AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
A 3-Minute Read
by Luke Boggs
Joy. That’s the first thing that came to mind when I found my seat at Sunday’s gathering and looked up to see the youth band.
I wish I could say I made a more enthusiastic joyful noise in response, particularly from my vantage point on the front row, but I didn’t. Instead, I mostly watched the faces around me and up front. Soaking it all in and reflecting.
The joy on David Darnell’s face was impossible to miss—real and honest and open—as he smiled and sang and played the guitar, urging on his young bandmates and the rest of us.
Joy belongs in church, perhaps more than any other place, given the good news that’s ours to share and celebrate.
But I wonder if there isn’t a bit of a joy deficit at times in the modern American church. Or maybe it’s just me.
The Parish is a church that regularly “sparks joy” in me, to borrow from decluttering guru Marie Kondo. (Love the phrase, if not her broader message, which goes against my overwhelming natural inclination to save stuff.)
During the week, I think about our church at times, and I’m grateful. On Sunday morning, I look forward to showing up and taking part.
That’s not always been my default Sunday setting, and I’m not sure why. At times, I suppose church has made me feel more guilty and less deserving of God’s redeeming love.
Honestly, I tend to struggle with a persistent sense of inadequacy when it comes to pleasing God and measuring up to some standard of doing or trying to do the right things.
As an intellectual matter, I know that God, through Christ, has done the work—all the work—we could never do ourselves in cleansing us and imparting his righteousness to us. Grasping this in the heart, as an everyday matter, is trickier, at least for me.
Perhaps it would help to keep the story of the prodigal son’s father top of mind.
It is quite the story, this tale Jesus used to illustrate the kind of love God has for us.
The younger son is not what we would call a good person. He’s brash and foolish, demanding his inheritance. He proceeds to squander the money on wild living, chasing fulfillment in pleasure and partying. Soon enough, he ends up broke and broken, tending pigs and savoring over the slop.
Hungry, alone and desperate, at just about the lowest ebb possible, the son has a thought. Maybe he could return home and work as a servant in his father’s house.
The son doesn’t make it home before his father rushes out to greet him: “When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
And the father doesn’t stop there. He puts a fine robe on the prodigal son’s shoulders and a gold ring on his finger. And he orders up a big feast to celebrate.
It is a joyous reunion for father and son, for everyone in the household. Except for the older brother, who wants to spoil the moment—and more—by recounting his brother’s recent history of sordid and assorted misdeeds.
The father wants no part of this. He isn’t interested in dwelling on the prodigal son’s lengthy laundry list of willful mistakes.
This, of course, is very good news. Not only for the story’s wayward son but all of history’s wayward souls.
It is a compelling and reassuring moment, when the father rushes to embrace his son and claim him as his own with the robe and the ring. One well worth remembering in times of lingering doubt about where we stand with God.
On Tuesday, I went to Marietta for the funeral of Claudia Adams, the mother and mother-in-law of dear friends of many years.
I didn’t spend a ton of time with Claudia. But, over the past quarter century, I was fortunate enough to share her company at parties, weddings, concerts and other festive gatherings. She brimmed with joy—beamed with joy—and her joy was irrepressible and infectious.
Claudia never met a stranger and greeted friends with enthusiasm. She loved to host and take care of people, in planned and unplanned moments. As her daughter explained, she treated the exterminator like an honored guest.
Her three adult children eulogized her beautifully, with grace, candor and humor. The love she showered on them (and her friends, relatives, guests and pest control professionals) reflected her love of God through Christ—and his love of her.
She also knew where she stood with God. Many years ago, the family joined a new church. After the service, a line of members greeted the newcomers. “We’re so glad you’re here,” said one tired-looking woman, taking Claudia’s hand. “It’s a lot of work!”
Without missing a beat, Claudia replied with a smile, “Not me, sister! I did all my Christian work before I got saved.”
Fittingly, there was joy and fellowship and revelry in Claudia’s service. Quite a few people declined to wear black or other dark tones, in what seemed like an uncoordinated agreement that she would’ve preferred some color—and summer seersucker.
The funeral’s first hymn was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which includes the lines:
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger
Interposed his precious blood.
This made me think back to Sunday and another way Jesus illustrated God’s love and pursuit of us: as a shepherd who would leave a flock of 99 to find and rescue the one who had strayed.
At the end of the funeral, we sang “Blessed Assurance,” which begins:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
The story of the prodigal son’s father is pure joy and blessed assurance to those striving and sometimes struggling to follow the way of Jesus on this side of heaven. On the other side, for Claudia and all those beloved of God through the ages, there is glory divine and joy everlasting.
Here in this life, we can get a taste of the not yet when we begin to wrap our hearts around God’s reckless, redeeming love for us. May our hearts have eyes to see the Father’s open arms and accept the ring and robe—and restoration—he offers his rebel children.