One of the ways Christians frequently absorb and meditate on Scripture is to place ourselves in the shoes (sandals) of various characters in various Bible stories. With just the force of empathy, you can find the world God created, loves, and redeems illuminated in fresh light by this simple exercise. It’s not the end-all/be-all of study methods, but a useful one which anyone can use.
I’m amazed at the lack of imagination I (and I expect other Christians too) suffer when approaching Script’s this way. You really could step into the role of Jesus as “the least of these brothers” quite easily. If you do that, though, you suddenly sense Jesus as dependent upon the kindness of strangers, and that simple notion runs the risk of violating other hard commitments we might not want to face. If Jesus is dependent on anyone for anything, then he might be vulnerable, which doesn’t fit the preconceived idea that as part of the trinitarian God, he is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful – thus invulnerable.
If your God is vulnerable, what does that say about you?
Thus, the limitations on our imagination (at least sometimes).
On the other hand, God is too powerful, too pure, and too wise to relate with as well. So, stepping into the role of the Running Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son has severe limitations in my psyche and willingness to endure much meditation of the sort. This Father’s tenderness of heart toward his son, wayward though he is, turns out to be a relatable point, but his long-suffering and willingness to give to the son his deadly request looks foolish.
I can’t cope with God being “foolish” or even appearing foolish. Better not to so much as contemplate such things. Even if I know St. Paul’s remarks in I Corinthians 1:25, just considering this possibility is a slippery slope I don’t want to trek. Especially if I already know from experience, from studies in addiction recovery and psychology, and from sound business principles and conservative politics that GIVING money to the poor (unwise or young), forgiving debt (another version of practically the same thing), or sharing my wealth is tantamount to communism, socialist stupidity and “enabling” of poor choices, I am reluctant to imagine God indulging it. I’m all the more unlikely to empathize with this character in such ways.
Feel me yet?
Of course, the bright side is that the Father is good, and so my empathy with him puts me in good company. He might make choices I would question or oppose on other grounds, but he represents God, and as I empathize with him, I get to take the role of an innocent player in the drama. An innocent player wronged by others. (That fits my political posture!)
White males and father figures have come under a new cultural scrutiny over the course of my life. I was born into “a man’s world” which was already beginning to implode when I arrived. But I was born into that world in which the privilege has eroded a little more every decade over the course of my life. If I was supposed to carry a certain kind of spiritual/cultural baton, my generation seems to have dropped it. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and the Marlboro Man are replaced now by women, gays, bi and metrosexuals (whatever that is) and transgenders and “nonbinary” humans. I have no idea where this is going now, but I am sure my kids will have no sense of the masculinity which was bequeathed to my generation.
Gender and sex are not the only generational differences, but of course they strike at the core – certainly for people like me from my generation. We are baton droppers on the one hand, allowing chaos to reign, or on the other, we are avant-garde, the new cool! Either way, the junior high kids aren’t the only ones confused these days.
I have watched my own father deal with an estranged child (my sibling) who never really related closely with him even from birth. However, the teen years proved to be hostile and adulthood caustic. When Luke’s Jesus says that the “father saw him while yet a long way off,” I have seen what that looks like firsthand. I was not estranged from our father, in fact, I am the older brother! I believe our father has been unfairly wronged, and I have watched on numerous occasions when our father “scanned the horizon.”
It’s been years. Decades. I’ve had a front row seat for the long-suffering of this broken relationship. I won’t divulge that story on the blog, but the similarities between Luke 15 and my family are remarkable and instructive. My dad has long appealed to this passage for guidance in this broken relationship and in prayer. There is much pain there, and as the older brother, my sympathy is tested too! I get it!
But I am stepping into the role of FATHER in other dramas, in other lives, now too. I have these step kids and foster kids and adopted kids. I have history with them now, and I see the long view (as far as anyone can see into the future) which is full of risk. There is brokenness in some of my fatherly relationships with the younger ones, and I find myself drawn to this role now seeking the discipline of scanning the horizon.
This is all the more complicated by the fact that unlike God, I am not without fault! But I am certain I was not unfair either. I am certain that I was holding an olive branch when I was rejected. So, I can still step into this role even if accommodating mitigations.
The temptations of the older brother come knocking on the FATHER’s door too. God cannot be tempted, but if he could, he would know the same temptation. There is something in the grace of God to find in this story if you want to be a FATHER. It’s not found in making the kids behave well either. It’s found in scanning horizons while waiting. Waiting… and … waiting.
A lot of waiting.
Life slips away with too much waiting, but there will be waiting…
But instead of stewing on resentment, there is scanning the horizon to do.
Instead of chasing and manipulating, there is waiting to do.
Instead of fixing, repairing, or meddling, there is waiting and watching to do.
Internally, there is something else going on. It surely does not deny grief, but likely amplifies it. There is some sort of stoking a smoldering fire, but it’s not wrath being stoked. It’s love. A long-suffering love. And the sight of the child returning, even from a long distance yet, like a gust of wind on a smoldering flame, whips up the fire of love to throw dignity aside and run… run to embrace, to kiss, to prepare for a festive party! We need to CELEBRATE!!!
The celebration of this FATHER’s heart doesn’t pause to listen to the child explain how he is willing to humble himself and be a slave either; it’s too loud for that. It’s a party filled with food, music, and dancing creating such a cacophony in the Father’s house that even other sons working in the field hear it and come to investigate.
I have been the prodigal myself. I was estranged (for a few years) from my mother.
I was young. I couldn’t cope with her. I needed some space.
As I recall, I never hated my mother. I felt smothered and wanted to get free of her somehow. I couldn’t put my finger on it when I was young. I could not articulate what I thought I needed, and so I had to extricate myself from her.
In my youth, I had no idea the level of pain that caused her. Well, some idea, but a very vague idea that I was less interested in exploring than in getting free. Perhaps there was a generation gap issue at stake, and no doubt that played a part. Modern anonymity and isolation and youth culture played a part. Personal and interpersonal pathologies surely did too. But mostly, for a few years there, I just didn’t know how to relate with her, and so I ran off.
I am in the older generation now and the world has changed since then. There are mysteries I cannot understand now too, but with empathy, I can imagine the youngsters in my life have taken their marbles and hold up in their hideouts not knowing how to relate with me. I can, and should, cut them the slack I demanded when I was young. It’s only fair.
Of course, to anyone with ears to hear, I will say, be careful what you demand. Fairness might mean you get to wear the other shoe on the other foot one day, and so, there is a grace in issuing that warning too.
But horizon-scanning FATHERLINESS is a fact of life that’s been with humanity at least since the day St. Luke wrote chapter 15 in his gospel, and that’s a long old time! My guess is this is a pain that’s with us to stay. And as a Christian father, I am meditating on life through a Luke-15 lens and stepping into the meditative role of the Running Father in hopes God will work on my heart and my relationships while I watch and wait.