Friday, May 29, 2015

Prodigal Son, Prodigal God: Thoughts from a Conference and Two Good Books

This past week I have had the privilege of being at the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, in Asheville, NC. I'm actually writing this from the deck of the training center, looking at the clouds on the mountains (tall thingys where the ground has gone up for those of you who never leave Ohio). I'm here to attend a conference by a favorite writer of mine, Ken Boa, who has now become a favorite teacher--the man is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge and wisdom on theology, church history, science (he was trained in astrophysics), and spiritual growth. His books have been part of my devotional life for years.

"You keep using that word. I do not
think it means what you think it
means."--Inigo Montoya, 

The Princess Bride

In one of his sessions Ken worked through the story of the lost son in Luke 15. It's the story we call "the prodigal son." I don't know about you, but for years I assumed the word "prodigal" referred to the fact that he rebelled and went away from home. That is not at all what the word means (Inigo Montoya's words are floating through my head right now).

The word "prodigal" does not refer to rebellion, but to lavish generosity. It means to spend freely. The definition is "to spend money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant; having or giving something on a lavish scale." 

The prodigal son was "prodigal" in that he spent freely all the wealth that he was given, until it was all gone. His spending was, as his older brother later characterized it, a waste, but while it was going, he was probably the best friend his fellow-partiers could have hoped for. After he spent all, he found himself in dire straits, friendless, starving, and jealous of pigs' food.

And then, he came to his senses. As one of the writers Boa quoted said, he left "the insanity of sin." Boa went on to say that sin really is insanity. We always regret it, always rue our fall, and then we do it again!  But once the son came to his senses, he realized his foolishness, and decided right then to go to the father. And that is what we must do, whenever our insanity is overcome by the Spirit--we repent, and we go to the Father! We may not know what the Father's response and plan will be, but we know his heart, and we know his ways, and so we go.

But there is another "prodigal" in the story... another one who spends lavishly. It is the father, who lavished undeserved riches on an unworthy and ungrateful son. And when that son was repentant, he lavished him with even more that he didn't deserve. And when his oldest son was indignant, he generously invited him to reconsider and enter into the joy of the household. 

Of course, the father is the representative of God, our Father, whose gracious goodness to us is even greater. Henri Nouwen, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, suggests that we should also see that all three characters can represent us--the older son being our self-righteousness, the younger our sinful selfishness, and the father our transformed character becoming like God. Tim Keller's book, The Prodigal God, rightly makes the father the central figure of the story because of his dealings with his sons. 

For me, after this week, two truths from this story take on new meaning.

First, I am still subject to bouts of temporary insanity. I never am happy that I sin. I hate that I do. And yet sometime today, I will choose something--some indulgence, some self-promotion, some self-centeredness that is sinful, stupid, and insane!

And second, because I am united by faith with Jesus Christ, the Spirit will wake me up--and I'll have that, "what am I doing?" moment. At that very moment, I need to remember who my Father is and what he has done for me in Christ, repent, and go to him--where I know I will find the forgiveness and grace I need, and the welcome I will never deserve. Because he is a prodigal Father!

Oh, and a third smaller point--I should always ask what words mean!

The bad news for you is that you are just as insane when it comes to sin as I am. The good news? The Spirit can cure you, too, and your Father is really generous--he is positively prodigal when it comes to grace!