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In the Name of Jesus by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Crossroad Publishing 1996; original copyright 1989)

Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit by Henri J. M. Nouwen, with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird (HarperOne, 2010)

I've dabbled in Henri Nouwen's writings for years, always finding value in some of his insights, but never finding myself in a position to appreciate, or even to understand, his work over all.  Wherever he is, I'm never "quite there yet."  These books evoked the same reaction.

Of the two, In the Name of Jesus I found most comprehensible.  Spiritual Formation, a compilation of Nouwen's thoughts, has rough edges from the cut-and-paste effort.  It's meant to be a seamless whole, but I encountered too many unacknowledged contradictions to make sense of it all.

Here are a few quotations, all from In the Name of Jesus, which deals with spiritual leadership.

Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.  But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.

When you look at today's Church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among ministers and priests.  Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo.  You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful liturgies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we had hoped, and that we were not as able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected.  But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.  Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the Church.  There too the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone.

Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead.  Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which "service" takes place in a one-way direction.  Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles!  But how can anyone lay down his life for those with whom he is not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship?  Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.

The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest of all. ... Every time we see a major crisis in the history of the Church, such as the Great Schism of the eleventh century, the Reformation of the sixteenth century, or the immense secularization of the twentieth century, we always see that a major cause of rupture is the power exercised by those who claim to be followers of the poor and powerless Jesus.

What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.  Jesus asks, "Do you love me?"  We ask, "Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in you Kingdom?"  (Matthew 20:21).

[Christian leadership in the future] is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.  I, obviously, am not speaking about a psychologically weak leadership in which the Christian leader is simply the passive victim of the manipulations of his milieu.  No, I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love.  It is a true spiritual leadership.  Powerlessness and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them.  They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Edit
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