Nouwen on incarnation

Henri Nouwen reflects on the nature of love and humanity in his wonderful little book Adam, which is about the man he cared for at L’Arche.

Adam’s humanity was not diminished by his disabilities. Adam’s humanity was a full humanity, in which the fullness of love became visible for me, and for others who grew to know him. Yes, I began to love Adam with a love that transcended most of the feelings, emotions, and passions that I had associated with love among people. Adam couldn’t say, “I love you,” he couldn’t embrace spontaneously or express gratitude in words. Still I dare to say we loved each other with a love that was as enfleshed as any love, and was at the same time truly spiritual. We were friends, brothers, bonded in our hearts. …

This experience cannot be understood by logical explanation, but rather in and through the spiritual bonding of two very different people who discovered each other as completely equal in the heart of God. From my heart I could offer him some care that he really needed, and from his heart he blessed me with a pure and lasting gift of himself.

Every time I read Nouwen carefully, I am reminded of a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

Like Nouwen, I am prone to think of humanity in terms of intellect and feeling. Our humanity, my gut tells me, is based somehow in the more evolved parts of our cerebral cortex. But such ideas suffer from the great fault of making the hallmark of humanity the things that I most value about myself.

Isn’t this a form of spiritual pride?

Adam with all his profound disabilities was fully human. For all the wonderful things I can do with my brain and my brain can do for me, he may be closer to God than I am.

The biggest difference between Adam and me is that Adam wore his disabilities on the outside where everyone could see them. Some of mine are obvious right away, but most of my more pronounced disabilities take time to discover. I am more skilled at hiding and denying my brokenness than Adam was.

When a friend came to visit Nouwen at L’Arche one day, he asked why the great writer and teacher was wasting his time by caring for Adam. Nouwen noted that his friend could not see Adam as the incarnated face of God. He could only see the disabilities, not the man.

For Nouwen, Adam was a teacher.

And while I, the so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was like me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered.

Questions from above and below

Henri Nouwen writes about his friend Adam, who had profound physical and mental disabilities:

Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see that these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you into prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”

‘Open wounds stink and do not heal’

From Henri Nouwen’s classic The Wounded Healer:

[I]t would be very easy to misuse the concept of the wounded healer by defending a form of spiritual exhibitionism. A minister who talks in the pulpit about his own personal problems is of no help  to his congregation, for no suffering human being is helped by someone who tells him that he has the same problems. Remarks such as, “Don’t worry because I suffer from the same depression, confusion and anxiety as you do,” help no one. This spiritual exhibitionism adds little faith to little faith and creates narrow-mindedness instead of new perspectives. Open wounds stink and do not heal.

Whenever I revisit this book, this quote always grabs me by the shirt collar. It reminds me that I often misread Nouwen. If you just handed me that quote and asked me what I thought Henri Nouwen thought about it, I would likely assume he would be bothered by it because I hear in him a voice that affirms solidarity among the wounded.

This quote reminds me that I pigeon-hole Nouwen and need to be more careful in how I read and hear him.

Parenting as hospitality

Henri Nouwen in writing about hospitality and spirituality writes this about children:

It may sound strange to speak of the relationship between parents and children in terms of hospitality. But it belongs to the centre of the Christian message that children are not properties to own and rule over, but gifts to cherish and care for. Our children are our most important guests, who enter into our home, ask for careful attention, stay for a while and then leave to follow their own way. Children are strangers whom we have to get to know. They have their own style, their own rhythm and their own capacities for good and evil.

Three voices depending on God

Amy Holtz writes a moving post about the depth of darkness and finding the light.

And one day I came to the conclusion that regardless of all the love that others were bestowing on me they couldn’t give me peace. They couldn’t love me in the way that I needed most. I had been looking to others for my help. Only God could help me in the middle of the night when I woke up in a sweat and pure panic. Only He could give me the words to say when my kids cried asking when Daddy would come back. Only God could meet my most basic needs. So, I stepped out in a place with God that I’d never been before: total dependence.

Her words remind me very much of Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out:

There is much mental suffering in our world. But some of it is suffering for the wrong reason because it is born out of false expectation that we are called to take each other’s loneliness away. … No friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness.

Or in the words of Augustine:

Thou hast prompted him, that he should delight to praise thee, for thou hast made us for thyself and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in thee.

Three voices saying singing similar melodies. The accents are different and the key changes, but I hear echoes — harmonies — in these three voices.

What do we have to offer?

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.