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fugitives

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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