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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"Our Father" A Reading for Christmas Day

“Our  Father” the title is yet all love.  Man whose days
are more brittle than fine-spun glass may pray to Him
whose power moves the stars through ages: “Our Father.”
Man whose deeds are stained with folly may pray to the
Sovereign Will before whom even angels are not blameless:
“Our Father.”   That such a prayer should have been
given by Jesus Christ and understood by blundering men is a
miracle; for it is the assurance that we, despite the devil’s
wiles and our weak acquiescence, are yet in some hidden
center made in the image of God.  God’s authority is stands
eternal, but is yet for our good.  God’s holiness shines
inexorably as light, but is yet intent upon our joy. Nothing
need dismay us, for we have “Our Father.”  His authority
is not broken, His holiness cannot misconceive our well-being;
and authority and holiness are diastole and systole of His
heart of love.

Why are we born?  Because Love must bring forth children—to
live in Love’s devotion.  Why is the earth filled with beauty and
bounty, and with such singular accord as that between eye
and earth and sun?  Because fatherly concern has built the
house and spread the table.  Why is necessity of toil laid upon
us so that we must daily win our livelihood from our friend-enemy,
the cosmos?  Because children grown under responsible endeavor.
Why have the means of travel compressed the world into one
Neighborhood?  Because Hands are round about us constraining
our family nearness.  Why are we stricken by remorse when we
violate our conscience?  Because the holy love of God thus moves
in us, and His grief thus revealed us that we are made, not for
sinning, but for sainthood.

Why pain?  The very question aches and finds no easy answer.
There is enough pain on earth to make any man despair; or,
rather, there would be enough, if man’s awareness of God were
not stronger in all the generations than his awareness of pain.
Pain of itself is the servant of death, as any tortured face or
racked body can show.  But pain made an oblation to God, a
strange and bitter offering, becomes, beyond any easy
moralizing or pious cant, the servant of life  For Beethoven’s
music grew to thunderous praise when it was wrung from his
deafness, and Tennyson’s poetry became apocalypse when he
dipped his pen in tears.  Why must man suffer the inexplicable
yoke of pain?  There is no logical answer.  We should flee the
man who in brash and shallow mind presumes to peddle a
“simple solution” to the “problem of pain.”  Yet earthly
parents thrust their children into cold water to teach them
to swim, and expose them to the politics of grade school to
encourage their growth.  We are but children.  Therefore we
do not know why we should go through this school of life or
ever travel the dark valley; but those who have prayed “our
Father,” and ventured on the prayer, have not lacked secret
tidings that all is well.  They have been persuaded that pain
and death are also his angels.

(So We Believe So We Pray, The essence of our Christian faith,
by George A. Buttrick, Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, New York,
Nashville, 1951, pages 138-141.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Leading with Outstretched Hands

As he concludes In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen leaves us with a powerful image: the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. This is the image of the praying, vulnerable, trusting leader.

Following his move from Harvard to a communal life among mentally handicapped people and their assistants at L’Arche, Nouwen discovered that every day was full of unplanned events and surprises.  He writes, “The people I came to live with made me aware of the extent to which my leadership was still a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds.”

Leadership requires a willingness to be led
Nouwen describes his discovery that “leadership, for a large part, means to be led . . . I am learning  . . . not just about the pains and struggles of wounded people, but also about their unique gifts and grace.  They teach me about joy and peace, love and care and prayer—what I could never have learned in any academy.”

After reviewing the abuse of power by Christian leaders in the church over the centuries, he asks:           “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”

The challenge of Christian leadership in the 21st century
Jesus’ vision of maturity, Nouwen writes, “is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go . . . the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places.  “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility . . . but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross . . . the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.”

21st century Christian leadership “is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”

The call for real theological reflection
Here, Nouwen affirms the discipline of theological reflection as an essential component of such a leader’s life and ministry.  “Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our ministry communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.”  He defines real theological thinking as thinking with the mind of Christ.

“To be such a leader, it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national, and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.

“Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggles, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence . . . they have to say no to every form of despair in which human life is seen as a pure matter of good or bad luck. 

“They have to say no to sentimental attempts to make people develop a spirit of resignation or stoic indifference in the face of the unavoidability of pain, suffering, and death.  In short, they have to say no to the secular world and proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has made even the smallest event of human history into kairos, that is an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ.”

Discovering the hidden presence of God
“The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained—through prayer, study, and careful analysis—to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the seemingly random events of their time.

“Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.  This is a hard discipline, since God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered.”

Nouwen challenges seminaries to become centers where people are trained to discern the signs of the time.  We would add local churches, home groups, and Bible studies as additional settings where women and men can learn together how to practice spiritual discernment.

“This cannot be just an intellectual training,” Nouwen writes.  “It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart . . . to the degree that such formation is being sought for and realized, there is hope for the church of the twenty-first century.”

By studying the lives and writings of countless women and men through more than two thousand years of history, we can encourage one another in the practices that lead to transformative spiritual formation.

“Jesus sends us out to be shepherds . . . He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people” (In the Name of Jesus, Reflections on Christian Leadership, Crossroad, 1989, pages 73-93).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Confession and Forgiveness and Loving Support

Christian leaders must be “always willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness from from those to whom they minister.” 

In practice, however, the leader may hide his or her vulnerability.  As Henri Nouwen observes: “There is so much fear, so much distance, so much generalization, and so little real listening, speaking, and absolving that not much true sacramentality can be expected.” 

He then asks two questions that every Christian community must consider: First, “How can priests or ministers feel really loved and cared for when they have to hide their own sins and failings from the people to whom they minister . . . ? 

We are called to nurture communities in which all are comfortable practicing both confession and forgiveness.  As Nouwen observes, we must recognize that “ministers and priests are also called to be full members of their communities, are accountable to them and need their affection and support, and are called to minister with their whole being, including their wounded selves.”

Second, “How can people truly care for their shepherds and keep them faithful to their sacred task when they do not know them and so cannot deeply love them?”  In practice, only a few wise and trusted friends can listen attentively and fully to a leader’s personal struggles. But every priest and minister needs a truly safe friend or group of trusted friends.
“They need a place where they can share their deep pain and struggles with people who do not need them, but who can guide them ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love.” 

Nouwen found such a place in the community at L’Arche “with a group of friends who pay attention to my often-hidden pains and keep me faithful to my vocation by their gentle criticism and loving support.
“Would that all priests and ministers could have such a safe place for themselves” 
(In the Name of Jesus, Crossroad, 1989, pages 64-70). 

A year is a long time to go without a post . . . for me the past year has been a time of transition . . . the changes go on, and I plan to resume posting . . . and may try some other experiments . . . enjoy.  Read on!