Henri Nouwen

bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”


If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?


In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.


The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!


[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.

[7] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3313


In the mid-90s, a movie came out that has a scene that sometimes comes to me when thinking about Romans 13.  It’s The Basketball Diaries, with Leonardo DiCaprio.  The movie is based on the life of punk rock / new wave artist Jim Carroll, when he was a student at a Catholic high school in Manhattan.

DiCaprio plays Carroll, who becomes addicted to heroin.  The scene I’m thinking of is one in which he falls asleep in class and has a drug-induced dream.  In the dream, he’s shooting his classmates, when all of a sudden, “Whack!”  Their teacher, a priest named Father McNulty, slams his cane against his desk and shouts, “Wake up, Mr. Carroll, it’s later than you think!”

He could have been quoting verse 11, where St. Paul says that “you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”


At this point, I feel compelled to interject some comments.  I like to sleep.  I count it among my hobbies!  Sure it’s true that if I don’t get enough sleep, I’m more likely to have one of my seizures.  But aside from that, sleeping is a good thing.  It can even be fun!

Having said that, I don’t think Paul’s saying to wake up is meant to suggest insomnia.  He wants to underline the urgency of the moment.  That’s not the urgency that says, “Oh no!  We’re about to die!”  Instead, it’s an urgency that says “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (vv. 11-12).

I like the way the Revised English Bible puts verse 11.  It has a tiny note of urgency!  “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis: it is high time for you to wake out of sleep.”  This is the hour of crisis.

In the early church, it was commonly expected that Jesus would return in their lifetimes.  I think it’s safe to say that we can sense that tension, as Paul writes to the Romans.

Stepping back somewhat, it seems that over and over in human history, people have felt it necessary to say, “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis.”  The time with the most importance… the time with the most danger… the time with the most promise…  It always seems to be the present generation, the ones who are currently drawing breath.  I guess that’s understandable, since the present moment is the only one we can control.

Our English word “crisis” comes directly from the Greek κρισις (krisis), literally, “decision” or “judgment.”  That word is not in our scripture reading.  I guess those translators used the word “crisis” to underline Paul’s point: the time is at hand.  Wake up!

So what’s the story?  Are we dealing with too much drama?

Paul speaks of two ways of living.  On the one hand, there is living “honorably as in the day.”  On the other hand, there is “reveling and drunkenness,” “debauchery and licentiousness,” “quarreling and jealousy” (v. 13).  Those things don’t have to be expressed outwardly.  They begin in the heart.  It’s the difference between being wide awake spiritually—and sleepwalking through life.

Returning to the example I mentioned at the beginning, we can drug ourselves without using mind-altering chemicals.  There is a multitude of ways in which we lull ourselves to sleep.

Black friday

One way we do this is through our almost manic determination to buy stuff, just for the sake of buying stuff.  This is especially appropriate, since we just “celebrated” Black Friday.  We can look like we’re in a trance, the message of commercials burned into our neurons.  “I am a consumer…I am a consumer.”  People even resort to acts of violence, just so they can be the first to get the latest cell phone.

(By the way, before we leave the thought of this long holiday weekend, let me say that Thanksgiving here was very special.  Plenty of good food and good conversation.  And also, deep apologies to those cheering against the Cowboys in the late afternoon game.)

Another way we sleepwalk involves being overly engrossed in television, in what my dear departed dad occasionally would call “the idiot box.”  (He would now need to modify his comment to include some internet sites.)  What TV shows would warrant such a label?  How about Dancing with the Stars?  (Okay, I know that it’s easy to criticize something I don’t like!  It’s also possible to drug ourselves with shows like The Big Bang Theory!)

Here’s another way in which we need to rouse ourselves from slumber.  It’s by living in a bubble.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about—only listening to people with whom we already agree.  I’ve had friends who seriously disagree with me on politics, religion, food!

We can rely solely on Fox News Channel or MSNBC.  We can assume that the “others” (whoever that may be) have some nefarious agenda, and they’re trying to deceive us.  We can assume the worst about them, or that they’re simply deluded.  They have nothing worth saying that we need to hear.  We don’t listen.

And guess what?  We miss out on so much.

That’s the very opposite of what Paul says about clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.  Christ wakes us up to experience real life!

Getting back to Paul’s sense of urgency, he doesn’t just drop this out of the blue.  He begins verse 11, “Besides this.”  Besides what?  To know what he’s talking about, we need to look at what he’s already said.

He starts chapter 13 by telling the church in Rome that they should be good citizens—and that includes paying taxes.  Yes, I know.  Paul, you should probably keep that to yourself!  It’s when we get to verse 8 that he speaks the language of love.

He tells the church that they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  After all, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Here’s a question.  How does love fit within the context of crisis?  As we just saw, Paul is linking love with his sense of urgency.  He wants people to wake up.  So what’s the connection?

A good way to approach this is to recall that this is a scripture for Advent.  It’s all about preparation.  What are we preparing?  Are we preparing our homes?  Are we festooning them with festive frills?  Are we preparing special meals?  Are we basting birds with broth?  Perhaps.

But that’s not what Advent is about.  It’s about preparing ourselves.  This is a preparation that involves waiting, waiting for the One who comes.  This isn’t the type of waiting we do in the doctor’s office, or at the airport, or in line at the DMV.

Waiting for the Lord isn’t helpless lingering, in which we’re trying to figure out ways to kill time.  Waiting for the Lord requires awareness, and awareness is impossible if we’re sleepwalking through life.  We have to be awake in order to show love and faithfulness.

Wake up

Henri Nouwen elaborates on this.[1]  “If we do not wait patiently in expectation for God’s coming in glory, we start wandering around, going from one little sensation to another.  Our lives get stuffed with newspaper items, television stories, and gossip.  Then our minds lose the discipline of discerning between what leads us closer to God and what doesn’t, and our hearts gradually lose their spiritual sensitivity.

“Without waiting for the [Lord], we will stagnate quickly and become tempted to indulge in whatever gives us a moment of pleasure.”  That’s what Paul’s talking about in the prohibitions he mentions.  You know, reveling and drunkenness, quarreling and jealousy, and so on.  This isn’t just about morality; it’s about keeping us awake.  Nouwen continues, “When we have the Lord to look forward to, we can already experience him in the waiting.”

That is the urgency Paul expresses.  That is the crisis—the decision, the judgment call—he presses upon us.

Banu and I sense the hope and expectation, and yes, the need to stay awake, as this new church year begins.

So, as we enter this season of Advent, what are you, what are we, awaiting?  Even if it is later than we think, our gracious Lord knows the time and is willing to come to us.

[1] henrinouwen.org/meditation/waiting-for-christ-to-come

Thomas, the daring doubter

A couple of years ago, I led a discussion of a book by church consultant Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.[1]  We were talking about the ability to keep one’s head when emotions might overwhelm.  At one point, the discussion took a rather strange turn.  I will admit that I was responsible for that strange turn!

I mentioned the movie World War Z.  It’s about zombies taking over the planet.  It stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, who works with the UN.

He hears about a wall that the Israelis have built to keep out the zombies.  So he boards one of the few planes left flying and goes to Israel, to check it out.  Upon arrival, Gerry meets Jurgen Warmbrunn, an Israeli official, and asks how they could have known to build a wall.  He responds, saying they intercepted a message from an Indian general who said they were fighting “the Rakshasha.  Translation, zombies.”  (And yes, I did consult the internet for lines that I had forgotten!)

Gerry looks at him in disbelief.  “Jurgen Warmbrunn,” he says, “high-ranking official in the Mossad.  Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative.  And yet, you build a wall because you read a communiqué that mentions the word ‘zombie.’”

Warmbrunn sympathizes with his disbelief.  Then he talks about events in which the Jews thought they were safe:  concentration camps in the 30s, the ‘72 Olympics, and war in 1973.  People doubted the danger until it was too late.

“So,” he says, “we decided to make a change.  The tenth man.  If nine of us look at the exact same information and arrive at the same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree.  No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start digging on the assumption that the other nine are wrong.”

Gerry asks, “You were that tenth man?”

He replies, “Precisely.  Since everyone assumed that this talk of ‘zombies’ was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption that when they said ‘zombies,’ they meant zombies.”

Unfortunately for them, the wall doesn’t protect them very long.  Some refugees are singing loudly, and the zombies outside are drawn to the noise.  They climb the wall, with the humans trapped inside.  Like fish in a barrel, they quickly become dinner.  Of course, Brad Pitt escapes!

What I found interesting was the concept of the “tenth man (or woman),” one who disagrees with the others, no matter how unlikely their position might be.

In John 20, I wonder if we can see Thomas, in a way, playing the role of the tenth man.  Going back to my original comment, can we possibly see him as the one who keeps his head when emotions might overwhelm?  I’ll admit that would give his nickname “doubting Thomas” a certain wisdom and awareness of his role!

image from matthewdg.files.wordpress.com

I think St. Thomas has been unfairly portrayed.  It’s not like he’s the only one who doubts that Jesus has been raised from the dead!  Maybe the reason he gets singled out is because he’s the only one absent on that first Easter evening.  Being the odd one out is always a tricky situation.

Here’s a quick side note.  On that evening, the scripture says the disciples were behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19).  John wrote his gospel in the 90s, near the end of the first century.  By that time, the split between Judaism and Christianity was a couple of decades old, and there was some Jewish persecution of the church.  Still, the reference to “the Jews” is unfortunate.  Throughout history, not understanding the context, people have targeted the Jews as bad guys.  That’s always been a grave injustice.

Now, back to Thomas.  Not everyone has given him grief.  Like the other apostles, who took the gospel to different places, Thomas went on a trip of his own.  Tradition says he headed to the east, eventually arriving in India.  That’s also where he was martyred.  There is a branch of the church known as the St. Thomas Christians.  They still exist, and they trace their history back to the apostle.

Having said that, we still have to acknowledge that Thomas does doubt.  So what about it?  Nancy Rockwell, in her blog “The Bite in the Apple,” has some thoughts about that.[2]

“Like a breath of fresh air, Doubting Thomas enters the over-lilyed atmosphere of Easter.  He’s reliably among us on the Sunday after Easter—and on every Sunday.  He’s part of us, steadily, reassuringly.  He anchors us.”  She admits that believing someone has come back from the grave can be a bit much!

Again, Thomas isn’t the only one in his group who doubts.  He is, however, the only one who gives full voice to it; he’s the only one who states it plainly.  Rockwell draws a parallel between his situation and the ones we find ourselves in.

Doubting Thomas, she says, “belonged to the group, those who believed, those who said they did but didn’t, and those who had questions but were afraid to pipe up.”  She continues, with a comment we might find surprising, “Churches are not communities of believers, but communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.”

I don’t know about you, but I have been in churches where you dare not ask any questions.  Not swallowing everything hook, line, and sinker, is considered to be a no-no, even sinful.  There’s a saying that goes, you are supposed to check your brain at the door.

I’m not sure what they do with Jesus saying to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).

Questions are good.  I have questions, and I also have doubts.  Kids have questions, and they also have doubts.  When they come to us with them, it’s okay to say, “I don’t have all the answers,” rather than giving some rehearsed response.  It’s okay to say that to each other.

It’s a good thing when we’re a community that welcomes questions, especially the question, “Why?”  That’s a nice one!  It can also drive you crazy.

Earlier in John’s gospel, there’s an episode that I think shows the courage of Thomas.  (That explains the word “daring” in the title!)

In chapter 11, Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is at death’s door.  He doesn’t immediately take off, but when he says it’s time to go, his disciples remind him that he’s a wanted man.  If the authorities hear he’s back in town, there’s a jail cell with his name on it!  And there might be something worse with his name on it.

Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v. 16).  Some might claim that he’s being a naysayer.  Some would chastise him for sending out negative vibes.  Some might say, “Where’s your faith, Thomas?”

Maybe those are fair complaints.  But it seems to me that we can also see him demonstrating not only courage, but loyalty.  It looks like he’s ready to die with Jesus.  And when his doubts are answered in chapter 20, with Jesus appearing before him, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).  For many people, this is the highlight of the story—when Thomas finally believes.

Our friend Nancy has a slightly different spin.  Three different times Jesus says, “Peace be with you” to these “emotionally exhausted people” (vv. 19, 21, 26).

She says, “The peace of Christ is given to all of them, including Thomas in his doubting.  This peace Christ gives is not just for believers, and it does not separate believers from unbelievers.  The peace of Christ does not separate.  Everything about Christ joins people together, across all the separations:  sin, judgment, defeat; gender, culture, faith.”

There is immense power in the peace of Christ.  It is indeed extended to all, even to those of us who sometimes doubt, whether that doubt is daring or not!  That’s what our liturgical use of it in worship is all about.  Passing the peace of Christ isn’t a matter of chit-chat, of catching up on current events.  It is a matter of binding ourselves together in the bond of peace.  Or better, recognizing and embracing the bond of peace that’s already there.

It might seem like having doubts and the peace of Christ contradict each other.  But God comes to us in the contradictions of our lives.

About these contradictions, Henri Nouwen mentions, “being home while feeling homeless…being popular while feeling lonely, being believers while feeling many doubts.”  These contradictions “can frustrate, irritate, and even discourage us.”[3]  Can any of us relate to this?  Can any of us relate to the father who, upon bringing his child to Jesus for healing, said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”? (Mk 9:24).

We need not be defeated or paralyzed.  “These same contradictions can bring us into touch with a deeper longing, for the fulfillment of a desire that lives beneath all desires and that only God can satisfy.  Contradictions, thus understood, create the friction that can help us move toward God.”

That’s the gift that Thomas discovers.  On the other side of his questions—and even his doubt—he finds God.

I wonder, is it possible to admit that it’s necessary to question, even to doubt?  Is it necessary to do that in order to love our Lord with heart, soul, and mind?  I don’t have the final answer on that.  As I like to do, I am posing the question!

Still, after Thomas’ eyes are opened, Jesus gives him this to chew on.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).

Who are these blessed “who have not seen and yet have come to believe”?  To begin with, there are the people who first hear John’s gospel; they live near the end of the 1st century.  This includes Christians one, two, even three generations after Jesus.  And it includes those down through the centuries, leading to us today.

So I think I’m safe in saying:  take heart.  Remember, churches are more than communities of believers; they are communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.  And thanks be to God, our Lord is faithful and patient with us.  Our Lord extends peace and pronounces us blessed when we come to believe, no matter how long it takes.  That’s what it means to be the people of the risen Christ.

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/doubting-thomas

[3] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3708

the prodigal gospel

The gospel according to St. Luke has one of the most beloved parables of Jesus, the Prodigal Son. The story of this prodigal (that is, “wasteful”) son is like a treasure chest, filled with precious gemstones. So many valuable nuggets can be found within it.

In the year 2000, my wife Banu and I moved to New York. The first church we served in this state was in Jamestown. One year when we were there, the congregation had a Lenten series in which people from various faiths and philosophies were invited to come and share their stories with us. (One of our parishioners invited her Tai Chi instructor.)

We had one session with a teacher who shared his experience as a Muslim. It was a wide-ranging conversation, covering many topics. One that came up was the matter of grace. He asked me what we meant by it. I took a lesson from Jesus, who in the scriptures tends to tell stories rather than give textbook answers. So in brief detail, I talked about the prodigal son. I said the father is the picture of grace.

image from youngadultcatholics.files.wordpress.com

In Luke 15, some Pharisees and scribes are upset because Jesus is being friendly with undesirables, those who according to the religious and social standards are considered unclean. Apparently Jesus thinks these Pharisees and scribes need a refresher course on grace, because that’s what they get. Maybe I’m mistaken, but my guess would be we all need a refresher course on grace.

As I just said, Jesus loves to tell stories. He responds with stories of lostness: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally, a lost son.

He introduces the third one by saying, “There was a man who had two sons” (v. 11). The younger son presents his father with a blunt request. He wants his portion of the inheritance. And he wants it right now! Many have commented on how outrageous a request this is. As things turn out for the young man, things really do get outrageous.

Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of a ritual in the Talmud called the qetsatsah ceremony. It’s designed “to punish a Jewish boy who loses the family inheritance to Gentiles. Here’s how it works. If he ever shows up in his village again, then the villagers can fill a large earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal, and shout his name out loud, pronouncing him cut off from his people.” He’s disgracefully driven out, shamefully sent away.

Having said all that, the father still agrees “to [divide] his property between them” (v. 12). And within a few days, the son takes his massive amount of spending money, and as the scripture says, “traveled to a distant country” (v.13). This is the road trip of a lifetime. He wants to get as far away as possible. He’s young, rich, and ready to party!

Unfortunately, our boy is not paying attention to his spending. The Bible says he squanders his property in dissolute, reckless living. And adding insult to injury, the place gets hit with famine.

Desperate, the young man agrees to work for a pig farmer. Feeding swine, not the most sought-after position, is truly an abomination for a Jew. And with the crappy paycheck, he can’t even afford to eat. His gnawing hunger makes the pods he feeds the animals look pretty tasty. He literally wants to “pig out.”

Eventually, he gets tired of this hogwash and realizes something. “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!” (v. 17). And he rehearses what he’ll say: he’ll admit his guilt and beg to be taken on as a worker. So off he goes.

At this point, I want to inject a thought. Remember, Jesus isn’t simply telling a fascinating story. He wants his hearers to see themselves in what he’s saying. I invite all of us to do the same. Think of ways in which we’ve been the younger son. (Or imagine yourself as a prodigal daughter.) Think of blessings we’ve squandered, craving the food of swine.

image from www.visitationmonasteryminneapolis.org

With verse 20, the tone changes. The focus shifts from the younger son to the father. He’s really the glue that holds this entire story together. In describing the father, Jesus paints a picture totally at odds with what his culture would expect. At the first glimpse of the returning prodigal son, the father immediately sprints toward him and embraces him.

In ancient times, no self-respecting man would run like that, “like a girl, like a mother instead of a father.” Aristotle reportedly said, “Great men never run in public.” The father doesn’t care about social convention.

The younger son launches into his speech, confessing his sin and admitting that he no longer deserves to be considered a son. But before he can beg for a job, his father interrupts and says, “Let’s get you dressed up in style. Slay the fatted calf! It’s time to really party!”

At verse 25, we come to the second major section of the parable. This is where the elder son enters the picture. If the younger son represents irresponsibility and wastefulness, then the elder son symbolizes responsibility and duty. While the younger son was off playing, he was making sure things got done. While the prodigal was nowhere to be found, he was the good son, the model son. And while he’s out in the field—wouldn’t you know it?—singing and dancing are going on!

When a slave tells him the reason for the party, let’s say he is not pleased. He refuses to go back to the house. This prompts the father to go out to him and plead. It’s at this point that the elder son unleashes the flood of anger and resentment and pain that has welled up within him.

For years, I’ve worked like a slave for you, “and I have never disobeyed your command” (v. 29). He feels like a glorified servant. And to what thanks? You’ve never even given me a stupid goat so I can feast with my friends. “But when this son of yours came back, who devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” (v. 30).

Notice that the older son refers to his wayward sibling as “this son of yours,” not “my brother.” His heart has become hardened. The older brother needs to undergo conversion as much as the younger one. But with him, it isn’t so obvious. He hasn’t lived a wild life; he’s always done the right thing. But like everyone who makes sure that they do the right thing, his sin is on the inside. It is more subtle.

And the father understands that. He also understands the pain of his son, the son who stayed at home, rather than going off and sowing wild oats. He feels his pain! The father responds in verse 31 begins with the word teknon, translated in the NRSV as “son,” but it has the more intimate meaning of “child.”

He appeals to his embittered offspring: child, my son, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (vv. 31-32).

Celebrating his return is by no means a matter of repayment. You’re right—he doesn’t deserve anything. And I’d be justified in casting him out. No, celebrating your brother’s return isn’t a matter of repayment—it’s not a matter of justice; it’s a matter of grace.

One of the most beloved spiritual figures of the twentieth century was Henri Nouwen. Of his many books, the one he considered to be his favorite was The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Published in 1992, four years before his death, it tells how Rembrandt’s painting of the same name sent him on a journey that shaped the rest of his life. In fact, he was on his way to Russia in 1996 to do a TV documentary on the painting when, during a stop in the Netherlands, he died from a heart attack.

image from 3.bp.blogspot.com

In the book he makes the painful confession that he sees too much of the elder brother in himself. “It is strange to say this,” he says, “but, deep in my heart, I have known the feeling of envy toward the wayward son. It is the emotion that arises when I see my friends having a good time doing all sorts of things that I condemn. I called their behavior reprehensible or even immoral, but at the same time I often wondered why I didn’t have the nerve to do some of it or all of it myself.” (70)

Nouwen identifies with the elder brother’s sense of loneliness—the bitter and terrible loneliness of resentment that prevents joy. (And instead of the chest tightening up, the ability to take a deep breath!)

He admits, “Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligences… As I let myself be drawn into the vast interior labyrinth of my complaints, I become more and more lost until, in the end, I feel myself to be the most misunderstood, rejected, neglected, and despised person in the world.” (72)

I wonder, haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? For Nouwen, his deliverance came in the knowledge that he had to move from being either of the sons to being the father, the one who extends grace.

Part of the artistry of this parable is that it’s incomplete. We don’t know the ending. Is the elder son able to overcome his hurt and anger and join the festivities? Are the two brothers ever reconciled? Those questions remain unanswered.

But we have a say in how the story unfolds. When we see in ourselves the wastefulness of the younger and the resentment of the older, we can remember that this is the gospel. This is the good news: that there is one who gives his life to us so that we may be reconciled. The good news is that God is prodigal: wasteful in generosity, wasteful in hospitality. The final paragraph of Henri Nouwen’s book contains the joy of that discovery:

“When, four years ago, I went to Saint Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” I had little idea how much I would have to live what I then saw. I stand with awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.” (139)

That is the gospel, the good news. We receive prodigal, wasteful grace, and we are called to share that freely.

[from top to bottom, the images are “Prodigal Son” by He Qi, “The Prodigal Son Among Swine” by Max Beckmann, and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt]

wilderness of words

I like words. I do; I love words. I’m fascinated by the whole concept of language. When I was young, I seriously thought about a career in science. I was, and still am, fascinated by mathematics—which is its own kind of language. Still, as I got older, I discovered a love of the humanities, the liberal arts. Language is central to the liberal arts, be it history, literature, philosophy, or a number of other fields, including my college major, political science. (That term “political science” is strange to me. I’ve tended to think of it as more an art than a science!)

Unfortunately, no matter how much one may like words, they can prove to be slippery little devils. Words aren’t always the best way to communicate. That’s true, even when we’re careful with the words we use.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com
In a meditation on “choosing words wisely,” Henri Nouwen underlines the necessity of thinking before we speak. “When we are boiling with anger and eager to throw bitter words at our opponents,” he says, “it is better to remain silent. Words spoken in rage will make reconciliation very hard. Choosing life and not death, blessings and not curses, often starts by choosing to remain silent or choosing carefully the words that open the way to healing.”*

But even when we choose our words carefully, there’s no guarantee that the recipient of those words will understand or receive them in the way we intend. There’s plenty of puzzling over what is, in fact, being communicated.

In 1 Timothy 1:1-11, Paul is guiding “his true-born son in the faith” on the pros and cons of using words. He warns him of “certain people” who are “teaching erroneous doctrines and devoting themselves to interminable myths and genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation, and do not further God’s plan for us, which works through faith” (vv. 3-4). You may find this impossible to believe, but there really are people who enjoy using words, not for the sake of clarity or faith, but rather, they’re motivated by listening to the sound of their own voices—or seeing their own words in print or on the internet.

The instruction of the apostle to his younger colleague—which includes correcting those who are disrupting the well-being of the community—“has love as its goal, the love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith” (v. 5). If this is absent, everything else is useless. We can have true words, but without that love, they become false.

Paul alerts Timothy to those who go off course. It’s easier to notice when someone is spouting complete nonsense. What’s more difficult is when the teaching—or ordinary conversation—is apparently in line with the truth. In verse 6, Timothy gets this caution from his teacher: “Through lack of these some people have gone astray into a wilderness of words.” That’s how it reads in the Revised English Bible. I must confess; I believe I have spent some time in that wilderness. There have been times when I was talking about stuff I really didn’t understand.

The Greek word mataiologia literally means “vain” or “empty talk.” The neglect of love leads to empty talk. When we’re more concerned with winning a debate than seeking the truth, we wind up in that wilderness. Paul warns against those who “do not understand either the words they use or the subjects about which they are so dogmatic” (v. 7). Here’s how the Good News Bible puts it: those who “do not understand their own words or the matters about which they speak with so much confidence.” Unfortunately, we have no shortage of that.

When love is absent, our actions are worse than useless; they’re positively harmful. Jesus is not served through hateful words and deeds. He weeps when we indulge in that spiteful foolishness. And it’s especially bad when we do that stuff in his name—when we claim that our Christian faith leads us to do horrible things.

When we yield to the powers of death and hate within us, we have no gospel. We have no good news, for ourselves or for others. We only have bad news. We demonstrate how poorly we know and love Jesus.

Fortunately for us, Jesus knows all about wilderness—even a wilderness of words. In the wilderness, he is tempted by the devil. And in what form do these temptations come? Don’t they come in the form of words that sound true? One of the temptations is even backed up with scripture.

Jesus shows us a world without fear, anxiety, or rejected emotions. He shows us a world where his words bring about the reality of his truth as the living Word. Jesus speaks into the wilderness without his words being a weapon manipulating the reality of love. When we sense that we’re lost in the wilderness—even a wilderness of our own choice—we do indeed spend our energy on controlling, oppressing, hurting…without patience, forgiveness, mercy, but only passing judgment.

As I just noted, yielding to the powers of death and hate within leave us with no gospel: no good news, for ourselves or others. We only have bad news. We keep Jesus at arm’s length.

But Jesus is the one who leads us to safety. Our job is to fight the appalling appeal of hardening our hearts. Remember that our words alone do not convey truth. For that, we must submit to the living Word who is Jesus the Christ. May he shine in and through our words.

www.henrinouwen.org (from Bread for the Journey, Daily Meditation for 5 September 2010)