From the Shadows Into the Light

Is it fair to say that there are essentially two ways of approaching life?  One approach, most used, is to stand on the sidelines observing, without fully engaging in life or life events.  Another approach is to leave the perimeters and to step into the middle of life in order to fully see, touch, feel, experience and savor life.  I think it is fair to say that the first approach is grounded in fear and the second approach is grounded in freedom.

In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992, Doubleday), Henri Nouwen writes, “Even though there has been in me a lifelong desire to be an insider looking out, I nevertheless kept choosing over and over again the position of outsider looking in.” (p. 12)  Nouwen goes on to unpack this statement using  Rembrandt’s painting, “Return of the Prodigal Son” as a point of reference.

Nouwen’s point is that most of us (me included) intellectually know that we are unconditionally loved but experience it from the sidelines, as an outsider, looking in because we are unable to 

I have been pondering what causes one to stay on the sidelines rather than to leave the distant lands and enter into the embrace of the Father.  I have come to the point of believing that one stays on the sidelines out of fear and a false sense of security. There is a sense of being in control and desire to form the judgments and make the decisions.  If you look at the hands of the elder brother you see hands tightly clenched and inward rather than in a posture of reaching out.  To move into the embrace is to surrender the illusion of being in control.

To begin the move toward  experiencing the embrace of the Father calls for one to search one’s self to identify the need for the true God rather than the one we have invented.  We tend to create a God who is a harsh judge which we feel gives us permission to judge others.  The retreat leader had us singing the hymn, “There is a Wideness in God’s Mercy” written by Frederick Faber.  Faber includes a verse which reads:

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own,

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.

Staying on the sidelines comes as a result of magnifying the perceived strictness of a God who welcomes all and who grants unconditional love to His creation.  To step into the middle to be embraced by unconditional love means releasing ourselves from a religious system created by humans rather than by God.

Staying on the sidelines is the product of  one who either will not or cannot reflect.  There can be no transition or movement until one is willing to let the Holy Spirit lead a process of discernment and change.  The process of discernment and change is a hard process that requires the Holy Spirit to show a person just who one  truly is and how much one needs God.  If one cannot reflect, one cannot nor will not leave the sidelines.  One begins to reflect when truly praying the Word and then sitting in  silence to hear how God will respond with the Word.  It can hurt deeply and it does become freeing.

Staying on the sidelines may feel safer but it keeps one from experiencing the abundant life promised by Jesus.  Staying on the sidelines comes as a result of not feeling worthy to be held by God.  I was on a retreat last February and the spiritual director had us pray Mark 1: 11, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (NRSV)  I couldn’t do it.  I could hear and embrace “You are my Son, the Beloved” but I could not hear and embrace “with you I am well pleased.”  In some ways I felt like the Prodigal Son sitting with the pigs and could not believe that God could be pleased with me.  I KNEW THE PROPER INTELLECTUAL RESPONSE but could not leave the sidelines to be embraced and held by the one who promises hope.  Life, at that point, was filled with judgment and little sense of forgiveness.

As I reflected on this, God helped me connect to an insightful point.  Growing up, I had gone to 14 different schools before graduating from high school.  I had always thought that this was no big deal but God helped me to see that, as a result, I ALWAYS felt like an outsider and seldom felt like an insider.  So few times have I ever felt on the inside.  When I have felt on the inside, it has felt warm and safe, but I have learned that there is more to the story and it can become rather frightening as one struggles with issues of trust.  So much to pray about!

Last week I was on a Scripture and Prayer retreat.  The speaker dealt with Luke 15 and a discussion of the prodigal and used Henri Nouwen’s book as a basis for the talks.  As I re-read the book and as I listened to the Scripture teaching,  I came to know that God is calling me to the center.  God is inviting me to now experience the embrace that has been mine since Baptism.  I have been called from the sidelines and now move to the center.  There is a strong sense of movement  as the Holy Spirit leads.

So, there is a TRANSITION as one moves from the sidelines to the center.  The Pivot Point becomes a trigger of the Holy Spirit as one realizes the difference between watching on the sidelines and living fully in the embrace of God, recognizing a CALL to the embrace of God that comes to us in our Baptism.

I know that it is totally and completely God’s action but I am reminded of Romans 12: 1 when Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (NRSV)  I am holy and acceptable through the blood of the Lamb and become acceptable because of Christ.  Now, God calls me to freedom.  I am called to step out of the shadows into the warm embrace of God, that has been present since Baptism, but now becomes the reality of life as one becomes enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

For this to be a part of our experience:

  1. Pray the Word of God.
  2. Listen to the response of God.
  3. Have a trusted mature Christian who can help ask questions and who can pray with you through the process.  The person doesn’t have to be a friend but does need to be mature in Christ and able to speak the truth in love under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
  4. See what God lays before you.
  5. Pray that the Holy Spirit will gently lead you to take the first step.
  6. Celebrate the embrace of God.

Seeking a spiritual director can be very helpful in this process.

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