Henri J.M. Nouwen on Togetherness

After twenty years as a professor at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, the Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen (1932–1996) left academia to serve as a resident priest at a home for the mentally disabled called Daybreak, a part of the L’Arche community. He wrote this tiny book (you could read it in one sitting) during that transition and explores the lessons he felt God was teaching him at that time. The book is one of his most simple and yet powerful. The story in the Epilogue is one of the best parts and I share it with you today.

Writing these reflections was one thing, presenting them in Washington D.C., was quite another. When Bill (Bill Van Buren a resident of Daybreak) and I arrived at the Washington airport we were taken to the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City, a collection of modern, seemingly all-glass high-rise buildings on the same side of the Potomac River as the airport. Both Bill and I were quite impressed by the glittering atmosphere of the hotel. We were both given spacious rooms with double beds, bathrooms with many towels, and cable TV. On the table in Bill’s room there was a basket with fruit and a bottle of wine. Bill loved it. Being a veteran TV watcher, he settled comfortably on his queen-sized bed and checked out all the channels with his remote control box.

But the time for us to bring our good news together came quickly. After a delicious buffet dinner in one of the ballrooms decorated with golden statues and little fountains, Vincent Dwyer introduced me to the audience. At that moment I still did not know what “doing it together” with Bill would mean. I opened by saying that I had not come alone, but was very happy that Bill had come with me. Then I took my handwritten text and began my address. At that moment, I saw that Bill had left his seat, walked up to the podium, and planted himself right behind me. It was clear that he had a much more concrete idea about the meaning of “doing it together” than I. Each time I finished reading a page, he took it away and put it upside down on a small table close by. I felt very much at ease with this and started to feel Bill’s presence as a support. But Bill had more in mind. When I began to speak about the temptation to turn stones into bread as a temptation to be relevant, he interrupted me and said loudly for everyone to hear, “I have heard that before!” He had indeed, and he just wanted the priests and ministers who were listening to know that he knew me quite well and was familiar with my ideas. For me, however, it felt like a gentle loving reminder that my thoughts were not as new as I wanted my audience to believe. Bill’s intervention created a new atmosphere in the ballroom: lighter, easier, and more playful. Somehow Bill had taken away the seriousness of the occasion and had brought to it some homespun normality. As I continued my presentation, I felt more and more that we were indeed doing it together. And it felt good.

When I came to the second part of and was reading the words, “The question most asked by the handicapped people with whom I live was ‘Are you home tonight?'” Bill interrupted me again and said, “That’s right, that is what John Smeltzer always asks.” Again there was something disarming about his remark. Bill knew John Smeltzer very well after living with him in the same house for quite some years. He simply wanted people to know about his friend. It was as if he drew the audience toward us, inviting them into the intimacy of our common life.

After I had finished reading my text and people had shown their appreciation, Bill said to me, “Henri, can I say something now?” My first reaction was “Oh, how am I going to handle this? He might start rambling and create an embarrassing situation,” but then I caught myself in my presumption that he had nothing of importance to say and said to the audience, “Will you please sit down. Bill would like to say a few words to you.” Bill took the microphone and said, with all the difficulties he has in speaking, “Last time, when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smeltzer with him. This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.” That was it, and everyone stood up and gave him a warm applause.

As we walked away from the podium, Bill said to me, “Henri, how did you like my speech?” “Very much,” I answered, “everyone was really happy with what you said.” Bill was delighted. As people gathered for drinks, he felt freer than ever. He went from person to person, introduced himself and asked how they liked the evening and told them all sorts of stories about his life in Daybreak. I did not see him for more than an hour. He was too busy getting to know everybody.

The next morning at breakfast before we left, Bill walked from table to table with his cup of coffee in his hands and said good-bye to all those he knew from the evening before. It was clear to me that he had made many friends and felt very much at home in these, for him, unusual surroundings.

As we flew back together to Toronto, Bill looked up from the word puzzle book that he takes with him wherever he goes and said, “Henri, did you like our trip?” “Oh Yes.” I answered, “it was a wonderful trip, and I am so glad you came with me.” Bill looked at me attentively and then said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?” Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them” (Matthew 18:19). In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed the Jesus who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon hotel in the Crystal City.

As we landed, I said to Bill, “Bill, thanks so much for coming with me. It was a wonderful trip and what we did, we did it together in Jesus’ name.” And I really meant it.

Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus; Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989),

Serving Together

One week ago I was having a conversation with a lady in the Church about a ministry in which she had been involved. The conversation was basically about whether it was worth continuing to do this ministry or not. We both were going through all the pros and cons of this particular ministry when she said something that caught my attention. She said something like, “What I enjoy most about this ministry is the relationship I develop with the other people serving.”

Serving in ministry is about bringing the grace of God to other people for the glory of God. But the truth is this, there are benefits for us also. Those benefits include the joy of accomplishing something for God or the feeling we get when we see other people blessed. We all know there is more blessing in giving than receiving. But one of the biggest overlooked benefits is the connection we make to other people.

We have a couple of men in the Church who served oversees during the Vietnam war. What is interesting is how connected they are to people who served over there with them. The talk and write and meet together regularly. Many of them have very little in common except their similar experience in the service. The same is true for people who do ministry for Jesus. Having a common goal and a common enemy joins our hearts together as we serve side by side.

Plus there is the time factor. Spending 10 minutes talking at a fellowship lunch will help you to know a little about someone. Cooking a meal or cleaning up after children or building a new wing on a building for several hours will help you to really know someone.

Most often the people who are not connected to other people in the Church are those not serving. The solution is simple.

Against the Grain

My wood shop teacher, Mr. Shirk, told our class to always sand wood “with the grain.” If you go with the grain the wood it will turn out nice and smooth but if you go “against the grain” it will come out rough and make ugly grooves. I have found that this truth applies to much of life. If I go with the direction that is natural things go smooth, but going against my natural instincts can be difficult and ugly. I say all of this because I believe God has SHAPED us for ministry (see yesterday’s post) but I firmly believe that sometimes we have to go against the grain. This conviction comes not because of a large amount of research or evidence, but because of personal experience.

Let me start this story in Bible college. I honestly had no desire to be a preacher. I went to Bible college because I thought it would be easy. I often joke, “One book, how hard could it be?” While exploring my faith I came to the total realization that Christ was real and true. Then I decided that if he were real and true then I must serve him with my whole life. This lead me to explore mission work for a summer. That summer I felt the Lord leading me away from overseas mission work, I did feel Him leading me into preaching and new Church work.

Following my mission trip in 1993 I returned to school and began the prospect of preaching every week. It began in Urich Missouri that Fall and has lasted ever since. While I might seem calm and composed behind the microphone, let me give you the back story. The first few years I spent every Sunday morning in the bathroom before Church. My stomach would convulse and my body would revolt at what I was about to do. Eventually Pepto Bismol and Immodium became part of my Saturday night diet in an effort to turn back the tide so to speak. Over the years I have been able to reduce the amount of pain in my gut but those butterflies in my stomach that other people talk about are more like fighting dogs inside me.

Then there is the other side of my preaching. When it is over I am drained beyond description. Every Sunday that I can, I go home to eat and then take a nap. I am totally exhausted after preaching. I compare it to running a marathon, although I have never really ran one. After preaching my body is tired, my brain is tired and I do not want to do anything for a period of time. This is usually compounded by the fact that I have never had a good night’s sleep on Saturday night and spending the morning in the bathroom.

Personally, I know why all of this happens to me – because I am going against the grain. I firmly believe that God created me as an introvert. I want to be alone and away from people. I enjoy metal detecting because I put on my headphones and can ignore everyone. The same is true with hunting. Also with most fishing. I am fairly anti-social and prefer the company of myself. In fact, the struggles in my ministry are always from how I relate to people outside of the pulpit.

Why do I tell you all of this? Because despite my natural inclinations I became a preacher. I have preached somewhere over 1,000 sermons and have taught another 700 times in religious classes. I have done this not by my own design but because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Every week God somehow takes my misery and transforms lives through what is said. For that reason, and that reason alone, I keep doing it. Preaching does not come natural to me no matter how it appears.

So when I set down and talk with people about getting involved somewhere in the Church and they tell me that they will not do it because it is not natural. I think in my head, “Do you not want to do it because you CAN not do it or because you WILL not let the Spirit use you in this area?”

You are SHAPED to Serve

I originally heard this from Rick Warren. I have no idea if it was original to him or if it was created by someone else, but I have used it in my ministry for about 15 years.

The concept is that God create each one of us to serve Him with our own unique SHAPE. SHAPE stand for –

S. – Spiritual Gifts. Each one of us is given unique abilities through the power of the Holy Spirit. I used to give a written test from Ephesians 4 ministries but now I see there are several versions online that can be taken for free. Simply do a Google search of “Free Spiritual Gift Test.”

H. – Heart. What do you do that gets your heart pumping faster? Do you love sports or singing or even talking? What do you have a heart for?

A. – Ability. Throughout each of our lives we pick up different abilities. Some people can cook and others can’t. Some people can fix things and others can’t. And on and on it goes.

P. – Personality. What type of personality to you have? Are you and introvert or an extrovert? Do you love to be with people or alone? There are also all types of personality tests out there but most of them reveal what we already know to be true about ourselves.

E. – Experience. What experiences have you been through in your life that you could use for God? These could be positive or negative. After all, who better to work with an alcoholic than a former alcoholic? Use your unique experiences for God’s glory.

I encourage people to look at more than one aspect of their life to decide what God might want them to do for his glory. And then, do not limit ministry to one hour on Sunday morning. I once walked through this with a Church member trying to help him get involved. He said, “How about fishing?” He explained further, “I love to fish and I give most of my spare time to doing that.” I looked at him and said something like this, “Well, our Church has a bunch of kids who have no father because of death and divorce. I know most of them would love to have someone take them fishing. I think you could have one of the Church’s greatest ministries if you would use it.” He grew silent and finally said, “Okay.”

Now, to the best of my knowledge he never did anything with that information. He never served anyone with his life. To me it is a sad story of “what could have been.” I pray that your life and my life will be a story of how God used my unique SHAPE to bless others for His glory.

Volunteering

The Church, like almost every other non-profit organization, is dependent upon volunteers to donate their time to its cause. Last week while reading about volunteers I ran across this from Jim Randall who is the Chief Management Officer and Lead Navigator for Auxano. – a group helping new Churches move forward in growth.

For years we have conducted RealTime Surveys in churches around the country–churches of all sizes and denominations. One of our goals is straightforward: to discover obstacles to engagement in the assimilation process of the church. What issues are keeping attendees/members from worshipping, grouping, growing, serving, and responding to God’s call within the local church? From city to city and church to church we keep finding the same issues for volunteer engagement. If you are like me the discovery of some of those obstacles for engagement in volunteer service might shock you. We consistently find that approximately 50% of survey respondents are willing to serve in your church but they:

1. do not know how to get involved
2. have never been asked to serve
3. have expressed interest but no one has followed up with them
4. did not know the church had places to serve

Our Church (and every Church) has a lot of dreams for the future – Ministries we would like to make stronger, new ministries we would like to start and people we would like to see grow as they serve the Lord giving their time to the cause of Christ.

So –
If you do not know how to get involved, be sure and ask me. I hope our Church becomes an easier place to get involved.
If you have never been asked, know that I am asking now. I hope to catch each of you personally and find out what You would like to do for God.
If you have shown interest, I am sorry no one has ever followed up with you. I would like you to let me know and I will try to help out.
If you did not know about volunteering, we could use help in all of our groups that are under the age of 18 (RUSH, DIVE, Nursery); I would love to develop small groups and I need leaders, hosts, an organizer, teachers, and those willing to offer childcare; I have dozens of places to plug people in for ministry.

The simple truth always remains, “Many hands make light work.”
In ministry the truth is expanded to say that, “Many volunteers make a huge impact.”

Top Ten Fun

Years ago when I started the new Church in Iowa we started every week with a Top Ten list. I kept all of them in my computer and sometimes I read back through them just for a smile. Today is one of those days. I thought you might enjoy this one:

TOP TEN SIGNS YOU AREN’T READING YOUR BIBLE ENOUGH

10. You think Abraham, Isaac and Jacob may have had a few hits during the 70’s.

9. You open the gospel of John and a World War 2 savings bond falls out.

8. You call the gospel of Luke “that book by Skywalker”

7. A small family of termites has taken up residence in the Psalms.

6. You become frustrated because Saint Nicholas isn’t listed in the index, concordance or table of contents.

5. You ask, “Who is this Jesus guy?”

4. When asked to look up Genesis 1:1 you have to look in the table on contents

3. Your favorite OT character is Hercules.

2. You keep quoting John 3:16 as “Cleanliness is next to godliness”

1. The kids keep asking you questions about your bedtime story: “Jonah the shepherd and his ark of many colors”

Strange Encouragement

cocklebur

One of the Elders I work with mentioned something in a meeting that I have not been able to forget. He made a reference to the cocklebur and its seed that I just had to look up.

Apparently, according to the Penn State Extension website, the common cocklebur has two sets of seeds.

Each bur contains two brown to black achenes (seeds), one above the other. The lower seed can germinate immediately; the upper seed is dormant and does not germinate until months or often years later.

It is the second set of seeds that is intriguing. This elder said they can remain dormant for 30-40 and sometimes even 50 years before they take root and sprout. Can you imagine a seed remaining in the ground taking 40 years to sprout? Most of us would consider it dead and worthless, but that is simply not the case.

The reason I cannot shake this statement from my mind is because of the connection to faith. Jesus in Matthew 13 makes it very clear that the word of God is like a seed that is planted in the hearts of men. Most of us understand this concept of a tiny seed that takes root and grows throughout our lives. The application is made not only to our lives, but also to those with whom we share the gospel.

Here is the strange comfort to me, I want faith to be like the lower seed and germinate immediately. The reality is that sometimes, maybe most of the time, the seed is like the upper seed. It does not germinate for months or years or even many years. I can go about my life sharing my faith with numerous people and never see the seed take root. The lack of an immediate response does not mean the seed planted was worthless.

So today I am encouraged to just keep planting the seed of faith. The seed may not have taken root yet, but that is not necessarily the end of the story. Ask any farmer here in Missouri about how many cocklebur come up each year.

My Hero … Complex

Recently I had two conversations about the same incident.

One person described a series of actions that lead to a positive outcome. As they told the story to me it sounded like they were very instrumental in this great organizational victory.

Then I talked to another person about the same incident. Their description was a great deal different. They described what happened with the same basic facts, but the story did not include the first person as the hero. In fact, they stated that the first person had tried to stand in the way of this action happening.

Finally, I had another conversation with the first person and I began noticing something. This person was the hero of almost every story they told. Their actions were pure and noble with other people’s best interest at heart. They did the right thing at the right time. They knew the best plan of action and always tried to take it.

After that last discussion I was reminded of something that Edwin Louis Cole use to say frequently, “We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.” There is a tendency in all of us to view ourselves as better than we actually are.

I believe this is so important because God’s work in your life starts with admitting that I am not a hero.

– To receive salvation, I have to admit that I am a sinner. I must admit that I have done things wrong in my life.
– To walk in the Spirit, I have to admit that I continue to sin and need the Spirits guidance everyday.
– To overcome sin, I have to repent of my behavior and make a change in my actions.
– To live in harmony with other people, I have to work on my failures in relationships.

I once knew a pastor who encouraged me to “lead with weakness.” He would tell me it is okay to admit my failures to people because it will be freeing to me and disarming to them. We believe in a God who gives second chances to villains…and most of the time that is me.

Say Thank You

Ron Edmondson had a great post today entitled “25 People You Should Say Thank You To Today.” I thought it fit as a nice follow up to what I have been talking about on my blog lately. Enjoy

Thankfulness is a virtue that we often ignore. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own little world that we forget to thank the people who have helped us the most. Then there are people who just simply need thanking to help them feel better about their own situation. Everyone likes to be appreciated.

I thought I would use my platform to encourage a little thankfulness.

Here are 25 people you could easily thank today:

The person who gave you a start in your career.

Someone who encourages you that you only know online.

A random stranger God lays on your heart.

A teacher who had the greatest impact on you.

A friend who was there when you needed one most.

A pastor who helped shape your understanding of God.

The person you know who prays for you regularly.

The person who waits on you everyday — somewhere — and you don’t even know their name.

A politician you admire for doing the right thing — as best as you can tell.

The unexpected person who was there for you at just the right time in your life.

A person who may not receive encouragement from anyone else.

A leader you admire.

Someone who has invested in you and doesn’t even know it.

The person who has been the most patient with you.

Someone who believed in you when no one else did.

An emergency services professional — police, fire, military, etc.

Your childhood best friend.

The person who introduced you to the person you married.

A college professor who challenged you to think bigger.

Someone who inspires you with something they do well.

Someone who was a good friend to your parents.

A person you think is under appreciated.

Someone who has a smile that encourages you.

A family member who holds the family together.

The parent who paved your way.

A few suggestions.

I’m sure you have many more. Send a card. (Handwritten notes are awesome — and rare.) Write the email. Make the phone call. Plan a personal visit. Say thank you.

By the way, if you can’t thank the person anymore — thank their family. Can you imagine how encouraging that would be?

Listen Up

Twice today I have caught myself talking away to someone without realizing that I was doing all the talking. My wife and kids will tell you this is a common problem for me:-) It may be, but today seemed especially bad. I felt like I wasn’t asking either of these people about themselves and then I felt a little embarrassed. It sure felt good to talk to someone though.

As I was reflecting on this I began to flip my thinking over. Many times people have come in for counseling and during the hour we spend together I talk very little. I ask a few questions and they go on and on about their struggles. Most people are not looking for a real solution they are looking for someone to listen to them.

All of us need times to vent our frustrations or share our joys or even work through our thoughts out loud. When a person comes into our life who is willing to listen they become an enormous blessing from God. Maybe that is why the Bible says in James 1:19 “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak …” There is a simple act of grace in listening to other people open up to us.

So my thought for today is to simply thank God for all the people who have taken the time to listen to me through the years. But also I am challenged to be a better listener. It might just brighten someone’s day.