Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Peter Scazzero, Pope Francis, Jesus – and The Big Bang Theory

Bob Newhart appears again as Professor Proton in the most recent episode of CBS’s the Big Bang Theory. In a private conversation with Leonard, Professor Proton decides to ask Leonard something he’s been wondering about when it comes to his roommate Dr. Sheldon Cooper – “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” It’s a natural enough question, but particularly easy to understand in this episode where others and Sheldon all agree that he can be very “annoying.” Sheldon’s “quirks” shine through in every episode.

Sheldon exhibits a strict adherence to routine, a total lack of social skills, a tenuous understanding of humor, a general lack of humility or empathy, and displays textbook narcissistic behavior. He also has a very hard time recognizing irony and sarcasm in other people although he himself often employs them.  … Despite speculation that Sheldon’s personality traits may be consistent with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive personality disorder and asexuality, co-creator Bill Prady has repeatedly stated that Sheldon’s character was neither conceived nor developed with regard to any of these conditions. (Wikipedia)

It’s in this context that Professor Proton wants to know, “Why are you and Sheldon friends?” When I heard Leonard’s answer, I was in a mild state of shock. “He’s broken, and he needs me”, he said, “… and I need him.”

Leonard doesn’t explain how or why he needs Sheldon. Is it because he’s broken too? Is it because of what he learns from Sheldon about himself? about life? about loving well? about what really matters?

Does he learn from their relationship how to look beyond the shell of a person? past the dysfunctions? past the brokenness? past the likely diagnoses? Does he learn not to insist, like so many of us do, that others ought to “be like me” or be “normal” in order for us to accept them? welcome them? truly love them?

If you’ve read much of what’s been written by Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, or Peter Scazzero  (among others) you’ve been reminded how much God means for us to learn from marginalized people (children, the poor, the dying, the elderly, the despised, etc.). If you’ve heard Pope Francis lately, or seen what he’s done, you’ve seen him living out the love of Jesus towards people like Sheldon who don’t fit in.

I remember early in my first year of Bible College, seeing one of the jocks – a really handsome guy, sitting and talking in the Snack Bar with someone who was a “reject” by most standards. You know – not attractive, not athletic, not particularly smart, not cool – not popular! I’m ashamed now to say that I still remember that incident because, at the time, I couldn’t understand it. “Why was he doing that?”

I’m sure that jock was not only more athletic and handsome than me, but also a lot more spiritually mature. Maybe if I would have asked him back then for an explanation, he would have said, “He’s broken and he needs me … and I need him.”

I hope I’ve grown enough since that day that I wouldn’t be so confused seeing something like that now. I want to be like that jock, and like Leonard Hofstadter in his love for Sheldon Cooper. I want to love someone who doesn’t fit in, who isn’t cool, who others ignore – or despise. I want to love someone who, as I love them, God uses to teach me about myself, about life, about what really matters – even simply about what it mean to love in the first place.

Shame or Conviction? Choose Carefully

“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil

Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:

“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”

Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:

“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”

Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:

“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”

You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”

Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.

We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”

That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.

But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.

Fortunately,  we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.

* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.

* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.

It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.

It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”

The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?

First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.

Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgivenessbut doesn’t address the need for healing.

Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.

When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It's the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.

Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.

What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.

So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.

And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?

In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.

Henri Nouwen – Waiting on God as a Lifestyle

“Slow down, baby you’re going too fast
You got you hands in the air
With you feet on the gas”   India Arie, “Slow Down”

Waiting is unpopular, and usually considered a waste of time. “For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go.” (Henri Nouwen)  Nouwen paints a picture where some well-meaning soul is trying to quietly wait on God, and where bystanders are complaining, “Get going! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there…!” We live in a culture whose not-so-subtle assumption is that if you’re not producing – if you’re not doing something – that you’re useless. The corelary is that those who accomplish the most are the best and most valuable among us. It seems fairly obvious.

But from a Christian point of view, it’s messed up. In fact, Simone Weil makes waiting patiently in expectation  “… the foundation of the spiritual life.” And many others agree with her.

So what would it mean to “wait patiently”, or in the words of the Psalmist, to “wait quietly before God?” In his article A Spirituality of Waiting*, Henri Nouwen answers this question by speaking about “patient waiting” as an approach to each day – waiting as a lifestyle:

Waiting means living as though the moment is full, not empty.

Nouwen challenges us “to be present fully to the moment” – the moment we’re in right now. We do this rather than dismissing it as insignificant or “empty.” It’s our nature to think God will do “the real thing” somewhere else, at some other time, or for someone else. In “active waiting” I trust that my moment is pregnant with possibility because God is ever at work. I stay where I am “… and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself….” The focus is on the present. Believing something can happen there – and looking for that – waiting for that.

This is more than “mindfulness.” It’s trusting that God is still at work creating, redeeming, sanctifying and revealing himself. It’s me learning to regularly ask myself, “What might God want to do right here, right now? The moment as I see it might be boring, frightening, confusing or just tediously routine – but what might God want to do in it anyway? Let me be open to that.

Waiting means giving up all my [necessarily futile] attempts to control my world.

In waiting we give up all our attempts to control our future. Instead of trying to manage everything so that (for instance) “This day will go as it should.”, we release everything to him, knowing that he has something better for us. (It’s not that we can control anything anyway, but that doesn’t keep us from trying, and we need to stop that.) As we wait this way, we take our rightful place as creatures, and as God’s children (loved and privileged but not his adviser). We leave what’s happening now, and what will happen later, to him – the one who loves us and works in all things for our good. Whatever he wants. We wait on him in the moment. He acts in the moment. We accept what he does and embrace it. Isn’t this what the psalmist means when he says, “This is the day that he Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.”? Suddenly instead of being the inspiration for a Vacation Bible School ditty, the verse reflects a “very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” Our days and our moments are full with possibility, because God is in control. Rather than fighting him for control, we can “be glad” and wait to see what things he will do – things which are “infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

Waiting means practicing hope and letting go of wishes.

If “waiting” is the foundation of the spiritual life (Weil), then hope is the foundation of waiting. Waiting rests upon hope. This is evident, for example, in Psalm 62:5, “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.” After 166 pages of a study on waiting, Ben Patterson concludes, “More basic than patience or perseverance are humility and hope.” In this regard, Nouwen warns against wishing. We wish for better weather, that our pain would stop, etc. We wish and wait because “We want the future to go in a very specific direction….”. Instead, Nouwen commends Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary to us as examples of how we must hope and not merely wish. “Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes.” Immediately after this, Nouwen says, “I have found it very important in my own life, to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” The statement almost seems comical, like an ironic Facebook post by a Christian hipster. But it’s not. It’s neither comical nor ironic. What Nouwen speaks of is very difficult, and very important.

The moment is full with possibility. We refuse to think that it’s best if we can control it. We let God do what he will do – avoiding any drama we might otherwise create, while we rest upon what is certain, true, and wonderful. In all this – in our difficult, counter intuitive, radical “waiting project”, we experience more rather than less of what God has for us as we cast aside our useless wishes, and hope in his promises.

Jesus suggested that each day we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why then, shouldn’t we expect kingdom power to enter the moments and circumstances of our “common” days “on earth?” Why wouldn’t the moments be full, when we know that God is answering this and innumerable other prayers of his people? Why wouldn’t the moments be full when his work of redeeming this planet of ours – and it’s people – continues? The Kingdom Of Promise is yet to come, but at the same time continues to arrive “in our midst” – on this day, in this place – where I am. And so I wait.

_______________________

*All quotes are from Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting” unless otherwise noted.

Postscript: I’ve tried to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual (and brilliant) approach. My goal is to create an action plan where circumstances of the day function as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting when I begin to drift. Here is a link to that.

Using Failure to “Trigger” Patient Waiting

“Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Simone Weil in her book Waiting for God

Prayer is the “… receptive attitude out of which all of life can receive new vitality.” Henri Nouwen in Reaching Out

“To be a believer is, by definition, to be one who waits.”  Ben Patterson in Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent

*    *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *     *     *     *     *    *

I’ve been trying to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual  approach to “waiting on God.” My goal is to train myself to see failures in my day as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting.

Hopefully, after I’ve “waited quietly before God” (Psalm 62:5,6), I head back into the world with a renewed sense of equilibrium and peace. But as soon as I do, it’s guaranteed that many of my circumstances will conspire against me and try to spoil the peace and sense of preparation in my heart. The following are reminders to me of what to do when this starts to occur. Hopefully, these further reminders clarify the idea of “waiting” and made it practical in a different way. Here are my examples:

ANGER – I practice waiting as I refuse to … take matters into my own hands (like revenge). I wait upon God to do as he sees fit. (cf. the Psalms!)

DESPAIR – I practice waiting as I refuse to … indulge in despair or cynicism. I choose to look with hope for God’s present and coming Kingdom.

HURRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … forge ahead as if I know what to do. I admit my limitations and really try to slow myself down.

LETHARGY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … do nothing. From the outside “waiting” may look like “doing nothing”, but it’s not. Waiting is giving God space and time to do things his way.

TEMPTATION - I practice waiting as I refuse to … give in to temptation. I “refer the problem” to God, and instead of insisting on what I want, or feel I need, I wait for what he wants to give me or do in me.

COMPLAINT - I practice waiting as I refuse to … complain bitterly (or worse) curse angrily. In my anger over the fact that things aren’t going as I planned, I remind myself that things aren’t necessarily supposed to go as I planned. I can wait to see what God wants.

SADNESS – I practice waiting as I refuse to … make my happiness my primary motivation for the day. God undoubtedly has better things planned for me – and it’s not about me anyway.

WORRY – I practice waiting as I refuse to … worry. I remind myself that he is at work for good. My worrying won’t add anything to that, but my patient waiting can keep me from messing it up and creating needless anxiety for myself.

I find these pairings helpful because succumbing to revenge, despair, cynicism, arrogance, lethargy, complaining, cursing, temptation or worry become “triggers”, reminding me that something is happening –  I’m drifting away from waiting and into some type of nonsense. I started my day well, and with the best intentions, but it’s beginning to get the better of me – and it’s guaranteed to drag me downhill from there. These unproductive behaviors (sins) can act as triggers, ministering to me, reminding me to return to my original and best intentions.

Why work so hard at waiting? Let me offer one more quote from Ben Patterson: “What we become as we wait is at least as important as the thing we wait for. To wait in hope is not just to pass the time until the wait is over. It is to see the time passing as part of the process God is using to make us into the people he created us to be. Job emerges from his wait dazzled and transformed. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah.” As we wait, we will be transformed also.

Modern Times Call for Ancient Virtues

When I look back at my journal from 2001, I find this entry:

“(1) I will not hurry through the day so as to leave no spaces to hear from God. (2) I will not measure the day only by how much I accomplish. (3) I will not attempt to live the Christian life or minister for Jesus Christ in the power of the flesh or for my own praise.”

In the next few years, my life would be in ruins, and these goals would be the last thing on my radar. Now, after another ten years, I’m back to where I started, and I confess I still wrestle with these same three faults (“hurry sickness”, a “to do list” approach to life, and a desire to be noticed and admired.) I don’t even know if I’ve made any real progress.

But when I have found help, and I’m finding it again recently, it’s been in some ancient approaches that were unfamiliar to me most of my Christian life and during many of my years in ministry. It’s a counter intuitive approach where what was seen as bad (disappointing, distracting, painful, and shameful) can now be embraced as good (useful, revelatory, transformative, and redemptive). What previously was to be avoided with a vengeance, was now to be embraced. Henri Nouwen has famously dubbed this necessarily painful approach “downward mobility.” The theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s comments relate:

“… what are virtues for the mystic are torment and sickness for the modern man or woman: estrangement, loneliness, silence, solitude, inner emptiness, deprivation, poverty, not-knowing, and so forth …. What the monks sought for in order to find God, modern men and women fly from as if it were the devil.” (Experiences of God)

We do fly from these things. If they don’t terrify us (and mostly they do), they certainly make us uncomfortable. Moderns value being loved and included. We like to be confident of own adequacy and understanding, and most of us long for the respect of others and for a life of prosperity, or at least comfort. We love to surround ourselves with our music, and keep ourselves busy. Why would we want it otherwise?

The truth is that what is comfortable, easy, familiar and may seem to us what God clearly wants for us (health, happiness, satisfaction, knowledge), often instead prove to be distractions, detours or dead ends. If we’re lucky, we may finally become so desperate that we’re willing to try any approach – even if it’s one that turns our familiar approach on its head.

At the heart of this is what I recently started thinking of as “transformational moments.” When the Psalmist tells us to “quiet our souls“, when Henry Nouwen tells us that loneliness can be transformed into productive solitude, when Dallas Willard tells us to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” if we want to grow, when Eugene Peterson tells us we must carve out a time for God if we are to “interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves”, when Nouwen (again) refers to the effect of the noise around us as “psychic numbing”, when C. S. Lewis says that “every single act and feeling, every experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, must be referred to God”, when Philip Yancey recommends a kind of prayer as that which will help us overcome our “obsession with ourselves”, when Peter Scazzero continually teaches on the necessity of the “Daily Office” – they’re all talking about different parts of the same thing.

I think Jesus was also speaking of it when he told Mary, the sister of Lazarus, that she “had chosen the better part” – a notably surprising analysis.

So, here’s the thing. I’m writing this for me. I’m mapping out where I’m going in the months ahead – not so much with the blog as with my life. I’m mapping out what I want to think about – what I want to practice – what I believe really works. (In the past I’ve tried what is more commonly recommended, and that wasn’t enough.)

Let me end with a short illustration. Suppose I have a big fight with another family member, and I’m overwhelmed with anger. The traditional advice is to forgive before the sun goes down, to be slow to anger (next time), to imitate the Apostle Paul, or Jesus, and perhaps to ask some trusted friends to pray for me and hold me accountable. This is all well and good as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes far enough, or starts at the right place.

Instead, the ancient virtues would dictate that I carve out some times to sit before God in silence, where I would ask him to show me what is likely the deeper cause of my anger. I might then decide to find some of the “angry” psalms to pray (There are many.), and to schedule several times a day to recalibrate my heart (centering myself at mid-day, for instance, on the God whom I may have forgotten since I did the same upon rising). I might also make a plan to end the day with an “examen” – reviewing the events of the day, and especially how anger played a part in it. I might “refer to God” my anger problem, deliberately trust him to change me from within, and seek to know what way my angry moments might be “transformational” or “redemptive” for me. I might end by confessing that I might be an overly angry person for a long time yet, that I know he can use me in the meantime, and that I understand that he will probably not simply remove my anger from me with a wave of his divine hand – and that his yet unfilled purpose in me is fulfilled in that. (As I think about these two approaches, I’m inclined to see the first one as comprising the “ends”, and this one as the “means” to those ends.)

Something like that. I don’t know. I’m embarrassingly new at this, but I’ve done each of these things enough to consider this a productive approach. I bet that some of you will relate, and perhaps have further suggestions. Perhaps others of you will think that I’ve become a new age mystic or even a heretic. I’m willing to hear from you as well.

In the meantime, I know I can’t go wrong with this example of the Psalmist, which I’ll be following. He says, “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:2) I think just this in itself, a very ancient practice indeed, will not fail to be transformational.

“Downward Mobility at Home”

In his fifties Henri Nouwen moved into a community of physically and mentally disabled men and women in Toronto, Canada. At “Daybreak” he wanted to learn “what seminary and theology didn’t teach me; how to love God and how to discover the presence of God in my own heart.” The irony of this is that Nouwen had taught at Yale and Harvard Divinity schools, worked among the poor in Peru, and knew people all over the world who considered him their spiritual guide. In the end, Nouwen (who was a Dutch Catholic priest) served as a pastor in residence at Daybreak for ten years.

After lots of theological study and years of ministry, I also desire to know how to love God and discover his presence in my life. I also feel the need to learn what “seminary and theology” didn’t teach me. The question is, “How can this happen?”

For Nouwen, it happened when Daybreak assigned him to care for one person in particular, a young man named Adam. Adam was Daybreak’s most physically needy resident. He could neither speak, dress or undress himself, walk alone, or eat without help. (The full story is too long to tell here, but you can read an excellent account in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor.)

In his years at Daybreak, by caring for Adam day after day, Nouwen followed Jesus in living a life for the marginalized, the overlooked, the excluded, and the unwanted. In the process, he found joy, peace and meaning that had previously eluded him. Later, Nouwen coined the phrase “downward mobility” to refer to what he was learning, which at its heart was a repudiation of life as we often live it – striving for power, prestige, pleasure and popularity (“We all wanna be big, big stars …“) – … and the embracing of a “downward way” like Jesus taught when he said that a person must lose his life to save it, or that the first would be last, or that a leader must be the servant of all.

When I read his story, I’m tempted to think if only I could change my life like Nouwen did, if only I could find a place to serve in obscurity, a challenging place where others don’t want to go – that then I could more seriously experience the presence of God in my life. This morning I realized that I’m already in such a place – and it’s also a family. It’s my family. I realized that people in my family have unique and sometimes profound needs (like I do) and sometimes really need me to be their servant, just like Henri was to Adam. I realized God has already placed me in the school of downward mobility.

The thing is, to be completely honest, this version of the “school” doesn’t appeal to me in the same way. It doesn’t sound impressive, exhilarating or noble like what Nouwen did. It doesn’t sound like a path to recognition or acclaim (which he didn’t seek but found.) It just sounds like a lot of hard work, and something that could be unpleasant and exhausting, or frustrating and unappreciated. And I could do it for years, and it’s possible that no one would ever notice! Some might even conclude that it was the least that I could do.

I want to resist my natural instincts though, and embrace my assignment as an attempt at  “down not up.”  I suspect it will almost certainly help me to discover the presence of God in a new way, to love him better, and to be his presence to others who need it – and not just at home.

And so I thought that writing about non-intuitive living would help me think about it more clearly, more deeply, and more often, and that it would help me do it better. In Nouwen’s case, he wrote as a “reminder to himself of how he ought to be.”  I need reminders too. Lots of reminders.

I think downward mobility is at the heart of true spirituality, and I was thinking that maybe if I’m writing persuasively and cleverly about something so important, my blog would be widely read and admired, my reputation would grow, and maybe some group somewhere would want me to come and speak on it, and ….  ;-)

_______Postscript 11/2013

“… living in community is the only asceticism you need.” (attributed to St. Benedict by Kathleen Norris)