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Becoming like the Father

March 20, 2013

DSC_7851After two and a half months, I finally finished Nouwen’s Return of the Prodigal Son.  The book was written as a reflection on the prodigal son story in the Bible, inspired by Rembrandt’s painting by the same name.

While I am tempted to make this a greatest hits blog post and solely use quotes from the book, I think I may refrain.  Just maybe.

The parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament is one of the earliest New Testament stories I remember learning–it was up there with the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’s birth.  It’s preached on once every year or two.  It’s a wonderful story.  A boy leaves his father, spits in his face and shames the father before leaving town to live large in the world.  It doesn’t take much time for the boy to run out of his inheritance his father already gave him and be reducing to living with pigs.  He humbly returns home to his father, who greets him with open arms.  As is to be expected, the older brother, “the good one,” is jealous and really doesn’t get why his younger brother was accepted without a lecture, with total forgiveness.

As kids, we are taught the story with the message that God loves us no matter what.  There is nothing we can do, no matter how terrible, like picking the neighbors flowers or skipping track practice to go buy a home perm and convince my friends to give said perm, that can separate us from God.  No matter what, God takes us in with open arms and says, “My beloved child.  Where have you been?  I’ve missed you so.  I’m so glad you came back.”

Somewhere in high school or college, I began to understand the older brother more.  As one who loves to follow rules and thinks good behavior should be rewarded, I saw myself in the older brother.  I didn’t understand why my continued presence couldn’t be commended.   I never left, why shouldn’t there be a celebration for me as well?  I got it.  I understood I needed more grace in my heart for those who left and returned, or those who just came for the first time.

Now, as I really dove into the parable of the prodigal son again, I understood it all a little better.  I was the younger son.  Nouwen says this:

Constantly, I am tempted to wallow in my own lostness and lose touch with my original goodness, my God-given humanity, my basic blessedness, and thus allows the powers of death to take charge.  This happens over and over again whenever I say to myself: ‘I am no good.  I am useless.  I am worthless.  I am unlovable.  I am a no body.'”

But when God created man and woman in his own image, he saw that “it was very good,” and despite the dark voices, no man or woman can ever change that.

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I was the older son.  I still pride myself on doing the right things and living as I think I should.  Nouwen explains that of the two, younger son and older son, the older son is often the more dangerous to be.  The lostness of the older son is more private, more interior.  What prevents the older son from being joyful and living in community with his father isn’t his location, it’s the darkness in his heart.  In Nouwen’s words:

And it is this lostness-characterized by judgement and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealously-that is so pernicious and damaging to the human heart.

The lostness of the resentful “saint” is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous…There was always the conscious effort to avoid the pitfalls of sin and the constant fear of giving in to temptation.

For the first time that I can remember, Nouwen introduced a third character that we can identify with.  Often in the telling of the story, the father is God.  In Nouwen’s reflections he realized he was called to be the father.  He didn’t mean he should be God.  He recognized his calling to be a father to others—to love them unconditionally and without the traits of the younger or older son.  In our walk with God, we are to become like God (again, knowing we can never BE God).  As we walk with God, we begin to develop traits of the father, we learn to love more unconditionally, we bless those who need blessings, we show compassion to others, and we accept others without comparisons.

It would be easy for me to make this a Nouwen’s greatest hits.  I found quote after beautiful quote I wanted to share with you.  Nouwen’s description as God as a mother moved me.  I underlined and bracketed half of his section on the the eldest son.  I suspect I’ll bring this book up again (and maybe again).  I’ll leave you with these words from Nouwen:

From God’s perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from his throne to run to his returning son and to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy…

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, they choose not live in it.  They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness.  They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God.

Today, tomorrow, and the next day, may someone point you to a flash of light that reveals the presence of God to you.  May you do the same for someone else.  May we all work to become more like the Father.

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