Don’t most of you reading this love the book The Return of the Prodigal by Henri Nouwen? Matt and I read it years ago and I’ve heard plenty of friends mention how sweet a book it is. I was pretty sure Life of the Beloved, “Nouwen’s Greatest Legacy,” would be a gift to unwrap as well.
In the prologue Nouwen wrote about his friendship with a secular Jew named Fred who implored him to speak into his life and the lives of his secular group of friends, to share something that they could understand, to teach them about the spiritual life. This book was Nouwen’s reply to Fred’s question.
Nouwen opens the first chapter with the scene of Jesus being baptized and hearing the God’s voice proclaim, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you.” Then he dives straight into his application: “Fred, all I want to say to you is “You are the Beloved (p. 30).”
The rest of the book Nouwen teaches how to live out this belovedness with four words that have become very precious to him as a priest, words that he lives and speaks daily in every Mass he performs as a Catholic priest. The words are Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given. Nouwen suggests these words as characteristics of the journey of becoming the beloved. (We already are the beloved and yet we also still need to become the beloved, says Nouwen.)
“You are the beloved”. It’s like taking a check that’s been written out for $50 to the bank and asking them to cash it for the amount that’s printed at the bottom of the check... the bank routing number: 186675490317. Those words that God spoke over Jesus don’t get to be applied wherever, however we choose. Would anyone say that these words that God spoke to Jesus could be applied to Hitler? No. It couldn’t count for Hitler not because WE decide that the words don’t apply to him, but because that was not the context of those words God spoke. I’m sure we can agree that this is a common courtesy to give to anyone’s words: apply them according to context. God said them to Jesus. Yes there is some truth to be extrapolated from it for us, but let us be careful to honor the meaning of the words as they were spoken. Doesn’t God’s Word deserve at least this common courtesy?
I will still say though, that there were some sweet spots in this book for me. Several, actually. I love the idea that we can pursue knowing, embracing our blessedness in these two ways (p 78-80): active attention to, or meditating on Scripture (which I would define as the Bible, but Nouwen leaves open) and practicing the presence, which is “attentiveness to the blessings that come to you day after day, year after year” (p79).
But reading Life of the Beloved really grieved me. Did this priest, this beloved writer-teacher, just tell a man, “you are the Beloved” with no thought of this man's unity with Christ, the One to Whom those words were said? And in the whole book does he ever dare to write “You are God’s beloved”? No .... just “the beloved.” I’m guessing that if the statement was more directly connected to God, then it would have to be followed up with “and what kind of God is he?... Who is it that calls me this, that loves me so?"
But we’d better not ask that because we would too quickly find other words of Jesus, other truths in His Word, like “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.” John 3:36.
I don’t want to loose any reader-friends for the misunderstanding that I am suggesting or that the Bible says we are not loved by God. Untrue! We are most radically, wildly loved....But God is not a partially blind, semi-holy Grandpa in the sky who we can fool on the issue of our guilt and sin. He most assuredly loves. But in all rightness and holiness, he does not accept as his beloved children, sinners in their sin. Please read on, friends.
In the epilogue, Nouwen humbly includes Fred’s response when he read the manuscript of this small book. Fred said to him “Long before you start speaking about being the Beloved and becoming the Beloved, you have to respond to some very fundamental questions such as: Who is God? Who am I? Why am I here? How can I give my life meaning? How do I get faith? When you do not help us answer these questions, your beautiful meditations on being and becoming the Beloved remain dreamlike for us(p 144-145).”
How bizarrely, heart-breakingly sad. Does this priest of God really need to be begged by an unbeliever to be told the answers to those questions? Did this priest really think that “good thoughts about yourself” heard from deep within (p 76) would satisfy a thinking man more than answers from God’s eternal, authoritative word to these real and honorable questions from his friend?
At the very end Nouwen concludes that this friendship, Fred’s question, and his own unsatisfactory answer to Fred are “the mystery of God using his secular friends to instruct his disciples.” He says this because while the book wasn’t helpful to Fred, it was found to be a great help to many believers in his community of faith.
But I have to ask, how is this helpful? How is this really helpful beyond feel-good, rootless (truthless) happy thoughts? If Jesus gave up his divine privileges and lived in our filthy world, a finite life in the flesh, healing and loving and serving, and ultimately dying for us.... was this all some tragic, unnecessary loss for God? Poor God, he didn't have to do that.... kind of thing? God turned away from the Son with whom he enjoyed eternal fellowship and darkness covered the earth at the death of Christ... and for what? Was it not needed? Was the cross a wasted sacrifice on God’s part? Can we be the beloved of God apart from trusting in and being united with God’s Eternally Beloved Son?
No. God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us! God's Savior has come for us! (We Rejoice!) He took the record of our sinfulness- all the sin of all those who trust him- and nailed it to the cross and we get the perfect, sinless record of Christ. He has pursued us,pursued us to his own death and then beyond death to defeat it, that he might give us his love and forever life with him! We Are Loved! We are loved by This God! All who abandon their self-defined notions of finding meaning in vague, non-relational belovedness, all who flee from deceptive lures to a satisfaction or completion from any other Source can discover LOVE beyond everything in this world. The Eternal Love of God.
How sad to hear this priest of God who I admired and esteemed lead people towards a spirituality that is not of God, but instead brings them straight into condemnation from God. “Whoever believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:18).
This book by Nouwen has many parallels to Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, where she also writes about the greek word "eucharisteo" . Voskamp writes for word appreciators (her style is something of alphabet art) but she also demonstrates committment to bringing her words into submission with the hard and radical truths of the Bible. The theme of Eucharist, which Nouwen enjoyed or expressed, with very slack attention to honoring the whole of the Word, Voskamp unpacks with greater diligence and adherence to the actual meaning of the text, the Word.
And perhaps Ann Voskamp has learned about writing and rewriting things with greater clarity. Even she has improved her own words lately. Where she used to sign off “All's grace,” she now writes “All’s grace, because of Christ alone.”
Amen. All’s grace: our taken/ chosenness, our blessedness, our brokenness, our givenness. All is grace, because of Christ alone.
We have the Savior from God, Jesus the Christ! He has been given for us! We have life in Him! All who trust in Christ are the beloved of God! (I John 3:1-3, Ephesians 3:14-19)
Faith in Christ or faith in self or possibly no faith at all.... these things matter. And apart from the Word of God, we have no standard by which to judge any piece of life at all. May we endeavor to be a people who strain hard after What is True? and live radically the implications of the Truth and Love of God toward us and toward the world.