The-Prodigal-Son-The-FatherComing To Ourselves                                                                          Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

March 10,2013

We love to hear stories of people who hit bottom and make remarkable transformations.  The biblical account of Saul’s conversion into the Apostle Paul, moving from murderous threats and persecuting the early church, to being blinded and meeting the risen Christ, it gives hope that God can change any hardened heart.  John Newton, the author of the words to Amazing Grace, a most beloved hymn, had been captain of a slave ship, but after his conversion he became a minister and abolitionist.  His profound thanks of moving from being lost to found, blind but now seeing; often moves me to tears when I sing.  Alcoholics Anonymous gives people the opportunities to tell their stories of hitting bottom, that alcohol led people to steal money from their families, lose their jobs, hurt the people they love the most.  But at some point a person hits bottom and starts the climb back to sobriety and wholeness.  Through the help of a “higher power” the God of their understanding, people make remarkable transformations.  These stories give us all hope that we to can be touched and transformed by the love of God.


The hard part, of course, is being the one who is waiting, while someone you love “finds their bottom.”  What will it take before someone sees the error of their ways, and starts to make positive changes?  Many people go through multiple bottoms on their way to real change.  We fear we may get sucked down with them.  Melody Beatty wrote the classic book “Co-Dependent No More” about the tendency to enable people to live with dysfunctional behavior, under the guise of “helping” them.


It is tough to be the Parent in the story of the Prodigal Son, waiting and wondering what has happened to his child.  How often did he think of his son, or pray to God for his safety?  Did he lie awake at night, heartsick and unable to sleep?  When he saw his son finally coming home, was it because he looked down that road several times every day for years, waiting and hoping? Did the father ever blame himself?


We focus on the Prodigal Son, because that is the part of the story we like the most.  But we could also rename this story the “The Long-Suffering Parent,” not necessarily the role we want to play in life.  The character of the older brother might suggest the title, “The Enabling, Doting, Ungrateful Father.”  From the parental perspective, it is also the parable of the judgmental, self-righteous older brother.  Remember the context of Jesus’s teaching here in Luke.  Religious leaders were upset with him for eating with sinners and tax collectors.  Jesus was giving aid and comfort to sinners.  What an enabler!  Shouldn’t he let them find their bottom?  What kind of message is he sending our youth?  By the end of the parable it is clear what Jesus thought of the religious leaders and their role.  They are the jealous older sibling guarding their role as first in line, which they believe they have earned through their own hard work.  I think Jesus means to draw our attention here; not just to the heart-warming story of hitting bottom and changing for the good.


My senior year of college, a shock when through the school when the Vice President of the Student Body was caught selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent.  At an American Baptist college in the Bible Belt this caused a great deal of theological conversation.  Our College President, Owen Halleen, sat in court and was a character reference for him and urged leniency.  I must admit I was not quite so forgiving in my heart.  Andy was a handsome, charismatic guy from Miami.  He came South Dakota to play football.  His freshman year he was caught in a check forgery scheme and dismissed from school.  After a religious conversion he was allowed to enroll again.  He was involved with Athletes in Action, a religious club where athletes went to local high schools and told motivational stories like Andy’s, how Jesus saved him from a life of crime so he could become a star strong safety and smash people on the football field for the glory of God.  (Obviously I was not a big fan of this!  It bothers me when athletes pound their chest and point to heaven after a slam dunk or winning the Superbowl.  I’m sorry, God has better things to do than help Tim Tebow win football games, like motivating people to help starving children in Africa.  Being traded to the Jets is God’s punishment for too much end zone, a direct violation of Matthew 6 about public prayer.  Or maybe I’m just jealous that God never made me into a big-time athlete.)


Much like the older brother in the parable, I had some strong arguments of my own.  He was the hard worker who was always there and never strayed, at least in a major way.  I felt like that too.  I was all business in college.  I worked part-time reporting news and weather at a local radio station, graduated magna cum laude, Student Council, wrote for the school newspaper and the school liked to trot me in front of prospective students and parents to say why they should go to Sioux Falls College.  So I was shocked when my financial aid package came for my senior year.  It was cut.  I asked around and most seniors were cut, except for football scholarships.  I was appalled, especially because this was the time of the great Farm Crisis, and many students had to leave school as the family farms went under, and there was no extra aid for them.  So I marched into the Academic Dean’s office and said, are you the one who decided to cut aid to seniors, except for football players?  He talked of hard decisions and tough times, while failing to make eye contact.  But he didn’t make a hard decision, he made an easy decision.  So I said, before I lead the next prospective student campus tour, I just want to know if this is a Christian college or a football school?


So all this standing behind the cocaine-dealing football player opened an old wound for me.  And to add to the drama, the college had a prayer partner program, where students and faculty were matched up to meet every other week to pray together.  My prayer partner was the college president, certainly a father figure to me whom I much admired, and there he was on the news.  There w And at our prayer time, I said, “Owen shouldn’t you be launching a task force to study the impact of the football program on the college?  Coach recruits all these guys from Florida who barely get through one South Dakota winter and one glorious football season, then go home.  Most of the racial diversity of Sioux Falls is down in our football dorm, and these guys are lonely and isolated kids who stick to themselves. They may be huge but they are scared kids away from home.  Why do you think they drop out or get in trouble?


Owen said to me, “You’re right Todd.”  That was satisfying, until he went on, “But you know, Andy’s life is upside-down right now.  He is an education major and this felony means he can never teach.  He is on day release from jail, and has to finish his senior year sleeping behind bars each night, and enduring the stares in class.  He is paying a price, but doesn’t the Gospel give him a chance to start again?  It is not a good feeling to be right on one thing and so wrong on another.  Andy was not the only one who had to come to himself, we all did.



By the grace of God, we all came to ourselves again.  Owen and Coach got together and looked at the recruiting practices and poor retention rates, and worked to develop better supports for freshman athletes and better graduation rates.


I went to meet with Andy to apologize to him for my hard-heartedness. I remember Andy saying, “I got so tired of being good.  I got tired of being put up on a pedestal and telling my story of how I was a bad guy and now I’m forgiven.  I was a new Christian, and I just wanted to find some peace, not be lifted up as a superstar.  It was too much pressure.  He told me that one night an old friend from Florida called and asked a favor, just move one package for me, and he would get a lot of money.  The money was attractive and it was just one time.  Unfortunately the FBI was closing in on his friend, and he set Andy up and disappeared.  Andy’s sorrow was not just about being stupid and giving in to temptation but he had been betrayed.


So Andy became a strength coach and went to China, Sioux Falls College won a national football championship and I decided to become a minister instead of a journalist.  And I have never forgotten this lesson. We all had slid into the mud, and were fighting with the pigs for a few pods to eat.  We all had to take a step back and say, “How did we get here?” and come to our selves again.  I love that phrase, “He came to himself.”  That is what repentance really is, coming back to our true selves, our best selves; and letting go of the old self to return to God.  And it is not just for the slave ship captain, the alcoholic, or cocaine dealer to know the grace of God.  It is for parents and college presidents, older brothers and pastors, both the wayward souls and those who have sat in the same pew for decades.  By the grace of God, we are all challenged to come to ourselves, and return to God.