Archive for Henri Nouwen

I came across the following thoughtful comment while reading a bible commentary to prepare for a sermon several weeks ago. Instead of reading the section of the commentary which covered my text for that week, my eyes roamed to an earlier page and fell on the following quotation. The biblical commentator is Michael J Wilkins (The NIV Application Commentary, Matthew), who was reflecting on Henri Nouwen’s book, “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership” and the various temptations which Christian leaders face. He was citing pp. 16-17, 38-39, 58-59 of Nouwen’s book when he writes the following:

“A variety of temptations confront Christian leaders when they engage in ministry. We think immediately of moral or ethical temptations, because most of us have cringed as we heard the media expose sinful behavior by Christian leaders. But Nouwen focuses our attention elsewhere, on temptations that many of us may think are good things: (1) the temptation to be relevant – to do things, show things, prove things, build things that demonstrate the ability to make a difference  in people’s lives; (2) the temptation to be spectacular – to do something that will win great applause and popularity; (3) the temptation to be powerful – to use political, economic, spiritual and even military might as instruments for establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

These reflections on Christian leadership came after Nouwen left behind twenty years of teaching pastoral psychology and theology at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard in order to be a live-in minister at a community for the mentally handicapped. He had found that for much of his life he looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry, but it was in looking at Jesus’ example that he found the key elements for resisting temptation and becoming a truly Christ like leader: prayer as a way of life, vulnerability to others in shared ministry, and trust in God’s leadership for us and our people. He concludes by saying, “I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. . . . Looking at Jesus’ pattern, we will find a better example for our own leadership. (Wilkins, pp. 167-168.)

If you are a leader, what’s your driving your style of leadership? What are your images and where do you get them from? Leaders lead by example. We all know that. Would you be prepared to have someone mimic your lifestyle and leaderhsip values? (Paul says to the Corinthians that they should mimic him (1 Cor 11:1) I like the definition of leadership being ‘influence’. Leaders influence others who then follow. Our choices and example influence others. Just this Sunday I was thrown on the horns of a dilemma. I was asked by an elderly widow in my congregation if I would be attending the commissioning of a missionary couple who had been at my church the previous week. The commissioning was going to occur later in the afternoon (Sunday). I stand about a head taller than this fairly frail widow, but I certainly felt guilty and powerless about refusing her request. But I replied: “No, I won’t be able to attend. I have another engagement I have to attend to”. I was tempted to be popular and attend so as to remove this particular person’s hostility to me for not supporting the missionaries of my denomination as well as I should (in her eyes). My “other engagement” was to take my 16 year old daughter for her weekly driving lesson. She is only just learning the basics in our manual car, a Volvo 740, and all three of my children have preferred me teaching them the basics in preference to my wife. Apparently I’m a little more calm than she is. Anyway, I’d made this appointment with my daughter the previous day. In the back of my mind when I was asked by the woman at church about my attendance, was my awareness that I also needed an afternoon sleep before taking my daughter out driving. I was extremely tired from a broken night’s sleep and then preaching at two morning services.

I resisted the temptation to be popular, and listened to my head which said: “You need your sleep and your daughter needs the driving lesson”. I need to take care of myself by getting enough sleep (and exercise) or I quickly fall into despondency and within a few months, depression. I also feel that too many minister’s kids get the ‘left overs’ from their parent’s lives which leads to their resentment and perhaps, abandoning the faith. I know of two minister’s sons within my own denomination who cannot drive yet, because their fathers have been ‘too busy’ with the demands of ministry and this has disturbed me greatly. Generally speaking, I don’t have any real big problems with my kids. They’re engaged with the church we were formerly attending before I moved back into ministry and they have their own faith.  I think its because of the time I’ve spent (with my wife) giving our kids the time they needed, when they needed it. To my surprise, I thought when they were older they would require less time and be less demanding than what a toddler needs. They don’t. Their needs change, but they want us around, even if its just to be a presence in the home.

Finally, it seems in ministry that it’s a battle to stay true to what you are commitmented to in terms of the style of your ministry and it’s a battle to fend off the temptations to compromise those values, ideals and need of self care, even when a frail widow asks you to compromise.

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I have just returned to work after three weeks of holiday. Each time I meet someone they ask, ‘How was it?’ My best reply is that it was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t the happiest of times. My lower back was strained on Christmas Eve and its only just come good after a box of anti-inflammatory drugs, physiotherapy and persistent exercises the physiotherapist taught me, so a good deal of the holiday was focused on getting better. The cause of my sore back was carrying shopping bags, but the deeper cause was my body was saying it had had enough. After a busy year and the approaching Christmas demands and church services, it (my back) ‘went’. I painfully worked through the next two Sunday services, including a New Year’s service, and finished off organising things which need to be attended to while I was away and then went on holidays. I should have recognised the signs earlier, but didn’t.

Quite soon after commencing my holidays I drifted into a place which I like to call ‘unfaith’. It is not that I would deny the Creed; it is rather that I lacked the motivation and the heart to affirm it. People who enter this place are indifferent to the things of God. Something had come and taken me captive. My heart, emotions, mind and spirit felt dead. This condition is well known and documented, but rarely spoken of in the church, where a triumphalism underlies much of its life and activities. When called ‘spiritual depression’ as I have heard some call it, it sounds as bad as a catching a cold. It’s not. It’s more like developing influenza and sometimes it has fatal consequences to the Christian taken down by it. It was not that I now blatantly disbelieved in God; it was that he had become remote, even irrelevant. I now found myself in a place where I struggled to believe.

This condition which I call, ‘unfaith’ is not an active unbelief, but a half way house of not being active in my belief in Jesus, the church, miracles, God’s activity in the world and all that stuff. Unfaith is both a feeling and a disposition toward God of indifference in spite of continuing to claim to know something of God. ‘Unfaith’ has a range of expressions and degrees in its condition. At its worst, it’s an indulgence in being passive, waiting for proof by the proud. A milder version is sensed in the testimony of those at church who have had God do some amazing miracle in their lives which provided them with proof of his existence, (or even some mighty deliverance), but now they seem so lifeless in their faith. Their desperate prayer was answered – but now there seems a hollow commitment to a life of pursuing an intimacy with God. The lights have gone out although they continue to go through the motions. I think it strikes those who read questionable theological material which corrodes their faith and leaves them in a place of nowhere, uncertain about anything. Unfaith is probably lurking the in the background as the reason why some leave the institutional church. Due to hurt and pride, they move from being able to say ‘we believe in the holy catholic church’ to ‘we believe that our own individual faith is the only true position’ and leave to search for something which is found beyond the church.

This place of unfaith was not a place I was unfamiliar with however. I had entered this place from time to time in the past, and I had noticed that each time it has been due to exhaustion, be it my mind (from study), my body (from long hours of physical work as a carpenter), my heart and spirituality (from ministry), or my emotions (from draining and difficult pastoral situations). Unfaith is not doubt; doubt is actively questioning, standing outside and judging the truths of Christianity, whereas unfaith is a place where we would like to exercise our faith, but feel dead, weighed down by a shadowy feeling. Unfaith is a place we are taken to and held captive by exhaustion, lethargy; it is a spiritual torpor. It is the place which Elijah experienced under the broom tree (1 Kings 19:4) following a major demonstration of God’s power and answer to prayer. Elijah has a belief in God enough to pray – that his life would be taken, but not enough faith to remember the goodness of God, God’s covenant faithfulness, his call and God’s protection. This malaise of unfaith is often erroneously labelled ‘demonic oppression’ by the overzealous. It is not a lack of mental assent to Christian doctrine, but a condition of the heart whose channels have been well charted by Ignatius of Loyola in his retreat guide: The Spiritual Exercises, in which he notes that we experience alternating periods of desolation and consolation in our relationship with God. In a subsection of The Spiritual Exercises, called “The Rules for Discernment of Spirits”, he notes the symptoms of desolation, the ways of dealing with it when it strikes, the benefits of this condition and how to prepare ourselves for the time when we will enter it for it will surely strike sooner or later.

So at the commencement of my holidays I felt as if I had been led into a wilderness experience: being immersed in a place of barrenness, of silence and feeling remote from day to day life back in civilization. The wilderness was where the children of God spent forty years; it is where Elijah ended up, where Jesus went and countless others throughout history have traversed the dangerous journey through it. We even speak of ‘the political wilderness’ when a leading politician makes a bid for the leadership of their party and fails. They go to the back bench of parliament to lick their wounds and to plot another attempt at getting the numbers.

But unfaith is a normal experience for the Christian that brings with it, some benefits, albeit that it is an unpleasant experience to undergo. It is the place in which we are purged, where we are weaned from our unconscious addiction to adrenalin which is released each time we engage in a ministry situation, even those situations in which both parties are blessed by God. The body’s loss of being regularly flooded with adrenalin sends shockwaves throughout it as withdrawal takes place. Because we do not live as disembodied spirits, our minds, heart, cardio-vascular system and psyche experience a low level shock in response to not having this constant stimulation of adrenalin. (I had to visit the doctor to obtain a new script for my blood pressure tablets and discovered that my blood pressure was about 10 points lower on holidays. I didn’t feel any better, I felt terrible, but my body blood pressure level was saying it was good for me to be away from stress, even good stress and the adrenalin.) It’s good for us physically to withdrawal from this over stimulation or long term health issues will emerge that can remain masked behind a busy and hectic lifestyle. A benefit of this place of unfaith is that we are taught or rather, brought back to earth and brought back to face our humanity again. We are after all, only unworthy servants of our master who are expected to do nothing more and nothing less than what he requires (Lk 17:10), and his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt 11:28-29), although we are inclined to forget this as we undertake projects which are beyond our powers or for causes which we assume are God’s causes. The painful experience of being broken free from our ego driven agendas and programs is experienced as unfaith because we end up in a place waiting around for a new assignment from the Lord. It’s not comfortable waiting in recovery. The terse but poignant reflections by Henri Nouwen of his experience of this place are profoundly beautiful and perhaps the best work he ever produced. (The Inner Voice Of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom”, 1996).

Our experience of unfaith helps reconnect us with the fact that we need to be compassionate toward those broken, exhausted or worn down by life’s struggles and the need to express some compassion toward ourselves as well. In this place of unfaith we relearn again what we have forgotten deep down, that we are saved by grace and not by what we do. It jolts us back into the awareness that we have been given a ministry, not because we are anyone special, or possess superior abilities, intelligence, looks or giftedness, but simply because of God’s love, sovereign choice (election) and grace (1 Cor 1:26-31). This newly recovered awareness helps break the confusion we so often and so easily slip into making between who we are and what we do (our performance), in this place, painful as it is. Due to this experience, the Psalms take on a whole new dimension and we discover that the Bible is not only a faithful record of God’s acts and revelation of his character, but is a faithful record by God’s people of their own responses as they struggle in their faith and trust in God. The Psalms in particular, express the yearnings and disappointments God’s people had with God. In this place of ‘unfaith’ the richness of the Psalms is rediscovered and we are again immersed in the honesty of their authors and touched by their willingness to be so vulnerable, so naked, in their condition and struggle which would be covered up in our modern church. (See for example: Ps 30:1-12; Ps 22:6; Ps 88:15; Ps 119:71 and Ps 77.)

Can we find our way back again out of this deadening condition, to safety, to where God is experienced again? Yes and no. There are a number of things we can do. When lost in the Australian bush, the best thing to do is sit down and wait to be found. Going against all our instincts to find our way home, we must not, but sit and wait. Those who panic and allow fear to take control of them, rush off through the bush and get more lost, over heat and then throw off their clothes to cool down. Searchers just follow the line of cast off clothes from one item to another in order to find them. If they are fortunate, they will be found only suffering from the embarrassment of being lost. The more severe, from hypothermia and dehydration. The best thing to do is wait for God, like the watchman on walls of Jerusalem looking for the first signs in the sky that the dawn was about to break over the horizon (Ps 130:6). We need to wait for our emotions to recover again and not to panic. It is a normal Christian experience as the Psalms testify. It is also good to remember that the deserts are where we begin to hear the voice of God again, not just in the hectic busyness of life and ministry commitments.

Slowly picking up our regular spiritual disciplines are helpful, but without over doing it. Regular everything is good; patterns help re-establish our equilibrium again. Pray a little, but often. Go easy on yourself because you will eventually be brought out into the ‘spacious place’ again (Ps 18:19). The Psalmist is correct in recognising that his deliverance will not come from his own efforts or by whipping himself with guilt or by undertaking a frenzy of religious activities (our natural inclination). It will come from the LORD with whom is constant love and redemption from this place of death and desolation. This place of unfaith is not one I would like to experience again for quite a while, and generally diligence and attention to one’s lifestyle, spiritual disciplines and the number of commitments undertaken are the best protection for being led into this place again, but occasionally its necessary for God himself to take us into this place, if only to discover, that its him alone that we seek and whom we serve.

What did I do on my holidays? Lots of things, from house maintenance, to bogie boarding on the surf; camping, to swimming in a river. The two main things I did work on throughout my holidays was recovering from a sore back which occurred on Christmas Eve; and the other, was to wait for the Lord again, to bring restoration after a demanding year in 2009. My holidays were basically spent in this place of unfaith, recovering. Like the Psalmist of 130, I have also come into the place of hope too – in what God has done and will do in my life this year. The sense of life and communion with God is returning, but it’s taken time and I’m still a work in progress.