Daniel was always special. There was something about him. From the moment he was born, his mom knew that this boy was different from her other three children. There was nothing visible at first, just that he loved to be held and rarely cried except when he was alone in the crib and wanted to be held.
Daniel was very smart and artistic. He read early, drew with great insight and creativity, but his artwork was never complete and often his mother would take a drawing away from him before he could ruin it by erasing his brilliance and thinking it wasn’t good enough. He loved to laugh and loved all animals, especially the birds. And he sang. He loved to sing. It drove his brothers mad, how he would sing in the mornings.
Daniel never did really fit in in high school. But who does? He made some lifelong friends, other nerds who stuck it out with him. He went from high school to art school. He was on his way to becoming a painter - a gifted painter - if only he would leave his paintings alone, but he always saw the one flaw, the one thing he could have done differently, and he would ruin something beautiful in an effort to quiet his self-criticism.
After art school, he surprisingly chose to return to his high school to teach. And he was so good at it. His mother was proud. But his depressions worsened. He came out of the closet and found a wonderful partner in Sam, but even Sam couldn’t lift his spirits. He quit his job and continued to paint. His mom and dad funded his apartment and his meager groceries, not wanting to see him homeless. And he sank further into depression, further away from them.
“Won’t you tell me what is wrong, honey?” his mother would ask. “I can’t, Mom. I can’t. It’s like there is this dark hole and I am being sucked down and down, further and further from you. I can’t see the light anymore, only in glimpses, sometimes, when I am painting. Only then and now not so often… I can’t find the light, Mom.”
She didn’t know what to do when he said these things. They tried doctors, psychiatrists, residential treatment. Nothing stuck. Nothing seemed to work.
She came over one afternoon to bring some of his favorite meatloaf. There was a sign on the door to his studio: “Mom, don’t come in here. Just call 911.” And so she did. And they found him. Daniel had hung himself beside his art. He was gone.
What do you do when the mother calls your church and asks if Daniel can be buried there? If Daniel could ever be admitted into heaven after what he has done? What do you say?
I have always thought that the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” ought to be renamed. I would not call it “The Prodigal Son.” I would call it - if it was my job to give it a title, which it is not - I would call it “The Running Father.”
“The Running Father.”
You see, in this story that Jesus tells us, it is about a young man, the son of someone, who wanders far away. He does everything wrong. He takes his inheritance and spends it all needlessly, until there is nothing left and he is alone, caring for pigs, the lowest form of work for a Jew of Jesus’ day. And he realizes that his life with his father was so much better than the life he has neglected for so long here. And so, he tries to come back.
And there is this beautiful scene. The father sees the son from far away, and the father starts to run. He runs and runs to the son, not caring where he has been, not caring what he has done. All that the father cares about is that the son is coming home. The son is returning. Whatever happened, whatever occurred in the past to drive him this way is no longer important, it is no longer worth mentioning at all. All that matters is that the son turns and heads home. And the father runs to him and throws a big party. All that matters is that the son returns.
Sometimes people wander so far away from God that they forget how precious they are. Sometimes people wander so far away from God that they do reprehensible things, like taking their own lives or even those of others. But from the moment they try to return home, the father runs to them. Runs and runs, screaming and crying and singing and dancing and loving beyond love. All that matters is that the lost sheep, the child of God, is turning towards the one who made him.
Loren Eiseley was a famous biologist. He writes about searching in the Colorado Rockies for a rare breed of sparrow hawk. It was twilight, the sun was just setting, when he came upon an abandoned shack, a perfect place for the sparrow hawk and his mate to nest. Eiseley crept inside the cabin and, sure enough, he heard a rustle above the old bookshelf next to the window. Eiseley pulled up an old chair, got out his trusty flashlight, and began to slowly stand on the chair. When he had risen to his full height, Eiseley shined the flashlight on the birds with one hand and, with the other hand, he reached out and gabbed the male. But the female jumped on his hand and began to peck furiously, drawing blood. Eiseley released the male and he flew out the window. Eiseley then, bloody hands and all, succeeded in capturing the female. He placed her in a small black box that he had made; it had holes in it for air, with just enough room for her but not enough room for her to hurt herself. He took his prize back to the camp.
That night, Eiseley couldn’t sleep. Against his better judgement, early in the wee hours of the morning, he got up and took that small box to the field near his campsite. He took out the bird and lay it down on the grass. The female just lay there, as though she were dead, not believing that she was free. She lay there, and then at once she shot up into the air.
At that moment, Eiseley heard a scream the likes of which he will never forget. Circling high above, the male, who must have been circling all night, came hurtling down to meet his mate, screaming in the sky. They met in a dance of beauty and flight.
God loves you. No matter how far away you wander, no matter what you do, no matter how much despair seems to take over your life, God loves you.
God waits for you, circling high above as you make the choices in your life, and when one day you are released from the prison of sin and self-criticism and whatever else it is that binds you, the Father will come hurtling down from the sky to meet you, running all out, with tears streaming down his face. For you were lost and you have come home.
Yes, I said to the mother. Yes, we will bury your son, for God is finding him even now. God runs to him with tears of love and joy. And he will find his way home.