Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Book Review: Reaching Out

Loneliness, hostility, illusion - these things mark the lives of so many humans, wandering through life trying to survive, trying to find meaning, trying to make sense of it all. Broken by a sinful world, we find ourselves isolated and angry, living in illusions of our own making that cover over the reality of our pain.

Rather than avoiding all three, Henri Nouwen sees each as a starting place toward wholeness, as we realize each has something to teach us, and each can lead us deeper into the heart of God. In Reaching Out, Nouwen explains how our loneliness, painful and frightening as it is, can be transformed into solitude, the quiet place where we can know ourselves better, and the place where we can finally rest in the comforting presence of God's Spirit. "Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude." The Christian life needs its time in the desert; by developing hearts that are comfortable with solitude, we can find again what it means to commune with God, and thus be better equipped to live with our neighbors.

This leads to the second movement - from hostility to hospitality. Because we are lonely we are protective of our space, and we often use others to fill up the empty spaces in our lives. "When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promises they are carrying with them." Hospitality, according to Nouwen, is "the creation of a free space where  the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy." Hospitality is a ministry in which the host creates space for the guest to come as they are and find themselves. Nouwen sketches this out in the context of the teacher/student, parent/child, and healer/patient relationships. In each of these, says Nouwen, "Affirmation, encouragement and support are often much more important than criticism. The good host is the one who not only helps the guests to see that they have hidden talents, but who is able to help them develop and deepen these talents so that they can continue their way on their own with a renewed self-confidence."

Unfortunately, our loneliness and hostility is often hidden behind a veneer of illusion. We have such a hard time getting to the heart of our brokenness. We live as if we are immortal. We cover over our hostility with sentimentality. We make idols of our dreams, thinking ourselves much greater and of more importance than we really are. The answer is found only in prayer - not the pious platitudes of religion, but open, honest communication before the God who knows us better than we know ourselves. "When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on his terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart."

Like all of Nouwen's writings, this book is deceptively simple. It is a short and easy read, yet so rich and deep that it requires time to ponder, contemplate, and re-read. Even more, it requires action - not programs or plans, but action of the soul, as we seek to reorient our lives back into line with God's loving desires for us. It is an extremely helpful book for people whose lives have settled into religious routine, who feel stifled, who feel like it's time for something new but are uncertain where to turn. It's a book that requires a little maturity, but will lead to so much more.

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