An Audience of One

A recent sermon on Luke 20:1-9 held an unexpected message. Jesus had been teaching the people in the temple courts when the religious leaders challenged his authority. The sermon focused not on Jesus’s response to the chief priests and teachers of the law but on why these leaders responded to Jesus as they did.

“Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

The religious leaders did not answer Jesus honestly. They crafted their response to the crowd. If they had questioned John the Baptist’s authority, the people would have been angry.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.

William Shakespeare

The response of the religious leaders reminds me of today’s politicians who say one thing among themselves but say the opposite to the public. Politicians constantly play to their audience, sometimes to an audience of one.

The pastor said we all make this mistake. I have to admit that I am guilty of this. We pay too much attention to what the crowd thinks of us. We practice “impression management,” trying to maintain a desired image of ourselves. Perhaps we act as if we have all the answers. We share the most attractive pictures of ourselves. We share our successes and not our failures.

Nowhere is impression management more evident than on social media, a stage where people perform in a socially acceptable way. Social media does not make you a truer version of yourself and it won’t make you happier. Social media often makes people feel inadequate compared to friends who seem to have it all.

The lesson is to make God your audience. When you live your life with God as your audience, you are free to be the real you. He sees both the best and worst versions of us and still loves us unconditionally.

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Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

The Shortest Sentence

The shortest sentence:

Go!
A two letter command…
The potential, immeasurable

Go ahead, go forward
Go in any direction
Go where no one has gone before

Go to the shop or go to work
Go to school or go to church
Go where you’re needed

Go on an adventure
Go on a mission
Go on a trip of a lifetime

Go with what you can carry
Go with the clothes on your back
Go with the Prince of Peace

Go it alone
Go with friends
Go with God

Go with purpose
Go with passion
Go with gusto

Go into a hungry world
Go proclaim Good News
Go make disciples

Get up and
Go!

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER | @LGNWVR on Unsplash

Struggles of the Good Son

In part two of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen focused on the struggles of the older son. We think of the younger son as the one who was lost. He was the one who left home and squandered his inheritance on wild living. The older son was faithful, hardworking and obedient. The truth is both sons were lost.

The younger son’s sins are easy to see. He was greedy and self-indulgent. He spent money recklessly. The older son’s sins are not as obvious. We know he was obedient. We can assume that he was respected and admired as a good man. When his self-indulgent brother was lavished with a huge welcome home celebration, he became angry, resentful, and jealous. He felt unappreciated.

What does more damage? Sins of the flesh or sins of the heart? Lust and greed or anger and resentment?

Nouwen pointed out that you can be lost while still at home. Even righteous people struggle with sins of the heart – anger and resentment, judgment and condemnation, bitterness and jealousy. This way of being lost is “closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.” Sins of the heart are the dark underside of virtue.

The older son worked hard and did not get what he thought he deserved, certainly not compared to his younger brother. As a result, he became self-pitying and envious. He felt no joy at his brother’s return.

I can relate to the older brother’s response to his father. I’ve often complained and grumbled about unfairness, in my heart if not out loud. I can relate to his feelings. I’ve also felt unappreciated, rejected, and overlooked.

Nouwen noted that in this world, people are compared and ranked as more or less successful, more or less attractive, etc. How much of our sadness or happiness comes from comparing ourselves to others? I know that comparing myself to others often makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

We are so conditioned to measuring ourselves against other people, it can be hard for us to accept that someone loves us unconditionally. God loves each of us completely. He gave us our unique gifts and understands our shortcomings.

Nouwen told a story about a young man who was loved and admired by everyone who knew him. One critical remark from a friend sent him into a deep depression. His self-esteem was so fragile, he believed his friend had broken through the facade and had seen the despicable man he really was.

Even people who outwardly seem to have it all can feel insecure inside. Beneath the self-confidence and arrogance there can be an insecure heart that isn’t as sure of itself as the outward behavior leads one to believe.

Nouwen wrote that for those of us who struggle with sins of the heart, trust and gratitude are the keys to returning home to the father. “Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home.” Trust that God loves us completely as we are. We are worth finding.

Gratitude is the opposite of resentment. When we choose to be grateful, we acknowledge that all that we are and all that we have are gifts from God. Gratitude for what we have helps us see that our brothers and sisters belong to God as much as we do.

Nouwen’s reflections on the challenges of the good son remind me to pay attention to my feelings. When I catch myself judging, condemning, or resenting someone else (as I surely will), I should stop and remind myself that God loves each of us unconditionally. He loves me completely even though I am flawed in so many ways. He has forgiven me. His amazing grace is available to all of us! We are not rivals.

Praying for Another Country

I’ve prayed for my country, the United States of America, as it has become increasingly divided over the past decade or so. In January, I joined other Christians in praying for our country for fifty days, using readings from the Psalms as inspiration. Now another country is in my prayers every day and my worries about my own country have receded into the background.

While I was praying for my own country’s democracy, the people of Ukraine had even more reason to worry as Russia prepared to invade their country.

A friend of mine, a journalist in North Carolina, knows a woman from Ukraine, Maia Mikhaluk. When the war began, he started sharing her Facebook posts and I follow her now. She shares her faith, her fears, her joy at the birth of her granddaughter. And interestingly, she also uses the Psalms as prayers for her country.

The war in Ukraine reminds me to put my own country’s challenges in perspective. The U.S. is not the center of the universe! The U.S. shakes and rattles from internal rumblings but the whole world groans!

He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands,
He’s got the whole world in His hands.

Lord, your praise will always be on my lips. From heaven, You look down and see the struggles of all mankind. I pray that the people of Ukraine will continue to be strong and courageous. You are our hope and shield. Father, you love righteousness and justice! Stop the evils of war. Foil the plans of the wicked. Comfort the suffering. Amen.

https://www.facebook.com/maia.mikhaluk

Leaving Home

I am reading my first Henri Nouwen book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen was so moved by Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal that he spent hours gazing at it at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and obtained a copy so he could look at it frequently over the years.

I don’t understand Nouwen’s obsession with the painting, but it obviously moved him. I was moved by Nouwen’s reflections on the parable. The parable of the Prodigal Son invites us to see ourselves in the story as the wayward child or as the dutiful but resentful child of God. Nouwen saw himself as both sons and even as the welcoming father.

When I see myself in the story, it is as the prodigal, which seems odd because I am normally such an obedient person. But as a teenager, I yielded to temptation and began to wander away from God. I stopped going to church. I stopped reading the Bible. I continued to stay away from my spiritual home as a young adult, but like the Prodigal Son, I wasn’t satisfied with what the world had to offer. I missed my Father.

While I have always thought of leaving my Father’s home as a specific time in my past, Nouwen sees leaving as an ongoing spiritual struggle. Where is my home? To whom do I belong?

When we stray away from God, we deny that we belong to him completely. We live as if we belong to the world. We live as if we must look elsewhere to find a home.

Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved. On you my favor rests.”

Henri Nouwen

Many of us long to hear God’s voice. Nouwen describes God’s voice as the voice of love that speaks from eternity. When I hear that voice, I am home.

When Jesus prayed for his disciples, he said, “they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” In other words, we do not belong to the world. If we follow Jesus, our true home is with God.

I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.

John 17:13-16

Every time we go elsewhere looking for love and acceptance, we stop hearing the voice that says we are Beloved. The voices of the world tell us that we must prove our worth. When I doubt my worthiness and goodness, I am listening to the voices of the world. Those voices can pull me away from my true home.

The world offers love conditionally. You are loved if you do this or that, if you are this or that. I will love you if you are successful. I will love you if you give me what I want.

Nouwen says that when you feel angry, resentful, jealous, or vengeful, it is a sign that you have left home. When you wonder why someone hurt you or rejected you or ignored you, you have left home and are seeking love and validation elsewhere.

I can really relate to what Nouwen had to say about seeking love and acceptance from the world. How often have I been filled with doubts about whether I am good enough based on the world’s conditions? How often have I fretted about being rejected or ignored?

It is so easy to forget how much we are loved by our Father. He loves us unconditionally! His love is enough.