Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is a great read. It will be the main source guide for a Cursillo weekend I’ll be attending at the end of April and, as such, I’ve been reading it through about once a month in preparation.(No one’s told me, by the way, if attendance is a matter of confidentiality, so I hope I’m not violating anything by telling this!)
The book is a diarist reading of Nouwen’s love affair with the Rembrandt painting of the same title and describes his ten year meditative pilgrimage of placing himself into the famous story-line of Luke 15. In beautiful summary he explores the ongoing process of becoming centered in his relationship with God. The centering process includes Nouwen’s resulting awareness of underlying motivations that conspire to destabilize his walk of faith. Like no other writer, Nouwen peels back the gritty, hard struggle of spiritual growth and this little read is powerfully illuminating.
This book has also been helpful in my understanding of my Lenten sermon series on the book of Revelation. The first image the Apostle John creates in chapter one of Revelation is a portrait of the Son of Man standing in the midst of seven candlesticks that represent seven churches of John’s bishopric. With Jesus’ immanent placement in the center, John addresses each of the churches with encouragement, correction and provocative nudging, The message is always essentially the same; centering in life means moving out of your comfort zone.
Revelation chapter 2 contains four separate letters to churches within Asia Minor. Last week we reviewed the word to Ephesus and the encouragement to return to their first love in matters of faith. This Sunday, Smyrna discovers that the comfort zone is not always a matter of personal choice. The church there will undergo tremendous pressure in the form of persecution and John goes so far as to say that trial will end in death for some.
On a personal level the subtle drift away from a love affair with God is like death by a thousand paper cuts. We notice them at first but much of what we are doing in place of loving God feels like normal life. It is not entirely satisfying but most of us resolve to return to genuine love when the distraction is past us. Many of us just wake up one day and like the prodigal son ask, “how did I get so far away?”
The Christians at Smyrna, however, were thrown into an immediate confronting clash between good and evil. A pressure that Darrell Johnson calls the “line where light clashes with darkness, the reign of justice clashes with death.” It is a place where pride opposes a change of heart and mind. The result of that confrontation will mean that some will die for their faith.
In 1994 a distraught Sheriff’s officer walked into our church/ youth organization offices with his service revolver drawn. It was unclear at the moment who his target was going to be. In the end he chose to take his own life. The tragic witnessing of that event will haunt me forever. During those moments the officer was tortured by the influences of evil that bedeviled him and he alternated between punishing me, “a man of God” and himself. There is little satisfaction to the fact that he chose to end his own life rather than mine.
Life on the edge will mean that evil will be present for a little while and it’s presence will be powerful. Some of us will be asked to live in the center of God’s will by stepping out to oppose that presence.