Archive for March, 2017

In Conversation with Nouwen: The Wounded Healer

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

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John  9:1-11

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‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’

Let us draw wisdom from Scripture, insight from theology, and encouragement from experience this Lord’s day.

Scripture

(The Two Level Drama of the Fourth Gospel)

Let us draw wisdom from Scripture.

       John 9 describes the healing of a man born blind, and the communal controversy surrounding that healing.  Like the rest of the Gospel, this passage reports two layers of healing, of blindness, of community, and of controversy.   On one hand, the passage remembers, perhaps by the aid of a source or as part of a source, a moment in the ministry of Jesus (30ad), in which a man is given sight.  On the other hand, the passage announces the spiritual unshackling of a hero in thecommunity (90ad), who bears witness to what Jesus has done for him, no matter the repercussions from others, from parents, from family, from community.

     The preacher in the Johannine community of the late first century is telling the story of the Son of Man.  To do so, he celebrates the courageous witness to healing, and the courageous endurance of expulsion, of a man born blind.  Here, he says, is what I mean by faith.  The story he uses comes, through un-trackable oral and written traditions, from 30ad.  The story he tells comes from 90ad.  Every character in the story has two roles.  Jesus is both earthly rabbi and heavenly redeemer.  The blind man is both historic patient and current hero.  The family is from both Palestinian memory and diaspora synagogue.  The Jews are both the contemporaries of Jesus and the nearby inhabitants of the synagogue, the Johannine community’s former home.   When Jesus gives sight, Christ gives freedom.  When the blind one is cured, the congregation sees truth.  When the man is cast out of his synagogue, the community of the beloved disciple recognizes their own most recent expulsion.  When the Jews criticize Jesus, the synagogue is criticizing the church.  When the healing story ends, the life of faith begins.  His voice both addresses you and emanates from you.  Not your voice, his is nonetheless your voice.

John 9 illumines the central struggle of the community, their bitter spiritual itinerancy from the familiar confines of Christian Judaism, out into the unknown wilderness of Jewish Christianity.  History and the history of religions bear manifold witness to this kind of crisis in communal identity, and the long hard trail of travel from primary to secondary identity.  In retrospect, as the community gathers itself in its new setting (the pilgrims in Boston, the Mormons in Utah) the story of the tearful trail itself becomes the heart of communal memory and imagination.

      What is here unearthed in John 9 can also and readily be applied to the rest of the Gospel of John as well:  to the wedding at Cana, to Nicodemus, to the woman at the well, to the healing on the water, to the feeding of the thousands, to the controversies with the Jews, to the raising of Lazarus, to the farewell discourse, to the trial and passion.  All of these reflect the experience in dramatic interaction between the synagogue and John’s church. This includes, later, the mysterious figure of the Paraclete, the Spirit, who functions as Jesus’ eternal presence in the world, Jesus, God ‘striding on earth’ (Kasemann).  In this way, the Paraclete himself creates the two level drama.  Where the world is mono focal, and can see only the historical level of Jesus in history or only the theological level of Jesus in the witness of the Christian community, the Paraclete binds the two together.  The Word dwelling among us, and our beholding his glory, are not past events only.  They transpire in a two level drama.  They transpire both on the historical and contemporary levels, OR NOT AT ALL.  Their transpiration on both levels is itself the good news, an overture to the rapturous discoveries of freedom in disappointment, grace in dislocation, and love in departure.

Wisdom from Scripture.

Theology

(The Voice of Henri Nouwen on the Wounded Healer)

Let us draw insight from theology.

        In a season of general, national interest in wounds and healing, it is timely, serendipitous even, for us to hear about the healing of the man born blind in John 9, and more so to hear from our celebrated, honored Roman Catholic theological conversation partner for Lent 2017, Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory, on his most revered theme, that of the ‘wounded healer’.  His book of that title reminded another generation, and can teach us all still, about the interconnection between our own wounds and the healing of others.  Nouwen explored in that monograph, The Wounded Healer, four different doors of entry into ministry:  the suffering world, a suffering generation, human suffering in general, and the condition of the suffering minister.  While Nouwen’s work is sometimes criticized as ‘theology lite’, its accessibility has provided many with a profound sense of the relational dimensions of gospel, of philosophy, of preaching, of ministry and of therapy.

      His chief concern he identifies clearly (p 47): ‘The task of Christian leaders is to bring out the best in everyone and to lead them forward to a more human community; the danger is that their skillful diagnostic eye will become more an eye for the distant and detailed analysis than the eye of a compassionate partner.  And if priests and ministers think that more skill training is the solution for the problem of Christian leadership, they may end up being more frustrated and disappointed than the leaders of the past.  More training and structure are just as necessary as more bread for the journey.  But just as bread given without love can bring war instead of peace, professionalism without compassion will turn forgiveness into a gimmick, and the kingdom to come into a blindfold’.  

       Compassion, not analysis, comes first.  Compassion, suffering with:  It is not the task of Christian leaders to go around nervously trying to redeem people, to save them at the last minute, to put them on the right track.  For we are redeemed, once and for all.  Christian leaders are called to help others affirm this great news, and to make visible in daily events the fact that behind the curtain of our painful symptoms, there is something to be seen:  the face of God in whose image we are shaped (48).  

      The manner by which compassion comes into life is, for Nouwen, utterly personal.  While he was not a Lutheran—far from it—he would probably have agreed with Luther that the preaching of the Gospel is ‘one beggar telling another where they both may find bread’.  In fact, there is hardly a more personal calling than a calling to pastoral ministry. And what a privilege it is to enter and live in such a calling.  A privilege to be able to be with people at the dawn of life, in the twilight of life, under the shadows of life.  To hold murmuring infants, to confirm squirming teenagers, to bless nervous not to say clueless grooms and brides, to wring hands and pray at the bedside when the outcomes are uncertain at best, to listen in tears to the pain of loss, divorce, failure, emptiness, to stand over the open grave in quiet.  You can make a lot more money doing something else, and you can achieve a lot more influence, of a certain sort, doing something else, and you can have a lot more free time doing something else, and there are many worthy callings, many ways to keep faith.  But there is nothing quite like the privilege—the joy, the hurt, the rigor, the demand—the privilege of pastoral ministry.  And how hungry our people are for it.  There is nothing else like it in all of life.  ‘The emptiness of the past and future can never be filled with words, but only with the presence of a human being’. (69).

       Perhaps Nouwen is best remembered for this phrase, ‘the wounded healer’.  ‘Since it is their task to make visible the first vestiges of liberation for others, (ministers) must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.  They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.  They are both wounded ministers and healing ministers.’ (88) Now, when the balance between the two goes off-kilter, and wounds eclipse health, we have a problem.  But the appellation is true enough, when truly pursued.  It is perhaps most apparent in loneliness.  The ministry is lonely, but only lonely in a way representative of all faithful life.  In the last few years, the utter uniqueness of grief, for each person, the individuality of the way we grieve—the very opposite of one size fits all—has stood out, for me.  Your grief, though shared and made common in the community of faith, is nonetheless idiosyncratic—your own most self in tears, your spiritual fingerprint, your religious voice, your manner of walking in walking the faith.  All the cautions of Nouwen’s book are worthy.  But the capacity for hospitality, the power in hospitality, that comes here into ministry is unmistakable.  Hospitality makes anxious disciples into powerful witnesses, makes suspicious owners into generous givers, and makes close-minded sectarians into recipients of new ideas and insights (95)….Ministers are not doctors whose primary task is to take away pain.  Rather, they deepen the pain to a level where it can be shared.  When people come with their loneliness to ministers, they can only expect that their loneliness will be understood and felt, so that they no longer have to run away from it, but can accept it as an expression of the basic human condition.

Insight from theology.

Experience

(A Thought on Entering Ministry, 1953, Rev. Mr. Irving G. Hill)

From experience we may draw encouragement.  

     Here is a memory, written in 2006, drawn from 1953.  That is, sixty-five years past, it is about the same distance from us in time as was the Gospel of John from the events in the life, death and destiny of Jesus of Nazareth.  The writer, my father, was soon to graduate from the School of Theology.

“One balmy spring evening, in the early fifties, I was returning to our apartment at 17 Yarmouth Street in Boston…

As I walked across Huntington Avenue, I looked to my left and saw the lighted dome of the Christian Science Mother Church. I had seen it many times before.  I had taken our youth fellowship there to visit and walk through the giant globe that is there.  But this evening as I made that familiar crossing I was struck, not by an auto, but by the reality that in just a few days I would receive my theological degree and become the pastor of the Brewerton Methodist Church.

How could this be? What was I to do? I was only 24 years old.  I had never dealt with death except in theory.  I had never sat with a couple after the death of a child.  I had never counseled a couple preparing for marriage except in a classroom setting.  To my recollection I had never spoken with a person who had no belief in God or saw any reason for one.  I had never thought how a church budget was raised or more significantly how my salary would be paid.  In a few days, I would be facing all of these things and more.

I recalled a conversation that occurred at the just past annual conference with a committee from the Brewerton church.  One of the saints said to me, “Young man, if you get a better offer, you had better take it, I don’t know how we will be able to pay your salary.” How about that?

Now, I had grown up in the church, attended church school, taught church school.  I had been active in the youth fellowship at the local level and the conference level.  Marcia and I had spent one summer as life guards at Camp Casowasco.  But now I was to be the pastor of a church in a community that I had only driven through.  

Of course, I had graduated from a Methodist related university and had the privilege of studying at one of the better theological schools for three years, but on that June evening in the middle of that empty thoroughfare, I was totally lost.

Then I heard, “You don’t think you are going to do this all by yourself do you?  Surely I will be with you.”

I heard that voice as clearly as I have ever heard anything and it has remained with me for these past 53 years.

It has taken the form of a loving, supportive wife, a devoted family, dedicated and caring lay people, inspired bishops, superintendents, and brother and sister clergy, group commanders, wing chaplains and people of God, just like you.”

Encouragement from experience.

Scripture. Theology. Experience.  Wisdom. Insight. Encouragement.

‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’.  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’
Amen.

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel 

In Conversation with Nouwen: The Life of the Beloved

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

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John  4:5-42

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Life for All

‘A spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

The gospel is our spoken gift of faith.

Some will have seen the recent film ‘La La Land’, and recall the haunting soulful tune that knits the story together. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us. Spoken, sung.

Sung. Every bird sings faith, over the globe, through all time. Thurman loved penguins, odd and remote, and their dress, and their song. Listen. Along the Charles, in the spring, we make way for goslings and ducklings. Early in the summer mornings, out in the farmland where we live in the summer, the northeastern tip of Appalachia, and where we will be buried, where we are at home, at dawn a rooster. Two eagles—they too mate for life, as in Christian marriage—soaring–imagine their music. The owl at night. A swan song, a silver swan, who living had no note. The gospel is a bird in song, and all nature sings. Even if or when the preaching of the gospel by human imperfection abates, as it does threaten to do, birdsong will carry the tune. God can preach God’s gospel through birdsong.

Spoken. Derek Walcott, of Boston University, a Methodist: I seek, as climate seeks its style, to write verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, cold as the curled wave, ordinary as a tumbler of island water.

John

            Father Raymond Brown judged our passage today, John 4, to be the loveliest, finest narrative in the Fourth Gospel. The woman at the well, the Samaritan woman, meets Jesus and meets us in conversation. She is the quintessential conversationalist.

And what a wonder is there in the faintest conversation, let alone this dominical discussion! Ours today, from John 4, is holy, telling conversation, full of the unexpected, full of surprise, full of the utterly personal, full of revelation, full of boundary breaking courage, full of what is saving, healthy, lasting, meaningful, real, and good. Conversation thrives when you know your content, your work, and your audience. There is a mystery lurking under the disarming surface of the simplest conversation. My friend says her favorite two words are ‘awe’ and ‘conversation’. We could add that the two are not very far removed, or apart from each other.

It may have been that the community which gave birth to the Gospel of John included some Samaritans. This would explain the prominence of this long, intricate passage, devoted to the conversation of Jesus with a Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were outsiders. Here, one of their own takes center stage. In our time when those outside—immigrants, refugees, the poor, the different, the other—are steadily subjected to heightened measures of exclusion, we benefit from reminders, like this from John 4, that we are called as people of faith, called as Christian people, to care, succor, attention and protection of the ‘least’ among us. The larger question, and it is very much an open question, is whether the humiliation spreading out right now through civil society and culture–wherein inherited, precious forms of civil society are daily shredded with a gratuitous cruelty–coming now to us over the next decade, will chasten us, will humble us, will in that way strengthen us by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. He it is, today, who announces His own presence, and Lordship, in the course of a meandering conversation: I am He, the One who is speaking to you…A spring of water gushing up to eternal life

Lenten Conversation

            Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition. Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition. We began March 5 with Henri Nouwen, and Sacrament, continuing last week with Nouwen and Reaching Out. Today, Nouwen and the Life of the Beloved.

Nouwen (from the ‘Nouwen Society’)

            “The internationally renowned priest and author, respected professor and beloved pastor Henri Nouwen wrote over 40 books on the spiritual life. He corresponded regularly in English, Dutch, German, French and Spanish with hundreds of friends and reached out to thousands through his Eucharistic celebrations, lectures and retreats. Since his death in 1996, ever-increasing numbers of readers, writers, teachers and seekers have been guided by his literary legacy. Nouwen’s books have sold over 8 million copies and been published in over 28 languages.

Born in Holland, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”

Nouwen believed that what is most personal is most universal; he wrote, “By giving words to these intimate experiences I can make my life available to others.”

Servants of God

            Nouwen dedicated his life to the practice of genuine conversation, genuine faithfulness. He eschewed the false formal and prized the personal in piety. A story, from the same period, from Charles Rice at Drew, Nouwen would hae loved. A few years ago Rice spoke about the servant of the servants of God. He told about an Easter when he was in Greece. He sat in the Orthodox church and watched the faithful in devotions. There was a great glassed icon of Christ, to which, following prayers, women and men would move, then kneel, then as they rose they kissed the glassed icon. Every so often a woman dressed in black would emerge from the shadows with some cleanser, or windex, and a cloth and –psh, psh—would clean the image, making it clear again. Washing clean the image again, and freeing it from so much encrusted piety. And he had a revelation about service and power and authority and leadership. As he watched the woman in black cleaning the icon, he realized that this was what his ministry was meant to be. A daily washing away from the face of Christ all that obscured, all that distorted, all that blocked others from seeing his truth, goodness and beauty. Including a lot of piety.

Life of the Beloved

            Years ago, by accident, Nouwen met a man named Fred, a journalist who wanted to write a novel.  (We had a saying in our family, when intrusive questions arose; ‘Are you a journalist or writing a book?’)  Well, Fred was the former and hoping to do the latter.  But he feared a shift in vocation, for all the usual suspect reasons.  Henri though persisted in encouraging the man to leave his job and write his book.  He went out of his way.  Nouwen procured him a grant to do so!  So the man entered a new season of vocational discernment, and though he never finished the novel, he did find a deeper level of living, a sense of meaning, and, in the bargain, a great friend in Nouwen.

We might pause to wonder a bit about our callings.  Is this your final resting place in vocation—where you are now I mean?  You have heard some sort of call, and heeded, or you would not be where you are.  But what about the second call?  Is there a knocking at your spiritual door, asking you to consider a second call, another call?  Fred was a good journalist, but he heard a second call, to write, and in hearing, and in heeding, though not in his case in succeeding, he found himself closer to his own most self.  Life is a series of invitations, and a process of discernment. We might pause right now, in front of God and everybody, to wonder about our callings.

Last year at commencement we had a speaker who told about a second call.  Not all commencement addresses need or even deserve remembrance.  But it had a diamond embedded in it, a treasure buried in a field.  The speaker graduated from BU as an actress and went to La La Land.  She did what aspiring actors do.  She waited tables.  For a year.  And another.  And a third.  Then she got a job, part time, on the business side of show business.  You know what?  She liked it.  And it liked her.  Then she said:  “I looked at my acting career lived out in waiting tables, and I made a decision.  I decided my calling was to something else.  I decided to (here is the gem) EDIT MY DREAMS.”  She decided to edit her dreams.  So Nina Tassler, waitress, became the head of CBS entertainment. Yes.  Sometimes a second call comes along and invites you to edit your dreams.

Henri Nouwen invited Fred to edit his dreams.  And he did.  Then Fred invited Henri to edit his dreams, in this way.  He asked Nouwen to write a simple book about the spiritual life in a secular world, a book for ordinary people, not academics, ordinary people, not clergy, ordinary people, not even religious people.  This took Nouwen out of his comfort zone, but out of that zone he went.  He wrote a book, The Life of the Beloved.

Our Gospel today, John 4, has a radiance of love within it, as does Nouwen’s book.  Here, in brief, is what Nouwen wrote, this esteemed Roman Catholic theologian, this Yale academic, this profoundly erudite priest.  It is portable, what he wrote.  You can carry it home after the sermon.  You are beloved!  You are loved.  God loves, and loves you.  And you need not do anything to prove it, to earn it, to achieve it, to deserve it.  You:  beloved.  That is, in a single word, the life of the spirit.  Beloved.

But of course Nouwen went on to develop this theme, the trails and traces of the spirit in the single word.  He put together a quadrilateral, what we can call the love quartet today.  First, wrote Nouwen, to become beloved, we need to acknowledge that we are ‘taken’.  Chosen.  Wanted.  And grateful for it!  Second, to become beloved, we want to acknowledge that we are ‘blessed’.  You are precious in God’s sight, blessed, beloved.  As you are, not as you might be later on.  Right now, as you are right now.  You claim your blessing through the practice of prayer and through attention to presence.  My friend says her two favorite words are conversation and awe.  Well.  There.  Memorize a prayer or three (The Lord’s Prayer, Wesley’s Table Graces, the Prayer of Assisi).  Third, to live as beloved we want to acknowledge our brokenness. “Each human being suffers in a way no other human being suffers.” (87)  It will not do to repress our sadness, our resentment, our fear, our anger. No.  We are human, beloved human beings, and so are honest about our fractures.  Nouwen then wrote about AIDS, a crucial subject in that time (1992).  To heal we have to step toward our pain.  Here we can all learn from the 12 step programs, as long as we realize that there are many ways to be addicted that can have nothing to do with substances.  You might be surprised to know that Nouwen’s most personal example was his grief at the death of Leonard Bernstein.  Fourth, we are given, as beloved ones.  We are loved, but not just for our own sakes.  As Huston Smith—similarly an academic, similarly a theologian though a Methodist, similarly a cleric—put it, thinking perhaps of his parents who were missionaries in China:  ‘we are in good hands, and so it behooves us to bear one another’s burdens’.   When we enjoy others, and with joy give ourselves to others, and engage in enjoyment among others, then, in reality, we are given, because we are giving.  You only truly have what you give away.  Starting—and ending—with your time.  Here Nouwen concludes, and rightly, by drawing us toward our own death, and the way we give of ourselves not just living but dying.  (You remember my OOPS advice, as we prepare for the end of life:  obituary, order of worship, photograph, special papers.) But Nouwen means something more:  ‘the spirit of love once freed from our mortal bodies will blow where it wills’. (125).  Chosen, Blessed, Broken, Given. “Eternal Life is the full revelation of what we have been and have lived all along” (137).

By grace we too, you and I, have been chosen and set in time and space, to live in faith. By grace we too, you and I have been blessed, sometimes with happiness and sometimes with loss, sometimes with fulfillment and sometimes with unrequited love. By grace, we too, you and I, in honesty, in confession, must add, we have been broken, our brokenness best sung maybe by Leonard Cohen—ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in…that’s how the light gets in. By grace we too, you and I have been given, to be gifts and become givers, to choose, tomorrow, one pure act of kindness, to imagine it, plan it, pray over it, do it, and watch it recede in the rear view window.

In the student union, Thursday, a young pianist, of limited ability, but of great heart, played a tune, the haunting soulful tune you may have heard, remembered, from a current film. That phrase of music is the refrain from which the story takes wing and to which it returns, moment by moment, as your life and soul life return, again and again, to the gospel, a spoken gift of faith, the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

A spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

-the Reverend Dr. Robert Allen Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel 

Reaching Out ad interim

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

 

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Genesis 12: 1-4a

Psalm 121

John 3: 1-17

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Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s ashes as another Lent begins;

thus we kneel before our Maker in contrition for our sins.

We have marred baptismal pledges, in rebellion, gone astray;

now, returning, seek forgiveness; grant us pardon, Lord, this day!

We have failed to love our neighbors, their offences to forgive,

have not listened to their troubles, nor have cared just how they live;

we are jealous, proud, impatient, loving overmuch our things;

may the yielding of our failings be our Lenten offerings.

We are hasty to judge others, blind to proof of human need;

and our lack of understanding demonstrates our inner greed;

we have wasted earth’s resources; want and suffering we’ve ignored;

come and cleanse us, then restore us; make new hearts within us, Lord!

-Rae E. Whitney, 1982

This Lent, as every Lent, and truly all our days, we undertake the work of turning and returning to God. We strive to live our lives reflecting the righteousness God graciously bestows upon us through the sacrifice of Godself in Jesus. For us, unlike for God, righteous action is never pure or absolute. Rather, our actions are situated, contextual, relational, and so reflected as if through a glass, dimly.

In this year’s cycle of the lectionary, our Gospel readings come primarily from Matthew. As we have been exploring over the past couple of months, in conversation with Albert Schweitzer and Amos Wilder, the ethic offered particularly in the synoptic gospels, that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, is an interim ethic, an ethic for a time between times, an ethic for an already but not yet eschatology that eagerly anticipates the immanent return of Jesus next week, tomorrow, or perhaps even this very afternoon. Today, however, we interrupt your regularly scheduled Matthean programming for a Johannine advertisement. As Dean Hill has so carefully taught us over the past decade of his ministry here at Marsh Chapel, the Gospel of John is situated and contextualized in a community struggling to cope with their disappointment that Jesus had not, and for us, indeed, has not, returned with anything like the immanent expectations of his earliest followers.

And so, here in the third chapter, we find Jesus teaching Nicodemus, who is struggling to understand how to live a spiritual life in the way of Jesus. He desires the kingdom of God, but is desperately confused as to how to get there, or even what experiencing the kingdom of God might really mean. Jesus’ answers are not terribly clarifying to him, as Nicodemus in a sense represents the synoptic expectation of Jesus’ immanent return and John’s community’s disappointment and struggle to adapt to a new reality.

Here, then, in John, is not the abolishment of the interim but rather a shift of understanding to a different sort of interim, an interim demarcated not so much temporally as socially. The Johannine community is living in the interim between the synagogue and the church. This is not an interim of time but an interim of values, of ideas, of policies, of programs. What is needed, then, is not an ethic for preparing for the end times but rather an ethic, or better yet a spirituality, of resistance to values, ideas, policies, and programs that undermine the kingdom of God we are being born into and that is being born in us. “You must be born from above,” and “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

We too are experiencing life ad interim. We too are being afflicted by values, ideas, policies, and programs that undermine the kingdom of God. We too, urgently, need to seek out resources for constructing an ethic and a spirituality of resistance to these demonic afflictions. “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

In this Lenten season we are invited to consider the wisdom of Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic priest, pastoral theologian, teacher, pastor, spiritual guide. Saint Henri, I have found, provides timely and salient resources for resistance, an ethic and spirituality of resisting by reaching out, in a small book by that title. Deeply informed by the pastoral psychology of his day, Nouwen invites us to make three spiritual conversions that we might resist in a manner that is effective, sustainable, and lives out the values of the kingdom that we seek to replace with the demonic values of the interim moment.

First, Saint Henri invites us to convert our loneliness to solitude. Loneliness characterizes much of life in the interim, characterized as loneliness is by a sense of anxiety at having been excluded, shut out, cut off, denied, rejected, and abandoned. Anxiety leads to frustration leads to agitation. Loneliness is a state of desperate and yet seemingly unattainable desire for connection.

How on earth could we possibly be lonely, surrounded as we are, especially in the city, by so many people? Apparently, the real question is actually how can we not be lonely? Surgeon General Vivek Murthy regularly points out that the most serious health issue in the United States is neither cancer nor heart disease nor obesity but isolation. The Boston Globe Magazine, on Friday, ran the headline, and pushed it to its subscribers by email, “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Dear friends, loneliness is real and it is decidedly not all in our heads but in our hearts and our bodies, our physiology.

Converting loneliness to solitude is thus an urgent public health issue. It entails first a turn inward to recognize that our overwhelming and anxious desire for outward connection is likely rooted in a lack of inward connection among the various parts of ourselves. We, you and I, each and every one of us, are not singular selves but a community of selves with various needs, desires, longings, aspirations, loves, fears, apprehensions, insights, and confusions. Solitude, then, is the cultivation of inner relationships among these parts of ourselves, it is a becoming present to our selves. Solitude generates a calm, centered, quiet, restful way of being in the world by arranging the voices of ourselves into a consonant harmony.

Cultivating solitude is not only good for our own health. After all how could we possibly expect to harmonize our marriages, our families, our friendships, our workplaces, or our communities if we are shouting dissonant juxtapositions of lonely anxiety? Indeed, solitude is the groundwork of resistance, as Nouwen points out, by in turn converting “fearful reactions into a loving response.” Demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs will never be defeated by fear and anger. They can only be overcome by love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (1 John 4: 18). The love that emerges from solitude is the groundwork of a creative response to the demons of our interim moment, and as Howard Thurman reminds us, “meaningful and creative experiences between peoples can be more compelling than all the ideas, concepts, faiths, fears, ideologies and prejudices that divide them.”

Second, Saint Henri invites us to convert our hostility to hospitality. In a very real sense, the movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement from inner hostility to inner hospitality, and so this second conversion is simply its outward expression. Of course, moving from loneliness to solitude is merely being hospitable to ourselves; oh, how the shift from inner to outward becomes exponentially more fraught! Even in 1975 Nouwen noted that, “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm.” Not only saint, but prophet, was Henri.

Boston College philosopher Richard Kearney is wont to point out that the distance between hostility and hospitality is really quite small, rooted, as both words are, in the Latin word hostis. Alas, over time, the demonic has driven a wedge between them, our growing fearfulness increasingly cutting off any inclination toward “the creation of a free and friendly space where we can reach out to strangers and invite them to become our friends.” Hostility is rooted not only in fear but in the need and desire to own and to control, whereas hospitality finds its grounding in freedom and so in service to the stranger.

Like solitude, hospitality is part of the groundwork of resistance. Hospitality, dear friends, is not merely a posture of receptivity toward strangers. Hospitality also involves confrontation. It is not hospitable to welcome a stranger into your house and then to leave. Hospitality means welcoming the stranger to freely be themselves in the presence of an other, of difference, of strangeness. “Confrontation results from the articulate presence, the presence within boundaries, of the host to the guest by which the host offers her- or himself as a point of orientation and a frame of reference” (239).

Now, dear friends, it would be easy to think, especially this week, in the wake of a second attempt at an executive order restricting immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, that all of this talk of hospitality toward strangers should be a guidebook for welcoming refugees and immigrants. Indeed, we have much yet to learn about welcoming those who have been driven from their homes by violence in fear and anguish. We must learn to bless Abram that he may bless us, else we must surely be accursed by God.

But do not be fooled! Our need to convert hostility to hospitality is not primarily to the immigrant or to the refugee. It is to each other! To one another, to you and to I, to us, here, in this place, on this campus, in this city, and across this great nation. Resistance is not hospitality to demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs. Resistance is hospitably receiving those whose choices, whose decisions, whose actions, whose votes enabled the demonic to take hold, and of confronting them in articulate presence by saying, “This is not who we are.”

Finally, Saint Henri invites us to convert our illusion to prayer. Perhaps particularly when suffering from frantic loneliness and fearful hostility, but even regardless, it is easy to become convinced that our value, our worth, is manifest in “the things we own, the people we know, the plans we have, and the successes we ‘collect’” (251). Nouwen refers to this misplaced conviction as the “illusion of immortality,” but we might better think of it as the illusion of materiality, the illusion that the things of this life are somehow directly transferable to eternity.

To convert such illusion to prayer is to recognize, to remember, to re-encounter the transcendent source, goal, and ground of our value, of our worth, of our dignity. In Lent we remember that we are dust, yes, but our dustiness is still in the image and likeness of God. Prayer, then, is the practice of recognition, the practice of remembrance, the practice of encounter with the true source, the true goal, the true ground of our value, and thus, our very being.

Prayer is the third element of our emerging ethic and spirituality of resistance because prayer is the language of community. Community is what is built when strangers encounter one another hospitably, honoring the harmonious solitude of each constituent member. In order for community to communicate, however, the medium of their communication must transcend any particular communicant. Communication must arise from what a community has in common, namely the source, the goal, and the ground of the value of the communicants individually and together.

Resistance is not possible alone. No one person, by themselves, lonely, hostile, and suffering under illusion, can make one bit of difference in the face of demonic values, demonic ideas, demonic policies, and demonic programs. Resistance requires community, it requires creativity and partnership, it requires fellowship to sustain it for the long haul. Resistance requires community, community requires communication, communication happens in language, and prayer is the language of community. Resistance, then, is impossible without prayer.

Dear friends, will you resist with me? This Lent, will you cultivate an ethic, a spirituality of resistance to the demonic values, the demonic ideas, the demonic policies, and the demonic programs of our interim moment? Will you resist by reaching out? Will you reach out to your selves to nurture and cultivate their disparate voices into a harmonious solitude? Will you reach out to the strangers you encounter and offer them a receptive and confrontational hospitality? Will you reach out to God, in whose image and likeness you are, that in community you may find partnership and strength for the journey?

In the conclusion to Reaching Out, Saint Henri prophetically notes that, “We are living in this short time, a time, indeed, full of sadness and sorrow. To live this short time in the spirit of Jesus Christ means to reach out from the midst of our pains and to let them be turned into joy by the love of the One who came within our reach. We do not have to deny or avoid our loneliness, our hostilities and illusions. To the contrary: When we have the courage to let these realities come to our full attention, understand them, and confess them, then they can slowly be converted into solitude, hospitality, and prayer” (282).

We are indeed living in this short time, an interim moment full of sadness and sorrow when values of love, freedom, courage, compassion, and justice have given way to hate, fear, cowardice, anger, and control. Resist! Reach out! Reach out to yourself. Reach out to one another. Reach out to God. Resist! Resist! Resist the demonic spirit of this interim moment by reaching out, and so be born from above that you may see the kingdom of God. Amen.

-Br. Lawrence A. Whitney, LC+

University Chaplain for Community Life

A Communion Meditation: In Conversation with Nouwen

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

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Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

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A Journey Through Scripture

We journey together this Lent through conversation.

We enter each Lord’s Day into close conversation with Holy Scripture.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with our Lenten theological conversation partner, this year, 2017, the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen, of blessed memory.  We enter each Lord’s Day into conversation with life about us, and the living souls around us, and this day, as is our custom, around the Lord’s Table, bread and cup, thanksgiving, presence and remembrance.

We have come to love the Holy Scripture, a source of abiding inspiration, a canon or rule or measure of the matters of faith more real than the very real life around us, a rhythmic accompaniment in holiness to the daily walk of faith in life.  We do love the Holy Scripture, and account its authority in our midst, primarily in pragmatic terms.  Come Sunday, that is, it is simply our custom to read and interpret the Holy Scripture, on the journey of holy living.

Our lessons today introduce conversation, and so are more than apt for the first Sunday this Lent. In widely different ways, Romans 5 and Matthew 4 are the open volleys in substantive conversation.

You recall that Paul introduces himself to the church in Rome, prior to his expected visit, by the writing of the Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus, his formal appearance clothed almost entirely in theological language.  ‘Here I am’, says Paul, to the church he has yet to meet.  Now he may also have wanted to sum up here in 55ad what he already had already written earlier to the Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians.  He may also, let us be candid, have desired to moderate, qualify, and temper what he wrote to the Galatians in a white heat, in total honest transparency, and in anger.  Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives two or three chapters each, beginning in Romans 1, to five themes, Sin, Salvation (where we are today Romans 5), Spirit, Israel, and Church. 5 ways of meeting the Romans, somewhat on their terms, and somewhat on his.

So these words you have heard, somewhat strange, even odd, to our ears, open a conversation.  How?  With heartfelt honesty and technical precision regarding pain and struggle in life.  Life is struggle, and the Apostle here captures your struggle with a recognition of sin, the gone wrongness in life, by a recognition of the death, the end of every life, and by a recognition of law—one might say religion—as cause, lens and entry into understanding of sin and death. .  Pau’s dense, complex argument about sin, and death, and their origin, and their interrelation, may strain us a bit, in a limited moment of interpretation, but, at a minimum, are, in their form, and content, quite true to what we experience.  Though we do not deign to acknowledge it so, most hours, the fragility and brevity of our lives is ever present to us.  Though we do not prefer to face it, most days, the leaning tendency toward what can and does go wrong in life, is regularly present to us.  Paul, using his received tradition, traces the latter (sin) back through the former (death) all the way to the beginning (Adam).  An awareness of the proximity of death and the tendency toward sin can become, as surely it was for Paul, for us a grounding in the ground of life.  All sin, all fall short of the glory of God.  All flesh, all flesh, all flesh is grass.

Not Paul only, but Matthew also, today, assays to explain for us, and to us, and to us, a part of our condition, the struggle in life.  Matthew begins the conversation about the adult life and ministry of Jesus, with the story of the Temptation.  Life is hard, life is struggle, life is struggle with all manner of temptation.  In a narrative, three-point sermon, a stylized and fabulous remembrance of an early Christian preacher, taken up by Matthew and Luke, Jesus wrestles with the devil, over greed and pride and power.   Every day is a struggle, says this preacher, and every day in the struggle we are held in the memory of Jesus our Lord who knew struggle, knew our struggle, knew this very struggle, high on a mountain, contesting o diabalos.

You will ask whether your preacher believes in the devil (note the shift from Satan to Devil here).  No, he does not.  But he does remember this Lent of 2017 the voice of Hans Frei in the Lent of 1977, in the common room of Union Theological Seminary, as Frei remembered the words of Emil Brunner circa Lent 1947, just after the great horror of World War II.  Asked the same, ‘Do you believe in the Devil?’, Brunner replied in 1947, as remembered by Frei in 1977 and quoted here today in 2017: Yes.  For two reasons.  First, Jesus mentions him the Bible.  Second, I have seen him.  Conversation begins well with utter candid, frank, honesty about our condition:  mortal, prone to harm others, children of Adam, acquainted with, and on familial terms with sin and death.

The temptations presented in this early Christian sermon, a fabled imagination of Jesus struggling with the Devil, are ‘to work miracles for the sake of immediate need, to give a convincing sign, and to exercise political power’ (IBD loc.cit.).  In a word, the temptation is to confuse the penultimate with the ultimate.  The work of faith, as upheld in our Sacrament today, labors to keep us free from this kind of idolatry.  Him only shall you serve. 

Many among us, and all of us many times in a lifetime, know well the struggle with temptation that one way or another promotes lesser loyalties to supplant, or obscure, or eclipse one great loyalty.  The cruciform path, the way of love, an arduous journey as Lent reminds us, asks of us an upward climb.  There is a thrill in the ascent of the next high hill, but there is an ache in the knees, too.

 

A Journey With Nouwen

We also journey this Lent in conversation, and in the fair company, the loving presence of Henri Nouwen.

Where are we?

Physics, Chemistry, Biology—they are all wonderful pursuits.  Earth Science stands out, though, as the mode of inquiry which helps us locate ourselves.  The manner of the meandering of rivers, the tidal pull, the history of the glaciers, the height of mountains and depths of deserts, the solar system, galaxy, and cosmos, the longitude and latitude—it is no platitude—help us to stand, and walk, and move.

Where are we?

We are entering Lent, a time and journey of preparation and discipline.  On the whole, come Lent, we turn for a moment inward, more toward the individual than the communal, more toward personal than social holiness, more toward deep personal faith than toward active social involvement, though, of course, they are both and lastingly and daily ours.  You might find one new, daily, habit to cultivate this Lent.

We are walking with our lectionary readings from Holy Scripture.  This year it is the Gospel of Matthew, and his emphasis on discipleship, which guides us week by week.  We read the lessons of Holy Scripture each week, all through the year, and endeavor to interpret them for our own time, even as they were themselves traditional interpretations of tradition in their own time.  A muscular liturgy, a rigorous ordered worship, a challenging sermonic address, a musical echo both familiar and foreign—deep roots that is—will sustain us over the next decade and its various humiliations which have no predetermined outcomes.  Matthew is our Gospel, and today his own introduction to our Lenten season, in the familiar account of the Lord’s temptation.

Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation.  Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship.  Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with Henri Nouwen.  Over the past decade, Lent by Lent, we have identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  For the next decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over the last ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  Over the next decade, beginning this Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, will turn left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We begin with Henri Nouwen.

Given our interest through the year in conversation, Nouwen seemed like a natural choice.  So in these weeks, as we preach the Gospel grounded in the interpretation of Matthew, we will make some space for dialogue with the Rev. Dr. Henri Nouwen.  Nouwen spoke to the last generation as part of a chorus of talented women and men working at the intersection of psychology and religion.  Think of Seward Hiltner at Princeton.  Recall the voice of Ann Belford Ulanov (a Tillich protégé) at Columbia and Union in New York.  Give some thought to the many voices and faces of our own Danielsen Center here at Boston University.  Nouwen in New Haven at Yale, but also for time here at Harvard, was part of this chorus, during a time, now past, of avid interest in religion and psychology.  In pastoral ministry, with the exception of preparation for preaching, there is hardly a more substantial, fruitful area of preparation than this now somewhat forgotten, even superannuated, preparation for pastoral conversation.  The minister wants to overhear, at a deeper level, what the parishioner, at depth, experiences.  Probably it is not coincidence that the demise of pastoral psychology has occurred alongside the rising tide of mechanical communication in the newer technologies.  Capacities for listening and speaking ebb and flow, wax and wane, in church and culture. Conversation has no grandchildren.

So, our sermons, somewhat in teaching format this Lent, will engage Henri Nouwen.  We begin today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward communion.  Over the next four weeks (Br Whitney taking March 12) we rely on Nouwen’s books, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and Daybreak.  Read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.

 

A Journey Through Life

We journey together this Lent in conversation, with one another, our this morning, toward communion.  A word on each.

How are we to practice conversation, itself a means of grace?  Especially when that conversation involves difference, division, diversity?  How do we trace the hidden harmonies (J Wiggins) therein?  We have here no word of the Lord on this.  Here though are some suggestions for you as you practice authentic conversation.  Pray. Listen. Pause. Reflect. Respond (speak, pause, shun).  First, as you anticipate a meaningful conversation, pray about it.  Place person or people, topic or interest, setting or timing, desired outcome and response, in the light of God, in the light of God’s love.  God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.  Second, when in conversation, listen with care, listen to everything, listen with heart as well as mind, listen.  What is heard and what is overheard?  Be able to recite, repeat, rehearse what you have heard.  Third, Pause. Take a breath.  Fourth, reflect on what you have heard—think about it, in real time.  Fear not a reflective silence.  Fear not the fallow, the winter, the quiet, Lent. “Let me reflect for a minute on what you have said”, you might say.  Fifth, fashion some response out of or out of a mixture of ingredients on your cooking shelf.  You might respond by speaking: “well, here’s then what I think”.  You might respond by being quiet: “I need some more time to ponder this”.  You might respond by shunning: “I think we need to part company for a time”.  Or there may be some combination of these.  Yes, the arts of conversation—prayer, listening, reflection, response—are neglected in our culture, in our age, but we have the time of struggle, the time of journey, the time of Lent to reclaim them.

And today communion.

Hear Nouwen on communion, as we come to the Lord’s table:The word that seems best to summarize the desire of the human heart is ‘communion.’  Wherever we look it is communion that we seek. Once you are in communion with God, you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear other people in whom God has also found a dwelling place.

            Baptism opens the door to the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the sacrament through which Jesus enters into an intimate, permanent communion with us. It is the sacrament of the table. It is the sacrament of food and drink. It is the sacrament of daily nurture. While baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Eucharist can be a monthly, weekly, or even daily occurrence. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as a constant memory of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of him but a memory that makes us members of his body. That is why Jesus on the evening before he died took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” By eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ, we become one with him.

We journey together this Lent through conversation.  God grant us grace for the struggle!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel