In Conversation with Nouwen: The Wounded Healer

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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 Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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