Thoughts About “The River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer’s illuminating post about the novel “The River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean raises many fascinating points. Here are some additional reactions to the novel and to Bill’s post from a fellow member of Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Men’s Book Group.

When I first tried to read this novel several years ago and again this last Fall, I was put off by the novel’s first line’s equating religion (Christianity) and fly fishing. In my boyhood and for the last nearly 35 years, I have been seeking to be a Christian, but I am not now, and never have been, a fisherman of any sort, much less a fly fisherman. To equate the two seemed absurd.

Moreover, I was baffled Bill’s reference to fly fishermen’s being the “penultimate” or next-to-last species of anglers. Who was the first or “ultimate” species of anglers, I wondered. Bill told me what should have been obvious to this Presbyterian Christian: the ultimate angler is God through Jesus. After all, in the New Testament, Jesus recruits two fishermen, Simon and Andrew, to be “fishers of men.” (Matthew 4: 18-20; Mark 1:16-18) I also relooked at the first paragraph of the novel, which says that the two brothers’ father, the Scottish Presbyterian minister (John Norman Maclean), reminded them that “Christ’s disciples [were] fishermen” and that the two brothers were left to assume “that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite [disciple of Jesus], was a dry-fly fisherman.”

Bill’s allusion to the ultimate angler suggests another interpretation of the novel’s extensive (too extensive?) discussion of Paul and Norman’s careful selection of different lures to catch different kinds of fish in different kinds of waters. In short, the lure that works for one kind of fish does not work for another kind. Accordingly, Jesus’ disciples, including us, need to develop different ways of explaining our faith or evangelizing to different kinds of people in different circumstances. “One size does not fit all.”

I also was surprised by the novel’s second paragraph’s telling us that the Scottish minister-father repeatedly stressed to his two sons the importance of the first question of The Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” and its answer “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

Although that document is one of 11 confessions and creeds contained in The Book of Confessions of The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I do not recall any sermon or other discussion of that document in my years of being a Presbyterian. Perhaps its importance to the novel’s Scottish father-minister is due to the fact that it was written in 1646 and 1647 by the Westminster Assembly, a synod of English and Scottish theologians intended to bring the Church of England into greater conformity with the Church of Scotland to produce a means of educating children and those of “weaker capacity” about the Reformed Christian faith.

This emphasis on the answer to the first question of the Shorter Catechism also seems to oversimplify what Jesus endorsed as the greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:25-37)

According to the older brother’s narration, his father held what I see as a very un-Presbyterian and un-Reform notion of God’s grace. For the father, the narrator says, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” This statement suggests that grace is earned by an individual’s good works, which is the very antithesis of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, God provides many gifts by grace to many people; the gifts are not earned by the individual’s efforts. The individual, on the other hand, must first accept the gift and then develop and improve the gift by dedication and diligence so that it becomes an art. In the novel we see this in Paul’s skill and art of fly-fishing. Another example would be an individual who has a God-given musical gift of playing the violin. He or she could ignore or reject that gift and not do anything with it. If, on the other hand, he or she accepts that gift and hones it through many hours of study and practice, then he or she develops the art of playing skillfully and beautifully. In so doing, the individual glorifies God, in the parlance of the Shorter Catechism and of the novel’s father.

Finally the novel’s theme of the relationships between the two brothers and with their parents is analogous in some ways to those relationships in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), an important Biblical passage for me as discussed in a prior post. In the novel and Parable, the younger brother is wayward while the older one is dutiful. Yet the fathers (and the mother in the novel) lavish love and attention on the younger brothers while ignoring the older brothers. In the Parable, the older one shows understandable signs of resentment of this treatment, but in the novel the older brother, who is the narrator, sounds like an objective bystander without any such resentment or jealousy. I find it difficult to accept the novel’s older brother’s lack of any emotion about this difference.

Perhaps Norman’s feelings on this issue leak out in his comments about the family’s Last Supper when their mother “was especially nice to me, since she hadn’t paid much attention to me so far, but soon she was back with fresh rolls, and she buttered Paul’s [but not mine]. ‘Here is your favorite chokecherry jelly,’ she said passing it to him [not me]. . . . Somewhere along the line she had forgotten that it was I who liked chokecherry jelly, a gentle confusion that none of her men minded.”

Thanks, Bill, for sharing your analysis of the novel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Group Tackles Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It”

Bill Linder-Scholer [1]

 

Norman Maclean
Norman Maclean

For its monthly book read for November 2015, the Men’s Book Group of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis chose Norman Maclean’s short novel, “A River Runs Through It.” By the end of our 90-minute discussion about the novel, most of our members were convinced that Maclean’s novella is much more than a story about three men who like to fly fish the rough rivers of western Montana. We cast our questions widely to open up the deeper pools of the story’s meanings by looking to the text, to the facts of Maclean’s life, and to the images of water and the Biblical Word for guidance. We shared thoughts about the author’s direct use of Presbyterian theology to structure his plot and meaning. And in the final analysis, we acknowledged that although the novel ends with a haunting tragedy, it also leaves us with the abiding consolation provided by notions of a loving God and grace-filled moments in each of our lives.

 

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“A River Runs Through It” is the story of Maclean’s family of origin, a religious family in which, as the author tells us famously in the novel’s opening line, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” Maclean is the older son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. From their father, Norman and his younger brother Paul receive training in theology, fly fishing, and writing, but since fishing is religion in the Maclean world and fly fishermen the penultimate species of anglers, the novel’s key scenes involve fly fishing on rivers between Missoula and Helena, in the summer of 1937. “It is hard work,” Maclean insists, “living in such fast water all the time” (page 63 in the 25th Anniversary Edition by the Univ. of Chicago Press), a comment not only about the tenacious trout these men seek to catch, but also about the younger brother, whose stubborn habits of drinking too much, fighting local customs, and getting in over his head in serious gambling games means he is always swimming against the current. The story line ends with Paul’s brutal death at the hands of angry gambling partners, which leaves Norman and his parents with deep grief and few answers about why.

Key to our discussion of this novel were two obvious points–”A River Runs Through It” is a deeply Presbyterian work as well a carefully contrived story in which the characters and the events are reflective of an overriding message about family relationships, our individual search for success and meaning, and the mystery of God’s grace.

From the opening paragraphs, Maclean uses Presbyterian theology to give meaning and order to the events of the story. His quote from the Westminster Shorter Catechism [2]–that “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever”–provides a way of understanding why the Reverend Maclean taught his sons to appreciate the glory of the Montana setting and to find enjoyment in working the Big Blackfoot River in search of the perfect catch. Such purposeful activity in beautiful surroundings reflects Maclean’s sense of how to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the divine.

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If “fly fishing stands for life” in this story, as Roger Ebert suggested in his 1992 review of the Robert Redford movie version of the novel, then it is no surprise that Norman and Paul take to the river to fish whenever they can, and in our discussion we noted the ways in which the fishing scenes are bookmarks around which the rest of the story is built–a story with the characteristics of a good trout fishing river (pp. 61-63): first the fast action of the rapids, then the inevitable complications of the deep pools, and finally the calm waters resolving at the end.

The first fishing scene of the story (pages 12-21) tells us a good deal about the brothers and the basis of their relationship, flawed though it is. Norman works diligently if slavishly to replicate his father’s approach to fly fishing (“an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock”) and has admirable if moderate success, whereas his younger brother Paul has all the grace and power of a natural and soon exceeds the mechanical limitations of his father’s discipline to attain a masterful casting technique (“shadow casting,” Maclean calls it, as if to emphasize its origins in a world beyond ours) which his father can only describe as “beautiful.” About his younger brother, Norman says (with potent foreshadowing): “ He was a master of an art. He did not want any big brother advice or money or help, and in the end, I could not help him” (p. 6). “Helping” is a code-word for relating to and loving others, in Maclean’s taxonomy.

The notion of salvation by grace through faith is the other point of Presbyterian theology that helps structure the story as well as hint at its ultimate meanings. “My father,” says Norman, “was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things–trout as well as eternal salvation–come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easily” (p. 4). Of course, Maclean has given the standard Presbyterian line a bit of a twist, adding in the role of art, the human effort to glorify God, as part of the essential human response to the promise of grace. So it is that the Reverend Maclean believes his son Paul is simply, divinely “beautiful” in his fishing artistry.

But then our discussion foundered on the obvious dilemma of this story: why is it that Paul–the wayward son eventually overcome by his own shortcomings–is the one who is described by his minister father as “beautiful,” with the implication that Paul more than the others has attained something extraordinary, something akin to divine perfection? (At one point of climax in a fishing scene, Maclean describes Paul as surrounded by a “halo” of water” as he performs his miracle cast [p. 21].) This led our discussion to the paradoxical mystery of divine grace, a grace given without qualifying effort on our part (but which also engenders effort to “glorify”).

For the Maclean brothers, these are troubled waters and when the police call Norman to come to the station house to rescue his drunken brother and girlfriend, Norman is not surprised. Despite his mastery of fly fishing, Paul seems bent on a destructive life course, drinking heavily and slipping dangerously into debt at the famed Lolo poker game. The brothers try to reach out to each other, but neither understands the other well enough to be helpful. The best they can do is to set up another fishing trip. To that end, they agree to take Norman’s no-count brother-in-law fishing, a trip that (literally) reveals the brother-in-law as a true failure but helps bring the Maclean brothers together in support of one another at least temporarily. But how should we understand their relationship?

Our deepest point of discussion of “A River Runs Through It” focused finally on two Biblical themes–the Genesis story of Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and the New Testament parable of the prodigal son [3].

The notion of the younger Maclean brother Paul as a ‘prodigal son’ provides both motive and meaning. It is clear from the start of the story that the family thinks highly of Paul despite his indiscretions, and desperate to understand and love their younger son, the parents go to great lengths to show their love for Paul, nowhere more clearly than in the humorous dinner scene at the family home the evening before what proves to be Paul’s final fishing trip. The mother fusses over Paul and gratuitously butters his dinner roll for him; father and brother eagerly ask to hear Paul’s latest stories. But when Paul leaves the house early (to go gambling), the party collapses. “Although only one left,” Norman says, “all the voices had gone” (p. 80). The Rev. Maclean tries to express his (mixed) feelings about Paul to Norman, but he can only muster his conclusion that “help is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly…[and so it is] that we can seldom help anybody” (p. 81). But Paul is gone; this prodigal son can’t quite make it all the way home, it seems.

By the same token, Norman is burdened from the start by his perceived sense of duty to help his younger, troubled brother. But Paul doesn’t want his help, and in fact when Norman gets in trouble with his wife and her family for the fiasco fishing trip with the brother-in-law, Paul overtly offers to “help” Norman by setting up yet another fishing trip, this one to include their father as well, on the Big Blackfoot River, their cherished chapel in the woods. When Paul suggests that they fish together, Norman says “I knew then that he was still taking care of me, because we almost always split up when we fished” (p. 85). Despite the their imperfect relationship and Paul’s growing troubles, the brothers find a moment of unity in this fishing trip, when “all things came together.” Thin place moments of sacred unity abound when the brothers are together, fishing the waters of the Blackfoot. Watching Paul catch his limit of trout on this trip, the father exclaims, “He is beautiful,” but by the very next day Norman has to deliver the news of Paul’s death to their dumbfounded parents.

Running through the book are the rivers, their waters providing thematic momentum. Like the flow of life that captures us all, the characters of this novel live and breathe and have their being on the water. After Paul’s death, Norman remembers him “both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter” (p. 101). In the end, Norman admits that, some thirty years after the events of the story, he is still “haunted by waters.”

So it is that, in the Maclean scheme of things, we labor mightily to glorify God, each in our own way, and to love one another despite the distance that inevitably separates us one from another. When Reverend Maclean struggles to make sense of Paul’s life and death, Norman reminds himthat “you can love completely without complete understanding” (p. 103).

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[1] Bill Linder-Scholer is a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church of Minneapolis and an enthusiastic participant in its Men’s Book Study Group. Prior to his retirement in 2011, Bill was a foundation executive and consultant on strategic corporate philanthropy and public education. His participation in the Westminster men’s book group reflects his stint in teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he completed a Ph.D. in English literature and taught classes in rhetoric and fiction.

[2] The Westminster Shorter Catechism from 1646-1647 is one of 11 creeds and confessions contained in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (as of 2014). In such creeds and confessions, according to the Church’s Book of Order (Section F-2.01), “the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do; they also “identify the church as a community of people known by its convictions as well as by its actions [and] guide the church in its study and interpretation of the Scriptures.” Such creeds and confessions, however, “are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.” (Id. Section F-2.02.)

[3] For the “brother’s keeper” theme, see Genesis 4:1-16, where Cain responds to God’s inquiry about the missing (murdered) younger brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Jesus’s teaching via the parable of the prodigal and his brother is recounted in the Gospel of Luke 15: 11-32. For a detailed explication of the use of this parable in Maclean’s novel, see Dooley, Patrick K. “The Prodigal Son Parable and Maclean’s “A River Runs Through it,” RENASCENCE 58.2 (Winter 2005): 165-175.

Does the Church Control Salvation?

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster               Presbyterian Church

This was the title of the November 23rd sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church by our Senior Pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen.[1]

The Scripture passages for the day were Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46.

The Sermon

“The newest members of our Congregation [who were welcomed that day] . . [are] a slice of 21st century American religious reality. Gay, straight, married, single, partnered, and divorced. People at the top of their profession and others who have been homeless or are without work. Former Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians from other congregations, immigrants and long-time Minnesotans. People who come with questions and doubts, others very much at home in Christian tradition. One has practiced Buddhism. Several were raised in non-Christian households. Two are becoming Christians today and will be baptized.”

“They’re here because their journey in faith brought them. For some the work of this church in the city drew them in, for others the desire to belong to a community, for others the education offered. For all of them worshipping God in this setting and with this people has given them a new spiritual home. This is the church in our time. Our journey now joins with theirs.”

“If the question is, ‘Does the Church control salvation?’ the answer needs to be offered carefully. We don’t want to try to deny other religious traditions their meaning, but at the same time we don’t want to water down our own convictions, especially on this final Sunday before Advent, when we celebrate Christ the King, the one who, in the words of Ephesians, is ‘above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ (Ephesians 1:21)”

“Long ago it was a basic article of faith that the Church did, in fact, control salvation. It was common knowledge that to gain God’s favor one had to be on good terms with the Church, because the saving work of Jesus Christ came through the Church. This gave the Church a lot of power over the spiritual lives of people. As in any situation with an imbalance of power, the temptation for abuse always hovered nearby.”

“The 16th century Protestant Reformation, we like to say, developed as an uprising against the abuse of power of the Roman clergy. They controlled access to God so tightly believers felt trapped on this side of heaven until they met the demands of the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: no salvation outside the Church. The priest in every parish was a spiritual power-broker.”

“Lest we be too quick to speak ill of our Roman Catholic siblings, we should note that Protestant history is salted with similar declarations about who controls the gates of heaven. While Catholics placed that control in the hands of Rome and its priests, the Reformers used theological conformity as a way to maintain control over things divine. One passed heavenly muster only if one’s statement of faith met certain theological standards. It was a litmus test and we can still see it in use today in some churches.”

“That’s a Protestant version of no salvation outside the church. The continuing existence of so many Protestant denominations today is an ecclesiastical hangover from over indulgence in theological conformity among those convinced they have a lock on the truth.”

“Christians have always wanted to say who’s ‘in’ and who’s not, who’s ‘been saved’ and who has not. We would like the Church to be able to control salvation.”

“Then along comes the Final Judgment scene at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and things take on a different hue. Jesus says,‘Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matthew 25:34-36)

“There’s nothing in there about following a particular theological roadmap; nothing in the text about staying in the church’s good graces in order to curry favor with the Almighty. In fact, neither church nor theology is mentioned.”

“It turns out salvation belongs to God alone and has nothing to do with the exercise of ecclesiastical authority or with meeting a theological litmus test, and everything to do with how we treat the poor and those deemed unworthy by the world.”

“Jesus had said that love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments, when asked what we must do to inherit eternal life. Now we see what that looks like on Judgment Day: ‘Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

“All the theological grandstanding and all the church authority we can summon will not stand up to the clarity and power and simplicity of those words: as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me. It’s not what the Church thought long ago, not what it thought in the Reformation, and not what a lot of us in the Church think today, but this is what the reign of God looks like: loving others.”

“The Church does not control salvation; God does, which is a good thing, because the Almighty surely has a broader vision than any of us.”

“You and I will need to find ways to hold fast to Jesus Christ even as we respect the traditions of our neighbors, including those who have no faith at all.”

“And as far as the business of salvation, we can leave that to God.”

Conclusion

As I said in an earlier post, the first foundation of my Christian faith is Jesus’ encounter with a clever lawyer, who asked Jesus a trick question as to what the lawyer had to do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer did not really want to know the answer; instead, the lawyer wanted Jesus to give an answer that could be twisted to incriminate him. Jesus ducked the question and instead responded with another question: “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The lawyer replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus then said the lawyer had answered correctly and that he would live if he did exactly that. (Luke 10:25-37)

The passage from Matthew that was one of the texts for this sermon makes the same point.

I agree that this is the greatest commandment. It clearly is difficult, if not impossible, to follow this commandment all the time. But Jesus tells us in the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (Luke 15: 11-31) that God forgives us, time and time again, for our failure to do what we should do and doing what we should not.

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[1] Westminster’s website has links for an audio recording of the sermon and the church bulletin for the day.

Repentance

The fourth Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is repentance.[1] This post will review the Scriptures and sermon for that theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was Jeremiah 31:15-21 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations):

  • “Thus says the Lord:
  • A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
    Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
  • Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
    for there is a reward for your work, they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.
  • Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
  • ‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the Lord my God. For after I had turned away, I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
  • Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
    As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
    Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him.
  • Set up road markers for yourself// make yourself signposts;
    consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
    Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

The New Testament text was Acts 28:23-28 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations and emphasis added):

  • “After [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers.
  • From morning until evening [Paul] explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.
  • Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement:
  •  ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’
  • Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

The Sermon

In the sermon Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen said that “changing direction is sometimes necessary. Making mid-course adjustments in life because we’ve gotten off track. Turning around. Finding a new way. . . .”

“Repentance is a common biblical term, found throughout Scripture. Whether in the Hebrew – the word is shuv – or in the Greek – metanoia – the Bible links repentance with a change of direction, a turning in life.”

The Acts’ passage about Paul’s meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome talks about the need for them to “[u]nderstand with their heart and turn. Repentance begins when the heart understands that it’s time to turn.”

That’s precisely what the prophet Jeremiah has in mind when he speaks to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. From the “prophet’s perspective the people had lost their way. He tells them their hope lies in turning and finding the path back not only to the land of Israel, but finding their way back to God. That’s the core issue here; is it the same for us? They had forgotten their covenant with God; that’s what landed them in Babylon in the first place.”

“Exile can be a powerful way for us to understand our own circumstances. Some of us are in a Babylon of our own right now, maybe of our own making. Some of us feel far from home.”

“The next time we feel ourselves in exile or isolated or cut off, let’s look for the way markers, the guideposts that point toward home, and then find within us the courage to follow them.”

“‘Consider well the highway,’ Jeremiah says to them. Remember how you got here in the first place. Make an honest assessment. Consider ‘the road by which you went.’

It helps to know how we ended up where we are; it’s important to have some sense of what went wrong.”

“That’s repentance-talk. The prophet is exhorting them to find a different path, to change directions, to turn back toward God. That’s the work of every person of faith, eventually. All of us. Over and over again.”

Theologian “Gustavo Gutierrez . . . calls sin, ‘a breach of friendship with God and others.’”

“Maybe that can help us remember better what went wrong and why we need to repent, why we need to change direction: we’ve broken the bonds of friendship with God and others. In so doing, we have let ourselves down, as well. We have diminished our own humanity by breaching our relationships. That’s the story of the people of God throughout scripture; and it’s our story, too. The people turn away from God; God calls them back; God waits; the people stumble along and, if their eyes are open and their ears unstopped, they – we – finally turn back toward God.”

“It’s the repairing of brokenhearted love”.

“If the question this Lent is What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? The response points toward a change of heart. It invites us to turn around. To go back. To find our way home.”

“Much of what passes as Christian faith today is little more than glorified self-help, a way to improve our lives. Christianity is not a self-help religion; in fact, it’s not centered on the self at all. Quite the opposite: our faith is other-centered. It begins with and is sustained by the desire for right relationship; first with God, and then with others.”

“At its best, the Church is that road sign for each of us – and for the world around us. Our witness in the world ought to help people find their way home, and lead us in that direction, too.”

“But to do so, to be that witness, to find our way, we will have to rediscover the gentle power of repentance, a turning of the heart that puts us on the path back to God.”

Reflections

In the Jeremiah passage, Ephraim confessed to God about his turning away from God and the disgrace of his youth. But Ephraim repented and asked God to let him come back. In response God says He is deeply moved for Ephraim and “will surely have mercy for him.”

This reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 10-32), where the younger of two brothers after leading a sinful life in another country “came to himself” and repented. He then returned to his home, and his father ran to embrace and forgive him and to celebrate the return of his son.

This Parable for me is one of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture and one of the foundations for my Christian faith. It reminds me of my repentance and returning to God in 1981 by joining Westminster after 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness. Since then its worship services and adult education offerings have been signposts and road markers that help me maintain that faith.

Apostle Paul in the Acts passage obviously is annoyed with the Jewish leaders in Rome who would not change from their beliefs and ways to accept Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah to condemn them and tops it off with a taunt that the Gentiles will listen and accept Jesus.

Paul, in my opinion, is too hasty and uncharitable in this response. Any kind of significant change by an individual is difficult, including a Jew’s changing from a traditional Jewish faith to one that puts Jesus at the center of that faith.

It takes courage to make such a change. This is recognized by Alcoholics Anonymous’ use of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can.”[2]

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[1] Prior posts discussed the following three themes: mindfulness, humility and mercy.

[2] A subsequent post will discuss several Jewish individuals who had the courage to change from Judaism to Christianity and those who did so out of fear of persecution.

 

 

The Parable of the Prodigal Son and His Older Brother

In my teenage years as a dutiful only child, I identified with the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] He remained at home working on the farm while his younger brother was dissipating his advance inheritance in a far country. Yet their father throws a big party for the younger brother when he returns home.  Like the older son, I just could not understand the totally unjustified favorable treatment of the wayward younger son. Like the older son, I was angry with the father and the younger brother over this injustice.

Many years later, however, I could see myself as the younger son in the Parable. As a college freshman I began rebelling against organized religion and the spiritual life. During my subsequent 24 years in a distant country, I clung “to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink . . . . It’s almost as if I want[ed] to prove to myself . . . that I did not need God’s love, that I could make a life on my own, that I want[ed]to be fully independent. Beneath it all was the great rebellion, the radical ‘No’ to the Father’s love . . . .”[2]

When I came to my senses and returned home, my rebellion and other sins were forgiven by God, who was waiting, saw me when I was still a long way off and ran to welcome me home. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.”[3]

Each of us often experiences life as a succession of unrelated events. Such events, however, are the raw material of our spiritual pilgrimage. Discernment of the spiritual significance of these events requires us to pause to reflect on how God appears in our lives. We can aid this task by putting ourselves into the stories of the Bible and by allowing the words of great hymns to speak to us.


[2] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son at 38-39 (1992).

[3]  John Newton, Amazing Grace Lyrics, http://www.constitution.org/col/amazing_grace.htm.