The Story of Two Lost Sons – Thoughts from Tim Keller & Henri Nouwen

Last week when I was in Texas my friend Cheryl Mackey gave me a copy of Tim Keller’s little book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of Christian Faith It is a book based on the story of the prodigal son but he renames it the Story of Two Lost Sons.  He points out that this story was not just addressed to the tax payers and prostitutes – the prodigals that followed him but also to the Pharisees and Sadducees, those who had followed the laws of God all their lives yet never really embraced a faith that connected them to the unconditional love of a God who had given them everything – not because they had always done what he asked, but because he did love them deeply and unconditionally.

I have thought about this a lot over the last week as I realize how easily I can fall into the the older brother mode, resenting God’s embrace of the sinner and the outcast while I work so hard to please and follow him.  And I know I am not alone.

We are all conditioned to believe that it is what we do that matters.  If we do what is right then we will be blessed and abundantly provided for.  If we do what is wrong we will be abandoned not just by God but also by our society and even by the church.  In fact it seems to me that it is often the church that judges us first and hardest and underneath the judgement I suspect is often that Pharisaical heart that resents a God who will forgive all who sin time and time again.

This morning I came across this meditation by Henri Nouwen in a leaflet I also picked up while in Texas entitled From Fear to Love, Lenten reflections that come from an audio recording of a workshop given by Henri Nouwen in 1988.  The recording is available from Daybreak Books and Media. It spoke to me profoundly of this conflict within and seemed a very appropriate place to begin reflecting during this last week of Lent

When we are resentful we are lost in a very significant way.  The younger son gets lost in a far more spectacular way than his elder brother – giving into his lust and greed, using women, gambling and losing his money.  His wrongdoing is very clear-cut.  He knows it and everybody else does too. Because of that he’s able to come back and be forgiven.

The problem with resentment is that it is not so clera-cut.  It’s not spectacular and it is not overt and it can be concealed by the appearance of a holy life.  Resentment is so pernicious because it sits very deep within us: in our hears, in our flesh, in our bones.  Often, we aren’t even aware that it is there.  We may think we’re so good, when in fact we’re lost in a very profound way.

I want you to know that you are the younger child, you are the older child, and you are called to become the parent who loves unconditionally.  There is a younger child in you that needs conversion and there is an older child in yo that needs conversion.  There is also a parent in you that needs to emerge so that you can welcome all those who “return” to you day after day.

Somewhere at the end of it all God wants each of us to be present at the banquet.  The banquet is not only because the youngest son returned, it is for the eldest too, and for the parents – together.  We are called to be united in the father and as the father.  “Be perfect as Your Father is perfect.  Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”

So let us humbly claim the younger child living within, and claim the older child living within,  And let us strive to receive the Love within that forgives those inner, straying children, and welcomes others home.

Wisdom From Henri Nouwen – More Thoughts for Lent

this morning I was reading through Lent and Easter: Wisdom From Henri Nouwen. It is a great collection of Nouwen quotes for reading during Lent and Easter that I picked up a couple of years ago.  I was struck again by this quote, not because I myself am in a place of struggle and pain but because so many around me are – from those in Haiti who are now inundated with floods in the aftermath of the earthquake, to friends who have lost jobs and others who are being treated for cancer:

Your pain is deep, and it won’t just go away… Your call is to bring that pain home.  As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others.  Yes, you have to incorporate your pain into your self.

This is what Jesus means when he asks you to take up your cross.  He encourages you to recognize and embrace your unique suffering and to trust that your way to salvation lies therein.  taking up your cross means, first of all, befriending your wounds and letting them reveal to you your own truth. (p24)

Reading this passage reminded me of a pebble I picked up on the beach shortly after the death of Tom’s son Clint.  I call it my stone of remembrance.  It is an interesting stone in which light and dark coloured minerals intertwine to form an intricate and intriguing pattern.

This may sound a little strange I know but I have found it helpful to pick up that stone whenever I am in a struggling place and meditate on its pattern.  All of life is a pattern of dark and light intertwined.  Today it struck me that it is the dark streaks that give the stone its strength.  In fact the light rock is soft and crumbly and without the dark streaks it would slowly disappear.  How like our lives where the hard dark places strengthen and give shape and form to the soft and vulnerable places of light and laughter.  In befriending our pain and our wounds we really do find truth and life.  Without our doubts and our pains, our lives would have no depth or endurance.

Quietness and Rest – A Great Christmas Gift

Maybe it is just because of the busyness of the last few weeks, or because Tom & I have just booked accommodation for our annual Advent retreat, but I have been thinking a lot lately about the need for rest and quietness in our lives.  I think particularly as we move into what is generally the busiest and noisiest season of the year, it is important to set aside time for solitude and reflection.

This morning I was reflecting on Isaiah 30: 15

In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength (TNIV)

or as it says in the New Living Translation

“Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved.
In quietness and confidence is your strength.

In the busyness of our lives trust and confidence in God often disappear, partly I suspect because our busyness focuses us away from God and onto the concerns and values of the consumer world around us.  But there is more it it than that.  It is in the place of solitude that we connect most powerfully to God – the place where we can hear the still small voice that Elijah had so much difficulty hearing.  Here is a beautiful quote from Henri Nowen that seems to say it all

When you are able to create a lonely place in the middle of your actions and concerns, your successes and failures slowly lose some of their power over you.  For then your love for this world can merge with a compassionate understanding of its illusions.  They your serious enjoyment can merge with an unmasking smile.  Then your concern for others can be motivated more by their needs than your own.  In short: you can care.

Let us therefore live our lives to the fullest, but let us not forget once in a while to get up long before dawn to leave the house and go to a lonely place. (Henri Nowen – Out of Solitude)

Now is the time to plan for rest, solitude and quietness during the hectic Advent and Christmas season.  Block out some time on your calendar before it fills up with parties, concerts and shopping binges.  Go on retreat and drink in the quiet confidence of God.  It is probably the best gift you can give yourself and your family this Christmas season

A garden of solitude

It is a beautiful evening in Seattle and I am sitting watching the sunset over the Olympic mountains.  It is great to have a quiet moment as Tom & I will be travelling again tomorrow to Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg Virginia.  This will be our last trip until after Christmas for which I am very grateful as I hate to be away during Advent.

And speaking of Advent I am working on a new Advent mediation video.  If anyone has images from the tsunami in Samoa, earthquakes in Indonesia or bushfires in Australia that i could use I would very much appreciate it.  Or if you know where I can access photos royalty free for this project please let me know.

Anyhow I thought that I would finish this post with a couple of thoughts from A Garden Of Solitude, a beautiful book of mediations and prayers given to me by the editor Rowland Croucher while I was in Australia.  I think that I may already have used this first quote in a previous post but it is so beautiful and meaningful that I hope you will bear with me.  Solitude is as important a part of our lives as community is.

Solitude is not simply a quiet time and place.  It is not only a matter of stilling the many inner voices so that we can come to a point of quietness and inner peace.  It is much more than that… Solitude is thus not only a place of aloneness.  It is also the place of companionship and fellowship.  It is not only the place of stillness.  It is also the place of conversation.

Solitude is not withdrawal in order to get away.  It is withdrawal in order to be with someone who normally gets crowded out of our lives… Solitude allows us to practice the presence of God as attentive listeners and as companions who are at peace in each other’s company.  (Charles Ringma)

Without solitude, it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life.  Solitude begins with a time and place for God and for him alone.  If we really believe not only that God exists, but also that he is actively present in our lives – healing, teaching and guiding – we need to set aside time and space to give him our undivided attention.  Jesus says, ‘Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your father who is in that secret place. Matthew 6:6 (Henri Nouwen, Making a

Yoga & Jesus: This is a spiritual practice

I continue to be challenged and stretched by the ways that people connect to God and to Jesus Christ.  The posts below are by Christina Whitehouse-Sugg.  I found them particularly intriguing because of my growing interest in Christian meditation and as you know I am also passionate about Henri Nouwen.  I feel that we have too easily dismissed the practices of other traditions because we think of them as non-Christian and yet God created them all and it is not surprising that we can use them to connect to the God revealed through Jesus Christ

Christina describes herself as a chameleon who struggles with finding a color of my own, a performer who often loses my voice only to find it in silence, a minister who is more comfortable among sinners than saints.  She blogs at Thoughts for the Journey

…yoga has become a significant spiritual discipline for me. My easily distracted ENFP brain (Oooo! Shiny!) is quiet & focused as I attempt to master poses that have been around for centuries. But more and more, what draws me to my yoga practice is the short lesson at the beginning of each class that focuses our practice that day…I am hungry for the spiritual truths that God reveals to me through my teacher.  Read the entire article

I wonder – can you see how these five elements are helping my spiritual devotion as a follower of Christ?? I recently read the following reflection by Henri Nouwen on flexibility and it resonated strongly with my current understanding and practice of yoga.  Read the entire article

Thoughts from Henri Nouwen

This last week, in preparation for our 18th annual Celtic retreat, I have been rereading Henri Nowen‘s The Genesee Diary: Report from a Trappist Monastery. It has profoundly impacted me as I have read about the seven months that he spent in a Trappist monastery.  I have read it in conjunction with another compelling book Cloister Talks by Jon Sweeney which I intend to write a review of tomorrow.

Here are a couple of passages I found particularly convicting.  First this passage when early in his sabbatical Nouwen is grappling with how to make the works of his hands into a prayer and reinterpret everything in the light of what it means to live fully to the glory of God.

…living for the glory of God would make everything different.  Even living for each other would then be living for the glory of God.  It is God’s glory that becomes visible in a loving community.  … When we indeed participate in the life of God we will always discover more of God’s mystery in each other.  John Eudes described heaven as the ongoing discovery of God’s mystery by living in the most intimate presence of God and each other.  The Christian life on earth is simply the beginning of this heavenly existence.  (p29)

My main problem is that I have not really made prayer my priority. … much of what I am doing is motivated by many other concerns: getting back in shape, learning some manual skills, knowing more about birds and trees, getting to know interesting people… and picking up many ideas and experiences for future teaching.  But if prayer were my only concern, all these other laudable things could be received as free gifts.  Now, however, I am obsessed by these desires which are false, not in themselves but by their being in the wrong place in the heirarchy. (p42)

As I read this section I realized how much of what I do is with mixed motives.  It is easy to say that I want to live to the glory of God and that everything I do is done to please God, yet underneath I am aware that so much of what I do is really done to please myself.  I grapple with the same concerns that Nouwen does – the desire to be noticed and thought well of, the desire to be fulfilled in what I do, and even the desire to be comfortable.  If I am honest I realize how easily these things can move my focus away from God and onto myself.

Even prayer can easily become self focused as I ask God for things that would make my own life easier.  Healing for those I love that sometimes make my life difficult, financial provision in the midst of recession, my need for an administrative assistant, even my prayer for God to end poverty and bring justice in the world can be because I want to live in a world that is more comfortable.

The other section I found extremely compelling is this on the monastic rhythm of life.  It is easy for us to see the monastic rhythm as a monotonous repetitive rhythm but listen to the way that Nouwen describes it

One of the things a monastery like this does for you is give you a new rhythm, a sacred rhythm… It seems as if I am being slowly lifted up from the gray dull, somewhat monotonous, secular time cycle into a very colourful rich sequence of events in which solemnity and playfulness, joy and grief, seriousness and lightness take each other’s place off and on…

You see and feel that the monastic day, week and year are meant to be time-bound anticipations of a heavenly existence.  Already you are invited to participate in the intimate life of the Holy trinity, Father ,Son and Spirit, and be joyful because of those who came so close to God in their historical existence that they have a special place in the heavenly kingdom.  So contemplation is indeed a beginning of what is to be fulfilled in the resurrection.

As you know I have spent a lot of time thinking about what the rhythms of God’s kingdom will look like and am more convinced than ever that the frenetic pace of our secular world is nothing like what God intends.  We are meant to be counter cultural people with counter cultural rhythms and I think that the monastic rhythm of prayer, study work and rest is much more like the rhythm of God’s kingdom than the way most of us live.

Out of my contemplation of these passages has come another prayer

God enter the emptiness of our hearts

Restore us, renew us, refresh us

Come into the dry and thirsty places of our lives

Fill us, transform us, dwell within us

Reveal your love in the empty spaces of our souls

Convert our loneliness to solitude

Turn our busyness into obedience

Replace our self centred idols with faithfulness

Open within us a place where you can dwell

Love through us, live through us, glorify yourself

What I Learned From Government

Once again I have been beguiled by Robert Hruzek’s challenge to high calling bloggers.  This months topic is What I Learned from Government a timely topic for this season.

This last week was my first opportunity to vote as a US citizen.  Actually it was the first chance I have had to vote since I left Australia 25 years ago and I felt privileged to be able to cast my vote at a such an historic moment.  No matter what our political views may be I think that all of us need to realize that we watched history in the making this last Tuesday evening.  As I watched the tears roll down Jesse Jackson’s face I was overwhelmed by the change that Obama’s victory already represents particularly for those who have grown up in an era of racism and discrimination.  And as I have read the comments from friends in Africa, Australia, Europe and Asia I realize that this election is a moment of change not just for America but for the whole world.  It has given hope to many that thought there was no hope.

At the same time however, maybe because I am still at heart a cynical Australian, I have very low expectations for the kind of change any earthly government can accomplish.  In fact as a follower of Christ I am not sure that any of us should look to our earthly governments for the kind of change that we really long for in our world – the in breaking of the kingdom of God with its promise of wholeness and freedom and abundance for all .

Maybe that is just as well because I am also very aware that as a follower of Christ my primary loyalty is not to the government of any country but rather to the kingdom of God and to the values and policies of God’s eternal world.  However I do believe that the kind of change that represents the in breaking of God’s new world can transcend all governmental boundaries and is possible in small ways in our world today.  It begins at the grassroots level when the people of God catch hold of God’s vision for a new world in which freedom does indeed come for the oppressed, healing does come for the sick and wholeness does come for all of us in whom the divine image is distorted and maimed.  I love this quote from Compassion: Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald McNeill, Douglas Morrison, Henri Nouwen which for me sums up my feelings on this issue:

This is the vision that guides us. This vision makes us share one another’s burdens, carry our crosses together, and unite for a better world. This vision takes the despair out of death and the morbidity out of suffering, and opens new horizons. This vision also gives us the energy to manifest its first realization in the midst of the complexities of life. This vision is indeed of a future world but it is no utopia. The future has already begun and is revealed each time strangers are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick and prisoners are visited, and oppression is overcome. Through these grateful actions the first glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth can be seen.

In the new city, God will live among us, but each time two or three gather in the name of Jesus he is already in our midst. In the new city, all tears will be wiped away, but each time people eat bread and drink wine in His memory, smiles appear on strained faces. In the new city, the whole of creation will be made new, but each time prison walls are broken down, poverty is dispelled and wounds are carefully attended, the old earth is already giving way to the new. Through compassionate action, the old is not just old anymore and pain is not just pain any longer. Although we are still waiting in expectation, the first signs of the new earth and the new heaven, which have been promised to us and for which we hope, are already visible in the community of faith where the compassionate God reveals Himself. This is the foundation of our faith, the basis of our hope and the source of our love.

I cannot imagine a more difficult time to become the leader of any country and I am sure that over the next couple of years many will feel frustrated and disillusioned because their expectations are not met and their hopes have been dashed.  Change that is possible through any government is limited by the flawed and far from perfect nature of all human beings.  How wonderful it is to know that there is a far greater hope that we have to lead our lives.