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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: Prodigal Son

Breaking the Bread of Belief: The Ache of Home

jenmichel@me.com

Home Image courtesy of Joetography

“What would you say if [insert name of major technology company] hired me to lead their insurance brand?”

My reaction to Ryan’s question startles me.

“I don’t know. Where are they headquartered?’

California, of course. And then I’m lost in reverie, wondering how well I’ll fit into California. I plan to lose weight.

What surprises me is that I am not terrified at the thought of moving again, of packing up the house and making life elsewhere, no matter how desperate my desire for home sometimes feels.

For the bulk of my life, I’ve been a nomad. I was born in Indiana, and we followed my father as he finished graduate work (Missouri, Ohio) and moved systematically from assistant professor (Eastern Tennessee) to associate professor (Western Tennessee). All that packing up and making life elsewhere: our family incurred the debt of uprootedness for a career my father would ultimately abandon - because teaching communications at small liberal arts’ colleges isn’t the easiest way to fund a child’s college education. My father ended up with white-collar executive work that paid that bills (and, by the way, failed to fund happiness). We settled in Ohio. My mother is still there. But my father is not. I was nearly nineteen when he died, twenty-three when my brother followed him.

There’s no place like home, it is said.

But this is the refrain aching in me: there’s no place that’s home.

Home is so fundamental to what I long for. My best friend from high school was born in the town where we went to high school and returned there before giving birth to her first children (twins). These last ten years, she has remained there, making, what feels to me, the most fondly familiar life. Although I do not regret missed occasions of spontaneously running into the boys I dated in high school (here’s where an international border is something of great comfort), I feel envious of her stability. She has something I have never had and may never will: she belongs to a place. She has permanence. I feel myself almost covetous for it.

There’s no place that’s home.

And here we are, Ryan and I and our five children, making home together in a country that is not our own. We may wish to stay, but it will not ultimately be ours to decide.

I wonder: will home forever be this contingent? This provisional?

The aching again.

And then Easter week. The Scripture readings. I’ve read these passages a thousand times. I find myself doubting I will perceive anything new.

But the Spirit sets afire the words, and they roar into blaze. It is Monday. We are gathered as a family after dinner, around the table, around the Words.

Jesus presides over his last meal with his disciples.

“I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”

Maybe it’s the word, desired, that catches my attention. What has Jesus desired in these last moments before his betrayal? What are his longings, and how does he ache?

He desires a meal. He longs for communion around a table. And he sees this final meal as the anticipatory act of another meal. “I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”

And suddenly, it’s upon me that salvation (to use a word that feels religiously odd and abstract) is a homecoming.

Think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The theologians tell us that this Parable may have been Jesus’ most important. He was giving us a way to understand God, a way of understanding ourselves, a concrete means for putting categories to the abstraction of this religious idea: we must be saved?

The story tells us of the lost son. He skips town, having demanded his inheritance and dishonored his father. It speaks of the older brother, corrupted by his pride and self-righteousness. And it insists upon a father, whose patient and hopeful mercies are his own means of humiliation.

The father awaiting the homecoming.

Will home always feel this contingent? This provisional? And these are the questions that the Easter people know how to answer.

No.

Because Jesus has eagerly desired to eat a meal with us. He’s gone to prepare the table. But to set the table with wine and bread, it would be necessary to break his own body and spill his own blood.

Because someone has to pay for the spoiled inheritance and the Father’s dishonor. Good Friday is necessary for Easter, a sacrifice essential for the meal.

“For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers.” Psalm 39:12

I, the guest: and Jesus has eagerly desired my company at his feast.

Is this the Easter story? And my salvation an eternal homecoming?

We may move to California. We may stay in Toronto. Or Chicago may call us back. I will fear the contingencies and regret the nomadic legacy, wishing for more permanence and feeling the ache of home.

But in all that longing, I will think of the future feast.

To be shared in the city of God.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. And Christ will come again.

* * * * *

This is the third in a series of posts entitled, "Breaking the Bread of Belief."

1. "First Words of Faith"

2. "Lenten Faith in Dust"

Empty Pockets

jenmichel@me.com

Too many of the big religious words go undefined these days. And I'm one for words.

I can sink my teeth for days into a single word or a short phrase. I have little capacity for more. The sheer noise of this household, the demands of our schedules, the insistence of my technological devices,the quiet voice of the Spirit. Everyday I feel battered by the simplest of decisions: to what do I pay attention?

And so it is that simple words and phrases have a way of arresting my attention and capturing my imagination. I knead the words, pulling and stretching and letting them rise, hoping that something permanent will lodge within me and do that mysterious and invisible work of transformation.

At the communion table this past Sunday, our pastor spoke these two words, words that have rattled around in my soul over the last several days.

Infinite obligation.

The context of his words, as you can imagine, was Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross for all humanity. But rather than referring to our guilt as sin, he phrased it like this, as infinite obligation.

Those words pierced me in a new way. A sinner, I know I am. Anger. Pride. Hypocrisy. Fear. In defiance of all my best efforts, they cling to me, lurking in the shadows, publicizing that I am chronically failing God, myself, and the ones I love most fiercely.

But infinite obligation?

The story of the Prodigal Son, to which I referred yesterday, is a story of obligations. Against cultural convention, the younger son demands his share of the inheritance before his father's death. He wants it now.

It's a shameless act. A flagrant kind of slap in the face.

And of course the inheritance buys him his share of fun, but it's only a matter of time until the funds run dry. At his most desperate, he decides to return home.

"I shall get up and go to my father, and I'll say to him: 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don't deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'"

And if you know the story, you remember that it is when the son is still a long way off, barely visible on the horizon, that the father sees him, gathers his robes and runs to him, announcing to that his son, his lost son, is found! Kill the best calf, bring the best robe, we'll throw the kind of party that no one will forget!

Because Jesus is such a masterful storyteller, the parable of the Prodigal Son offers some many layers of meaning, too many to explore here. (I highly recommend the book, Prodigal God, by Tim Keller.)

But one thing the story does do is explain a word that wants to wriggle out of our hands. A word we're convinced is outdated. A word that makes us uncomfortable, but a word that is uniquely biblical and indispensable for describing just what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Repentance.

The son came home with empty pockets. He had no excuses to offer his father.  The damage was irreparable, the obligation infinite.

And the father received him because his love for his son, screw-up that he was, was just that big.

Repentance is an empty-pockets kind of moment and requires just enough faith to come home.

Before we've yet reached the door, the Father's love silences our speeches and receives us, screw-ups that we are.

It's just that big.