As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
In northern California, Granite Springs Church has a clear purpose and mission, but if you search the light-filled atrium entrance, you won’t find a written vision statement or list of key values or strategies.
You only find a painting.
Every week hundreds of people shuffle past this quiet image, which captures everything essential the church wants to communicate.
The painting is a moving image of a father and two sons.
One son, with torn clothes, is humbly kneeling before his elderly father. The other son, wearing expensive robes, stands stiffly to the side watching the scene unfold with a critical eye. A few household servants watch from the shadows while the nearly blind father, wearing a rich and deep red velvet cloak, illuminates the center. The father’s shoulders and arms, like a mother hen’s sheltering wings, envelop his estranged and ragged child. The father’s hands rest on his tired back, comforting him while holding him steady.
The stunning scene hanging in the church is a hand-painted replica of a famous original artwork that Rembrandt painted near the end of his life in 1669. The carefully placed pigments depict a scene from one of Jesus’ most beloved and well-known stories from Luke 15: the return of the prodigal son.
Although the story has been traditionally thought of as one lost child coming home, many biblical scholars have noted that both children are “lost”—each in his own way.
One child flees. This kind of running away is obvious. He runs away from home to a strange land to fill his heart and spirit with food, drink, and thrills. The other child freezes. This kind of running away is harder to notice and name. He stays home but gets lost by crystalizing into a responsible rule follower filled with resentment. Indeed, the story is about two children who get lost in two different ways.
When thinking about our lives, sometimes either/or statements can help give us language and categories in which to better tell our stories:
Are you more like the younger child or the elder?
Are you a rule-breaker or a rule-follower?
Are you rebellious or responsible?
But if we dig down below the surface, we know life isn’t like that. It’s messier.
Our hearts are a tangled and sticky jumble. Our stories are filled with rabbit trails and repeating patterns. Two steps forward, one step back. Either/or categories don’t do justice to the complexity and mystery of our lives. The truth is that at different points in our lives many of us feel and know the journey of both children—getting lost by running away in rebellion or getting lost in routine, responsibility, and resentment.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, tells the story of seeking special permission to spend time with the original Rembrandt masterpiece hanging in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. For hours, Nouwen sat with the painting—absorbing the colors of grace. What emerged from his deep reflection was a profound meditation of the nature of sin, salvation, repentance, grace, and what it means to get lost and come home again.
Halfway through his book, Nouwen reminds us that the spiritual journey doesn’t begin or end by identifying with one or both sons/daughters in the story, as helpful as that can be at times. The spiritual journey is about lost children receiving grace, coming home, and slowly maturing into the image of the Father. He articulates this keen insight when he says, “Becoming like the heavenly Father is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message” (125).
Granite Springs Church has a constant influx of spiritually curious folks. During an introductory class Kevin Adams, the founding pastor, leads a small group of new attendees on a mini tour of the building. They wander through classrooms, office spaces, and meander through a long hallway. Finally, they congregate in the light-filled atrium and stand in front of the large Rembrandt painting. Curious eyes study the hues and textured brush strokes while the story from Luke 15 is read out loud. Then the group settles their gaze on the image of the Father at the center. After a few thoughtful moments, they collectively make a list of the Father’s attributes based on the story and the image in front of them.
It doesn’t take long before words start pouring out: The Father is generous, humble, good, kind, long-suffering, patient, loving, strong, wise, hopeful, vulnerable, gracious, joyful, and welcoming.
This introductory class is one step on the road to church membership. Naturally, in a place like California (and in many places across the country) any mention of the word “membership” sparks a number of suspicions and concerns. One fear quietly ignites another in the heart and minds of those standing there:
What is the real agenda of this church?
Do they just want my money?
How soon will they ask me to serve in the children’s ministry?
Will they tell me who to vote for and what my politics should be?
Anticipating these questions, Pastor Adams ends the class with a surprising twist: “Just in case you’re wondering, we have an agenda at this church.”
Feeling as though their secret thoughts have been read like a neon street sign, the class listens intently while he quietly points to the Father at the center of the painting: “This is our agenda. We pray that one day, you’ll become just like the Father. We pray that you’ll grow and mature, becoming deeply loving and kind; passionate, humble, and wise; strong and gentle; compassionate, patient, and joyfully generous; longsuffering; prayerful and playful; vulnerable and courageous.”
Like all of us, Rembrandt got lost. Having lived a wild and rebellious life in his younger years, he knew what it was like to get lost by running headfirst into excess. He also knew the responsibility and resentment of the elder child. Full of arrogance, Rembrandt at times was cruel, vengeful, and had a reputation of being difficult to work with. When he painted the story from Luke 15 near the end of his life, he had suffered the loss of a spouse, multiple children, employment, and reputation. In the quiet scene he brought to life on 17th-century canvas, Rembrandt sees himself as the younger and elder child. He painted himself into the colors of grace.
Years later, Henri Nouwen reflecting on the same story reminds all of us that God’s call to come home is both comforting and deeply transformative. We start by waking up from our wandering and identifying with one or both children in the story. But the focus of Jesus’ story and the center of Rembrandt’s painting is not resentful or rebellious children coming home.
The heart of the story is the Father—who stoops at center, radiates compassion, and wraps his arms around his beloved children—embracing them and transforming them into living images of grace.