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.

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Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

Howard Rice, Reformed Spirituality

Howard L. Rice.  1991.  Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers. Louisville:  Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a lifelong Calvinist and seminary graduate, Howard L. Rice’s Book, Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers, came as a surprising find. The term, spirituality, has a New-Age ring to it. In reading about spiritual practices, I  accordingly assumed that I was straying from the reformed tradition. Thanks to Rice, I no longer feel that way.

Introduction

Rice organizes his book into eight chapters, starting with an introduction and followed by seven topical chapters.  The topics addressed are informative:  The experience of God, problems and possibilities, prayer, study, consultation, the practice of discipleship, and discipline in the Christian life.  None of these topics come as a surprise.  The introduction starts with the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death?  (7).  At the time of publication, Rice was chaplain of the Seminary and a professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Spirituality Defined

Rice defines spirituality as:  the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us (45).  He notes that:  spirituality demands letting go of control, taking emotions seriously, and emphasizing being as of equal value with doing (49).

Rice highlights the Puritan experience in explaining the reformed tradition (12). For Puritans, the preferred term is piety, not spirituality, reflecting the reformed suspicion of private revelation and guarded attention to the more colorful spiritual gifts. In worship, Reformed spirituality focuses more on scripture and the sermon while, in individual practice, it focuses more on prayer and meditation.

Importance of Theology in Reformed Spirituality

Rice emphasizes the importance of theology in the reformed approach to spirituality. For example, Richard Baxtor (1615-1691; 37) sought renewal of his congregation through personal instruction in the catechisms.  While this terribly un-modern technique sounds dated, I know of at least one pastor who successfully used it to energize a youth group.  The catechisms help church members to appreciate the doctrines of the church and to relate them to life.  Theology is not the only lens that Rice employs.  He observes that we encounter God in experiences of conversion, ecstasy, visions and spoken words, intuition, transcendence, and incarnation (30-35).  These observations normally qualify one as a charismatic in reformed circles!

Rice clarifies the role of small groups and church committees in the reformed spiritual life.  Reformed theology is systemic, complex, and complete–small groups and committees help maintain spiritual balance.  For the Calvinist, the spiritual life requires walking with a community of faith.  Rice writes:  that is why corporate worship, hearing the word preached, and sharing in common administration of the sacraments are so central for any Reformed understanding of the spiritual life (53).

Assessment

As a text on reformed spiritually, Rice’s book was unique in helping me understand my own faith practices.  Clearly, I might have benefited from Rice’s systemic presentation at a younger age.  Rice deserves to be studied more than once and is suitable for small group discussion.

Reference

Baxtor, Richard 2007. The Reformed Pastor.  Carlisle:  Banner of Truth Trust.

Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

Also see:

Why is Spirituality Important? 

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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Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

StottJohn Stott.  2008.  Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958).  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Apostle Peter reminds us:  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1Peter 3:15 ESV).

Our ability to respond to Peter’s admonishment is clearly challenged today.  Outside of the criticism of our faith arising from the advocates for modern science, we are confronted in our shrinking postmodern world with a host of alternatives to Christianity from other religions and from complex and confusing voices in secular society.  In the midst of this whirlwind of controversy, John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, offers us a plainspoken starting point.

Stott outlines the Gospel in eleven chapters.  After a brief introduction, he presents has four parts:  1. Who Christ Is, 2. What We Need, 3. What Christ Has Done, and 4. How To Respond.  The first part focuses on the claims, character, and resurrection of Christ.  The second part focuses on sin.  The third part focuses on Christ’s death and salvation.  The fourth part brings us to count the cost, make a decision, and live the Christian life.

John Stott (1921-2011) was rector (pastor) emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London and founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He was one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant which started as a 1974 Christian religious manifesto promoting active world-wide Christian evangelism and continues to influence missions work today.  My first acquaintance with Stott came in 1983 when I visited Bonn in Germany as an economics student and a friend gifted me with Stott’s book—Gesandt Wie Christus (1976).  At the time, I assumed Stott was German.  Needless to say, Stott is still one of the world’s best known evangelical writers.

Stott acknowledges the enormity of the task of defending the faith–apologetics.  For example, he recounts a conversation with a young man having trouble reciting one of his church’s creeds because he could no longer believe it.  Stott asked him:  If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live?  The answer was clearly no.  His real problem was not intellectual but moral (25).  This conversation is not an isolated event–advocating a disciplined life-style today is a tough sell. Why give up self-control to Christ and live a disciplined life when in Alice’s Wonderland every headache can be solved with a different colored pill?

Stott’s final chapter on being a Christian is most interesting.  He writes:  Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth.  Everyone loves children, but nobody…wants them to stay in the nursery (162).  We grow in two dimensions—understanding and holiness—which work out in our duties to God, to the church, and to society (163-166).  This growth includes growth in our prayer life.  Stott advises readers to respond to God in prayer in the same manner that he speaks to you—do not change the subject.  If he talks about his glory, worship him; if he talks about sin, confess it; if scripture blesses you, thank him for it (164).  Stott’s comments about the spiritual practice of daily examine flow right out of this discussion.  In the morning, commit the details of your day to God’s blessing and, in evening, review what happened during the day.

John Stott’s Basic Christianity provides a well-ordered accounting of the Gospel that is worthy of study and reflection.  His summary—God has created; God has spoken; God has acted—is brief but compelling (18).  The Apostle Peter’s admonition sounds initially like evangelism.  But, if the truth be known, the accounting of our hope in Christ benefits us at least as much as anyone we meet.

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