He had grown tired of home. He knew what it was like, and it was no longer enough. Every day, freedom walked past the gate, and it looked amazing. He saw others free to do as they pleased with no consequence. He saw freedom from rules and watchful eyes. He saw a chance.
And he took it. The world suddenly seemed so big with new sights, sounds, and smells. He could not tell if those shouting at him were angry, happy, or just excited by the freedom. This offered so much more than what he had imagined, and it was not long before he looked, smelled, and sounded like everyone else. It was a loud life. So loud, in fact, that he quickly forgot those once-familiar voices.
Suddenly, he was caught around the shoulders. “Hey, you should stay with me,” she told him. “I will keep you safe.” He did for a while, but it started to feel like home, that place he longed to forget. So he left. This went on longer than he had planned on. Ducking into loud sounds, dark places, and something that no longer felt like freedom. He grew tired, thirsty, and even a bit tired.
He did not want to admit it, but he wanted just a bit of what he had at home. A little safety. A little food. A little bit of peace to rest his head. But how would he even get there? Would they even want him back? Without warning, he was taken by the shoulders again. This time he could not break the grip even though he tried. And he was taken to a place a lot like home. And yet not even close. He was given food, water, and a place to rest. But nothing more. He heard voices that sounded familiar and yet none that he recognized. He had longed for freedom and found a prison. If he remembered how to cry, he would have. Instead he just wished for home as he tried to sleep.
The next day he heard a voice. He knew that voice. The voice was looking at him and told the captors, “He is mine.” Then the voice went away. What he did not realize was that his freedom had come with a price. There was now a debt that he could not pay, but it had to be paid in order to go home. With tears of happiness, the voice paid his debt. Released from his cell, he went toward the voice with caution. What would be said? He was a mess. He smelled of awful choices. He knew he had run from home, but now he wanted nothing else but to be there. But could he?
Who have I just described? A story from the Bible? My runaway dog of last week? Or maybe have I described you? I know this much: I have described me. I never pictured myself as s prodigal, a lost son, nor someone in need of rescue. I was good, or at least good enough. I grew up going to church, whether I wanted to or not. I memorized verses for stickers of stars. I had Christian teachers, friends, and family. I even had Christian jobs. But then what?
Well, I chased the freedom to do things my own way. The Christian job fired me. I started seminary and heard all of the ways church could be. I longed to find people who thought like me, looking for the Church that follows Jesus and neglecting the local church that only seemed to talk about Jesus. “Why don’t they see their failures?”, I thought. “Why can’t they be more like me – ready to help the hurting and those in need? They are so selfish. Who needs them?”
In my anger against Christians, I refused to even give them the chance to be what I wanted them to be. I was looking for a Church – people who loved Jesus, would give freely of what they had, and unconcerned with titles, walls, and empires. I wanted to find Kingdom folk. And I wanted them to help people – just as long as it wasn’t me. I didn’t need it.
It’s not hard to become hardened. One person or place treats us wrong and we start to protect ourselves. We move away from them. We build our own walls around ourselves and call it freedom. And when we hear familiar voices, we convince ourselves that they wouldn’t want us back anyway. We never seem to run back to grace. We tiptoe toward it. But grace runs, throws open arms around us, holds us tight, and showers us with tears of joy. Grace only wants us to know that our debt was freely paid at great cost – just to bring us home.
I did describe a story out of the Bible. Jesus gave us a picture of a father running to embrace the son that had returned home broke and broken. And a great celebration took place. The lost had been found! It did not matter that the lost had become that way on their own terms. None of that mattered. I did describe my dogs. My stinky, silly, runaway dogs. I did describe me.
When my lost dogs were found, they became very expensive to bring home. I went broke and broken before people that I knew and said, “I need you.” I don’t do that well. I’m not sure I’ve done that before. And people gave freely to me. No concern for titles. From all walks they gave. Even after I said I had enough, they gave. Why? To be a part of a grace celebration. I was overwhelmed. Tears flooded my face because I realized that I was home. I realized that I do know the Church and it knows me. And we celebrated that the lost were found. But most of them probably didn’t know that I felt found. Or maybe they did.
And maybe I have described you. Life has made you hardened, a little isolated, and a lot skeptical. People hurt and are hurting so don’t let them too close. You feel familiar inside your tiny wall of freedom and don’t believe anything else will have you. Or maybe love and grace doesn’t feel free. Maybe you think that at some point you will be given a bill to pay. So why bother?
A few years ago I prayed a prayer that I said too quickly: “Help me love more deeply.” Before the end of the night, I was chasing a runaway child through dark streets. I only wanted her to be safe. I wanted her to have the chance for things to be right. But she kept running. We love because we are crafted in the image of God, the One who IS love. It comes at a price. Not a price to pass along to you, but a price paid just to bring you home. Celebrations await.
I’m learning. Not only was I angry that the church was not the Church, I was also foolish enough to think people should ask for help even though I don’t. I broke. I could not do it on my own. And I see that now. I didn’t know what to do the extra grace. To keep it almost felt selfish. Little did I know that I would find someone hungry and in need of food. I found someone in need of shelter and could help them find it. I found someone in need of transportation and was able to help. Not because of me. This all happened because of the celebration. When I was welcomed home, the celebration was more than what was needed. Others could come and they did. Maybe you need a celebration too. You can tiptoe back home and be welcomed with loving arms. God’s love is deep. God’s love is wide. And it’s waiting to embrace you.