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Friday, December 24, 2010

Contemplative Prayer for Christian Leaders

Perhaps “mystic” is one of the most misunderstood descriptions of a prayerful Christian. But Henri Nouwen simplifies the meaning with this clear definition: “a mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love.”

For Christian leaders, becoming people of prayer will be a lifetime pursuit. As Nouwen writes, Christian leaders both today and tomorrow will need to learn the discipline of contemplative prayer “dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps asking us, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’”

“Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own heart and God’s heart. Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keep suggesting the opposite.”

While it is well and good for laypeople, priests and ministers to be moral, well-trained, eager to help others, and able to respond creatively to the burning issues of the day, that is not the heart of Christian leadership says Nouwen.

“The central question is, Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?”

Christian leadership “must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find the source for their words, advice and guidance. Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them.

“When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative” (In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen, Crossroad Publishing, New York, 1989, pages 42-47).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is unconditional, unlimited love attainable?

The Christian’s love is perhaps the most important mark of a disciple. Jesus taught that everyone would know His disciples by the love they display for one another(John 13:34-35). Henri Nouwen’s reflections on Christian leadership expand our understanding of what it means to love others as Jesus loved us.

“The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, ‘a heart of flesh,’ in Jesus. Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.

“This unconditional and unlimited love is what the evangelist John calls God’s first love. ‘Let us love,’ he says, ‘because God loved us first’ (1 John 4:19).

“The love that often leaves us doubtful, frustrated, angry and resentful is the second love, that is to say, the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement, and support we receive from our parents, teachers, spouses, and friends. We all know how limited, broken, and very fragile that love is.

“Behind the many expressions of this second love there is always the chance of rejection, withdrawal, punishment, blackmail, violence, and even hatred. Many contemporary movies and plays portray the ambiguities and ambivalences of human relationships, and there are no friendships, marriages, or communities in which the strains and stresses of the second love are not keenly felt. Often it seems that beneath the pleasantries of daily life there are many gaping wounds that carry such names as abandonment, betrayal, rejection, rupture, and loss. These are all the shadow side of the second love and reveal the darkness that never completely leaves the human heart.

“The radical good news is that the second love is only a broken reflection of the first love and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows. Jesus’ heart is the incarnation of the shadow-free first love of God. From his heart flow streams of living water. He cries out in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink’ (John 7:37-38). ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-29)."

(In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen, Crossroad Publishing, New York, 1989, pages 38-41)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Do you love me?

Before commissioning Peter to be a shepherd, Jesus asked three times “Do you love me? (see John 21:15-17). Henri Nouwen states this is a critical question for anyone who serves others in Christ’s name. Nouwen adds that it is a question that can allow anyone in Christian ministry to be “at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident.”

“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? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?

“In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal. In that heart there is no suspicion, no vindictiveness, no resentment, and not a tinge of hatred. It is a heart that wants only to give love and receive love in response. It is a heart that suffers immensely because it sees the magnitude of human pain and the great resistance to trusting the heart of God who wants to offer consolation and hope.

“The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, ‘a heart of flesh,’ in Jesus. Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, that every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God.”

(In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen, Crossroad Publishing, New York, 1989, pages 36-38)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Bring the light of Jesus to a secularized world

Henri Nouwen gives voice to what he calls the climate of secularization that is shaping people’s view of God, faith, and people who want to serve in His name: “We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the church, or a priest. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence. If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers, if there are wars you need competent negotiators. God, the church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions.”

Nouwen, however, pinpoints a different reality. “Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.

He refers to the novel Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis as a graphic account of the “moral and spiritual poverty behind the contemporary fa├žade of wealth, success, popularity, and power.”

According to Nouwen, these all turn into specific personal longings and questionings: “Is there anybody who loves me? Is there anybody who really cares? Is there anyone who wants to stay home for me? Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying? Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?”

“It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there” (In the Name of Jesus, Crossroad Publishing, 1989, pages 32-34).

Intimate daily fellowship with the Master Trainer

The time came in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds of would-be followers were growing so large that Jesus decided to organize a core group of disciples. As Dr. Bruce observes, Jesus’ teaching was “beginning to be of a deeper and and more elaborate nature, and His gracious activities were taking on an ever-widening range.”

Here is the central theme of The Training of the Twelve: “It was impossible that all who believed could continue . . . to follow Him, in the literal sense, whithersoever he might go: the greater number could now only be occasional followers. But it was His wish that certain selected men should be with Him at all times and in all places,--His travelling companions in all His wanderings, witnessing all His work, and ministering to His daily needs. “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles—that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (Mark 3:14 NIV).

“They were to be . . . students of Christian doctrine, and occasional fellow-laborers in the work of the kingdom, and eventually Christ’s chosen trained agents for propagating the faith after He Himself had left the earth. From the time of their being chosen, indeed, the twelve entered on a regular apprenticeship for the great office of apostleship, in the course of which they were were to learn, in the privacy of an intimate daily fellowship with their Master, what they should do, believe, and teach, as His witnesses and ambassadors to the world”

(The Training of the Twelve by A.B. Bruce, published by Kregel Publications, in 1971, Reproduced from the fourth edition by A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1894. Foreword by D. Stuart Briscoe, copyright 1988 by Kregel Publications. Chapter 1 Beginnings, pages 29—30).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Thinking about leadership with Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen’s short, concise writings convey a real depth of thought and challenge us to think in new ways about the meaning of Christian leadership. His book In the Name of Jesus is subtitled Reflections on Christian Leadership, in which Henri describes the inner experience of moving in to live and minister in L’Arche, a community of mentally handicapped people in Toronto, Canada. Here is one brief passage that will inspire continuing thoughtful reflection:

“This experience . . . forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things –and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive love and give love regardless of any accomplishments.

“I am telling you this because I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that we have to carry as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life” (In the Name of Jesus, Crossroad Publishing, 1989, pages 29-30).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Beginnings of the Gospel

The Training of the Twelve, is well worth a close reading because as D. Stuart Briscoe writes in his foreword, “the contemporary church needs to remember that the invaluable information gleaned from the social scientist about human behaviour must never be seen as a substitute for a personal relationship with the living Lord Jesus similar to that enjoyed by the twelve as they walked the highways and byways together.

“How they heard His word, studied His reactions, fulfilled His commands and responded to His promises is faithfully recorded for us in Scripture and beautifully applied to our situations in this book”

Dr. Bruce begins by commenting on John 1:29-51:
“All beginnings are more or less obscure in appearance, but none were ever more obscure than those of Christianity. What an insignificant event in the history of the church, not to say of the world, this first meeting of Jesus of Nazareth with five humble men, Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and another unnamed! . . . the beginnings of an acquaintance with and of faith in Jesus on the part of certain individuals who subsequently become constant attendants on His person, and ultimately apostles of His religion.”

All five, with the Apostle John most likely the “unnamed” disciple (see John 1:37), “were men who hungered and thirsted after real righteousness, being sick of the righteousness then in vogue; they said Amen in their hearts to the preacher’s withering exposure of the hollowness of current religious profession and of the worthlessness of fashionable good works, and sighed for a sanctity other than that of pharisaic superstition and ostentation . . . they prayed fervently for the reviving of true religion, for the coming of the divine kingdom, for the advent of the Messianic King with fan in His hand to separate chaff from wheat, and to put right all things which were wrong.”

“The faith of these brethren, was, therefore, just such as we should expect in beginners. In substance it amounted to this, that they recognized in Jesus the Divine Prophet, King, Son of Old Testament prophecy; and its value lay not in its maturity, or accuracy, but in this, that however imperfect, it brought them into contact and close fellowship with Him, in whose company they were to see greater things than when they first believed, one truth after another assuming its place in the firmament of their minds, like the stars appearing in the evening sky as daylights fades away.”

(The Training of the Twelve by A.B. Bruce, published by Kregel Publications, in 1971, Reproduced from the fourth edition by A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1894. Foreword by D. Stuart Briscoe, copyright 1988 by Kregel Publications. Chapter 1 Beginnings, pages 1—10).

The Rest of the Story

My friend was released after 15 days in prison in good health. I can only imagine his joyful reunion with his family! The best news of all is that his prayers were answered and he was able to communicate with others during his prison term. In an even more unexpected turn of events, he has been asked to do work for some of those who learned about his craftsmanship while he was in prison. A good workman is worth hiring, and my friend has been rewarded with some new opportunities to use his skills in his local community because he is a man of integrity.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory

Yesterday a Christian brother of mine was imprisoned for his faith. He and his wife and their three children live in one of the most remote regions of our world. I invite you to pray with me for them. Pray they will be granted a supernatural supply of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength to endure and to remain strong in faith.

I’m sure there is no justifiable reason for this 10-day imprisonment. Many Christians, as well as followers of other religions, are being routinely harassed and having their rights violated in his country.

We who take our freedom for granted must pray for our brothers and sisters who endure persecution as they seek to follow Jesus faithfully day by day.

My brother is a leader who shepherds others. He works as a welder. Just a few short months ago, my wife and I heard this couple’s story over lunch at a marriage and family conference.

Later that evening we watched them dance joyfully to the traditional music of their region. The next day we watched them hold hands as they sang to one another and prayed for one another with a mixture of tears and smiles as the conference drew to a close.

My friends are two of God’s most devoted servants, and they need our prayers. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that today I wanted to complete the excerpts from Abba by Evelyn Underhill who concludes with a meditation on “The Power and the Glory.” Here, we read:

“He calleth the stars by their names. All things, all mysteries, are brought to Him as their test and meaning. Thine is the Kingdom, hidden from our sight yet already present in perfection . . . Thy secret pattern imposed on our chaos, Thy Spirit brooding on the deep, turning all things to Thy purpose, and even through conflicts, sin and anguish conditioning and transforming every aspect of human life.

“Behind every closed door which seems to shut experience from us He is standing; and within every experience which reaches us, however disconcerting, His unchanging presence is concealed.

“Not in the wind which sweeps over the face of existence to change it, not in the earthquake which makes sudden havoc of our ordered life, not in the overwhelming splendour and fury of the elemental fire: in none of these, but in the ‘voice of gentle stillness,’ speaking from within the agony and bewilderment of life, we recognize the presence of the holy and the completing answer to the soul’s completed prayer. We accept Thy Majesty, we rejoice in Thy Power and Thy Glory; but in Thine unchanging quiet is our trust. We look beyond the spiritual to Spirit, beyond the soul’s country to the personal Origin and Father of its life.

“This is our Lord’s will,” says Julian of Norwich, “that our prayer and our trust be both alike large.”

(Abba, Evelyn Underhill, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 1982, pages 56 to 60).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Deliverance from Evil

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” writes Evelyn Underhill, is actually “the culmination of the prayer which was given to the Church of God in the persons of her Apostles; those through whom the sanctification of human history was to be set going, the handful of men to whom we owe our Christian inheritance . . . .are taught to acknowledge their own fragility, their childlike status; their utter dependence on the ceaseless guiding and protecting power of God.”

“It is from our own evil tendencies above all, our inveterate egotism with its million cunning disguises, our pride, greed and anger, our steadily downward drag to self-satisfaction that we need deliverance: for this we can never vanquish in our own strength.

“Do not let us be swamped in the strange tumult and conflict; the evil that results from the clash of wills unharmonized with Thy will. Deliver us by keeping clear that single relation with Thee which is our peace.

“Lead us not into temptation. Temptation is that sphere in which the evil dispositions which are present in the world—its whole trend towards self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, and away from God--appear in their attractiveness and dominate the situation . . .

“There will be plenty of opportunity for courage, staying power and initiative as well as for humble obedience, for those who follow the guide’s footsteps and are docile to His direction; some narrow ledges and treacherous slopes before we finish. All will be well if we do not yield to the temptation to tackle them alone; but there is every reason to fear the attractive short cut, the opportunity to satisfy our thirst for private spiritual adventure.

“The saints were driven on by rough tracks and awful darkness, in suffering and loneliness, by cloud and storm. They reached the summits; but never in their own strength or by following their own ideas—often indeed by taking what seems to onlookers the most unlikely route, because their feet were set upon a supernatural path which others cannot see.” (Abba, Evelyn Underhill, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 1982, pages 50 to 56).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Forgive us our trespasses

“Forgive us our trespasses—our voluntary share in the world’s sinfulness—as we forgive them that trespass against us,” so Evelyn Underhill begins her meditation on the section of the Lord’s prayer that focuses our attention on forgiveness.

“If we cannot live without His life feeding and supporting us, still less can we live without His loving-kindness, tolerating our imperfections, rectifying our errors, forgiving our perpetual shortcomings and excesses, debts and trespasses, and giving us again and again another chance.

“The Christian doctrine of forgiveness is so drastic and so difficult, where there is a real and deep injury to forgive, that only those living in the Spirit, in union with the Cross, can dare to base their claim on it. It means not only asking to be admitted to the Kingdom of Redeeming Love, but also declaring our willingness to behave as citizens of that Kingdom even under the most difficult conditions.

“All this is supernatural, and reminds us again that the Lord’s Prayer is a supernatural prayer: the prayer of the re-born, the realistic Christian who exists to do God’s will. Even so this clause comes a long way down: after the life of worship, the life of consecration, the prayer that the soul may be fed by the hand of God. Only then is it ready for this supreme test; this quiet and genial acceptance of the wounds of life, all the deliberate injury and the casual damage that come from lack of love; this prayer from the Cross. ‘Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you.’” (Abba, Evelyn Underhill, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, 1982, pages 44 to 50.)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Give us this day for bread the Word of God

“Give us this day for bread the Word of God from Heaven” says a version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the ancient Irish Gospels,” writes Evelyn Underhill as she concludes her discussion of the request for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Her next paragraph, contains just five sentences. Each one is packed with a depth of insight that will deepen our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer:

“God gives Himself mainly along two channels: through the soul’s daily life and circumstances and through its prayer. In both that soul must always be ready for Him; wide open to receive Him, and willing to accept and absorb without fastidiousness that which is given, however distasteful and unsuitable it may seem. For the Food of Eternal Life is mostly plain bread; and though it has indeed all sweetness and all savour for those who accept it with meekness and love, there is nothing in it to attract a more fanciful religious taste. All life’s vicissitudes, each grief, trial or sacrifice, each painful step in self-knowledge, every opportunity of love or renunciation and every humiliating fall, have their place here.

“All give, in their various ways and disguises, the heavenly Food. A sturdy realism is the mark of this divine self-imparting, and the enabling grace of those who receive” (Abba by Evelyn Underhill, in Treasures from the Spiritual Classics, 1982, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg, PA, third printing , 1996, pages 41-43; a compilation of extracts from Abba, 1940, Longmans Green & Co Ltd).

What type of heavenly bread have you enjoyed today? Did you pray for any type of bread today? When you pray, are you "wide open to receive Him, and willing to accept and absorb" without complaint what He supplies?

A New Year’s Reading Resolution

In J.B. Phillips version of 1Timothy 4:13, the apostle Paul urges Timothy to “Concentrate until my arrival on your reading and on your preaching and teaching.” This verse was one of many in Paul’s letters to Timothy that caught my attention last week while preparing to teach a Saturday morning men’s Bible study.

In 2010 I want to pay attention to my reading because I find that careful reading and study lay a solid foundation for any teaching opportunity or assignment like the one I just had.

The Amplified Bible expands on the verse so it reads “Till I come, devote yourself to [public and private] reading; to exhortation [preaching and teaching and personal appeals] and to teaching and instilling doctrine.”

The New International Version
underlines the public aspect of Paul’s challenge: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” While The Message summarizes: “Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching.”

In all the versions there is a strong link between reading and both preaching and teaching. For Christian communicators who want their message to be as effective as Paul’s letters to Timothy in motivating and challenging others to grow in faith—the year’s reading plan can be based on a plan to read through the whole Bible.

I personally like using the One Year Bible (Tyndale House, Wheaton 1986)which calendars daily readings that combine Old and New Testament readings with Psalms and Proverbs. This year I’m adding the One Year Chronological Bible (Tyndale House, Carol Stream, Illinois, 1995)to my daily Bible reading plan to get a better grasp of when key events occurred in relation to one another. I’m also resolving to more closely relate my general reading to specific teaching topics or assignments.

How about you: “What’s in your reading plan for 2010?”
I’m interested in hearing about your reading resolutions, plans, or other comments about reading in the year ahead.