When I was a young man, I attended a dinner celebrating the career of an elderly and famous evangelical leader. After the meal, the honoree was invited to speak, where he reiterated one of the core themes of his career (a ruthless commitment to “true truth”) and how the current state of the evangelical world fell far short on this commitment and how everything was going to pot.
I left feeling very sad for the speaker, whom I had looked forward to meeting and celebrating. Two commitments sprang from that evening. First, that I had to be careful not to become a fossil to my past but to be an active participant with the ever-changing present. I did not want to become a whiny old man whom younger people feel sorry for. Second, I realized that once I was grouped with the “mature” age bracket (which seemed “way in the future” at the time), I had a responsibility to instill hope and excitement in the generation following and not merely bemoan all the ways the present falls short of the past. I realized that the speech that night was actually a breach of trust by the leader to those coming after. I wanted to avoid that mistake.
Fast-forward twenty-five years to when “way in the future” has become “now.” I still hold to those two commitments, but I have been surprised at how difficult it is at times to stay true to them. For instance, conversations about the vital role of “Instagram” or “WhatsApp” to today’s ministries, or discussions about the latest reality shows or about new ways of accessing these media, and I can soon feel “out of it.” And as I repeatedly hit my head against the institutional church’s stubborn habit of choosing fear over love and worry over faith, I admit to flirting with despair over how everything is “going to pot.”
That is when an internal warning bell goes off, one activated that night many years ago, which tells me that I cannot allow myself to stay in that place. I need help. And so, because of another lifelong habit, I turn to authors for both wisdom and encouragement. Recently, I have benefited greatly from Peter Enns’s reminder that faith is learning how to trust Jesus more than getting everything figured out correctly (see The Sin of Certainty) and from Norman Wirzba’s metaphor of seeing church as a difficult boot camp that is training us to love (see Way of Love). These have helped me stay on track.
But I have been especially encouraged recently by revisiting a past literary mentor, Henri Nouwen. On the twentieth anniversary of Nouwen’s passing, HarperOne has released an anthology of his work. Entitled The Spritual Life, it collects eight of his books: Intimacy, A Letter of Consolation, Letters to Marc About Jesus, The Living Reminder, Making All Things New, Our Greatest Gift, The Way of the Heart, and Gracias.
A Dutch Catholic priest, Nouwen was a courageously honest and constantly questioning follower of Jesus who wrote many popular books and taught at Notre Dame, and at Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools before settling on service at the L’Arche Daybreak community outside Toronto, a ministry to mentally and physically handicapped individuals. His books speak directly from one soul to another, sharing the wisdom he has learned as he has taken each step in his journey. And while his books are accessible, clear, and in some ways simple, these attributes flow directly from a deep and wise grasp of who God is, a dependence on Jesus, and a profound skill at discerning where and how the Spirit is at work.
Reading these works again reveals that I am not alone in my worries and complaints. From Making All Things New: “Worrying has become such a part and parcel of our daily life that a life without worries seems not only impossible, but even undesirable. We have a suspicion that to be carefree is unrealistic and—worse—dangerous. Our worries motivate us to work hard, to prepare ourselves for the future, and to arm ourselves against impending threats. Yet Jesus says, ‘Do not worry.’” Well, that stops me short.
Or this, from the same short work: “The spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains and joys of the here and now. Therefore we need to begin with a careful look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year, in order to become more fully aware of our hunger for the Spirit.” In other words, God is still at work in me and I still have a ways to go.
In The Way of the Heart, he draws from the ancient wisdom of the desert fathers to address a very contemporary problem: “As we reflect on the increasing poverty and hunger, the rapidly spreading hatred and violence within as well as between countries, and the frightening buildup of nuclear weapons systems, we come to realize that our world has embarked on a suicidal journey. . . . It seems that the darkness is thicker than ever, that the powers of evil are more blatantly visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever.” Okay, I am not the first to feel despair.
In each of his books, Nouwen characteristically keeps focusing on what gives us hope and what saves us from despair. In Letters to Marc About Jesus, he writes, “In every phase of my search I’ve discovered that Jesus Christ stands at the center of my seeking. If you were to ask me point-blank, ‘What does it mean to you to live spiritually?’ I would have to reply, ‘Living with Jesus at the center.’” Amen.
Thank you, Henri, you are just what my soul needed.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: If you purchase The Spiritual Life before 6/6/2016, you can get any of the paperback volumes from Nouwen’s definitive trilogy on the Christian life, Spiritual Direction, Spiritual Formation, and Discernment, for 50% off plus FREE shipping. CLICK HERE to learn more and order.