zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the tag “A. W. Tozer”

Journey Post 46, What Jesus Taught: The parable of the prodigal son … and other lost things







It’s a word that reeks: of pride and arrogance, a sentence finalized and delivered by judge and jury to those beneath us.

Most of us have felt contempt, of others and for others.  Good missionary that I was, I remember feeling a mix of paternalism and contempt when we lived among the Manjako people in Senegal.  “They’re certainly fortunate to have us here,” I remember thinking one day.

I was there as God’s emissary to bring them good news!  You may think me arrogant for thinking such a thing.  I certainly was.  By grace I now have been the recipient of untold lessons in humility from the hand of God.  But back then, if the Manjako thought they could see God in my life, the picture they got was certainly distorted….

The religious teachers of Jesus’s day also presented a distorted view of God and who he is.  That’s what we see in Luke 15 and is the reason Jesus tells the parable the way he does.  The religious leaders were supposed to be God’s shepherds to Israel, helping them to know and understand him.  Instead, the people got the message, supposedly reflected from on high: they weren’t worth very much to God.

Is that how God actually looks at people?

Jesus found himself in a situation where that question was hanging in the air.  He decided to tell the onlooking religious leaders what we call “the parable of the prodigal son.”  (Prodigal: “recklessly wasteful.”)

Like “The Sower” and “The Good Samaritan,” the prodigal is among the best known stories of Jesus.  Even if you’ve never cracked open a Bible, you’ve heard it or are aware of its cultural and literary impact in our society, an impact which is—or has been—significant.

Please read the parable before we go on.  You’ll find it in Luke, chapter 15.  There is more to the parable than you may have heard before.  It consists of three vignettes: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and the third about the lost son.  It’s short, only thirty-one verses.

Okay … now that you’ve read it, we’ll continue….

First, the “tax collectors and sinners.”  Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of Rome.  They kept whatever they collected over what was owed and were, not surprisingly, considered traitors, detested by most.  The disciple Matthew (or Levi) had been a tax collector when Jesus called him.

“Sinners” included a variety of people not generally considered righteous before God, definitely not top tier.  They would have included prostitutes or other ne’er-do-wells.

These people were “all gathering around to hear Jesus;” they were drawn to him and were eating with him.  He welcomed them—and they felt welcomed.  They knew that Jesus was at least a rabbi, maybe more (i.e., Messiah?) yet he welcomed them.  Eating with them showed this because shared meals were traditional times of intimate fellowship, discussion, and enjoyment of others.  Just imagine….

Contrast them with “the Pharisees and teachers of the law,” who were contemptuous of both the people and Jesus.  You can feel the vibe.  The Pharisees prided themselves in strict adherence to all the minutiae of the rules they set up to “help” people keep God’s law.  The teachers of the law (or “scribes”) gave themselves to the laborious hand-copying of the Scriptures.  These two groups had frequent run-ins with Jesus, especially over issues related to Sabbath-keeping.

They enjoyed society’s respect and deference, though they seldom returned it—most assuredly not to those they regarded as beneath them.  But such a group sat before them now….

Jesus was aware of their hard hearts.  While we might want to “do contempt unto others,” Jesus sought to win them by providing an opportunity to understand the father heart of God towards those before them.  He knew most of the leaders would walk away, allowing the birds to snatch the seed; still, he continued to reach out to them.

Watch Jesus closely.  His parable doesn’t start with the father and sons.  He knew that even hard-hearted religious types understand the value of a lost sheep or a lost coin (likely worth an entire day’s wage) and would extend the same effort and be just as joyful as anyone upon finding them.  But, of course, other humans—especially one so thoughtless and contemptable as this recklessly wasteful son—well….

How odd it was that Jesus inserted a statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than a gazillion who don’t need to where he did: in the two vignettes about a lost sheep and lost coin.  It was not lost on the Pharisees and teachers that Jesus was saying explicitly:  “God rejoices greatly when a sinner repents.”  (Don’t be thrown off by the reference to “in heaven” or “in the presence of angels” because that was a common device used by the Jews to not say the sacred Name.)

So, if you’re familiar only with the vignette about the father and his two sons, you may have been missing the punch line of the whole parable. The central point is the joy experienced by God when one single sinner “comes to his senses” like the prodigal did.

Can you picture Jesus’s Father running up the road to welcome that returning child?  You can’t?  Beneath his dignity and majesty?  Not your picture of God?  However you picture it, joy is the point.

You can bet that Jesus’s joy knew no bounds at these “tax collectors and sinners” who wanted to hear.  They had their ears on.  How might they have had their picture of God changed by the presence of Jesus?

Does the “good son” in the story remind you of anyone?  Those religious hypocrites?  Their need to repent was painfully obvious to everyone—but them.  Their blindness is evident all through the Gospels.  Outwardly, they supposedly did the right thing.  But God wanted their hearts.

As to the prodigal himself, we don’t hear any more about him after the father runs up the road, hugs him, orders the best robe, ring, and fattened calf.  But the older son, well, that’s another matter.  He refused to come to the celebration once he heard about it.  He complained bitterly to his dad.  He considered himself perfectly justified in what he thought and said, but his father did not have his heart.

If you are waiting for me to explain the meaning of each part in the story, I won’t.  Some parts are obvious. The father is God, no doubt, and he reminds the older son that his inheritance is still there.  But he has missed something fundamental about the nature of doing the “right thing”:  love and compassion, particularly for those who were lost and now are found.

It was part of Jesus’s overall message that the Father accepts all who come to him, whether “sinners” or Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews): those who understand their true poverty, their need for him, and turn to him (or, come to their senses).

I have my ideas about all this, but it’s worth staying with the main point: how much does God rejoice?  What is the value of a soul to God?  What is your value to him?  What is God really like?

“What comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” (A.W. Tozer)  It would be good to know your honest answer—not one you’d tell a Sunday school—but what you think when you’re alone, in the dark.

I hope, through these postings, to give some accurate indication of the answer.  God forbid that any Manjako or anyone else has a picture of God based on the contempt and other un-God-like qualities I once displayed while acting as his representative.  My Father’s grace, mercy, and love didn’t give up on the prideful young man I have been on this long road I call my Zigzag Journey.

Thanks, Father.

Journey Post 34: Completing the Trinity—Reflections on stepping out from behind the door

“Donkey” is my African name.  It’s a good Manjak (Senegal) family name—spelled differently but sounding much the same as this English word.  “I knew it all the time, Walt….  It fits!”  Okay, okay, but don’t laugh too much.  The son of the village chief gave me his family name to signify that the Manjak welcomed our becoming part of their people; we wanted to live with them and learn their language and their ways and tell them about God.

Getting the name was an unexpected honor.  Yet, the irony was not lost on me—a sort of private joke between me and God—a Christian missionary, slow to learn, stubborn, proud.

donkey image

That was thirty-six years ago …  but the name still fits.  I own it.  It’s a reminder of who I am and my need to listen to God, I mean: really.  If you know the story of how I became a Christian, you may recall that I speak of my time in Vietnam and my appointment with a mortar round on June 10, 1969 as a 2×4 upside the head from God—a precursor to getting the Donkey name….  Up to that day, I had assumed I was a Christian.  I had gone to church most of my life, but now, I didn’t know what I believed….

It took two years from the day that mortar round exploded right next to me until I discovered that the resurrection of Jesus had actually occurred in history.  That changed everything.  I knew, then, that it was all true:  God is there (here), the Bible was his word, Jesus was God’s Son—not some cosmic Santa Claus; his teaching was more than good philosophy, and something called the “Holy Spirit”—or “Holy Ghost”—operated in the world, so that I was now saved, born again … or some such thing.

If you’ve read some of my blog posts, you’ll know that I like to refer to being adopted, though I was born and raised by my natural parents.  I am a son of my Father; I am adopted.  That’s how Paul referred to God making believers a part of his family—a son, a co-heir with Jesus.  I learned that shortly after I became a believer.  I knew that Jesus gave himself for my sin on the cross.  But somehow, God in heaven had some kind of dark side in my thinking.  He was distant, watching every step I made.  He just couldn’t be very pleased.  He took care of me and would take me to heaven one day—where I’d sit in the back with all the screw-ups and the children who never quite measured up to his expectations.

Jesus had said that eternal life was “knowing God.”  I figured that “knowing” must be a synonym for being saved, a sort of transaction where, in return for believing in Jesus, God promised me heaven.

From 1971 until 2007, that was my operating or functional assumption (theology).  I’d often puzzled over a statement by A.W. Tozer: “What comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.”  I began to see that truth when two different friends told me how they viewed God.

One told me how his life and jobs kept falling apart: “Walt, I’m convinced that God is out to get me.”  Another friend, who had been a closeted homosexual, related to me his view of God and his all-seeing eye that never smiled: both friends had fathers who were displeased or distant.  Another 2×4:  this time, times two.  God, what are you trying to tell me?  I was seeing a familiar pattern: my dad was distant, I was uncertain of his love, and he died when I was thirteen.  My life since had been spent on a performance treadmill, always looking over my shoulder for the smile of ___, but my paltry efforts to please him surely brought disappointment. Now I felt like I was playing church with people’s lives.  I cried out:  “Lord, what do you really think of me?  I have to know!”  In a moment, a verse came to mind from Proverbs, chapter three: “My son, despise not the discipline of the Lord.”  Now I was reading:  “for whom the Lord loves he disciplines, as a father the son in whom he delights.”  “Lord, you delight in me?”  I was dumbfounded.

It was like being born again—again.  I was getting to know God as my Father and his father heart.  Delight?  In me?  Yes!  Seeing his heart took nothing from his righteousness, or holiness, or majesty—it magnified it.  It was like my dad was President of the United States, and I was John-John playing under his desk.  You’ve seen those pictures, right?  Have you seen/read Ben-Hur?  A Jewish slave saves a Roman general, who makes him his son and heir.  It’s a picture of our adoption.  I have today a totally different view of God my Father—he’s the one Jesus taught his followers to call “Abba, Father,” (an intimate term similar to Papa or Daddy).  Remember the Lord’s Prayer?  To call God “Father” was radical.  New light, huh?  “Father” is not a title but a relationship.

John Jr. under the deskBen Hur slave

Above:  JFK and John-John (JFK Jr.)                                                                                                                                                                         Below:  The slave, Judah Ben-Hur, soon to be adopted son of Quintus Arrius

I am a son of my Father.  That is my identity, who I am.  And he told me something that my soul had longed to hear from my earthly dad before he died, but never did.  My Father said, in a way similar to what he announced to the world about Jesus: “This is my beloved son; and I delight in him.”  He loves my soul.

So, now I know Jesus the Son, my savior, who self-sacrificially gave himself for my sin.  I know my Father, who self-sacrificially gave his Son in order to secure a relationship with me.  And now … what do I say of the Spirit?  I think I have all the correct “doctrine” concerning him.  But these last days have been, perhaps, another 2×4 upside the head of the Donkey—this time, with a 2×4 made of nerf board.

Michelle and I spent a week in a Colorado retreat center a couple weeks ago.  I was wrestling with several things:  the implications of God being “relational,” (I’m more social than genuinely relational.  My still present instinct is to fear letting you into my real life, to let you know me, to peer out from behind the door until I know it is safe to stand in front of it).  We were thinking about the Trinity and the relationship of love that exists in that divine community, knowing that, somehow, Christians share in that—but it doesn’t always seem real.  What does it mean to truly listen to the Spirit?  How can I hear his direction, how can I help others who want to draw near to God do the same?  I can’t really tell you what last week was all about, but, it will come out, as the witch said to Dorothy, “All in good time, my little pretty … all in good time.”

fearful man behind door

I didn’t hear anything “new” during the week, and yet everything was new: one of those uncomfortable paradigm shifts.  We weren’t seeking some method for generating or conjuring up a mystical Spirit.  No one controls God.

My doctrine of the Holy Spirit is very orthodox.  But there is something very much not real about my relationship with God the Spirit.  I don’t have far to look for reasons behind this.  My Father is teaching me to be honestly relational, starting with Michelle and a few others.  But most of my Christian involvement has been with churches peering from behind the door at the Spirit, churches I’ve heard characterized as holding to a “new evangelical Trinity” of Father, Son, and Holy Scripture.  God certainly speaks through his book—but he is not the book.

God promised Israel that he would send his Spirit to live in their hearts (the New Covenant, or New Testament).  In sending this Spirit, he would write his law in their hearts.  Jesus further elaborated when he spoke of a divine “comforter” or “counselor” (Greek paraclete) who had been “with” believers  and now would be “in” them as well.  It was he, the Spirit, who would empower us, ensure our fellowship and communion with the godhead, remind us who and whose we are, testifying with our own spirit that God is our “Abba, Father” that we might show God to the world.

A “close encounter” in Vietnam brought me to know that Jesus was real, not a crock.  Recognizing my evil view of God brought me to know the delighted love of my Father, not some intellectual construct (i.e., a crock).  Now, again, he has awakened my heart to find reality, to courageously pursue him where I’ve been afraid to, not inside the door but in community, to understand and live out the kind of deep genuine relationship I’ve missed in my human relationships.  Not to hear voices in the head, but to actually live by faith.

The Lake Avenue Essays, # 1: The Missing Picture … Who I Am

There is never a good time for a father to die.  I was thirteen when my dad died.  That was in 1961; he was forty-eight.  It was my dad, and it was the absolute worst time.

My brother had joined the Navy two months earlier, right out of high school.  He had always been my dad’s favorite.  Now, I thought, I would have my dad to myself.  But I didn’t, and wouldn’t … of course.

The previous fall, I had started junior high—you know, that time when boys wonder about being a man and are confused about girls.  I’d always had a crush on some girl, but now….  The guys would snicker, “Have you noticed Sue P.?”  My dad and I would never have those conversations.

The school tried to encourage the special closeness of fathers and sons by sponsoring a breakfast that was coming up soon.  All the guys would be there with their dads.  I couldn’t go, even when my mom suggested I ask my Uncle Bud.  I just wanted to hide, and there would be no escaping the shame.

Life moves on.  But deep hurts don’t often move on.  They’re just there, like some background dirge accompanying the good moments and happy times, like a void that refuses to be filled.

I became conscious of the void when I was six or seven, when I discovered the family pictures in a big drawer in the old secretary by the front door.  The drawer was so heavy that I had to ask my mom to take it out for me.  The pictures were mostly loose, mostly black and white, though some were sepia-toned.  There was a painted high school graduation photograph of my Aunt Dee.  She was beautiful.  There were pictures of family and friends.  What most caught my attention were those of my brother.


One picture had him standing by a coffee table with a huge birthday cake and one big candle.  In another, he was perhaps a year-and-a-half, sitting on my dad’s lap, pecking away for all the world as though intent on writing a composition.  My dad’s face was beaming, obviously proud.

But one picture was missing.  I remember more than once going back to look for it in that big drawer, but I never found it.  I never asked about it.  I was afraid of the answer.  The missing picture was the one I was sure had to be there, somewhere—the picture of just me and my dad.

The years moved on.  My life became a question whose answer was self-interpreted.  I began to conclude what a boy without guidance must:  I didn’t matter to my dad.  So, who am I?

1968 came.  Hope was assassinated and I got a letter from the president:  “Greeting….”  I knew where I was going (Vietnam), and I did.  Would I be a man?  When you don’t know who you are, such tests of manhood prove nothing.  I stood my ground, fought back, got wounded, came home.  The question was still there.

Life went tumbling on.  In the deep inner workings that seek to justify existence, I told myself I was better than my brother.  Everything proved it:  Michelle and I got married in 1970, we became Christians, went to Bible school and became missionaries, had three kids.  I was a teacher.  I was a church leader and counselor.  I was looked up to.  Yet, something was unsettling me.  As I counseled guys, I found them confused, struggling with a private picture of God as judge, never smiling, always demanding, never satisfied.  Their struggle was familiar, for I saw that same God.  I recalled what A.W. Tozer wrote, that what comes to mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you….  So how could I help people trust God when I saw him like they did?  I was playing church with these peoples’ lives.  Like them, I was spending my life on a performance treadmill, chasing the smile of God.

I reasoned that God loves me, right?  He always did what’s best.  I’m going to heaven—he promised.  But did God even like me, or just put up with me?  Did I really matter to him?  Did he value me at all?

In a moment of desperation, I got honest with God.  It was 2006 or 2007—I’m certain of the moment if not the date.  I sat at my desk and I cried out, “What do you really think of me, Lord?  I have to know!”

God’s timing is not often early—and never late.  With the words barely out of my mouth, a verse came to mind I had thought of only when doing church discipline:  “My son, despise not the Lord’s discipline.…  The Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:11,12).

Something was different.  What was that last part?  Delights?  “Lord, you delight in me?”  If ever in my life I received a “word from God,” this was it.  My Father delights in me!  Delight made love concrete.

How…?  God for me had seemed distant, not much involved in my life, just up there, always watching, probably tired of my failures.  I googled, “What does God think of his children?”  I kept seeing the word “adoption,” a term Paul used to describe God taking people into his family.  Adoption had meant little to me in Bible school.  But now I knew:  It’s not just a process, but a father’s perspective.  No wonder Jesus taught his followers to call God “Abba.”  Like a perfect earthly father, he had passionately anticipated the day he would adopt me.  (The “pleasure” he felt in Ephesians 1:5).  God wants to be with me!

We intuitively see God like our own parents, particularly our fathers.  My picture of God was my dad!  But God is not my dad.  God’s discipline, all the troubles and disappointments are simply the proof of his delight in me, a message the Spirit brought to my mind as surely as the sun rises to a new day.

In a moment, God lifted the veil that had kept his true face hidden, and I heard him:  “You saw only that missing picture.  But you are my son.  You are the man I delight in.  And you will always be in the picture with me.”

The Lake Avenue Essays # 2: Whose Agenda?… And Whose Pigeonhole?

If Jesus came back to America today, he might conclude that we were already in the midst of a presidential campaign.  Candidates are being measured and issues debated.  Christians are being courted because our vote matters.  The candidates are measuring us, analyzing how we might vote.  They, and most Americans, see us as the “religious right,” politically conservative, likely Republican.

How do you like that?  Not here five minutes and already you’ve been pegged into a pigeonhole?

You might be comfortable with that particular niche.  But the point of this piece has little to do with where you actually fit on the political spectrum.  My point has to do with what most Americans would think when they learn that you’re a Christian.

Michelle and I came back to the States from Senegal in 1989.  We had spent most of the 1970s and 80s in missionary training and living in Africa.  We had been isolated from much that was happening in American culture—living in a kind of Christian bubble.  What we found here was a far different country from the one we had left.

A little history:  The Nixon landslide in 1972 made political operatives sit up and notice how much clout Christians could have as a voting bloc.  Roe v. Wade in ’73 pushed a button that demonstrated Christian anger and willingness to speak up about the changing social and political agendas in our country.  By 1980, a number of organizations were claiming to speak for conservative Christianity, including the “Moral Majority.”  The “Christian right” or “religious right” was now a force to be reckoned with.

Those were heady days for Christians.  The possibilities of power were exciting.  It seemed to many that standing up for “family values” could stanch the seepage of moral sewage from the ‘60s and restore a more Christian America.  But, somewhere along the line, many forgot that hearts are not changed by the ballot box or moral law, and (as Chuck Colson said), salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.  The American church was lured away by a political agenda—deflected from following the agenda of Jesus.

Jesus had an agenda?  Your first thought might be, “Well, he was intent on getting to the cross.”  Or, “He tried to get us to preach the gospel to everyone.”  And you’d be right … sort of….

Jesus’ agenda can be seen in the Gospel accounts.  It’s not rocket science.  Some feel the Gospels are difficult, the parables confusing, so they largely ignore them or read small bits or perhaps John.  But I want to remind you of something your English teacher taught: “What’s the main idea?”  The question is, what did he teach his disciples—his apprentices, if you will—over and over?  What’s the pattern?  Jesus taught them to think and showed them his Father’s heart—to see who he is, how he thinks, and gain his perspective—that they might know him who dwells among us.  “The presence of God is the central fact of Christianity” (Tozer).  Israel missed God and had no light to reflect.  We face the same danger.

You may be aware that Gandhi spent much time in Britain, living among British Christians.  Afterward he had this to say:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  I don’t know about you, but if I am to be persecuted, I want it to be for the right reasons.  Just what am I known for?  What light am I reflecting?  Into whose pigeonhole do I fit?

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