Lost Part 7 – Putting Myself In The Story

Hi Friends! Here’s a reminder of where we are and where we’re going with the Lost Series from Luke 15:11-32. Lost Part 1: The story of the Lost Sheep. Lost Part 2: The story of the Lost Coin. Lost Part 3 Introduces the Return of the Lost Son. Lost Part 4: The Younger Son. Lost Part 5: The Older Brother. Lost Part 6: The Father. Click these links to catch up on anything you missed!

In the introduction to the Lost Series, I made the statement: All the Bible is written for us, but not all the Bible is written to us. When I read the Bible, one thing I need to determine before I start making application to my life and to the lives of people around me, is whether I’m reading something that is written to me or something that is written for me.

In the Hebrew Bible, the book we call the Old Testament, we can read in Leviticus 18 and 20 that God commanded the people not to give any of their children as a burnt offering to the idol Molech. That commandment was written “to” those Israelites because as they made the transition from paganism to Judaism, from polytheism to monotheism, they were still tempted to follow many pagan practices. But we can understand that command as having been written “for” us to help keep us from idolizing anything that could come between us and our gracious God.

Reading with these questions in mind can help us to be clear on what we should learn from what we’re reading:

    • Is the intent for us to learn principles, patterns, and consequences so we can make wise decisions in life?
    • Is this written to help us understand how cause and effect works over a lifetime?
    • Does what we’re reading include specific instructions for us to act upon in the present moment?

When I’m reading the Christian Bible, the book we call the New Testament, especially the teachings of Jesus, I can be pretty sure this is something that’s written “to” me, because I’m a disciple, a Jesus-follower. What Jesus is saying in his teachings and his stories always relates to me in some practical way: it shapes my faith, it informs my attitudes, and it directs my actions.

So when I’m reading the stories Jesus told, I look for myself in the story and ask the Holy Spirit to show me how the truth contained in the story applies to my life. Jesus’ story of the Lost Son is such a good example of that! Each of the characters: The Lost Son, the Older Brother, and the Father have something to teach me.

So let’s apply the pattern I’ve developed of putting myself in the story to Jesus’ story of the Return of the Lost Son. Let’s ask: Where do I fit? Which character am I? What do I need to learn? What do I need to do?

The Younger Son. I mentioned in Lost Part 4 – The Younger Son, a period of a couple years in my teens when I could really identify with the Younger Son. I was selfish, disrespectful to the wishes of my parents with regard to my behavior, and really needed to “come to my senses” as the Younger Son did. I did come to my senses, I “came home” in the sense of complying with the rules of home, and the rest of my time with my parents until I left home at age eighteen went pretty well. Now that’s sixty years ago, and friends, I don’t have the energy or the inclination to be the Younger Son! Marriage, kids, business, Vietnam war, more business, ministry, being a missionary, having married kids, grandkids, arthritis, hearing loss…the list goes on! You know what? I don’t even stay up until midnight on New Years’ Eve anymore! Sorry, but someone else is going to have to play the role of the Younger Son now!

The Older Brother. Yeah, I can relate to the Older Brother. I can still compare myself with others to make me look better. I can still become jealous if they get more recognition or “blessing” than I get. I can even become resentful at Father because he doesn’t judge and punish their behavior. After all, they seem to get away with stuff that would nail me to the wall. They don’t vote right, they read from a different Bible translation than I read from, they sing different songs at church, they drink wine (Or don’t drink wine), the list goes on and on!

But actually, I can’t do that very well anymore, either! Somewhere along the way, in the sixty years since I played the Younger Son, God’s grace worked some changes in me and I just don’t feel good about myself when I find myself playing the Older Brother. Maybe some of it comes from living in other nations, under other forms of government and other political and economic systems. Maybe some of it comes from knowing and loving and respecting other people whose skin is a different color than mine and whose language is different and whose culture is different than mine. Maybe some of it comes from working with and loving and respecting Christians of so many denominations and different customs of worship and expressions of their faith. But for whatever reasons, I simply don’t have the time nor the energy nor the inclination to judge and condemn and exclude people that Father throws his arms around and welcomes home and throws a party for!

I don’t want to be the older brother anymore! I don’t want to miss the joy of appreciating the wonderful blessings God has given to me because I compare myself with others and feel superior to them and resentful to God for loving them, being merciful to them, and blessing them. And if you’ve been around Father for anywhere nearly as long as I have, you don’t have time for that either!

The Father. Friends, I’ve got to confess to you that I’m starting to relate more and more to the Father. Actually, I think that’s what Jesus had in mind, when he said, “I and the Father are one. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” And you know what else, if I listen to Jesus, and put myself in the story, and actually follow Jesus by doing what he says to do, I’m going to start to think like the Father. About Older Brothers. About Younger Sons. About tax collectors and notorious sinners and other despicable people and even about self-righteous Pharisees. I’m getting to where I just want everybody to be thankful for God’s marvelous grace, and for everybody to stop judging and excluding others who are different, and just come to the party!

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV)

I think God is asking me to grow up a little, to rise above pettiness and comparing myself with others, and being resentful if others receive mercy and grace.

I think God is asking me to become the Father in the story, to love the wandering ones and to love the responsible, reliable, steadfast ones. And to hold the door open so all God’s children can come to heaven’s party!

How about you? There’s a place for you in the Story of the Lost Son, friends. Ask God to show you where you fit in the story!

As I was preparing to start on the Lost Series, I talked to my friend Jim Petersen about what I was beginning to see in the story of the Lost Son. He told me about a painting by Rembrandt called “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, and about a book by Henri Nouwen that unfolds this story in a powerful way. It would not waste your time to read that book. You can find Nouwen’s on Amazon Kindle. “The Return of the Prodigal Son, Anniversary Edition: A Special Two-in-One Volume, including Home Tonight” – by Henri Nouwen.

That wraps up the “Lost Series”! It went considerably longer than I had expected. I hope it’s been helpful.

See you next week with a story about a Missed Opportunity! Thanks for reading!

Lost Part 6 – The Father

Hi Friends! Here’s a reminder of where we are and where we’re going with the Lost Series from Luke 15:11-32. Lost Part 1: The story of the Lost Sheep. Lost Part 2: The story of the Lost Coin. Lost Part 3 Introduces the Return of the Lost Son. Lost Part 4: The Younger Son. Lost Part 5: The Older Brother. Click these links to catch up on anything you missed!

This week: Lost Part 6: The Father. Here are some insights into the Heart of the Father…

20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. 25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ 31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ” (Luke 15:20-32 NLT)

Jesus told all three stories: The Lost Sheep; The Lost Coin; The Lost Son, to help his hearers (and us) understand something about God that we may never have really known, or if we did know it, we find it really hard to keep in focus. The thing about God that Jesus is telling us here is that God is good and God is love! God loves lost people and found people and nice people and mean people and good people and bad people and people who believe and people who don’t believe.

First, Jesus tells a story of how a “Good Shepherd” will leave the ninety-nine in the fold to go and seek after the one sheep that was lost. Jesus presents himself as the shepherd who seeks after the one who was lost. God loves the world and sent his Son to seek us and find us and bring us home to the safety of the sheepfold. Then all heaven rejoices together when the one who was lost is found!

Next, Jesus tells a story of how a widow woman will light every lamp in her house and sweep it clean until she finds the one lost coin. Jesus pictures God the Holy Spirit as the widow who turns everything upside down to find the coin that was lost. When the lost coin is found (the sinner is restored) again, even the angels in heaven rejoice!

Finally, Jesus tells us the much longer story of the Father whose youngest son insults him, takes his inheritance, squanders it on debauchery, goes broke, and feeds pigs. He eventually “comes to his senses” and decides to come home. Please note: This is all misdirection! We think that the “sinner” in this story is the young son. But we’re wrong. Because in this story the Father does not seek after the “sinner” as in the other two parables. Instead, in this story, the young son is the one who returns home on his own and it is the Father who eagerly rushes out to meet him on the way and restores him. Then we get to the actual “sinner” in the story when the Father goes outside the party to seek after the “lost son” [the older brother] who refuses to come inside the house.

Here is where Jesus turns the tables on the Pharisees. They (like us) assumed the “sinner” in this parable was the Younger Son, but now they realize that the one who is really missing out, the one whom the Father seeks after and goes out to find and restore, is the Older Brother. This is when Jesus looks into the eyes of those Pharisees and lets them know that even though they have separated themselves from the loving Father who loves and welcomes the people they see as “sinners,” the reality is that they are the ones the Father is going out to restore into the fold. They are the lost coin the widow sweeps the house to find. They are the older brother the Father leaves the party to bring back inside the house. They are the ones who are missing out on the joy of heaven’s celebration!

The message is clear for Pharisees and Older Brothers alike. God is holding the door open for you. Come inside and enjoy the fellowship of the Father, and of those you have deemed unworthy of mercy. There’s still time for you to let go of your pride and to realize that “you are always with God, and all He has is yours.” But they must recognize those “sinners” as “this brother (or sister) of yours.”

The Father loved his younger son. He gave him free will to choose to stay home or go away. When the young man was gone, he had watched for him day and night. When the young son returned, he ran to meet him and hugged and kissed him. He refused to even listen to his son’s proposal of working his way back into the family. He accepted him, he embraced him, he gave him a garment and shoes and a ring. And he got the party started while his son was having a shower and a shave!

Brennan Manning says, “Even if we come back only because we couldn’t make it on our own, God will welcome us. He will seek no explanations about our sudden appearance. He is glad we are there and wants to give us all we desire.”

The Father loved his older son. He gave him free will to choose to stay home or go away. Every day, he was proud of his son’s responsible behavior, his diligence, his skill and hard work. He enjoyed being with his older son daily and he had released his responsible older son to run the estate. He trusted that the estate would be in good hands when he was gone.

The Father loved his older son and he loved his younger son! Keep in mind that the Father isn’t angry at either of his sons. He loves them both! He’s so glad they’re both back home, under the same roof! And he wants them to love each other the way he loves both of them.

Jesus came to show us the Father!

    • Jesus said, “The words I speak, the works I do, are the things I see my Father do.”
    • Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”
    • Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen my Father.”
    • Jesus said, “You have the privilege of calling my Father, our Father.”

This was a new way of relating to God for the people Jesus was speaking to. They were used to relating to God primarily as an austere power and authority figure who was rather easily angered and had to be appeased by sacrifices and offerings and whose favor was maintained only through careful rule-keeping and ritual behavior. Jesus presents us with the Father. Abba. Not a distant disciplinarian with a name too holy to pronounce, but as Abba, Daddy, Dad.

Friends, until this “Father, Abba, Daddy” reality gets rubbed into every part of our spiritual/religious selves, we’re stuck out in the yard, missing the party. We’re stuck in the religious pattern of comparing, judging, rejecting, excluding, and resenting. We’re missing out on the joy heaven experiences when Younger Sons come home, and Older Brothers (and Sisters) come in and enjoy the party!

Father wants us all back home. He wants the Lost Sheep back in the fold. He wants the Lost Coin back in the purse. He wants the Lost Son back home. He wants the Older Brother to enjoy the party. He wants all his children to learn to love each other the way he loves us.

I wrote earlier that I was going to finish the Lost Series with this article about The Father, but there’s been a change in plans. Next week we’ll be taking one more step in the process. I’m going to write to you about how we can put ourselves in the story. Looking forward to sharing with you!

Lost Part 5 – The Older Brother

Hi Friends! Here’s a reminder of where we are and where we’re going with the Lost Series from Luke 15: Lost Part 1: The story of the Lost Sheep. Lost Part 2: The story of the Lost Coin. Lost Part 3 Introduces the Return of the Lost Son. Lost Part 4: The Younger Son. Click these links to catch up on anything you missed!

Today’s post, Lost Part 5, picks up on the account of the Older Brother. We’ll finish the series next week with Lost Part 6, The Father. I’ve put the relevant section of scripture in each post. Here we go with some insights about the Older Brother:

25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, 26 and he asked one of the servants what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ 28 “The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, 29 but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. 30 Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ 31 “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. 32 We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’ ” (Luke 15:25-32 NLT)

Last week I told you about a season in my teens when my attitude and behavior was much like that of the younger son! I was selfish and my behavior was hurtful and embarrassing to my Mom and Dad. But they were patient and I grew up and things got better! However, in the sixty-plus years since that season, I’ve often been tempted to be more like the older brother in the story!

Keep in mind that the very specific reason Jesus told the “Lost” stories, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son, is the reaction of the Pharisees and teachers of religious law to his acceptance of, and willingness to associate with, “tax collectors and other notorious sinners”!

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2 NLT)

Jesus told the stories of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin to try one more time to help them understand that God loves everyone! Jesus told the story of the Lost Son to try once again to help them understand that God loves Pharisees and teachers of religious law and God also loves tax collectors and notorious sinners! It’s not either-or! It’s not one or the other! It’s both!

When I think about the older brother and how he reacted when he heard that his younger brother was home (“your brother is back!”), and how he got angry at his father and wouldn’t even acknowledge his brother (“this son of yours”), I start to get all judgmental about him and want to make him the bad guy. In reality, so many times I’m just like him. The Father isn’t mad at either of his sons. He loves them both! He’s so glad they’re both home, under the same roof. And he wants them to love each other just as he loves both of them.

There is no “bad guy” in the story of the Lost Son.
• The Father loved his responsible stay-at-home son who worked hard every day and who had everything he could possibly want! The entire estate belonged to him and he enjoyed the privilege of being with his father all the time.
• But the Father also loved his irresponsible, run-off-and waste-it-all son! He missed him, he grieved for him, he watched for him, and when his son came home he ran to him and welcomed him with open arms, no rebukes given and no questions asked!

The younger son didn’t appreciate what he had until he lost it! That’s a hard way to learn! But his older brother didn’t appreciate what he had because he felt that he deserved it—that he’d earned it! When we think we deserve the blessings we have and the privileges we enjoy, we really don’t appreciate them any more than the younger son did. And we feel resentful when people we think don’t deserve the blessings, the privileges, the acceptance, and the favor, get them anyway. We think they don’t deserve what they haven’t earned!

On this glorious day of celebration and rejoicing, the older brother was miserable! He wasn’t willing to go to the party because he was filled with resentment at his brother for being irresponsible and at his father for forgiving him and accepting him back into the family. That’s a tough place to be in, friends: to be angry with your brother for not being like you, and to be judging your Father for being merciful!

The Older Brother had lost his joy! He was resentful. Suddenly all the blessings his Father had given him meant nothing because he was filled with resentment at both his Father and his brother!

I know! It sounds crazy doesn’t it? But it was true. It’s what the Older Brother was experiencing at that very moment. His Father begged him to come in and share in his joy that his Lost Son was found. His Father invited him to be glad that his Lost Brother was home and safe. But he just couldn’t do it! Like the Pharisees and teachers of religious law who couldn’t be happy that “God so loves the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life”, he couldn’t rejoice that his irresponsible brother, who wasted his share of the inheritance, had been forgiven, accepted, loved, and celebrated by his Father!

If he wanted to get his joy back, he’d have to let go of judging his brother and judging his father. He’d have to release his resentment and self-righteousness and be glad about what his Father was glad about! He’d have to forgive his Father for being merciful!

Here are some very important “Older Brother” things to think about, friends:
• The Older Brother had everything he could have wanted. The entire estate belonged to him. He had meaningful work to do that he enjoyed and was good at. He was with his Father every day. But when he saw his Father’s mercy to his Younger Brother, he lost his joy. He became resentful at his Father and his brother. He had everything, but he could no longer enjoy it when he saw his brother forgiven and accepted.
• If we, like the Older Brother, become resentful at God for accepting people we judge to be unworthy, notorious sinners, or despicable people, we lose our joy. We can have all the blessings and all the privileges, but we won’t be able to experience joy until we can be joyful about what God is joyful about!

As long as we’re angry with people who aren’t like us because they’ve been accepted by God, and angry with God for accepting people we don’t approve of, we’ll never be able to fully enjoy the grace and blessing lavished on us.

Let’s rejoice that Our Father is merciful and loves Younger Brothers and Older Brothers alike! And let’s join Heaven’s celebration when those who are dead come back to life and when those who are lost are found!

Next week, Lost Part 6 – The Father! I’m really looking forward to sharing with you some insights into the most exciting part of this story! Thanks for reading!

Lost Part 4 – The Younger Son

Hi Friends! Here’s a reminder of where we are and where we’re going with the Lost Series from Luke 15: Lost Part 1: The story of the Lost Sheep. Lost Part 2: The story of the Lost Coin. Lost Part 3 Introduces the Return of the Lost Son.

Today’s post, Lost Part 4, picks up on the account of the Younger Son. We’ll finish the series with Lost Part 5, some challenging and perhaps surprising things about the Older Brother, and Lost Part 6, The Father. I’ll put the relevant section of scripture in each post. Click the links above to catch anything you missed! Here we go:

11 To illustrate the point further, Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. 13 “A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. 14 About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. 15 He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. 16 The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything. 17 “When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, 19 and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.” ’ 20 “So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. 21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’ 22 “But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. 23 And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, 24 for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. (Luke 15:11-24 NLT)

Here’s Jesus’ Story: A man, a good man, had two sons. The younger son was selfish and irresponsible. He demanded that his father give him his share of the value of the estate immediately. This was like saying, “Father, I wish you were dead!” The father agreed to divide his wealth between his two sons. (Jesus didn’t tell us of the conflict between the brothers and the heartache this demand caused the father, but it was certainly there!) So the father cashed out enough of the value of the estate to give the younger son his inheritance. Two-thirds, the first-born’s double portion, went to the older brother, and one-third to the younger. In a few days, the younger brother took the cash and set off to see the world!

The foolish young man soon wasted it all! He partied till he dropped! The money ran out, and when it did, his “friends” ran out, and his luck ran out. A “famine swept over the land”, and he was helpless, hungry, and hopeless! He begged a local farmer for work and got sent to the field to feed pigs. He was so hungry that the pig feed started looking pretty good! He was alone (perhaps for the first time in his life) and no one gave him a hand! Here’s what happened then:

• He finally came to his senses. This was his awakening moment and the turning point for him. He began to see things more clearly:

o At home on my father’s estate, even the workers have food to spare. I’m starving here. What I had is so much better than what I have now.
o I will go home to my father. I’ll say, “Father, I was wrong! I sinned against you. I sinned against heaven. I’m not worthy to be called your son. I’m willing to be a hired hand if I can just be back home with you.”

• He started for home, ragged and dirty, faint with hunger. He intended to negotiate an undeserved place in the household and he worked on his speech of confession and repentance all the way home.

• His father saw him coming before he even reached the gate! I guess his father must have been watching the road every day his son was away. His father ran to him, full of love and compassion, threw his arms around his stinky, ragged son, and hugged and kissed him in a very Pre-COVID19 manner!

• When the boy finally got his prepared speech delivered, his father didn’t even hear it. He had plans of his own for this Lost Boy!

o He sent one group of servants off to get some clean clothes and shoes and a ring for his son!
o He sent another group of servants to prepare a feast and a great celebration, because here’s what really mattered to the Father… Listen to his words: “This son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.”

So the party began (Just like the party the shepherd threw when he found his lost sheep and the party the woman threw when she found her lost coin!)

You know, when I read this story, I usually focus on the irresponsibility and selfishness of the younger son. So many times I’ve identified with the younger son! So many times I didn’t do what I should do and I did do what I shouldn’t do. So many times I felt guilty and discouraged that I’d never become what God wants me to be.

I behaved pretty poorly at around age sixteen and seventeen. I disappointed my parents, caused them anxiety, and caused them embarrassment. I remember one time my Dad having to take me to school and get me reinstated after I was kicked out of school for my behavior. When I think about that day, I realize (now, not then) how embarrassing and humiliating it was for him. There were other things that I realize now hurt my folks a lot, but at the time I was so self-centered I didn’t have a clue!

I don’t know how long it took the Younger Son to come to his senses, but it took me about two years. I “came home” and things got to be pretty much all right between me and my Dad and Mom.

Here’s a couple of things about the Younger Son’s part of the story to be aware of and to keep in mind:
• He had to realize and acknowledge that his choices and actions were what put him in his current situation. He was not a victim.
• He had to think things through and come to a new way of thinking (repentance) and follow that through with a decision to return home. He had to get up and go home.
• To experience the joy of his Father’s house he had to let go of his plan to negotiate a basis for his acceptance. He had to release everything into his father’s hands. He had to receive undeserved mercy. He had to accept his acceptance.

It’s still “love and compassion” on the Father’s part that makes this work; for the Younger Son, for us, and for any Younger Sons and Daughters who need to be accepted and reconciled with any family we’re part of.

And that’s a good outcome, folks, for the Younger Son and for me, but it isn’t the point Jesus is making with this story at all!

Next week (and don’t miss this one!) the Older Brother!

 

Lost Part 3 – The Return of the Prodigal Son

Luke 15:11-32 Click Link for Scripture

All the Bible is written for us, but not all the Bible is written to us. When I read the Bible, one thing I need to determine before I start making application to my life and to the lives of people around me, is whether I’m reading something that is written to me or something that is written for me.

When we’re reading stories in the Hebrew Bible, the book we call the Old Testament, it’s important to read them through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels and of the writings in the Christian Bible, the book we call the New Testament. Reading with these questions in mind can help us to be clear on what we should learn from what we’re reading:

    • Is the intent for us to learn principles, patterns, and consequences so we can make wise decisions in life?
    • Is this written to help us understand how cause and effect works over a lifetime?
    • Does what we’re reading include specific instructions for us to act upon in the present moment.

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind when we read the Bible: When I find something that is written to me, I must know if it’s written to me to help me with something in my life or if it’s something I’m to apply to other people as well. I think sometimes we make the mistake of trying to tell other people what they’re supposed to be doing rather than actually applying what the Bible says to our own lives.

When I’m reading the teachings of Jesus, I can be pretty sure this is something that’s written to me, because I’m a disciple, a Jesus-follower. When I’m reading the stories Jesus told, I look for myself in the story and ask the Holy Spirit to show me how the truth contained in the story applies to my life. What Jesus is saying in his teachings and his stories always relates to me in some practical way: it shapes my faith, it informs my attitudes, and it directs my actions.

Jesus’ story of the Lost Son is such a good example of that! Each of the characters: The Lost Son, the Older Brother, and the Father have something to teach me.

Here’s how the “Lost Series” of blog posts came about. I was reading and thinking about the story of the Lost Son in Luke 15 and I realized that this story was not a “standalone” Story. It’s one of three stories, all addressed to a specific group of people and all communicating a different aspect of the same truth. The lost sheep mattered to the shepherd, the lost coin mattered to the woman, and the lost son mattered to his father. The core truth in the stories: Lost people matter to God and to us!

Then I realized that there’s no bad guy in any of the three stories! We’re so dualistic in our thinking that our stories have to have a good guy and a bad guy. We think in terms of Good/Bad, Right/Wrong, In/Out, Accepted/r\Rejected. The good guy wins and the bad guy loses; the good guy is accepted, the bad guy is rejected; the good guy gets rewarded, the bad guy gets punished.

In the story of the Lost Son it seems apparent on the surface that the Younger Son represents sinners and despicable people (see Luke 15:1-2), the Older Son represents the Pharisees and teachers of religious law, and the Father represents God. And at first, it seems the younger son is the bad guy, but when he comes home and is embraced by his father, the older brother seems like the bad guy. It’s all very confusing when we’re looking for good guys and bad guys!

But here’s the thing we must not miss: In the Lost Stories in Luke 15, Jesus was trying to communicate to a group of law-abiding religious people that God loves non-law-abiding sinners. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they were “despicable people”, unlovable and rejected! In God’s eyes, they were lost but loved! There are no good guys and bad guys in these stories! There are unlost people and there are lost people (who are loved just as much as the unlost people!)

As I was processing these thoughts, I talked to my friend Jim Petersen about what I was beginning to see and he told me about a painting by Rembrandt called “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, and about a book by Henri Nouwen that unfolds this story in a powerful way. It would not waste your time or money to read that book. You can find it on Amazon Kindle. “The Return of the Prodigal Son, Anniversary Edition: A Special Two-in-One Volume, including Home Tonight” – by Henri Nouwen.

Next three posts: “The Lost Son”; then “The Older Brother”; then “The Father”.

So friends, I’m inviting you to explore with me, over the next few posts, these powerful truths:

    • Lost People Matter To God.
    • Unlost people also matter to God.

It’s God’s intention to show how much he loves both kinds of people, lost and unlost. And to help us do the same.

As always, I welcome your comments. If you’re reading this on the blog, comment at the end. If you’re reading in an email, simply reply to the email with your comments.

 

Lost Part 2 – The Lost Coin

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents.” (Luke 15:8-10 NLT)

Remember…Luke 15 tells of a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. These folks didn’t like it that Jesus’ “congregation” included despicable people such as tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Jesus loved sinners and wanted them to turn to God, but he also loved Pharisees and religious people and wanted them to understand that lost people matter to God. So instead of engaging in an argument with them over who’s in and who’s out, or who’s accepted by God and who’s rejected, Jesus told them three stories. Last week, Story 1 – The Lost Sheep. Here’s story 2 – The Lost Coin…

A woman has lost a valuable silver coin, one of ten valuable coins she had. These were silver coins. Most of today’s coins and all of today’s currency have no intrinsic value. Modern coins and currency have value assigned by the economic system. Uganda’s currency is at 3693 shillings to 1 US dollar. Jamaica’s currency is at 141 JA dollars to 1 one US dollar. US currency is at 1.36 dollars to one British pound, and at 1.23 dollars to one Euro. These are arbitrary numbers and they constantly slide up and down due primarily to political and economic factors.

But this lost silver coin was valuable! It may have been one of the “Ten Coins” gift traditionally given to Palestinian brides by their father on their wedding day. It could have been a special coin with her favorite Roman Emperor’s image on one side, maybe even minted in her first child’s birth year. It was a valuable coin, one of ten that she had, and it was lost. And she was desperate to find it!

Things get lost. We misplace our car keys. We leave our credit card at the grocery store. We can’t find our phone. We lose the remote control and eventually find it between the cushions of the sofa. Sometimes we lose important documents.

My Mother’s Gift. As I grew up in my parents’ home and later as Jean and I had a home of our own, we all began to realize that my mother, Alice Stephens, had some kind of gift for finding things that got lost. Someone in the family would lose something, we’d tear the place apart trying to find it, or we’d retrace our steps from the time we last remembered seeing it, and finally we’d cry out to Mom about it. My mother would pray about it and then, sometimes right away, or sometimes a little later, she’d say. “have you looked in the desk drawer” or “I just keep thinking about a coat pocket” and we’d rush to look and there it would be!

I remember very well a time in the late ‘80s when Jean and Melissa and I were living in Kingston, Jamaica. We were due to renew our work permit visa with Jamaica Immigration and we couldn’t find a folder of very important documents we needed for the renewal application. The deadline was fast approaching and without the work visa we couldn’t stay in Jamaica. We’d have been deported as soon as the permit expired. (This was before internet and email and text messaging and cell phones and scanning of documents. And all we had was our landline which only had a dial tone about half the time.) We phoned my mother, thousands of miles away in southern Oregon, and told her our dilemma. I asked her to pray while I held on the call at about a dollar a minute. She prayed about the lost documents, and I prayed, “Oh Lord, Let this be one of the quick ones!” In a moment she said, “I just keep thinking of a folder that has fallen down behind a drawer!” While Jean stayed on the line, I rushed to the file cabinet and pulled the drawer completely out, and there it was, fallen down inside the back of the cabinet! Thanks, Mom! Thank you, Lord! We submitted the paperwork and it was processed in a timely manner and we were good for another two years!

Things get lost that are too important or too valuable to just write them off! There are broken relationships with long lost family members, friendships that have gone missing through carelessness or some nearly forgotten disagreement. There are people who used to be a big part of our lives and now we’re quite a ways down very different paths and we miss them but we don’t know how or it just seems like too much effort to try and get back on the same track. There’s a hole in our lives where they used to be!

Just like the woman who lost the coin, we’ve lost something or someone valuable. Just like the woman who lost the coin, if the value is great enough, we’ll light a lamp, tear the house apart, retrace our steps to where we last remember the person or the thing not being lost.

Lostness matters to God: Lost relationships, misplaced friendships, people who have fallen down behind a drawer and are hidden from our view, all matter to God and to us. Let’s not give up on lost people just like the woman didn’t give up on her lost coin.

Jesus says heaven is happy and angels rejoice when the lost are found. When people change their minds and are restored to relationship and fellowship, when we stop making it about “us” versus “them” and realize that God sees “us” and “them” as all part of his family, heaven rejoices! Like the woman who lost the coin, let’s light a lamp, let’s search diligently, and let’s keep searching until find what we’ve lost. Then let’s join heaven in celebrating!

Lost Part 1 – The Lost Sheep

1 Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. 2 This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2 NLT)

Luke 15 starts with a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of religious law. This conflict, one of many, was over the fact that Jesus’ “congregation” included despicable people such as tax collectors and other notorious sinners. Jesus loved sinners and wanted them to turn to God. Jesus also loved Pharisees and religious people and wanted them to “get it,” and to understand that lost people matter to God. So instead of engaging in an argument with them over who’s in and who’s out, or who’s accepted by God and who’s rejected, Jesus told them three stories. He provided no explanation, no points of application, just three stories.

Jesus told stories with a purpose. To show how God loves people, Jesus told stories about a shepherd and sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. To show how God cares for the poor, Jesus told stories contrasting the selfish rich with the desperately needy poor. To show how God loves people of different races, Jesus told stories about the Samaritans, mixed-race people the Jews despised. To show that Jesus values women as much as men, he told many stories in which women were the key characters. This is one of Jesus’ “If you have ears to hear, listen up!” moments!

The Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7)

3 So Jesus told them this story: 4 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them gets lost, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others in the wilderness and go to search for the one that is lost until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he will joyfully carry it home on his shoulders. 6 When he arrives, he will call together his friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away! (Luke 15:3-7 NLT)

Jesus told them a story about a lost sheep. In a couple of the translations I was reading, Jesus said, “If you had a hundred sheep and one got lost, what would you do?” Jesus didn’t want his hearers to just pass this off as a story about an unnamed shepherd in the wilderness with his unnamed sheep, so he put them in the story.

We have a dog named Jake. He’s an English Springer Spaniel who just turned six in November. Jake has become semi-famous in Central Oregon because when we walk in the desert east of town almost every day, Jake finds bones in the desert and I post pictures of Jake and his bones to Instagram. You can find lots of pictures of Jake The Desert Bone Dog on my Instagram account and my Facebook page.

About a month ago, on one of our early morning walks, Jake got lost! I had just said, “Hey Jake, you seem very subdued today.” He wriggled his bottom and headed off the trail into the junipers. When we’d walked a couple hundred yards further, I asked Jean if she’d seen Jake. We looked around for him. I whistled and waited and whistled again. Nothing—Jake was gone! After a few minutes we made a plan to separate and while Jean went back for the car, I walked cross country in the direction of where I’d see him last. After pointless searching, whistling, and waiting, I headed back to the trail. Jean came along in the car and we drove north to another road beyond where we’d last seen him. We drove and drove and looked and looked. We’d stop the car and I’d get out and whistle. And wait. We decided to separate again. So Jean took the car to go back toward where we’d last seen him and I again headed across country, toward where we’d parked earlier, planning to retrace the entire route. Jean called about 10 minutes later and had found him on the road below, far from where we’d lost him. He was really glad to see her and to get back in the car! I started across country to meet her at the point we’d originally started the search, preparing some choice words to deliver to Jake when I saw him. But when I got to the car, I was so glad to see him and he was so glad to see me those choice words didn’t seem to matter!

While Jake was lost, I felt fear! And we prayed very fervently! We asked God to do what he could to direct Jake toward us. We asked God to direct us toward Jake. We didn’t know whether God would have more luck directing Jake or directing us, so we covered both options. We did what we could. We tried to think like a dog. We made a plan that involved whistling and praying and looking. I was thinking about how afraid he would be and I was afraid he’d do something stupid(er). I felt such joy when we found him! Do I love him less for getting lost? No, but when he was lost I realized how much I love him!

I can assure you of one thing, when Jesus says, “If one of your sheep gets lost…” he now has my full attention! I can feel what he’s talking about.

Jesus doesn’t tell us which sheep got lost! Was it that young sheep that was constantly sticking his nose in the weeds, wandering off? Was it that little lamb that was too weak to keep up with the rest and simply got left behind? Was it that old sheep with arthritic joints that had trouble walking? It was one of his sheep and he loves and values every one!

Jesus says, “If this was you, and one of your sheep was lost in the wilderness, you’d go find it!” You’d leave the other ninety-nine sheep in a good spot where they wouldn’t wander off and you’d go find the lost one. And when you found it you’d be so glad to see it safe again that you’d forget all about the things you were going to say to that dumb sheep! You’d pick it up, carry it home, and tell everybody how glad you are to have your sheep back safe and sound. Like I just told you about Jake!

Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus loves every sheep (that’s you and me, whether we’re presently lost or found) even more than I love Jake. And Jesus searches for lost sheep passionately and rejoices ecstatically when he finds the one that’s lost! In fact, Jesus said all heaven rejoices! Sometimes that lost sheep might be you or me, sometimes it might be someone we don’t even think should be part of the flock. But Jesus loves us all equally and searches diligently when we stray. That’s why there are some people in Jesus’ congregation that we really wonder about. And maybe they wonder about us. But Jesus loves us all! And if you’re currently lost, he’s looking for you!

Introduction to Jim Stephens’ Blog – Notes From My Journey

Hey Everybody! Happy New Year! There’s a lot going on in my head and heart  that I want to share with my friends! So I’m starting 2021 with a determination to begin writing a blog post every week this year. The GraceNotes Daily Devotionals serve a specific purpose and require structure and discipline to stay between the fences and keep the focus on regular daily Bible Reading and writing devotional (Heart attitude and life application) thoughts on those specific scripture readings. I do my best!

But there is so much more I think about, pray about, and process—stuff that doesn’t fit into a structured devotional plan! This is stuff that matters to me as I live my life, think about the past and the future, and think about the ever-changing realities of the world we’re living in. This is stuff that I’m not always ready to share, but when I do reach some clarity, I’d like to pass on my thoughts and my process because I think many of you will be able to relate to it as well. Does that strike a chord with you?

So here’s the plan, friends! I’ve begun collecting a folder of thoughts, questions, musings, and ideas that seem like they’d be shareworthy at some point. I’ll write and post once a week, probably on Tuesday or Thursday. If I can do more, I will, but not more than two blog posts weekly. 

I’m assuming that if the GraceNotes Devotionals speak the language of your heart, you’ll find value in these further musings and thoughts. So I’m going to include GraceNotes subscribers in the weekly email of my blog posts. If at any time you either don’t want the blog articles or it’s just too much content to read, simply click the Unsubscribe Link at the bottom of the email.

I’ll start with a short series of posts from my thoughts on Luke 15 in which Jesus tells three stories: The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, and The Lost Son. The next post you receive will introduce the Lost Series with some thoughts on the story of the Lost Sheep. Watch for the Lost Series in your email inbox soon!

Practical stuff:

  • I’m going to try to keep these posts short because we all have plenty to read.
  • I’d love to know your thoughts on length, frequency, and even subject matter.
  • Please recommend my blog to others who might be interested.

Grace and Peace,  Jim Stephens

Social Media Part 3 of 3 – Do No Harm

Social Media Part 3 – Do No Harm

One of our family patriarchs was born, grew up, and spent his whole adult life in the Southern Oregon town of Paisley (Pop 213) Most famous for its annual Mosquito Festival!). We lived in Tri-Cities, WA and traveled the 400 miles to Paisley every year or so for family visits. I remember an incident from a visit there in the mid-70’s, when the Vietnam war was winding down.

Every evening, whoever was at home would gather in the living room for the news. Homes in Paisley had access to one TV station, from Klamath Falls. The reception was poor, the picture was snowy, the sound staticky. On this occasion there was a news item on about Vietnam and Papa Earl launched into a diatribe against the Vietnamese, all Asian people—in fact against all “those damn furriners” in general. He had a very strong opinion, anchored entirely and solidly in prejudices and misinformation!

Also in the room was a young man in his early 30’s who had not long before spent a year in SE Asia and had lived and worked among and fought alongside the “furriners!” This young man really, really wanted to bring some light to bear on the one-sided discussion taking place!

But Papa Earl was not interested in accurate facts or correct information. He was not interested in knowing the truth. He did not want light. He was more interested in generating heat! And the young man, that would be me, decided not to engage Papa in an argument about Vietnam, the world political situation, or “furriners.”

I had facts that could enlighten his uninformed, misinformed opinion. I had experience that could have informed his prejudice-based, bigotry-fueled rant! But my facts would also damage or destroy a relationship that was far more valuable than “Being Right!” There would be no satisfaction in winning in an argument at the cost of a relationship! And I really loved the old guy! I learned a lot from him through the years. Just not about Global politics and “damn furriners!” (He was about the age then that I am now!)

Whenever I remember that little vignette from 45 years ago, I remind myself that if you win an argument and lose a relationship, nobody really wins.

As Christians, we may choose to align ourselves with a particular ideology and political party. We may choose to support and promote political candidates we feel will serve us well and lead us wisely. We may choose to communicate our ideas and opinions with others on social media and in our small groups and at lunch and wherever. But our true allegiance is to a servant-King, Jesus Christ, who is not up for election or re-election this or any other election year. And Jesus Christ has some clear and simple things to say about our lives in community and about our communication with those we agree with and those with whom we strongly disagree!

Here are some questions to ask before posting to Social Media: Is it true? Is it helpful? Is it kind. Will it encourage or discourage. Will it build or destroy? Will it open minds or close minds? Does it need to be said?

Add Value Every Time

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. 32 Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT)

Let’s be sure we think through these things I’ve mentioned. I don’t mean that every time you want to post a kitten video, or a photo of your birthday cake, or the snow on the patio furniture in your backyard on Facebook, that you’ve got to pray and fast and seek legal advice before hitting the “Share” button.

Let’s be aware, friends!

  • Be aware of credibility.
  • Be aware of truth and lies.
  • Be aware of help not harm.
  • Remember that keeping a relationship healthy is way more important than winning an argument.

To paraphrase Ephesians 4:29 “Let everything you post be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who read them.”

A Couple of Footnotes to this series of posts:

  • Among the unhealthy effects too much engagement with social media can have on us is discouragement and depression. We’re sitting on the couch in our pajamas watching NCIS reruns (again), scrolling through our Facebook Timeline on the tablet while the commercials are on. We’re looking at this seemingly endless stream of photos and stories of vacations, parties, family gatherings, and adventures our Facebook Friends it can seem really depressing. We’re comparing our dull lives to their exciting lives, and we end up feeling left out and alone. Or is that just me?
  • Try to remember that people carefully curate their story and its accompanying videos and images to present the very best moments in the very best and most exciting way! And it’s entirely possible that while you’re scrolling through the social media record of their Most Excellent Adventure, they’re sitting on the couch eating Doritos, watching Guy’s Grocery Games and scrolling through someone else’s Best Life Now presentation on Facebook.
  • The instructions I listed earlier for how to control what you see on your Facebook Timeline are not absolute guarantees. Facebook does use algorithms that affect what gets sent our way, but you have some control. Your Social Media experience will be enhanced if you use it wisely!

Here are some scriptures that have influenced me in my Social Media use and in writing this article:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8 NLT)

25 So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. 26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. 28 If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. 29 Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. 30 And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. Remember, he has identified you as his own, guaranteeing that you will be saved on the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. 32 Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:25-32 NLT)

I hope this has been helpful!

Grace and Peace,

Jim Stephens

January 2020

 

Social Media Part 2 of 3 – Post to Social Media With Care

In conjunction with a series of devotionals for GraceNotes, I’m writing a series of three blog posts on the topic of Social Media. Here’s Part 2…

Social Media Part 2 – Post to Social Media With Care

When posting something to social media, make sure it’s something you don’t mind everyone seeing. You may not have hundreds of Facebook Friends and Followers, but remember that each one has a network of contacts that they might share your post with. Even if you post something and later decide to delete it, it’s possible that some or many have seen it, have read it, have reacted to it. Have you ever tried to “unsee” something or “unhear” something you wish you hadn’t seen or heard?

Here are some simple common-sense and common-courtesy guidelines for choosing what, why, and how you post and share on social media:

Tell the Truth

So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body. (Ephesians 4:25 NLT)

10…because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false. (2 Thessalonians 2:10-11 ESV)

Social Media loves political posts! Have you noticed that in matters of opinion, especially opinions about politics, social issues, generational issues, and the like, much of the posting is done by sharing memes, cartoons, quotes, and news headlines about issues and individuals. We saw this pattern develop prior to the last national elections. It tapered off slightly between election seasons, but it’s starting to ramp up again now.

Many of the posts shared are negative—that is, they are attacking a person, a party, or a policy. However, relatively few of the most negative posts shared are actually true! Some, even many, of the posts shared are slanderous. They often consist of false headlines, false survey results, false videos, false accusations. Statements made in these memes are often so ridiculous they don’t even pass the simple “Common Sense” test!

For a while, when these posts would show up on my Timeline, I’d do a quick fact check on Snopes or Politifact or Allsides and comment with a link to the facts and history of the false post. What I quickly discovered is that no one thanked me for pointing out the truth! The poster or some other commenter would reply, “Everyone knows those fact-checkers are slanted to the left (or right).”

I’ve done enough research on legitimate fact-checking sites to know that the problem isn’t the bias of the fact-checker site. The bias is in the person who has decided, “I’ve made up my mind! Don’t confuse me with the facts!” By the way, I still fact check. I just don’t frustrate myself trying to present the facts to folks who don’t want to know!

Try This: Since Snopes is probably the best known fact-check site, go to Snopes.com and search “Is Snopes biased toward the left or right?” Take five minutes to read the comments on that question. Then make your own decision.

There are a couple of reasons it’s important to me that we “Tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God” in our Social Media posts:

  • Lies are sourced in darkness. Lies keep people in the dark, including the people who originate them, the people who pass them along, and the people who consume them.
  • The truth is sourced in light. Truth may be hard to hear and painful to process, but it’s the only thing that leads us to light and freedom.
  • Passing on lies, whether intentionally or not, destroys our credibility. I’m a Christian, so I have a stake in the reputation of other Christians, whether or not we’re of the same brand, or of the same political convictions. So when Christians pass on opinion posts that are false, slanderous, and often created in a meme factory in Eastern Europe, it reflects on all Christians. And this is not a time for followers of Jesus to throw away our credibility. We’re gonna need it soon!
  • My advice: If it doesn’t pass the basic fact check, don’t post it! And block the organization that originated it. Your credibility as a truth-teller is more important than the “Zing” you get from posting!