Dr. Sachi Nakamura（Christian Books Translator、JCFN Board Member、Spiritual Director）
Few years ago, I came across these words by a Catholic Trappist monk, James Finley.
“(God is) the infinity of the unforeseeable; so we know that [the unforeseeable] is trustworthy, because in everything, God is trying to move us into Christ consciousness. If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.”
“…the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things,…” Thinking that I had misread this phrase, I read it over several times. However, that is surely what it said; “…the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things,…”
It does not mean that God does not protect us from anything. However, whether it is a natural disaster, illness, losing a job, or a bereavement of a loved one, such things that happen in this world may happen to anyone who believes in God. God’s love does not protect us from experiencing tragedy, suffering and pain. We all know this from our own experiences. No one can say that they have not experienced some kind of sadness, hardships, or things they cannot understand why it happened. Nonetheless, God’s love sustains us in the midst of it all, no matter how tragic the circumstance is, and how difficult and painful the experience may be. Many of us also know this from our personal experiences.
When you look back at your life, can you identify painful and difficult times that had made you wonder why God didn’t protect you from such circumstances? The pain might have felt unbearable at that moment. You may not have felt His presence during it. However, now turn your thoughts to the truth that God did sustain you through it. The fact that you are reading this sentence right now is proof that the Lord was with you during your difficult time to sustain you. At that time, how and in what ways did the Lord abide with you in your difficulties? Maybe you were not able to notice Him then, but as you look back on it now, you may be able to recognize how His hand was at work.
What about you now? Maybe some of you are going through a great deal of suffering at this moment. You might be facing a painful time and are wondering why God is not protecting you from it. Others of you may not feel like you are going through any specific trials, but are somehow feeling suffocated by the chronic burdens of life. Regardless of the circumstances, how is God sustaining you? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you become aware of Christ’s presence and comfort in the midst of your life.
As we look into the future, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will not face any troubles. In fact, Jesus told us that in this world, there will be trouble. Although we are unable to avoid troubles, we can ask the Lord to help us become absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things.
“(T)hen we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.” Let us also reflect on those words of Finley.
I admit the part 3 of this book gave me the strongest impact to me. There were two points that deeply resonated in my heart; one of them is that a Christian leader should not be the one who seeks “the upward mobility” but rather the one who steps toward “the downward mobility” by following Christ’s example. The other is that the discipline to continue the walk led by Christ requires constant theological reflections.
We might all aspire to be influential, particularly in this secular world. But I do not see much difference in the church communities. We seek to be influential for Christ and for His kingdom. There seems nothing wrong in that motivation and indeed that might be a good thing. (Let me cite that the author of the book, The Prayer of Jabez, described that the reason why Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying “…Enlarge my border.” and the fact that God answered to his prayer were all for Jabez to be influential for the glory of God.) However, even when our purpose is “for Christ” or “for His kingdom”, no matter how purely motivated from the bottom of our heart, having power brings about many dangers. In the history of Christianity and also in today’s church, some form of abuse of power always seem to exist behind the scandals and various problems. Power is a double-edge sword. Having power could transform our purest motivation and wish into an instrument of self-realization.
Nouwen makes an interesting remark on John 21:18.
“ Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18, 19, NRSV)
The World says, “When you are young, you are dependent on others. But when you grow old, you can make your own decision and you can do whatever you want.” But Nouwen tells us Jesus had a different vision of maturity. He says, “It is the ability and the willingness to be led where you would rather not go.” Jesus commissioned Peter the ministry to “feed His sheep” and told him that he would be taken to the place where he would not wish to go. This passage of John 21 gives me a stronger impact every time I read.
Nouwen continues, “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. This might sound morbid and masochistic, but for those who have heard the voice of the first love and said yes to it, the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.” A servant leader is the one willing to be taken to an unknown, undesirable, and painful place.
The most important quality of Christian leadership is “not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility.” That is what Jesus manifested himself. “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.” They are the ones who abandon the wish to control matters in their own ways and to gain the result and outcome that they desire. So deeply in love with Jesus, they are the ones who can follow Him wherever He guides them, always trusting they will find abundant life with him.
What, then, is the discipline to be such a leader? Nouwen proposes “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection. Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our ministry communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” I would also add that strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern where we find God’s presence and activities in our own situations. (Note: As explained in the Part 1, the word “theology” originally means “union with God in prayer.” Therefore, what Nouwen calls “theological reflection” is different from any academic approaches.
Nouwen continues, “Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of us have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind Christ, is hard to find in the practice of the ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers.” Even they may be able to help people struggling and stressed in the everyday life, if there is no theological reflection, they have nothing to do with Christian leadership. Nouwen says, “The Christian leader thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus, who came to free humanity form the power of death and open the way to eternal life.”
“The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggles, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence. … In short, they have to say ‘no’ to the secular world and proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has made even the smallest event of human history into kairos, that is, an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ. The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained –through prayer, study, and careful analysis –to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of their time.”
I am personally overwhelmed by Nouwen’s eloquence here. The Holy Spirit might be making him write such a powerful statement. I would like to quote the following passages but stop here to avoid any complaints from the publisher. If you have never read this book, I strongly encourage you to do so.
What Nouwen calls “theological reflection” is not an mere intellectual approach but, having the heart of Christ, to discern where God is working and how He is leading us in our daily life, which is filled with both sufferings and joy. Christian leaders are called to help people to discern God’s voice. The training of such a leader cannot be done by just an intellectual training. “It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart.”
“Strenuous theological reflection”! It is not a mere intellectual consideration but to know the mind of God and to deeply consider how the mind of God is revealed in the world and in our daily life, and to discern how we are led by it. It is not the reflection of our own mind or our own interpretation. It is based on the Word and led by the Spirit.
Holy Spirit, please teach me. Guide me. Please make me one, who is willing to be guided in the way of downward like Christ without fear and rather with joy in peace to walk humbly with Jesus.
The temptation to be spectacular. How precisely Nouwen describes the trap leaders are prone to be caught! Being spectacular is something like to wow the audience in a show. Spectacular sermon, spectacular insight, spectacular solution, spectacular leadership, spectacular problem-solving capability, and spectacular anything… Nouwen was considered well equipped preacher and priest, who was able to do his own thing because of his “spectacular” career and achievements. But when he went to L’Arche, where the handicapped people and those without handicap live together, he came to see that he had lived most of his life “as a tightrope artist trying to walk on a high, thin cable from one tower to the other, always waiting for the applause…” To be a star or a hero is what our competitive society pursues. However, to be a Biblical leader never means to be a hero.
Jesus gave Peter the ministry of “feeding his sheep.” He sent his disciples in pairs. Nouwen explains that this task of “feeding the sheep” cannot be done individually but in community. He also says that this is not only done in community but this is a mutual experience within the community. This ministry becomes possible among the brothers and sisters who belong to the same community, among the vulnerable people who know each other, forgive each other, care each other, and love each other.
Isn’t this radically different from the concept of leadership we have today? In general, we consider it important not to mix up the roles of the one who leads with those who are led, the one who instructs with those who are instructed, the one who teaches with the students. Leaders try to protect their position or authority by keeping a safe distance and stays on the top of the echelons. But “we are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life.” That is God’s work. Whether you are called to be a leader or not, we all are “sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.” Nouwen writes,
“The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
Recently, we often hear the word, servant leadership. Nouwen also talks about it. I have observed that this word has been used to describe a kind of leader who can bring out strength of others, or those who are willing to serve behind the scene. There is nothing wrong with those leaders as they are respectable and not seeking to be heroes. But Nouwen’s definition of a servant leadership is a leadership “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader.”
Nouwen suggests “Confession and Forgiveness” are discipline required for such a leadership. This is a disciple for a leader to overcome the temptation of individual heroism. If you try to hide your vulnerability as a leader, it might lead to hypocrisy or even enhance hidden sins. Or perhaps you could create a barrier between you and your community to whom you are to serve. But practicing confession, you could shed light to the darkness that exists in you. Receiving forgiveness will take out the dark powers out from you and from the community. If you have experienced the intimate love which is poured upon the place of confession and forgiveness, you know how this works very well.
All these do not mean priests or ministers must “explicitly bring their own sins or failures in to the pulpit.” What it means is that leaders are accountable to their communities, need their affection and support, and are called to be, not as invisible heroes, but as vulnerable and wounded individuals. The leaders are called to minister with their whole being, including their vulnerability and wounds, without hiding them. The practice of “Confession and Forgiveness” will free the leaders from unhealthy idealisms or pressure to be “spectacular.” As a result, spectacular work of God will reveal, no matter subtle or hard to be recognized in human eyes.