This will be a short reflection because the Triduum Sanctum is upon us and woe be to those foolish bridesmaids who are found unprepared when the Bridegroom comes.
I did not want to leave this series without a conclusion, but the truth is that as I neared the end of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son I didn’t want to finish it. I had read it before and I knew what it would challenge me. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged. I just want to be held. It seems that Nouwen cannot abide that type of sentimentality. He does not permit us to stay in the compassionate embrace of the Father without also pushing us to grow up. I did not want to read the last chapter because I wanted to claim plausible deniability. I wanted to be forever young like Peter Pan and simply never grow up. Adulting is hard work and it is not for the faint of heart.
But that is simply not how I understand G-d to work. G-d comes to get us in order to grow us. To be caught by G-d is to be changed by G-d. Ask Jacob (Israel). Ask the Apostles. Ask the nameless Woman at the Well. Ask Paul. If you come too close to G-d there is not telling what might happen to you.
Maybe that is the reason why so many refuse to enter the party. To stay in the distant country or to remain outside of the party is to eschew the difficult work of loving ourselves and others. Playing the negatives tapes over and over again is easy and it gets easier the longer we play them. To turn them off and hear G-d calling us beloved is hard because it invites us to be vulnerable. It is not enough simply to return home. We must return home and grow up. Upon returning home the Younger Son defined himself by what he felt was not. The Older Son did the same in comparing himself to his younger brother. In both cases the Father’s response was to meet them where they were and speak who they were beyond the madness of the moment – deeply loved and always welcomed. In order to hear that message both sons had to give up something, the younger his shame and the elder his resentment. This story invites each of us to ask ourselves the question: what are we carrying that is preventing us from hearing G-d call us beloved?
Throughout this Lenten journey I have given myself permission to wonder and ask questions that first cropped up in Advent – who am I? Where am I going? After months of wrestling and praying, I think I have come to better understand the answer to these questions. Please allow me to share with you a dream I had.
A few nights ago I woke up in the morning remembering a very vivid dream where I was getting married. I am not sure who my partner was and that detail was probably inconsequential. I do remember that as he reached down to take my hand to place my wedding band on it my each finger was heavily laden with rings of all kinds. One ring. Two rings. Red rings. Blue rings. At first look it was beautiful and glittered in the light. Upon closer reflection I remember that it felt heavy. More importantly, my partner was not able to place the new ring on my finger because there was no room.
Normally I do not remember dreams. It’s not that I don’t have them. It’s just that I don’t remember the details of them. This one was different.
So I wrote it down, and included it in my prayers. What might G-d be trying to say to me?
My truth is that I was full of negative definitions – not necessarily definitions of myself as “bad,” but definitions of what I am “not.” I was carrying around so many past experiences and defining myself against them only to find them as moving target. This way of being in the world worked once upon a time, but they no longer served G-d’s purpose in my life and it was time to give them up. Defining ourselves against those who hurt and rejected us only grants them permission to take up valuable space in our lives. At some point it’s time to serve eviction notices and go beyond them to the “ground of all being” itself (*queues up Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”* …to the left, to the left…)
When I was nearing the end of my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency I remember feeling incredibly drained by on-call after on-call and death after death. It takes openness to show up in liminal spaces like that over and over and after months of endless stress I simply felt blocked. My supervisor suggested that I was carrying too much of too many of the experiences around with me and that I needed develop some type of liturgy to ritualize releasing and letting things go. My ritual was simple, but effective. I would go outside to the porch that was right outside our office window and I would offer a remixed version of the closing prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book:
Lord I am tired and I’ve done all that I can do. Allow me be still in your presence.
Lord, it is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. It is what it is and I give it to you.
Thank you for giving me the bread I needed for today’s journey and give me faith to trust you to provide what I will need tomorrow.
After praying that and breathing deeply, I would touch the ground and feel myself connected to something far larger than I myself. It may sound hokey, but it sure worked for me. It’s not magic. It’s honesty.
As I wrestled through the meaning of this dream, I heard Nouwen’s call to growth and Thurman’s call to deeper engagement with G-d. I heard Paul’s testimony about releasing the things behind him in order to reach forward to may lie ahead. My spiritual path for the past few years has been about this practice – carefully sorting through my life, laying aside those things that no longer serve G-d’s purpose in my life, and creating space to grow into who I am becoming. I found the dream to be descriptive instead of prescriptive. It gave me a framework for the spiritual journey I have been on for years, a journey of returning home and growing up by giving up that which I found to be unnecessary or unhelpful.
I wonder if we spend so much time carrying old experiences that we miss the chance to see newness all around us and by extension, I wonder if we spend so much time trying to be “not something” that we wind up becoming “nothing at all.” We expend so much energy measuring ourselves against experiences that should been lain aside a long time ago and in so doing we miss G-d calling our name right here and right now. Our identity is home, in our name spoken in sweetness, in our belovedness, and in our welcome. The world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away.
Every experience we encounter – good or bad – gives us something we need for our journey. The trick is to take only what we need. If we aren’t careful we take too much and sooner or later it becomes too much to bear. “Give us this day our daily bread” isn’t just poetry, its survival. We must remain open to what tomorrow has to give us or we will soon find ourselves stuck.
We have all seen them, travelers in the airport lugging around bag after bag after bag. When I see them I write so many stories about the exotic places they might be going and what they will experience. I also write a story of how exhausting it must be to travel with all that stuff. I have learned to travel light and leave room for the possibility of bringing home something new.
The Lenten journey is one of stripping off the excess and returning home to a compassionate G-d who calls us each by name and invites us grow into the fullness of who we are – so wonderfully loved that we cannot resist the grace of loving others.