Henri and Howard: Turning Home

My last blog “Seeing when we can’t see” left off with the idea that part of homecoming is about learning how to see without seeing or how to see beyond seeing – seeing than can only be done with the heart. This type of seeing is receiving grace and mercies were know we do not deserve with a grateful heart and open hands from unexpected places. Receiving is hard work, particularly when we haven’t earned it, or even worse, when there is no possible way that we could earn it. This is part of the journey home.

For this reflection I want to take a few steps back and think about what it means to turn home in the first place. Once we “come to ourselves” and realize that the distant country where we have been living may have glittered from afar, but it sure isn’t gold, we have to begin the long, arduous journey home. While the journey home is one we must all take, the process of awakening is different for each of us. For some is it a sudden epiphany and realization, a quick firestorm, a fury of activity, a swift revolution of the soul. For others, and I would say for most people, it is a slow awakening, a drip-irrigation process of conversion. One minute we are in the distant country and before we know it, we are on our way home. The decision to go home might be one, big decision, but each step in a homeward direction is another “yes.”

Yes…

Yes…

I do not mean to suggest that this process is passive. Completely the opposite. The journey home must be an intentional one. Nouwen, referencing YHWH’s offer to the Israelites to “choose life,” suggests, “Indeed, it is a question of life or death. Do we accept the rejection of the world that imprisons us, or do we claim the freedom of the children of G-d.  We must choose.”[1] We must make the choice to return home. We must choose compassion. We must say yes to love. But whether that “yes” happens suddenly or subversively depends on the individual soul on the journey.

I also do not mean to suggest that we can get home simply by being dissatisfied with where we are. Dissatisfaction is what took it away from home in the first place. Dissatisfaction can never guide us home. Dissatisfaction in the distant country may only lead us further away from home, fleeing from one distant country to the next as a refugee in search of the ever allusive thrill we seek. Only awareness will guide us home – awareness that everything we have ever needed was home, awareness that the only thing that can satisfy our soul’s deepest longing is the Father’s compassion. There are just some wounds only G-d, the Great Physician, can dress. It is like being embraced by someone we love. Their arms just seem to cradle and hold us just right. We have to come to that awareness or we might never get home. Awareness is like our soul’s GPS – it will guide us to where we need to be. As a dear friend once told me, “if you don’t know where you’re going you’re liable to wind up somewhere else.”

I’m not so clear how my own journey occurred. There are parts of me that believe my “yes” happened suddenly, in bread and wine and brokenness, crying tears I did not know I had about stuff I thought I was tough enough to handle. But then I remember the small ways in which that “yes” was preceded by another “yes,” which was followed by another… and another… and another… I knew I was going home, but I didn’t know it the journey would meander so much. Sure, Tolkien suggests that “not all who wander are lost,” but sometimes I sure feel like I am lost, even if I know where I hope to end up. The tectonic plates of our spiritual life shift so suddenly, or maybe my memory is just too short.

It might be that the journey into the distant country and then the journey home is one we all must take. Maybe, because of human brokenness, we’re born out in the distant country with an unspeakable spiritual instinct that our home is elsewhere. Maybe we’re born at “home,” but we are so surrounded by travelers to distant countries that we follow their lead, unaware of the blind leading the blind. If the journey home is the result infinite yeses, then perhaps the journey away from home and into the distant country is the result of infinite small rejections – saying no to love, saying to know to our true self, saying no to grace. Before we know it, we are far away, adrift in a land that is waste. What glittered from afar, what stole our hearts and our yes, has given us nothing in return but brokenness. I do not know. But I do know that we all must journey home.

Nouwen suggests that that one way to looking at the story of the Prodigal Son is to see the younger son as none other than Jesus who “became the prodigal son for our sake. He left the house of the heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through the cross to his Father’s home.”[2] Nouwen says elsewhere “There is no journey to G-d outside of the journey that Jesus made.”[3] If this is true, then the prodigal journey is one we must all take. If this is true, then we ought not be given to despair in the distant country, for Jesus has already overcome it. He’s been where we are – rejected, abused, forsaken, in agony, and lost. He became such so that we could not only say yes to homecoming, but follow in his footsteps towards the Father’s home.

Any Christ-follower with even a passing acquaintance with the season of Lent knows that this season is a time of repentance in preparation for the Great Paschal Mystery of Easter. I am struck, however, by the many Christians who make this season about giving up something without a deeper connection to what deprivation and asceticism might reveal to us. For so many Lent become nothing more than an exercise in iron will – making it forty days (and a few Sundays) without chocolate or Facebook. There is so much more that Lent has to offer us than a certificate of completion. I wonder how this season might resonate differently if people not only gave up something, but made it a practice to be intentional about noting what things were being stirred when the body is being deprived. It might be that we see how far we have wandered into the distant country and how deeply our souls have become accustomed to suffering – that of ourselves and others. Suffering is not something that can be avoided in life, especially the Christian life. The call of Christ is the call of the cross and the call of the cross is the call to suffer. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wisely wrote, “When Christ’s calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

This process of dying isn’t a messiah-complex masked in false humility. Suffering, according to Howard Thurman, readies the “spirit for religious experience.”[4] Suffering strips away pretense and the walls we build up to defend ourselves and leaves us bear before G-d. Perhaps seasons like Lent (and Advent) are meant to focus our attention on the chronic condition of spiritual famine so many have become acquainted to living in. Perhaps the controlled experiment of suffering we engage during Lent opens our eyes to real suffering, suffering that we may have once felt but have since become calloused to. Perhaps it is only when we engage the real point of our suffering that we can truly turn homeward. Perhaps when to truly take stock of our desperate situation can we turn and behold the fullness of homecoming that we witness at Easter – the Father’s answer to our cross, the end of our journey.

So maybe giving up chocolate is small “yes” to G-d. Maybe the motivation is off, but the logic is sound – the need to make space. Maybe that is enough for G-d to summon our hearts homeward. I do know this about G-d – it does not take much. G-d is like that friend who is barely a friend who asks you for one favor and you know what they’re going to ask before they ask you but before you know it you have taken them to the grocery store, helped them run some errands, and agreed to house-sit for them for the next two weeks while they are out of town at a conference. As Nadia Bolz-Weber said (or at lease a meme bearing an image of her attributes these words to her), “I think G-d is wanting to be known. And my experience of G-d wanting to be known is much more in the person who is annoying me at the moment rather than in the sunset.” One yes leads to another yes which leads to another yes and before we know it we are going home.

Because of the love of G-d is irresistible.

And G-d is a bit annoying sometimes.


 

[1] Henri Nouwen. Return of the Prodigal Son, 50.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] Ibid., 56.

[4] Howard Thurman. The Creative Encounter, 55.

Advertisements