Deacon-Vicar, Christ Church, Deposit
Growing up in the South in Bible churches and a strict public school, "the rules" were constantly kept before my attention, by parents, preachers, Sunday School teachers and the teachers and principal of my school. My school had a motto (which was clearly not authored by any members of the student body) that went something like this: "We do as we please, because we please to do right." I can still hear the assistant principal, a dignified lady of the Old South if there ever was one, reciting this motto with her nose pointed heavenward. My problem was that I did not always please to do right. Like one boy famously said, I usually saw temptation coming, but almost always it saw me first. I knew I had done many, many things that God was not pleased with and as my mother was wont to remind me, "Be sure your sins will find you out." I feared that one day they would.
I felt that God was angry with me on a fairly constant basis. Like some of the coaches at my high school, he was always looking for an opportunity to whack me for some infraction. And no doubt, this delighted his soul.
In my early twenties I met and listened to a dynamic missionary who was fresh from Beirut, Lebanon. His name was Bob Hoskins. In a question and answer time at a missions seminar in our Assemblies of God church, I asked Rev. Hoskins if living in the Middle East had given him any new insights into the Bible. As a young man beginning to feel a call to ministry, I had been learning about the importance of studying the culture of the ancient near east in order to better understand the message of Scripture.
His answer soon blossomed into a sermon on the parable of the prodigal son. He explained that most Americans had little understanding of this story because they did not understand the social customs of the day. The son had dishonored his father before their whole village by demanding his inheritance and squandering it as he did. Upon his return, he could expect a less than friendly welcome not only from his family, but the entire village. He could possibly even be the victim of violence at their hands.
The father, however, had mercy on this wayward son, and when he saw him "a great way off," ran to meet him so that he might escort him into the village, demonstrating to all that he was completely forgiven and restored. Rev. Hoskins further explained that in order to run, the father would have to lift up the flowing robes of his garments, thereby exposing and shaming himself in front of the whole village, something that would have been unthinkable for a patriarch such as he. But this is exactly what God did in becoming man, dishonoring himself to be born into the human race - and to a peasant girl, no less - and finally being shamefully executed on a Roman cross. All because of his unconditional love for ungrateful sinners.
The implications of this insight overwhelmed me emotionally, and as a young man I began to weep uncontrollably in front of all those assembled, mostly young people my own age. This was something of a watershed experience for me spiritually, when I for the first time realized that God loved me completely without reservation in spite of the fact that I had failed so miserably to obey the rules.
That was about 35 years ago. Just two years ago, I attended the Bible symposium at All Saints Cathedral in Albany where Dr. Kenneth Bailey was speaking. I had enjoyed some of his writings, especially on the prodigal son and had been struck by the similarity between his teaching and what I had heard at that missions seminar so many years ago. Dr. Bailey had also ministered in Beirut, spending forty years living and teaching in that city, as well as places like Egypt, Jerusalem and Cyprus.
During a break, I told him what I had heard as a young man from one who, like himself, had lived in Lebanon. He asked me the missionary's name. When I told him it was Bob Hoskins, to my surprise he said, "I taught him." Here after all these years, on a Saturday at the Cathedral, I came full circle and learned of this remarkable connection between these two men whom God had used so powerfully to touch my life.
To learn as I did that day in Memphis from Missionary Hoskins that God's heart was toward me with tender compassion, in spite of my offenses against him, was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Not that there were no struggles after that time, but I always knew that God's love for me did not in any way depend on my performance, but on his own infinitely loving and gracious nature.
If God is able to use my life and ministry in any significant way, I hope that it will involve sharing with others this unconditional love and the fact that God changes us from the inside out and not through external threats of punishment.
Everybody knows John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." To me, the verse following is equally precious. "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved."
Thank God that there is no condemnation to those in Christ - to those who through simple faith cast themselves upon him and find in Jesus the fullness of God's everlasting love.
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