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“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving. But the Father is always looking for me again with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.'” ~Henri Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” ~ Luke15: 31-32

I had an interesting experience today after Church service. The speaker had just finished teaching on reconcilation, victimization, and the “unfairness” of life. More importantly he invited us to consider the extravagantly “unfair” nature of our heavenly Father’s love toward us. As I pondered what it would mean for me to be an “Embassador of Reconciliation” toward those I felt had treated me unfairly, I decided to go into our prayer room and share my struggles with another brother and recieve prayer. I was immediately confronted by a print of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of The Prodigal Son:

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Maybe it was the immediacy of the moment after the sermon, or perhaps my realization that I still had “heartwork” to do regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, but the painting stopped me in my tracks as I was immediately overcome with emotion. How providential. What I was feeling in that moment, the awareness of my own sinfulness as well as my hardness of heart toward those who had sinned against me, the memory of Jesus’ parable of “The Prodigal Son”, the awareness of my own need to both grant and recieve forgiveness, it all hit me instantly. All I could do was stand there and gaze. I was aware that God was present and was doing a work in me in at that very moment. I secretly wished (a voiceless prayer, really) that no one else would enter the room and disturb this intimate moment. Afterwards I did pray with another brother, and shared my struggles, but quite frankly, the ministry I was looking for, the confession, the absolution and grace to do what I needed to do – that “heart” work took place as I prayerfully contemplated Rembrandt’s painting, which for me had become a passageway into Christ’s teaching on repentance, forgiveness, and the extravagant grace of God. I find it no small coincidence that the sixth book on my list was going to be Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

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Henri J.M. Nouwen was born in 1932, and ordained to the priesthood in 1957. A popular author, of many books, some of which are considered classics, Nouwen, in his latter years served as a pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for handicapped adults in Canada. It was after a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s painting, one that moved him deeply, that he decided to write this book.  In it he describes his own spiritual journey as he consider’s Jesus’s parable of the return of the young prodigal who had left home for a distant land and squanders his inheritance; the bitter, resentful older brother; and the compassionate father. Nouwen said of Rembrandt:

“Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

One of the strengths of the book is how it speaks to our compulsive pursuit of those things that can never satisfy:

“Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addiction make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country,” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.” It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.”

Nouwen paints a compelling portrait that enable us to recognize ourselves in both the spiritually bankrupt condition of the prodigal son, and in the self-righteousness of the dutiful older brother. But most importantly he stirs in us a desire to return home, and reminds us that no matter how often or how far we’ve fallen, our Father who is searching for us even more than we for Him, is there waiting with open arms, ready to restore, and eager to lavish His love upon us. The book is a modern classic and highly recommended.

 

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