As I said in a previous post, I have made it a habit for the past several years to read through Henri Nouwen‘s little book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership during the week of Annual Conference in order to draw from a spiritually deep well in the midst of a context that, for all our good intentions (and I place myself squarely in the warning as well) can easily fall into the ditch of shallow happy talk on the one side or jaded complaining on the other. I don’t mean to paint such a depressing picture of Annual Conference. Indeed, it is a joyful time of fellowship. What I mean to do is be ever aware of our propensity to fall short of the glory of God without the help of the Word, the Spirit, and the Community.
A word on the blog title: since I blog this book annually (or attempt to), I think I need to refer to which year I’m dealing with (this is starting this year).
Ok, thinking about the introduction in this post to get us started…
Nouwen tells of his growing awareness that his life was falling off track spiritually, despite teaching pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, and Christian spirituality in some of the greatest institutions of higher learning–Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He says, “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 a spiritual death” (p. 10-11). So, he began to pray that God would show him the way. God did. “In the person of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people, God said, ‘Go and live among the poor in spirit, and they will heal you’ (p. 11).
As Nouwen says, God took him working with the world’s “best and brightest” to working with and living among “men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society” (p. 11). The fact that Nouwen went is a testimony, possibly to his spiritual desparation, but also to his self-abandonment to faith in God. I mean to do this in other blog posts, however I can’t help but say that I hear a point of contact between he and Benedict here (highlighted in my last post). Benedict offers as an image of true faith standing before “the face of God, as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers.” It seems to me that this poverty of spirit was precisely the fertile soil needed to place Nouwen in a position both to hear the word of God to him and to actually get up and follow.
This gets me thinking about 2 things.
1. How the way of God seems foolish to the world, but in fact it is the Way of Life. That those marginalized are the better conduits of grace and healing and of the presence of Jesus than those who are the players according to the world is scandalous and foolish and something we instinctively mitigate with conditions and situations in which it is not so much the case. I am very tempted to do so myself. This is self-serving however, because I am not yet marginalized by the world and it does not feel good to say that Jesus is found among the poor and marginalized. Seems better to me to simply listen to the Gospels on this point and to feel the blunt force of the Scriptural witness, trusting in the transformative power of that yieldedness more than in my abilities to soften the challenges of the gospel.
2. How it is one thing to diagnose the illness, but be reluctant to take the medicine. I’m impressed that Nouwen followed God’s leading into such an unlikely place. I want to do so myself according to God’s calling on my life. Hearing his story and receiving his witness nudges me one place closer to truly being a Christian.