"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' "But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" (Luke 15:21-24, NIV)
Bible knowledge. Oh, sure, we can quote some verses - we all can. But when it comes down to what we truly, truly believe - what the theology junkies call our "credo" - do we know it enough to share it? Is it solid enough in our hearts and minds that we can pass it on?
It's 9:30 PM Thursday night. Friendly's Ice Cream shop. Across the table from me is a 28 year old recovering crack addict. He's two weeks sober, and all he can see is what a miserable piece of work he is. I'm talking to him about trusting God to change his life, and he looks up at me with those hopeless eyes, and says, "No, Steve, God doesn't want anything to do with a piece of work like me. I've thrown everything away. How can a piece of white trash like me even think about praying to God?"
So I start telling him a story. A story about a son who runs away, who blows everything he has, who is reduced to abject poverty, who is as alone and disgusted with himself as he can be. Quoting the Bible isn't what's needed here; the story is God's, but it goes into my words tonight. And little by little, my young friend starts to hear it.
"Where'd you get that story, Steve?" he asks. Right out of the words of Jesus, I tell him. Jesus told that story to make sure we understood - guys like you and me, guys who have screwed up bad, lost everything and everyone. He wanted us to know that even if the whole world rejects us, our Father in heaven is willing to welcome us home.
I can see the tears on the edge of his eyes. He takes a break to eat some of the half-melted ice cream, to get some breathing space. He looks up and asks, "D'you really believe that, Steve?"
Oh, you bet I do, buddy.
I don't know if this is your story, but it surely IS mine. I hold onto it like a life preserver - because if it's not true, I'm done for. I have been the prodigal son - the lost man wandering, not knowing what to do or where to turn. And the only reason I know this story is because someone sat down, just like this, and shared this story with me. It's the best card I can play, and I only have it because it was first given to me...
This is a God I can believe in, I tell the teary-eyed young man across the table. A God that knows what a schmuck I've been, and welcomes me home in spite of it all, because I'm His kid. A God who misses me when I run away, and one who throws a party every time I come home.
Outside, stamping our feet in the cold beside our cars, my young friend says to me, "Can we talk some more about this God of yours?" Oh, you bet, my friend - but he's not just MY God. This can be your God, too - all you have to do is ask. "Really?" he says. Oh, yeah - really, buddy - just ask. You can do it tonight. You can do it right now, if you want. "I'll do that," he says with a whisper of a smile, then gives me a quick hug and jumps into his car, and roars off.
I stand there, and watch the tail-lights fade down Reynolds Road. I feel the presence of my mentors, my brothers and sisters of faith, standing with me, as my prayers follow my young friend down the street. "God, I hope it was enough....please let him hear it...please let him see...."
And the wind whispers the "Amen" of a thousand saints who have passed this gift of faith on to me. And the tears of gratitude start to fall.
But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name;
you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1, NIV)