Saturday, November 28, 2009

Will I Choose Joy?

I've been reflecting this week on the story of the lost or prodigal son. To guide my reflections I read Henri Nouwen's book The Return of the Prodigal Son, in which he shares his insights into this story in light of Rembrandt's famous painting by the same name. As I finished reading the book this morning, I found myself challenged by a basic question. This question also indirectly arose from our Sunday morning worship time last week. In many places Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as being a celebration--a party, to use the language Tony Campolo has used to describe it. The story of the lost son shows us a father who welcomes his wayward son home, not with recriminations and reluctance, but with joy and celebration, pulling out all the stops. Reflecting on this Nouwen writes: "Celebration belongs to God's kingdom....God does not want to keep his joy to himself. He wants everyone to share in it."

But Nouwen reminds us as well that we must choose to enter into this celebration. God does not force us. The elder son and others in the story face a choice. In Nouwen's words, "Will they understand the father's joy? Will they let the father embrace them? Will I?"

As I read this section of his book and probably in light of all that preceeded it in earlier chapters, I wrestled with the question he asks. Am I able to let the father embrace me? Am I able to understand and enter into the father's joy? I look at the world around me and more often than not respond with cynicism and gloom. I see the negative far more readily than the positive. I expect sadness, disappointment and pain. To quote Nouwen's words again, "Somehow I have become accustomed to living with sadness, and so have lost the eyes to see the joy and the ears to hear the gladness that belongs to God and which is to be found in the hidden corners of the world."

I see myself as a realist, one who sees things as they are. (My wife might disagree with this, since there is definitely an idealist in me as well.) Although I want to rejoice and celebrate God's goodness and love, I see a world filled with sorrow and suffering, with pain and grief. I see a world in which his kingdom, his shalom, have not yet been made complete. Not only that, but I look at my own life and I see the shortcomings and imperfections in myself and those closest to me. These things tend to draw more of my attention than the moments of joy, the moments of light, the moments when shalom breaks through in some small way. But God calls me to rejoice, not because everything has been made right in this world, but to rejoice when his kingdom breaks through in any way, no matter how small.

"God rejoices," writes Nouwen. "Not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising him for his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter into that joy."

The recognition that I lack the ability to rejoice, that I more often choose cynicism or gloom rather than with joy and celebration, hurts deeply. I don't want to be this way. Changing this pattern of behavior won't be a quick and easy process though, nor will it be one that I can accomplish on my own. But I want to begin that journey. I want to choose joy. I want to choose to enter into the joy of my father, to join him at the table of celebration rather than standing outside, refusing to participate. The circumstances in which I currently live do not promote a lifestyle of joyful celebration, but I think that if we as God's children can learn to live in his shalom even in the midst of those circumstances, that joy can become a powerful magnet to others.

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