Luke 15: 31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.
Are there any parents here this morning? Would any of you wish to tell me what it is about parenthood that you most enjoy? Or not? What are the best parts of parenthood, and/or maybe the hardest?
Speaking personally, I enjoyed watching our two wonderful daughters discover the world afresh and anew, and try to make sense of it in their young minds. Like when our youngest was 4 years old and I went to pick her up at preschool. She had with her a piece of construction paper on which she had drawn some squiggly lines and pasted some cotton balls. I asked her what her artwork was about and she said, “That’s the ‘Practical Son’ and his forgiving father.”
Wisdom from the mouths of babes: repentance is indeed more practical than all the alternatives.
What I have not enjoyed are all the hard knocks our children have had to take in life, and how those hard knocks affect us, the adults in their lives. And it’s the job of us adults to protect and defend them from those, right? Well, only so many, and only for so long.
Like when toddlers are just learning to walk. How sweet! Until they catch a foot on the carpet, or they reach for something, lose their balance and start to topple over. You just know, a split second before it happens, that they’re going to bump their noggins on the edge of the coffee table or a table leg, and you can’t do anything to stop it, you’re just out of reach. Still, as you see it coming have you even felt it, right in the very spot where they’re about to make a sudden brutal contact with the merciless, implacable laws of physics, so much so that you hurt almost before they do, and nearly as bad as they do?
It happens so much at that stage, it’s amazing that any of us survived.
Before you know it, they’re into other stages of growth just as painful, awkward and vulnerable as their tumbling toddlerhood, and not only for physical reasons. Whether it’s bullying at school, their first humiliating heartbreak in love, a class or a sport in which they struggle and lose, a rejection letter from the college they most wanted to attend, life is a “school of hard knocks.” In those cases, too, the elders can often see those hard knocks coming before the young do. We may even hurt with them, and for them, before the youngsters do. And we can’t do a thing about it.
And that’s where we all fit into this talk about parenthood, whether we’re male or female, young or old, married or not, a parent or not. If we have known some hard knocks in life, and if we can feel those hard knocks along with others, the technical terms for that are compassion and empathy. Empathy literally means “in pain,” as in, we enter into someone else’s pain, and their pain enters into us. “Compassion” means we feel along with, or we even suffer along with, someone else.
Whenever we do suffer with someone else, we then have something in common with a character in Jesus’ parable: Dear old Dad. His extravagantly welcoming response to his repentant, returning son, shows that he could look beyond his son’s faults and failures, not to minimize them nor excuse them, but to see his son’s pain and suffering and needs, even when those pains, sufferings and needs were self-inflicted. And that even though there’s no way we can exaggerate just how badly the younger son hurt and dishonored his Dad when he said, “Dad, give me my share of the inheritance, now.” That’s effectively saying, “Drop Dead, Dad, for all I care!” or “I wish you were dead already!”
My thoughts this morning on the father in this parable I owe to the late Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen, and his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. That book is the fruit of his meditation on Jesus’ parable, but also on this famous painting by Rembrandt. It’s such a good book, I’m assigning it to all of us to read this week, because there will be a test on it next Sunday. Read anything else by Nouwen that you can get your hands on, too. This is some of what Nouwen says about the father and us in The Return of the Prodigal Son: “…the final stage of the spiritual life is to so fully let go of all fear of the [Heavenly] Father that it becomes possible to become like him…my final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life.” Again, those words are for all of us, whether men or women, parents or not.
As God is forming Christ in us, the more we shall act and be and become like the father in this parable, especially in the matter of true compassion and empathy. Now we’ve probably known people who, over time, got bitter, not better. Toward the end of their lives, they got more crotchety and curmudgeonly than compassionate. More embittered than empathetic. How did Dad get to be so tender-hearted, empathetic and compassionate, in effect, so much like God, even after such extreme, gratuitous, heart-breaking, in-your-face rebellion and rejection from his very own son? Well, we don’t get the back story on this man. This is a parable, after all, and not a biography.
But there is one very important point that demonstrates the difference between true, God-like compassion and its counterfeits, and it’s simply this: Dad stayed home. That made all the difference: Dad stayed home, in more ways than one.
What about the older son? Didn’t he stay home, too? Yes, physically, Son number one stayed home. But emotionally and spiritually, he too went off into a faraway country, just not the same far-away country. Younger brother went off into a faraway country of rebellion and resistance against commitments, boundaries and limits to his freedom, so-called. Older brother wandered off into a faraway country of resentment against those who test and rebel against commitments, boundaries and limits. And it did neither of them any good.
Dad could have run off after his younger son into that faraway country, too. Like if he tried to protect that son from the painful consequences of his actions.
“You drank off all your rent money, son? Okay, I’ll pay your rent this month, again, so that it never gets said that any son of mine ended up on the streets, homeless….You ran up a bar tab this big? Okay, I’ll pay it off for you this month, again, so you don’t get another visit from Louie from New Jersey with the brass knuckles…”
Dad could also have run off after his son to try and rescue him from the emotional pain of his actions and choices. “You, a kid from a kosher Jewish home, are not only feeding pigs, you want to eat with them, too? Don’t feel bad; I’ll go talk to our rabbi about changing our kosher laws, so that you don’t have to worry about anyone disapproving of this line of work…..So, you’re spending money on prostitutes? [that’s what the older brother said, and no one contradicted him] I’ll lead the charge in our synagogue to change our values about sex too, lest, God forbid, anyone should hurt your feelings by failing to approve of your choices.”
That may sound compassionate, but it would only give both sons a real cause to resent and rebel against their Dad: He’s making for them a world without boundaries, commitments, or consequences, a world in which someone will always rescue them from pain and failure, and therefore, from any chance of real growth or success.
That would not be compassion. It’s co-dependency. Co-dependency is a term that comes out of the field of addiction treatment, like for drugs and alcohol abuse. Like when family members cover for the alcoholic in their home, calling his boss to say, “he’s home with the flu this morning,” when, really, he’s home with a roaring hangover. Or when everyone tiptoes around him whenever he’s drinking to avoid setting him off, because he’s a mean drunk. One person drinks and everyone around him is hung-over, depressed and inebriated by fear and shame. One person drinks and everyone else takes the responsibility and suffers the consequences. Ask them Why? And they’ll probably say they’re being compassionate. Actually, they’re probably trying to protect themselves from the pain of dealing with the person and the problem.
Another form of codependency looks like the opposite, but it’s still a flight away from home to a faraway country where the rebels and the resentful call the shots. That would be if Dad ran off after his son to nag and to wag his finger at him, constantly berating and correcting and rebuking his son, trying to fix him by preaching and protesting, trying to convince, convert and control his son by the force of his power and personality. Like the Patriot Prayer and the Antifa marchers in Portland, who feed off each other in an endless, accelerating spiral of reactivity, one against the other. It looks to me like each group needs the other in ways that hurt themselves as much as each other.
Now, of course, when children are young and in our care, we don’t just let them run off and do any old thing. But there comes a time when all must be free to bump their heads against the limits and the laws of truth and consequences for themselves. If Dad had run after his younger son to do it for him, long after he had discharged his own responsibility to teach him, to do for his son what his son had to do for himself, then Dear Old Dad would also be lost in a faraway country of reaction, resentment and codependence. And then the rebel son would be running and ruining two lives, not just his own.
Like when I visited a woman of about 102 years of age, in the congregation I served in Kansas. On her coffee table was a big cushion into which pins were stuck, each with a picture on the outside end, a picture of each of her many, many descendants: children and their spouses, grandchildren and spouses, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. There were so many pictures that it looked like a porcupine who had waddled through a photo shop.
I congratulated her about all her living descendants, but she replied with only a sad, sorry sigh. “But look at my great granddaughter there, holding a baby. He was conceived and born out of wedlock.” God brought all those priceless, unique persons in the world through her and her marriage, and to one action, by one person, three generations younger, she had given the power to take away her delight in all of them.
So, I said, “There are illegitimate actions, but there are no illegitimate people. Furthermore,” I asked, “Didn’t you and your late husband teach your children to be honorable, faithful and committed, sexually, in marriage?”
“Of course, we did.”
“And weren’t your children responsible to so teach their kids?”
“Then,” I said, “Good for you, you did your part; you discharged your responsibility. So, you don’t need to feel any shame nor to take on the responsibility of feeling bad for anyone else’s choices. If anything, there’s every cause for you to celebrate another child, any child, every child, born into this world, for he bears the image of God, and something of yours, too, however he came into this world.”
If we want Christ to be formed in us, and to grow in the character and the conduct of the father in this story, then Stay Home. By that I mean, stay home and tend to our own callings, tend to our own health in body, soul and spirit, to our own lives, to our own growth, to “Christ [being] formed in us.” Stay home, not physically necessarily, but spiritually, by tending to our covenants and our commitments and our vows, whether our baptismal vows, our wedding vows if we have been called to marriage, to our church membership vows.
And stay home not just for our own sakes. What all of those who are suffering in our world, our lives and our families, and ourselves, need most from us is for us to stay home in terms of tending to the Father’s virtues, vision and values. Stay home instead of running off after others in their faraway countries of rebellion or resentment, and so getting caught up in their sickness.
Yes, if we love the rebels and the resentful, as I hope we do, we will suffer and sorrow and grieve and weep and pray over them and their sufferings, whether self-inflicted or not. Compassion and empathy like that are signs of God’s image in us, evidence that Christ is being formed in us. But empathy is not entanglement, nor is compassion codependency. Stay home and tend to our own health, wholeness and holiness, and it’s more likely that Christ in us will be contagious, and affect others for good, than if we’re trying to do God’s job of rescuing and redeeming others.
Worried about the people leaving church? Especially the young? I hurt over that, too. It’s one thing to learn from them whenever they have legitimate critiques about our inconsistencies, and advice for how we can be more faithful. Often, they do. And the church needs a lot of that right now. We’re suffering from a lot of self-inflicted wounds. It’s another thing, though, to make pleasing people our mission, to take responsibility for everyone’s feelings or desires and so tie ourselves into pretzels trying to keep everybody else happy and at home.
Stay home and tend to our own health, wholeness and holiness, because rebellious and resentful runaways will still need a healthy, wholesome place, and healthy, wholesome people to come home to. As Christ is formed in us and we become more like the father, we will be watching, waiting and ready to see them turning and coming homeward. We will be ready, hopeful and happy to respond and to receive them, and to celebrate and affirm every step they take in the right direction homeward, like Dad in today’s story, who ran to embrace his repentant, returning son.
If Dad had just turned his back, cut the runaway off, and said, “My son is dead to me,” that too would be a flight into a faraway country of resentment, bitterness and hardness of heart. Besides, there is really no such thing as a complete cut-off. A cut-off is still a relationship of sorts, just one in which we are entangled and enmeshed with a villain in our imagination.
But if the runaways see “Christ being formed in us,” so that we look and love like the father, they will know that our love for them does not depend upon their conduct. That constitutes true compassion and empathy. That’s worth coming home for.
Toward the end of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen writes, “Grief, forgiveness and generosity, then, are the three ways by which the image of the Father can grow in me. They are the three aspects of the Father’s call to be home. As the father, I am no longer called to come home as the younger or the elder son, but to be there as one to whom the wayward children can return and be welcomed with joy.”
That’s why I call this message, “Relearn and Release.” For Christ to be formed in us, we must relearn what true compassion and empathy are. Quite often, that means releasing people from our need to control, or our need for control, so that God can be for them the father, mother, parent, mentor, teacher, rescuer and redeemer, that we mortals can never be.
Besides, we’re all coming home to the Father from our own faraway countries of rebellion and resentment. For the three persons in Jesus’ parable are not just separate persons. All three of them are in each of us. We all have been, and we all bear within, the rebellious child, the resentful child, and the compassionate father. We can either let the hard knocks and hurts of life reinforce our rebellious and resentful childishness, or we can let them can soften us, break us, and wear down those rebellious and resentful edges so that the wisdom, mercy, compassion and empathy of the father can emerge in us, so that “Christ is formed in us.”