Sunday, September 18, 2011

Four Attitudes and a Party

When he came to his senses, he said, "How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants." So he got up and went to his father. But while he 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. The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:17-24, NIV)


Once again, my thoughts have turned to this familiar story about the Prodigal. As I'm reading it through the lenses of some great authors, I'm convinced that a central theme of the story is the huge party the father throws at the end of it. It is obviously a picture of the celebration God invites us to (both here and in the future), but this week I was struck by the different attitudes presented, specifically shown in the four characters who speak in the parable. Now, I know you all thought this was about three characters, but I assure you, if you read on, I'll point out four. Here we go …


The first one invited to the party is the younger son. I see his attitude as penitent and grateful. He had come to his senses enough to consider a job back on the farm rather than slow death in the stockyards. He is shocked when his father not only takes him in, but restores his position in the household and then cranks up the party machine. He enters the feast humbled at the lavish love given to him when he realizes that he deserves to be turned away.


The second one we see (and this is the one you may not think about) is the servant who runs into the older brother. I imagine he's been sent off on some task related to the celebration and, whether he happens to run into him or actually seeks him out, his encounter with the older brother takes place. In his words, I read pure joy at what has transpired. He seems to catch the idea that the younger son was as good as dead and now is back among the living. Perhaps he was close enough to the father to see his daily heartbreak. Maybe he accompanied the old man on his nightly trek down the lane to see when the younger son would return. But whatever has happened in the past, this man shows the joy and excitement that fits right in with the party.


The third person we encounter (through the servant) is the older brother. His attitude, right from the start, is selfish and petty. He woke up that morning as lord of the manor in waiting and now has to split his already cut share with the younger brother. All because dear old dad has let the little wretch back in the house. He is bitter in the truest sense of the word that his father has not only accepted his brother back, but is throwing a huge celebration in his honor. He wants no part of it and, I would reckon, tells the servant as much. This obviously gets conveyed to Dad as we see next.


The father, so joyful in the return of the younger son, has lavishly spread out his best in expression of his love. He holds nothing back … you probably could have heard it from a mile away. The singing, dancing, drinking, and merry laughter light up the night and fill the air. It is an unbridled joy known only to one who has expected the worst but held out hope for the best. And he continues this way until he gets news of the older son's refusal to come inside. You see, this wasn't just a slap at the younger brother. It was an affront to the father as well. And in his encounter with the older son – outside the party still – we hear the pain and loss, much the same as the man felt when he considered his younger son lost or dead. With tears, he begs the older son to come in but is met with refusal and an indignant response. I can imagine that he turns, slowly, shoulders slightly hunched over, and goes back into the feast.

The Crooked Path holds many celebrations along the way, but they pale in comparison to the one they all point to. Our Father waits, at the end of the path, ready to welcome us into His Great Celebration. He wants our attitude to be that of one who knows he is welcome, who knows he has a rightful place at this part. I do nothing on my own to earn that right - it is a free gift from a loving Father who is overjoyed at my return.


  1. So, what is your attitude about the party? Are you happy that it is going on for you and others who don't deserve it by worldly standards?
  2. Are you struggling as the "older brother", upset to see such lavish preparations made for those who, in your view, have squandered their chances to do what you think is right?
  3. Whatever your perspective, can you feel both the joy and pain of the Father who gives this feast for everyone to enjoy and who longs to have both the younger and older son enter and join in the celebration?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Hope vs. HOPE

But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:14-15, ESV)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1, ESV)

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:23, ESV)

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11, ESV)

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19, ESV)


Hope is a good thing. It buoys us up during difficult times. It provides a positive basis from which we can view our lives. It can be the stuff of dreams. But a thought occurred to me this week about hope. All hope is not created equal ... not by a long shot.

To begin, we need to look back to a verse I found when I did a search using the word hope. I think it sets the stage well for what went through my mind this week. It comes, oddly enough, from the aftermath of the story where God told King Saul to wipe out Agag and Saul took the order under his own advisement. As a result, Saul brought back what he thought would be a "pet king" to keep in his jails. Catching up with the story in 1 Samuel 15:32, we learn that the old prophet has called for Agag. The English Standard Version says, "And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, '"Surely the bitterness of death is past.'"

In my search, I checked the New Living Translation and found that verse to say, "Agag arrived full of hope, for he thought, 'Surely the worst is over, and I have been spared!'" I find the use of the word "hope" very telling here, as it represents the kind of hope we see too often. It's a blind hope that isn't really based in trust or even longing. It isn't even a wishful hope (Paul expressed that many times when he "hoped" he would get to go back and visit a particular church or person). As I see it, it's nothing more than a Pollyanna approach that doesn't take much seriously. And I think we all know what happened to Agag right after he met Samuel.

But the good news here, is that we have a HOPE that is more than just a wishful longing or a blind hope like Agag's. It is something solid, something we can stake our life and dependence on. David knew it - he knew that HOPE could and would raise him up from the depths of depressive despair. The saints through the ages knew it - Hebrews 11 tells a long, strong story of men and women who saw HOPE where others saw none. Paul knew it - he even said if you only looked at this life for hope, you were cheating yourself (see Corinthians passage above).

And Peter knew it. Oh, I think Peter knew it best of all. The man who had seen the absolute depths of his own soul without HOPE tells the church they should not only be confident in their HOPE, but they should be ready on a moment's notice to express the true nature of it to anybody they might encounter - so that by demonstrating a gentle, confident spirit that sees something better ahead, a dark and lost world might join them in their commitment to Jesus and know HOPE themselves.

Hope - it's a funny thing. I really wouldn't want to try and get through a day without it, even if it is that wishful longing for something I might experience in this life. But as I face the twists and turns of the Crooked Path, it is not hope, but HOPE that will sustain me. I won't always know what is ahead on the journey, but I can be assured that HOPE is with me and also waits for me, because HOPE in those terms, is just another word for Jesus.


  1. Where do you find your source of hope today? Is it the transient type, or the kind that endures?
  2. Is your hope mainly for this life, or for something better like Paul suggests?
  3. In your current state of struggle (if that is where you are), can you see beyond it like David and call out to the HOPE that can sustain you?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Domesticated Shelf Gods

(Joshua speaking on behalf of God) "I handed you a land for which you did not work, towns you did not build. And here you are now living in them and eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant. So now: Fear God. Worship him in total commitment. Get rid of the gods your ancestors worshiped on the far side of The River (the Euphrates) and in Egypt. You, worship God. If you decide that it's a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you'd rather serve - and do it today. Choose one of the gods your ancestors worshiped from the country beyond The River, or one of the gods of the Amorites, on whose land you're now living. As for me and my family, we'll worship God." The people answered, "We'd never forsake God! Never! We'd never leave God to worship other gods. God is our God! He brought up our ancestors from Egypt and from slave conditions. He did all those great signs while we watched. He has kept his eye on us all along the roads we've traveled and among the nations we've passed through. Just for us he drove out all the nations, Amorites and all, who lived in the land. Count us in: We too are going to worship God. He's our God." Then Joshua told the people: "You can't do it; you're not able to worship God. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God. He won't put up with your fooling around and sinning. When you leave God and take up the worship of foreign gods, he'll turn right around and come down on you hard. He'll put an end to you—and after all the good he has done for you!" But the people told Joshua: "No! No! We worship God!" And so Joshua addressed the people: "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen God for yourselves - to worship him."
And they said, "We are witnesses." (Joshua 24:13-22, The Message)


"We need to stop trying to domesticate God or confine Him to tidy compartments that reflect our human sentiments rather than His inexplicable ways." - Francis Chan in Erasing Hell.

That's exactly what the Israelites said they would not do in this passage. Joshua had challenged them to make up their minds, to choose God or some lesser god that very day and make their commitment. He reminded them of what Jehovah had done in bringing them out of Egypt and giving them the land that lay before them. Of course, they cried out with a fervor that they would commit to the same God Joshua had chosen. Then Joshua comes back with a pretty powerful retort.

He tells the people that they just aren't capable of choosing and following God. Oh, he knows they will serve something or someone, but he challenges the depth of their voiced commitment. He knows from his personal history that the God of Israel is not just some domesticated shelf god ... some pretty little carved image that you can set on a shelf and go visit when you want something. After all, he's just given an address to the people where God has spoken through him in a most powerful way. And he knows that choice is not just a one-time deal. The people, however, seem to see it in a different way. The history we read about them confirms that.

I don't doubt their passion in the responses they give. They too knew their history with God. But this wouldn't be the first time they or their ancestors made a passionate embrace of some ideal. The very valley they are standing in holds multiple reminders of things that have gone on before in their lives. No, they are not strangers to a challenge such as this. Yet in their enthusiasm to respond to the call that day, they overlook the basic concept that "choice" isn't just a matter of decision.

It is a matter of the heart as well. And that takes it to a whole other level in their lives. This is why Joshua challenges them after their initial agreement. He is pointing out their agreement with a shelf God rather than a wild, unpredictable God. The former is the safe choice they will make many times. The latter is the true heart of what has been presented to them ... domesticated shelf God, or the Almighty God Who has brought them this far?

It would seem that we, knowing the full history, would make the choice for the more powerful God. Yet, as Chan noted in the quote I used, we have a habit of trying to domesticate Him even today. No, we may not carve wood or stone and place it on a shelf in our house ... but does our heart choice really reflect something different than what the Israelites chose and did? Have we really embraced God as God and allowed Him to be that powerful?

The Crooked Path offers me a choice between a domesticated shelf God or a wild, unpredictable, all-powerful God. When I try to mold Him into to my ideas, I am looking for a domestic shelf God. And, in His wisdom, He may appear to me that way for a season. He may limit what He will do in and through me as a result of my choice. But that doesn't change Him in the least. It is far better that I understand God is beyond my comprehension ... and that I take Him off the shelf, letting Him be the God He really is. It's a choice I must make daily. May my heart echo along with Bill and Cindy Foote in You are God Alone - "You are God, that's just the way it is."


  1. One question and only one ... which God are you going to choose today (and every day) - the domesticated shelf God, or the all-powerful one who doesn't have to explain Himself?