Why Nouwen is Better than a Bowl of Chocolate Ice Cream, Part 1

I shared that I’ve been on a Henri Nouwen binge at my wife’s cousin’s ranch just east of Austin, Texas. It feels as overwhelmingly delightful as devouring a bowl of chocolate ice cream. So I wanted to share a few tastes with you. Last night I read a very short beautiful book of Nouwen’s called In the Name of Jesus. It’s his reflections on Christian leadership framed by the three temptations Jesus faced to turn stones into bread (relevance), to win acclaim by throwing himself from the temple (popularity), & to have dominion over all the nations of the Earth (power).

In typical Nouwen fashion, he describes the movement of Christian spirituality as a movement away from each of these temptations to the virtues that he contrasts them with (from relevance to prayer, from popularity to ministry, and from leading to being led). So I wanted to share with you a few of the more meaningful quotes from the book and offer some reflections on each of them.

“I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love” (17).

This is a very convicting statement for me. I very much want to be relevant. But as long as that’s my goal I can offer little in the way of Christ’s love to people because everything I do will just be part of a performance to demonstrate my relevance. Ministry is not about being useful or important, but about being present in others’ lives in an unassuming way that allows them to open their hearts to God; “usefulness” often undermines presence.

“Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begin to invade the human soul this is not something that comes from God. This sounds very simple and maybe even trite, but very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits” (25).

It seems trite but the gospel is really as simple as grasping the love of God. This may sound like some kind of self-indulgent, new-age hippie nonsense but it’s not. Nouwen describes conversion as the process of leaving the house of fear for the house of fear. So much of the shallow pursuits that we chase in life are motivated by our fears of loneliness, shame, betrayal, etc. These fears have to be addressed for us to be able to truly receive God’s love. It’s very easy to say that we’re loved by God; it’s very difficult to believe that we are.

“We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for… When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.” In the Name of Jesus, 44

This captures how I think I’m supposed to try to be a pastor. Vulnerability is central to it. At the same time, recognizing my brokenness means that I get whatever support I need instead of using pastoral relationships unwittingly to take care of myself. Vulnerability and emotional neediness are not the same thing. I can be transparent about my weakness for the sake of solidarity with my parishioners without exploiting my relationships with them to satisfy my inadequacies.

“What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” In the Name of Jesus, 59

Worldly power is antithetical to God’s power through love. It takes a lot less work just to boss other people around than to actually search for God’s truth together with them and be changed by your love for them.

“Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.” In the Name of Jesus, 64

Nouwen says that spiritual maturity actually comprises learning how to be led rather than how to lead others. We are led by God as we listen to God speaking through others. This does not mean that we let ourselves get tossed around by other peoples’ opinions. We rather listen for God’s voice in what others are saying even when their conclusions are wrong and we call attention to how God has spoken and call our fellow believers to obey the voice of God we have heard.

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