For a long time the father remained “the other,” the one who would receive me, forgive me, offer me a home, and give me peace and joy. The father was the place to return to, the goal of my journey, the final resting place. It was only gradually and often quite painfully that I came to realize that my spiritual journey would never be complete as long as the father remained an outsider. (Nouwen, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, pp 102-121.)
|God the Father with His Right Hand Raised in Blessing by Girolamo dai Libi|
The first time I read those words and the chapter they introduce several years ago I was not prepared for the depth into which this insight would take me. It has only been in my time in Fort Worth that I have really begun to understand what Nouwen is describing as he speaks of “becoming the Father.”
I spoke yesterday of my own dad and how he was in many ways an absentee parent, spending almost all of his life with his patients. I never questioned whether he loved me, and he never pushed me to be something other than who I really was. I believe that he loved me as unconditionally as he could. He himself had been reared by a father who was a priest, and I would guess in some ways also was absent. His father had died when he was just 15, and he had missed the guidance and presence of his father as he went through his tumultuous late teen years. He never, as far as I can tell, lost his faith, or wandered very far from his connection with God, a connection which he offered to me in my early childhood and became embedded in my soul, remaining even during my wandering in the wilderness in my late teens and early twenties. How I longed to have his gentle hands, the hands of a physician who heals, draw me back in welcome, even when I questioned the reality of God. I do not remember ever saying “There is no god,” but I do recall wondering how a god of love could be as cruel as to allow all of the misery in the world, and more personally in the loss of my own father. Even when I began my journey back to faith, which coincided with the Baptism of my oldest son, God the Father was a distant, unreachable entity, not unlike my own father.
This Advent, as I have read and reread the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons and Henri Nouwen’s two books and Timothy Keller’s book on the parable, I have had my heart broken and re-made by God who welcomes me as Father and calls me to become Father. Nouwen speaks to this: “But Rembrandt who showed me the Father in utmost vulnerability, made me come to the awareness that my final vocation is indeed to become like the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life.”
My inclination is to continue to see myself as the child who needs to be forgiven, who desires to be welcomed home, who pleads for compassion. Even though I have been ordained for 38 years—today is the anniversary of ordination as a Deacon—I still carry in my heart and soul my need to be cared for. Whether that is as Younger Brother who wandered away from home and homeland or Older Brother whose jealousy and anger erodes his very soul, I still want daddy to comfort and console me, to run out to welcome me home, to remind me that I am the beloved heir of all he has.
As I reflect on my 68 years of life, God has done exactly that again and again, calling me to grow up into the full stature for which I was created. God has moved me all along to become as Father in the parable, welcoming, forgiving, offering compassion. As my younger son said over two years ago, all my life has been a preparation for the work I am called to offer in Fort Worth. As we potentially wind down the litigation with the likelihood of regaining access to church buildings and probably a goodly number of folk who did not leave those buildings, we are being offered the opportunity to live out this parable “in real time.” Do we behave as Older Brother and demand public repentance and hold these brothers and sisters at arm’s length while we test their veracity and worthiness? Or do we run to greet them as children who were dead and now are alive, lost and now found?
For about a year those of us in leadership struggled over just who it was that was returning. Certainly we could say we were coming back to the buildings, but those who left the Episcopal Church and stayed in the buildings were coming home to the Episcopal Church. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit our language of reconciliation has dropped the word “return” to describe what any of us are doing, and we now speak only of reunion. The parable offers reunion between Father and Younger Brother, between Father and Older Brother, between the two sons, and ultimately for all the household and the community as well. How well we live into the parable is yet to be seen, but we know we have a clear picture and a pattern offered by Jesus himself.
Moving apace toward Christmas Eve and the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, we are reminded that God sent his Son into the world to save sinners, not to condemn us. This incredible gift of Life and Light calls us to bring life and light into the dark places we find ourselves confronting. Decades ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen, a Roman Catholic Archbishop and later Cardinal, had a television program that was incredibly popular. His theme song began “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.” As you read the parable today, open your eyes to find a place to bring the light of Christ which has been given to you and make someone’s world brighter. Pray to be available to the Holy Spirit when called to be a witness to the Light.