Three quoted sections from Henri Nouwen. They were all so good I couldn’t decide which ones to use, so I share them all in this post. In the next I will share what I see in them.
From “Forgiveness: The Name of Love in a Wounded World”:
“Forgiveness is made possible by the knowledge that human beings cannot offer us what only God can give. Once we have heard the voice calling us the Beloved, accepted the gift of full communion, and claimed the first unconditional love, we can see easily–with the eyes of a repentant heart–how we have demanded of people a love that only God can give. It is the knowledge of that first love that allows us to forgive those who have only a ‘second’ love to offer.
“I am struck by how I cling to my own wounded self. Why do I think so much about the people who have offended or hurt me? Why do I allow them to have so much power over my feelings and emotions? Why can’t I simply be grateful for the good they did and forget about their failures and mistakes? It seems that in order to find my place in life I need to be angry, resentful, or hurt. It even seems that these people give me my identity by the very ways in which they wounded me. Part of me is ‘the wounded one.’ It is hard to know who I am when I can no longer point my finger at someone who is the cause of my pain!…
“It is important to understand our suffering. It is often necessary to search for the origins of our mental and emotional struggles and to discover how other people’s actions and our response to their actions have shaped the way we think, feel, and act. Most of all, it is freeing to become aware that we do not have to be victims of our past and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond the recognition and identification of the facts of life. There is even a step beyond choosing how to live our own life story. It is the greatest step a human being can take. It is the step of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We do not even know what we are doing when we hurt others. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour–unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family. The voice that calls us the Beloved is the voice of freedom because it sets us free to love without wanting anything in return. This has nothing to do with self-sacrifice, self-denial, or self-deprecation. But it has everything to do with the abundance of love that has been freely given to me and from which I freely want to give.”
From “Parting Words”:
“Forgiveness has two qualities: one is to allow yourself to be forgiven, and the other is to forgive others. The first quality is harder than the second. To allow yourself to be forgiven puts you in a dependency situation. If someone says to me, ‘I want to forgive you for something,’ I may say back, ‘But I didn’t do anything. I don’t need forgiveness. Get out of my life.’ It’s very important that we acknowledge that we are not fulfilling other people’s needs and that we need to be forgiven. There is great resistance to that. We come from a culture that is terribly damaged in this area. We find it hard to forgive or ask to be forgiven…It’s not just individuals who need to forgive and be forgiven. We all need to be forgiven. We ask each other to put ourselves in that vulnerable position–and that’s when community can be created.”
From The Road to Peace
“Everyone is a different refraction of the same love of God, the same light of the world, coming to us. We need a contemplative discipline for seeing this light. We can’t see God in the world, only God can see God in the world. That is why contemplative life is so essential for the active ministry. If I have discovered God as the center of my being, then the God in me recognizes God in the world. We also then recognize the demons at work in us and the world. The demons are always close, trying to conquer us. The spiritual life requires a constant and vigilant deepening and enlivening of the presence of God in our hearts.
“This process includes the real tension of discerning with which eye I see God: my own eye that wants to please and control, or God’s eye. Life therefore needs to be lived in an ongoing process of confession and forgiveness. This is the ongoing dynamic of community. The demons lose their power when we confess that we have been in their clutches. The more deeply we confess, the more we will experience the forgiving love of God–and the more deeply we will realize how much more we have to confess. Community life encourages this confession of our demons and our enchantment with them, so that the love of God can reveal itself. Only in confession will the Good News be revealed to us, as the New Testament with its focus on sinners makes clear.”
Not long after moving to 43rd and Prospect, in the middle of Kansas City’s urban core, I realized something. It was something I felt immediately but couldn’t quite put into words. It came from the strange looks we received from our new neighbors. It came from the subtle or not so subtle questions of many friends and family members. It was a smell in the air. It was a tingle in my skin. You don’t belong here.
Some might say this fact should have been obvious. We were, after all, a group of white kids moving into a neighborhood that is 98% black; college-educated folk from one side of town crossing the borderline of the city into the underserved and high-crime area where the schools have lost their accreditation; settling in along the streets I had only known from the news, the ones I had been told to avoid.
So why didn’t we realize right away that we didn’t belong? Because God told us to go there.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
Marcus Borg says there are three major narrative themes in the Bible: 1) The Exodus; 2) The Exile; and 3) Sin and Salvation. The third theme is the one major and overarching story of the whole Bible, as well as everything since. But the other two themes are also important storylines in the Bible and are continually brought up throughout all of Scripture. In fact, Borg says that often we focus so much on the third theme that we fail to learn valuable lessons from the first two. It’s easy to think that’s all part of the old story, and everything changed with Jesus. But then why are we are still living out those stories today?
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.
-Hebrews 11:13, 16
The exile story in the Bible tells us that the feelings of estrangement, the creeping loneliness, the tingle in your bones are actually pretty normal. Sure, our society does its best to try to make you feel comfortable in cozy houses, to sell you on the next gadget, to distract you with endless programmed entertainment, sports, and games, all offering kinship or intimacy or happiness in one form or another. And we run from one to the next trying to find some sense of contentment, rather than face our inner feelings of estrangement. Kids do it too.
The exile narrative is one we must remember, especially when working with youth. They so often feel their estrangement acutely. You could chalk that up to adolescence, or you might argue that they just haven’t become comfortable with the order of the way things are around us. A bit of both most likely. And we would do well not to forget the latter.
If we’re honest, we can probably still sense some of these feelings within ourselves as well—they aren’t just a product of adolescence. If we look back over the years, we see that much of our energy has gone into the search to belong, the struggle to be accepted, and the desire to feel safe and comfortable.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek community, belonging, and acceptance. In fact, it is almost always in the context of community that we are finally able to face our fears and inner demons. We can and should come together with folks who are on this journey with us. But we must realize that we actually don’t belong here. We must not become too comfortable. We must remember that we are pilgrims in exile; our task is not to settle in and think we can find all our contentment here.
The truth that is constantly subverted in a multitude of ways is simple: This is not your home.
“In that day,” declares the Lord, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought to grief. I will make the lame my remnant, those driven away a strong nation.”
God is the one who sends the Israelites from their promised land and into exile. God is also the one who leads them home again years later. Some do not get to see the promise realized, just as Moses never got to see the promised land, or how all the disciples died in persecution or exile.
There is a common thread here: We are not in control. God is the one watching over his children in a foreign land. God is the one who will call the remnant home and gather them together. This is not just about the future resurrection. We live in the now and not-yet kingdom. There is a future homecoming we hope for, and we are called to faithful service and love here and now.
It is in this reality that we find our freedom in exile. We no longer have to invest our energy trying to win by the rules of our society. We no longer have to try to create the perfect home, the perfect church, the perfect community. We don’t have to convince kids that having God in their lives will solve all their problems and make everything perfect. We don’t have to pretend we are perfect.
I am no more a stranger in the urban core than any of my neighbors, despite their funny looks, because that is where God has called me. Our place in this world is only found through God’s leading, but our true home is something for which we still wait. We are aliens and strangers. So take those funny looks in stride—they just might mean you’re closer to home than you think.