The second Henri Nouwen book I read this week was called Lifesigns which is kind of a cool coincidence since the contemporary worship service I lead is called Lifesign. Nouwen wrote this book in response to something said to him by Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche network of communities for mentally challenged people. Vanier said that each person regardless of his/her level of cognitive or social development, ought to be able to experience intimacy, fecundity (fruitfulness), and ecstasy (joyfulness). Another way of saying this might be that every human being can come to know that God knows us, values us, and delights in us. As before, rather than summarizing the text, I wanted to share some of Nouwen’s gems that I found and comment briefly on each of them.
“In our competitive world we are so used to thinking in terms of ‘more’ and ‘less’ that we cannot easily see how God can love all human beings with the same unlimited love while at the same time loving each one of them in a totally unique way… Somehow, we think we can only fully enjoy our being loved by God if others are loved less than we are.” (46-47)
This passage rings particularly true in the ferocious theological battles going on in American evangelicalism right now. We want so badly for God’s love to be a reward for our sacrifices, which is the one thing it most definitively is not. To be truly saved means to put enough grateful trust in God’s unmerited love that I don’t need the assurance of others’ damnation for my salvation to count. As long as I need for God’s love to be an earned reward that I get and others don’t, I am seeking salvation in my merits and not in Christ’s. This unhealthy self-justification is itself the damnation we are saved from.
“When we enter into the household of God, we come to realize that the fragmentation of humanity and its agony grow from the false supposition that all human beings have to fight for the right to be appreciated and loved.” (47)
This describes the way that self-justification is the antithesis of the communion with God and neighbor for which we were created. True conversion happens when we stop viewing God’s love as a right to be earned and start viewing it as a gift we cannot earn. It’s as simple and difficult as understanding that we don’t have to fight for something that God was going to give us freely, a change in attitude that opens us to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
“The way of God is the way of weakness. The great news of the gospel is precisely that God became small and vulnerable, and hence bore fruit among us… He came to us as a small child, dependent on the care and protection of others. He lived for as a poor preacher, without any political, economic, or military power. He died for us nailed on a cross as a useless criminal. It is in this extreme vulnerability that our salvation was won.” 66
Vulnerability is the opposite of the self-justifying defensiveness that categorizes our litigious, PR-obsessed society. Authentic community exists to the degree that vulnerability exists between people. Christ’s atonement serves the purpose of making vulnerability and thus community possible. Without it, we cannot bear the shame of losing face by asking each other’s forgiveness for our sins.
“Our preoccupation with success extinguishes the spirit of gratitude. When our hearts and minds are bent on proving our value to others and competing with our rivals, it is hard to give thanks. In a society that presents independence and self-reliance as ideals, gratitude is more a sign of weakness than of strength. Gratitude presupposes a willingness to recognize our dependence on others and to receive their help and support.” 68
This is an important insight about gratitude. A meritocracy has no place for gratitude because to be thoroughly grateful is to confess that we merit nothing. We often say “thank you” as a socially appropriate way of maintaining our honor without actually feeling grateful. Gratitude means really recognizing that God has used our parents, teachers, mentors, and colleagues to make us capable of everything we have ever accomplished. As Paul writes, “What do you have that you have not been given?” This is another angle from which salvation can be measured. One who is saved says not “Look at what I have done” but “Look what God allowed me to be a part of.”
When… we enjoy a good atmosphere in the family, a peaceful mood among friends, or a spirit of cooperation and mutual support in the community, we intuitively know that we did not produce it. It cannot be made, imitated, or exported… We cannot give a formula to produce it or a method to acquire it. It is always perceived as a gift, to which the only appropriate response is gratitude.” (70)
This is an important reminder in our era in which every successful ministry is something people try to package and sell to others. Capitalism tends to turn every circumstance of happiness into a good that can be reproduced and sold. This is called commodification. The movement of the Holy Spirit cannot be commodified. We cannot control it. All that we can do is open ourselves to receive it as a gift.
“Joyful persons do not necessarily make jokes, laugh, or even smile. They are not people with an optimistic view on life who always relativize the seriousness of a moment or an event. No, joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it… They suffer with those who suffer, yet they do not hold on to suffering; they point beyond it to an everlasting peace.” (102-103)
This is a very helpful explanation of joy. A lot of anxious, unjoyful people mask their lack of peace with cheery banter. I don’t do banter. It’s very comforting to hear Nouwen call it out for what it is. People who are joyful have enough emotional security to adapt how they respond to others according to their needs whether it’s tears or a smile or a
joke or respectful silence.
“Ecstasy is always a movement towards a shared life. Static living separates us and turns us into isolated individuals fighting for their own individual survival. But ecstatic living… makes us break through our walls of isolation and become a people of God, people who proclaim the joy of the eternal life that has already begun.” (105)
What a beautiful articulation of ecstasy according to its original etymology! It has nothing to do with those pills that teens in the nineties used to take at all-night dance parties. Stasis is egocentric existence. It’s static; it’s fragmented into individualism. Ek-stasis is existence received from beyond ourselves in communion with God and neighbor. We are converted by Christ’s ecstatic act on the cross into leaving our own stasis behind.