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A student in a weekend course on Henri Nouwen that I taught for the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Seminary here in Atlanta last year divided her final paper—to be about her own spiritual journey in relation to the material presented—into forgiveness, fruitfulness, and fun. Commending the excellence of her paper, I wrote that I might borrow her divisions (though not her content) as a fresh framework for my talk on Henri for Newport Presbyterian Church in the Seattle area this past January.
Since then I’ve realized that this framework is not dependent on my “channeling Henri,” as much as I enjoy talking about my late professor, his books, and our friendship. It is, in fact, a good framework for the spiritual life.
Forgiveness is about letting go of the past—past hurts, grievances, failures, mistakes, disappointments, even opponents. Forgiveness may also transform the past into a fertile present if we grow from those experiences. But letting go of the past may also mean leaving behind successes, achievements, possessions—anything that prevents us from being fully present.
Fruitfulness is about letting go of the future—resisting dependence on results, expectations, hopes, even fears and more, realizing that the fruit our lives ultimately bear, perhaps beyond our lifetime, is a gracious gift, as implied by the metaphor. We plant the seeds, we tend the plant, but we can’t control the outcome.
Fun is living in the moment: attentive, mindful, spontaneous, open, coming to our senses, unassuming but hopeful, playful as well as fulfilling. Only by letting go of both the past and the future can we live in the moment, whether playing with our children or pets, volunteering for a shelter or a just cause, playing the piano or painting a scene, to give a few examples. Yes, we have a history, and yes, we have a future. But we can’t let them distract us from the everlasting present. Past and future do best when they inform and inspire our present rather than restrict or restrain it.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Just now—the “present” in which I am writing this—I realize that letting go of both past and future to be fully present is found in this central proclamation of Jesus and the movement he began.
To repent is to let go of all the baggage that prevents our entrance into God’s realm: good stuff, bad stuff, and all stuff in between, including detailed expectations and speculations as to what the commonwealth of God might be. Sometimes the “baggage” is not our own, but that of others laid on us or in front of us, blocking our welcome. And sometimes the baggage is what we’ve achieved—as they say, “victims of our own success.”
The kingdom of heaven is “at hand,” in the present moment, but it is also the fulfillment, the “fruit” of both past and future inspiring, “seeding” the present.
What’s “fun” is the knowing twinkle in the eye of the present, the contented smile in the heart of the moment, the reassuring touch of God-with-us.
God knows we need more fun in our lives.
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