I finished reading Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus a couple of days ago, but I’m still ruminating on it and will be blogging some thoughts over the next several days. Today, a few thoughts from the introduction.
Nouwen begins his introduction (the actual beginning of his presentation on Christian leadership at a conference–a prologue opens the book) by confessing his anxiety about the task he’s accepted, to speak on the future of Christian leadership. What I began thinking about is his journey from professor in academia (and an impressive list of faculties to which he had belonged) to priest in a community for the mentally challenged (the L’Arche community in Toronto). Nouwen was a teacher of the spiritual life (and continues to be through his many insightful books), but was experiencing dryness in his soul: “I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for spiritual death.” He then relates God’s calling to a new ministry, and in that, a healing of his spirit. So he moved from “Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society.”
It’s that sentence that grabbed hold of me. Marginal to the needs of our society. How much of our time and energy is spent propping up the notion that we are essential, or at least, important to the needs of society. Do we not justify our existence because we are able to “contribute.” And we have an understanding of what counts as a contribution. To approach this from the opposite direction, to what degree are we motivated by a fear of being marginal to society’s needs? Even those of us who minister “professionally” ought to press this question upon ourselves.
God graciously includes us in his creative and redemptive work, but this is not due to lack of ability on his part. It is because of his will–something within himself, not because of exterior constraints. So with God, we are not necessary to his work–he could do it without us. But apparently we’ve been made a critical part of his work, and this because of his choice, his grace, his, well mysteriousness, I think. And what it means, it seems to me, is that we’ve got to receive whatever vocation and work through which we minister as a gift from the Triune God. There is some paradox involved because we labor at our work and it doesn’t feel like a gift all the time.
Realizing that we are “poor in spirit” is critical to our relationship with God. We come with the knowledge that we, whether “best and brightest” or “lowly and marginal” in this world, have little to offer God if not for his grace in inviting us to offer ourselves and including us in his work of ministry in the world. Nouwen seems to have deeply connected with his dryness of spirit prior to going to L’Arche, and with his poverty of spirit in going and serving there.
Poverty of spirit is one of the great gifts that God gives us. Poverty of spirit produces in us a deep humility in which we can authentically receive the gift of being included in God’s life, and in his work of ministry, and from which we offer ourselves, our Christ-inhabited selves, to others in genuine love.