Power and Weakness: Part 3 of a reflection on Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

This is the third and final post in a series on Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (read part 1 and part 2). I’m writing on this significant book in order to continue reflecting on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, which serves as the basis for Nouwen’s writing, and is also the place we are at in our preaching series, “Power in Preparation,” from the Gospel of Matthew. I conclude this series of posts by looking at the third and final part of that book: “From Leading to Being Led.”

The Temptation to be Powerful
Just as Jesus was tempted by Satan to use his power to influence people for his ministry goals, so, Nouwen says, we face the temptation to do ministry relying on power to control others instead of acknowledging our weakness to be led by others.

The true way of Christian service and leadership, according to Nouwen, exhibits these characteristics:

  • downward mobility like Jesus toward the Cross – not upwardly mobile toward what is wrongly called ‘success’
  • willing to be ‘radically poor’ to follow Jesus into unattractive places – not caught up in the wealth and riches of this world
  • allowing Christ to form their entire lives – body, mind, heart – not just intellectually following the ideas of Jesus
  • helping people hear God’s voice in their real lives – not just chattering on about their own ideas

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a prayer at the end of the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage that reads:

Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.

I wonder if our Christian service is shaped by the Cross as much as it is by pursuit of “success,” however we may define it? I wonder, what sort of leaders are we? Do we lead ‘in the name of Jesus’ or in our own name?

I wonder aloud, how can we practically let Jesus lead us in His downwardly mobile, humble, poor, and God-oriented way?

Community and Identity: Part 2 of a reflection on Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

Yesterday I began a series of three posts on Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. I continue that series here by delving into the second part of that book: “From Popularity to Ministry.”

Doing Ministry Together
I have read this book several times, but I continue to be deeply impacted by Nouwen’s emphasis on the fact that ministry is shared and not something in which we strive “to do something spectacular, something that could win [us] great applause” (53). How often I have seen in myself and others a twisted motivation in ministry aimed at the wrong end: praise, attention, recognition, or accolades. We sometimes become bent on others’ opinions that we miss the true nature of ministry.

True ministry involves proclaiming the gospel together, not lifting up ourselves. True ministry comes from a place of reliance and interdependence, where trust that “the same Lord who binds us together in love will also reveal himself to us and others as we walk together on the road” (59).

Think of that. I wonder, when we engage in ministry with others, are we so together in it that we trust God to reveal himself to and through us to others? Or are doing something else entirely? Are we competing with others for the praise and glory of ourselves in the eyes of other humans?

Who We Are – Who We Are Not
Our twisted motivations often come from twisted souls. Nouwen presses the conversation of this second part of the book toward the heart of the matter: our identity in Christ. We need to know our identity and, specifically, that ministry it is not about us, but about God.

Nouwen writes:

We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. (62)

If you skimmed that section quickly, let me encourage you to stop and read it again. This is so important and challenging.

I wonder, do we know who we are and who we are not when it comes to ministry? I know it is such a struggle. It is vital that we let go of our need to appear competent, to be needed, and to be seen as the source of good in ministry. We are made in the image of God and valuable in that regard, but we are also, in a sense, unnecessary to God. He does not need us to do ministry, but He does desire to work in and through us. There is a holy humility to this aspect of knowing our identity. There is a freedom in letting go of our need for acclaim and simply relying upon God to work.

This can be a fierce struggle, but it also can become one of the freeing joys of truly doing our ministry in the name of Jesus.

Irrelevance and the Love of God: Part 1 of a reflection on Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

One of the most incisive handlings I have ever encountered on Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 is Henri Nouwen‘s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. While the book is specifically targeted at those in ministry, I believe it has broader application to all believers.

In this and two follow-up posts, I want to interact with that book a little as a follow-up to Will Branch’s sermon this past weekend at Eastbrook, “The Way of the Wilderness,” and my own recent reflections on the spiritual significance of the wilderness. Whether you’ve read the book or not, feel free to interact with what I write here.

Relevance vs. Irrelevance
In the first section of part one of the book, Nouwen connects the first temptation of Jesus with the temptation toward relevance. Nouwen contrasts the irrelevance of ministry with the push within our society for relevance. I struggle with Nouwen’s reflections here because, on the one hand, I do not want my life or ministry to be driven by relevance, but, on the other hand, I do want to communicate God’s truth in a way that connects with people and is not obtuse.

Here is my summary of what Nouwen means by these terms:

  • Relevance: an obsession with success, impact, and practicality that is closely linked with the things we do rather than who we are.
  • Irrelevance: walking the way of vulnerability and weakness in connection with the weakness and struggles of the world around us while living in the love of God

Nouwen writes: “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation” (35).

So, I wonder, is it possible to desire to connect meaningfully with others while simultaneously living out of this sort vocational sense of irrelevance?

Knowing the Heart of God
In the second section of part one, Nouwen draws attention to Jesus’ question of Peter: ‘Do you love me?’ He emphasizes that our love of Jesus is the central issue in our ministry and service for God.

The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, ‘a heart of flesh’, in Jesus. Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, that is not something that comes from God. The sounds very simple and maybe even trite, but very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits. (38)

These words cut to the core of who we are. I am reminded of an old statement a mentor shared with me once: “Have I become so in love with the work of the Lord that I have ceased to love the Lord of the work?” I wonder whether I live in such a way that my experience and knowledge of God’s love is so central that it overflows into proclaiming and embodying the unconditional love of God to others? Is that what motivates me?

Mystic Leaders
Nouwen brings the first part of the book to a close by calling believers to a life of contemplative prayer as mystic leaders. Sometimes the words “contemplative” and “mystic” throw people off. However, what he is really speaking about is our attentive pondering the love of God throughout our lives. The question here is not only do we love Jesus, but do we live a life of love with Him. Read these words:

A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love. . . Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness? (42-43)

Again, Nouwen pierces to the heart. Who am I as a leader, minister, or servant of Christ? Am I devoted to Jesus? Am I loving Him fully?

The Weekend Wanderer: 29 February 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

Jean Vanier“Internal report finds that L’Arche founder Jean Vanier engaged in decades of sexual misconduct” – This was one of the most devastating headlines of the past week. If you are not familiar with Jean Vanier and L’Arche, I am sad that this would be your introduction. L’Arche has been a strong force in dignifying those with intellectual disabilities, helping others to see their gifts and creating environments where the disabled and non-disabled form communities together. Vanier has been an inspiration to many and influential through his speaking and writing, such as his book Becoming Human. Henri Nouwen famously left his teaching positions at Harvard and Yale to join a L’Arche community, which he references in Adam: God’s Beloved and In the Name of JesusHow do we come to terms with those we respect who have fallen? I recommend Marlena Proper Graves’ article “Don’t Let Jean Vanier (or Other Heroes) Off the Hook” as a way to reflect further on this.


115567“Chinese American Churches on the Frontlines of Coronavirus Vigilance” – “There has been no sustained community transmission of the coronavirus in the United States so far, and many Chinese churches such as Raleigh Chinese Christian Church (RCCC) are doing their best to keep it that way.  Taped to the entrance of the church’s glass doors is a yellow notice with the word ‘ATTENTION’ in capital letters. It warns parents not to bring their children to church if they’ve traveled to Asia in the past 14 days. Churches such as RCCC—a nondenominational congregation with services in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English—have taken it upon themselves to self-quarantine, in keeping with Centers for Disease Control guidance.


webRNS-Multiracial-Churches2-011620-1200x675“Multiracial churches growing, but challenging for clergy of color” – Our church has participated in discussions about multi-ethnic ministry for years, but we know we have not figured out everything (if anything, we sometimes think). Helpful catalysts in our growth over the years have been contacts we have made through various groups, including Mosaix, a relational network of pastors, churches, organizations, and denominations founded by Mark DeYmaz and George Yancey. Here is an article summarizing some of the important trends and lessons-learned from the most recent Mosaix conference in Keller, Texas.


30keller2-superJumbo“How Do Christians Fit Into the Two-Party System? They Don’t” – As I prepare for an upcoming series at Eastbrook on faith and politics, here’s an opinion piece by Tim Keller in The New York Times that someone brought to my attention this past week. Although I had not read Keller’s article before, he speaks to one of the key approaches to Christian political engagement that I often emphasize: if we find that one political party or one political system seems to perfectly align with our understanding of Christian faith, then we probably have a misapprehension of either the political party/system or the Christian faith. The kingdom of God has yet to be perfectly represented by any particular political party or system, thus giving us space to critique all of them as we stay rooted as citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20).


Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 8.11.16 AM“This Arctic Explorer Was One Tent Pole Away from Death” – I don’t know what it is but these sort of stories grip me every time. Drawn from his memoir, The Impossible First, Colin O’Brady recounts here in Outside some parts of his ground-breaking solo journey across Antarctica. “Alone with his thoughts for nearly two months in the vastness of the frozen continent—gripped by fear and doubt—he reflected on his past, seeking courage and inspiration in the relationships and experiences that had shaped his life.” Themes of solitude, perseverance, failure, fear, consequences, and choices rise up again and again.


MLK“Four Powerful Preaching Practices from Martin Luther King Jr.” – A few years ago, I listened through The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. From a historical perspective, I was fascinated by the development of themes and the earlier use of material that eventually became part of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC. As a preacher, I learned a lot from King’s use of biblical texts and imagery, as well as his command of rhetorical devices. Here’s Lenny Luchetti at Preaching Today with an examination of preaching practices from King. “The preaching of Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t merely inspire a congregation, which would be no small task; it inspired a massive movement. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assert that King’s preaching was the primary, if not sole, initiator of social transformation in America through the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s.”


Music: John Mark McMillan ft. Kim Walker-Smith, “How He Loves” (Live)

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]