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.

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.