Present Tense Prodigals

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“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.

Luke 15:20-21, NLT

The Parable of the Prodigal Son has typically been taught as a ‘once upon a time’ event in the life of one wayward youth. We understand it to be such. The prodigal returns to his Father, case closed. It is a remarkable story that resonates to every broken believer.

But what if I told you that this parable is present tense. That we are continuously wandering, spending our inheritance and living off the wealth of our Father. We feel bad about this, we repent and return, only to embark on another foray into sin of our own choosing. It happens all the time.

My point is this. We seem to be always the prodigal. We never seem to outgrow this. We are constantly coming to our senses, and returning home. We seem to never get the point that our personal sin as eternal consequences. We live like there is no tomorrow, except we have to sober up and realize we have wandered far from our home.

The story of the prodigal is written to us who have repeatedly (that means very often) find themselves a good distance from where we should be. We find ourselves feeding the pigs again. We abhor our choices, and wonder again if our Father will take us back just one more time. Reason says ‘No!,’ but faith says ‘Yes!’

God’s love for us is greater than all our evil wanderings. It extends to the ups and downs of our vacillating discipleship. He sees it all and fully accepts us as His returning son. We will never tire out His constant love. We can feel ashamed of our recent behavior, but that changes nothing. We belong to Him, even if we feel wretched.

There are belivers who are overwhelmed by their sense of sin. Some of this is inflated by the devil. And yet they feel estranged from the Church. They know what they’ve done, and they can find no excuse for their actions. They’ve wandered again (for the 100th time).

The Father’s love is not subject to your obedience. It is not a meager thing doled out in some stingy manner. It is given outrageously to each son or daughter without limits. Rascals are included. God is not a miser.

“But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began.

Luke 15:22-24

‘One, and your done’ doesn’t apply to your heavenly Father. His love for you can’t be reduced to this level. Pick yourself up, leave the pigs, and come home again.

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Please, Don’t Waste Your Sorrows

 

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“You have given me many troubles and bad times, 
       but you will give me life again. 
    When I am almost dead, 
       you will keep me alive.”

Psalm 71:20, NCV

“He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”

Isaiah 53:3, NASB

Everyone hurts sometimes. We all will face our sorrows. But there are times, when our pain pounds us intensely. Sometimes it seems that we need God’s Flexeril. When we need it, as a muscle relaxer (for a strained back) it is useful. But if we abuse it and don’t really need it– it suddenly turns into a deep problem.

Sorrow is the effects of a hammering emotional or spiritual pain. I have never spoken out about this, but my wife and I had a daughter who died— stillborn. She was doing great, up to a week before her due date. We knew that in seven days, we would be able to see her– face-to-face.

But that was not to be. Elizabeth Grace Lowe died from strangulation (from her own umbilical cord.) Nothing could have been done. My wife had noticed a moment of very frantic activity, as Elizabeth fought for her life. We plummeted from ecstatic joy to a devastating sorrow in minutes. It came “out-of-the-blue,” totally unexpected. We both were completely undone.

“For the Lord will not reject forever,
For if He causes grief,
Then He will have compassion
According to His abundant lovingkindness.
For He does not afflict willingly
Or grieve the sons of men.”

Lamentations 3:32-33, NASB

There is pain, but there are promises. There is sadness, but there are psalms. There is a blessing on all those who grieve. This topic deserves far more attention than this simple post. (But fools always want to play the lead in “Hamlet,” and I guess I’m not immune.)

There is such sorrow in this life, much more than the human heart can possibly contain. But our Savior has a title (one of many.) He is the “Man of Sorrows.” He is the one “on point.” He leads us through such intense hostility. He guides us when things get very dark.

There are a few things that I want to communicate to you. These have come out of great darkness.

  1. God takes the full blame for our pain and sorrow. He doesn’t shift the blame, or deny His presence in our sufferings. Sometimes you need to adjust your theology.
  2. Jesus has fully shared our sorrow. All that you are feeling right now, He feels. If you feel you are at a minus 10, then He does as well. As you suffer, He is your shadow.
  3. Nothing is ever wasted. We really shouldn’t treat these moments of sorrow as a waste. Have you ever wondered at Jesus’ ‘economy’ after the 5000 were fed?  He assigns value to the leftovers. The disciples pick up their baskets and collect everything up again. Nothing will go to waste.
  4. This pain, this sorrow is the “intensive crash course” in becoming a person of mercy. You now will always walk with a limp. At times the scars will be quite visible to those who can really see. This will become forever a healed wound (but a wound nevertheless.) It helps to seek out others who have walked this same path. I don’t think I will ever fully trust a person who doesn’t walk with a limp.
  5. You will need (but maybe not accept,) the transformation of your suffering into glory. This will take some time, and it almost feels like your not progressing at all. I encourage you to re-think the above points. The Holy Spirit is working, perhaps behind the scenes.

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“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.”

Psalm 147:3, NLT

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me, for the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.”

Isaiah 61:1, NLT

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Dinged Up Disciples

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“Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?”

Romans 8:35, NLT

A simple question is asked. Our response is requested, and expected. We must settle this in our thinking in order to progress with Him. Why? Three reasons.

  • There is something inside of us that militates against God, and the things of God.
  • We have an active enemy that has declared war on our soul.
  • The world we live in is both cruel and very hard at times.

But again, the question remains– “Who can separate us from Christ’s love?” Paul lists the seven issues that might scramble us:

  1. trouble 
  2. calamity
  3. persecution
  4. hunger
  5. destitution
  6. danger
  7. threatened with death

Each one carries its unique twist. Some are general, others more specific. They do overlap, but each are distinct. Yet each are hostile and mean. I think what Paul is seeing is that believers face “magnetic suffering.” Certain things that are weirdly attracted to us, and we can’t do a thing to change them.

These seven are offered as reasons we find ourselves struggling so hard. But even in them, the apostle declares a victory. They won’t— shouldn’t—can’t really divide us from Jesus’ love.

An ant would have an easier time stopping a roaring freight train!

Paul reminds us again, in the midst our sad and savage situation, that Jesus Christ isn’t even slightly turned back. His love is ‘outrageously’ outrageous. We must keep this close to our hearts. It is truly all we have– but it is also all we need.

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Tough Love: The Ragamuffin Gospel, An Excerpt

The Ragamuffin Gospel

 by Brennan Manning

Tough love is a love that won’t let go. Sometimes, it has to be ‘velvet on an iron fist’. It is caring enough not to be manipulated or controlled. The truth must be spoken— and spoken in love. The best thing I could do is to let Mr. Manning speak for himself.  I hope it blesses, and perhaps you’ll purchase his book.  I don’t think it will disappoint. No copyright infringement has been intended. It has been reprinted for ministry purposes only. If this small portion piques your interest, buy the book from your local bookstore. — Bryan

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Excerpt of Chapter 7, by Brennan Manning

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The temptation of the age is to look good without being good. If ‘white lies’ were criminal offenses, we would all be in jail by nightfall…

Impostors in the Spirit always prefer appearances to reality. Rationalization begins with a look in the mirror. We don’t like the sight of ourselves as we really are, so we try cosmetics, makeup, the right light, and the proper accessories to develop an acceptable image of ourselves. We rely on the stylish disguise that has made us look good or at least look away from our true self. Self-deception mortgages our sinfulness and prevents us from seeing ourselves as we really are–ragamuffins.

One of my indelible memories goes back to April 1975 when I was a patient at an alcoholic rehabilitation center in a small town north of Minneapolis . The setting was a large, split-level recreation room on the brow of a hill overlooking an artificial lake. Twenty-five chemically dependent men were assembled. Our leader was a trained counselor, skilled therapist, and senior member of the staff. His name was Sean Murphy-O’Connor, though he normally announced his arrival with the statement: “It’s himself. Let’s get to work.”

Sean directed a patient named Max to sit on “the hot seat” in the center of the U-shaped group. A small, diminutive man, Max was a nominal Christian, married with five children, owner and president of his company, wealthy, affable, and gifted with remarkable poise.

“How long have you been drinking like a pig, Max?” Murphy-O’Connor had begun the interrogation.

Max winced. “That’s quite unfair.”

“We shall see. I want to get into your drinking history. How much booze per day?”

Max relit his corncob pipe. “I have two Marys with the men before lunch and twin Martins after the office closes at five. Then . . .”

“What are Marys and Martins?” Murphy-O’Connor interrupts.

“Bloody Marys–Vodka, tomato juice, a dash of lemon and Worcestershire, a splash of Tabasco; and Martinis, Beefeaters gin, extra dry, straight up, ice cold with an olive and lemon twist.”

“Thank you. Continue.”

“The wife likes a drink before dinner. I got her hooked on Martins several years ago. Of course she calls them ‘pre-prandials.’ ” Max smiled. “Of course you understand the euphemism. Isn’t that right, gentlemen?”

No one responded.

“As I was saying, we have two martinis before dinner and two more before going to bed.”

“A total of eight drinks a day, Max?” Murphy O’Connor inquired.

“Absolutely right. Not a drop more, not a drop less.”

“You’re a liar”‘

Unruffled, Max replied: “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. I have been in business for twenty-odd years and built my reputation on veracity not mendacity. People know my word is my bond.”

“Ever hide a bottle in your house?” asked Benjamin, a Navajo Indian from New Mexico .

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve got a bar in my living room as big as a horse’s ass. Nothing personal, Mr. Murphy-O’Connor.” Max felt he had regained control. He was smiling again.

“Do you keep any booze in the garage, Max?”

“Naturally. I have to replenish the stock. A man in my profession does a lot of entertaining at home.” The executive swagger had returned.

“How many bottles in the garage?”

“I really don’t know the actual count. Offhand, I would say two cases of Smirnoff Vodka, a case of Beefeater gin, a few bottles of bourbon and scotch, and a bevy of liquors.”

The interrogation continued for another twenty minutes. Max fudged and hedged, minimized, rationalized, and justified his drinking pattern. Finally, hemmed in by relentless cross-examination, he admitted he kept a bottle of vodka in the night stand, a bottle of gin in the suitcase for travel purpose, another in his bathroom cabinet for medicinal purposes, and three more at the office for entertaining clients. He squirmed occasionally but never lost his veneer of confidence.

Max grinned. “Gentlemen, I guess we have all gilded the lily once or twice in our lives,” was the way he put it, implying that only men of large mien can afford the luxury of self-deprecating humor.

“You’re a liar!” another voice boomed.

“No need to get vindictive, Charlie,” Max shot back. “Remember the image in John’s gospel about the speck in your brother’s eye and the two-by-four in your own. And the other one in Matthew about the pot calling the kettle black.”

(I felt constrained to inform Max that the speck and plank comparison were not found in John but in Matthew and the pot and the kettle was a secular proverb found in none of the gospels. But I sensed a spirit of smugness and an air of spiritual superiority had suddenly enveloped me like a thick fog. I decided to forego the opportunity for fraternal correction. After all, I was not at Hazelden doing research on a book. I was just another broken-down drunk like Max.)

“Get me a phone,” said Murphy-O’Connor.

A telephone was wheeled into the room. Murphy-O’Connor consulted a memo pad and dialed a number in a distant city. It was Max’s hometown. Our receiver was rigged electronically so that the party dialed could be heard loud and clear throughout the living room on the lake.

“Hank Shea?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“My name is Sean Murphy-O’Connor. I am a counselor at an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center in the Midwest . Do you remember a customer named Max? (Pause) Good. With his family’s permission I am researching his drinking history. You tend bar in that tavern every afternoon, so I am wondering if you could tell me approximately how much Max drinks each day?”

“I know Max well, but are you sure you have his permission to question me?”

“I have a signed affidavit. Shoot.”

“He’s a helluva guy. I really like him. He drops thirty bucks in here every afternoon. Max has his standard six martinis, buys a few drinks, and always leaves me a fin. Good man.”

Max leapt to his feet. Raising his right hand defiantly, he unleashed a stream of profanity worthy of a stevedore. He attacked Murphy-O’Connor’s ancestry, impugned Charlie’s legitimacy and the whole unit’s integrity. He clawed at the sofa and spat on the rug.

Then, in an incredible coup de main he immediately regained his composure. Max reseated himself and remarked matter-of-factly that even Jesus lost his temper in the temple when he saw the Sadducees hawking pigeons and pastries. After an extemporaneous homily to the group on justifiable anger, he stoved his pipe and presumed that the interrogation was over.

“Have you ever been unkind to one of your kids?” Fred asked.

“Glad you brought that up, Fred. I have a fantastic rapport with my four boys. Last Thanksgiving I took them on a fishing expedition to the Rockies . Four days of roughing it in the wilderness. A great time! Two of my sons graduated from Harvard, you know, and Max Jr. is in his third year at . . . “

“I didn’t ask you that. At least once in his life every father has been unkind to one of his kids. I’m sixty-two years old and I can vouch for it. Now give us one specific example.”

A long pause ensued. Finally, “Well, I was a little thoughtless with my nine-year-old daughter last Christmas Eve.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t remember. I just get this heavy feeling whenever I think about it.”

“Where did it happen? What were the circumstances?”

“Wait one minute!” Max’s voice rose in anger. “I told you I don’t remember. Just can’t shake this bad feeling.”

Unobtrusively, Murphy-O’Connor dialed Max’s hometown once more and spoke with his wife.

“Sean Murphy-O’Connor calling, ma’am. We are in the middle of a group therapy session, and your husband just told us that he was unkind to your daughter last Christmas Eve. Can you give me the details, please?”

A soft voice filled the room. “Yes, I can tell you the whole thing. It seems like it just happened yesterday. Our daughter Debbie wanted a pair of earth shoes for her Christmas present. On the afternoon of December 24, my husband drove her downtown, gave her sixty dollars, and told her to buy the best pair of shoes in the store. That is exactly what she did. When she climbed back into the pickup truck her father was driving, she kissed him on the cheek and told him he was the best daddy in the whole world. Max was preening himself like a peacock and decided to celebrate on the way home. He stopped at the Cork ‘n’ Bottle–that’s a tavern a few miles from our house and told Debbie he would be right out. It was a clear and extremely cold day, about twelve degrees above zero, so Max left the motor running and locked both doors from the outside so no one could get in. It was a little after three in the afternoon and . . .

Silence.

“Yes?”

The sound of heavy breathing crossed the recreation room. Her voice grew faint. She was crying. “My husband met some old Army buddies in the tavern. Swept up in euphoria over the reunion, he lost track of time, purpose, and everything else. He came out of the Cork ‘n’ Bottle at midnight . He was drunk. The motor had stopped running and the car windows were frozen shut. Debbie was badly frostbitten on both ears and on her fingers. When we got her to the hospital, the doctors had to operate. They amputated the thumb and forefinger on her right hand. She will be deaf for the rest of her life.”

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Brennan Manning, 1934-2013

Max appeared to be having a coronary. He struggled to his feet making jerky, uncoordinated movements. His glasses flew to the right and his pipe to the left. He collapsed on all fours and sobbed hysterically.

Murphy-O’Connor stood up and said softly, “Let’s split.”

Twenty-four recovering alcoholics and addicts climbed the eight-step stairwell. We turned left, gathered along the railing on the upper split level and looked down. No man will ever forget what he saw that day, the twenty-fourth of April at exactly high noon. Max was still in the doggie position. His sobs had soared to shrieks. Murphy-O’Connor approached him, pressed his foot against Max’s rib cage and pushed. Max rolled over on his back.

“You unspeakable slime,” Murphy-O’Connor roared. “There’s the door on your right and the window on your left. Take whichever is fastest. Get out of here before I throw up. I am not running a rehab for liars!”

The philosophy of tough love is based on the conviction that no effective recovery can be initiated until a man admits that he is powerless over alcohol and that his life has become unmanageable. The alternative to confronting the truth is always some form of self-destruction. For Max there were three options: eventual insanity, premature death, or sobriety. In order to free the captive, one must name the captivity. Max’s denial had to be identified through merciless interaction with his peers. His self-deception had to be unmasked in its absurdity.

Later that same day Max pleaded for and obtained permission to continue treatment. He proceeded to undergo the most striking personality change I have ever witnessed. He got honest and became more open, sincere, vulnerable, and affectionate than any man in the group. Tough love had made him real and the truth had set him free.

The denouement to his story: The night before Max completed treatment, Fred passed by his room. The door was ajar. Max was sitting at his desk reading a novel entitled Watersbip Down. Fred knocked and entered. For several moments Max sat staring at the book. When he looked up, his cheeks were streaked with tears. “Fred, he said hoarsely, “I just prayed for the first time in my life.” Max was on the road to knowing God.

An intimate connection exists between the quest for honesty and a transparent personality. Max could not encounter the truth of the living God until he faced his alcoholism. From a biblical perspective, Max was a liar. In philosophy, the opposite of truth is error: in Scripture, the opposite of truth is a lie. Max’s lie consisted in appearing to be something he wasn’t–a social drinker. Truth for him meant acknowledging reality–his alcoholic drinking.

The Evil One is the great illusionist. He varnishes the truth and encourages dishonesty. “If we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (1 John 1:8). Satan prompts us to give importance to what has no importance. He clothes trivia with glitter and seduces us away from what is real. He causes us to live in a world of delusion, unreality, and shadows.

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Try this link: Christianity Today Magazine interviews Brennan Manning: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/decemberweb-only/12-9-21.0.html

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