Skip to content

On Falling Short and Stumbling Home

A few years ago, I was asked how long I had been a pastor. I forget how long it was precisely, but it must have been somewhere in the window between two and three years. I told my questioner this and their response was darkly humorous: “Oh, so long enough to disappoint some people.” Indeed.

I was having a conversation with a friend this morning about the broad strokes of our city’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. So much good has been done and it’s wonderful to have played a role in it, however small. But with time comes the inevitability of disappointment. Some feel you haven’t done enough or that your efforts are too selective or that you don’t respond well enough to questions or you don’t know enough answers or you won’t help so and so or…. whatever. It sucks to feel like you’ve let people down. And it’s easy to get annoyed at people’s annoyance or frustration or lack of gratitude or failure to understand or… whatever.

With time comes disappointment. That’s just the way it goes. For all of us and in all kinds of ways.

Perhaps you’ve been an employee long enough to bump up against the limits of your abilities.

Or a friend long enough for them to see your ugly cynical side.

Or part of a community long enough to let people down.

Or a parent long enough to disappoint your kids.

Or a son or daughter long enough to frustrate your parents.

Or a lover long enough to demonstrate that you are actually not very good at loving at all.

We cannot be and do all the things that we need each other to be and do. We just can’t. We are too small for that. We are too weak for those who need us to be strong.  We don’t have enough time or wisdom or patience to act in less disappointing ways. There just isn’t enough of us for all the need out there.

I’ve written often here about my deep and abiding love for the story of the lost son in Luke 15:11-32 (see here and here). I’ve remarked on several occasions that this story, of all the stories in scripture, is the one that seems to tell my own in so many ways. It is a story that seems to contain almost the whole of human failure and frustration, hope and longing, love and desire. It is a story that tells the truth, in the deepest and most penetrating sense of the word.  It is a story that picks me up and sets me back down rightly.

I read this story again today, in light of my morning conversation, in light of a string of disappointments that I have recently witnessed or actively added to.  It struck me anew that this story Jesus tells is all about how we cannot be enough for one another, about how each character carries around and contributes to a profoundly disappointing narrative.

The younger son sets off full of disdain and desire. He’s done with this stupid place and this stupid family. He has freedom on his mind and he’s elated to be rid of the oppressive shackles of a father who doesn’t understand him and a life that he never wanted. He doesn’t care who he hurts or for how long, he just knows that he’s gotten what he wants and that nothing will stand in his way now. He knows that his departure is one big extended middle finger to the people and the place that formed him in countless ways, but he doesn’t care.

The older son grumbles in the shadows, rehearsing his list of grievances against his miserable ingrate of a brother, against his weak and pathetic father, against the burden of (largely self-imposed) duty that he daily struggles under, against a screwed up world where merit is ignored and incompetence justified, where virtue goes unrewarded and vice has a riotous good time. He hates that his goodness goes unnoticed.

The father stands at the gate sick with worry and regret. Maybe even a bit of self-loathing, who knows? Why couldn’t I get through to him? What did I do wrong? What else could I have tried? What did he need that I couldn’t see? That I wouldn’t see? How could he treat me like this? Where will this stubborn road take him? Doesn’t he know that I love him? He despairs at the ways he has disappointed his sons, the way he continues to disappoint them. The way he will no doubt disappoint them in the future.

The story is soaked in disappointment at every turn. It is a story of a family who, in their own ways and to varying degrees, cannot give each other what they need. It is a story of breakdown and failure—a story that tells so many of our stories in so many ways.

Until the end.

Until a crushing defeat is met with a tear-stained embrace. Until agonized humiliation encounters “all is forgiven.” Until, “what about me?” meets “all I have is yours.” Until the many ways in which we fall short come up against irrational and scandalously unmerited mercy. Until our countless disappointments shrink in the face of a fierce and relentless love. Until the many things that we cannot be to and for each other encounter the only one who ever could.

25 Comments Post a comment
  1. sheidebrecht #

    Beautiful Ryan I remember sharing this message in a village in India one of our favorite places, as I wandered around the front showing the characters they all sat without moving an inch. I asked what should the father do? Silence I hiked up my saree a cultural no, showing my legs just as this father had done. And i ran abit. Scandalous unmerited mercy. They got it. Thanks Ryan, we are visiting Coaldale arrived last night a coffee would be lovely if you have a moment we are in Lethbridge tomorrow afternoon after lunch if you have a moment? Peace Sherry

    Sent from my iPhone

    May 25, 2016
  2. Paul Johnston #

    It is hard to argue with the conclusions you draw, within the context of the, “Prodigal Son” parable, though I would caution.

    To focus on the behaviors of the sons, is to focus on the wrong priority. The priority understanding is to consider/contemplate the actions of the father.

    Who is this father? What has he done? Why has he done as he has done, here? What were his intentions? What were his motives? What responses was he looking to illicit?

    The great tragedy of this parable is that the sons, from beginning to end, seem lost in their own egos and interests. The truth of God’s love and how it is to be shared among us, is revealed by the father. Neither son takes the time to engage with the father and find out how they too can operate out of the fathers understandings.

    And so it is with us.

    The truth is not intrinsic to us. Only the gift of a Spirit of truth. Only through the, “Father” who nurtures this Spirit can we too both share in and share with others, the truth of life, the truth of love.

    ” I must decrease, so that He may increase”….only a person who seeks relationship with the Father. Listening and learning, can grow in truth and love.

    The Father, to those who will allow Him, will always protect our Individual right and self interest.Yet, while so doing, he lovingly calls us to see beyond ourselves. Not to imprison ourselves in a world only of our own imagination and interest but to a world of His, of universal imagination and interest.

    All our true interests are bound in relationship with the Father and with one another. This is enlightenment.

    Convene with the Father. As individuals and as community. It is the only true path.

    May 30, 2016
    • I’m grateful that the text of Scripture admits of more than one way to read… that there are layers of meaning and possibility in the stories Jesus tells… that they are told not only to instruct or rebuke or correct but to give us a language or a narrative grammar within which to locate and tell our own stories, too.

      May 31, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        What do you make of Timothy 3:16? Where in this teaching do you find grounds for qualifications like, ….”a narrative grammar within which to locate and tell our stories, too”.

        Where in the word of God and in its traditions do you find grounds for a statement like,… ” the text of Scripture admits of more than one way to read”…

        Be careful not to encourage yourself or others to fall victim to enculturation and personal context as a priority. It simply isn’t. Where it is or has been made to be so, it is because peoples have prioritized their identities before the Fathers. This is false teaching. All our teaching and exhortation begins and ends with bringing others to faith in and relationship with, the Father. Through the Son, mediated by the Holy Spirit.

        Only through relationship with the Father can any person have a true identity. Only through relationship with the Father can any culture of people be said to be living a true culture.

        Every other identity of self and of culture that we may perceive to be true, that exists in our material world and in our hearts and minds but exists outside of relationship with the Father, is false.

        We find ourselves, ” we locate our stories”, in Him alone.

        As always, I remain in your debt. Your writing has always…well for a long time, since I’ve allowed God to get some of my foolish pride out of the way :)…inspired me to closer and more meaningful relationship with the Lord. Indeed you are a Pastor.

        His Peace be with you, my brother.

        June 1, 2016
      • What do I make of 2 Timothy 3:16? That all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Of course, what Paul had in mind when referring to the word “Scripture” is debatable (particularly if the gospels weren’t yet in existence). And of course we could talk for a long time about the many different ways that we humans might be “trained in righteousness.” Surely among these ways might be through seeing our own lives narrated in the characters of the stories Jesus told. At least I hope so.

        (Unless you were referring to FIRST Timothy 3:16. In that case, I would say that I make of it that Jesus “appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, and was taken up in glory.”)

        I don’t really see how coming to identify with different characters of a biblical story at different points of our own journeys would or could be falling victim to “enculturation.” When I was a younger, much stupider man, I identified more strongly with the younger son. At other points, my story was told more accurately by the older son. Now that I am a father with children of my own, I inhabit the story differently. In my view, that’s one of the most marvellous aspects of this story. It tells the truth of who I am in different ways at different points of my life (as I imagine it does for others as well).

        Thank you for your kind words. His peace be with you, as well.

        June 1, 2016
  3. Owen #

    Brilliant ryan

    May 30, 2016
    • Thank you kindly, Owen.

      May 31, 2016
    • Paul Johnston #

      I thought I had written, Timothy 2 :)….of course that was the Scripture I was referencing given it’s relevance to your initial response to me.

      Be careful with exegesis that is firstly an intellectual discernment; that posits a potential multiplicity of meanings…”‘what Paul had in mind”… It trends towards criticisms, sometimes of the Saints and almost certainly of other exegets.

      Historically this type of discernment has been the means by which the church has been divided. It is the rabbit hole of self and corporate interest the Father does not wish us to go down.

      The Father does not command the intellect. We do. We are given free will. The Father urges us to convene with him through the Spirit. This free gift of Spirit allows the humble person to intuit the Fathers will for them. To find joy and serenity in simplicity of understanding.

      Ponder what faith means, just ponder the word. What love means, what honesty, integrity, generosity…. every good quality you can imagine….ponder what they mean to you. What you hope they mean. Ask yourself if you are living out your hope consistently. Ask the Father if you are. The Father is only there to help you if you are not. 🙂

      It is not the time for judgement. It is a time for gifts of enlightenment and mercy. These gifts do not require a force of intellect on our part. They only require faith and relationship.

      Scripture is a means to an end. It is only useful insofar as it draws us to relationship with the Trinity. The gift of the Son was the Spirit. Nothing else.

      Ponder and reflect. Commune with the Most Holy Trinity and allow the Father’s wisdom to animate your understanding and then your choices.

      June 2, 2016
      • I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re driving at in this conversation, Paul. Are you saying that my reading of this story is “the rabbit hole of self and corporate interest the Father does not wish us to go down?” That my reflections represent an “intellectual discernment?” (leaving aside, for a moment, your apparent assumption that this is a negative thing… that we could ever avoid using our minds in how we read Scripture). I’m simply struggling to understand your resistance to this.

        You seem to often posit “faith” and “relationship” as somehow in opposition to “intellect.” I simply do not agree with this. Everything I wrote in this post and nearly everything I write on this blog is borne out of a simple desire to do what Christ commands: to love God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind.

        June 2, 2016
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Encouragement, Ryan. I seek to encourage you. 🙂

    One does not reason himself to God or even Godly understandings….” for who can know the mind of God”….

    Thankfully the truth is much simpler. Faith and relationship are all that are required. I am certain it is true that intellect is a product of human endeavor and thought. Enlightenment is a gift from God most high, a free grace to those whom He loves.

    Intellect teaches only about the substance of things. Enlightenment teaches the purpose of things. Intellect is for facts. Enlightenment is for truth.

    Intellect without enlightenment is the foundation of all sin.

    I don’t suggest an either/proposition; relationship vs. reason, rather I tell you what I know. First comes faith, tested and found true. Then comes relationship, leading to love, tested and found true. Then comes enlightenment. True wisdom, true understanding, freely given.

    Is my faith tested and true? Not yet. Is yours? Is my love relationship with the Lord, tested and true? Not yet. Is yours? Am I enlightened as to the truth of Scripture and righteous living? Not yet. Are you?

    The Saints gave us sacred Scripture as truth because their faith in, and love relationship with the Lord, was unshakable. tested and true.

    Do you know of any church today whose faith is unshakable? Who live lives in full conformity to the Word of God? I do not?

    We have had the Bible for a long, long time. Sadly we lost the truth of the Bible almost as long ago.

    June 6, 2016
    • Thanks for your encouragement 🙂

      Is my faith tested and true? Not yet. Is yours? Is my love relationship with the Lord, tested and true? Not yet. Is yours? Am I enlightened as to the truth of Scripture and righteous living? Not yet. Are you?

      Not yet, of course, to each one. Just like every other human being throughout history, save Jesus Christ. This is among the reasons I am grateful for stories like the one that is the subject of this post.

      June 6, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ha ha I gotta love you sometimes, man. You’re a “pit bull on my ankle”, don’t let go, kinda guy….sometimes….sometimes me too!! :)….

        Readers digest condensed version,….. the idea of the two sons only matters insofar as we understand that similar behaviors require repentance and a return to the Father! That’s it, that is all!!! Don’t dwell on it, man.

        Confess, be absolved. Receive mercy in abundance. We sin and repeatedly so because we think we know ourselves but we don’t!

        Only the Father knows us. Only through relationship with the Father can we know ourselves…can we stop sinning…..can we participate in His shalom.

        The Father is here, now, in the person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is here, now, also in the person of the Holy Spirit.

        The kingdom is here, now, if we want it.

        We simply have to start by taking our gaze and attention off ourselves and one another and fix them on the Father. 🙂

        June 6, 2016
      • Readers digest condensed version,….. the idea of the two sons only matters insofar as we understand that similar behaviors require repentance and a return to the Father! That’s it, that is all!!! Don’t dwell on it, man.

        Again, sure. But it probably bears pointing out that the only reason I’m “dwelling” on anything is because you have seemed to be arguing throughout this thread that all of this somehow offers a corrective to the themes of the post. I don’t see how or why this is the case.

        The story of the lost son tells us the truth about God and the truth about ourselves, both of which are vital and necessary. That’s it, that is all!!! Don’t dwell on it, man. 😉

        June 7, 2016
      • One more thing… It occurs to met that perhaps one of the reasons you’re reacting this way to this piece is because I don’t name things as explicitly as you might expect or prefer. On this, I can only say what I have said before. I do not treat this blog as a pedagogical tool. I write to give expression to what I feel, what I notice, what moves and shakes me up, what speaks to me about God’s movement in the world and in and among human beings. I don’t feel like every piece I write has to explicitly cross every theological “t” or dot every “i.” I think my writing would be intolerably dull if that were the case. I write to invite people in, to provoke questions, to unsettle, to console, to give creative expression to what others might be going through… a whole bunch of things. But I don’t feel like I have to attach some kind of lesson at the end to justify it. I think good writing leaves things at least partially open-ended. The kind that appeals to me does, at any rate.

        Anyway, just trying to offer a bit more by way of context.

        June 7, 2016
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Oh, and as for your question, about what I’m “driving at” let me say again as I said at the beginning. Don’t encourage yourself or others to find, “themselves” in the stories of scripture. Find the Father.

    Until we find the Father, we do not know ourselves. The identities we subscribe to ourselves and to others are for the most part, the creation of mankind and demons.

    June 6, 2016
    • let me say again as I said at the beginning. Don’t encourage yourself or others to find, “themselves” in the stories of scripture. Find the Father.

      It’s remarkable to me that you seem to consider these mutually exclusive options.

      June 6, 2016
      • Paul Johnston #

        Ryan, c’mon brother! 🙂 I’m talking about right order not mutual exclusivity….and as for that order, it is quite remarkable indeed! 🙂 🙂 🙂

        June 6, 2016
      • Sure. I don’t think I expressed anything to the contrary in the post.

        June 7, 2016
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Ha ha, it is good for us to have some good natured fun with one another over a difference of opinion. I certainly appreciate this tone with you (and with others) over other possible outcomes.

    Last two observations from me….I think lol….My disagreement with the original post distills down to this….the story of the “Prodigal” tells the truth about the Father, hence my encouragement that we seek, The Father”. It does not ( this is where I disagree) tell the truth about us. It tells us about the lies we sustain. Do not dwell on lies, other then to repent of them. Repent and seek the truth.

    Seek then the Father.

    Through relationship with the Father, through the Son mediated by Holy Spirit we will then and only then, come to know the truth about ourselves. It is the work of Satan that we remain preoccupied with self analysis and understandings of others that haven’t been revealed through the Most Holy Trinity.

    Further, any person who examines the Word and Sacred Traditions and claims a teaching authority based on the quality and character of their studies, must be questioned further. If they refuse to acknowledge that it was only through divine revelation (relationship with the Father) that they came to know the truth, however compelling their arguments may be, they are to be rejected. They are false prophets.

    No human being can know the truth apart from it being revealed to them through Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

    June 7, 2016
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Fisherman using the infinite power of God help bring salvation to the world. Academics using a very finite power of their own understanding, nailed Him to a cross….apparently I wasn’t done yet lol

    June 7, 2016
  8. Paul Johnston #

    Just read, for the first time, your observations about what interests you as a writer….”open endedness”….certainly the predisposition of what passes for culturally relevant and important literature the past 60 years or so….not much of an apostolic exhortation…These individual prerogatives as poignant as many of them are, bare much spoiled fruit to me. Self centeredness leading to self pity, tribes of self pitiers’, enmity towards people unsympathetic to the pity parties…abandoning traditions/abandoning faith…agnosticism, atheism, relativism….lots of good stuff there….

    The Word seems pretty binary to me. Faith or personal prerogative. God or self. Good or evil. Life or death. Yes or no….

    Youth is intoxicated with itself, the good news is most of us live long enough to sober up. In the mean time, not to worry. God keeps me here to keep you in line! 🙂

    June 8, 2016
  9. Paul Johnston #

    People don’t need another worldly writer and more ambivalence. They need prophets speaking the truth.

    June 8, 2016
    • Well, Paul, as I’ve said before, if you find the writing around here too “worldly,” I can do little but bless you on your way to more prophetic pastures.

      June 8, 2016
  10. Paul Johnston #

    lol….I share in your exasperation but the truth is we need each other. 🙂

    June 8, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: