Henri Nouwen is a baller! Straight up wisdom in every book I’ve read of his, but In the Name of Jesus is amazing. In a time of church history when many self-proclaimed prophets are all around, Nouwen proves to operate in true exhortation and comfort. Here are a few thoughts from it that I wanted to get down. Please get the book. It is an easy read. I’m going to keep it on my bedside table for re-reading through the remainder of the year.
Nouwen frames the entire book with Jesus’ temptation narrative of Matthew 4 and also with Peter’s re-instatement narrative of John 21. A Christian leader for the 21st century takes the shape of a humble servant.
Nouwen is honest about where 25 years of teaching, studying, and lecturing at Harvard took him. It made him honestly into a person who prayed poorly, living in isolation, and busy with ‘burning issues.’ “I was living in a dark place and the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.” (20-21)
Nouwen moved from his teaching role at Harvard to a handicapped facility called L’Arche. It was a completely different place of ministry for him. I can imagine this amazing teacher relocating to a place that was completely different than he was used to being.
Nouwen confronts the temptation that is always there in ministry, relevance. Nouwen went from a lecture hall to a hospital setting… all of his training didn’t mean anything, anymore. He honestly felt ‘naked’, as if he was starting all over again. He thought this was the most important time for him, though. He was able to rediscover his identity, to find an ‘unadorned self’. (28) Nouwen charges that the leader of the 21st century is “called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (30)
Nouwen does something unique with Jesus’ temptation to turn stones to bread as a temptation to be relevant. Ministers are tempted to have the answer for those who are starving, having the ability to help the poor and downcast. Nouwen believes that many ministers suffer from low esteem, or having a hard time believing that they have any impact and that there is such, ‘little praise and much criticism in the church today.” (30-32)
The world is pushing ministers away, feeling that they can find their own way without the help of clergy. However, underneath all accomplishments and confidence there is despair in the lives of many, there is loneliness, uselessness, and depression. (33) It is here that Nouwen posits where ministry becomes ‘relevant’. Both the average person and the minister find themselves in a place where they can resonate with one another. Both experience anguish and the minister can ‘bring the light of Jesus there.’ (35) Even Jesus was ignored by the world, ‘crucified and put away’, yet Christian doctrine elevates Jesus’ crucifixion as a way of redemption, “with wounds in his gloried body to a few friends who had eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand.’ (37)
Jesus’ question for Peter, who is in a place of loneliness, despair, and depression is “Do you love me?” (John 21:15-17) Jesus’ only vocational calling was to show the Father’s love. Jesus isn’t directly asking if Peter is sorry for what he is done; Jesus asks if Peter wants to know the love of God. Herein Nouwen believes is the important vocation of the minister. In a world of despair, the world doesn’t need something relevant, but to know the love of God. “Knowing the heart of Jesus,” Nouwen writes, “and loving him are the same thing. The knowledge of Jesus’ heart is a knowledge of the heart. And when we live in the world with that knowledge, we cannot do other than bring, healing, reconciliation, new life, and hope wherever we go.” (41)
Nouwen suggests the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer for the believer. “Contemplative prayer keeps us home, rooted, and safe, even when we are on the road, moving from place to place, and often surround by sounds of violence and war. Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keep suggesting the opposite.” (43) Nouwen continues, “When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.” (45-47)
Ministry in Jesus’ name helps us remove the temptation of being ‘spectacular’ and ‘popular’ and learn to do ministry alongside others. Jesus’ call to Peter is not an individual shepherd position, but to learn to ministry in a communal expression. Nouwen writes, ‘we are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” (61-62)
Nouwen suggests the discipline of confession and forgiveness to help us become isolated and elevated in ministry. “Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another.” (64) Nouwen goes on to warn us that, “when spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body becomes carnality. When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy.” (67-68)
Nouwen then turns towards the temptation to be powerful. “The mystery of leadership,” Nouwen adds, “is to be led.” (75) The temptation over all of church history is for God’s people to reach for power, even though Jesus did not reach for such power, but emptied Himself, instead. (Matt 4:9; Phil 2) Nouwen believes that people are pouring out of churches because church leaders are perceived as straining for gaining power, instead of being led. (76) “Many christian-empire builders have been people unable to give and receive love.” (79)
Peter was confronted with this idea. Instead of ultimately being a leader with power, Jesus said that there would be a day when people would lead him where he didn’t want to go, he would have no power over his own life. (John 21:18) “The most important quality of Christian leadership in the future… (is a leadership) in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is true spiritual leadership… (this leadership) refer(s) to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.” (82-84)