On Becoming the Father (for Father's Day)
For our reflection this morning I have gone back to Henri Nouwen's book about his personal journey with Rembrandt's painting 'The Return of the Prodigal Son', which is on the screen/s. A journey which is of course tied into the parable from Luke's gospel - of the Prodigal Son, or the Resentful Brother, or the Welcoming Father, however you want to name it. While Nouwen has many profound and important words to say about identifying with the two sons in this story and painting, this morning I'm going straight to the end of the book, where he reflects on what it means to become the Father in this story.
And this is not just an invitation to men - it has something to do with the nature of being God's child and heir, which is for all of us, male and female, those who have had their own children, and those who have not. Time, however, is a factor. Learning to become the welcoming father from this story can really only happen with experience and age. This is one of the tasks of growing up and growing older. Each year that passes, whatever the circumstances of our life, we are on this path of learning to love as God loves, to “be compassionate as God is compassionate”, and to welcome and forgive as God welcomes and forgives.
Before we can become the Father, of course, we need to have discovered at some level, what it is to be the sons – to have had to return home to God from places of lostness, to have realised our inner poverty, our judging comparisons, our own sense of unworthiness, our envies and resentments. We need to know in our core that God has never forsaken or forgotten us but has always sought us out and desired us, and celebrated our return. This journey of discovering God's love for us is life-long, as life's changes happen and we enter new cycles of struggle and defeat, and face yet another aspect of ourselves in our woundedness, and have to 'return home' and receive the welcome of God all over again. If we do not have this sense of being 'at home' in God, of being 'the beloved', then we will always struggle to offer that to others. But, as Nouwen says, the call to return home is not the ultimate call – the deeper call is the one to become the Father – to grow into people who can offer unconditional welcome to others.
Out of all that Nouwen says about this way of being, I have drawn out a few threads that resonated with me.
The father in this painting and story is one who waits and in that waiting is grief, because of the willingness to give his children freedom. Freedom to reject and hate him, or simply disregard him. Freedom to get themselves into all sorts of horrible messes and to experience pain and fear that the Father can do nothing to help, until the child wants to be helped.
By choosing not to control, interfere in, or have unwelcome influence, the Father subjects himself to suffering – the suffering of empathy for his children's distress, and grief at the harm done to the priceless image that he formed in them in the womb, and grief at distance when he desires closeness and intimacy. He gives everything away with a non-demanding love.
Our ability to be 'the Father' for others has to do with our willingness to suffer this kind of grief, to give without conditions or return, to wait and watch without exerting our own needs to fix things or control others. It's a willingness to face loneliness – the dependence of others on us can be a kind of company, but it is not freely chosen company. Being Father involves willingness to be misunderstood, to be judged and found wanting, because of the projected wounds of others. Those who have nurtured children through their adolescence and early adulthood I think know something of this pain of waiting. But for all of us, in all our relationships there is something of this suffering if we choose to give others their freedom, and if we choose to wait 'at home' rather than trying to track people down and sort them out.
Another feature of the Father's love in this story is a joyful 'moving towards' with celebration and forgiveness. Most of us, when we are rejected, or feel rejected, put up a barrier to being hurt further. We turn our backs until words of apology come our way, and even when we forgive, we hold a part of ourselves in reserve to protect us from the pain of having our trust disappointed again. But this Father is always 'at home' looking out, waiting, hoping and loving, and when the prodigal comes in sight the Father moves toward him with open arms. And when the older brother comes in from the fields and refuses to enter the party the Father goes out to him too, vulnerable in his joy, only to be met with accusations. Instead of getting angry in reply and storming back inside, he responds to the accusation with words of love and welcome. This Father has celebration and joy deeply entwined with the suffering I was just talking about, and longs to extend that joy to others, and is always inviting people to join in.
For us, then, the journey of becoming the Father is a process of learning to receive joy by moving toward and inviting in, rather than protecting, turning away, or focusing on our own hurts. This is a movement of vulnerability, because when we move toward someone and open our arms, we expose ourselves to rejection and to attack. Only a person who has lived through those betrayals of generosity and learned to forgive, and only a person who knows what it is to feel the comforting hands of God on their own back, can offer this fully to others. For most of us it's a long and difficult road of discovery.
The final insight of Nouwen's that struck me was that it's the Father's essence to bless, and to bless without comparison or correction. The Father's hands in this painting are part embrace, and part benediction – a blessing without words in this instance. Here there is no punishment or judgement, not even a holding to account or a requirement to explain. Simply a reminder that his son is the beloved and that he is now home. Likewise, in the story, the words of the Father to the older brother: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” No rebuke or justification. We, on the other hand, as evidenced by the sons in the story, are hard-wired to compare and to find ourselves wanting, and then we assume, and even teach people that God feels the same. It is hard for us to accept that we are all, equally and uniquely, God's 'favourite child,' and that it is at the heart of God's nature to bless us, rather than punish or rank us according to the standards of this world and our peers.
For us to begin to act as loving Father to the others we encounter in our world, we need to learn how to bless – without reserve, and without needing to fix or improve, or to make comparisons about deserving and quality. And blessing is much more than simply tolerance, live and let live, or 'love the sinner, hate the sin.' Blessing says 'you are at home here, beloved in all you are, and you are welcome to your core.' Does this mean we never try to guide, challenge, question or caution those we bless? If we have truly lived our blessing we may earn the right to. But in this world of great hurting, it is not guidance, challenge, question and caution that actually create the space for people to change and grow. It is love and acceptance. People transform and heal in the company of those who love them. Only in the safety of unconditional love can we cope with and freely pay attention to, the pricking of our own conscience. Other people's growing up is between them and God. In relation to each other, as we enact the love of the Father, the most important thing is grace.
We have come here with our various stories, our experiences of being fathered...well or poorly. We all carry the wounds of these two sons – we all have to experience turning around and going inside to where the celebration is happening, rather than keeping ourselves out in the cold of our ongoing brokenness. But more than that, as we know what it is to be received with welcome and loved in our poverty, we are invited to become like the Father, like God – able to carry the sorrow of not controlling others, even when they hurt us or themselves, able to move towards others with open arms even when we have been hurt, and able to bless without comparison or judgement. Life in all its griefs and joys will teach us much of what we need to know to find this place in ourselves. May God grant us the capacity to grow through our experiences into people who look and act more and more like the loving Father, who is filled with compassion toward all.