Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

 

Wil Hernandez, A Spirituality of ImperfectionHernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 3

Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto Part 2; goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over time I find myself losing Henri Nouwen’s books. Some get lost because I lend them to friends. I forget who and they forget to return them. Others get lost because I read them at a particular stage in life and they get mixed in with other books from that stage. Still others get lost in the sense that I mix Nouwen’s ideas with my own and I forget where I got them. Writing reviews helps me sort out better what Nouwen really said and what I thought about it at the time.

In the second half of his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses on 2 things: explaining Nouwen’s spirituality and describing Nouwen himself.

Spirituality of Imperfection

While the Bible describes sin as a basic human characteristic; a less judgmental pastoral response to sin interprets sin as brokenness.  The first observation is a theological statement; the second is an ethical statement that points the sinner to God in the role as Great Physician. Nouwen helped me to find this integration.

Hernandez writes:

“Henri Nouwen’s proclivity for integration represented a major step towards wholeness. On a much deeper analysis, his commitment to pursuing integrity spoke more about his heightened awareness of his fractured human condition than an obsessive drive for perfection. Nouwen’s integrative pursuit of the spiritual life never obviated but instead incorporated facets of psychological, ministerial, and theological imperfections.“(75).

One cannot be whole until one understands one’s self which implies seeing both the good and the bad. Imperfections, which typically hold us back interpersonally and professionally, are hard to look at objectively. Peering at our imperfections from different points of view aids this task of integration and clarifies our vision.  We learn more from failure than from success because failure forces us to admit and deal with our brokenness—our imperfections.

The Eucharist

Nouwen saw the Eucharist as a symbol reminding us of Christ’s physical brokenness on the cross that helps us to deal with our own brokenness (78). Once again faithful to his Catholic roots, Nouwen viewed the cross as “the compelling symbol of authentic Christian experience”. Without the suffering of Christ, the victory of Christ in resurrection is devoid of meaning (81). Suffering forces us to ask ourselves the tough questions about our own brokenness. Thus, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus asks: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 ESV) (86)

Hernandez observes:

“the spiritual journey for Nouwen was never about perfection, but about struggling to live in a deep and meaningful relationship with God that would bear fruit in the lives of others.” (92).

Here we hear an echo of God’s blessing of Abraham:

“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)

In other words, leave your comfort zone for my sake and I will bless you so that you can bless others. Facing brokenness and imperfection to minister to others quickly leads away from comfort, but also leads towards communion with Christ.

A Perfect Example of Imperfection

Why do we cheer for athletes who overcome physical handicaps to compete and win?  For me, the answer is that overcoming physical handicaps is inspiring not only to other special needs individuals but also to those of us who, in spite of having no handicaps, struggle to overcome everyday challenges of inertia and personal limitations.

Hernandez sees Nouwen as a “perfect paradigm of imperfection” for at least 3 reasons.  Nouwen was:

  • “a restless seeker”,
  • “a wounded healer”, and
  • “faithful struggler” (95).

Restless seeker

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

Nouwen continuously tried to resolve his loneliness (96).  He tried different experiences, such as spending seven months in the Abbey of Genesee, a Trappist monastery (97). He tried to distract his restlessness with busyness.  Hernandez writes:

“Nouwen’s penchant for spreading himself thin, along with his obsessive-compulsive behavior and ‘workaholic’ drive, all seemed to conspire in bringing out the unhealthy side of his restless maneuvers.” (98)

Nouwen was ultimately restless seeking after God (99).  According to Augustine, our restlessness is planted in us by God himself—its resolution can be found therefore only in God (101).

Wounded Healer

Nouwen used his incompleteness to become a place of hospitality for others. Hernandez observes:

“Only the bruised, wounded minister can powerfully connect with those who are badly wounded” (116).

One of my first ministries, even before I had even thought of seminary, was to victims of breast cancer. My wife, Maryam, was twice afflicted with breast cancer and we both suffered miserably. Not only were we victimized by the disease, we were victimized with depression and the inability of those around us to provide any meaningful support.  My sister, Diane, later died needlessly from breast cancer because of similar issues.  My wounds gave me knowledge and street credibility for reaching out to others suffering in this same journey.  The book, Wounded Healer, was an early exposure to Nouwen which provided comfort even though I scarcely understood what it said.

Faithful Struggler

Nouwen understood implicitly the role of suffering in discipleship (118). Nouwen also understood the role of leadership as providing an example to those around us (119).  After Reaching Out, I would have to say that Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is the most cited in my work because it centers on the temptations of Christ.  Nouwen (1989, 7-8) sees these tests as common leadership temptations. Namely, the temptations are to be relevant (turn stone into bread), powerful (become my vassal and rule the world), and spectacular (throw yourself down and prove who you are) (Luke 4:4, 7, 9).

Assessment

Hernandez pictures Nouwen as faithfully struggling with his demons to become a Christ-figure to modern society. His commitment to celibacy (126) and service to L’Arche (viii) scream authenticity in a world more used to leaning into pain than leaning on Christ.  As in Gethsemane where Jesus said:

“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me. And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matt 26:38-39 ESV)

Nouwen was faithful in turning to God instead of yield to his pain.

May we all learn to follow his example.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1989. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-148).

Nouwen, Henri J.M.  2010.  Wounded Healer:  Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York:  Image Doubleday. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-ZJ)

 

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 2

Hernandez_review_part_1_08102015Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto part 1, goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Spirituality is a squishy word.

At one point when I was teaching adult Sunday school, I began to wonder what people really meant when they used the word, spiritual.

  • For some people, the word substituted as a new word for religious, which has, in many respects, become anachronistic.
  • For other people, spiritual means being in touch with the numinous—hearing voices, seeing visions, and interpreting the spirit world primarily from a non-Christian, non-western perspective.
  • For still others, spiritual is used as a synonym for relational—someone able to establish rapport with just about anyone or a passage in scripture offering relational insight.

Henri Nouwen’s writing on spirituality differed from the usual fare, in part, because he took spirituality seriously and, being a priest, wrote from a Christian perspective.

In his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses the first half of his book reviewing Nouwen’s 3 movements of the spirit: The Journey Inward, The Journey Outward, and The Journey Upward (v). These movements follow directly from Nouwen’s analysis in Reaching Out. The second half of his book divides into a chapter interpreting Nouwen’s spirituality as a Spirituality of Imperfection and a chapter on Nouwen himself, A Perfect Example of Imperfection (v). Let me focus a bit on each of these chapters.

The Journey Inward.  For Nouwen, the journey inward consists of “reaching out to our innermost self” moving from “loneliness to solitude” (Nouwen 1975, 21). The objective here is self-knowledge, but more importantly being comfortable in one’s own skin.  A devote Christian, like Martin Luther, might wonder if all of one’s sins had been confessed (Bainton 1995, 35), but Nouwen’s interest in self-knowledge gravitated more towards how one relates to oneself.

In the psyche ward, for example, we might caution a patient from engaging in negative self-talk—an obvious example of relating to one’s self poorly.  Comfort in solitude consists of ease in spending time alone with ourselves.  This peace with ourselves makes it more likely that we can extend this hospitality others and find a place also in our hearts for God.

Hernandez finds Nouwen’s comfort in healing with the inward journey informed by his training as a psychologist.  He writes:

“As a newly trained psychological and theologian with a concern for melding psychology and theology, Nouwen’s cultural timing could not have been better.” (9)

All knowledge is God’s knowledge. Nouwen’s “pastoral bilingualism” (16) helped him seemly integrate his training and apply it without the usual academic veneer that usually poses a barrier to common understanding.  Hernandez sees this as a “search for wholeness” which does not preclude the church’s historical focus on holiness (25).

The Journey Outward.  For Nouwen, the journey outward is “reaching out to our fellow human beings” moving from “hostility to hospitality” (Nouwen 1975, 63).  Here we find ourselves engaged in ministry. Hernandez sees Nouwen combining “the ministerial tasks of healing, sustaining, and guiding” (45) and 3 shepherding functions:

“Into the overlapping roles of a pastor (one who heals the wounds of the past), a priest (one who sustains life in the present), and a prophet (one who guides others in the future)” (45).

The definitions here are clearly Nouwen’s because one normally thinks of the 3 roles anointed in the Old Testament were—the king, the priest, and the prophet—not normally defined as above[1].

In this context, hospitality is thought of as a metaphorical virtual of being open, inviting, and warm with ourselves, others, and God—a spirit of healing and welcome (Nouwen 1975, 67).  Nouwen’s use of hospitality shares a lot in common with the Hebrew concept of shalom (שָׁל֙וֹם).  In Hebrew, shalom means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10001).  Nouwen (1975, 71) writes that: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”

Ministry in the context of Nouwen’s writing flows out of his embrace of communion both as a sacrament (participation directly in the divine presence) and as a paradigm for community. This was the heart of Nouwen’s own sense of spirituality (26-27). Nouwen is a Catholic priest for whom the daily mass centers on the Eucharist. Table-fellowship involves a higher level of intimacy and mysticism than is usually found in protestant circles. The movement from hostility to hospitality may ironically involve traveling a greater distance for Nouwen than for many others because it starts with a deeper spiritual starting point.

Nouwen (2006) found great meaning in Jesus’ words: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt. 20:22 ESV) This is because he interpreted Jesus to mean, can you accept the suffering which my ministry requires?

The Journey Upward. For Nouwen, the journey upwards is “reaching out to our God” which involves a movement “from illusion to prayer” (Nouwen 1975, 111) [2].   Part of this illusion is the illusion of immortality (Nouwen 1975, 116).  Related is the illusion of control. Prayer becomes a destination—communion with an immortal being—which as morals we cannot travel.  God must grant prayer to us as gift (Nouwen 1975, 123).

Hernandez observes:  “we all experience a gap between what we say we believe and how we live out our belief” (58).  Nouwen sees theological reflection focused on bridging this gap, saying: “a life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living.” (59)  Elsewhere he writes that “the original meaning of the word Theology is ‘union with God in prayer’” (67).  From this perspective, the journey from illusion most obviously begins and ends with prayer.

Hernandez sees Nouwen as integrating three things in his spirituality: psychology, ministry, and theology which then correspond to movements in solitude, ministry, and prayer. This he refers to as Nouwen’s trilogy of coinherence (71).

Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.

In part 3 of this review I will examine the second half of Hernandez’s book which outline Nouwen’s spirituality of imperfect and a bit of his personal history.

 

[1] The king defended the nation; the priest served primarily in the temple, and the prophet reminded the nation of obligations under the covenant—not really a forecasting idea.

[2] A Calvinist would see the movement starting with God, not us.  However, Nouwen does see prayer as a gift.

REFERENCES

Bainton, Roland H.  1995. Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther. New York; Meridan.

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905.  Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged (Bibleworks).

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Henri J. M. Nouwen.  2006.  Can You Drink the Cup?  Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press.  Review (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1c)

 

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1

Hernandez_review_part_1_08102015Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto part 2, goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Sometimes we read biographies to learn about the lives of interesting people. These biographies normally shine a light into corners of life where we might normally not stray. They substitute in many respects for a castle tour or, perhaps, a dinner invitation that we never received but wished we had.

Other times we read biographies to learn more about the lives of people who have profoundly influenced us. These biographies shine a light into corners of our own lives where we live but incompletely understand. Wil Hernandez’s biography, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, falls squarely in this latter category.

Who was Henri Nouwen?  Nouwen is known as a Roman Catholic priest from the Utrecht, The Netherlands who wrote voluminous numbers of books on the subject of spirituality. The Henri Nouwen society summarizes his life in these words:

“Born in Nijkerk, Holland, on January 24, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”[1]

An open, yet discretely kept, secret among people who knew him was that he struggled with a homosexual orientation but remained celibate in keeping with his priestly vows (126).

For those unfamiliar with L’Arche Daybreak, they are a community devoted to serving “men and women with intellectual disabilities” [2].  Nouwen walked away from a brilliant career in academia, writing, and speaking to serve as the pastor to a community serving those with special needs.  For Nouwen, this commitment was “driven by a desire to close the gap between what he wrote and what he lived” (viii).

For me, L’Arche demonstrated Nouwen’s authenticity as a Christian. During my clinical pastoral education, I worked for 3 months in a psychiatric ward and another 3 months in an Alzheimer’s unit.  After a hard day in the Alzheimer’s unit one day, I remember reflecting on Nouwen’s commitment—I knew that after a season of service, I would leave the unit and return to a more typical life. Nouwen entered D’Arche, lived, and died there.  After learning about L’Arche, I never looked at Nouwen quite the same way.

What was Hernandez’ contribution to our understanding of Henri Nouwen?  In his foreword to the book, fellow Nouwen biographer, Michael J. Christensen, writes:

“Examining Nouwen’s own movements [of the spirit], Hernandez characterizes the spiritual journey as ‘a spirituality of imperfections’. By this he means a relational spirituality of intimacy with God and a faithful wrestling with God that gradually ripens into a mature communion or ‘completeness’ with the Divine; this, rather than a conforming spirituality of moral perfectionism and victory over sin that progressively takes on the characterological likeness to God’s perfect nature.” (x)

Having read much of Nouwen’s works, I can certainly see this quality in Hernandez’s writing and his interpretation of Nouwen. However, what strikes me as most prevalent in Hernandez’ writing is his repeated references to Nouwen’s early and unique contribution being to weave spirituality, psychology, ministry, and theology together in his writing (e.g. xiii). While perhaps prior biographers may have referenced this point, it was new to me and I found it helpful insight in understanding Nouwen and his contribution.

Wil Hernandez[3] lives and works in Southern California and teaches courses on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen at schools like Fuller Theological Seminary.  He writes in 5 chapters divided into 2 parts:

Part 1:  The Integrated Journey

ONE:  Journey Inward

TWO: Journey Outward

THREE: Journey Upward

 

Part 2: The Imperfect Journey

FOUR: Spirituality of Imperfection

FIVE: A Perfect Example of Imperfection

These chapters are preceded by a foreword, preface, acknowledgments, list of Nouwen works, and introduction. They are followed by a conclusion and notes.  No indices are included.

Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. For example, although I had heard rumors about Nouwen sexual orientation, Hernandez was the first to mention in writing among my readings. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of the book.  In parts 2 and 3, I will look in more depth at Hernandez’ analysis of Nouwen and his writing.

[1] http://www.HenriNouwen.org/About_Henri/About_Henri.aspx

[2] http://www.larchedaybreak.com

[3] http://www.nouwenlegacy.com/author.php

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The Gospel as Divine Template

Life_in_Tension_web“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity began with the resurrection in a graveyard (Ps 16:10). Without the crucifixion, the resurrection could not have occurred. Without Jesus’ life and ministry, the crucifixion could not have occurred. The Jesus story—life, suffering, death, and resurrection—is repeated over and over again in the New Testament [1].  Christianity began with God working miraculously in this world through Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Apostle Paul writes about the importance of the story of Jesus saying:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(Phil 3:10-11 ESV)

In other words, Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected; therefore I should be willing to live, suffer, die, and so also be resurrected. The Gospel is accordingly lived out with the end in mind. Christian hope lies in the knowledge that we know the end of the story is in Christ.

Knowing the Gospel template (life, suffering, death, and resurrection), as Christians we pay careful attention to the words and life of Jesus [2]. We also know implicitly that our lives will be in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Every word in the New Testament should be read: because Jesus was resurrected, therefore…

The Gospel writers wrote with the resurrection in mind. Writing to a Jewish audience, for example, the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses. Early in Matthew we see Jesus giving the law of grace on a mountain (much like Mount Sinai) with the Beatitudes. Moses traveled through the desert with the people of Israel to reach the promised land; Jesus likewise travels with his disciples through Israel ultimately reaching Jerusalem—a representation of the promise land. When the Apostle John writes about heaven, [because Jesus rose from the dead] heaven is more than just a metaphor for Eden or a magical new Jerusalem (Rev 11:12).

Because the Gospel template requires that we live a life patterned after the life of Jesus, we are in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Our Trinitarian God assists with each aspect of this tension. The Holy Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, to keep us in communication with God, and to give us power for Christian living. Jesus Christ provides our example in coping with life in the world. God our father demonstrates love, grace, and power over all earthly powers.

Early readers would accordingly have read the Beatitudes as the new law of grace and in view of the resurrection. For example, [because Jesus rose from the dead] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV) As we reflect on the tension we feel in our distracted lives as Christians, the Beatitudes are especially important because in them Jesus responds to the tension in all three dimensions of our spiritual life: our tension with our own sinful nature (poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness),  the world (peacemakers, reviled, and persecuted), and a Holy God (righteous, merciful, and pure).   As Nouwen (1975, 15) observes:  in our inner life, we can move from loneliness to solitude; in our communal life, we can move from hostility to hospitality; and in our life with Christ, we can move from illusion to prayer.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can live into the law of grace in our lives knowing that the end of the story is in Christ. We do not expect perfection in our walk, but we know the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way;  we do not expect perfect community, but  we have the example of Christ in seeking reconciliation; we do not expect every day to be a mountain top experience, but we know that God loves us. Our faith walk starts with God, not us.

 

[1] After the Gospels themselves, consider, for example, the sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41) which focus on Jesus’ life story.

[2] Smith (2006, 29-30) sees the church as a place where the Gospel is not intellectualized by rather lived out (incarnate).  It is a place where the story of Jesus is told and retold.  He writes:  “The church is the site where God renews and transforms us–a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son.” (30).  These practices include the sacraments, Christian marriage and child-rearing, radical friendship, and learning patience.

REFERENCE

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Smith, James K. A. 2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernizm:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

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Nouwen: Be Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Henri Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Nouwen: Be Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Henri Nouwen.  2007.  The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students.  As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend.  The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.

Introduction

Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility.  For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38).  Nouwen writes:  The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47).  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp.  These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.

Leadership Temptations

Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility.  Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:

  1. The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
  2. The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
  3. The temptation to be powerful (rule as king) [1].

Relevance

This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain.  Nouwen (50) observes:  Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian,  minister, or pastor] do?  Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.

Draw Attention to Ourselves

The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance.  Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58).  Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59).  If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.

Power

The third temptation is to be powerful.  Nouwen observes that:  Power can take many forms:  money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61).  We want to be in control.  To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).

Discipline

Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69).  Discipline is required but:  The discipline of  the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70).  Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:

  1. The discipline of the church;
  2. The discipline of the book; and
  3. The discipline of the heart (71).

Church

For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event.  Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73).  We must create time and space in our lives for God.  In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).

Scripture

The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture.  The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78).  We must chew the word (78).  The angel tells the Apostle John:  take and eat (Revelation 10:9).  It must become part of us.  Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).

Prayer

For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).

The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.

Assessment

I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life.  Reminders are imperative for me.  The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility.  Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment.  I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.

[1] Also see:  Henri Nouwen.  1989.  In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  New York:  Crossroads Book.

 

 

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Henri J. M. Nouwen.  2006.  Can You Drink the Cup?  Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When a friend of mine in Christ recommended this book, I was surprised and happy to take the recommendation.  I thought that I had read all of Henri Nouwen’s books. The book’s dedication to the l’Arche Daybreak Community here in Northern Virginia added special meaning for me because a friend of mine worked and lived there.

In this book, Nouwen talks at length about his personal history, particularly his ordination. From the age of six, Nouwen wanted to be a priest and he was ordained as Roman Catholic priest on July 21, 1957 in the Netherlands (16). As a gift for his ordination, his uncle gave him a chalice (20). “Can You Drink the Cup?” is a book structured around the metaphor of drinking wine.

The book starts with citing Matthew 20:20-23. In this passage, the mother of Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, comes to Jesus to request that her sons be given seats at the left and right of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus denies the request posing a question: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt 20:22 ESV).

Nouwen sees the cup as a symbol of our life. He asks: “Can we hold the cup of life in our hands? Can be lift it up for others to see, and can we drink it to the full?” (24) Nouwen structures his book around these three themes: “holding, lifting, and drinking” (25).

Holding. Nouwen comments: “drinking wine is more than just drinking. You have to know what you are drinking and be able to talk about it” (29). (Now I know why I prefer beer!) In talking about this holding of the cup, Nouwen talks about the joys and sorrows of living and working with special needs people. Nouwen writes: “Joys are hidden in sorrows!” (56) In my own work with Alzheimer’s patients, I have come to know both the joy of walking with them and the deep sorrow, deep abandonment they feel.

Lifting. Nouwen writes: “Lifting up the cup is an invitation to affirm and celebrate life together” (61). The symbolism here is not only the toast and the word that are spoken, but the celebration, especially the celebration of communion. A toast is a blessing (68). In Spanish, a blessing is a good word (bendición) and a curse is a bad word (maldición). In the biblical world where worlds are created and destroyed by God’s word, one learns to choose one’s words carefully.

Drinking. Nouwen reminds us that offering a drink to a visitor is a basic act of hospitality (86). Being willing to share is another way of saying that one accepts one’s status in life. At what point do we reach that point? A resident of L’Arche, Gordie, asked Nouwen: “Why are people leaving all the time?” (93). This question cuts to the core of pastoral ministry. As an intern, I was happy to work with Alzheimer’s patients but Gordie’s question cut to core–could I, as Nouwen did, give up the fast track and just simply work in a home with Alzheimer’s patients? What level of sacrifice are we willing to offer? What about our families?

As a seminarian, I found “Can You Drink the Cup?” very convicting. Perhaps, you will too.

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