Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stumbling into a River of Grace

There is a line in one of my all-time favorite movies, "A River Runs Through It," that sums up so much of the peculiar ambivalence about grace that I have felt all of my life. 

Norman MacLean is talking about his father, a Presbyterian minister who has an ardent love of fly fishing.  "My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy." MacLean goes on to say that if it were up to his father, no one who fished the wrong way would ever be allowed to disgrace a trout by catching one.

Photo Credit: Mark Grace
I’ve been stuck on that statement for years, trying to think it through.  Some days I cannot see an ounce of grace in that philosophy.  All I see is the older brother complaining about the prodigal son getting off scot free.  The prodigal certainly didn’t go about catching his fish in the right way.  

He stumbled out of a good home with a generous parent, then  hit the road to drunk and disorderly, and finally came crawling back a filthy disgrace.   Didn’t seem to matter.  His father gave him the ring and a feast all the same.

Meanwhile his older brother did everything right.  He worked his heart out to get it right.  To use MacLean’s metaphor, he learned to fish the right way.  In the end, however,  it seems his brother was the one who caught the fish.  That sloppy ne’er do well tripped all over himself and lucked into the biggest catch of a lifetime while his faithful brother had nothing to show for all of his hard work.

Most of my life I’ve stood firmly in support of the older brother in this story, and by extension of Norman MacLean’s father’s take on grace.  Grace should come to those who have mastered the artist’s craft.  The individuals who have put in the time and effort are precisely those who should catch grace

Over the last decade or so, however, things have changed for me.  Passing through agonizing darkness, I confronted my own carefully ignored prodigal failures and found myself sitting at Jesus’ feet in the long hour before dawn, asking him what a braggart who always thought he was the one who got it right but finally realized he had it just about as wrong as it could be gotten would have to do to find peace of mind.

He smiled and said quietly, “You must be born again.”

I hope I haven’t lost you by this point, because I have covered a lot of ground- a movie, a parable ,painful self-disclosure and Jesus talking to Nicodemus.  A lot to take in . . .

I want to pause for a moment and say to you, “Stay with me.  Just a  few more words and I believe I can show you the beauty I found.”

You see, many trout will be caught by hard work and expertise, but now and then some fool will luck into a trophy catch.  And prodigals will have their parties and their fattened calves, as they should have. But then prodigals must wake up on the morning after the big party and learn how to be responsible, hardworking sons of their heavenly father.  

THAT is the real reward. That is why the prodigal was given the ring, after all, as a sign that he had come back to those who really loved him and responsibilities that could finally satisfy him, not just a lucky reward.

I can imagine the older brother waking up after a night of sulking, hung over from an overdose of bitterness and realizing that not one moment of the time he spent working shoulder to shoulder with his father was wasted.

I can see him laying in bed just a little longer on the morning after the feast, remembering the days he basked in the wisdom and love of his father’s presence.  When he gets up to go to work, he may pass his younger brother’s bedroom, the one who is a prodigal no more, and think to himself, “I am so glad I stayed.  I could see the anguish in my brother’s eyes last night.  It will be a long time before he can accept the love that has been offered him. He'll need someone to remind him that it is his to receive.”

Now the prodigal stirs, and stumbles out of bed.  It is his first day back home and he is determined to make good on this second chance.  The obligations from which he fled so long ago no longer appear as chains holding him back.  They have become the new life he was always seeking.

In the end, both the prodigal and his older brother get what they need.   Life in the presence of their father.  

May it be so with you.


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