…when he came to himself… Luke 15:17
It is good to be between a ruined house of bondage and a holy promised land. ~Leonard Cohen
Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. One stays home on the family farm and the younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home. He leaves the predictable comfort of hearth and home and is off to see the world and he is not looking back.
Means and opportunity can be a toxic cocktail of destruction and this boy spends everything he has on food, folks and fun. A famine gnaws the far country, like a feral dog on a bone, and the blue-blooded Jewish boy has no recourse save slopping pigs. Slop hogs or die of hunger. A perfect cocktail for repentance and restoration.
Desperate, he gets on his hands and knees to sidle an old sow to one side in order to put his face in the trough beside her. Then he pauses and thinks, “How did I get here? I don’t have to do this. I can go home.” No prodigal leaves home and heads straight for the pig pen.
No shepherd boy who writes, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want plans to one day lust after a neighbor’s wife, commit adultery, and murder her husband. No one sets out to ruin their life. They just start walking away from the Father…one step at a time.
What brings him to his senses is a memory of his father. His father is kind, but not soft. All he knows is that he needs to go home; he remembers that he matters to his father.
One late afternoon, as the father is studying that horizon, a dot suddenly appears. He watches the speck move down the road. He’s done this before. Waiting and watching for a familiar carriage of a man that only a paternal eye can discern. As this vagrant approaches, through the tattered clothes, matted beard and long hair; he recognizes the gaunt visage of his youngest son.
Jesus didn’t say that the father waited until the boy came groveling up to the porch. He didn’t say that the father waited until the boy had taken a bath. And the father didn’t lecture him: “Look at you, you’re a disgrace…I knew when the money ran out that you’d come crawling back!”
The father says none of these things.
Enter the older brother—the dutiful, rule-keeping older brother who doesn’t have a delinquent bone in his body. The older brother is out in the field working as dusk begins to fall. He’s tired and sweaty from a day of faithful labor. As he approaches the house, he catches the enticing aroma of beef cooking on an open fire. He hears music and shouting; he sees servants scampering.
He wonders what festival he has forgotten; what could be the cause of such joy and celebration? So he grabs one of the busy servants and asks what was going on. The servant, with arms filled, begins to exclaim, “Your little brother has come home! Your father has killed the fatted calf and is throwing a party in his honor. Come celebrate!”
Through clinched teeth, the older brother says, “I ain’t going in there!”
The servant takes the sad news to the father. So the father goes out and tries to get the older brother to come in. And the older brother erupts in anger, “I can’t believe that you’re allowing that boy back in the house! He took all of your money and wasted it. He’s a drunk. Think of where he’s been. Think of all the whores he’s slept with, think of our name, our reputation. No, I’m not going in that house with that…that…pig-slopper!”
In that single moment this older brother displays another side of an out-of-control life—a life distant from the father. He is so concerned about keeping the rules, underneath that functional exterior is a soul fragmented by anger and resentment. He has forgotten whose house it is. It is the Father’s house.
The younger son, looks down at an unmanageable life, he looks up to a Father who relentlessly loves him, he looks forward to putting his life back into the care and control of his father, and he never looks back at the filth of the far country. The only one looking back at the far country at this point is the older brother.
My first post-pastorate job was tearing down a condemned house. An old lady had lived in the house for decades with her countless cats. Tearing down the condemned house was metaphor of my life. I had spent years building a resume, reputation and career as a trust worthy man. But because of my arrogance and stupidity, I had seen my life abandoned and condemned.
But with this little yellow house I had already dismantled and hauled off all of the outlying buildings, porch and knocked down many of the non-load bearing walls and it was time to go after the bathroom. The vanity came out without much resistance, the sink as well. The only thing left was the tub and the toilet. I decided to deal with the toilet first.
I removed the tank and carried it out and threw it into my truck to take to the dump. I unbolted the bowl from the floor, but it wouldn’t budge. Something——time, rust, secret glue, some malicious spirit—–had corroded, sealed, or soldered the toilet bowl to the floor.
Finally, I wrapped my arms around the cold, slick and disgusting bowl and heaved with all the vein-popping effort I could find. It wouldn’t budge. I was frustrated, sad and ashamed of myself.
I remembered that only two months before I was on the board of trustees of a major Christian organization. I was a former president of the second largest denomination in the state of Colorado. I was well-respected and admired and successful in almost every way.
Now I was trying to tear a toilet out of an old cat-woman’s house. I remember wondering, “How many times had the cat lady’s bare butt sat on this seat I was hugging?” I fell back against the bathtub with the sharp smell of urine piercing my nostrils and began to weep, “Oh, God how did I get here?”
Louder than an audible voice I heard the Father say, “You are with Me and WE are going to be just fine.”
My chest heaved with sobs of pain and unmitigated joy. God was with me on the floor of the cat lady’s bathroom. I mattered to him.
“Okay,” I said.
I got up off that bathroom floor, went over the house where my wife was preparing lunch, gave her a kiss and went back and took a sledgehammer to that toilet. And every day of repentance in the last 16 years is a day further from the filth of the far country and a day of bright joy walking with the Father.
Listen to a prodigal pastor: You matter to your Heavenly Father and He alone has the power to restore you to your proper place in the family of God.
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