Called to be the father?

You know how it is when you hear a sentence that simultaneously upends and undoes your thinking? This week, I revisited a book that had this sort of sentence in its introduction.

You wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that the book’s author was Henri Nouwen, would you? He is the kind of writer who can marshall that sort of heaven-invades-earth power in a single turn of phrase. In the introduction to his book The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story Of Homecoming (Doubleday, 1994), he shares a sentence that an influential friend spoke into his life at a time when he was wrestling with a great many things. She referenced the parable of the prodigal sons, and then told Nouwen, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize you are called to be the father.” 

Game over. I could have stopped reading the book at that point. (I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book was overflowing with Nouwen’s rich insight.)

But oh, that sentence. It has reoriented and guided my relationships with some closest to me, and helped me understand how to relate to many others. I recognize my younger son tendencies at some times, and my older son ways at other times. Being the father – the personification of this kind of love – doesn’t come easy to me.

I don’t think it comes easy to any of us, but Nouwen’s friend was right. The father is who we’re called to be, both individually and corporately. On an individual level, God has used this sentence to expose and correct my older/younger child mindset. My younger child self rationalizes my sin so I don’t have to feel the sear of dying flesh. My older child persona specializes in judgmental ways meant to buffer my heart from compassion for others. Being the father means embracing both kinds of people – even when one of those people, younger or older, happens to be staring at me in the mirror.

On a corporate level, we’re called to be the father, too. Some congregations I’ve known focus on attracting younger sons and daughters by elevating once-lost, now-found” dramatic testimonies and felt-need programming to reach them. Other congregations, driven by rules and fear, create cultures where religious performance sets the tone.

What would a congregation look like where the prevailing sensibility was a corporate longing to “become the father”? I know it must begin first with each one of us on a personal level. But I’m throwing it out to you as a discussion question. Your thoughts? Examples?   

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  • Wonderfully helpful–thank you for sharing this!

  • Boyd

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re asking, but off the top
    of my head ….

    When the younger son left “home,” the father did not go after him. He waited. And based on the details provided in the story, it would seem the wait was not a short one. Yes, the father ran to the son when he saw him a far way off, but the father did not send out a search party to bring back the younger son, nor did the father try to create all sorts of events back at the house that might appeal to his son as a way to motivate or entice the boy to come back home. Many churches that have
    a younger brother mentality do not wait for the “coming to their senses” moment—those churches tend to try to manufacture an “experience” or an “environment” to make the home more inviting. That was not the father’s way.

    With the older brother, the father actually does after him. This older son who never left home is just as “far off” from the father in terms of relationship, but it’s this son that the father goes out to talk with and try to reason with, not the younger son. That’s often an overlooked part of the story. People forget that
    the story is told to the Pharisees as a way reason with the “older brothers” rather
    than to highlight the younger brother. Many churches that have an older brother mentality do not feel that anything about “home” should change to accommodate the sibling who has come back—it’s been this way for years and it’s not going to change.

    At some point, almost all churches end up with both kinds of brothers living in the same “home,” and the tension increases. Neither is concerned with the father but
    solely focused on personal desires. The father, however, loves both sons—another point that is rarely stressed when looking at the story if the focus stays on the younger brother. The father wants to restore the relationship with both sons, not just one, and the father does what each son needs.

    The younger son needs time to reflect on his poor choices and come to his sense, to accept that his choices were unwise and that any kind of relationship with the father was better than death by starvation. When he comes to his sense, his heart is changed and does the job of motivating him to walk home. The younger son, however, needs to know that the father still loves him IN SPITE of all the unwise choices—that’s the whole reason the father runs full speed to the son WHEN the son can be seen at a distance AND the reason for the party. The father personally goes out to meet the son WHEN the son is ready to come home. And the party doesn’t exist simply as a way to encourage the son to come home; it takes place ** the result of** coming home. Nowhere in the story is it implied that the party was to be never-ending; once the son grasped that he was loved and that
    his father was rejoicing because what was lost had now been found, the same
    changed heart that prompted the walk home would imply that the son wouldn’t
    demand his inheritance again and go off in search of a life away from home once
    the party was over. Gratitude would fill such a heart since that younger son would understand just how much he had wronged the father in the first place and how gracious the father was to return the wayward son back into the family.

    My guess would be that churches that follow the father’s example probably don’t confuse cause and effect and give out rings and robes nor throw a party to try to bring the younger sons home. A church trying to follow the example of the
    father in the story would evaluate whether or not the programs and events they
    host for “younger brothers” are rooted in trying to get people to leave the pig
    pens or to show them that God still loves them even when they come home in
    their pig perfumed clothes. They would look at whether or not they were trying to target ONLY younger brothers. They would be generous in showing love and mercy when people had “come to their senses” and were on the road home and trying to humbly come back to a relationship with God.

    The older son needs to see just how much the father loves him, too. He feels slighted and neglected and underappreciated. The father, however, does go to where the older brother is and reasons with him about love and family. Whereas the father did not go seek out the younger son when he was living in a far off land, with the older son the situation is reversed. The father personally takes the time to explain the motivation for the robe and the ring and the party, as well as to highlight that the older son has always had the father. The older son doesn’t see the value of the father any more than the younger son did, but the father takes the time to provide an incentive to come “back home” and join the party—we MUST rejoice that what was lost has been found because this lost thing isn’t a coin or a lamb, it’s your brother. Just like the Pharisees who couldn’t see that they had siblings amongst the tax collectors and drunks, Jesus was willing to eat with anyone who was seeking a relationship with Him since pig perfume didn’t bother Him.

    My guess would be that churches that follow the father’s example probably work very hard to make sure that members truly understand what God’s definitions of Home and Family mean. Churches likely work hard to not let things fester or let cliques take root since frequent concrete reminders of what we are “in Christ” will be used to prompt self-examination and highlight the true value of a deep abiding relationship with God. These churches won’t let cultural differences or human ideologies set up camps within a congregation because declaring that “MY pig smell is superior to YOUR pig smell” forgets that Jesus dined with sinners who “smelled like pigs.” These churches might also be cautious of showing favoritism towards one “sibling” over another in terms of the lion’s share of programming since the father equally divided the inheritance before the younger son set off. They would promote lots of cross-over between people of various backgrounds and ages so that people are less likely to feel slighted or neglected or underappreciated because they aren’t the younger brother “target market” of church growth.

    In other words, loving like the father in the story is not a cookie cutter approach to “how to do church” since the actions towards both siblings were motivated by love and restoration, but those actions were based on each son’s need. It’s an attitude that expresses itself in love of BOTH sons, not just one. And love is the driving factor. Sacrificial love that humbly gives to each “child” what is most precious–the Father.

  • Boyd

    It was too late last night to add this, however, I think we have examples of how this story plays out in the New Testament.

    When the Roman Centurion “wants to come home,” at first Peter, now the “older brother,” resists. God, has to go meet with Peter and reason with him about why it is right to “have a party” for Cornelius in the form of breaking tradition and eating
    with him. Peter does not throw a party hoping that Cornelius and his household will show up. Peter does not design outreach programs to get Cornelius to think about coming to Jerusalem to “check out God.” But when Cornelius “comes to his senses” and wants to deepen his relationship with God, God told Peter to “break bread” with this pig perfumed man and his family. Cornelius knew where to look for God–a key point–because he knew to send word to Peter. But, again, Cornelius didn’t know that because of some form of target marketing directed towards him.

    When Paul preaches in Thyatira, he doesn’t put on Fall Carnivals with bouncy houses and games and say, “Come on down to Lydia’s house!” Paul goes out to where the people naturally are and presents the Gospel. Then those who hear the message of God and are interested in a relationship with God are invited to come to Lydia’s house, where I’m fairly certain true hospitality was on display.

    When Paul writes to the church in Corinth, he is unbelievably upset that during the “proclamation” of Christ’s death, the Christians are not acting as a loving, unified group who are “in Christ,” but rather are, in fact, proclaiming that “in Christ” there are still cliques, that’s it’s “ok” to mistreat siblings. Paul tries to reason with these Christians by pointing out that they are NOT showing love, real love, because they aren’t willing to sacrifice their own comfort—give up a robe and ring and roast a calf—to rejoice as a whole family.

    When Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus, we get a very literal rendering of a younger brother going home and an older brother being told to welcome back his sibling. Philemon doesn’t try to entice Onesimus back home to Colossae with light shows and music and hip sermons. And Onesimus doesn’t decide to wander back to Colossae because there is a “slave-oriented cool program” going on at Philemon’s house where this younger brother will be the center of attention. Paul, playing the role of the father, “meets” with Philemon via the letter and reasons with him about forgiveness and equality among believers.

    I think there are many more examples of how this story plays out in the New Testament, but these are probably enough to show the basic framework of how a church behaves when it lives out the story.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Boyd, I am always honored by your thoughtful responses to my posts. Thank you so much!

      Your post below about the father’s custom-tailored love for both sons – because both are in most every church – is spot on. And your post above about Paul not using a Fall Festival, complete with bouncy house, or your connection of the parable to the real-life experience of Philemon and Onesimus is apt as well.

      What I’m hearing in both of your comments is the fact that we often cater to the sensibilities of older and younger “brothers” instead of encouraging the maturity of a father who knows how to love each child as they are. We focus on “as they are” instead of “encouraging maturity”, it seems to me.