A growing up story…

Written by on February 24, 2011

On the walls and columns of a grey stoned sanctuary hung twelve to fifteen prints of Rembrandt’s painting Return of the Prodigal Son.  The audience was a mix of parents and grandparents and nuns and pastors and students.  We were all gathered in a Beverly Hills’ Anglican church to hear writer/speaker Henri Nouwen speak on his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Image Books, 1994).  That afternoon in 1995, Nouwen beautifully wove together his own life story with…

…the characters of Jesus’ parable (younger son, older son, father), a brief portrait of Rembrandt’s life, and the story of the painting.  Everyone there was invited into an understanding of the younger son, an understanding of the older son, and an encounter with the father of Luke 15.  During the Q & A time it became clear the audience identified deeply with the characters’ experiences.  Several questions were asked by persons who knew firsthand the pain of leaving home on bad terms.  Other questions revealed the loneliness of sons and daughters who knew only duty in their life of faith.  I found myself pondering the lost-ness of this older son.  However, moms and dads, looking for advice concerning their children, asked the bulk of the questions.  One had a daughter who was much like the younger son in the story.  Several had a son who “did all the right things.”  Others had to kick out a rebellious child.  They each wanted to ensure that their daughter felt loved or their son did not grow resentful like the older son of the story.  What was the right thing for them to do?  They wanted direction and assurance and advice.  Nouwen replied patiently to each.  He spoke directly to all of these questions, except one.  There is little I recall today of what Nouwen said specifically throughout the afternoon.  I cannot remember what this mother of a junior high boy asked, but now years later Nouwen’s response to her still sticks with me. Instead of explicitly answering the mom’s question, he paused, looked intently at the mother and said this:

There are a lot of good things that can be said of parenting a child, but the greatest gift you will give your son is the gift of you being a growing person yourself. 

We were all “grabbed” by his response.  He went on to explain that in a community like a family, love is communicated more by who you are than by any single situational choice or strategy.  He did not ignore this woman’s particular concern for her son, but rather placed it in a larger perspective.  He certainly did not minimize any of those particular parenting questions (for after all, he answered those questions for more than half-an-hour), but in his response he pointed out the critical importance of recognizing the bigger picture in which life is lived and love is communicated.  And in so doing, his words offered far more than parenting advice.  As I remember it that afternoon, in his words to this mother, the Spirit seemed to ask all of us, “Are you a growing person?”[i] Nouwen’s words raised the whole question of spiritual maturity.  A large group of adults seemed to look around the room and ask of each other “Are we still growing up?”  It is generally not a question that is posed to adults. It is a framework typically reserved for aunts and uncles, teachers and youth pastors, moms and dads, asked of their children or their students. And it is usually expressed in the form of an observation of a child’s maturity or lack thereof. A grandfather marvels at his grandson “Boy, have you seen how much so-and-so has grown up? ” or a mother bemoans her nineteen year old, “When will so-and-so grow up?” Adults do not tend to ask of each other whether we are still growing up. And yet that afternoon God’s Spirit seemed to be poking at this question of our maturity through Nouwen’s words to this mother. The greatest gift you will give your son is the gift of you being a growing person yourself. These words continue to echo through my life now years later. Can you let it do some echoing in your life? Do you hear the question? Are you a growing person?   _______________________ For Reflection & ConversationWhat do you think it means to be a growing person? Who has been a growing person in your life? • Where do you find yourself today? In what ways are you being invited to keep “growing up”? (Ephesians 4: 14-16)

[i] Robert Loane and Randy D. Reese, Growing Up: A Lifelong Journey, (Sioux Falls, SD: Vantagepoint3, 2007), 3-5.

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