Tag Archives: Prodigal

An Ancient Ritual; A Fresh Perspective

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.
Luke 3:21 (NIV)

Last week when our family was in South Carolina to celebrate the marriage of our daughter Madison to our new son-in-law, Garrett, we attended their local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday morning. It was a celebration Sunday and several believers were baptized by immersion in a large baptismal pool that had been set up in the middle of the auditorium. It was fun to hear their stories about faith, following, and how Jesus had transformed their lives. The baptisms took place right in the middle of a loud, raucous, worshipping crowd singing and praising at dangerous decibel levels. There were so many people it was standing room only. Inspiring to say the least. Madison said it’s her favorite Sunday of the year, and I’m glad we experienced it.

My visit to the Holy Land many years ago changed the way I understood and experienced the Great Story. One of the things that changed drastically on that trip was my understanding of baptism. In Jesus’ day, ritual baptism was widely practiced by the Jewish people. In the wilderness around the Dead Sea there lived a colony of the monk-like ascetic priests, a Jewish sect called the Essenes. They believed in poverty, simplicity, benevolence, and daily ritual baptism. In the caves where they lived, you can still see the intricate system of baptismal pools in which their daily baptism was practiced.

Scholars believe that the Essene priests were celibate, and it is believed that they took orphans into their community to be raised in their ways and to grow their community. In yesterday’s chapter, Dr. Luke shares the story of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception to the elderly priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. In today’s chapter, the good Doctor fast-forwards to an adult John the Baptist living simply like a hermit in his camel-hair robe in the wilderness around the Dead Sea, preaching repentance, contentment, and baptism. He sounds exactly like an Essene. Born to elderly parents, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap to envision John being orphaned at a young age and his priestly family sending him to be raised by the Essenes, or perhaps a young John choosing to join the sect.

Being raised in the institutional protestant tradition of the Western church, baptism is considered one of the significant sacraments. Babies are sprinkled or adults are immersed. Most Christian theological traditions hold to baptism being a once-in-a-lifetime event. There are very strong feelings about the theology of baptism. Along my life journey, I’ve come to a very different conclusion than the tradition in which I was raised, especially after my visit to Israel and my exposure to the ancient tradition of ritual baptism that preceded and informed the Christian sacrament.

Baptism is a ritual of metaphor just like the sacrament of communion. It’s a sign and a visible word picture. Jesus said, “I am the water of life.” When a believer is plunged into the water it signifies dying to self and being buried in the likeness of Jesus’ death. When the believer rises up out of the water it signifies being raised to a new life in the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection, their sins washed away. It’s a ritualistic way-point on one’s spiritual journey, a fresh start, a new beginning, and an external, public proclamation of an inner-spiritual transformation.

Along my own spiritual journey, I can tell you that my spiritual path has wound itself through some pretty dark places. I’ve experienced my own periods of wilderness wandering. I have found myself the prodigal in far-away lands. I’ve discovered that my own spiritual journey is not a linear, straight-and-narrow interstate but a cyclical, meandering footpath. There are spiritual fits and starts. There are periods of stagnation, moments of repentance, and periodic commitment renewals. I think a ritual cleansing is a perfectly appropriate metaphor for important way-points along the journey. Just as the bread and cup can be a regular reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice, baptism can be a personal statement amidst a supportive community that marks an important shift in one’s spiritual trek.

In my spirit this morning I am still hearing the shouts of celebration, the screams of joy, and the ear-splitting worship that I witnessed with Madison and Garrett’s faith community in South Carolina. I had the opportunity to watch as some of those who were baptized walking out of the auditorium, dripping wet, wrapped in towels as they went to change into dry clothes. Every one of them was smiling, laughing, and visibly ecstatic. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “that’s the metaphor of baptism!” Washed clean, made new, old things passing away, and a fresh start on the right path in a good direction.

Who couldn’t occasionally benefit from that along a long spiritual journey?

Take me to the river.

Have you missed the previous chapter-a-day posts from this journey through the Gospel of Luke? Click on this image and it will take you to a quick index of the other posts!

At Some Point, One Must Return Home

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem.
Ezra 1:5 (NIV)

When I was a young man I spent five years in pastoral ministry. Three of those years were spent in a very small town here in Iowa. During those years I officiated a lot of funerals. Not only were these funerals for members of my congregation, but the local Funeral Home Director also called me when there was a family who had no particular faith tradition or church home. As a result, I spent a generous amount of time with grieving families.

During these funerals, I began to observe families in all of their glorious dysfunctions. I noticed, in particular, that these sad occasions brought prodigal children home, and that in many cases the children had not been home for many years. This taught me a life lesson: “At some point, one has to return home.” (By the way, this became the inspiration for my play, Ham Buns and Potato Salad.)

For the past few months on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been going through books related to what’s known as the “exilic” period when the Hebrews were taken captive and lived in exile under the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Mede, and Persian empires. Today I begin walking through the two books (Ezra and Nehemiah) that tell the story of the exiles return to Jerusalem and their work to reconstruct Solomon’s Temple and the protective walls of the city.

For the exiled Hebrews, their return had been something they’d longed for. Right at the beginning of today’s chapter, it’s mentioned that they’d been clinging to the prophecy of Jeremiah that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years (Jer 25:11-12). The time for return finally arrives. At some point, one has to return home.

Reading today’s chapter, it’s easy to assume that Cyrus felt some special affection toward the exiled Hebrews and their religion. However, the decree and subsequent provision of temple articles stolen by Nebuchadnezzar represented a shift in Empirical policy. Earlier empires had ruled with an iron hand, destroying native temples and demanding that captured peoples adopt the culture of the conquerors. Cyrus, however, realized that allowing captured peoples to return to their homes and rebuild their native temples and shrines was good policy. He did the same for other peoples, as well. The move created goodwill with the people of his empire. In the case of Judah, the move also provided him with allies and a friendly outpost between himself and the yet unconquered kingdom of Egypt.

This morning I find myself thinking about returning home. It can look so different for different individuals. It might be a joyous reunion for some. For others, it’s a necessary immersion back into messy family dysfunction. There are those for whom the return home is a long-awaited return from exile. In many cases, it’s an important and necessary step in addressing past wrongs, emotional injuries, and spiritual blocks so that one can progress in his or her life journey. In many cases, I’ve observed that one can’t move forward until he or she makes the trek and faces the past. I, myself, discovered it a necessary stretch of my own journey.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself whispering a quiet prayer for those who have yet to return, those who have returned, and those who find themselves amidst the struggle of returning home.

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.

“Return”

“For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”
2 Chronicles 30:9b (NRSVCE)

A few years ago I wrote a play and the entire play was created out of one simple truth: At some point, you have to return home. From there I reached out and plucked a leaf off the tree of tales about a young boy who ran away from his true love and stayed away for many years. When tragedy strikes just over a decade later he has no choice but to return home, and with it he must face the thing he’s been running from for so long.

The theme of “returning” is a big one across the Great Story. There are so many stories in which people find themselves off in some kind of wilderness. Sometimes they place themselves there and sometimes they are there against their will, but somehow they eventually return in some fashion whether they are led, they are invited, they are forced by circumstance, or they simply choose to do so.

In today’s chapter we pick up the story of King Hezekiah who is trying to help his nation heal after years in which they’ve willfully wandered from the God of their ancestors and many find themselves in the wilderness of captivity. In yesterday’s chapter, Hezekiah had the Levites clean out the temple and prepare it to be used as it had been intended for the worship God. In today’s chapter he sends out a proclamation throughout the land, even to neighboring countries where people were living in exile and captivity. The proclamation simply asked people to do one thing:  return.  Hezekiah wanted all of the Hebrew people to come to Jerusalem for the biggest annual festival on the Hebrew calendar. The Passover feast celebrated God delivering their nation from slavery in Egypt.

Along my journey I’ve seen the theme of return play out in the lives of many people in many different ways. I’ve observed that we often abandon faith in God early in life. Sometimes it’s a willful choice out of disagreement with the faith institution of our childhood. Sometimes it’s prompted by pain or a tragic victimization of some kind. Sometimes it’s as simple as choosing to go our own way. So we wander, and often our spirits are stuck back in childhood. Then later in our life journey I observe people returning, not necessarily to an institution, but to God whom they find altogether different than those childhood memories of pain, anger, doubt, and frustration. Not because God has changed, but they have changed and with it their understanding and perceptions.

In today’s chapter the people of Judah returned for the Passover. Just as Joseph returned to his family. Just as David returned after years as mercenary in exile. Just as the remnant returned from Babylon in Nehemiah’s day. Just as the prodigal son returned in Jesus’ parable. Just as Peter returned after denying Jesus. Just as Jesus returned to the Father after His resurrection.

Just as….

No matter how far we may wander, no matter where we may roam, I’ve found that God’s Spirit is always whispering to our spirits:

“Return.”

 

Wisdom You Only Find Away from Home

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians.”
Jeremiah 24:4 (NIV)

I can remember running away as a child only once. Despite a memory that recalls some of the most arcane details of my early years, I can’t for the life of me remember what made me so angry that day. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I announced to my mother that I was running away. I remember that she didn’t seem particularly worried. I left without packing a bag or giving a single thought to where I was going, how I was going to get there, nor what I would do for the most basic of necessities. (Wendy will not be surprised by this.) I hadn’t gone as far as two blocks up Madison Avenue before the realities of my poor decision making caught up with me. I turned around and headed home.

I never attempted to physically run away from home again. I learned along my life journey, however, that terms of exile and running away can happen as much in the heart, mind, and spirit as they do in the body.

Today’s short chapter is a brief word picture God gave the ancient prophet Jeremiah. He writes from the rubble of Jerusalem he had long foreseen and prophesied. The best and brightest of his people had been taken captive back to Babylon. The royal family had either been killed or fled to Egypt to escape being killed. Jeremiah is given a vision of two sets of figs: one good and one rotten. The word picture was simple. The poor exiles in Babylon were good fruit that God would bless and prepare for an eventual redemptive return. The royals and politicians who propagated the mess were rotten figs who would continue to rot.

This morning I mulled over Jeremiah’s vision and the realities faced by the poor exiles facing the harsh new realities of life in Persia. I’ve come to accept along this journey that there are pieces of wisdom that are only found away from home. Abraham was led away from his home and family. Moses was sent down river in a basket and later ran to the land of Midian. Joseph was exiled in Egypt, and his father Jacob redeemed his son only when famine drove him and his family to their own exile. David the anointed boy-king would spend years of exile in the desert wasteland before finally ascending to the throne. The prodigal son only learned how good he had it back home when he found himself covered with pig slop in a distant country. The prodigal’s elder brother, meanwhile, had no idea how lost he was at home.

As a father I came to expect that my children would someday run away in one way or another whether that was a childish block-and-a-half trek up the street or a secret exile of the young adult soul. Looking back I can see that each of them did so in their own way, though they may not be completely finished. Exile and running away can be cyclical or repetitive occurrences along one’s life journey. I realized early in my experience as a father that I would be foolish to shelter, hinder, or deny them the wisdom they will only find along those stretches of their respective journeys.

This morning I’m smiling at the memory of a young boy, in full-blown childish tantrum, announcing he was running away and storming out of the house. My mother didn’t stop me. She didn’t run after me. She didn’t try to convince me of the error of my ways or my foolish lack of preparation. She wished me well and watched me walk up Madison Avenue. A short time later she silently said nothing as I returned home having gained nothing but a simple piece of wisdom that has served me well the rest of my life.

Thanks, mom.

featured photo courtesy of wespeck via flickr

Wandering and Waiting

Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Zechariah 1:3 (NIV)

Over the past few days Wendy and I have thoroughly enjoyed having our daughter, Madison visiting us. It’s become a bit of a ritual for our family to see the newest Star Wars movies together when we have the opportunity. On Sunday evening we watched The Force Awakens together on DVD, and then last night we went to the theater to see The Last Jedi.

On the way home last night we had fun discussing the themes of the story. One of the themes that stuck out for us was that of orphans, children, parents, and awaiting a return. Rey awaits the return of her parents. Han and Leia await the return of their rebellious son. The Resistance awaits the return of Luke. The wait and the return are powerful themes.

The Christmas story echoes these same things. There was 400 years between Malachi, the last of the prophets, and Gabriel’s visitation to Elizabeth and Mary. The people of Israel had been defeated and scattered by empire after empire: Assyria, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman. Their hope was in a deliverer. Simeon and Anna served in the temple awaiting a glimpse of hope. Later, Jesus pushes into this theme in His story of the prodigal son. At the end of His earthly ministry Jesus promised His return at a day and hour known only to the Father. We’ve been waiting ever since.

In today’s opening chapter of the prophet Zechariah’s visions, we once again see the theme. This time it is Father calling out to His children in a foreshadowing of the prodigal’s story: “Return to me and I will return to you.” The image is that of a parent sitting on the front porch, eyes fixed on the road, hoping desperately for a glimpse of a wayward child making his or her way home. Jesus describes so beautifully what happens when the child is spotted:

“But while he [the lost son] was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

This morning I’m thinking about the holidays of Christmas and New Year’s. I’m thinking about families and parents, and children and homecomings. Christmas is about that which has been long-awaited. It’s about redemption and reconciliation. It’s about new hope, and new beginnings.

There have been some stages of my life journey in which I took on the role of the prodigal. I know what it is to wander, to squander, and to wade in the hog slop of poor choices. There have been other stretches of my journey in which I have waited and hoped for a child’s return. I have felt the grace of God’s embrace. I have felt the joy of extending that grace and embrace. They are all part of the journey.

My prayers this morning are for those who wandering and wondering about the tug in their heart calling them to return. My prayers are for those whose eyes are fixed on the road, hoping for a glimpse of the child returning.

Wandering, waiting, hoping, returning.

They are all a part of this journey.

Returning Home

Now these are the people of the province who came up from the captivity of the exiles, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had taken captive to Babylon (they returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to their own town….
Ezra 2:1 (NIV)

The past few weeks have been times of transition here at Vander Well manor. Our daughter, who has not really lived under our roof for almost six years, returned home from grad school across the pond. Suzanna, who has been living under our roof for two years, is packing to leave for college tomorrow. The theme of leaving home and returning home has been resonating in my soul these past weeks. In fact, for whatever reason, the theme of returning home has always resonated deeply in my soul.

At some point, almost everyone returns home. It may be for a wedding. It may be for a funeral. The college student returns home for provision before launching on their own road. The soldier returns from war. The adult returns home to confront his or her past, to attend “home-coming,” or out of desperation because they have no other place to go. One of the things I love most about baseball is the fundamental object of the game: to be safe at home. In Jesus’ story of the prodigal child, the younger sibling returns home to seek forgiveness and restoration. Returning home is one of the fundamental themes of life.

In today’s chapter, we find a roll call of  the Hebrews who have been living in exile for years in Babylon and are now returning home. They have no idea what they will find. They have no idea what to expect. Like all those who return home, there had to have been mixed feelings of excitement and fear, joy and trepidation.

Along life’s journey, I’ve come to realize that the journey home is almost always a requisite for those who desire to progress spiritually. Most of us, when we leave home, leave unfinished business behind. There usually comes a point in life in which we cannot move forward toward peace, wisdom, and maturity unless we go back home and deal with whatever it is that awaits us there.