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.

8 thoughts on “What do we have to offer?

  1. When you say “unconcerned with eternal questions,” do you mean that he doesn’t use words like “hell” or “Satan” explicitly? John, there’s a paradoxical way that the gospel of hellfire and brimstone is actually more anthropocentric than what Nouwen is talking about. What Nouwen has shared here puts the focus entirely on God’s nature rather than on what we get out of it. When we make the gospel about “how to get saved,” we’re defining the gospel as the means of replicating a compelling conversion experience and reducing the whole of God’s beauty and glory to the question of our personal afterlife insurance. If there’s not enough dread and terror as part of the equation, it’s not going to be as psychologically satisfying; I really think that’s one of the main drivers. I blogged about this in response to a talk by Scot McKnight at the Missio Alliance gathering: http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-hidden-anthropocentrism-of-the-soterian-gospel-futuregospel/

    1. I don’t mean using “hell” or “Satan” explicitly, but I do mean framing our thoughts and actions on an eternal scale. I’m not saying Nouwen does not do that, but I wonder, based on reading him, if he does.

      I understand — given our recent interactions — why you think my reference to eternal questions is about that, but in this case I’m asking a more general question about what “playing field” Nouwen sees these issues working out on.

  2. Remember what become Nouwen’s primary ministry context– Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community in Ontario, a community of care WITH (not simply FOR) persons with significant physical and mental challenges. There were no “fixes” for the lives of these people. There was only to “be with” them in service, and, as Nouwen and Vanier frequently remarked, to see the light and love of God shining in their eyes, faces and bodies. Offering them themselves in the presence and power of Christ could indeed offering them Christ in the very best ways possible.

  3. I love how Augustine frames the whole issue of what the church is for. The church should fundamentally be a place of Divine joy rather than total work and mission. Mission flows out of joy, but how often have we turned mission into our centerpiece? Augustine wants the people of God to take such delight in Him that people outside the church see it and crave it. Today we seem not to trust that the church, as Christ’s joy-filled community, is anything people should want. I wonder why.

  4. I wrote this a couple of years ago about why I was a lay speaker:
    Lay speaking is more than just something you do for a few hours on a Sunday morning once a year. It becomes a part of your soul, planted and nourished by the Spirit. We are challenged by Jesus to spread the Gospel message throughout the land, through our words, our deeds, and our thoughts. I heard the call first in 1965 and then again in 1990; I find my strength in knowing that every now and then, be it in a regular service on a Sunday or through something that I posted on my blog, someone will say that I helped them through a rough time. Then I know that I did the right thing in answering the call and I will continue to answer the call. (from http://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/this-is-me/why-am-i-a-lay-speaker/)

  5. I suspect that Wesley would disagree that fear is never from God, but I’d hope they could have worked well together. Knowing who Wesley was able to work with tells me that might have been entirely possible. My impression, perhaps wrongly, is that the BoOM isn’t hugely concerned with doctrine. I suspect he’d pass. I believe God would use Nouwen, as I believe he did, to bring people to Himself. 🙂

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