When I went to the Encounter Conference over Christmas break, I heard a talk by Dr. Mary Healy about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. She covered some familiar territory about the wayward son but pointed out something about the older brother that really struck me.
Even though the older son stayed at home and didn’t squander his inheritance, he was just as distant from his father as his little brother. He didn’t really know his father. He had the heart of a slave, not a son and heir. This can be seen most clearly in the resentment he feels about the celebration in his brother’s honor and his complaint, “you didn’t even give me a goat to roast with my friends.”
I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten goat, but there’s a big difference between goat meat and veal cutlet (also known as a fatted calf). It might be possible to cook a goat in such a way that makes it savory, tender, and delicious. But I’ve never heard of it. The goat that I have eaten was not quite as tough as shoe leather, but it also wasn’t as tasty as I imagine shoe leather to be. They may have had better goat recipes in 1st century Judea, but it’s still goat.
The older son complains that his father is throwing a huge celebration for his younger son, but has never even thrown a small, crummy celebration for his diligent and faithful son.
A new perspective.
It’s pretty easy to visualize myself as the younger son. His experience of feeding the pigs and longing for their food strongly resonates with that time when I was crazy in Los Angeles and eating bits of garbage I picked up off the ground. The joyful return mirrors my own conversion and the transformation that has taken place since then.
But that was nearly 15 years ago. I can’t even remember the last time I picked up a piece of garbage and ate it (the 10-second rule doesn’t count). For the last 11 years, I’ve been faithfully cultivating the Father’s vineyard at Golden Harvest Food Bank.
At the conference, I realized that I’m now in the position of the older son, griping about how I’d like a bigger house and nicer truck, and “haven’t I been working for You long enough that I shouldn’t have to live paycheck to paycheck, God?”
I fell into a different trap this time, trying to earn the Father’s love through my diligent efforts at personal reform. Not that my work at the food bank is bad, but my heart still isn’t right. I discovered that I was still in need of deeper conversion.
Seeking good counsel.
A couple of weeks after the conference, I sat down for spiritual direction with my Yoda, Mike Firmin. I shared all of this with him and he affirmed that God wanted to draw me into a deeper relationship. This revelation helped to open my eyes to a big blind spot in my spiritual life.
Rather than running away from God’s love like the younger son, I was trying to earn my Father’s love just like the older son. At the end of the meeting, I said, “I really want to be useful to God. To serve His purpose.” Something caught me, stopped me in my tracks. “No. That’s not it. I’m not a tool that He wants to use. I want to walk with Him, like a beloved son.”
My spiritual direction meeting happened to be during Mike’s break from the School of Spiritual Direction, so I was able to go to confession right afterward. What a blessing! I shared this whole meditation with the priest, who happens to be a close family friend. After hearing me out, he responded that a meditation he read earlier that day absolutely blew his mind. Each human being was created by God for a completely unique, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable relationship with God.
This is my purpose. To know God and to love Him. Everything else is just gravy.
The Icon of Fatherhood.
Later that day back in Dearing, I had to drive our brown school van over to the Almeter’s house for the next day’s carpool. All of my children wanted to come with me, because a trip with Dad in the big brown van is perfect fun.
Walking back from the Almeter’s house, this image burned into my memory. Jonathan rode on my shoulders, happily pulling what’s left of my hair. Catherine held onto my right hand and shouted “Do it again!” after I put her down from swinging her up into the air. David Jude walked on my left side, talking a mile a minute about a computer idea that was burning through his mind. Joseph ran ahead, stabbing the ground with a stick.
Four children, all unique. All beloved. Not for any reason, or because of any effort that they put into it, but simply because they exist. Because they’re mine. Four relationships, each as different from the others as candy canes and microchips. Unrepeatable.
That flash gave me an icon of God’s love for me, His love for everybody. He didn’t create me to be a laborer under His stern and judgemental eye. He created me out of a perfect act of love that stretches from everlasting to everlasting. I, who once did not exist, am created to live out this love with Him forever.
Perhaps this is what Jesus means when He says, “you must become like a little child to inherit the kingdom.
Jesus snatched me out of the darkness and saved me from complete madness. If you want to hear more of that story, check out Demoniac, now available on Amazon.