think the REAL prodigals here are those parents who love without limit and then keep on loving when all their good gifts are squandered and never returned. They make fools of themselves for love as they welcome a very foolish, selfish child home.

Luke 15 records three “lost” stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child. In the parable of the lost sheep, the (male) shepherd represents Jesus. In the parable of the lost coin, the God-image is a woman. A father stands for God in the prodigal story, but I have drawn my version with two parents because in the Bible God images Himself in both fatherly and motherly word-pictures: “Abba (Daddy),” a mother hen gathering chicks, a father of two sons, a mother with babe at her breast.

In these varied gender images, I trust you will find freedom to find yourself as that child looking for home.

I invite you to take out your Bible and journal and spend some time listening to Jesus tell the story in Luke 15. One way to do this is to imagine yourself in the scene. Can you put yourself in the place of that lost child, that one who has so flagrantly wasted the parent’s resources and taken advantage of extravagant love? Can you hold yourself there for 15 minutes, or an hour or two, and explore memories or current situations in your life that the story brings to mind? Or other parts of the Bible that the story reminds you about? Will you invite Jesus to speak to you truly, into your inner being, about whatever comes to light, and choose to ride the words, thoughts, images, and emotions that arise through this small slice of His Word?

And then go forth in joy and in the peace of His presence with you in your day.