In the fall 2001, with the disaster of 9/11 still very much turning our national future into a huge question mark, my wife, Michelle, and I felt our personal lives were in a fog as well. We had just moved back to Pennsylvania after a year of missionary service in Kingston, Jamaica. Expecting it to be our life’s work, we returned home broken, feeling a mixture of emotion that included failure, confusion, and hope. Within a few weeks, close friends of ours living in Denver, Colorado, had their first baby, a girl, and tickets to see U2. We hopped on a plane, excited to spend time in the Rockies, a first for us, and most of all to be with our friends, Ray, Holly, and their new baby, Grace. One evening they took us to visit Ray’s uncle who lived nearby. We had never met him before, but because he had been influential in Ray’s life, I looked forward to talking with him.
I’ll never forget what he said when we walked in the door. No greeting or formalities. No small talk. Instead it was “Ah, more Bible college fundamentalists.” (Or some other word like “legalists”, “hypocrites”, etc.) I was taken aback. Having just served a year on the mission field, I thought we were fairly cutting edge Christians. His words described us as run-of-the-mill, backwards, and possibly a bit brainwashed. Who of us wants to admit that we’re not our own free-thinking, person? Surely not me. So I tried to get over myself and pick his brain a bit. Definitely a provocateur, when I asked him what books he recommended, he led with a book about Christianity and karma or Buddhism. I don’t remember the title, but I got a sense that he was purposefully trying to get under our skin (though I can imagine a book about Christianity and eastern religions could be very thought-provoking and now wish I had the title). Fact of the matter is, it worked. As you can tell, I haven’t forgotten that conversation now over ten years old.
His second recommendation, and by his tone, a much more serious one was Henri Nouwen’s The Return of The Prodigal Son. He described it as “the best book on the spiritual life” he had ever read. At the time I had never heard of Nouwen, at least not in any meaningful way. That alone is a piece of evidence that my friend’s uncle’s untested assessment of us was on the money. Nouwen’s work is astonishing in it’s power, possibly enhanced because the book, like most of his writings, is so short.
I purchased a copy of the book when we returned home and devoured it. In the past ten years I have read it numerous times, recommended it many more, and spoken on the parable or at least referenced or quoted material from the book in sermons, teachings and seminary papers. Can you tell that I would heartily encourage you to read this book as you meditate on the parable? As I think about coming home from Jamaica, and the changes in our lives over the last ten years, there is a sense in which we were prodigals returning to the father. My friend’s uncle was correct in his label. While I believe we had a Bible college experience that could perhaps be classified as generous fundamentalism, in large part because of the influence of our two sets of parents (our fathers were each professors at the college and our families were both very mission-oriented), we have still been on a journey to understand what it means to rest in the embrace of the father and understand his heart of grace.
The parable of the Prodigal, one of Jesus’ best-known and loved, is a short story with loads of emotional force and truth. I once heard a sermon describing how all three of the main characters in the story are prodigal in their own way. Prodigal Waste, Prodigal Pride, and Prodigal Grace. Perhaps you will read the story and try to match them up. You might also join us tomorrow at Faith Church as we’ll look at this story in a very different way than you might have ever experienced. Shhhh…it’s a surprise.