I was sitting on the porch swing this evening as the setting sun painted the sky in orange and green before yielding the stage to the first fireflies of summer. One by one the lanterns that line the walk, nestled between roses, peonies, and Russian Sage began to glow as the sky darkened.
And I was thinking of you.
For a moment, I could see you so clearly running and jumping in the twilight as you chased those tiny, magical spots of light, dropping them one by one into a mason jar. I mourned for that boy, so full of life. You no longer run or jump. You barely even speak except to tell me what you want or to vent all of that anger in your soul my way, and I miss you my boy.
This living loss is hard sometimes. Most of the time, I pray but tonight I found myself desperately longing to tell you a story once again. Stories are magical. In them we find hope, mystery…and the truth that gives meaning to our lives.
I wanted to tell you the story of The Running Father.
Once, long ago, in a land far away (isn’t that how all the best stories begin?) there was a village. This village, like all villages, was governed by its own set of cultural rules, and regulations. We are the same. Last week, I heard about a man who was arrested for riding a unicycle naked. He said he “liked the way it felt” whatever that means. Anyway, he was arrested because riding a unicycle naked is unacceptable in our culture. There are many other examples, of course, but I knew this one would get your attention and so I included it. Anyway, this village, long ago and far away, had its own set of cultural norms.
First of all, in this culture family and friends were very important. Village life was “close knit” you might say. If a man had even a small decision to make, he might discuss the problem with family and friends for hours before coming to a decision. Another difference in this culture and ours is that family stayed close together. When a man married, he would simply build his own set of rooms onto his father’s house. This large, extended family lived in almost a compound like setting- closely sharing work, play, responsibilities, and resources.
Another hallmark of this culture (and I know you are getting bored, so I will be brief) is that older men in the village were greatly respected. A man’s sons were expected to adhere to a stringent code of honor when it came to their father. The father, was expected to conduct himself in a dignified manner at all times. Everywhere he went, he would walk slowly and with great decorum, and his word was to be obeyed and honored.
There was a man in this village who had two sons. The older son certainly had his own issues which are a story for another time. For now, I want to tell you about the younger brother, and his father.
One day, the younger brother came to the conclusion that he had taken all he could take. It is safe to assume that his dissatisfaction with his home life stemmed from a difficult relationship with his older brother, but for whatever reason this younger son’s focus and concern narrowed to one point- what he wanted.
So, he did what no son in his culture would ever do, he went to his father and said,
“Hey Dad, I wish you were dead.”
Because he wanted his inheritance. His inheritance would clear the way for him to do what he wanted, when he wanted, where he wanted. It would have been perfectly acceptable, and even expected for his father to be outraged and refuse, but this was no ordinary father.
His father did what no reasonable father would do, he went ahead and gave away all he had to his sons before his death.
This, of course, was an issue that impacted the entire extended family but the younger son didn’t care. He did not want the responsibility that came with the inheritance, he just wanted the cash, so he sold off his share of his father’s possessions at rock bottom prices and fled with the cash to a foreign land to find the life he always knew he deserved.
This was a pretty big risk, because in this culture if one lost his inheritance to a group of no-good outsiders, it was a grave offense. When the individual came home, and the village found out about it, they would automatically dispense village justice. A mob would surround the offender, and break a clay pot at his feet signifying that he was for all purposes dead to the entire village. From that point further, no one would help him, give him a job, or even speak to him. He would basically become the walking dead. It was a chilling fate.
So, off the younger son went, gold jingling in his pocket to a foreign land. Once he arrived, he needed to begin establishing his place in the social order, so he gave some parties, bought some gifts, lived the big life. The intention was that all of his “investments” would help him establish himself in this new land. It was his form of “networking” if you will. Day by day, his bag of gold became lighter and lighter, and then one day, it ran out completely. That was the day all of his new “friends” abandoned him.
It was also about the time a terrible famine struck the land.
The younger son was in trouble. He was far away from home. He was an outsider no one respected or trusted. He was out of money and food was scarce. So, he begged and pleaded until he found someone to hire him for the most disgusting job he could have ever imagined. He was in charge of feeding pigs.
And oh, he was hungry. Pigs, I guess, have stomachs of steel, and they can survive on tough, fibrous seed pods, so that is what they were eating. Day after day, the young man fed the pigs, and enviously watched them filling their bellies with the pods. He so wished he could eat seed pods, but he couldn’t and so he was slowly starving to death. No one had compassion on him. No one gave him anything at all.
As he sat there day after day, he had a lot of time to think, and remember. I would like to tell you he had this huge moment of decency and repentance like…
“I have been such a jerk! My Dad loves me and was always good to me. What did I do?”
But, alas, this did not happen. What did happen however, is that he remembered his father’s house, and the bounty therein. As a matter of fact, even his father’s servants had all the bread they could eat. Maybe if he played his cards right, he could sweet talk his Dad into giving him a job. So, he spent a little more time coming up with what he thought was the perfect scheme and the perfect speech to accompany it. He decided to ask for a job, fake a little humility and say what he thought his Dad would want to hear. Then, he could earn the money back he had lost and save face with the village without enduring that horrific pot breaking, walking dead business.
It was a good plan, so he headed home to use it. The walking was difficult in his weakened state but finally the day came when the village was in sight. He looked down at his bare feet, and the filthy rags which hung about his emaciated body. He paused for a moment to try to dust off a bit of the dirt but it did not help much. Then, he took a sniff of his armpits, and found to his chagrin that he stunk worse than the pigs. There was nothing else he could do, however, so he began to make his way to the village gate, reciting his speech as he went along.
But his father had been watching, and even though his son had taken all he had, and broken his heart, he had been hoping for his return. When the son was still a long way off, the father spotted him in the distance. He knew all too well what would happen when the village saw his boy. There would be the mocking, the chanting, and then the pot would fall, break, and his son would be lost. So, the father once again did what no father would do, he picked up his robe like a little girl, and ran.
He ran through the village streets as his neighbors stared in horror. He ran as young boys began running along behind shouting and mocking him in his shame. He ran ahead of the crowd as they moved toward his guilty, filthy son. He ran ahead of all that was reasonable, and fair. He ran ahead of justice, taking his boy’s shame upon himself.
When he reached the boy, he quickly gathered him in all his filth into his arms, kissed him on each cheek, and called for a banquet in his honor. It was outrageous, but what could the villagers do but go along with it?
Until that moment, the boy thought he had it all figured out. He even began the first few lines of his speech, but when he saw the father’s sacrifice for him, he was overwhelmed.
It was a costly love.
So, I was thinking about you tonight as I sat on the porch swing, my son. I was wishing I could tell you about the wonder of this story because for too long the image of God in my head was one of a tyrant, or a cold and callous judge, but now whenever I think of God, I see him running towards me, gathering up my shame in his wake, to redeem me with his costly love. He runs ahead of judgment. He runs ahead of all that is reasonable and fair to save me, a rebel.
He ran though I despised him, rejected him, and screamed and cursed at heaven as I demanded all I wanted, and all I thought I deserved. He ran anyway. I don’t think I will ever get over that.
And so, I wanted to tell you about The Running Father, my son. I wanted to tell you, because he is running for you, and his arms are spread wide with costly love.