Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The St. Peter's Summer Read: Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Parable of Homecoming" - The Younger Son Decides to Return Home

Several years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to gather with a dear friend, his family and assorted friends and colleagues from various constellations in his life to celebrate a singular elevation in his vocation. It was a joyous gathering, but for the most part the folks gathered really only shared him as a common point of reference. Granted he is an interesting man, but once the "how do you know X?" is offered and answered, the need to find further common ground was a necessity. For an old-school extrovert like me, it was a joy to be in that mix of people. I moved from group to group, and from person to person, learning as much as I could about each one and then finding some common point of story or experience to share. Months after, reminiscing about the evening, I told my friend about what a joy it was to have been able to be there and to meet all those people to whom he was so close, from so many chapters of his life. "I loved seeing you there too, buddy...and it was great seeing you do what you do." I was puzzled for a moment, even worried that I had done something wrong? "No," he said, "it's just great seeing you be at ease in a situation others would find anxiety-provoking. Meeting new people is you at your best, and finding ways to connect with them is your strength."

Granted, I am more of a sprinter than a marathoner in most of those races...but his remarks came back to me as I ponder today's portion of Nouwen's book, for we are at a point where the younger son's life apart from his family, his culture, his old world has become not just unsustainable, but downright life-threatening. He has fared "well" in this foreign and distant land, far away from anything that would remind him of what he rejected and left behind. He has used his resources to reinforce that separation, burning through them at a breakneck pace so that he can maintain the illusion of complete emancipation from any and all of his old support systems.

The younger son's experience is the antithesis of my memory, in that rather than enjoying old and familiar networks expanded because of open hearts and hands, he has instead chosen to seek out the farthest, most alien point of reference possible and then pretend that he can force a "fit" when really there is no natural or positive frame of reference to find at all.

He is lost. He is lost not only among strangers who,effectively, paid for their companionship...but he is also lost in himself...and we have all been there.

Nouwen gently allows us to recognize just how close this younger son's experience is to our own, to events rising from choices in our lives that parallel his own; and the sojourn of the son in the parable can in many ways become recognizable as one that we have taken in our own lives. Gentle, but firmly posited. We don't get to turn away from the image, or the fact, that apart from sustainable and sustaining relationships with each other (and ultimately with God!), life will quickly devolve for us as it did for the younger son.

If you are looking with envy at dry pods being fed to pigs because you are hungry (because of your own willful stubborn resolve), then you may presume that you are close to bottom.

Reality in God tells us, though, that our bottom is not apart from God loving us. We cannot change that reality, the one that Nouwen reminds us began when we were made and God called us "very good." God is continually invested in our return, and in our being willing to come back from those far countries that we seek out in order to hide from the light of God's loving and forgiving scrutiny.


Because, like the son, we know that we aren't worthy. We aren't worth God's time, because we are the ones who at some point along this stumbling way chose to pretend that we can do it all on our own. Even when we come to our senses, we obsess and worry ourselves (even on the way home) about how unworthy we KNOW we are:

In fact, I am seldom without some imaginary encounter in my head in which I explain myself, boast or apologize, proclaim or defend, evoke praise or pity. It seems that I am perpetually involved in long dialogues with absent partners, anticipating their questions and preparing my responses. I am amazed by the emotional energy that goes into these inner ruminations and murmurings....The reason is clear. Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation.

I remember that evening in my friend's back yard with two minds. The first gives thanks that I am a part of a community of people that truly extends beyond my imagination and that by God's good grace I am able to relax from time to time in the confidence that this connection-seeking can be an adventure of blessings. I am also reminded of the times, and there were many, when "doing what I do" did not mean sending and receiving blessings but was instead a self-indulgent and hubris-laden extension of ego and overconfidence.

The son, in his desperate resolve to put down his rebellion and embrace his reality as a son, begins a return that we all wind up having to undertake at many points in our lives. We might reject all that the loving God, our creator, might imbue in us...but that last little bit cannot be hocked. We are God's children, and at the last we have the God-given grace to embrace return as our core truth.

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