The Teller and Star of the Best Story Ever

DSC_0743The “Prodigal Son” is one of the best-known stories in the world: a rebellious child runs away from a loving father; the father mourns; the child returns; the father welcomes; the sibling struggles with the restoration. (Luke 15:11-32)

Now I know the story speaks of “sons,” but because I am a woman and because many who read this blog are women, I want to remind us that we can fully identify with these two sons. We know we can do this because of how Jesus treated women and because of Paul’s words later in the New Testament. So even though I’m going to refer to the two characters as “sons” simply because I think it might be confusing if I didn’t, we can substitute “daughters” if it helps us to identify more easily.

The first “character” in this story is this wonderful Father figure. He loves His children. He longs for them to have fullness of life with Him. There’s no hidden story or sin. He is what we see: the beautiful, perfect Dad.

This Father has two children. (There’s actually a third one, but we’ll get to Him later.)

One of his kids is called the prodigal.

It’s an accurate title. This kid thumbs his nose at all his dad stands for. He is rude and disrespectful to him. We Westerners can’t quite get the full cultural ramifications of what he does in this story, but he is basically saying, “You’re standing in my way, old man. I don’t want to wait until you’re dead to do what I want to do. So fork over now what’s going to be mine when you kick the bucket, and I’m outa’ here. I don’t care about your way. I think all this love and peace stuff is boring and stupid. I want some excitement, and I want it MY way.”

He’s an obvious prodigal. Obvious. Some of us identify with this prodigal. We think, “Yes, that’s me!”

But some of us identify more with the other son. He’s the one working out in his dad’s business. He’s the one who looks like he’s his dad’s right-hand man. This guy appears pretty good, squeaky clean in fact. He’s very focused on pleasing his Dad, and he wants the other brother and everyone else to see that he’s the “good child.”

Somehow we see that as “better” than the prodigal’s attitude.

It’s really not, though.

Because deep down, this son is just as self-serving as the prodigal.

He doesn’t really “get” the Father’s way of living either. He doesn’t think it’s measurable enough, so he adds rules of his own. He wants the Father to look at him and say, “Good job! You’ve come up with such a great system. Why didn’t I think of that? This, yes, this, is how I should measure people’s rightness.”

This child is a legalist.

Not long ago I read a fantastic quote by Max Lucado. “Legalism,” Lucado wrote, “is the search for innocence—not forgiveness.”

The legalist child doesn’t want God to be bigger than he is. He wants to think that his level of “goodness” is better than God’s, so that God has to declare him INNOCENT.

He’s not seeking forgiveness. That would mean he was WRONG!

But he is.

He’s missing the mark just like the prodigal is! Neither of their ways—the lawlessNESS or the nit-picky rule-keeping—is anything like the beautiful GOODNESS of the Father.

The prodigal is at least honest about his waywardness. He leaves.

But the hypocrisy of the “good son” becomes very evident when the prodigal returns and the father’s will and desire are drastically different from the “good son’s.”

The father wants to forgive and restore and love and celebrate and move forward.

Not the “good child.” He wants to hold grudges and remember wrongdoing and use the “rules” to condemn the prodigal and exalt himself. His “goodness” is revealed to be self-serving, bitter, and proud.

They are BOTH prodigals.

WE are prodigals. All of us. Like one or the other of the two kids in this story—or somewhere in between them.

The Father is holding out His arms to all the prodigals. “Come to me!” He calls. “I’m looking for you. I want to hold you in my arms and heal your heart wounds and draw you into right, real relationship with ME! Come into the house and celebrate with me.”

Somewhere inside us we want this—but we also don’t want it. We’re not capable of choosing it for ourselves because we’re not good—and true, unselfish goodness is alien to our core nature.

If we stopped right here—with the Father’s open arms and our inability to be in His embrace—this story would be a tragedy.

And if some regular human were telling the story, it would be nothing more than a fairytale, a story told to entertain for a few minutes before we have to return to “real life.”

But the storyteller, Jesus, is not a regular human being. And he didn’t tell the story as mere entertainment. He told it because He has the power to make it come true—for each of us—and He wants it to become true.

Though He is the narrator of the story, He is also IN it. He’s the Son of the Father’s heart, the perfect representation and exact image of Him. He reveals to us in the flesh the beauty of the Father and the Father’s way. When we look at Him, we see our need for something bigger and better than ourselves.

In the story, the prodigal did both of these in the far country. In the pigpen he realized how lost he was. Then he thought about his Father and saw clearly the Father’s goodness. He went home because he knew the Father would extend mercy. (Little did he know how MUCH mercy the Father would extend.)

At this point, we still have a problem. Jesus awakens in us the realization of the Father’s perfection. In Him we clearly recognize that WE are not perfect. But if He simply told the story, and then didn’t DO anything more, we would still be in the far country like the prodigal or laboring in the fields with bitter hearts like the legalist.

We are simply not capable of true, eternal heart change.

But the Storyteller did more.

He died.

And through his death, He became the Way to the Father’s embrace.

He made the story Truth rather than fiction.

He delivered real Life that does not disappoint—unlike any fairytale we can imagine.

He accomplished LIFE through horrific death. That vertical line of His cross created a way for relationship between God and humanity. Clothed in the perfection of Christ, the Father can pull us close to His perfect heart. You and I both know that we couldn’t be there on our own.

Now here’s another wonderful thing about the cross of Christ. Its horizontal line created relationship between humans. When we’re gathered together at the foot of the cross, awed by the Christ and the Father’s perfection and goodness, all our own personal differences fade into nothing. The prodigal and the legalist can have relationship with each other because coming to the Father requires a stripping away of the outer to find we are all the same underneath. Put us in the light of eternity and in the presence of the holy, wholly good God, and those outward differences are GONE! Then we can relate—in reality, in truth and honesty, without pretense and masks, without competition.

Jesus is the Teller of the Best Story, in which He stars as our Way, our Truth, our Life.

NOTE: This is the script of a Gospel presentation I recently prepared, so it may sound more like a “talk” than a blog post in some spots.

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I need the Gospel–everyday

Yesterday afternoon nine-year-old Jake told me he needed to talk to me “in private.”

“Mom, lately I’ve been struggling with the idea that God is mad with me.”

“Why, sweetheart?”

“Because I haven’t been reading my Bible as much lately, but when I am reading it, I’m doing it so He WON’T be angry with me, so I know my reasons are bad, so I think He’s angry with me.”

Oh, we don’t need a DNA test or even pictures of childbirth (thankfully there are none!) to have proof that this child is MINE!

“Do you think Jesus is mad at you?”

“No.”

“Well, who is Jesus?”

“He’s God.”

We talked about how Colossians tells us that Christ is the exact likeness of God. He is the visible representation of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:16, AMP version). Christ is not different from the Father God. Rather, He reveals Him as He is to us weak, frightened, rebellious (which only makes us more frightened) children. Through Jesus–and because of what Jesus did for us–we can know God and His love for us.

“But what about my reasons for reading the Bible? How can I read it if my reasons aren’t good? How do I make them good?”

Simply more proof that Jake is my son!

Another conversation—about how we can’t make them good, only God can, and He knows full well that we aren’t capable of purely pure motives in the here and now anyway. “We just tell God,” I said. “We tell Him we know that our hearts aren’t right, that we can’t make them right, and we ask Him to help us. Then we do what we know is good and right to do—even with our impure motives—because we trust that God can work good and right out of them.”

It was a joy to have this “private talk” with Jake.

It was also necessary.

Not just for him, but for me.

I needed to be reminded of the Gospel, of Grace.

In preaching the Gospel of God’s marvelous Grace to Jake, I was preaching it to myself.

And I need that—every day.

Not-random-at-all acts of Gospel

Dave and the boys with Papa, Dave's dad. What a cute bunch of guys!

Dave and the boys with Papa, Dave’s dad. What a cute bunch of guys!

When we were together with my husband’s side of the family over Christmas, my father-in-law made an announcement: “For my birthday this year I don’t want you to buy me presents. Instead, I want you to do random acts of kindness during the week leading up to my birthday.”

His birthday is February 1, so last Monday we received our instruction letter, which included suggestions and the number of RAKs (Random Acts of Kindness) for each of us. Each adult was asked to do six RAKs and each child/teen three. The total added up to his age (which I’m not revealing).

I left my house most mornings last week thinking about those RAKs. I prayed about them. I created extra time in my morning routines so that I wouldn’t feel rushed, so I could see opportunities and then engage in them. At night our kids shared their ideas for RAKs with each other and us. They were excited about telling them to Papa at the end of the week. There was something a little different about how we approached each day.

We had a shared mission for the week, and it drove us.

Why is it so hard for us to remember that we are “on mission” as followers of Christ? And not just any mission; we are on the greatest mission of ALL.

When I was a kid, I loved watching shows like Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team, and—my favorite—Scarecrow and Mrs. King. The common element of these was a sense of mission. The heroes in each show were given jobs by a wise boss who knew more than they did, and they pursued them with purpose and a trust in the one who planned them.

We have been told that “good works have been planned in advance for us to do” by the wisest “boss” of all, and these good works are not simply “random” or merely “kind.” They are part of an intricate, grand plan that incorporates even the ones we see as “small” done by the “smallest” of us. They are all part of God’s Gospel plan.

We can begin each day knowing we are agents of God and our days are not random at all. This requires LISTENING. We have a huge advantage over Charlie’s Angels and the Scarecrow. They lived back in the days of landlines and snail mail. Spiritually we are equipped with Bluetooth headgear so advanced it is invisible. We have the Holy Spirit within us. If we LISTEN to Him, we can hear the promptings to draw near (to God and others), to speak (Scripture says we’ll even be given the words to say), to befriend, to let go our agenda for the moment or day, to listen to others, to act, and even (perhaps the hardest work of all) to see mundane tasks as Gospel work.

Not-random-at-all acts of Gospel—all throughout our days.

For further study: Psalm 73:28 (one of OUR good works can be simply telling of the works of God), Matthew 5:16, John 10:32 (Jesus talks of his good works as being “from the Father”), Acts 9:36, Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:13, I Timothy 5:25, 6:18, Titus 2:7, 2:14, 3:14, Hebrews 10:24, James 2:14 and 3:13.

This picture actually relates to a piece I posted last week: Crimson Berries, White Snow. A couple days after I wrote that post, we had a fresh snowfall, and I noticed the white snow covering the crimson berries. I couldn't resist--such a beautiful picture of Christ covering us with His righteousness!

This picture actually relates to a piece I posted last week: Crimson Berries, White Snow . A couple days after I wrote that post, we had a fresh snowfall, and I noticed the white snow covering the crimson berries. I couldn’t resist–such a beautiful picture of Christ covering us with His righteousness!

 

 

opportunities

Philip from Uganda preached in church yesterday. His message beautifully translated across cultures and accents. At the end of it, Judy, the older of our international students, turned to me and said, “I really liked that. I understood it.”

His focus was all about how our salvation does not, cannot rest in our works but only in our faith in the work of Christ.

Ironically, though, I left a little discouraged.

Philip is an evangelist. That’s his gifting. I’ve known that for a long time, ever since I walked streets in Uganda with him when I was working on Patrick’s adoption. I watched conversations between him and others go straight to Gospel without the other person feeling coerced. During his sermon yesterday, Philip told of how he is using this gift on Chicago’s transit systems. He prays for opportunities, he sits next to people on the Metra or El, and pretty soon he has their history with God (or lack of it) and he’s sharing about Christ.

After the main service, I talked with Ray, one of my oldest friends in our church—really, he’s in his late eighties, with grandchildren almost my age. He shared some of his latest conversations with me. Ray’s always had a “gift for gab” (as my mom says it), and in retirement he began walking the Prairie Path every day and stopping total strangers to ask if he could pray for them. In all the years he’s done this, only two have ever told him no. More often people tell him their struggles or their life stories and thank him for praying.

I left church knowing that Philip was headed to the train station and Ray to the Prairie Path—and probably both would have Gospel conversations with a total stranger before the day was out.

I left knowing that I probably would NOT have one of them.

I grew up always feeling vaguely guilty about not enjoying sharing the Gospel on street corners or with salespersons. I used to beg God for boldness, for opportunities. I reviewed conversations I’d had with acquaintances or unbelieving friends, trying to find spots at which I could have turned the conversation toward God, beating myself up for “failing” to witness.

About seven years ago I joined an ongoing writing workshop class. Almost none of my classmates would have called themselves “followers of Jesus.” I watched and listened a lot the first couple of classes, and then my guilt set in. I began praying for boldness and opportunities as I drove to class. I didn’t hold back when people asked about me—answered with “Christian school teacher, husband teaches Bible,” but no “opportunities” opened up, though I had plenty of conversations. Then, one day on the way to class, the Holy Spirit interrupted my frantic praying. “Be quiet. Wait. Listen. RELAX!”

Really? I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. But I tried it, began to listen more than talk, began to learn about people’s lives. I focused on giving really good critique and willingly took the advice of others about my writing. I worked on excellence in my writing and humility in my attitude.

A year or so into the workshop I considered many of the other members to be friends. One night, as we chatted late after class, one of them said, “You talk about God so naturally, Jen.”

What?

“I do?” I asked her.

“Yeah. You’re always talking about the things you’re learning, what He’s teaching you.” She saw the look on my face and hurried to say, “No, it’s okay. That’s what I mean. It doesn’t seem forced. It’s just part of you.”

Thankfully I was grateful rather than proud—amazed more than anything. I didn’t realize that had happened! God had made me comfortable with these people, had knitted friendship between us. He’d put love in my heart for them. He had done the work; I had just listened. So though I still prayed for them on my drives to class, it was no longer forced but natural, with concern, specific to their needs. God did that, not me. Even now, though it has been years since I’ve seen many of them, I still pray for them, not out of duty but out of love.

God brought all this to my mind in the middle of my guilt yesterday, in the middle of my comparing myself with Philip and Ray. It was a good reminder. I DO want to pray for boldness and for opportunities, but I need to do so with rest, with confident trust that He will provide both, and that the opportunities He has picked out for me are especially chosen to use the ways He’s gifted me. My opportunities may not make for great stories, but they still testify of His Gospel work and His redemption—both in other people AND in me.

And speaking of my different kinds of opportunities, at one point yesterday afternoon, I realized that, somehow, Judy and I were home alone together (Dave had carted the younger ones along to Em’s soccer practice and Kelly was still at the b-day party). I sat down next to her at the dining room table (aka the “homework table”) and asked, “How are you?” We talked without a single interruption for thirty minutes, about relationships, adjusting to four siblings, all the “new” that she and Kelly have encountered in the last seven weeks, small ways we can accommodate and care for each other better. “You know,” I told her, suddenly seeing truth in that moment, “this is grace! We have eight very different people all lumped into a house together. It’s God’s grace that we actually desire to grow in relationship with each other, that we want to love each other well.”

Oh, I have opportunities all right. They may look different from Philip’s and Ray’s, but that’s okay.

I just need to see them for what they are.

And I need to celebrate the work God is doing in and through me.

absolutely no connection with the blog topic–but I liked how the light shone through the glass.

 

 

 

 

6 word gospel memoirs, continued

I have this beautiful “flower” (I don’t really know what it is) in my yard. It looks a little like a heart, which makes me think of another 6-word memoir: God’s heart for me revealed: Christ.

Earlier this week (September 17) I wrote about 6-word memoirs and how they can show the gospel at work in our lives. Here are a couple of 6-word memoirs that readers sent in: “Saved by grace, continuing the journey” and “God found me. I am alive.”

The following quotes aren’t limited to six words, but they are great statements about the gospel. I kept finding more and more I liked, so I got a little carried away with the number I pasted in. Hope you enjoy them, too!

“There are only two ways that God’s justice can be satisfied with respect to your sin. Either you satisfy it or Christ satisfies it. You can satisfy it by being banished from God’s presence forever. Or you can accept the satisfaction that Jesus Christ has made.”
― R.C. Sproul, Choosing My Religion

“The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”
― John Calvin, Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life

“The Law saith, Where is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction? The Gospel saith, Christ is thy righteousness, goodness, and satisfaction.”
― Patrick Hamilton

“If the gospel is old news to you, it will be dull news to everyone else.”
― Kevin DeYoung

“Salvation is not a reward for the righteous, it is a gift for the guilty.”
― Steven Lawson

The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”
― Timothy Keller

“Never be content with your current grasp of the gospel. The gospel is the life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth. It has more facets than a diamond. It’s depths man will never exhaust.”
― C.J. Mahaney

six little words

He does like green beans, but he’s more excited about the distorted reflection of his face on the side of the metal bowl! PJ’s six word memoir (according to me) would be “exuberant: finding the beat of joy.”

A few years back Smith Magazine (an online storytelling mag) issued its readers a challenge: write your life in 6 words.

Six little words.

The idea was based on the legend that Hemingway once wrote a story in six words: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn,” but SMITH took it further and asked readers to write their own stories. “Six-Word Memoirs” became a project, a “global phenomenon“ (I’m borrowing words from SMITH’s own Web site: http://www.smithmag.net/sixwordbook/about/, which has lots of great 6-word memoirs!), and a best-selling book series.

Somehow I didn’t hear about the “global phenomenon” until this past spring, but when I did, I wrote my own (more on that later).

When Dave began teaching Culture and Theology to high school seniors just a few weeks ago, he came home with this dilemma: “Many of them don’t seem excited about the Gospel. How are they going to get excited about how it can work in our culture?”

They can’t. Truthfully, none of us can get excited about the Gospel until we see it at work in our own lives. Only then will we be awed and fascinated by the ways God uses it to transform others.

So Dave backtracked in his class. “How has the Gospel impacted YOU?” he asked them. Not simply with initial salvation or coming to Christ (though he did some unpacking about the enormity of that), but what about since?

He showed them an online video ( http://gospeljourney.com/) that features spoken word artist Jason Petty. Borrowing from SMITH, it tells the Gospel in six words: “God. Our. Sins. Paying. Everyone. Life.” Dave combined the two ideas: Write your own Gospel story, he told his class. Yes, the Gospel at its core is the same: God has set us free for an abundant life made possible by the perfect death of His Son, but make it personal: what is He setting you free from? What is He setting you free TO?

I loved the idea and, of course, tried a few more of my own. My first one had to do with the fatigue of that day: “motherhood—overwhelming role. Who am I?” But then I began looking at my big-picture issues (people-pleasing, guilt, martyrdom, pride, etc.—there’s a lot) and I tried several others. When I compared these with the one I wrote last spring, they were similar.

Here’s my latest draft: “Recovering perfectionist, learning I am ‘Be-loved.’”

What’s yours?