At my church for several weeks we've been studying the
rich parable of the 'prodigal son': the one who took
the good things from his father, went off to a distant
land, and came back humbled after the knowledge of
what he'd been missing penetrated his wayward heart.
Knowing that God orchestrates the details of my life's
encounters, I've been asking him ever since we began
the study: why are you confronting me with this
story at a time when I myself am about to leave for a
distant land? Are you warning me that I would be
better off staying put? Are you telling me that it is
indeed part of your plan for me to go, but it will
also be part of your plan for me to come back humbled?
Is New York my home, my mansion, my ancestral manor,
so that leaving it is a reflection of my own wayward
and foolish heart?
It might seem a little odd that someone would go to
Bible school and work in ministry to escape God, but
that scenario is also in the story, as the older
brother. The difference between the brothers is not so
great: whereas one brother tried to escape by putting
physicial distance between himself and his father, the
other tried to escape by putting emotional distance
there. Apparently they he wasn't even close enough
with his dad to ask for food for a party. As far as he
was concerned, him keeping his father's rules was the
only basis on which they need relate. I am sure that
missions work has been used to avoid God many times in
history (a topic of conversation at my home group even
last night), and it's crossed my mind that I'm doing
that myself. As I studied this parable, it seemed that
either way -- whether I'm going to Minsk to seek a
life outside my current community, or going there to
throw myself into service to God -- I'm going because
I'm a sinful fugitive.
And a sinful fugitive I am. But in spite of this, i
didn't feel like I should call "the whole Belarus
thing" off. Again and again I felt a peace in my
spirit regarding it, and the question I only barely
dared ask -- "Should I still go?" -- was being
answered with a "Yes," over and over. I could only
understand vaguely why I was being shown the parable
at first ("Well, this is just different" was
originally about the extent of it), but gradually the
obvious occurred to me. The two sons weren't avoiding
a place, or even a community: they were running
from their father.
The younger son, by demanding his share of the estate,
was saying that he would prefer his father dead... and
since that wasn't happening fast enough, he did the
leaving himself. Even when he started back, it wasn't
his father that he was longing for but his father's
provisions. But when the father saw him in the
distance, it hardly mattered. The embrace and
celebration started before the son even had the chance
to get his whole speech in.
Betraying his similarly misplaced focus, the older
son reponded to the feast not with, "You never spend
this much quality time with me!" but with, "You never
gave me a goat so I could party with other people!"
The obvious revelation continues: I can avoid God
anywhere, and I know I'm sinful enough to do so by any
means necessary. But the real point of this story is
not how rebellious the younger son was, or how proud
and angry the older son was, but how understanding,
loving and faithful the father was.
The fact is, I still don't know if I'm going to
Belarus (probably not the best line for a fundraising
letter, which may be part of why I'm having trouble
writing those). I am expecting it and planning on it,
and even hoping for it. I have ideas for things I'd
like to do there, and specific plans as to how I'm
going to get there. But it has occurred to me that the
whole purpose of the Belarus plan could be just to get
my attention; I tend to focus on the provisions more
than the father just like the two sons did, and I
consider an international life to be a pretty neato
thing. The path I'm on could take a sharp turn, and I
could wind up somewhere else entirely, or here in New
York, humbled and changed. Whatever the ultimate
outcome, I'm learning and hopefully growing a little
on the way.
So the wonder of this journey isn't in the
destination. Okay. But that's really not such a hard
lesson to swallow. The real kicker -- the thing that
it's taken me my whole life to absorb and which I know
I still haven't really gotten yet -- is that the
wonder isn't in the journey either. Another seemingly
obvious point. Road trips, with or without a
destination, are never so much about what you see as
they are about who you're with. The wonder in this
whole "life" thing is all about the father. If the
younger son had gone off to a distant land with his
father, what a great chance he'd have to learn about
his dad. Or, if the older son had had a close
relationship with his father while he was tending the
estates, what a chance he would have... again, seems
obvious when it's written out, but never seems so to
me in practice.
So I guess my prayer request that comes out of all
this (and what I've been encouraged to pray for you
all, too), is that I stick close to the father,
despite my sinful fugitive heart... and become
continually more in love with him. Wherever he leads
me, I want to follow, without being angry that he led
me there instead of here, or here instead of there,
and without elevating the destination's or journey's
importance above his. The first stanza of Whate'er my
God Ordains is Right is still my main theme
song, going on four months now, and I hope and pray
that even as my departure date gets closer and things
seem more and more certain, I don't forget that.
PS: Here are the words of the first verse to that
song, anyway. It's in my head AGAIN now...
Whate'er my God ordains is right,
His holy will abideth.
I will be still whate'er he doth,
And follow where he guideth.
He is my God;
Though dark my road,
He holds me that I shall not fall
Wherefore to him I leave it all.
- November 1, 2000
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