In Lent, our adult group is working its way through a course based on Henri Nouwen’s book, ‘The Return of the Prodigal”. The first session, on 14th February, we listened to extracts from the chapter entitled “The younger son leaves home.” Nouwen says that “Leaving home is…a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace…” and “Home is the centre of my being where I can hear the voice that says “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests” –the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; the same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light. I have heard that voice. It has spoken to me in the past and continues to speak to me now. It is the never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love whenever it is heard. When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear.”

In our discussion we investigated a little about this metaphor of ‘home” in relation to God. This passage also says something about our own nature and sin. The ‘leaving home’, this rebellion against God here feels very deliberate. There is something about sin that is our choice to reject God. Our natural home is with God and yet it does not always feel like that. Sin sometimes feels the more ‘natural state’. This however is not the reality.

The second extract was about the ‘voices’ that pull us away from God. These voices do not offer unconditional love but are always conditional; They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. Nouwen describes the effect of these voices:

“At issue here is the question: “To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?” Many of my daily preoccupations suggest that I belong more to the world than to God. A little criticism makes me angry and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise lifts my spirits and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean completely at the mercy of its waves…”

We talked more about the nature of sin. It is deliberate and yet it is also the thing that we are victim to, we are held captive by it, tossed around. We need to be aware of both dynamics.

The final section looked at God’s unconditional love:

“It seems to me now that these hands have always been stretched out-even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them. God has never pulled back his arms, never withheld his blessing, never stopped considering his son the Beloved One. But the Father couldn’t compel his son to stay home. He couldn’t force his love on the Beloved. He had to let him go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cause both his son and himself.

Here the mystery of my own life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving it. But the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests”.

Following this, there was a long discussion about unconditional love. Do we need to experience unconditional love in human form before we can make sense of God’s love or can God reach out to those who have never experienced it in human form? Doesn’t grace extend to those who are so damaged by a life devoid of human love so that they can expreinece and respond to God’s love now?

There is so much in all these passages that all members of the group took home the questions that go with the course so that they could continue to think and pray about these themes.