It’s Just Not Fair

As the first-born child I am responsible, conscientious, reliable, controlling and over-cautious! Researchers can explain why I’ve turned out this way and why a second child is more likely to be the rebel in the family, with a stronger interest in socialising than family obligations. Jesus may not have read the research, but he knew human nature, and captured these tendencies in a classic story about two brothers.

In the story we find the older son outside sulking. Earlier his younger brother had rebelled and abandoned all family responsibilities. Amazingly, the Father had understood his need to leave home and try to fill his heart with a variety of people, places and things. The Father let the lad go – even granting his request to take his inheritance with him. Unsurprisingly he wastes it all and eventually heads home to grovel for some grace from his Father. Thrilled that this young lad has finally come home the Father throws a lavish ‘Welcome home’ party. Instead of rejecting this wayward son the Dad celebrates that this son is now ready to satisfy his heart with the love of his Father.

The hardworking older brother is furious! How could his Father treat his good-for-nothing brother like this? What had that lout done to deserve such extravagance? Didn’t the Father understand how he was slogging away on the family farm? It just wasn’t fair!

Discontented and disconnected the first-born son chose to pout outside as the party continued without him. As the eldest daughter I get how this happens. When the good qualities found in a ‘proper’ child get out of balance we so easily slide into resentment and martyrdom. Our focus on doing can shut out our need for loving connection. Like the son in the story we can fail to grasp the unconditional acceptance being held out to us too.

I’ve read this story many times, but only recently noticed that both sons were given their inheritance. It seems the older son was so focussed on the tasks and commitments in front of him that he had not taken up the generosity of his Father. Too busy doing what was expected of him he hadn’t ever thought to party with his father. He hadn’t leaned into the lavish goodness waiting for him at home. As a result he totally failed to understand his Father’s generous and gracious heart.

The wise Father longs to embrace both sons, and it is the Father who seeks to melt the hard heart of his firstborn. The word used of their encounter is very powerful – Jesus said the father went and entreated him. Just as the Father had restored the younger son, the ‘good’ son also needed to experience the depth of relationship being offered him.

Recently I’ve come to see that rather than being like one or the other son we hold the essence of each within us. We all can be like a younger brother who makes poor choices and who is heartbroken when he faces up to his flaws. And like this son we may come to realise our need for restoration and seek out the Father.

Yet we also hold within us an older child who is quick to judge our failure to be as perfect as we hoped or imagined. Just as the more outwardly ‘proper’ brother failed to grasp the depth of his Father’s love it can be difficult for those of us who live ‘proper’ lives to accept God loves our flawed selves. We can be our own harshest critics. And when we cannot forgive ourselves it is hard to believe that God longs to. Forgiveness is never fair.

The story is particularly confronting for those of us who identify most strongly with the more proper son. It suggests we also need a change of heart. How challenging to see that God’s lavish love is far too generous to be fair.


This story is found in the Bible in Luke 15:11–32
For more on the youngest son see ‘God Doesn’t Vote with the Tribe’ at https://shamelessandfree.wordpress.com/2017/08/27/god-doesnt-vote-with-the-tribe/
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God doesn’t vote with the Tribe!

God doesn’t vote with the Tribe!

Recently I’ve been considering Reality TV shows and how catch phrases become part of their predictable format. Remember Survivor’s ‘The tribe has spoken’ and Project Runway’s equally blunt, ‘You’re out? Such shows tap into the human psyche’s need to divide the world into winners and losers; those we tolerate and those we write off; good guys and bad guys; those who love us and those who don’t.

This kind of thinking even happened in Jesus’ day. Back then the religious leaders were pretty sure they were in with God, and everyone else was out. These holier-than-thou leaders grumbled to Jesus, accusing him of spending too much time with the people they wanted to vote out of God’s whānau (family). In response, Jesus told a story about two brothers.

I’m Out

In the story the younger brother ditches his responsibilities as a son, and goes on a frivolous O.E. He ensures his elimination from the whānau by demanding his inheritance early – as if to say, ‘Dad, I wish you were dead.’ Those listening understood these actions confirmed he had absolutely opted out of his whānau.

Having wasted his inheritance the son loses his friends and dignity. Forced to work as a farm hand he finds himself so hungry he longs to eat from the slops he fed to the pigs. The shame that engulfs him reinforces his sense of elimination from the whānau. However, he remembers life back home and how even the farm workers were well fed. Something deep within this lad turns him back towards his Father. He can only hope his Dad will offer him some scraps of love…

The story was told to demonstrate that God does not vote as we expect. You see, God understands that like the younger son we actually need to go on a journey and explore our freedom. We have to discover that filling our lives with relationships, possessions and distractions does not heal the emptiness deep within our hearts. This is the journey we all must take before we are ready to go home. Once opting out no longer works for us we will risk the vulnerable path of returning to the heart of the Father.

You’re In

The Father in the story longs for his boy to come home. He watches and waits for a change of heart. Immediately the Father sees the son coming he rushes to hold him tight. I love how the young ratbag is held close to the heartbeat of his Father: fully known, fully loved and fully accepted.

For the religious leaders listening to the story this was an unexpected twist. What about us? Do we believe God welcomes us in? Whether we assume we’ve been eliminated or feel like others have voted us out remember, God does not vote with the tribe. Rather, God’s arms are flung wide open – always, always, always inviting us in.


This story is found in the Bible in Luke 15:11–32

An invitation to leave our tattered rags at the door

I’ve been meaning to invite some friends around to my place for a long time now, but I never seem to be organised enough to have everything ready. When I am finally ready to invite them over I wonder who will be free to come.

Jesus tells two stories in the Bible about inviting people to a party.  I wrote about how the first story portrays God’s generous invitation to each of us here: https://shamelessandfree.wordpress.com/2017/07/08/we-are-invited/

In the second story a King invites guests to a wedding banquet for his son. When the servants are sent to tell the guests everything is ready every single one of them refuse to come. Feeling deeply hurt by this rejection of his hospitality the King sends his servants out to invite anyone who would come – ‘the good and the bad alike’.

Once the banquet hall is full the King starts to mix and mingle with his guests. However, he discovers one guest who is not wearing suitable wedding clothes. Immediately the King has this guest thrown out.

At first I couldn’t make sense of the King’s reaction – he knew the guests had come at short notice; he knew they might not have the means to buy flash new wedding clothes; he knew they had come from the street corners. This harsh reaction didn’t fit with the generous invitation of the King, especially in a story Jesus told to show us what God is like.

But then I remembered being in India and Egypt where as a woman I had to cover myself with a scarf or a special garment in order to enter some sacred spaces. The garment represented a sacred transaction that allowed me to be fully acceptable in that space.

And I’ve discovered that back in Jesus’ day when a Persian King invited guests to a wedding he also ensured all wedding guests were gifted intricately embroidered white wedding garments. What a beautiful picture of the invitation God offers us. I love the idea that we are invited to leave our tattered rags at the door: rags of pain, shame and past mistakes. Yet to do so we must risk being seen as we really are. This is the step between letting go of our tattered rags and being clothed by the King.

Remember it’s not our past which excludes us from the banquet, but a refusal to accept all God offers. Unlike my intention to invite friends around God’s invitation is ready now. Dare we accept the invitation and allow ourselves to be wrapped in unconditional love and graciousness?


This story is found in the Bible in Matthew 22:1 – 14

We Are Invited

We Are Invited

I’m no party animal. In fact, for my fiftieth birthday I left the country just to ensure nobody threw me a party! Yet a story Jesus told about a bloke who hosted a banquet has captured my attention. In the story a rich and generous Host, who represents God, sends out invitations to a party.

Without text messages or Facebook to announce all was ready the Host relied on a servant to find all invited guests and inform them preparations were complete. However, every single person on the guest list now rejected their invitation. Each was too wrapped up in the trappings of their outwardly successful lives – too busy with property, relationships or possessions to come; too busy to experience the lavish welcome being offered by the Host. The Host was bitterly disappointed. With his heart, and his feast ready for sharing the servant was immediately sent out again with instructions to search far and wide for people crippled by Life. Many accepted, yet still there was room. The servant was sent out once again to look even further afield. This time the instruction was to search along country roads and look behind hedges for anyone who would come.

It’s all about the welcome

Having studied this story many times I now believe the thing about this party is not the food, it’s the welcome. The guy throwing the party oozed tender acceptance. He longed to lavish love and welcome on his guests. I’m reminded of a well-known photo of Princess Diana, arms flung wide open greeting her two young sons. Or a parent embracing their new baby with joy and delight. It’s like the tightest of hugs I give my young adult son each time we catch up. It’s being held, aware you are known fully and fully accepted. It’s everything we need when Life breaks us. Being welcomed to this party is like being welcomed home.

A few years ago I reflected further on this story and understood it held a deeper challenge for me. I realised that I had yet to accept the Host’s invitation for myself. In fact, I was hiding behind a hedge, trying to cover up a childhood which had left me emotionally crippled and fragile. Sure, I knew all about God’s generous welcome but it had not yet healed me. I understood the banquet was available but had not yet been satisfied by it.

Striving to be good enough

Subconsciously I was striving to be good enough for God. Yet how on earth do we measure ‘enough’? How do we know when we have prayed enough, served enough or given enough to earn our place at the table? It was after I messed up my life that I understood this invitation fully. When I was stripped me of everything – the protective shell I had put up, the masks, the achievements that made me appear worthy – when all of that was gone all I had left was vulnerability.

It is a huge risk to accept the invitation; to risk being seen fully, to risk the Host knowing we are less than we want to be. The intimacy of the Host’s welcome is difficult to accept when we cannot even accept ourselves. Yet we are invited to come with nothing but our messy and broken, raw and real selves.

The Host longs to wrap us in acceptance and hold us in healing embrace close to his heartbeat. Our vulnerability is perfectly matched with lavish love. As the Host welcomes us home the hunger of our hearts is truly satisfied. This is the point of the story. And it took me 30 years to work that out!


This story is found in The Bible, Luke 14:16-24

Does God really care about me?

Silence is Golden?

As anyone who has cared for a little person knows, when a preschooler suddenly goes quiet it’s best to investigate. A lack of noise may well mean they are up to something they shouldn’t be! So when my only child, a usually very loud four year old, suddenly turned quiet I needed to find out why. I found him sitting cross-legged on his bed, eyes tight shut and hands clasped firmly together in prayer. His silent plea was that God would send him a puppy.

The problem with this request was that I was terrified of dogs. My fear was so intense I knew there was no way we would ever be getting a puppy. It seemed my son was going to learn very early in life that God doesn’t always answer our prayers. But then three things happened to me!

Firstly, I had to fly to a conference, and because I disliked flying as much as I disliked dogs I took a good book to distract me. The book contained a chapter on fear! The author suggested fear is a reality we create in our heads. I felt challenged to consider whether or not I had the capacity to change the thought processes that had become my reality.

Secondly, the monthly parenting magazine I subscribed to arrived and contained an article about only children needing pets to help them learn important social and caring skills. And finally, a friend phoned to say my son needed a puppy and she had found us one! So for his fifth birthday my son received a puppy, and a mother who began to change her reality in relation to both dogs and flying!

God cares

This puppy became a constant companion, a faithful friend, and daily presence in our home. She was the evidence that God even cares about the heartfelt longings of a four year old child.

Step Three of The 12 Steps invites us to consider whether we will surrender ourselves to the care of God. It can be hard to believe God cares about us when life throws us tough stuff. Yet the arrival of a puppy pointed me to the parent heart of God. Here was the evidence our Divine Parent enjoys gifting good things as much as I love to gift good things to my son. What is good and what we want may not be the same thing, however. So this step asks us to consider if we believe God truly cares about us even when we don’t get what we want. I didn’t want a puppy, yet I benefited as much as my son through her addition to our family. I don’t ever want pain and struggle, yet so often these become the pathway to a deeper, richer life.

Jesus claimed God delights to give us good things (Matthew 7:11). When life is difficult this can feel like a broken promise. However, if we study these words we find Jesus made similar promises where the word good is replaced by Holy Spirit. It seems Jesus promises us not just any good thing – but the best gift of all – the very presence of God to guide, sustain and accompany us through all of life’s experiences. In the face of life’s challenges what matters more to me than anything else is that someone is there for me. The gift of a God-with-me-no-matter-what truly demonstrates the depth of God’s care for me.

The arrival of a puppy became a most unexpected answer to a four year old’s prayer. The arrival of a puppy started me thinking about how much as parents we delight to give our children good things. The arrival of a puppy helped me appreciate how much God, our Divine Parent cares, because we are gifted the best gift of all – a constant, faithful companion who is with us no matter what.

 

 

Finding God – like finding a good Hairdresser

Shortly after shifting to Christchurch (New Zealand) I started searching for a new hairdresser. However, it took a number of years to realise that what I really wanted was more than just a haircut.

Searching

The first salon I visited came recommended by friends. I certainly received a haircut, but it was downright awful! And so I understood the first thing I was looking for in a hair salon, was a good haircut. The second salon provided a great cut. However, each visit included long waits for service without any acknowledgement of my presence. I came to the conclusion I wanted a good cut and a warm welcome. So, the search continued…

My third attempt to find what I was looking for proved more promising – brewed coffee, excellent service, great staff, and a stylish cut. Now I had a fantastic haircut, and a welcoming experience. But then my stylist left without warning. I had found what I was looking for, only to be abandoned!

Despairing of any permanent solution, I decided to try a salon that had been just around the corner all along. The service was great, the cut fantastic. To this day, I am served brewed coffee, with a peppermint and I’m offered discounts or free gifts on every visit. They text me reminders of my appointment times and send chocolate in the post to thank me for my patronage! Finally I’ve found more than I’m looking for!

Every salon offered me part of what I was seeking. However, my initial experiences each lacked something. I began by simply looking for a haircut and concluded that what I really sought was a total experience.

Keep Searching

My search for a hairdresser reminds me of our search for a Divine Parent: we sample part of what God is like, but still haven’t experienced all that is on offer. We sense God’s welcome, but still think our hard times are punishment from that same God. We know God loves us, but can’t believe our past can be forgiven. We know we will only make it with God’s help, but struggle to trust God with every aspect of our lives.

Still haven’t found what you’re looking for? Keep searching, for Jesus promises, “Search, and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). We may be surprised to discover the God we are looking for is just around the corner!


First published in The Road of Recovery: 12 Step Meditations for Aotearoa, (Sue Hay, Flag Publications)