When Benedict of Nursia gathered monks–men who devote their lives to prayer–into communities in the 6th century, he laid down some rules–the Rule, actually, now known as the Rule of St. Benedict. Among such helpful tips like: monks should not “sleep with knives at their sides, lest they cut themselves in their sleep” (ch.22) or the abbot (the head of the monastery) should assure that the monks’ clothing is “not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper fit” (ch.55), Benedict gives advice about the monks’ spiritual lives. These men of constant prayer and fasting must “never lose hope in God’s mercy” (4:74).
It’s good advice. Most of us have wandered into places where we scarcely dare to hope in God’s mercy.
Jesus told a story about a son who wandered from the Father’s mercy (Luke 15). The son asked for his inheritance up front and then hit the road, coins burning a hole in his pocket all the way to the “far country” (v.13).
But the fantasy fades (v.14). Famine descends. The far country is a place of hunger. That’s why the son went there, of course: a restless hunger paced within him. But he discovered that the far country is not a place of peace and rest and satisfaction. There, hunger begets hunger in a frantic spiral. There, the son is trapped, drawn into a race to the bottom of the hog trough.
The story is common enough. Stories about getting lost are a dime-a-dozen.
But this is actually a story about getting found. It’s a story of God’s mercy. The son “came to himself” and remembered his Father’s table. He stepped onto the road and found that the distance was mercifully short, for the Father was “filled with compassion” (v.20). The Father had been watching for his return. The Father would forgive him and run to him and embrace him and celebrate with him.In the far country, our capacity to believe in the Father’s mercy is the first thing to go. It flies right out the window. We end up believing the world is all rock and stone, all smoke and blood, and that mercy was squeezed out of it long ago.
But the Father’s heart is filled with compassion.
God reminded Israel of this through the prophets. Their nation had been razed by the Babylonians, their Temple destroyed, their people scattered. But in that far country, God spoke to them and said:
I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them. (Isaiah 42:16)
So where are you on this journey? The trip is never one-way. We’ll be dining at the Father’s table one day and the next we’ll be lining up to get our passports stamped in the far country.
But the Father is always longing for us, ready to forgive and run and embrace and celebrate. As the band Rend Collective sings, “a second chance is heaven’s heart.” That’s God’s mercy.
Never lose hope.