For my money, the greatest devotional book ever written is “The Magnificent Defeat,” by Frederick Buechner. It is a collection of meditations based on talks he delivered to college students long before I was born. His words, decades later, are as relevant and as profound as ever.
In one of the meditations Buechner relates a terrible tale of how a teenager, driven mad by rage, took a gun and killed his own father with it (Tragically, such events were less common when Buechner first wrote than today). The boy was quickly arrested and asked the obvious question: Why? Why had he committed such a horrible crime?
The boy answered that he hated his father, and the reason he hated him was because his father had been far too demanding. Much later, after the boy had been incarcerated, a guard was walking down the prison corridors late at night when he heard a noise coming from the boy’s cell. He stopped to listen, and what he heard was the boy crying in the darkness, “I want my father.”
Buechner puts all of us in this young man’s shoes, in his cell. We all want our “father,” we all cry out for God. Yet, we have done away with him, as he has proved to be too old-fashioned, too much of a burden, too demanding. So what exactly does God demand? What is it that is so onerous on God’s part, that it produces in us such violent resistance? In a word: Submission. God demands our unconditional surrender.
This surrender does not, however, make us slaves. It makes us sons and daughters. Parents who place the demand of submission on their children do not enslave those children. Rather, those children are empowered by the bonds of love and trust, able to grow toward full, confident, healthy maturity. The demand of surrender is simply the demand of love, for God is love, which brings me to a second story, this one an old Spanish parable.
A father and son became estranged. Again, the father was “too demanding,” and the son wanted to do his own thing and live his own life. Thus, the boy ran away from home. After a while, when the son was not soon returning, the father set off to find him. He searched for days, weeks;, and ultimately for months, but his lost son was nowhere to be found.
Finally, the father took out a small ad in the Madrid newspaper. The ad read, translated into English: “Dear Paco, meet me at the square on Saturday morning. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.” On the following Saturday morning more than 800 Pacos showed up looking for the love of their fathers.
Here, Frederick Buechner has the last word: “We have killed our father, and we will kill him again, and our world will kill him. And yet he is there. It is he who listens at the door…This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”