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Lost Sons and Elder Brothers—The Call to Come Home
What if the angry elder brother met the returning prodigal, not the father? Prodigals returning from sexual brokenness too often encounter heartbreak in the Church.


When I was a young teen, I listened to a lot of Keith Green music. One of the songs that touched me so deeply—was the 12 minute Prodigal Son Suite. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you may well have your own story of how this parable Jesus told of the prodigal son has particularly and specifically impacted your life.

Hurry to cover their shame with their rightful identity.

In the Keith Green song there is a part near the end where the music swells and the father sings, "Bring the best robe—put it on my son. Shoes for his feet—hurry put them on. This is my son who I thought had died—prepare a feast for my son's alive! There was something in the urgency in the father's voice that ministered to my spirit. God has so much invested in the lost coming home. He doesn't want to waste a moment letting the lost son know that his return has been anticipated, longed for and is now celebrated with complete abandon.

We live in a place and in a time where the release of the Father's love has renewed and revived the Church. We live in a day when this release of love is healing the Church and is bringing in the harvest. At New Direction, we see, on a day-to-day basis, how crucial it is for broken men and women to connect to the Father's love. It is this love that empowers them to make changes in their life. It is this love that sustains and carries them in times of temptation, disappointment, loneliness and weariness. And God the Father is lavish in His love!

Don Postma, in his book, Space for God, highlights the significance of the father in the parable running down the road to meet his son. The father saw his son in the distance—and did not wait for him to make his way to him—he threw his dignity to the wind, hauled up his robes and ran to meet him.

Our identity in the Father

These images of the Father's love—this self-giving, passionate, seeking out of the lost has given many a rebellious child the courage to break through the same to come home—just as they are. The father runs to embrace them—covered with pig slop though they are. The father says, "Hurry—put the best robe on them—shoes for their feet—hurry put them on." Hurry to cover their shame with their rightful identity. He doesn't parade them before the rest of the family, before the servants, before the village—saying "See what happens when you turn your back on your father … . Let this be a lesson to you all." He doesn't want to leave his son one minute longer than necessary in the filth and mess. His heart is to restore his child's rightful identity—that of beloved son. The son doesn't even really have a moment to prove that he has changed, to prove that he has learned his lesson, to prove that he will now honour and respect his father. The child's identity is not dependent on any of these things. His identity as a child of his father is not dependent on who he is. It is dependent on who his father is.

This is the passion which undergirds our work in the ministry of New Direction. We have, through our own brokenness and healing, come to know a Father who seeks out the lost, who longs to cover our shame with His inheritance to us. We have come to know a Father who restores, who reconciles and who redeems. And we are convinced that this Father is calling men and women who struggle with homosexuality to come home. Indeed, as God increasingly opens doors for us to speak to the Church, we share a vision of the Father running down the road to meet His child who struggles with same-sex attraction. We share a vision of God covering their shame with their rightful identity as the beloved child of God. And we share a vision of the Church extending such a passionate, uninhibited welcome to those who struggle with sexual brokenness.

The elder son

But as you look at the story, you realize that Jesus doesn't tell a story of just one son. He tells a story of two sons. The elder son, the one who had been faithful to the father, cannot bring himself to celebrate the return of his brother. Some of you may be familiar with a little Henri Nouwen book called, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming. In the book Nouwen shares his journey with Rembrandt's painting of this parable. In the beginning, Nouwen saw himself as the lost son. He quieted his soul, waited, and healed in the loving embrace of the Father. We all need to know that we are lost without the Father. We all need to know that we are welcomed home. We all need to receive the unconditional embrace of the Father.

But Henri was caught by surprise one day as he explained to his friend how strongly he had been able to identify with the younger son and his friend looked at him intently and said, "I wonder if you are not more like the elder son." He had to chew on this for a while—but in the book he responds to this by saying, "For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and home-bound. But, with all of that, I may, in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullen-ness, and, most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling were ridden with resentment. I had been working very hard on my father's farm, but had never fully tasted the joy of being at home. Instead of being grateful for all the privileges I had received, I had become a very resentful person: jealous of my younger brothers and sisters who had taken so many risks and were so warmly welcomed back."

He calls us to walk alongside those who are in the process of receiving God's healing …

Time and again in the past year, I have felt God's leading to call the Church to more than just welcoming home those who struggle with homosexuality. I am convinced that God wants more of us than just a willingness to "minister to those poor homosexual people." God longs for us to reach the lost, He calls us to walk alongside those who are in the process of receiving God's healing, but He also calls us to equip these saints for ministry and then to step back so that they can be released to minister in our midst. It is one thing to have a compassionate heart to welcome home the lost. But when we are called to humble ourselves and let the prodigals teach us and lead us, perhaps even leaving us in the background, we usually run smack-dab into the elder brother syndrome. Granted, we tend to keep the elder brother within us well hidden. But there are subtle ways that we express the same traits Henri Nouwen so transparently described.

God's heart for both sons

God wants to redeem and restore both his sons. God wants his Church to face the hidden resentments and jealousies, the subtle self-righteousness so that we won't stand in the way of His prodigals taking their rightful place in the Body of Christ. One of the most significant indications to me that God is moving through the New Directions ministry has come in the fall conference series. Men and women who struggle with same-sex attraction have openly identified their struggle and have spoken insightful, truthful, challenging words to the Church. We are in a new day! Walls of shame and exclusion are coming down! God is raising up ordinary men and women with this struggle to speak truth to the Church. The question is, will we humble ourselves so that we can hear them and receive the word they have for us. I believe with all my heart that God wants to release their voices in His Body. But the lost son taking his rightful place can be pretty hard for the elder brother to take.

I was challenged to discover what seemed to be an unlikely parallel to the parable of the prodigal. I had been in a place of weariness. The challenges of working in this ministry, of having people disagree with you, misinterpret, misunderstand, and mistrust you were weighing heavily on me. Fear was creeping in and bringing discouragement with it. I came to a church meeting and heard about the Joseph call on this generation. It was a call for Christians to steward resources in the world for the purposes of God's kingdom And two things came out of that night. The Lord said, "Tell my people that I am jealous for them." That is, the Lord is jealous for His children who are caught and trapped in the gay community. He is jealous for their hearts and jealous for their gifts, their creativity, and their beauty … . He is jealous for them because His Body is not complete without their presence. They are needed in His Body. That was the first thing.

Joseph and his brothers

But the second thing was that I went home and began to look more closely at the story of Joseph. And as I looked at the narrative in Genesis—these verses leaped out at me, "So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him (see Genesis 37). And then, "So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing—and they took him and threw him into the cistern." "So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt."

And it struck me like a ton of bricks that the story of Joseph and his elder brothers illustrates what would have happened to the prodigal if the elder brother had been in charge.

Notice the contrast in the stories:

• The father saw the son in the distance—and ran to meet him not caring about his own dignity. The elder brothers saw the beloved son in the distance—and plotted to kill him.

• The father said, "Hurry—bring the best robe and put it on my son." The elder brothers stripped the son of the beautiful robe he was wearing.

• The father welcomed the son to take his place in his home. The elder brothers sold the son into slavery in Egypt.

How many same-gender attracted children have received the welcome of the Father? And how many have been banished by the elder brothers? How many have had the Father's identity cover their shame? And how many have been stripped of any sense of connection to the Father and sent to the pit of Egypt?

What the Church must do

Friends, as the Church faces the complexities of relating to homosexual people, I believe we need to submit ourselves to a three-step process.

We need to be broken with an awareness of … our unwillingness to join in the celebration for the one who has come home.

First of all, we need to recognize that we are the lost son. We must come to a place of desperately needing the embrace of the Father, desperately needing His identity to cover our shame, desperately needing to be welcomed home. Unless we see ourselves as the lost son in a place of desperate dependence, we cannot tryly welcome other lost sons home.

Secondly, we need to recognize that we are the elder brother. We need to be broken with an awareness of our self-righteousness, our resentment, our unwillingness to join in the celebration for the one who has come home. We need to return to a place of humble gratitude that can welcome and include without reservation.

And finally, we need to recognize that we are called to be the father of the parable. We are called to lose our dignity and run down the road to meet our brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction. We are to persevere with outstretched arms—waiting to embrace them. We are to extend blessing and celebrate as they take their rightful place as the beloved son. And we are to support, help and encourage them as they take up the role of father in our midst. Might we be willing to humble ourselves and allow them to welcome us home too.

Wendy Gritter is the executive director of New Direction for Life, http://www.newdirection.ca/. She delivered this message at the December Celebration Evening for New Direction for Life in Toronto.

Originally published in Pathway, January/February 2004.

 

 
 
 
 

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