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.

Nouwen and Wesley: Incompatible?

Ministry is entering with our human brokenness into communion with others and speaking a word of hope. This hope is not based on any power to solve the problems of those with whom we live, but on the love of God, which becomes visible when we let go of our fears of being out of control and enter into his presence in a shared confession of weakness.

— Henri Nouwen, ¡Gracias!

Henri Nouwen keeps talking to me.

His gentleness and his earnest and lovely writing always charm me. I cannot help but like him when I read his books. I cannot help but find myself underlining sentences and marking paragraphs for later reference. He writes words that cause my soul to take notice.

His writing, I suspect, is not that valuable to non-Christians or even, perhaps, Christians who do not share his educated and Western affluence. He never quite escapes his own paternalistic attitude toward the poor and the disabled. They are always in some ways “others” that he must cross gulfs to understand. They are often — even when he tries to avoid it — objects of his affection or compassion. Their existence often appears to be most cherished by Nouwen when they help him understand himself better.

To his credit, Nouwen knows this about himself. He sees his own need to control and his own reliance on his education and social position. He understands his own consuming desire for praise and admiration. He feels them as burdens in some ways, but burdens he never completely lays down. His participation with the poor or disabled always has the quality of a voluntary act, one he could walk away from. His choice to be among them always has a whiff of noblesse oblige about it, even as he writes of the gifts they give him.

I find Nouwen so constantly intriguing, though, because I believe he knew this about himself. I don’t think he was falsely humble or hypocritical. He knew his soul was divided against itself in many ways. He did not pretend to has escaped the fallen nature — what he called brokenness — of humanity, even as he sought healing.

He remains for me a testimony about how hard we recoil against true Christ-like humility and how powerful are the temptations that lure us to pride and self-justification.

As a United Methodist who values John Wesley’s teachings, I am troubled by some aspects of his testimony, though. Nouwen often seems to me to embrace his brokenness to such a degree that he cannot imagine being truly healthy. He hopes to become slowly more mature in his thinking and spirituality. With the help of good therapy, he learns to put away childish things, but he does not appear to expect to be renewed.

Perhaps this is a sign that I read Wesley too strongly or Nouwen too weakly, but I do hear something incompatible in their voices. Even though both would affirm that life in the body will always be a life of temptation and a life subject to frailty and error, Wesley sounds more optimistic about the power of grace to heal brokenness (break the power of sin) than Nouwen does. Nouwen feels resolved to a life without the possibility of victory over sin. Wesley is not.

I am not certain what to make of this incompatibility. But I take note of its presence. It calls me to further reflection and prayer.