This summer, my parents invited Jennifer and me (for a two year wedding anniversary gift!) on an eleven-day Scandinavian cruise. You read that right. The itinerary included stops in Norway, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark, as well as two days in St. Petersburg, Russia.
There was so much beauty to imbibe, from the vastness of the Baltic, to the vigour of Helsinki, to the cobblestone cafes in Stockholm (where I renounced my general coffee aversion and had a cappuccino – tremendous, I might add). Everything was lovely, and all the while I kept thinking about the ship gliding into port in St. Petersburg. To meet God, of course.
Several years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s fantastic book The Return of the Prodigal Son. I had recently resigned from my job as a high school English and Bible teacher at an international school in Hong Kong. Not because I was unhappy, mind you (I loved teaching and loved my students), but because I couldn’t reconcile the full-time-ness of my teaching position with my desire to really be with those who are poor. As rewarding as Kowloon City Vineyard’s evening outreaches to Nepalese youth in the city were, teaching was a tiring enterprise which crowded out my extracurricular energy. I came to the realization that I couldn’t do both, so I resigned from the latter.
In the months following the end of the school year, I sent a plethora of resumes all around the world to various organizations doing social or justice work. Not one lead materialized, leaving me hopelessly and immovably unemployed for several months. It was in these doldrums that questions about the love of God confronted me. If the Christian God, the God who promises a hope or future (Jeremiah 29:11), wasn’t going to secure me immediate employment, and if this God who is love (1 John 4:8) could not shoulder me when I had nothing else with which to prop myself up – no work, purpose, title, or accompanying dignity and social status – then all the talk about the sufficiency of his love was nothing but a mirage: promising yet vacuous.
As it turns out, in the aridity of dead ends that season, many tributaries carried me and ultimately joined me to the inseparable reservoir of God’s love. One such tributary was The Return of the Prodigal Son which, along with Ed Piorek’s The Father Loves You, at once attended to my wounds and amplified the good news of the Christian faith beyond what I could’ve envisioned.
The entire premise of The Return of the Prodigal Son is Nouwen’s experience of seeing Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. He gazed for hours at the painting; it was a highly spiritual experience which resuscitated Jesus’ parable about a father and his two sons. Even more so, for Nouwen, the painting/parable came to encompass the entirety of the gospel, an epiphany about which the book is a thoroughly moving meditation.
When I read the book those years ago (2009?), I longed to be able to see what Nouwen saw, to see the Rembrandt and be similarly inspired. But what chance could there ever be for this? As if, I told myself, the painting hangs in The State Hermitage Museum. In Russia. In St. Petersburg.
Our ship docked in St. Petersburg early in the morning on the twelfth of July. That afternoon, we went to The Hermitage.
To be continued…