All praise and honor be to you for you shelter us from hurricanes and other storms in spite of our poverty of spirit and resources.
We confess that too often we are tight fisted and only remember our obligations when it benefits us directly or indirectly.
Yet, we thank you for sending your son to teach us hospitality and generosity of body and mind and spirit.
In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us gentle reminders of our need for charity and grace, grant us strength for the day, grace for those we me, and peace that we might grow closer to you day by day.
Good evening. For those who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and Christian author. My wife, Maryam, and I live in Centreville, Virginia and we have three grown children.
Today we continue our study about co-workers in evangelism. We are blessed to be a blessing to others. And as Christians we know that we can best bless others when we share the Gospel through our daily lives.
We praise you for creating us in your image and loving us as your children. Be especially present with us in this time and place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, bless our praise and send your Holy Spirit ahead of us as we extend your light in the Georgetown South Community. In the precious name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Today’s scripture lesson comes from the Book of Genesis 12:1-3. Hear the word of the Lord:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV)
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Which of you have had mysterious problems with your computer or, perhaps, your telephone?
This past week as I was writing this sermon, my system began, without any input on my part, to use a different keyboard, the international standard, ISO, when in the USA the ANSI standard is normally used. After three or four hours of research, I could not correct the problem. It is difficult to change the default configuration of this system because at this point I am not an expert in this field.
Because we have complex personalities, we also have default configurations. (2X) It is difficult to change them, even when we do not want to accept our default configurations. Our default configurations consist of our daily habits and hopefully of our Sunday habits (Smith).
In the writing of the Apostle Paul, this is the difference between the new person in Christ and the old person of the fleshly nature. (2 Cor 5:17) Our default configuration is exactly the same concept as Paul’s old person of nature. This was the source of much pain for Paul, as he wrote: “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Rom 7:20 ESV) But, our hope arise because we were created in the image of God and want to become like God in Jesus Christ, our role model.
We are blessed to bless others (2X, McDonald)
We discover this concept of blessings in the covenant of Abram and God in Genesis 12:1-3. This covenant is interesting because Abram needed to leave his family, his tribe, and his country—all the sources of security—at a time when the world was very dangerous. And for the most part, Abram never experienced the promises of God during his life. (2X) He traveled around the Promised Land, observed it, and was buried there. It is like being promised a barbecue to receive only the sweet aroma of it. Yet, “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6 ESV) We receive the same promises of God through Abram and we need to bless others, exactly the same as Abram.
How do we know this? We know it because we are created in the image of God and Christ has told us: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (2X; John 20:21 ESV)
We are blessed to bless others (2X)
For many years it has been said that Christianity is more caught than taught (2X). At lease three stories make this point.
The first story concerns the first letter of Peter, where the most famously quoted verse is: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15 ESV) The thing is that the rest of the book focuses on lifestyle evangelism, as it says.
“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Pet 2:12 ESV)
Works like hospitality speak directly to the heart without words. As you know, works speak louder than words alone. (2X)
The second story arose in the fourth century when we see that Saint Patrick was famous as the first successful evangelist in Ireland. His success was not anticipated because Patrick, as a teenager sixteen year old, was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland. For the next six years he worked as a slave caring for his master’s cattle in the Irish wilderness. Later, he escaped and traveled abroad to study to become a priest. Much later, he returned to Ireland as the church’s first missionary bishop and evangelized the Irish out of love for them. His love of the Irish was obvious and his evangelism focused on offering hospitality. In the end, Patrick and his companions planted more than 700 churches in Ireland (Hunter 2000, 13-23).
The third story is more recent. In the city of Rio de Janeiro there are many young people caught up in the gangs of the drug culture. In Brazil they call young people with mixed blood (blacks and Indians) as the “killable people.” Many of them die from the violence, but those that survive and are incarcerated by the police also don’t have much hope. In the jails, the police do not feed them or offer medical care. For the most part, the gangs control daily life in the prisons. In this hellish world, there are few visitors, not even Christians, but those that come are mostly Pentecostals who provide food, medicine, and worship services. As a consequence, the gangs respect the Pentevcostals, providing security for their services and allowing young people who really come to Christ to leave the gangs (2X; Johnson)—the only option other than a body bag.
As we have seen, hospitality can be more than just food. In these stories, it can be a faith journey.
Finally, we are blessed to be a blessing to others. Because our blessing is Christ Jesus, when we share the evangelism in our daily life, we bless others most effectively. After all, the Gospel is more caught than taught.
Thank you for your forgiveness and your presence in our daily lives. In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us strength for life and the wisdom to share your living Gospel. In the precious name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hunter, George G. III. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Johnson, Andrew. 2017. If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro. New York: Oxford. (Review)
Suzanne McDonald. 2010. Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Review)
Smith, James K. A. 2016. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit,Grand Rapids: Brazos Press. (review part 1;part 2 ).
We give thanks for the life and death of Jesus who lived a humble life and bore our sins on the cross. Help us to practice humbleness and hospitality with all people. Help us to put on Christ’s righteousness and defend your honor, not ours. Help us to pay our taxes, to turn the other cheek, to treat our enemies with love and respect, to go the extra mile seeing it as a ministry opportunity, to judge the actions but not the intentions of those around us. Help us to end racial and ethic inequality and practice gender and economic equality in all we do. In the power of your Holy Spirit, may conflict and bickering and gossip end with your sacrifice.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Henri J. M. Nouwen. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.
A ministry friend once distinguished problems from polarities. He argued that problems, unlike polarities, have solutions while polarities can only be managed. For example, an umbrella manages our response to rain, but does not solve the problem posed by rain; having an umbrella simply makes rain more tolerable. Ministry would be more tolerable, my friend advised, if I learned to manage polarities rather than treating them as problems to be solved. Because unsolvable polarities are everywhere in life and ministry, I never forgot my friend’s advice.
Three polarities lie at the heart of our spiritual life says Henri Nouwen. In his book, Reaching Out, he describes them as: an inner movement from loneliness to solitude, an outward movement from hostility to hospitality, and an upward movement from illusion to prayer (20). These movements each potentially involve progress—hence, the term, movement—but for Nouwen this progress is tentative and subject to lifelong tension (39). He writes: “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer.” (20) Tension suggests a struggle with polarity both in heart and mind.
This struggle with both head and mind components distinguishes writing in spirituality from theology where the logic of the mind is more narrowly the focus. Nouwen focuses immediately on the question—“What does it mean to live a life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ?”—and links this question to one Jesus himself poses: “Some say. . .others say. . .but what do you say?” (16-17) What we say is immediately pertinent. Nouwen sees spirituality discussions as intensely personal. In this setting or any other, “we have to face and explore directly our inner restlessness, our mixed feelings towards others, and our deep-seated suspicions about the absence of God.” (17). In these three movements, Nouwen is clearly inviting us into his spiritual struggles and the tone of the book is captured in its title.
Outline of Book
The title, Reaching Out, captures Nouwen’s sense of the three movements, around which he structures the book (17) into 9 chapters, preceded by a foreword and introduction, and followed by a conclusion and notes:
REACHING OUT TO OUR INNERMOST SELF—The First Movement From Loneliness To Solitude
A Suffocating Loneliness
A Receptive Solitude
A Creative Response
REACH OUT TO OUR FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS—The Second Movement From Hostility To Hospitality
Creating Space for Strangers
Forms of Hospitality
Hospitality and the Host
REACHING OUT TO OUR GOD—The Third Movement From Illusion To Prayer
Prayer and Mortality
The Prayer of the Heart
Community and Prayer
Who is Nouwen?
In addition to being a prodigious author, Nouwen was a Catholic priest and longtime academic who went to live and work in the L’Arche-Daybreak Community (of special needs individuals) in Toronto, Canada, laying down the academic life much like Jesus laid his clothes aside to wash the disciple’s feet (John 13:4-5).
Let me turn aside now to focus on the three movements.
Movement from Loneliness to Solitude
As an observant priest who suffered from same-sex attractions, Nouwen felt loneliness deeply, describing it as: “one of the most universal sources of human suffering today.” (25) Even in his suffering, Nouwen goes on to write:
“The movement from loneliness to solitude, however, is the beginning of any spiritual life because it is the movement from restless senses to the restful spirit, from the outward-reaching cravings to the inward-reaching search, from the fearful clinging to the fearless play.” (34-35)
The key words here are a restful spirit (Sabbath), inward-reaching search (an attentive heart and mind), and play—play! Play usually distinguishes adults from children—a child of God must learn to play. For Nouwen, this play makes space in our life for others (40) because we are more rested, “alert and aware of the world around us” (50). Nouwen’s vision of solitude develops the inner resources that make hospitality to others possible (61-62).
Movement from Hostility to Hospitality
Much like solitude provides the inner space for admitting others, hospitality provides outward space for others. This is where “the stranger can enter and become a friend, instead of an enemy” (71). Nouwen (66-67) gives three biblical examples. These include Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers (Gen 18:1-15), the widow of Zarephath hospitality to Elijah in spite of her own poverty (1 Kgs 17:9-24), and the two travelers on the road to Emmaus who unknowingly offered hospitality to Jesus (Luke 24:13-35). In each case, Nouwen writes:
“When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them.” (67).
For Nouwen, hospitality accordingly offers the possibility of transforming strangers into friends who respond with their own gift, promise, and new life (67). This new life is instrumental in the case of parents offering space to children (81-84), teachers offering space to students (84-90), and healers offering space to patients (91-97). Hospitality is for Nouwen a primal concern. Lonely people cannot offer much space, solitude is a key prerequisite for hospitality (101), which necessarily brings us to God.
Movement from Illusion to Prayer
No paths up the mountain lead to God; God must come down, as Nouwen relates:
“. . . the paradox of prayer is that it asks for a serious effort while it can only be received as a gift. We cannot plan, organize, or manipulate God; but without a careful discipline, we cannot receive him either.” (126)
Nouwen notes the problem of finding a spiritual guide. He finds wisdom in praying the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (141) I was taught the Jesus prayer working in a Catholic hospital as a substitute for the negative self-talk often practiced by psychiatric patients. Because we all practice negative self-talk, the motivation to engage in continuous prayer (or to pray the Jesus prayer) is much the same. It makes space in our hearts for God, who grants us a capacity for both solitude and hospitality.
Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out has been a significant influence on my spiritual life since I first read in 2007 and it continues to influence my professional writing. Like all of Nouwen’s writing, this book reads well but requires reflection, like any classic in Christian spirituality. Christians serious about deepening their faith will want to spend some time with this book.
 Wil Hernandez, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, (New York: Paulist Press, 2006),page 126.
 A somewhat longer breathe prayer was prayed by Nehemiah just before speaking to the king: “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” (Neh 1:11 ESV)
Teach me to be like you—to love your grace like Christ and to love your laws like Moses and to have confidence in your compassion, meekness, and strength. For there is none like you: glorious and loving and yet truly humble. For you and you alone are Holy—creator of all that is, that was, and that will ever be; creator of heart and mind. Help me to build on the work of Christ—to comfort the afflicted, to aid the poor, and to offer gentleness and hospitality in place of worldly crudeness and war. Grant me the strength to learn and to apply what I learn; grant me eyes that see, ears that hear, and a heart that is open to prayer. In the power of your Holy Spirit, teach me to be like you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Humble Father, Loving Son, Ever-present Spirit,
Thank you for offering us forgiveness—the gift of being accepted again into your presence; the state of being at peace with you and with ourselves—that we might find the strength to emulate you. Let us offer hospitality humbly in your name—where others offer judgment and distance themselves; where we might forbear speaking and draw near enough to listen. Give us a sense of the times and seasons of life and mark our times with the seasons of our relationship with you. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.