A Hidden Figure In ‘The Prodigal Son’

The parable of the prodigal son would certainly earn a prime spot on Jesus’ Greatest Parable Hits CD.
It is hard to find anything in the Bible—Old Testament or New Testament—that more richly illustrates how much God loves us. No matter what we do, God’s love is always waiting for us with open arms. We can squander all the blessings that God has given us. We can live as dissolutely as humanly possible. We can find ourselves foraging for sustenance among the earth’s pig-styes. But, no matter what, God’s love is still there, waiting, like the father of the prodigal son.
All we need to do is come back home to that love.
But in contemplating this story, there is an added layer of understanding if we think about the fourth character. She is mentioned nowhere but surely must have played a compelling role in what happened when the prodigal son came home.
I refer to the wife, the mother of the prodigal son.
At its core, this famous parable is about the transformational power of love, both human and divine—because the two are inseparable. I don’t believe the father could have shown such unconditional love to his younger son without knowing the power of such love firsthand in his own life.
So, let’s look at the lesson from a slightly different point of view than the most commonly understood meaning—which, itself, is powerful enough for us all—that the father is God and the younger son is so many of us in the human race. But, I believe Jesus also wants us to understand the power of our own love.
In literal terms, this is a real, earthly family. Looking at the parable from a literal standpoint, the characters are not symbols or metaphors. When we regard the parable this way, the transformational power of both God’s love and human love resonates like a church bell in the night.
For the father to respond to his returning son so immediately and fully with such unconditional love must mean that he, too, has been, and is, unconditionally loved. Love like that must come from the heart of one who has known such love.
The unnamed and unmentioned wife—the mother of his children—must have been the source of that unconditional love in his own life. After all, the father doesn’t consult with his wife. He doesn’t say, ‘Honey, guess who’s come home. Is it okay if we kill the fatted calf?” Fatted calves don’t grow on trees but the father knew he didn’t need to ask. He knew the answer. He married the answer.
I believe the father lived with unconditional love on a daily basis and that is why there was such unconditional love when the couple’s younger son returned. Furthermore, it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that the father is able to show such understanding toward the younger son because he had his own difficult challenges growing up in the world—until he found the unconditional love of the woman who would become his wife.
Unconditional human love really can be transformational. It can literally change our lives. That is because unconditional human love connects us to the unconditional love of God in some beautifully mysterious and miraculous way. As Jesus taught the Beloved Disciple, who shares the lesson with us in I John, the 12th verse of the fourth chapter: “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”
Wow! A really BIG WOW!!
And that is the love we see demonstrated in the story of the prodigal son.
“This brother of yours was dead,” the father explains to his oldest son, “and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
So, let us never, ever in a million years underestimate the power of our own love. It is, in its own way, divine and it can be, most definitely, transformational in the lives of those around us. We only have to look at ourselves and think about our own life’s journey to understand that holy truth.

Springing Ahead With Our Hearts

“For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

—John 3:20-21

One of my favorite childhood memories with my father is being five and six-years-old, staying up late on Saturday nights to watch “Shock Theater.” Just the two of us.
A Richmond television station would broadcast the classic horror films: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and all the rest. Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Bela Lugosi became as familiar to me as Mickey Mantle.
And, gosh, those actors were really scary in those movies.
But was I afraid?
No, because I felt so safe sitting close to my father on the sofa in front of the television, darkness all around, the only light coming from the screen of the black and white television as midnight approached. I knew nothing bad could happen to me as long as he was there.
Most of the scary scenes in those movies were set in darkness. Dracula came at night to drink his victims’ blood. Chaney’s character was transformed by the full moon into the ravening Wolf Man. When darkness came, in those films, evil was not far behind.
The trick, of course, was getting up enough courage to go to bed after the movie was over and I had told my father good night. I would hold my little stuffed dog Petesy tightly in my arms and say my prayers as hard as I could.
I never fell asleep right away, however, on those Saturday nights.
Even though I knew they were just movies, my imagination sometimes ran away with me in the darkness as I lay in bed. One night I woke up and really needed to pee, but I was certain that the Wolf Man was actually in our house, right down the hall in the living room.
I was terrified, so frightened that I even tried holding my breath, certain that if the Wolf Man heard me breathing he would know I was there and come get me. I lay still as a stone until morning came when I saw Mom and Dad again and, in the light of day, realized that the Wolf Man wasn’t real as, yes, I dashed into the bathroom.
Darkness and light are powerful symbols. The Bible is full of such references, beginning with the moment God declared “Let there be light” in the third verse of Genesis and the journey of light began. But we shouldn’t let that sentence belong entirely to God. Nor do I believe that God wants sole title and legal claim to those words.
The Bible, after all, is full of suggestions that we should also be saying “Let there be light” as often as possible, and then, crucially, doing what we can to help that light shine in this world for all who are living in darkness.
Jesus, unsurprisingly, took the light farther, and further, than anyone. He took the light places nobody had ever dreamed of before. He brought the light to you and he brought it to me. Directly. But that wasn’t the end of the journey. Instead, it was just the beginning because Jesus then took the light even one more amazing step—a giant leap for humankind, if we’re willing to take that leaping step.
Because Jesus told us—is still telling us—that we are the light of world and that we are meant to shine. What a miracle waiting inside all of us, and one so desperately needed.
Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and the Mummy aren’t real, but the world is full of “monsters” that make people feel as if they are surrounded by a frightening darkness that would devour them if it could. And, sometimes it can. And does.
Violence, oppression, bigotry, hatred, poverty … There are so many “monsters” and they can have so many names. Many are so large that we may feel powerless to stop them. But there is one monster we can halt before it takes a single step.
We do that by making certain no “monster” ever has our name.
Daylight Savings Time returns this weekend. Our clocks “spring ahead.” Let there be light, then. Moreover, let’s truly save the light. Not the light in the sky, but the light that Jesus knows is inside us. The light that empowers us to be agents of love, healing, peace and reconciliation in the world.
So, let’s make certain to “spring ahead” with our hearts, as well.
And every day, not once a year.

Repentance Can Blow Your Mind

“Knock, knock”
“Who’s there?”
“Repentance who?”
“Good question.”
Repentance always seemed pretty straightforward to me—essentially an apology to God for things that I have done and there is an implied intention to make a course correction.
But that is an incomplete understanding of what Jesus means. Look at Jesus’ first recorded use of the word “repent.”
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near,” he states in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.
The Kingdom of heaven is near? What does that mean? Was he telling people the end of the world was right around the corner?
The Lord’s prayer answers both the question of what Jesus meant and illustrates the deeper meaning of “repent” and “repentance.” Jesus teaches us to pray “…Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus urges us to pray for the emergence of the Kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God, here on Earth. And for that to happen, Jesus knows, we must repent.
But that means we must do more than apologize to God for actions that we regret.
As the scholar and theologian Marcus J. Borg points out, “repent” meant something more to the early Christian community. And so it means more to us today.
The roots of the Greek word for repentance mean “to go beyond the mind you have.” The Greek, such a key language for accurately translating the New Testament, more closely reflects what those who actually heard Jesus speak understood him to mean when he spoke to them.
“Go beyond the mind you have,” Jesus is saying, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near.”
Only by going beyond the mind we have—going beyond the normal Earthly way of thinking about things, the normal Earthly way of doing things—can we apprehend and comprehend the real possibilities of the Kingdom of heaven here and now, as Jesus wishes we would.
When we repent, when we go beyond the mind we have, then we can truly bear fruit to help bring the Kingdom of a loving God into the world. And we can help others to bear the fruitful promise of their own lives.
When we go beyond the mind we have then we do not simply cut down fig trees because they are not bearing fruit. When we go beyond the mind we have then we discover previously unthought of ways to care for that fruitless tree instead of chopping it down, ways to tend its needs and nurture the soil around it so that it might bear fruit.
In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus clearly intends the tree to represent human beings who need and deserve care and compassion to enable them to bear fruit and contribute to the Kingdom of heaven.
People like you and me.
God always sees so much more in us, and those around us, than we ever see in ourselves. Understanding that truth enriches not only the soil of our own lives but also that of the people with whom we share this earth.
With Jesus as our arborist, we cannot help but bear fruit. That, after all, is what fruit trees do.
Knock, knock and knock again on the door.
Jesus will surely answer in ways that may not be immediately visible but will bear fruit some day through our faithful perseverance, when the time is just right, when the world—perhaps one single person—needs us most.

Grace Without Borders

“But our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians.
What a profound statement. What a wondrous truth.
And there is no debate about that. There is no need for follow-up questions or 30 seconds for a rebuttal. We don’t need to go to any media website to confirm the veracity of Paul’s declaration. He’s not making something up in an attempt to win our vote in a primary. Paul’s assertion is not going to be trumped by anyone. His words are simply true.
Because this citizenship is granted by God, we don’t need immigration papers. We don’t need a green card. We don’t need a work permit. We don’t need the permission of Congress, the White House, or any parliament or national assembly around the world.
Nobody has to smuggle us across the border because there is no line on any map.
God’s grace is without borders.
God’s love has no crossing guards or checkpoints.
Nobody will ever build a wall to deny us entry.
We don’t have to live in the shadows. We do not have to fear deportation.
There are human organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders and Clowns Without Borders, who minister to the hurt and suffering around the world. They will go anywhere. There are no limits on their caring and compassion, no boundary on their desire to heal wounds—physical and emotional—that are created by human conflict around the globe.
These men and women provide us an example, in microcosm, of the unfathomable expanse of God’s desire to reach out to us, wherever we may be on this planet, in healing love and grace for our own wounds—whatever they may be.
Grace Without Borders.
That is God.
Love Without Borders.
That is God.
Just as there are no possible human impediments between us and our citizenship in heaven, there is likewise no border that can block God’s love and grace from reaching us. There are no crossing guards or checkpoints. No wall could ever keep God’s love and grace away from us. God doesn’t need a green card or a work permit. Congress, the President and any national assembly around the world are all powerless to stop God.
We are citizens of heaven but God’s love and grace reside with us already, wherever this life takes us. What a gift that is!
So…what might we give God in return for such limitless generosity?
Perhaps that might be by removing any barriers to our own love in this world, removing any crossing guards or checkpoints between us and our forgiveness for those who have hurt us, and tearing down any wall that might stand between our compassion and those who need our healing touch, a healing touch that might simply be a word finally spoken from deep behind the borders of our own heart.
Citizenship is a great privilege, but it also carries tremendous responsibilities.

Let The Ashes Remind Us Of The Flame

And so our lenten journey begins. Forty days across the spirit meadows and 40 nights over the soul mountains to the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee with its gentle waves reaching toward us even now in its widening embrace.
A high tide of God’s love and grace.
As brothers and sisters in Christ within the outstretched arms of a waiting, loving God, we each bring a spark of Christ within us to candle-flame the darkness and send it retreating from the face of our own flickering that summons strength for this journey.
Let us walk together now for these few moments through the bright eternal flame of the life of Jesus, right up to this very second.

And let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“Here is my servant who I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.
I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break
And a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.
‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean.’
Immediately the man was cured.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.
And the curtain in the temple was torn in two.
Jesus called out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’
When he had said this, he breathed his last.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore but they did not realize that it was Jesus.
He called out to them, ‘Friends, haven’t you any fish?’
‘No,’ they answered.
He said, ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.’
When they did they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit…
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him.”

So let the ashes remind us of the flame.

And may our Lenten journey be guided by this inner light toward the resurrection cross of blooming flowers, the hallelujah garden of God’s love toward which our Good Shepherd leads us.
The world may surround us and mark us with its ashes, but there is a flame deep within us that the world cannot touch.
And it is inextinguishable.

Sometimes, I Wonder

“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”

—The Gospel of Mark



when the moon seems skillfully slung

to skip across the rushing clouds,

I wonder whose wrist and fingers

give the crescent of light its motion

and if the heart behind the hand knows I’m watching,

wading toward the deep end of the sky,

up to my neck now

and wanting to swim

in communion

with the reflection of the sun

along the surface of the lunar song

being sung across the skin of heaven.


the light splashes

and I feel its current all around,

lifting me for a moment so brief

that it seems unreal,

as if it were only a fantasy of my own desperate yearning.

Sometimes, I feel the heart behind the hand

send me skipping, too, across the clouds

in the wake of the singing moon.

And then my wondering turns to wonder.


The Corner Of Your Smile Inside Me

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

—the Gospel of Mark

I remember being a child in Nazareth,
sitting on the flat roof of our house under a night sky
so filled with stars
that I thought the darkness would turn itself inside out.

But there is more darkness in the world than is found in the night sky
and I prayed that one day, no matter what,
the light would turn all of that other darkness inside out.

That is still my prayer, God.

But I also prayed that the light would somehow turn me inside out, too.
And then one day you did.
The light of your love turned me upside down and inside out.
It still does.
Astonishing me.
Especially when I need it most.

And so here I am in this deserted place,
under the star-pricked sky,
feeling almost like a child in school
who has precisely followed his teacher’s instructions:
Make an imaginary night sky
by poking small holes in dark construction paper
to let the flashlight shine through from behind
like midnight constellations.

Because I am the child
who chose to tear away the dark paper
and let in all of the light, instead,
forever shining your love into the souls
of those who’ve gone away now
with their healing and their scars,
leaving me weary but warily exhilarated
at the luminous possibilities of it all,
brushing the hammers and the nails aside
—even though they always return—
and living the life you dreamed I would,
feeling the corner of your smile widening inside me,

and a joy deeper than rumbling laughter
reflected in the moonlight sailing on the waves below.

And Jesus Sang With God’s Voice

“Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’”

—the Gospel of Mark

Suddenly all of the dissonance is gone.
But I cannot hear a thing.
Nothing at all.
Without the dissonance there isn’t a single solitary sound.
Nothing … but … this … other … thing.
This other thing that is not dissonance.
How can that be?
The dissonance said that it was here forever and then, just like that, it was gone.
I stumbled and fell, unbalanced without the dissonance, deafened by this new sensation of a world no longer shouting at me.
No dissonance to guide me.
No hope of escape from this new …
This new what?!?!?
The sky seems to fall.
Seems to kneel and touch my face.
Reaching out as far as it can to caress my cheek.
As if heaven, itself, is brushing my face with its lips.
Redeeming me, healing me, with a kiss.
Why would heaven ever want to kiss me, of all people?
The dissonance said that heaven never would.
Why would heaven ever care?
The dissonance swore that heaven never would.
And what did heaven do with all of the dissonance that used to fill my ears with its chaos?
The dissonance swore that it was the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
So help me God.
So … help me what?
Why would God ever care?
The dissonance screamed that God never would.
Why would God ever want to brush my face with a kiss of even the smallest caring show of affection?
The dissonance promised that God never would.
But maybe—just perhaps—the dissonance wasn’t telling the truth. Not the whole truth. Nor any of the truth.
Because there it is.
Again and again and again.
A sudden harmony.
A harmony that wraps me up so entirely and so wonderfully that it makes me feel as if I were the only thing that it ever wanted for Christmas.
The only thing that it ever wanted for Easter.
The only thing that it ever wanted any day of every week in any month of every year.
A harmony that sings for me with such wondrous melodies that I am deafened.
So deafened that this time I hear everything that the dissonance was trying to cover up with its noise.
All of my senses listen.
I hear everything that I see within the light inside your eyes.
I hear everything that I feel in your healing touch upon my skin.
And all that is in the ember warmth of your voice speaking words that I never thought I’d hear.

When I See My Reflection In Your Waves

“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

—The Gospel of Mark

Four-fifths of our world is covered in water.
Eighty percent of the planet Earth.
The currents and tides touch every continent.
Water that washes over all soles.
If I were to touch the last gasp of even the smallest wave at Virginia Beach I would be sharing that vast expanse of water with someone doing the same thing on the shores of Nigeria.
The wave wouldn’t care about the color of our skin.
Or where the beach was.
Oh, if we could only become more like those waves.
Just reaching out toward ever soul.
When I look down into the smallest stream at my reflection, my face is mirrored by water that will one day join the great oceans and seas that cover the earth.
Water that will mirror the face of every man, woman or child who looks for their own reflection beneath a sky that knows nothing of race or ethnicity.

The Holy Spirit of God doesn’t fill our sails to narrow our journey.
The Holy Spirit fills our sails to broaden the reach of our heart.
The reach of the love for which Jesus gave his life; the truth that Jesus died for: God is love and God loves us all.
On every beach.
On any shore.
Every square inch of earth.
Be it desert or oasis.

There is something we’d be wise to understand:
If we are good enough for God—and God’s love declares that we are—then we are good enough.
For anyone and everyone.
Kings, queens or presidents cannot take that truth away.
Nor any act of Congress.
So, that has to mean that we are good enough—we must be good enough—for each other.
Or … that’s the way it should be.
Unfortunately, we are separated from each other on this planet by more than water.
We are separated from each other by ourselves.
Jesus knew what he was doing when he asked us to follow him and become fishers of people.
There are over 28,000 species of fish in the world.
We could never catch them all.
But there is only one human race.
Fishing for each other should not be—would not be—such a difficult thing.
If we’d only try.

What The Voice Of The World Won’t Say

“Nathaniel said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’”

—The Gospel of John

The young boy heard The Voice Of The World shouting, “Can anything good come out of this child?”
The Voice was talking about him and its tone seemed to answer the question.
No, The Voice Of The World quite clearly felt, nothing good could ever come out of that child. And The Voice Of The World made certain that the child heard the answer.
But the child wasn’t the only one listening.
Jesus heard, too.
And Jesus wept.
Tears flowed for this child and for all of the children of God—no matter how old they were—who’d heard The Voice Of The World so often question, challenge and demean their child of God selves.
Challenge them with war.
Demean them with abuse.
Question them with callous indifference.
Swallow them with disease.
And enslave them with poverty.
Before abolishing their very existence with death.
The Voice Of The World shouted so loud that even the waves in the sea seemed to retreat, leaving the beach where children once played behind, turning it into a desert.
But the tears of Jesus were like rain.
And Jesus lifted the child.
Jesus lifted the child and told him something else.
Raised the child up.
Jesus gave him another word that The Voice Of The World had tried so hard to erase.
Resurrected the child with four simple letters that Jesus carefully arranged:
Love? the child wondered.
Really?” the child asked.
Me?” the child pleaded.
“Come and see,” Jesus answered.
And so the child, carried in the loving heart of Christ, followed.
Followed despite all of the odds that the world said were stacked against every child of God.
Followed despite all of the statistics of probability the world declared would defeat all children of God.
Because Jesus carried him.
Because Jesus carries you.
Because Jesus carries all of the children of God to the truth of God’s love for them all.

And we are all children of God.

No matter what the World says with its hammers and nails.
No matter what the World tries so desperately to make the children of God believe.
A child risen.
The child in us all.
The child that God wants us all to be and believe to be our truest self.
Just who we are and just as we are.
And nothing but loved.
“Come and see,” Jesus told Nathaniel that day so long ago in Galilee.
“Just come,” Jesus tells us every day, “and see.”