Over 4 years ago, just a couple weeks before I would propose to my wife, I lost one of the dearest people in my life. I had never known life without my Grammy, and for the first week or so after she passed away, it all just felt surreal, like it couldn’t actually be true. She is gone from my life now, but never forgotten. Recent events brought back some vivid memories of my time with her during her last few months with us. I dug out the copy of what I had written for her memorial service, and after re-reading it, I felt that it should be shared with others. I know I’m definitely not the only one who has experienced this feeling of loss and felt the conflict of pain and hope. Maybe these words can help be a reminder to others of what beauty awaits us in the sorrow of death.
Words from Grammy’s Memorial Service
Earlier this year Grammy and I discussed the very concept and message of what I’d like to share with you today and, given these present circumstances, I find it appropriate. I ask you all to think with me about a familiar story, found in the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. This parable’s plot and dramatic personae are very simple. There was a father who had two sons. The younger asked for his share of the inheritance, received it, and promptly left for a far country, where he squandered it all on sensual and frivolous pleasure. He returned home penitently and, to his surprise, was received with open arms by his father. This reception alienated and angered the elder brother greatly. The story closes with the father appealing to his eldest son to join in the welcome and forgiveness of his younger brother.
I’m sure many of you have heard this story referred to as the Prodigal Son. However, even Jesus doesn’t call it the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but begins the story saying, “a man had two sons.” The narrative is as much about the elder brother as the younger, and as much about the father as the sons, if not more so. This parable might be better called the Two Lost Sons, or The Prodigal Father. The word “prodigal” does not mean “wayward” but, according to Webster’s Dictionary, “recklessly spendthrift.” It means to spend until you have nothing left. This term actually better describes the behavior of the father. The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand repayment. In this story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well.
Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, His children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the framework for the metanarrative in which every Christian finds themselves.
It is important to read Jesus’ parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world.
In Jesus’ parable the younger brother goes off into a distant country expecting a better life but is disappointed. He begins to long for home, remembering the food in his father’s house. So do we all. “Home” exercises a powerful influence over human life. Foreign-born Americans spend billions annually to visit the communities in which they were born. Children who never find a place where they feel they belong carry an incapacity for attachment into their adult lives. Many of us have fond memories of times, people, and places where we felt we were truly home. However, if we ever have the opportunity to get back to the places we remember so fondly, we are often times disappointed.
Home, then, is a powerful but elusive concept. The strong feelings that surround it reveal some deep longing within us for a place that absolutely fits and suits us, where we can be, or perhaps find, our true selves. Yet it seems that no real place, or actual friends and family ever truly satisfies these yearnings, though many situations arouse them. The memory of home seems to be powerfully evoked by certain sights, sounds, and even smells. But they can only arouse a desire they can’t fulfill. There is a German word that gets at this concept – the word Sehnsucht. Dictionaries will tell you that there is no simple English synonym. It denotes profound homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones. The writer who spoke most about this “spiritual homesickness” was C.S. Lewis. He described Sehnsucht as the “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.”
If you accept this, there seems to be a sense, then, in which we are all like the younger brother. We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are always traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home. Home continues to evade us. Why would “home” be so powerful and yet so elusive for us? The answer can be found as we examine one of the most persistent themes of the Bible. The experience we have been describing is the trace in our souls of this larger story.
In the beginning of the book of Genesis we learn the reason why all people feel like exiles, like we aren’t really home. We are told there that we were created to live in the garden of God. That was the world we were built for, a place in which there was no parting from love, no decay, no disease, no death. It was all these things because it was life before the face of God, in His presence. There we were to adore and serve His infinite majesty, and to know, enjoy, and reflect His infinite beauty. That was our original home, the true country we were made for. However, Scripture teaches that, as in Jesus’ parable, God was the “father” of that home and we chafed under His authority. We wanted to live without God’s interference, and so we turned away, and became alienated from Him, and lost our home for the same reason the younger brother lost his. The result was exile.
The Bible says that we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since. That is, we have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings and desires. Though we long for bodies that run and do not grow weary, we have become subject to disease, aging, and death. Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who stay true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them. Though we long to make a difference in the world through our work, we experience endless frustration. We never fully realize our hopes and dreams. We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the Heavenly Father from which we have fled. This then is played out again and again in the Scriptures.
It is no coincidence that story after story we hear contains the pattern of exile. The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal sons is about every one of us. According to the Bible, we live in a natural world that is now fallen. We were not made for a world of disease and natural disaster, a world in which everything decays and dies, including ourselves. This world, as it now exists, is not the home we long for. A real, final homecoming would mean a radical change not only in human nature but the very fabric of the material world. We see this radical change ignite when Jesus appears in history and declares that He is bringing in “the kingdom of God.” Finally, at the end of His life, He was crucified outside the gate of the city, a powerful symbol of rejection by the community, of exile. And as He died he said, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” a tremendous cry of spiritual abandonment and homelessness. But what exactly does this mean?
Jesus had not come to simply deliver one nation from political oppression, but to save all of us from sin, evil, and death itself. Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much, He came and experienced it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world completely clean of it. He came to bring the human race Home. He came and experienced the exile that we deserved. He was expelled from the presence of the Father, He was thrust into the darkness, the uttermost despair of spiritual alienation – in our place. He took upon Himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could be welcomed into our true home. Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin with His death, He has achieved victory over the forces of disorder, decay, and death that keep this world from being our true home.
Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds out hope for ordinary human life. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal form of consciousness. We will not float through the air playing harps, but rather we will eat, drink, embrace, sing, laugh, and dance in the kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine. Jesus will make the world in which we reside our perfect home again. We will come, and the Father will meet us like the younger son and embrace us, and we will be brought into the feast. Grammy is at our Father’s table now eating, drinking, laughing. She is sitting amongst brothers and sisters there, with her Savior, with her Lord. She is Home.