Keep Choosing God: a word from Henri Nouwen

Over the past month I have been reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. This is one of Nouwen’s most personal books, taken from his journals during a time of great challenge and even depression in his life. I really appreciated the entire book, which struck a chord for me in what has been an extended challenging season for me as a pastor navigating through the pandemic, racial and political tensions, and various other things. The last entry in the book is titled “Keep Choosing God.” It was a wonderful conclusion to the book that I found very meaningful. I share it here in its entirety in hopes that it will be encouraging to you as well.

You are constantly facing choices. The question is whether you choose for God or for your own doubting self. You know what the right choice is but your emotions, passions, and feelings keep suggesting you choose the self-rejecting way.

The root choice is to trust at all times that God is with you and will give you what you most need. Your self-rejecting emotions might say, ‘It isn’t going to work. I’m still suffering the same anguish I did six months ago. I will probably fall back into the old depressive patterns of acting and reacting. I haven’t really changed.’ And on and on. It is hard not to listen to these voices. Still, you know that these are not God’s voice. God says to you, ‘I love you, I am with you, I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence. I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit. I want you to speak with my mouth, see with my eyes, here with my ears, touch with my hands. All that is mine is yours. Just trust me and let me be your God.’

This is the voice to listen to. And that listening requires a real choice, not just once in a while but every moment of each day and night. It is you who decides what you think, say, and do. You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth, and the Life.

As you conclude this period of spiritual renewal, you are faced once again with a choice. You can choose to remember this time as a failed attempt to be completely reborn, or you can also choose to remember it as the precious time when God began new things in you that need to be brought to completion. Your future depends on how you decide to remember your past. Choose for the truth of what you know. Do not let your still anxious emotions distract you. As you keep choosing God, your emotions will gradually give up the rebellion and be converted to the truth in you.

You are facing a real spiritual battle. But do not be afraid. You are not alone. Those who have guided you during this period are not leaving you. Their prayers and support will be with you wherever you go. Keep them close to your heart so that they can guide you as you make your choices.

Remember, you are held safe. You are loved. You are protected. You are in communion with God and with those whom God has sent you. What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.

Henri Nouwen, “Keep Choosing God,” from The Inner Voice of Love (New York: Image Books, 1998), 113-115.

Seeing Ourselves and Others through God’s Eyes

Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. He pursued unlikely people at the margins to welcome them into God’s kingdom. 

There is a story in Luke 7 that brings this to life so powerful. It happens after Jesus’ great sermon on the plateau, His healing of a centurion’s servant and raising a widow’s son from death. Even these stories remind us of the powerful grace found in Jesus. And then comes a moment that is unexpected.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. (Luke 7:36)

Jesus is with some religious leaders, particularly a Pharisee, whose name we discover later is Simon. It is likely that Jesus and the other religious men are reclining at the table in the places of honor. However, it is also likely that this was an open event, which was not uncommon. Where others, who were not guests of honor, could enter the home and draw near to listen at the edges of the room. This was a visual representation of everyone’s social status: guests of honor at the center; everyone else at the edges of the room.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:37-38)

Something unexpected happens. A woman known to the area as sinful appears. We don’t know exactly what this means, but tradition holds that she was a prostitute. She takes an exquisite alabaster jar of the most expensive perfume and lavishes it upon Jesus. She kisses His feet, weeps on His feet, and wipes His feet with her hair. Have you ever been to an uncomfortable dinner? Let me tell you, when this woman shows up in Simon the Pharisee’s home and pours out her thanksgiving to Jesus in this way, it may have felt like one of the most awkward moments you could ever imagine.

Jesus follows this awkward extravagance with a parable about forgiveness that reveals a stark contrast between the love of Simon the host and the love of this “sinful” woman. Simon offered Jesus no water for washing His feet, but this woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Simon failed to offer Jesus the common kiss of welcome, but this woman has endlessly kissed His feet. Simon offered Jesus no oil on His head for cleansing, but this “sinful” woman has poured out the most expensive perfume upon Him.

Whereas the religious leaders expected Jesus to be repulsed by the sinfulness of this woman, instead He is put off by the lack of gratitude from their religious hearts. Instead, He is drawn to the heart of this woman broken by her sin and overcome by the gracious welcome of a Savior who receives us and forgives.

Great forgiveness leads us into an extravagant response, while little sense of forgiveness makes it easy to miss the great gift. The value system of the kingdom is different than the value system of the world. This woman was anything but the most valuable person of her town, but to God revealed in Jesus Messiah she is significant and worth treasuring with the greatest gift of God’s gracious forgiveness.

Encountering the Merciful Love of God :: Fra Angelico, “The Annunciation”

Fra Angelico - Annunciation
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation; tempera on wood; between 1433 and 1434.

“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46-48)

“Love is blind.” At least, that’s how the saying goes. The phrase means that when love is at work, a person is prone to overlook, or just plain fail to see, the problems within the person being loved.  There is some truth to that. But the kind of love we all deeply desire is not a blind love, but a love that truthfully sees everything about us and still loves us. Love that is blind—that turns away from reality—is false love, while love that sees—that leans into reality—is real love. John 3:16 is such a revered passage of Scripture because it describes God’s love not as blind but as real love:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17)

When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing God’s plan to bring the Messiah to birth through her, Mary was astounded. Her question, “How will this be?”, was both a question about the manner of the Messianic birth since she was a virgin and simultaneously a question about the possibility that something like this could occur in human history. When Gabriel emphasized God’s decisive plan to intervene through Jesus as Messiah, such knowledge eventually leads Mary to erupt with praise:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. (Luke 1:46-47, 50)

That little word ‘mercy’ (Greek: ἔλεος) is an echo of the Hebrew word hesed, which refers to God’s uniquely steady and faithful love. Mary grasps, and shares with us today, that God sees what is really there in the world and still chooses to love humanity from generation to generation throughout the earth. Mary becomes a picture not only of humble obedience to God’s call, but also boisterous praise of God’s real, eyes-open love for humanity and all creation.

Returning to God :: Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

Rembrandt - Return of the Prodigal Son.jpg
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Oil on canvas; 1668.

One of the strangest things about us as people is how much we want to be close to people and also how easily we run away from relationships with others. Why is it that we both want to be known but also want to be free from being known? We are relational beings made in the image of our God who is a relational God (see Genesis 1:26-27). But Scripture tells the story of how human willfulness chose against God’s guidance (sin), resulting in ruptured relationship with God and others due at least in part to the influence of shame. Shame is that little voice telling us we are not enough, a deep sense in our selves that there is something wrong with us. Shame leads us to hide from God and others. We see this in Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God: “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). Just as God called out to them to be vulnerable and reenter relationship, so God continues to call out to all of us. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about lostness and hiddenness. The third, and most detailed, of these stories is about a father with two sons, one of whom leaves home and loses his way in life (Luke 15:11-32). Squandering his money, dishonoring his family name, and leaving like a beggar, he finally decides it would be better to return home in disgrace than to live the meaningless way he now lives. When he finally gets up the gumption to return home, his father sees him in the distance and rushes to embrace him. It is a fantastic picture of the astounding grace and love of God that overcomes our shame. Rembrandt’s beloved painting based in this story depicts the lavish embrace of the father, whose hands hold the son with a quiet stillness seeming to reverberate through time. The younger son is a tired train-wreck, his tattered robe in shambles and worn out shoes crumbling off his feet. In the shadows on the right, the older son looks down on this embrace, bitterly resenting both his father and brother in this moment. He’s maintained such faithful service to his father and thinks he deserves so much more than this faithless, shameful brother. The painting and the parable leave us wondering: “Where am I in this story and how might I need to return to the Father’s embrace?”

A Prayer of Trust in Busyness

Motion blur traffic in city

“As for me, I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God;
my trust is in the tender mercy of God
for ever and ever.” (Psalm 52:9, Coverdale)

Only You do I trust, my God,
to be my refuge and strength—only You.
Only You do I trust, my God,
to bring me comfort and peace—only You.

All round me whirls the busyness
of a raging world and my tumbling life.
People come and go—kind and unkind, gracious and bitter
—but You alone, my God, are ever true and constant.

As the dawn shatters the pane of night’s darkness,
so shatter the veil of troubles around me—glorious.
As the tree roots slowly sink deep and strong in the soil,
so slowly grow me in Your grace and truth—rooted.

Only You do I trust, my God,
to guide my path and relieve my heart—only You.