So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him;
he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The young man in this story is returning home. He is desperate. He is homeless. He is starving. He has blown all his inheritance and made a mess of his life. He is practicing a prayer of sorts. It goes something like this: “I know I am no good. I know you don’t want to see me or have anything to do with me. But I am homeless and starving. I was hoping to beg you to let me be a servant, just to have a bed and some food, that’s all.”
When we get up and go to God, our true Father, we often do so with the same mind set as the young man in this story that Jesus told. Many of us, in the dark corners of our hearts and minds, carry this kind of fear with us as we approach God. We are anxious, insecure and troubled when we go to God. We expect disapproval, disappointment, rejection from God.
What is so difficult for us to comprehend is the God that Jesus described in this and many other stories. It is difficult to fully grasp the reality of this God.
What we do not know is that long before we started to try to formulate some kind of prayer, God had been loving us, longing for us, calling us home, waiting for us, eager to welcome us, seeing us as a priceless treasure, knowing us each as God’s own beloved child.
All prayer begins with this One. All prayer begins with the God who waits for us, the God whose arms ache to hold us, the God whose heart is tender with love for us. This is the God who runs to us and embraces us while we are still practicing our speech of a prayer, trying to get it right even as we, in our great shame and fear, get it all wrong.
Jesus’ story of the God-who-runs-to-us-and-embraces-us was addressed to a mixed audience. There were both “tax collectors and sinners” and “pharisees and teachers of the law”. Both groups no doubt included people who sincerely believed that it was their religious obligation to “get things right” so that God’s favor would be secured. And, both groups probably included people who had despaired of ever being good enough to please God.
In telling this story Jesus was speaking the truth of God’s unfailing love directly to the hearts of both groups. They may have grown up with biological or spiritual fathers who filled them with fear about God and with shame about themselves. “But,” Jesus said, “let me give you a picture of your true Father. God, your Father, is not what you fear God to be. God is a Father who runs to embrace you. God sees you a long way off, and with a heart full of joy, God runs to you, moving with great speed to wrap arms of love around you.”
This image was even more stunning to Jesus’ audience at the time than it is to us because well-to-do men of that time did not run. Only servants ran. This God, whom Jesus longs for us to know, is a Servant Father. And this Servant Father is demonstratively emotional and affectionate toward us. This is a Father who is openly, unashamedly crazy in love with us.
Prayer begins with God who sees us with compassion and runs to embrace us.
I come to you with
all kinds of fears
I am convinced that you must be disappointed in me.
I fear you will reject me.
But you surprise me.
You shock me.
You almost knock me over
with your exuberance.
You run to me, God.
You throw your arms around me.
You kiss me.
You call me your own.
You tell me that you have been calling me,
longing for me, waiting eagerly for me.
before I ever had a thought about You.
Help me to receive you, God.
You who have run to embrace me.
May I rest in your embrace.
Sit quietly for a few moments.
Take some easy, deep breaths, allowing your heart and mind to become quiet.
See yourself on a path. You are lost. You are uncertain.
You long to know God as your true Father, but you anticipate disappointment and rejection.
You look down the road and see someone running toward you.
This One is moving fast. You realize to your shock that this One who runs toward you with joy is God.
God’s arms are stretched out toward you. God calls your name. You see joy on God’s face.
You hear God say “my child” to you. God is in front of you now, embracing you, kissing your cheek.
Let God hold you. Take some time to tell God anything you want to say. Listen as God speaks love to you.