Tag Archives: Brother

Non-Transactional Love

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:9-11 (NIV)

Years ago I was asked to give a message among a weekly gathering of Jesus’ followers. The text above was part of the message that I shared that morning. The observation that I made in that message was the same thing that struck me again this morning as I read the chapter. It’s so subtle that I missed it for many years of my spiritual journey.

The observation is simply this: the Father’s love and pleasure we’re given to Jesus and we’re just ten verses into the story. Jesus’ ministry hadn’t started. He hadn’t preached a sermon. He hadn’t healed anyone, performed miracles, or cast out a demon. So God’s love was there, it had already been there, and it was always going to be there. The Father’s love for the Son was not dependant on His dutiful and obedient carrying out of, and completion, of the mission. Therefore, in the same way, God’s love for me is not dependent on my good works, purity, morality, church attendance, or my upstanding life. It’s always been there.

After my message, I was immediately confronted by an angry person. There was no preamble to the conversation. They immediately dove into an argument to let me know that Jesus was thirty years old when He was baptized, so He obviously had “done stuff” and proven Himself to the Father. In other words, Jesus had to have earned the Father’s love and pleasure.

Along my spiritual journey, I came to realize that quid pro quo theology was so deeply ingrained in me that I was blind to it for many years. While I cognitively agreed with the doctrinal statement that salvation was “by grace through faith,” I functionally lived, acted, and treated others as if God’s love was dependant on my obedience and theirs. I discovered that I was treating it like a transactional relationship, and I liked it that way. If God’s love was earned by my being a “good person” then there was a measuring stick I had understood since I was a child; A measuring stick I could use to decide whether others were worthy of my love. God’s love and grace being transactional made things so simple for me on a human level. Be good: Heaven and acceptance. Be bad: Hell and rejection. It was a religious version of the Santa Claus principle my parents used to get me to behave when I was a child that I could now apply on an adult level.

In His parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told the story of a younger rebellious brother who does all of the wrong and sinful things. When he returns home the poor, penniless, sinful, broken child is greeted by his father who runs to embrace him and forgive him. The father throws a huge homecoming party. The older brother, who has been dutiful and obedient is indignant. The point Jesus was making is this: the father loved both of his sons. His love belonged to both of them, had always been there from the beginning, and had remained with both even when the younger one was lost and the elder was obedient.

In the quiet this morning I find myself reflecting on my own life journey. You can look back at my life and find me playing both roles in my own life’s production of the Prodigal Son. I have been the wasteful, wandering, rebellious child squandering what I’d been graciously given. I have also spent years being the indignant, dutiful son projecting my miserly, transactional world-view onto a loving and gracious Father.

I’m older now. The reality for any actor is that as you get older you find yourself cast in very different roles than when you were young. C’est la vie. It strikes me this morning that I’d like to think I’m ready to play the role of the father with everyone in my circles of influence, extending grace and love freely, regardless of a person’s actions.

And so, I find myself coming back to that argumentative, angry “older brother” who conversationally accosted me after my message those years ago. I get where that person was coming from. I pray that they experience the fullness of God’s love that has always belonged to them and has nothing to do with their goodness.

Have a great week, my friend.

All of Tom’s chapter-a-day posts from Mark are compiled in a simple visual index for you.

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The Fateful Knocking

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NIV)

He knew he was going to die. I don’t know how he knew. He had been struggling with his health for some time. Nevertheless, he knew. He heard fate knocking like the opening measure of Beethoven’s fifth. He asked his caregivers to call me, and I went to his bedside. He was restless, agitated, and there was fear in his eyes.

I had pleasant conversations with him and his wife before. They were very sweet people who lived in a little house on top of a hill with a gorgeous view. They were both humble individuals with gentle spirits. He loved to tell stories. They had no desire to talk about spiritual matters. So, we didn’t. I visited and we swapped stories. We talked about many other things and enjoyed the view together. It really was spectacular.

Now, things were different. He needed to get some things out. He needed to take care of some matters of Spirit. He’d always avoided this conversation so he had no idea how to have it. I took his hand and began to ask him questions. He wept. He talked. I listened. I gently asked more questions. At his request, I helped him pray. I believe it may well have been his first and only time.

When I left he was quiet and resting peacefully. He died a few hours later.

It was what many people call a “deathbed confession.” My experience is that when that phrase is used in conversation it has typically been uttered cynically or sarcastically as if a dying person is trying to rig the system. I liken it to taking on the mantel of the prodigal’s older brother who gets pissed that little brother squandered his life and partied like it’s 1999, and then dad just welcomes him home with feasting and homecoming gifts. Where’s the justice in that? Perhaps I should have told the man, “Too bad, old man. You had your chances and now it’s too late. Good luck. You might want to take a fan with you.”

Everyone has their own journey. Everyone has their own story. Who’s to say that his story wasn’t a great story? Who am I to judge? The fear in his eyes was genuine. The words, the tears, and the prayer were humble and sincere. I am honored to have played a bit part in his final chapter.

Speaking of chapters, today’s is the last surviving words that Paul wrote. He, too, hears fate knocking. His story is very different. He welcomes the journey’s end. He looks forward to what lies beyond. His earthly journey is a sojourn. He is the prodigal heading home and looking forward to being welcomed.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking about life and death and resurrection. I’ve recently been walking with a friend whose father has heard the fateful knocking and, along with his family, is making preparations. It’s a strange time when it comes – however it comes.

Everyone has their own stories in both life and death. Paul’s journey had prepared him in mind and spirit for the journey’s end. My friend, who asked his caregivers to call me, had never allowed himself to think much about it. I certainly identify with Paul as we share a common faith and a common hope. I find myself saying a quiet prayer for those who, like my friend who made his deathbed confession, have not thought much about it – and have no one to call.

The Appeal of a Cloistered Life

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one….As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.
John 17:15, 18 (NRSV)

There has always been something about monastic life that has secretly appealed to me. I like the idea of leaving everything behind to live simply and humbly in quiet devotion. Whenever I hear or read about a monastery or convent, there’s a piece of my heart that envies the brothers and sisters who lead a cloistered life.

Along my journey I have recognized that there are different types of cloistered lives. In the Roman Catholic tradition it is a very specific separation from the world as the monks or nuns live in community with one another in a sequestered space. In the Evangelical tradition I have grown up in, we also have a version of the cloistered life. Our version of it is more subtle. We separate ourselves from the world while still appearing to live in it.

Our social lives revolve around our church or Christian school. We attend Christian concerts, frequent Christian bookstores, and hang out with others in Christian coffee shops. We read Christian fiction and listen to Christian music on Christian radio stations. We decorate our homes with Christian decor and watch Christian movies and Christian television programs.  We put Christian bumper stickers on our cars. We may appear to live in the world, but the reality is that our lives are carefully, surgically separated and cloistered from it.

I cannot, however, escape the simple and direct statements Jesus made in today’s chapter. He is sending His followers into the world. He is not sending them to live in insulated, cloistered community where they will be safe, secure, and insulated. He is sending them into the world where there is darkness, danger and the threat of harm. That is why the Father’s protection is necessary.

Today, I am thinking about the cloistered life. It will likely never cease to appeal to me. It is not, however, the path to which I am called. Jesus calls me, not out of the world, but into the world where I am often thought strange, where I am regularly misunderstood, and where I routinely feel awkward and out of place. That’s the mission, however. It was the mission for Jesus, and it’s the mission that He gave to those of us who follow.

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