Last week, Esther and I went to California for a professional development retreat. We got through security at the airport, traveled beautifully through both the take-off and landing, and then drove 5 hours north, stopping a few times so Esther could eat.
We stayed at an old hippie commune with 25 other people who are also passionate about community development, getting to know one another, doing a little training and eating good meals together.
As part of the events, we wrote reflection papers on In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen.
Despite my seeming pulled-together-ness last week, I'm still struggling to get much done during the day, so I am sharing it with you so that this space won't become a total desert.
This is the second time in my life that Henri Nouwen has incensed me. Such powerful emotions. This happens to me sometimes when people write well and are clearly writing truth out of their authentic experiences with God. I am a reader. Bookish, even. I want to relate to the protagonists of the books I read. I want to see myself in them and I want to become more like them. I just named my daughter for two protagonists in books that I want her to be like.
So, when a writer like Nouwen speaks of experiences that seem utterly inaccessible to me, I become incensed. I have developed tools for feeling this way. First, I write a lot of angry annotations in the margins of the book. Second, I try to clearly articulate arguments about why the author’s lessons don’t apply to me and finally, I remember that I’m not in charge (thank goodness) and ask God to show me how the lessons apply to me.
So, the margin-writing is done and it’s time to articulate the differences between Nouwen’s experience and my own.
First, Nouwen seems to equate Christian leadership with priests and ministers. Are only those who are called to professional ministry the only people who are Christian leaders? If this is the definition that Nouwen is working with, at what angle should lay-leaders and worker bees view his lessons? It’s possible that there are options for non-pastoral Christian leaders outside of what he outlines here. So, although Nouwen exhorts pastors to move toward irrelevance and reconciliation on a micro scale, maybe others of us are called to work towards impact.
Which leads me to my major disagreement with Nouwen. I am 33 years old – Jesus’s age – and have spent a lot of time in prayer and in community, learning what my spiritual gifts are. I try not to become complacent, but value working toward constantly honing and refining those gifts, as well as taking myself out of my own comfort zone to discover whether or not any latent gifts are waiting to emerge.
Caring for others is not one of my gifts. I am abrasive, I problem-solve better than I listen, I get peopled out very quickly and I need to recharge in true introvert form by spending literally plural hours a day in quiet alone-time.
I have found my servant niche as an administrator. Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I am deeply glad when I am puzzling out obstacles to an organization’s success and developing strategic plans to further the Kingdom of God through organizational efficiency.
Since most folks in ministry and non-profits would agree that there is a deep need for this kind of work, I became comfortable years ago that my path was a different one from Shane Claiborne or Bart Campolo. I have been called by God to macro-level reconciliation.
Because I believe that we are to be more Christ-like, I do push myself to do some incarnational ministry. My church attracts quite a few social misfits and I practice a spirituality of hospitality to all, including those who annoy me. I make myself vulnerable to them, remembering my own misfit status and accepting their ministrations for my brokenness as well as being available to their needs.
In fact, I agree heartily with Nouwen that part of our spiraling spiritual walk involves rediscovering and exposing our vulnerable selves that bring nothing to God’s table but our brokenness. I am engaged in a life-long process of truly acknowledging my real relationship with God (i.e. that I am not, in fact, God).
However, I cannot believe that God intended for my parts that are not totally broken to be overwhelmed by the cracks and be in a constant state of uselessness. Jesus was effective both because he taught and because he sacrificed himself to be resurrected. In fact, each role was necessary to give the other divine meaning. In other words, if Jesus has not taught, his sacrifice would not have meant much (or possibly even have occurred) and if he had not been resurrected, his teachings would not have drawn the attention of people that needed to hear them for the last 2000 years. Similarly, my weaknesses and my strengths are interdependent to my participation in the Kingdom of God here on Earth. It is not time yet for me to retire to an intentional community and focus my energy on individuals rather than systemic change.
Frankly, it seems a little unfair for Nouwen to say, “Be irrelevant” now that he has had the privilege of being relevant for the last 20 years.
Of course, whenever I spend this much energy rebutting someone, I need to look inside myself to figure out what I’m insecure about that’s causing me to put my own views forward so vehemently. I think the most obvious answer is that motherhood is forcing me into a less impactful stage of life. I use the word “impact” in it’s most technical sense meaning measurable achievement of goals. In becoming – ugh – a stay-at-home mom, I actually am retiring to an intentional community to focus my energy on individuals rather than systemic change. I do not have a set plan to go back to work, meaning I am setting aside my training, my degree, and my network. I have heard women describe this as dying for our children in obedience to Christ’s teaching that we die in order to live in him. While that resonates as truth when I hear it, I’m still struggling to know if it is the right path for me. There are lots of different truths out there.
I know that I am called to use the privilege that I was born with to leverage the work of street-level practitioners in order to help change the world so that more people can reach the potential God intends for them rather than being stunted by oppression and lack of resources. I have not yet figured out how to do that while also creating a healthy environment for my nascent family.
That lack of resolution causes me to rail at Henri Nouwen and motivates me to ask this cohort for help in discerning my path.
By the time we shared these essays at the end of the week, I almost felt like it no longer applied. Many of my cohorts also feel a calling toward impact: God's justice in addition to God's mercy. There were several other mothers there who were clearly figuring out a balance. We're going to meet several times more over the next two years and I'm looking forward to becoming friends and figuring out some of these things.