Friday, June 7, 2013

In the Name of Jesus, pt. 1

This week, i've been working my way through In the Name of Jesus, by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen is pretty famous in evangelical circles, and i had to read another of his books for a class once. This particular book was selected for a campus-wide study last year. I stole one of the extra copies and it's been sitting on my shelf since last July, untouched. I had a lot of Batman comics to catch up on, okay?

Strictly speaking, this is not a devotional. While Nouwen often references scripture, he does so in the same way that he might reference a scholarly article: to support a point that he is making. He is not reflecting on the Bible, he is reflecting on his own life and experiences and relating them back to the Bible. Which is totally fine; i just want to let you know what i'm reading before i start talking about it.

It's a very small book and a very quick read; this week i read up to page 63 (through "The Task: Feed My Sheep", if you're in a different edition), and i'll finish it next week. I like it okay. It's not earth-shattering, but i'm not arguing with most of it.

This book is subtitled "Reflections on Christian Leadership", and while it is certainly that, it is also describes what Christian leadership should look like. And while some of what Nouwen says is amazing and wonderful and good, i do take issue with some statements.

On page 27, the very beginning of the section on the "temptation to be relevant", Nouwen talks about his experience living in a community of the disabled. Having spent much of his career teaching at institutions like Harvard, he was used to working with the best and the brightest, so moving into this facility was a huge change for him. "The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done till then." He segues this into a very important point: at the end of the day, all we have is ourselves. If we have published books or given lectures or attained degrees or been awarded with the highest honors, that may be enough to get us through the door, but we still need to be able to do something once we're there. Your résumé might get you hired, but it won't get you promoted, or even guarantee that you keep your job. At the end of the day, you can (and should!) be proud of what you've accomplished in that day, but when the next day begins, you're back at square one. He revisits this on page 37 (The Question: Do You Love Me?). Referencing Peter's conversation with Jesus, Nouwen says, "The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?

On page 30, Nouwen says that Jesus' "first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread." I'm pretty sure that's bullshit. Jesus' first temptation was to turn stones into bread, but that temptation immediately follows a passage where He fasted for forty days and was "famished" (Matt. 4:2). It seems like a bit of a stretch to say that someone who hadn't eaten for forty days and was then asked to make Himself food was tempted to be "relevant". It seems more likely that He was tempted to be self-serving and impatient.

Later in the book, particularly pages 55 and 57 (From Popularity to Ministry), Nouwen talks more about this temptation to be "relevant". He relates it specifically to pastors and other kinds of ministers feeling like they need to be in the spotlight, like they need to be successful performers in order to be successful ministers. On page 57, he says that he finds it "hard to be truly faithful to Jesus" when he is alone. And because he has found it so, he tells us that ministry is essentially social. He points to Jesus sending the apostles out in pairs and tells us that ministry requires community and partnership. While this is true, it's also an extroverted view of ministry. Some of us do not insist on solitude so that we can be the star, some of us insist on it because it is the only way we can remain energized when engaged in ministry. Some of us find it much easier to be "truly faithful to Jesus" when we have alone time. Maybe it's because i just finished reading "Quiet" and "Introverts in the Church", or maybe it's because i'm an introvert, or maybe it's because Nouwen is not entirely right, but this definitely didn't sit well with me.

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