You know how it is when you hear a sentence that simultaneously upends and undoes your thinking? This week, I revisited a book that had this sort of sentence in its introduction.
You wouldn’t be terribly surprised to learn that the book’s author was Henri Nouwen, would you? He is the kind of writer who can marshall that sort of heaven-invades-earth power in a single turn of phrase. In the introduction to his book The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story Of Homecoming (Doubleday, 1994), he shares a sentence that an influential friend spoke into his life at a time when he was wrestling with a great many things. She referenced the parable of the prodigal sons, and then told Nouwen, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize you are called to be the father.”
Game over. I could have stopped reading the book at that point. (I’m glad I didn’t, because the rest of the book was overflowing with Nouwen’s rich insight.)
But oh, that sentence. It has reoriented and guided my relationships with some closest to me, and helped me understand how to relate to many others. I recognize my younger son tendencies at some times, and my older son ways at other times. Being the father – the personification of this kind of love – doesn’t come easy to me.
I don’t think it comes easy to any of us, but Nouwen’s friend was right. The father is who we’re called to be, both individually and corporately. On an individual level, God has used this sentence to expose and correct my older/younger child mindset. My younger child self rationalizes my sin so I don’t have to feel the sear of dying flesh. My older child persona specializes in judgmental ways meant to buffer my heart from compassion for others. Being the father means embracing both kinds of people – even when one of those people, younger or older, happens to be staring at me in the mirror.
On a corporate level, we’re called to be the father, too. Some congregations I’ve known focus on attracting younger sons and daughters by elevating once-lost, now-found” dramatic testimonies and felt-need programming to reach them. Other congregations, driven by rules and fear, create cultures where religious performance sets the tone.
What would a congregation look like where the prevailing sensibility was a corporate longing to “become the father”? I know it must begin first with each one of us on a personal level. But I’m throwing it out to you as a discussion question. Your thoughts? Examples?