Saturday, June 18, 2011

Faithful Fathers


Father-to-be, Anthony Weiner, is still an expectant parent, but, alas, no longer a Member of Congress--all because he tweeted lewd and semi-lewd pictures of himself to some females following him on Twitter. Not exactly the optimal way to honor his wife, and not exactly the way one would want to get into the history books his child will someday read.

I’m saddened that his error or errors in judgement cost him his congressional seat as I don’t think tweeting anything other than highly classified national security data is anyone’s business. He should still be on the job.

What he did is between him and his wife and the groupies who follow him on Twitter along with his future child. These acts were in poor taste, but many of our greatest political leaders in this country have had less than ideal domestic lives. Does Chief Justice Roberts have to add another repeat after me to the Oath of Office for Obama’s second inaugural? “I will faithfully uphold the office of President of the United States and refrain from tweeting nude, lewd, and disgusting pictures of any part of my body to anyone but my wife.” The swearings in over on Capital Hill will also have to be tweaked in light of this new technology.

Fatherhood is a sacred role, and it begins well before the child is born. Faithfulness to the other parent is of great importance if that kind of commitment has been made, but faithfulness to the child is of paramount importance for the same reason that physical or emotional abuse of a child cannot be tolerated--namely because the child is helpless to defend herself or himself from the destructive results. An adult being abused at any level by a partner can ostensibly walk away from the abusive person; a child cannot. A child can only sit helplessly by and watch a parent turn from being a faithful parent into an unfaithful parent, who stops caring about the well-being of the child and makes anything and everything a greater priority than the child.

Most of you know the broad outline of the story of my favorite biblical father. A son asks his father for his share of what he would normally have inherited from his father’s estate upon the death of the father. Broken hearted the father grants the wish. In the parable, this father represents God. The son, the younger of the two sons the man had, represents all who would take the good gifts of God and use them selfishly and thoughtlessly, but there’s much more involved in why he does what he does.

The young man goes to a “far country.” Jesus doesn’t name it, but the great American poet, James Weldon Johnson, calls it “Babylon,” which had been one of widely known evil cities in the ancient world. “What happens in Babylon, stays in Babylon!” You know what I mean.

The young man had a grand old time as long as the money held out; when he ran out of money, he instantly became a nobody. The friends he thought he’d made were no where to be found; none of them answered their cell phones or responded to his texts.

To survive, this Jewish man had to take a job tending to a Gentile’s hogs on a hog farm. In order to do the job well, you can just live with the hogs and share their food too, his boss had told him. Mercy, mercy how lowly he had fallen, a financially comfortable Jewish man now broke and tending hogs, one of the high offenses in the Jewish mind.

Let’s recap using the poetic words of James Weldon Johnson:

And the young man went with his new-found friend,
And bought himself some brand-new clothes,
And he spent his days in the drinking-dens,
Swallowing the fires of hell.
And he spent his nights in the gambling-dens,
Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.
And he met up with the women of Babylon.
Oh, the women of Babylon!

Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,
Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,
Their lips like honeycomb dripping with honey,
Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;
And the jasmine smell of the Babylonian women
Got in his nostrils and went to his head,
And he wasted his substance in riotous living,
In the evening, in the black and dark of night,
With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.
And they stripped him of his money,
And they stripped him of his clothes,
And they left him broke and ragged
In the streets of Babylon.

Then the young man joined another crowd—
The beggars and lepers of Babylon.
And he went to feeding swine,
And he was hungrier than the hogs;
He got down on his belly in the mire and mud
And ate the husks with the hogs.
And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose
At the man in the mire of Babylon.

Professor Johnson mentioned “the fires of hell” is this poetic segment of his, which reminds me that the Southern Baptists at their annual meeting this week or last voted to confirm the existence of a real, burning hell. A quick word to the Southern Baptists, which I desperately wanted to put on one of our signs out front: “Voting in favor of hell’s existence doesn’t make it real.”

The son in the story was living in a hell of his own making. There are two kinds of hell, and they are both of this world. There are the hells we create for ourselves, individually and collectively, because of the poor choices we make, sometimes repeatedly. Then there are the hells created for us by those with power over us, and we are powerless, for longer or shorter periods of time, to free ourselves from them so we have no choice but to endure it until we find or someone who cares about us finds a way to set us free. The kind of hell that does not exist, I say respectfully in the presence of those who may disagree with me, is one that God creates so that there’s a place to consign God’s enemies to eternal, unrelenting pain as punishment for involvement in what displeases God.

In the story before us today, there are three people in hell. The younger son is typically referred to as “the prodigal son,” and he is in a hell clearly of his own making because he was unwilling to trust the love his father had for him and the family process that love was supposed to establish. The father’s older son is also in a hell of his own making because he has allowed jealousy, greed, and power to take charge in how he lives his life. The father is in a hell not of his own making, but trapped there at least for the time being because he profoundly loves both sons who in their respective ways use the unconditional love their father has for them to manipulate their father so that he would act according to their demands or suffer the consequences of losing their very conditional so called love for him.

A mother of teens and college kids from another church I served several years ago came into my office one day, pulled a chair up to the edge of the desk opposite the side on which I sat, and slammed her fist on the desk. (This was in the days before ministers had to routinely watch out for their safety. Today, if someone stomped into my office and started banging on my desk, I’d call the police with a subtle pressing of a single button on my cell phone.) Anyway, back to the ruckus in the Pastor’s Study in an unnamed city known for its inner harbor. She said, “I’m tired of being held hostage by my children. If I hold them to even the most basic standards of sensibility and morality, they turn on me and make me their enemy, which breaks my heart and causes pain I cannot endure. The only way I can feel any sense of love from them any more is to keep my mouth shut and appear tangentially to support what I know they are doing that is both illegal and dangerous.” I was taking in her concern and her pain when she blurted out a question to which I had no answer, “How in God’s name am I supposed to endure the conditional love and the manipulation by the children I’ve given myself to raise with nothing but unconditional love from the get go?” She was in the same hell as was the father in the story Jesus told, a hell clearly not of her or the faithful father’s own making.


The parable from Jesus, typically referred to as “The Prodigal Son,” but which should be called “The Lost Son” or “The Loving Father,” as I mentioned several weeks ago in another context, is immensely stirring to me. The parable could also be well called “The Faithful Father.”

His younger son is “lost,” not in the sense that many fundamentalist interpreters insist on using the word--meaning, for them, LOST TO GOD. There’s no such thing as being lost to God. A person may choose to live as if God is not her or his life-force and as if divine love skipped over her or him when deciding where to reside, but that line of thinking doesn’t change reality. God is the life-force keeping all living beings alive in this world, and divine love is at the core of this life-force whether acknowledged or affirmed.

The younger of the father’s two sons in this parable has captivated the minds and hearts of “Jesus devotees” as well as “Jesus samplers” for centuries; he is lost for a while, but he is not lost to God. He is lost to himself, or--another way of saying that would be--he loses himself. No one in this world is lost to God; again, that’s an impossibility, but, my dear friends and fellow seekers, there are hoards of people who have lost themselves. Some of them know it; some of them don’t. Some of those who don’t know it, know something is wrong, but they are clueless about what it is. They are listless and forlorn, but they don’t know that they’ve lost themselves.

This next part of the sermon would be a little more fun if you didn’t already know that the son finds himself and that, for him, the story has a happy ending. It would be a much better narrative experience if you felt, for the first time, the tension and doubt he felt about ever finding himself, but, alas, the wide familiarity of the story is a spoiler in that sense. I can only ask you to move along with me and not to jump ahead to the ending until I ask you to go there with me; live through the experience of the son in order to get the full impact of this oft retold tale from a man who spent his adult life telling people who had lost themselves that there was a way to get back, that there was a way to find and reclaim the lost self.

This is how I think it happened in the parable, which I must tell you was a secondary concern for Jesus. Jesus was concerned with the process of resolution, but I think it’s fair to look at the secondary details since they were a part of how the carefully crafted parable came together.

First, an overview of the process of how he came to lose himself and then a closer look at each part of that process. See if you can relate to or, at least, understand what was going on with the younger son. By the way, it’s important to remember that while most preachers who have preached on this parable have made the son a rebellious teen-ager, the fact is the story doesn’t give us any hint whatsoever about his age. If his father were old enough to have amassed enough money to leave his sons a significant financial inheritance (which most fathers to whom Jesus preached would not have been able to do because they were so poor), the father could have been on up there in years, and both of his sons could easily have been middle-aged.

Teen-agers aren’t the only ones who rebel, as some of you know who once were married to a spouse who left you to try to live a second childhood. As a matter of fact, the younger son in this story might easily have been doing just that; no wife is mentioned, but he, just the same, might have had kids of his own and a wife who knew something was up when he started going out after work several nights a week, losing weight, and buying tailored, more tightly-fitting togas. Then, the tell-tale sign, he bought a young, fast-moving camel and outfitted his new camel in red trim.

So, the process of losing oneself whether teen or middle-ager begins with a dissatisfaction with oneself and/or with one’s circumstances. Isolated from the rest of the process I’ll be describing, there’s nothing wrong with that. A hint that something needs to change can be a very good thing.

The next step along the way of losing oneself is when someone, and this is certainly not limited to men, decides that the best way to deal with this mounting dissatisfaction is not to try to change anything as it is, but, rather, to get away from it--for a while or for good.

These first two steps or levels may be entirely rational realizations; there is nothing necessarily irrational about feeling deep dissatisfaction with one’s present circumstances and a hunch that life could be better elsewhere with a fresh start, a new job, new friends, and a shedding of what in the present is making the person feel trapped in her or his dissatisfaction with life. At step three, however, the person on the way to losing herself or himself begins to lose touch with reality in some kind of way--mildly at first and then, most likely, dramatically.

There are several ways this can happen. The person can convince herself or himself that she or he can be, will be a fundamentally different person in a different context; sometimes, that may be true, but most of the time we are who we are no matter where we are. Our fears may follow us wherever we live. Our irritating habits will almost certainly travel with us and bother the new people we meet as much as they did the people we are leaving behind. If you’re a nutcase where you presently are and manage to get yourself elected to public office, you’ll be a nutcase when you get to Washington--only, now, more people will know it and be disadvantaged or hurt by your shortcomings.

The next phase of losing oneself is a break with one’s present. It may or may not involve a physical move, but there is some kind of cutting off and getting away from life as you have known it with the thought that the break will bring the solution, will relieve you of your dissatisfaction, will cause you to love life as you’ve always dreamed you could if only you weren’t held back by what has been holding you back, as you perceive it. With this comes the illusion that a new set of life circumstances will fix everything. I have to say here that there are evil or destructive people and/or situations that we have to stay away from in order to be well; I’m thinking of someone who suffers physical abuse from a significant other, for example. The most sane thing you can do in that kind of situation is get out of there ASAP.

Someone may cash in life savings to create the dreamed of new life. The money or something bought with the money is seen as the solution to all the person’s problems. Unless you were hungry and homeless in your situation of dissatisfaction, money and materialism will not solve your problems and will not bring you happiness. That’s part of the illusion, though, and that’s the major part of the process leading to losing oneself. Something else, someone else, some place else can make me happy, can give me the fulfillment I don’t have now; therefore, I will submerge myself in that “else” and let the old life go completely.

When that happens, you’ve lost yourself. I’ve lost myself. The longer we live in that place, in that illusion, the more difficult it will be ever to find ourselves when the illusion has run its course, and we find ourselves in what we just knew was our dream place or our dream circumstances. We may well find ourselves as unhappy as or significantly unhappier than we were before we lost ourselves. Yes, indeed, it’s possible to wake up one morning far, far away physically or psychically from where we began and have no idea who we really are or who we were.

Some people who lose themselves never find themselves again. Some make an effort to find themselves, and some of them will succeed; others won’t. Those who try to find themselves may, on the way back, do something disgusting or distasteful for a while because finding a lost self isn’t an instantaneous or necessarily a proud process.

The road back may be tough, and there is absolutely no assurance that when we get back to where we began we will still have a place or will be able to experience life precisely as we experienced it before. We may find ourselves in spite of that, however. The thing is, there are absolutely no guarantees.


In Jesus’ parable, the younger son leaves, and the father has no reasonable choice, really, but to let him go. In the companion parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, God as the shepherd and God as the woman who lost one of her ten coins, all the money she had in the world, look diligently for what is lost. In this parable of the Lost Son, however, the faithful father can’t go out looking for his son. He knows that under these circumstances, all he can do, as heartbreaking as it is, is wait to see IF his son will ever come back home or not. This is an insight into the God who loves without coercion. God will not force any of us to acknowledge God in us or receive the love God extends to all.

This parable has a happy ending for the father and his lost son; the other son is as frustrated as he can be. He consigns himself to the hell he has created just for himself. The son who had lost himself begins to have glimpses of the self he’d lost while he slops the hogs and sobers up enough to take in the fact that he is satisfying his hunger with the same cuisine thrown out to the hogs. He remembers the man he had been back then--a person of dignity and responsibility, even if his older brother hadn’t thought so.

James Weldon Johnson again:

Young man, come away from Babylon,
That hell-border city of Babylon.
Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,
The wine and whisky of Babylon,
The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;
Fall down on your knees,
And say in your heart:
I will arise and go to my Father.

The prodigal son has plenty of time to think there in the pig sty, and who he was, “the real him,” comes back to him completely. The self he lost is found. Many people aren’t nearly so fortunate. What he can’t control is how others whom he hurt in his determination to have become someone else will feel about him, how understanding or forgiving they will be.

His big brother is entirely unforgiving, but the younger son hit the jackpot with his father. Remember, in the parable, the father represents God, the God who couldn’t go out in search of someone who thought that he wanted to distance himself from God. Jesus tells the story of the reunion with such poignance that it’s hard to keep from feeling a tear in your eye. The father, probably an older man, as explained earlier, is sitting on the porch of his big old farm house--looking constantly down the road that the son would have to use to get back home if he were still alive and ever decided to come back.

We realize he has found himself when he decides that he can’t just prance back into his father’s house and pick up where he left off, as if all were well, that he had just taken a little vacation. In fact, the only way that he would give himself permission to dare to speak to the father whose heart he had broken in more ways than one was to ask for a job as a hired hand, living in shelters with other hired hands, and eating the foods prepared for them, which were hardly delicacies from the big house, but a hell of a lot better than hog slop.

One day what papa saw was too good to be true. He saw his son walking up the road toward home, the road some years ago the son had hurried down to get away from who he had been. Fathers, especially older men, didn’t run to meet their children, but this one did. He ran as best he could with creaky hips and arthritic knees to get to his baby boy whatever the son’s age. He threw his arms around his son and kissed him.

He told his indoor servants to put on a big bash, “...for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he lost himself, but found himself again. What greater thing is there to celebrate?”

There are hosts of reasons you might have lost the real you; sometimes bad theology tells you that you are fundamentally bad and must change in order to be right with God. The parable of the Lost Son helps us find out how we lose ourselves and how we may, nonetheless, find ourselves in the embrace of the God who loves and the God who waits patiently and expectantly while we look for the self we lost. We can never be lost to God in that sense, though God will not be able to chase us and drag us, force us out of the pig pen we have chosen as our abode. God can only wait for us to dig ourselves out of there and make the journey back to ourselves; God’s love will not falter or fail, but part of the pain-filled love of a faithful father is to allow his children the freedom to head out in search of themselves, knowing the most he will be able to do is wait in hope for his child’s return, knowing that some children of all ages never find themselves and never return home. A parent’s most unconditional and selfless love may not be forever returned or reciprocated by her or his children.

The self-centered older brother appears, on the surface, to have been more of a model child than his brother, and in the sense that he never left his father’s side or shirked the responsibilities of managing the plantation that was true. He was just as greedy and just as self-centered as his younger brother, however. He wanted his share of the father’s money just as badly as the younger son wanted his. He had lost himself also; the evidence wasn’t so obvious, though. He had become the person he thought he had to become to win and keep his father’s favor so he would get all that was coming to him and more. As the older son he was already going to get the larger share of the father’s bequests; when his little brother left and broke the father’s heart, the older brother was delighted. If the younger brother never showed back up again, even though it meant an unmendable heart for their father, the older son didn’t care. All he could think about was getting all the money with the younger son out of the picture. He was heartless and self-serving. He lost himself to a hell of greed, money worship, and distorted or forgotten memories of who he’d been raised to be.

Though next door neighbors, the faithful father could no more force a change in his older son than he could in his lost younger son. If there was to be a change in either case, the faithful, loving father could only wait and hope and pray.

Ironically, the son who appeared most faithful is, at the end, lost to his greed, the lone resident of a hell he’d constructed for himself. The younger son, as impossible as it had seemed, is the one who finds himself and inches back home in humiliation to ask his father not for love, not for a fresh start, but for a job as a hired hand, nothing more. It was the faithful father’s exuberant love that tossed that idea! “You’ll never be a hired hand; this is your home, and we are your family. You are my son; you were lost so long I thought I’d lost you forever though my love never failed. But you found yourself and your way back to those who embrace you with love. All we can do is celebrate.”

I hope for the rest of his life and especially as he aged, perhaps with children of his own, that the younger son came to feel something of what his faithful father had felt for him all those years of having nothing to go on but hope. Sometimes, that’s all a faithful father has to get through a day.


No comments:

Post a Comment