Rembrandt, God’s Vessel for Nouwen

I’m intrigued by how one life can be dramatically altered because of what someone else left behind. Those who passed away hundreds or thousands of years ago can still have a profound affect on us.  For example, a man from the 1600’s artistic expression spoke so profoundly to a man in 1986 that it altered his entire professional and prestigious career.  He left his prominent social status and became a pastor to the mentally ill.  It’s through this life altering change that he found himself; he found Love; he found peace; he found joy.  He says he was merely a spectator of faith in his previous career of strong knowledge, lectures and opinions on spiritual teachings.  He says it wasn’t until he shed his spiritual spectator skin and stepped out in faith that he experienced what he was longing for. 

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt 1669

Henri Nouwen left his career at Harvard to pastor the mentally ill after feeling “struck by lightening when he saw Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the  Prodigal Son.  Henri writes,

“As I reflect on my own journey, I become more and more aware of how long I have played the role of the observer.  For years I had instructed students on different aspects of the spiritual life, trying to help them see the importance of living it.  But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God?”

Henri Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt was so inspired by Jesus’ profound story of the prodigal son that he created a moving oil painting that’s eight feet tall. Nouwen first saw it as a poster print and was so struck by it he had to see it for himself.

God is Creator and because we humans are made in the image of God we too are creative. What spilled out of Rembrandt still lives on today and inspires others like Nouwen. What was it that struck Nouwen? What is it that strikes us today? Is it Rembrandt’s super talent? It is the work of the Holy Spirit. God used Rembrandt’s creative response to the prodigal son story to speak into Henri Nouwen’s life. Nouwen realized he’d been like the sons in the story most of his life and it was now time to be the father. He walked away from his intellectual career and stepped into a chaplain position and spent his time with people who are many times cast away in society. Here he lived his best life. God used Rembrandt to speak to Nouwen and Nouwen to speak to me. Can I align myself so fully with God that my offering too might speak to someone and point them to God?

The world calls out to us in so many directions. It pulls and tugs at us. It tells us greatness comes from riches and fame; those who are famous are the important ones with a legacy to leave. Those who have money matter most so we must strive and put our efforts into being being noticed. Those who are rich and famous will be quick to tell us it does not satisfy the soul. The world will ravage us and make us its’ slave just like the younger son experienced in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The son thought he knew what he wanted. When we move away from God we welcome darkness into our lives. We might think it’s what we want at the time, our hearts have a desire to sin. We are dirty people who cause more pain in the world if we do not allow God to redeem us, to forgive us, and to restore us. We’ve all walked away from God. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all been the prodigal son. Rembrandt’s offering points us to God and this is why it’s so profound and has the power to move and shake us. It is a visual Gospel.

“To whom do I belong? To God or to the world?”

Henri Nouwen

We too can use our gifts and talents for God. Certainly my talents aren’t like Rembrandts but I can choose to wearily chase after the world or I can choose to put my efforts in things that will point others to God. If I am able in any way to be a mere vessel God can use I’ve been successful. Rembrandt’s painting is the fruit of his faith. It comes from his reading, digesting, self-evaluating and living Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. Rembrandt put this into a visual we can still see with our own eyes over 300 years later. He’s made a visual of a story from God’s Word and God uses it to speak into the lives of others. Nouwen wrote a book about his spiritual response to the Prodigal Son story and how God used Rembrandt’s painting to speak to him. Nouwen’s book points me to God and draws me deeper into my faith. It’s a domino effect. Now it’s my turn. God desires to use you and I in this way too. What spills out of our lives? Can God use it to transform another?

Rembrandt’s art offering shows us what forgiveness and restoration look like. It gives us a glimpse into who God is. It shares the Gospel message in a visual way. God is still using Rembrandt to speak. God is ready for us to come back home. God is still using the books Nouwen wrote like the one I’m writing about today. We each have a purpose that can transform the life of another. Are you open to throwing off all your idols and shutting out the voices of the world? Prodigal sons and daughters, come home! God awaits you with open arms. What you’re afraid of will dissipate into thin air. What matters will take a dramatic shift in your life like Nouwen experienced. We can live these kind of lives too! We too can point the next generation to God, the welcoming, loving and forgiving Father.


2 thoughts on “Rembrandt, God’s Vessel for Nouwen

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  1. “He says it wasn’t until he shed his spiritual spectator skin and stepped out in faith that he experienced what he was longing for.” I started a new blog 2 weeks ago and it has definitely required stepping out in faith…which a friend just encouraged me for doing today (exact same words). I also just bought my first Nouwen book earlier today because reading there is a section on being broken resonated with me. Being broken and stepping out in faith are how we allow the Spirit to work through us, I guess. “God used Rembrandt to speak to Nouwen and Nouwen to speak to me.” And He used you to speak to me (my third reference to Nouwen today! I take that as God speaking to me).

    Liked by 2 people

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