“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)

Martin Luther King and Counterintuitive Living

I heard screamin’
And bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Neil Young, “Southern Man”

On September 15, 1963, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Dynamite sent bricks and glass flying, and killed four young black girls who were preparing to lead the annual Youth Day worship service. The grandfather of one of the girls, an eleven year old, came sobbing from the church clutching her shoe. On the other side of the world, the Moscow paper Izvestia described the event as a “massacre of the innocents.”

At one point as grief settled upon them, Diane Nash and James Bevel, key leaders in the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King raged in sorrow, and seriously considered becoming vigilantes. They would identify, stalk, and kill the bombers – the “Black Muslim option.”

Other responses to this horrific event were hardly righteous. Some Southern Baptist leaders drafted a resolution of sympathy for the stricken congregation, but the Southern Baptist Convention rejected it. The largest interracial collection of clergy ever in Birmingham gathered for the funerals, but no city officials attended. President Kennedy himself expressed outrage and grief, but as Taylor Branch explains “carefully pledged the full power of the federal government to the ‘detection’ of those responsible, rather than to conviction or trial.”

Only Dr. King proved unwavering to his principle of loving nonviolence:

“History has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as the redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…. We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and worth of all human personality.”

He said these words because this is what he lived. These words expressed the core philosophy of his life and ministry. It was necessary, as Frederick Douglass  had said before him, to save “black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” The real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority…. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

When I read the Sermon on the Mount and hear Jesus tell his followers to turn the other cheek, or to love their enemies, I wonder, “How can we?” When we’re wronged, the desire for revenge goes deep. When we’re purposely, viciously hurt, we want to hurt back. Of course Jesus models what he preached about loving nonviolence better than anyone, “Father, forgive them.” he prayed from the cross – but, I say to myself, “That was Jesus!”

And so, when someone who was definitely not the God-man, who was definitely not made of anything but the clay I’m made of, does what Dr. King did, I’m awestruck. Perhaps loving my enemies and turning the other cheek is not only for the dispensation of the Kingdom! Perhaps such responses are possible (and expected) now.

How was Dr. King able to do it? He believed. He believed at his very core in something that seems against logic to us. He believed that hate must be met with love. That indeed, only love was sufficient to conquer hate, and that love must be radical – willing to suffer and bleed in it’s work to save both the oppressed and the oppressor. He believed in the human dignity of his enemies – those same people who would use a cattle prod or fire hose on him. He believed in loving them.

We will not learn this way of life from Hollywood films or television shows. It won’t be modeled for us by our drinking buddies at the local watering hole, or by the N.R.A. leadership. We may not even learn it in church. (It took the Southern Baptist Convention 30 years to repent of it’s shameful response.) We’ll only learn it from Jesus, and people like Frederick Douglass, Gandhi and Martin Luther King – all of whom learned it from Jesus.

Our world is unfamiliar with this kind of love. If we can learn it and live it out before them, not only against all of their expectations, but counter to every natural instinct of our own, who knows what impact we might have in our world? It’s counterintuitive living at it’s best, if we can only live it.