Feb 3 2011

In God We Trust

“In God We Trust.” In the United States, we all recognize this phrase, which appears on all of our money. Obviously, this is hardly the case as far as our nation goes—and for that matter, it’s not always easy for we who believe, either.

To a child, there are few things more important than trust. Because children are not self-sufficient, they must rely on others—typically, and preferably, families—for basic necessities like food, shelter and clothing, as well as love and companionship. It’s a terrible, terrible thing when children grow up without any or even some of these things. Unfortunately, this is common in many parts of the world, and is not that uncommon in our own country.

At some point, even children with good families learn that their parents are fallible, or at least not omnipotent. Parents cannot always provide everything a child wants or needs. They can’t walk the halls with them at school to protect them from bullies, and they can’t keep family pets from being run over by cars, no matter how much they would like to.

However, we have a friend who “sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). This does not mean that God will always keep the bullies away, or ensure that pets live forever. However, while parents often don’t seem to understand the stresses of being a child, our “closer than a brother” God does understand, and is there to provide comfort, understanding, and healing.

There are unfortunate teachings prevalent today that leads some people to believe that God is there to make us healthy, happy and prosperous. This “Santa” notion of God is one of the worst things we can teach our children. The reality is that life is hard, but God is faithful.

When I was a child, most often sermons were taken from the Gospel readings of the day. I grew up listening to the words of Jesus, as he talked about God’s faithfulness. “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?” “Consider the lilies of the field.” And, more specifically, John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

As a young boy I understood that it was not God’s plan for us to be trouble-free, but that God was there to see us through. After all, Jesus himself had to suffer. And, Jesus promised that God would send the Holy Spirit to be a comforter—not to make us comfortable.

Life on the prairies of Minnesota was hard; I often joke that where I grew up, pain and suffering was a way of life, not something to sue others for. The winters were grueling and often dangerous, with below zero temperatures, ice and snow. The summers contained their share of hardships as well. I learned how to drive a truck at age 12, and from then on, my summers were busy helping on the farm (before tractors had air-conditioned cabs).The news was full of the war in Vietnam. People I knew died from sickness and accidents. Crops were destroyed by hail. Typically, we were poor.

In all of this, we trusted in God. Not that this is anything to brag about; in fact, I think we trusted in God because we really didn’t have any alternatives. Yet in spite of these hardships, I believe I had a happy childhood. God proved faithful, whether we were in times of abundance or in need. While I didn’t always understand the reasons why (for that matter, I still don’t), I grew to understand that God could be trusted. In this world we will have tribulations, but we rejoice, knowing that Jesus has overcome the world. This is our hope.

  1. What kind of God were you taught, a God who is there to make your life comfortable and keep us prosperous and healthy, or a God who comforts us during our times of need?
  2. How does your view of God change how you approach life and deal with trials?


Sep 10 2010

Carry On, My Extravagant Son

When we hear the word “prodigal” today, we tend to think “wayward” or “wandering.” However, the word actually means “wasteful” or “extravagant.” As a joke, people will often greet someone who returns after an absence with “the prodigal returns!” I doubt very much they mean they have been wasteful, only that they were, for a time, absent. The title given to this parable, The Prodigal Son, seems to be describing the son’s attitude with regard to his father’s (and his) wealth, not that he left for a time.

The fact that we have redefined the term “prodigal” from this parable possibly shows that the emphasis that most teaching on this parable is on the son’s being lost and subsequently found. This is certainly fitting, as the parable is the 3rd in a series of three parables on this theme of finding lost things. First there was the lost sheep—the sheep was not bad or sinful, just stupid. The shepherd leaves the 99 to find and retrieve the stupid lost sheep, and he rejoices to bring him home. Next we had a lost coin; again, not the coin’s fault. The woman cleans house to find the coin, and she, too, rejoices.

In both circumstances, there was a loss experienced to someone other than the lost items themselves. In fact, we don’t even know that the stupid sheep knew he was lost; certainly the coin didn’t care. While the third story is a bit more complex, I believe there is some continuity in all three of these stories: There is a loss suffered to the main character—the shepherd, the woman, and the father. There is action on the part of the main characters to retrieve that which was lost. The shepherd left the flock to go search, the woman cleaned house, and the father ran to his son. Then, of course, there was rejoicing.

It is important to keep in mind the context for this teaching. Jesus was telling these stories for the benefit of Pharisees who were complaining that Jesus spent his time hanging with sinners; in other words, people who were “wasteful,” or perhaps merely “lost.” They thought that any “good” Jewish teacher should spend time with those who were, in their minds, not lost. Rather than being wasteful with God’s mercy and grace, the Pharisees were anything but extravagant; if anything, they were quite stingy.

One of the points Jesus was making was that God does not “help those who help themselves.” God—the good shepherd, the woman, the good father—willingly and purposefully goes after those who are lost, and invites all who are around to be extravagant with him in rejoicing at their return.

There have been many times in my life where I have been, perhaps, a bit too extravagant when it comes to God’s grace (don’t everybody yell “Amen!” at once…). And, there have been other times when I have doubted God’s extravagance, especially concerning others who, in my opinion, don’t deserve such extravagant treatment.

It often seems that God’s mercy and grace are wasted on those who don’t deserve it. But then, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Questions:

  1. What has been your understanding of the meaning of the word “prodigal?”
  2. Considering the definition “extravagant” or “wasteful,” have you ever considered yourself a prodigal?


Sep 6 2010

When God Ran

My former pastor and continued friend, Ken Blue, calls the parable of the Prodigal Son The Greatest Story Ever Told. I am guessing that of all of Jesus’ parables, this one — found only in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32) — has to be the most well-known. I knew is well as a child, hearing it in Sunday School as well as in church, both as the Gospel reading for the day and as a few sermon topics.

It is a truly great story. It has everything (except for a love interested): family issues, a great deal of sin, inner conflict, sibling rivalry, a change of heart, and a happy ending. (Well, sort of — the elder son still has issues at the end of the story, and as I’ll deal with in an upcoming post, it’s up to the audience to determine how that resolves.)

As with most people (as is obvious from the popular title of the story) as a child I was focused on the younger, prodigal son. The prodigal is the obvious focus, as this is who we follow in the story; we really don’t know much about what the Father and the good son were up to while the prodigal sowed his wild oats.

The story begins like an old Vaudeville joke; imagine George Burns: “A man had two sons…” Jesus, of course, was a great storyteller, and no doubt had the crowd’s undivided attention as he began (actually, this is the third in a series of three stories about the recovery of something presumed lost).

The younger son, according to Jewish law, would get a lesser portion of the inheritance when the father died. Rather than wait around for this, and obviously not placing any value in his relationship with his father, requests his share of the inheritance now. Essentially, he says, “Our relationship is as good as dead now, so let’s quit pretending.”  The father, rather than just kicking him out into the cold, agrees to the son’s demand.

The prodigal takes off and starts to party. He breaks as many commandments as he can, until suddenly he finds himself stung out, broke, homeless and hungry. He’s got a part time job feeding pigs, perhaps the worst job a good Jewish boy could imagine.

He realizes that there’s food back at his Father’s place, and he devises a plan. At this point, he still isn’t looking for relationship, nor is he looking for forgiveness. He just wants food. He knows his father’s business, and figures that his father may hire him on and let him sleep in the barn; at least he’ll be inside.

The amazing thing about this story is that if you read it a certain way, the prodigal remains a jerk throughout the story. As a child, I’m not sure I understood this part; in fact, most people don’t seem to. Most people imagine that some kind of repentance happened, that the prodigal’s “I am no longer worthy” speech indicates humility and that he is mourning the loss of relationship. However, the son’s speech could just be a clever attempt to diffuse his father’s presumed anger so he can make his pitch: “Hey, I know I blew it, so don’t preach at me. I’m not asking to rejoin the family, just let me be one of the day-laborers.”

I was a good kid, always afraid of getting in trouble or having my parents mad at me. I was, for the most part, Charlie Brown. I couldn’t really imagine why any son would act like the prodigal; that part of the story was a mystery to me. I understood, however, that the father in the story symbolized God, and that even if I did run off and do bad things, God would always be my father. He would never stop loving me, and it didn’t matter whether I was truly repentant or not; all that mattered was that I knew where my home was.

To some people, whether the prodigal really repented or not is of great importance. God will forgive you and welcome you back, but only if you’re really, sincerely sorry. Any attempt to scam God, and you’re out on your ear. You’ve got to really know that you’re a sinner, and that God by rights should be dangling you by your feet over the fires of Hell.  If you can manage to scrape together enough sincerity, God will turn back into the loving Father-God.

In truth, it doesn’t matter. Pay close attention to the father’s response — he doesn’t even listen to the prodigal’s speech! As soon as he sees his son, before he can even hear him, the father is running down the road to embrace and welcome his son home. It didn’t matter to the father why his son was coming home, only that he was within reach.

You see, the father never disowned the prodigal; the son may have wandered off, and he may have imagined that he was an orphan, but in reality he never lost his place in the family. We remain children of God by His love and grace, not ours.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38,39 NIV)

Questions:

  1. How have you viewed the son’s repentance? Have you ever considered whether the son was sincere or not?
  2. Have you ever identified with the prodigal?  If so, how did you view God’s attitude toward you?


Aug 25 2010

Wheatfield Trust

A close cousin to the truth that “God loves me” is the belief that God is absolutely trustworthy. When I was a child, I was taught that we could trust God, no matter what. As Psalm 55:22 says,

Cast your cares on the LORD
and he will sustain you;
he will never let the righteous fall.

This simple truth – what some would call an over-simple truth, or even a fairy tale – was taught in Sunday School and also reinforced in the “grown-up” Sunday morning sermons, with topic verses such as “Remember the lilies of the field… (Matt. 6:28)” and “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? (Matt. 10:29)”

The “rugged individualism” of American culture would tell us to be self-reliant, trusting in our own abilities and hard work to succeed. Trusting in God is seen by many as merely a cop-out. However, trusting in God’s provision was a way of life in northwestern Minnesota, which was a completely agrarian culture and full of hard-working folk who expected very little in the form of hand-outs. When I was growing up, the area consisted mainly of small family-owned wheat farms. There was no pretense that we could control much of anything. We tilled the soil, planted and fertilized; the rest was out of our control.

I lived about four miles from the Red River, which boasts some of the best farm land in the world. What that meant was that about half of our land could be flooded every spring. Eventually it would be dry enough to cultivate and plant. And with one 3-month growing season, we didn’t have much time to spare. As the grain would grow and ripen, hail storms were our greatest fear – one good storm could wipe out the majority of a crop. Storms, it seemed, could come out of nowhere. It could be clear in the morning, then all of a sudden the air would change; in an hour, it could be pouring rain.

If we made it to late summer without losing any crops, we battled the rains which always seemed to show up the week of harvest. After the grain was cut and laid into swaths to dry, every rain diminished the value of the crop by washing away color and nutrients, and delaying the harvest for another couple of days. It was like watching your money washing down the drain.

Until the grain was sold or put into storage, nothing was for certain. Even then, there were risks. Grain is a commodity, sold on the open market similar to how stocks are traded. With one shot for a year’s income, sometimes farmers would take out loans with the crops as collateral; other times, grain would be sold short if the prices were high enough, with a guaranteed future delivery. Will the price drop, or go up? We were always subject to the whims of the grain markets.

We trusted in God’s providence. We could control nothing; all we could do was to be faithful and plant the seed. (All this was much too stressful for me, which is why I finally gave up farming.)

Living a lifestyle in which we knew the world was out of our control, trusting God was a logical decision. As Peter put it so well, “Where else would we go? (John 6:68)” Of course, many of us know that even in a culture of semi-monthly paychecks and 401(k)s, nothing is guaranteed. In the last couple of years, millions have learned this the hard way. Jobs disappear, as do investment portfolios, homes and retirement plans.

The myth of self-sufficiency dies hard. But when you’re a child growing up around people who are wise enough to see “from whence our help comes,” it’s perhaps easier to learn trust.

Questions:

  1. Have you ever stopped to think about the culture in which you grew up?
  2. What did your culture as you were growing up teach you about trust?