Monthly Archives: August 2016

High Times in the Far Country

Do you remember?

Maybe it was the day you got your driver’s license.

Maybe it was when you graduated from college.

More likely, it may have been the day your parents dropped you off in the college dorm for the first time. They said goodbye and you were on your own – well, sort of.

Maybe it was when you took your first cross-country road trip.

We recall the thrill that surged through us in excited anticipation of all the experiences that would come from being free?

When we’re young and filled with hope freedom, in some way, has to do with leaving our parents and discovering the world on our own terms.

We want to leave home. We think we’re ready to leave home. Sure, the world is a challenging place but we can handle it.

We’re jumping out of the nest and will learn to fly. And when we do, we’ll soar.

Because most of us have done this and know the youthful emotions that go with it, few of us find it difficult to identify with the impulses and desires of the young man who left home in the most famous of Jesus’ stories.

This young man wasn’t just leaving home to move into a rental around the corner. He’s headed out – way out.

The wings will be spread wide.

Jesus tells us this younger son left his family – especially his loving but compliant father – and “took his journey into a far country” (Luke 15: 13, KJV, emphasis added). This kid wasn’t taking any chances with a retreat or return. Where he was headed dad wouldn’t know and couldn’t possibly find him.

Freedom meant being far away from all that cramping restraint and boring familiarity.

Distant meant exotic and exciting.

When most kids leave home they aren’t carrying much money. This young man was quite the exception. He had his full inheritance from what was arguably a fairly large estate. His dad had humiliated himself by giving this wealth to his son just because he asked for it.

The great thing? This young man is on his own.

The bad thing? He’s on his own.

The great thing? The kid’s got money.

The bad thing? He’s got money.

This money he’s not earned through either hard work or wise investment. He has no appreciation of its value or the many strenuous efforts and sacrifices of a father who gave it to him against his better judgment.

And speaking of judgment, we soon discover this is an intemperate youth devoid of discernment or self-control. In casting off the restraints and disciplines of family and home, he exercises utterly no restraint or discipline upon himself.

This young man is naïve, inexperienced and trusting.

There is a Proverb that reminds us that “the glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head” (Proverbs 20:29).

Two men went into business together. One furnished the money, the other had the experience. Before long, the man with the experience had the money and the man with the money had the experience.

Sudden wealth can be challenging enough. Ask Mr. Deeds, the innocent country bumpkin who in the classic Depression-era movie inherits $20 million and spends most of the film fighting off those who would try and take it from him.

When you’re as impulsive and flagrant as the kid in this story, your fate is almost sealed from the start.

Prodigal means “extravagantly wasteful”. This son was prodigal.

When he arrived in the big city, he was a child in the candy shop. Nothing was too much. There was partying every other night. The days between were for sleeping off the party from the night before.

Once the word got around – and it did, fast – the kid was instantly popular.

Loose money has lots of friends.

The young man’s lifestyle? What did Jesus call it?

“Riotous living” (Luke 15:13, KJV).

“Wild living” (NIV).

Jesus also says this young prodigal “wasted his substance” on this debauchery. He didn’t invest it or even spend it – he “wasted” it.

In this distant land, far from home, all his father had bestowed upon him – the work and savings of a lifetime – was thrown away on corrupt and shallow amusements.

“He squandered his estate with loose living” (Verse 13, NASB).

And it didn’t take long. Money is far harder earned than spent.

The good times went on – for a while. As the old song says, “those were the days my friend; we thought they’d never end”.

But they did.

A devastating famine hit the land. Hard times fell like a black shroud.

The young man was broke. The money – every last silver denarius – was gone.

“He had spent all” (Luke 15:14, KJV).

His new buddies – who told him during those crazy parties he was their “absolute best friend” – were gone too. Not one stayed. The last one out turned off the light.

Undisciplined and dissipated, now he was alone – broke, scared and desperate.

And he was getting hungry.

He’s about to be humbled.

And to experience the Reality Check of a lifetime.

For this lost and lonely kid the real extravagance is still ahead.

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Behind the Curtain

My daughters loved to do it as family entertainment.

They’d bring a friend into the living room where I was, whisper to her, “watch this” and then announce:

“OK Dad, number 19.”

Like clicking on a computer, I’d begin a detailed description of our country’s 19th president, Rutherford B. (for Birchard, a family name) Hayes. I’d spout off dates, events, VP, home state, physical appearance, personality and various other facts, some important, most trivial.

Figuring it was a set-up, the friend would insist on picking her own number. I’d do the same thing.

After three or four numbers, my daughter would boast, “I told you, my dad knows a lot about the presidents”.

For the past several years I’ve held 50 third-graders at Liberty Christian School spell bound each spring as I spend nearly an hour lecturing on the American presidents, armed with nothing more than colorful portraits and a bust of Lincoln.

I don’t need notes.

I’m a presidential savant.

Lincoln died at ten seconds past the 22nd minute of 7:00AM on Saturday, April 15, 1865. He had been laid diagonally on a short bed at the Henry Peterson boarding house across the street from Ford’s theater. He was 56 years old. Edwin M. (for McMasters) Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, was said to have famously remarked, “Now he belongs to the ages”.

Nothing in the preceding paragraph was googled – except in my head.

I’ve watched the movie Lincoln 22 times – but most of those details aren’t in the film.

When Beth and I were served at a local restaurant by a young aspiring actor named Chester, I proceeded to share salient facts about his presidential namesake.

Yes, that’s right, I’m a weirdo.

Blame my mother, who, while a sales lady, brought home a free set of World Book encyclopedias when I was ten. Included was a volume on the presidents.

I devoured it.

I was hooked – on our country and the fascinating and often heroic and tragic men who have led it.

Over the past half century, I’ve moved beyond the statistics of the presidents, which I mastered as a child. I’ve gained a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for the temperaments, gifts, strengths, weaknesses – the successes and failures – and the diverse personalities of the 43 men who have held the nation’s – and now the world’s – most powerful office.

One thing I’ve learned is that character counts. Our nation has survived and prospered because of it. Without wise and self-disciplined leaders of integrity in times of crisis we would have been doomed.

Another thing I’ve learned is that even the most powerful and greatest of men are mere mortals.

When little Toto pulled back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions discovered the diminutive, white-haired and cherubic-faced senior citizen who had been performing an elaborate and impressive disguise.

When Dorothy upbraided him as “a very bad man”, the old gent replied, “No my dear, I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard”.

The Republicans presented Donald Trump last week and attempted, with the valuable help of his impressive children, to unveil the decent, humble and caring man behind the public curtain of his uniquely authoritative candidacy and personality. We were invited to behold the real Donald Trump – not the media’s alleged caricature.

This week it will be the Democrats’ turn to try and humanize Hillary Clinton – who has been at the controversial epicenter of the public’s eye for a quarter century.

What’s behind the curtail matters – a lot.

No president has ever fully idealized this country’s vision of what a president should be – certainly not while in office. Only history can correct our frequent myopia.

Trump and Clinton enter the fall campaign as the least popular and trusted candidates in American history. There is little comfort for them – or the rest of us – in thinking it’s going to get easier next year. The history of the “glorious burden” of the presidency clearly argues against it.

It would be a grave mistake for any president to go into this storm without a firm moral compass. Those who attempted it ended shipwrecked.

When he was secretly diagnosed with cancer of the jaw, President Grover Cleveland, once the burly sheriff of Buffalo, said that he was reminded of “how weak the strongest man is”.

What is true physically is equally true politically and morally.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” observed Lincoln, “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power”.

Either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will place his or her hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States. When they utter the words, “So help me God” on that cold January noon they will assume more power than any other person on earth.

May we pray that the scriptures will be opened to King David’s pledge:

“I will lead a life of integrity … I will reject perverse ideas … I will not endure conceit and pride …My daily task will be to ferret out the wicked and free the city of the Lord from their grip” (Psalm 101, NLT).

The curtain will be pulled back.

Character will be revealed.

It’s the nature of the office.

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The Wild One

I think this kid has gotten a bum rap.

He was, after all, just a young man with a lot of ideas about what the world was like.

He wanted to see it, experience it and enjoy it.

Life had to be more than this. Why wait?

He wanted out. He wanted to be free – free from restraint, from routine and from responsibility. He’d had enough of the drudgery of the accountable life.

It was time to find out what lay beyond the ranch gate.

He’s been condemned as rebellious and disrespectful and he likely was. But our rush to judgment must be tempered by our own experience.

Anyone who has ever known the young, taught the young, raised the young or has ever been young understands that in this great and familiar story Jesus touched a universally responsive chord.

Youth is often filled with big dreams and big ambitions. It’s natural.

Even sweet-hearted George Bailey, stuck in Bedford Falls, chafed to be free.

“I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet,” he told a friend, “and I’m going to see the world.”

Expressed or repressed, this is the desire of the young.

“A man had two sons”.

With this simple understatement Jesus begins the story that has moved hearts and impacted the world for more than two thousand years. In art, in literature, in film and in pulpits the Parable of the Prodigal Son has been told thousands of times.

Here is a story that will never grow old because its truths and lessons are timeless.

In no other biblical account save the birth, death and resurrection of Christ himself do we see the essence of Christianity so purely and beautifully portrayed.
We recall it and love it because, in the end, it is our story.

It is the story of all of us and of each of us.

We see and hear the characters of this poignant drama – by turns despicable, desperate and devout – and, if honest, we identify with each one. Here is the range of human emotions as if captured on canvas.

We know this feeling. We’ve felt this way. We’ve acted this way. We’ve thought these thoughts.

The younger son musters his chutzpah and tells his father he wants his share of the inheritance.

Now.

The father knows this is the wild one. He’s seen his spirit and his resistance as he entered his teen years. Dr. James Dobson would have called him The Strong-willed Child. But the dad loves him, even admires his tempestuousness. He may even have spoiled him a bit.

In Jewish custom, this demand of the younger son is a flagrant offense – an indignity to the father. It’s an embarrassment to the family and a scandal to the neighbors. To ask for one’s inheritance while the parent still lived was an unthinkable affront.

Those hearing this story for the first time were a mixed bag.

Dr. Luke, who records this parable in the 15th chapter of his gospel, points out in the opening verses of the chapter that there is strong tension. The “tax collectors and notorious sinners” flocked to hear this most winsome and fascinating of rabbis. The envious religious establishment – the Pharisees – viewed him as a threat and complained about the unsavory company he often kept (Luke 15:1-2).

It’s safe to say that both mutually suspicious groups were found in Jesus’ audience that day. They governed the story and its purpose. Jesus knew their hearts.

We don’t know how the father reacted to the son’s demand. Was he stunned? Was he angry? What did he say? Did he object or try to talk his son out of this intemperate insistence?

Was there any argument? Was there any attempt at reasoning?

We know what the father did.

He gave both his sons what only the younger one had demanded: his wealth.

This broke the father’s heart. Whatever he said or didn’t say, the dad knew this was wrong – a bad choice made by a good kid under the headstrong influence of an urgent impulse.

If he thought there was anything he could do about it he probably didn’t try.

That night his pillow was wet. He didn’t sleep.

Many of us have been here.

Some argue the father was weak. Or was he just wise?

The boy didn’t leave at first. He stayed around a few more days. Then Jesus says he “packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land” (Luke 15: 13, NLT, emphasis added).

He left his home. He left the father who had raised him, cared for him, taught him, encouraged him and provided well for him.

He left the father who loved him – so much that even now, as the boy packed and prepared to walk out, his father longed more than anything else simply to embrace him and tell him how much he loved him. He wasn’t too proud to beg but knew it was useless.

We shake our heads. How could this kid be so thoughtless, self-centered and short-sighted?

How could he spurn his own father’s love?

Yes, but remember, this is our story.

It is the story of all of us and of each of us.

It is the story of every sinner.

It is the story of humankind.

But it’s not over.

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