A Lenten Journey with Henri and Howard

A few days ago I picked up an old book to begin rereading it in order to prepare for our all-parish book study. The book was Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I remember reading it years ago and found it very moving and spiritually nourishing. I assumed that I would simply pick it up again and refresh my memory of my experience with Nouwen’s reflection on Rembrandt’s famous painting. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It took me by surprise and completely penetrated my defenses.

I wasn’t two pages into the book before it hit that the journey through Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son was going to be very different. I resonated deeply with Nouwen’s vulnerability when he stated that after years of teaching, striving for justice, and doing the work he felt called to do, he felt like a “child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry.”[1] So I did. I cried. And that’s okay. I wasn’t even really sure what I was crying about, and that’s okay too. I just gave myself permission to be in the presence of G-d and weep. It sounds weird, I’m sure, but how often do we give ourselves permission to cry. Let’s face it: life sucks some times. People hurt us. Circumstances scare us. Our bodies fail us. Sometimes life just sucks. And sometimes it’s okay to just crawl into G-d’s arms and just cry, or cuss, or both.

It occurs to me that returning to a book once read is like taking a trip down memory lane. Every underlined word, dog-eared page, and note-in-the-margin marks a significant moment and tells a fascinating story. I wonder where I was when I wrote that. I wonder why this phrase seemed so important for me in the moment. I wonder how the world was different. I wonder how I was different. When I reopened The Return of the Prodigal Son I rediscovered that when I opened it the first time so many years ago, I longed for homecoming, for “an unambiguous sense of safety.”[2] And I still do. Maybe that’s what my tears were for – sadness of the journey yet to come, but joy of the journey far behind, or maybe vice-versa, or maybe both. Tears have the power to hold both great joy and abiding sadness, and so much more. And yet tears are a necessary part of life. Deep intimacy with G-d is only born out of the humble submission to the cross of Christ – a willingness to die many deaths and cry many tears in order to be apprehended by the very thing we seek. Intimacy with G-d is brought about by a willingness to lean into the darkness and discover G-d in the midst.

Parish ministry is busy this time of year, and I’m sure that’s the same (albeit for different reasons) for those not directly involved in parish ministry. While many people enter the jolting newness of Ash Wednesday, so many clergy already have Easter on the brain. Trumpets – check. Lilies – check. Acolytes, choir, sermon – check, check, not yet (send your help G-d, and let that help be great). And yet I am resolved to enter this Lenten season with questions. I stumbled across a blog post from Rachel Held Evans from several years ago with 40 Ideas for Lent. The first question she asks is, “When I wake up on Resurrection Sunday morning, how will I be different?” For whatever reason that question struck me. How will be different 6 weeks from now? How will I get there?

So to fulfill my pledge to write more this year, I am going to journal about this journey out loud, not because I think I have any deep wisdom, but because I know I am not alone. I have had enough conversations with other spiritual pilgrims to know that in the age when everyone is predicting the death of the Church, people are still seeking a deeper connection to Jesus Christ that they might know the power of his resurrection in order to shed a little light on their own power and their own promised resurrection. I am going to engage my two questions “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?” with two spiritual guides who have been endless founts of wisdom and reflection – Henri Nouwen and Howard Thurman (with some other voices in the mix). I am going to strive to write a new reflection every week to carry the conversation a bit further. I don’t know how I will be different in six weeks, but I feel deep down that I will. I also have no idea how the process will go. I feel like St. Paul in Philippians when he says, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” I’m pressing on, determined to deepen my relationship to G-d in the process.

In a sense Ash Wednesday tells me the end of the story – “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But even dust has a story. Dust of dying stars and unswept corners. Dust of antique bibles and fertile, life-giving earth. Dust of crumbling buildings in war-torn countries and the remnants of blessed palms. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s all connected. It’s all one. It’s all so different. It is all so utterly the same.

Howard Thurman ends his book The Creative Encounter with this statement:

Man builds his little shelter, he raises his little wall; man builds his little altar, worships his little God; man organizes the resources of his little life to defend his little barrier. All this – to no avail! What man is committed to in the religious experience… is this: The effective possibility of a vital religious fellowship that it is so creative in character, so convincing in quality that it inspires the mind to multiply experiences of unity – which experiences of unity become over and over and over again more compelling than the concepts, the ways of life, the sects and the creeds that separate men. It is my belief that in the presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.[3]

Religious experience is about finding G-d and, in the process, finding ourselves. Who we are and where we are going are questions bound to what lies beneath the surface of everything we build to defend ourselves from the outside world, and what ultimately stands between us and G-d.

The best place to begin the journey is in dust and ashes, naming the truth – that we are broken, that we’ve tried everything we know to mend our brokenness, that we often hurt one another trying to fix ourselves or ease our own pain, that some of it is our fault, and that other times life sucks for no reason at all. We start there, and we hear the faint sound of G-d’s unending fountain of mercy, and we start running, as fast our legs will carry us, as if borne on the wings of eagles, home.


 

[1] Nouwen. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Image Books, 1992), 4.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Howard Thurman. The Creative Encounter: An Interpretation of Religion and the Social Witness, Friends United Press ed. (Richmond, IN: Friends Untied Press , 1972), 151-52.

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