A couple of introductory words:
Henri Nouwen penned the substance of this short book on the occasion of being invited to speak in DC to a gathering of priests (Nouwen was Catholic, after all). He had moved from a professorship at Harvard (at Notre Dame and Yale prior to that) to a community for disabled adults in Canada (though the organization is global) called L’Arche. There he found a much different life than in the academy, but he was looking for something else. So he speaks in light of that contrast of experiences: training the best and brightest for ministry on the one hand and caring and serving as priest to adults with special needs. His reflections take shape at the intersection of (a) the modern context, its concerns and idiosyncracies, (b) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert from Matthew’s Gospel, and (c) the story of Peter’s reinstatement by Jesus to take up leadership in the community at the end of John’s Gospel.
In this post, I will share a few reflections and musings regarding the first chapter, “From Relevance to Prayer,” and the first section, “The Temptation: To be Relevant.”
Nouwen points out our modern obsession with “relevance.” Not that finding ways to bridge where people are with where they need to get isn’t a good thing, but Nouwen suggests that often our commitment to reach people where they are with what they need, or what they perceive that they need, leads us to question the essential calling of the pastoral leader. Three quotes to illustrate (remember that Nouwen is a Catholic, addressing a Catholic audience, thus the dominant reference to priests):
“Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact… They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, adn doctors are often more trusted than they.”
“The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, ‘We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the Church, or a priest. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence… God, the Church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions.’ In this climate of secularization, Christian leaders feel less and less relevant and more and more marginal. Many begin to wonder why they should stay in the [ordained] ministry. Often they leave, develop a new competency, and join their contemporaries in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world.”
Nouwen makes the point that despite our expertise in becoming relevant, which has made us quite successful, we still find many persons aching for a cure for the lonliness and lovelessness of their lives in the midst of their “success.”
“It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his [or her] irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.”
In other words, the most relevant thing we can do for people is to admit, embrace, and own our irrelevant selves. Admit that we don’t know everything about everything, that we’re not as cool as we’d have ourselves and others believe. A simple experience of this: A couple of years ago, I caught myself wanting to be more “relevant” that I actually was–able to talk about motorcycles with a youth in my church at the time. Truth is, I’ve never ridden a motorcycle and am not at all interested in doing so. But just the same, when he mentioned that we was riding a motorcycle, I wanted badly to have a common interest and base of knowledge in order to convince him that I was cool and relevant and such. I suppose I could have gone out and learned a lot about the subject, preparing myself well for a return to the subject. But fortunately for me, I had reread Nouwen fairly recently. So I admitted my ignorance and asked him to tell me about motorcycles. He did, for quite a while. And the relational bond with that kid was strengthened because Nouwen was freshly on my mind.