I have been wrestling recently with the meaning of being a pastor. Some of my recent posts reflect some of the questions and tensions. Often in times like these, I pull out well-worn books on my shelf: Will Willimon, Eugene Peterson, Henri Nouwen.
Here is one passage from Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus:
I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. … The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.
This is Nouwen’s deep conviction. I want to ask if he is correct, but I fear this is part of my recent struggle — the search for certain answers to uncertain questions. So, I will respond without attempting to pretend I know enough to judge him.
I hear in the call to “irrelevance” a different voice than the ones that animate my denomination. And so, I fear that listening to Henri Nouwen will make me an unfit United Methodist.
I see he ends with the “source of all human life,” and so I wonder if he is unconcerned with eternal questions. Is the pastor concerned finally with this life only? Or is eternity assumed by Nouwen and so unstated? Any true human life will extend beyond the grave, he might say. I do not know.
He says we offer our own vulnerable self. But is that true? I recall the painting on the seminary wall of Methodist preachers climbing into a ship with the words “Offer them Christ.” In addition to proclaiming Christ, do we not also offer Christ? And is this not something more important than our vulnerable selves?
Nouwen may have part of an answer to my questions:
The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, “a heart of flesh,” in Jesus. 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 begins 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 condition or limits.
Would John Wesley let Nouwen preach to a Methodist society? Or is such a question pointless given the change in time and place between the men? Would the Board of Ordained Ministry approve Nouwen’s candidacy? Would he lead people to Christ?
I am full of questions this week and few answers.