In Conversation with Nouwen: Here and Now

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Ezekiel 37: 1-14

John 11: 1-4, 28-45

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Preface

         Throughout the year 2017, at Marsh Chapel, we are engaged in ministry with attention to conversation. Our regular weekly gathering and preaching affirm conversation. Our Summer National Preacher Series will engage in conversation about new directions in discipleship. Our Lenten Series, concluding today, has engaged in conversation with Henri Nouwen. Over the past decade, 2007-2016, Lent by Lent,we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition. For this 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, 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, as a few have done this past week, 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.

So, our sermons, largely in teaching format this Lent, have engaged Father Nouwen. We conclude today, attentive to conversation, and looking toward holy communion. Over these five weeks we have relied on Nouwen’s books, Compassion, Reaching Out, The Life of the Beloved, The Wounded Healer, and, today, Here and Now. Continue to read with us, as you have time, energy, interest and capacity.

With the ancient Hebrew prophets, like Ezekiel, and in harmony with the Gospel of John, the Spiritual Gospel, Nouwen invites, nay implores us, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Ours is a particular, challenging time, now, and here.

Ezekiel

         Ours in not a normal time. The events of this year are not within the norm, are not habituated to the contours of normal American history. From the current leadership of this country now come steadily the beginning features of civil humiliation inaugurated on November 8 and January 20. Ours is not a normal time, but a time of lasting, painful humiliation. More than a decade will be required to undo the damage done already. Ours is become a valley of dry bones.

          In the 6th century bce the prophet Ezekiel announced a vision, a communal resurrection, for his people. As did the other prophets, he directly addressed the waywardness of Israel. Whereas Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah contrasted the wickedness of contemporary Jerusalem with a better past, Ezekiel portrays the entire history of Jerusalem and of Israel as one of continuous rebellion and sin against Yahweh (IBD, Supplement, 316, W Zimmerl). Intones Ezekiel, offering a vision out of exile: There were very many upon the valley, and lo they were very dry. What would he say today?

Now we are presented, by our ostensible, putative national leadership, with a denial of climate change, and a coarse willingness to dismiss reasoned scientific consensus. Now we are presented daily with a steady drumbeat of hateful rhetoric and action regarding immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Mexicans, and others. Wait and watch the list grow. Now we are presented with the shameful need for further judicial review, and perhaps a doubled rejection, of misguided executive action. Now we are presented with a low level disdain for the highest, most proven forms and institutions in journalism across the nation. Now we are presented with a willingness, only temporarily stymied by legislative mayhem, to steal away health insurance, and thus health care, from 24 millions of our own citizens. And he said to me, Son of Man, can these bones live? Now we are presented with multiple varieties of gratuitous cruelty, including the insidious, callous, baseless slander of the former by the current president. Now we are presented with a national budget that increases military spending 10% and by the same percent decreases human funding. Now we are presented with apparent prevarications regarding remarkable, until this year what would have been unbelievable, machinations in support of collusion with Russian oligarchs. Now we are presented with falsehood morning, and falsehood evening, and a happy willingness to let the consequences of such falsehood abound. Now we are presented with a period in our own national history in which Shakespeare’s 66th sonnet lives, and groans, sauntering like a wild beast, across a humiliated land: strength by limping sway dislodged, art made tongue-tied by authority, folly doctor like controlling skill, simple truth miscalled simplicity, captive good attending captain ill. Things are worse than we begin to imagine. The creaky quasi resistance (let us give some credit where some is due) by courts, by journalists, by congress, by civil society (including a very few churches, one in twenty) that in limited measure we have seen thus far, comes from within the country. Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold they say ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost and we are clean cut off’.

But we are mistaken naively to consider that with which we have been presented thus far as the great danger of our time. It is not. No, the great dangers are in foreign policy, where there are such few checks and balances, such few filters, such few even enfeebled civic capacities for resistance and rejection. The great danger is in choices made and then executed, bye executive action, with regard to war and peace, military activity, diplomatic silence, and, thus global harm. No. The motto of our leadership now is not America First, as horrid as that is in its own right, and given its own etymology. The real motto, rightly pronounced, is America First and America Last and America Only. Remember this, and well, when the next terror tragedy occurs. And one there will be.

A far better route is not only possible but proximate. We need only look north to Canada, with few exceptions, to compare and contrast our acute, abject fulsome humiliation here, with what a sane national policy and life can actually be like. Right next door. I shall put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, says the Lord.

Nouwen

          To endure, over a decade to come, we shall need, profoundly need, the daily practice of the presence of God, here and now, as Scripture and Tradition steadily teach. Nouwen, now, is our guide.

We remembered last week the theological contours of Henri Nouwen’s teaching: compassion, redemption, presence, hospitality, and the figure of the ‘wounded healer’. His compassionate voice, and his capacity for community, make him a reliable and restorative conversation partner, in our time. So, now, Nouwen may help to ground us in our life of faith, work of love, and commitment to Christ crucified. Toward the end of his life, Nouwen took up residence in a community dedicated to shared, common care for disabled persons, located in Toronto, a L’Arche community named Daybreak, including a patient named Adam. In a moment one our Chapel leaders will say something about L’Arche, a movement developed by the blessed Canadian Christian leader, Jean Vanier, who for many of us, has stood out as an inspiration for ongoing life in Christ.

In a way it is not surprising to think of Nouwen leaving behind both academic gown and monk’s cowl to take up a wash basin, a towel, a cloth, and to practice the presence of God, as did Brother Lawrence, in the simplicity of service.

Most of us today, one judges, given the condition our condition is in, could benefit from a straight forward reminder, in Nouwen’s terms, of living in the present, in the ‘here and now’. My friend, a strong lay leader in our church, once said, ‘Wherever you are: be there. Wherever you are: be there.

Here are Nouwen’s seven guidelines, for such a manner of life, practice, discipline and presence. 1. Remember that every day is a new beginning. Imagine that we could live each day as a day full of promises (HJN, Here and Now, 16). 2. Dispense with unnecessary ‘oughts’ and ‘ifs’. The past and the future keep harassing us, the past with guilt, the future with worries. (18) 3. Celebrate birthdays. On birthdays we celebrate the present…we lift someone up and let everyone say, ‘we love you’. (20) 4. Live in the present. Prayer is the discipline of the moment (22). 5. Use repetition in prayer, repetition of a word, a phrase, a line, a prayer. Such a word reminds us of God’s love. We can put it in the center of our inner room, like a candle in a dark place (24). 6. Pray for others, pray specifically for particular people in unique ways. To pray for one another is, first of all, to acknowledge, in the presence of God, that we belong to each other as children of the same God. (26) 7. Stay close to the hub of life, that is to the center from which all else emerges. When I pray, I enter into the depth of my own heart, and find there the heart of God, who speaks to me of love (28).

Nouwen goes on, emphasizing the here and now, to name some of the substance of prayer. Joy. Suffering. Conversion. Discipline. Spirit. Compassion. Family. Relationships. Identity. In a way, his whole life work, might well have been an addendum to the Fourth Gospel.

John

         For the Gospel of John, allowed a meager three-week interjection into our lectionary this month, by interruption of Matthew, is centrally, even solely, an announcement of presence, divine presence, the presence of God. Really only this theological, interpretative insight will make sense for you and me of John 11. Some in the Johannine community spoke in the voice of Jesus. Especially this is so in the ‘I Am’ sayings. If Jesus on earth did not say these things who did? Answer: the Johannine prophet (s). The preacher in John 11 announces presence. I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live. You are a person of faith? Practice that presence. You are a Christian? Practice that presence. You are a Methodist yearning for a faith amendable to culture and culture amenable to faith? Are you? Yes? Practice that presence. The ancient, troubled, community of the beloved disciple, that of John, has your back.

John Ashton: Conscious as they were of the continuing presence in their midst of the Glorified One, no wonder the community, or rather the evangelist who was its chief spokesman, smoothed out the rough edges of the traditions of the historical Jesus…(His portrait of Jesus) arose from his constant awareness, which he shared with members of his community, that they were living in the presence of the Glorified One. So dazzling was this glory that any memory of a less-than-glorious Christ was altogether eclipsed…(They) realized that the truth that they prized as the source of their new life was to be identified not with the Jesus of history but with the risen and glorious Christ, and that this was a Christ free from all human weakness. The claims they made for him were at the heart of the new religion that soon came to be called Christianity. (199) The difference between John’s portrait of Christ and that o the Synoptists is best accounted for by the experience of the glorious Christ constantly present to him and his community (204) (The Gospel of John and Christian Origins).

Nouwen invites, nay implores us, implores you, to practice the presence of God. Here and Now. Hic et Nunc. Here and Now. In worship. In prayer. In sacrament. In means of grace. In study. In fasting. In conversation. And perhaps in some forms of spiritual discipline new to and particular to our time? Say, in spiritual yoga?

Yoga

R: Welcome! It’s nice to see you here at our lectern this morning.

A: Thank you.

R\A: What is your name? Amy Aubrecht. Where are you from? Buffalo Where did you go to college? Cornell. Did you study theology? Yes, right next door.

R: Am I right that you served in a L’Arche community in Syracuse some years ago, and if so, what was that like?

A: Yes. In good Nouwen fashion, it combined compassion and community.

R: Thank you for being here. And thank you for living out and so reminding us of L’Arche, Vanier, and Nouwen. One more question. Do you lead spiritual yoga, as a prayerful discipline, every Thursday here at Marsh at 5pm? And if so, can others join?

A: Yes, and yes.

R: Open to all?

A: Yes.2017

R: Even an aging white guy with a comb-over?

A: Probably.

R: Five O’Clock Thursdays?

A: Yes.

R: We believe in God who has created and is creating….

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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