Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Box of Tissues

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been a sucker for movies that depict tension and reconciliation between fathers and sons. It’s a virtual guarantee—if I see an estranged father and son embrace on screen I’m going to cry. My son isn’t old enough yet for me to appreciate that relationship from the parental side, but I’m certainly old enough to have cause those emotional ripples from the child’s perspective. I don’t know if every father and son feel this, but I think it’s pretty ubiquitous (hence its popularity in film). As far as I can tell, sons want their fathers to love them and be proud of them, and fathers want their sons to look up to them and be proud of them. No wonder hard emotions so often plague that relationship.

In today’s lesson from the Old Testament (2 Samuel14:21-33), we read about the continuing saga between David and his son Absalom. Although we haven’t quite reached the emotional (and tragic) climax of the story, today’s reading is full of the same tension and emotional release that I enjoy experiencing in the cinema. Having been reminded by Joab, his servant, of his love for his son, David brought Absalom back into Jerusalem to live. This was a substantial gesture as the relationship between the two had grown quite cold. Absalom had killed another of David’s sons, avenging the honor of his sister. Three years had gone by, but David was moved by his love for his absent son, so he sent for him.

Yet David could not be in the presence of Absalom. The pain of their broken relationship was too much for David to bear. His pride and anger lingered. But Absalom grew tired of living down the street and not seeing his father. Not even David’s servant Joab would speak to him. Absalom did the only thing he could think of—he set Joab’s field on fire to get his attention. When Joab came to Absalom to ask about the fire, Absalom said, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still. Now therefore let me go into the presence of the king; and if there is guilt in me, let him kill me.”

It was a critical turning-point in their relationship. Absalom decided that he would rather be killed than live in the same town as his father without being allowed to see him. The pain of dwelling in one’s hometown without having contact with one’s family was too much. So he put all his cards out on the table. He was betting with all that he had—convinced that he would either be reconciled or killed—and his gamble paid off. When David saw him, the king kissed his son. And, if it were happening on screen, I’d be weeping at this point.

Whether it’s our father, our son, our sibling, or anyone else—there are some relationships in our lives that we need to be right. Like Absalom, we live too close to them in order to experience that estrangement on a daily basis. It’s too painful to be reminded of that brokenness with no end in sight. Eventually, that pain outweighs the risk of coming to that person and, as Absalom did, throwing ourselves down and hoping for reconciliation. Those quickening moments, by which a relationship either crumbles forever or is rebuilt anew, are dangerous, risky moments because the threat of permanent rejection is so close. Like teetering on the edge of a cliff, we stand before the person we have loved to test finally whether that relationship can be mended—will the gust of wind send us over the edge or bring us back to sure ground?

God, it seems, pursues us with the same reckless abandon. It is risky, perhaps, for God to reach out to his people over and over in the hopes that we will accept his embrace. God, of course, does not need us to be complete. Perfect and complete in every way, he is not at all desperate for our love the way we are for his. But still he pursues us as if he were. Unlike an earthly parent, God’s promise of acceptance and forgiveness is certain. He is defined as the one who always loves the prodigal son or daughter.

How, then, might the story of Absalom and David remind us of God’s infinite love and mercy? Like Absalom, we’re often estranged from our heavenly father—having created distance between us through our sin. Yet unlike some human parents, God is waiting eagerly for us to return. There is no risk in our part. We know that he will open the door and kiss us. So why does it take us so long to knock?

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