Tuesday, January 12, 2010

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.

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