Led by Light

I occasionally ride past several farmhouses clustered together in a way that speaks of a large family of sons, some time in the past. They are surrounded by junk. These brothers not only have great grandpa's old mouldboard plough and grandpa's header; they go to clearing sales and buy junk. Many tons of it; acres worth of rubbish. The scene contrasts with the neatness of my childhood farm, and I find it so offensive that it is clear it is triggering some deep and distressing self-disgust. Recently, far into an all-night ride, I recognised the shape of a corner and the silhouette of a hill in the moonlight. Those farms.

There has been a change since my last visit.

Two of the brothers have discovered led lights. I don't mean a few little strings from Cheap as Chips or the over-the-top garish festooning of houses we sometimes see at Christmas. The farmers' installations speak of serious design and a keen eye for aesthetics. Think of huge installations 40 or 50 metres long, needing carefully measured trellising, and computerised control systems. No mere blinking lights for these farmers, the displays changed shape and colour in a smooth, well thought out flow. They were exquisite constructions of shape-shifting beauty. The contrast with the daytime view was so great that I have been unsettled for days.  Many of the farms for the next 20 kilometres or so have also bought led lights. I've never seen so many twinkly lights along a country road! But these others were mere pinpricks in the night and served only to emphasise the grand vision of someone in the junk yard farms.

We humans are contradictory and complicated creatures. The night beauty of these farms, strewn with the wreckage and junk which colours our daytime selves, is true of us all. And God loves us, not despite the wreckage which litters our lives, but because of it. For the same acquisitive compulsion which collects old headers and broken-down trucks also builds beautiful led light creations. We are creatures on a journey to our end, displaying the glory of God.

Inevitably, I think of Luke's Parable of the Profligate Father, which has spent so much time in my thoughts in the last months[1]. In Chapter 15:11-32, the younger son wants his share of the family fortune now! Culturally, this was tantamount to wishing his father dead already, and would normally have received harsh discipline. The fact that he was able to leave for a far country with half the family fortune, rather than being the victim of an "honour killing," implies that the father intervened with the older brother and the uncles: "Don't you dare harm him! He's on the same journey as us all. He will come home." Where we are scandalised by the younger brother, Jesus' and Luke's audience were more likely appalled by the behaviour of the father; they knew about wayward younger brothers, and what to do with them.

Travelling "to a distant country" (εἰς χώραν μακράν) does not mean simply that the son went to a geographically distant place. It is code for idolatry. He went far from God.  This is emphasised by the "dissolute living" of verse 13, a euphemism which the older son bluntly refuses to use: My brother has "devoured your property with prostitutes." (v30) This implies more than the moral condemnation we are inclined to see. It recalls Israel's engaging with temple prostitutes, which the Old Testament used as a byword for idolatry. The idolatry is further emphasised by the son's dismissal of God's mercy toward him: When famine comes on the land, culturally a mercy and sign[2] that he has gone far from God and should repent, he not only goes to herd unclean pigs, but he "joined himself to a citizen of that country." This translation (KJV) shows us that there is much more happening than hiring himself. He is putting himself under the power of a Gentile, which should be unthinkable for a faithful Israelite. He is as far from God as he could get.

Then we see a revealing illustration of our contradictory human complexity. For the son "came to himself," (v17) but in Luke's subtle storytelling, his enlightenment is completely self-focussed.

But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.'"

I was always taught to read this text as an act of repentance by the younger son. But despite the show of piety, the focus is upon his hunger rather than any duty to his father. He decides he will use a show of repentance to avoid dying of hunger. We can see this is so in the next verse, although the NRSV translation unfortunately obscures it. The son had gone to a far country (χώραν μακράν) and now, as he returned, while still far off (μακρὰν ἀπέχοντος) (v20) the father saw him. Today, when we say someone "saw us coming," we mean they saw into our being and discerned how they might manipulate us. In the story, the Father[3] sees the son coming, knows what he is up to, and has compassion upon him anyway.

In his confused junk-filled and idolatry-addled way the son still sees that home with his father is where life is to be found. In the same way, his older brother, a man of such rectitude that he almost has a stick up his backside, has stayed home even while bitter that the father has "never given me even a young goat," forgetting, or not understanding, that everything that is the Father's is his. (v30-31) We all live somewhere between the two brothers, all of us loved by God.

Yet God does not love us in some forbearing manner, loving us despite our failings. God rejoices in us. God runs to meet us and embrace us, God "celebrates and rejoices," (vv32) just as the father embraced his still lost and junk-addled son. All of us.

In one of its potent distillations of the Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism[4] says our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. We all glorify God; that is, we all show the glory of God. Paul Tillich said all created matter is capable of revealing of God; that is, of being sacramental. It bears God's imprint by virtue of its creation.[5] The God-glorious led-light beauty of two brother's rubbish-ridden farms revealed God to me, healing one more small piece of my self-hatred. We all do this for people, even if we are unaware of it. It is in our nature, for we are all of us created in the image of God. And God rejoices in us.

We all do this? Even a Putin!? As judgement is given at the end of one of Charles Williams' novels—I can't find which one—one evil man is nonetheless spared final condemnation because his lust for power had been the nascent "led light" hint in all his darkness that something within him still reflected and longed for his Creator's glory. The other evil protagonist of the novel had wished only to destroy, and was condemned. Yet I think Williams is wrong here. How can God, if we are created in God's image, and if God is the ultimate power— how can God be thwarted by such a small thing as a Putin. Even in that sad man's demonic vision for a Holy Rus there is a small flicker of light. 

I take it that part of our calling as Christians is to hold this breathtaking vision in the moments we see it,  cherish it, and re-present it to our sisters and brothers during the times they have lost sight of it in all the darkness. For as Kevin Hart says about the last day, 

It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight[6].

Andrew Prior (2023)


[1] https://www.onemansweb.org/fathers-sons-sheep-and-goats.html

[2] For example:

In the story of the first Joseph, I quote, "there was famine in every country..." except Egypt[8]. By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, it was commonly understood that famine, disaster, and war, were what we might call "God's severe mercy."

(Let me emphasise that this is not the full story of how God works, but it's how people understood things at that time.)

When there was famine in Caanan, what Israel; that is, what Jacob and his sons should have done is ask, "What have we done wrong? How should we set things right?" Which would have been to own up to Dad that they had sold their brother, his beloved son, into slavery...
and for Jacob to admit to the sons that, yes, I have dishonoured you by my favouritism.

Is that what they did? No. They went down into Egypt. This is not merely a statement about a physical journey. It means they place themselves under the power of Empire rather than repenting and trusting the benevolence of God.

And it seemed to work so well.  But as is inevitable... it all fell apart. The book of Exodus says, "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph"[9] ... and Israel found herself in slavery and massacre. My colleague Kathy Donley says, "God’s people (or at least Joseph) took on the ways of empire until empire owned them." (Taken from Jesus Comes Out of Egypt.)

[3] The father in the story is symbolic of God, hence my capitalisation. Father is difficult for many of us as a symbol, but it was a live symbol for Jesus and Luke. In our situation the symbol may have died because our cultural experience is often very raw about the abusiveness of fathers. There is nothing left in the symbol for folk in this place; it becomes an abuse. It fails to "open up" the experience of God, so it dies. Tillich is instructive here:  Theology and Culture (OUP 1959) pp58-9 

[4] "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever."

[5] Tillich, Paul.  Ibid pp 53 -67, and the reflection at https://www.onemansweb.org/a-personal-postscript.html

[6] The Last Day

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