As we dream and plan toward launching a new program to engage university students in community service and social action, I am reminded that I am a idealist. I joke that I would thoroughly love ministry if it wasn't for all the people involved; for I love ideas and imagining innovative systems. (Our pastor has a PhD in Theoretical Physics; maybe I should have gone the route of Theoretical Ministry.) Certain thoughts race through my mind as we dream: community impact, creating a decentralized movement, relevancy to Generation Y, can our generation change the world?, etc. However, as we look seriously at the feasibility of implementing our new program, we meet both very encouraging people and possibilities and potentially discouraging realities.
One reality, that should be obvious, but the implications of which often surprise me is -- New Zealand is a small country with an diminishing Christian presence. I was recently reminded of this when I attended a Christian staff meeting at the university where I serve as chaplain. I and one other person. You carve time out of schedule, maybe you even do a fair amount of preparation, then, one person shows up. As my friend said, "Whether 100 or one, you still do the same amount of preparation." This past weekend, I preached Sunday morning, had a Sunday afternoon Bible study, then three separate meetings on Monday, including the Christian staff meeting. None of them went as expected. Ministry here can be discouraging.
These events drove me back to one of my favourite Henri Nouwen books, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. In my mind, nobody, since Jesus, turns the world on its head like Nouwen. (How's that for hyperbole!) And for such an educated man, he was always trying to return to the foundational practices and simplify following Jesus rather than, like many authors, give in to the professional temptation to take ancient ideas and practices and go and on about them, sounding intelligent and innovative, essentially writing only for their colleagues, and, in the end, only complicating what is basically profoundly simple (despite requiring great trust and perseverance to actually put it into practice).
Well, enough of me. Here is what got underlined in the first third of the book, the section entitled From Relevance to Prayer. (The Buechner quote is a bonus)
For the preacher to be relevant to the staggering problems of history is to risk begin irrelevant to the staggering problems of the ones who sit there listening out of their own histories. -- F. Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale
The Temptation: To Be Relevant
The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.
Jesus' first temptation was to be relevant -- to turn stones into bread...when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behaviour of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the word and said, "Human being live not by bread alone, but by every word that come from the mouth of God." Pg. 18
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. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence. If you are sick you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent negotiators. God, the church, and the ministers have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions. Pg. 20
It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there. Pg. 22
The Question: "Do you love me?"
The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show me some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus? Pg. 24
The Discipline: Contemplative Prayer
To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God's first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God's first love. Pg. 28
Through contemplative prayer we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from becoming strangers to our own and God's heart.
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 wit 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. Pg. 31-32 -- Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership
Simone Weil said it well: “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal.”