Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: In the Name of Jesus

Have you ever picked up a book and found it was exactly what you needed at that moment? That was my experience with Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus

Written originally as a lecture for the Center for Human Development, this small book contains Nouwen's thoughts on Christian Leadership in the 21st Century.  He speaks to three temptations facing ministers, and offers three spiritual disciplines to disarm those temptations.

Nouwen begins by speaking the question many ministers face: "After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger. I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed."

Typical of Nouwen, much wisdom follows. His first 'temptation' is one that runs deeply in the church today: the temptation to relevance. To be important. To prove our worth with great wisdom and accomplishment. But, as he points out, "Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but they do not see much change. It seems that their efforts are fruitless. They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and doctors are often more trusted than they are. . .The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, 'We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the church, or a priest. We are in control.'" The answer, according to Nouwen, is to give up our desire for worldly relevance and instead return our gaze to Christ. "The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Perhaps another way of putting the question would be: Do you know the incarnate God?" He then calls the reader to consider the discipline of contemplative prayer, saying that future leaders of the church need not be experts or professionals in their field, but people who 'dwell in God's presence, [who] listen to God's voice, [who] look at God's beauty, [who] touch God's incarnate Word, [and who] taste fully God's infinite goodness."

The second temptation Nouwen explores is the temptation to popularity, the temptation to success. Speaking of his training for ministry, he writes, "I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road. Questions had answers, problems had solutions, and pains had their medicines." The problem is, that sets the minister up as the healer who helps others, rather than a member of the community itself. "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." The answer, according to Nouwen, is to remove ourselves from the pedestals and truly identify with our local community. "We cannot bring good news on our own. We are called to proclaim the Gospel together, in community." The spiritual discipline suggested by Nouwen is the act of confession and forgiveness. ". . .ministers and priests are also called to be full members of their communities, are accountable to them and need their affection and support, and are called to minister with their whole being, including their wounded selves."

Finally, Nouwen attacks the temptation of Power. Often leadership becomes "a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds." Or, as he later writes, "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." The discipline suggested here by Nouwen is an intense theological reflection, bringing our all our lives and activities under the leadership of scripture. "Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God's gentle guidance."

I've read quite a few books on Christian leadership (and leadership in general), and while In the Name of Jesus is one of the shortest, it is also one of the most profound. It may not ever be the most popular, since it doesn't speak to building large congregations or having great success in life, but it's probably important for that very reason. Too many ministers (this one included) are prone to judge our lives by the world's standards, and Nouwen here is calling us back to our first duty of loving God, loving others, and living our lives under the lordship of Christ.

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