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.

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“Do This In Remembrance of Me”

I grew up in a religious tradition where we celebrated communion only once a quarter. I think the relative infrequency of this was both a reaction to the sacramental approach which can be weekly or even daily, and as a guard against the ceremony becoming commonplace in the church.  Now I’m attending  a church where “the Lord’s Supper” occurs every Sunday. What I’ve discovered is, that the repetition has changed it for me – in a good way. I’ve been “reached” by the ceremony on a deeper level than before. (It’s like some worship songs that repeat the same line over and over. Sometimes after I’ve sung the line six times, I find that on the seventh time I actually think about what I’m singing! Something like that.) Here’s how that worked for me just last Sunday.

To the Corinthian church the Apostle Paul wrote these familiar words about the Lord’s Table:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

What we do “in remembrance of” Jesus at the Lord’s table involves two of the most basic foods in history – bread and wine. Today, as throughout history, incorporating these into one’s daily diet is quite typical. They’re common. If you eat, you’ll probably consume them frequently.

When I hold the bread in one hand and the cup in the other, and I look down at them, I ask myself, “Why these elements?”, and “What is it about these elements that should make me think about Jesus and what he did for me?” Or, “Of what exactly are these elements supposed to make me think?” This is what I was wondering last Sunday. (I know the symbolism of the Lord’s Table is rich and the underlying theology is deep. Most of that is beyond the scope of what I’m writing about now. What I want to try to do is to “read” what happens at the Lord’s table the way one would “read” a passage of Scripture in lectio divina. In other words, on top of any known theology that relates, and without stepping outside of the controls that come with a proper understanding of Scripture study, what I did was attempt to ask myself, “What is God saying to me right now, as I hold the bread in one hand, and the cup in the other?”, “What thoughts will prepare me today to meaningfully remember the Lord at his table?”) Here’s what I felt I received:

I’m about to eat the piece of bread I’m holding. I’m going to chew it until it crumbles into a broken collection of particles that no longer resemble what I started with. In a way I’m going to pummel it, and pulverize it, and destroy its form and shape – and then it’s going to enter my body and nourish, strengthen and sustain me. It’s literally going to give me life. I beat it and destroy it, and then it gives me life.

In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord “was crushed for our iniquities” and “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5b,d) That’s the correlation I’m talking about. When I look at the bread and wonder, “Why bread?” and “Why eat bread?” the answer is that bread it very common, thus very often eaten, and that perhaps by eating bread in this ritual, I will remember when I’m eating my “daily bread” what exactly Christ, the bread of God, has done for me. He has responded to my crushing of him, the pummeling and pulverizing and destroying of him (my rebellion and my great sin), by bringing me life, health and sustenance through that crushed body of his. “By his wounds we are healed.” (And “healed” in the sense of “saved” or “delivered” or “made well or whole.”)

In the same way he took the cup…. Imagine how many times, since that night when Jesus shared a cup of wine with his beloved friends, that others have lifted the cup together over a meal. Again, perhaps if I can think clearly about the wine in the ceremony, then I will make a mental connection to this “daily wine” that is such a big part of the diet of the human race. Perhaps, “whenever” I lift the cup (not just in church) I will be unable to do so without “remembering” him.

And the question is the same, “Why wine?”, and “Why drink the wine?” In Joel’s O.T. prophecy, the Lord himself offers wine – in addition to two other very common food products (grain and olive oil) – as indicators of his restoration and blessing of his people:

“I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
an object of scorn to the nations.” (Joel 2:19)

And notice how so much of this comes together or is echoed in Psalm 104:

14 [The Lord] makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts. (Ps. 104:14,15)

The blood of Jesus will be spilled. It will no longer be in his body – it will make its way to a cup. People will drink it. I will drink it – even though it’s me who caused the spilling of his blood. I caused his blood to be spilled, and now I’m drinking it, and in the process, he brings me gladness and joy – the blood of the killed Savior (the Savior that I killed) that I take into my body by the cup, God gives to me as a means of restoration and promised blessing. It represents one of his most basic and satisfying gifts. (Joel 2:19) It gladdens my heart. (Ps. 104:14) The sadness I caused God brings me joy.

So in every experience of partaking of the “body and the blood of the Lord”, by the bread and the wine, if I’m paying attention, I will remember not only that his death is what has given and continues to give me life (salvation, health, wholeness, wellness, joy), but that I am the cause of his death. His grace his triumphed over my guilt. My very sin towards God the Son, has been used by God the Father to become his instrument of blessing to me. Selah.

To me, this is a little different from remembering that (1) Christ died for sinners and that (2) I am a sinner. It’s more than remembering that (3) his body was broken for me in spite of me being a sinner and that (4) the blessings of the New Covenant are mine through this that he did. It’s all this, but it’s more. It’s reliving and thus remembering each time I chew the bread or sip down the wine that I am at the same time the one who destroyed the Son of God, and the one given new life by him through his destruction. The guilty one partakes and lives. The most unworthy one is blessed.

It’s unheard of good news without precedent. In fact it seems just “too good” to remember only quarterly.

________

Postscript: The next time at the Table led to another devotional thought: The bread and wine, being the most basic and common food of all, represent all that we eat and drink. As I look down at these symbols, I realize that God must give me what I need to live. I can’t do anything but receive.

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.

“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)