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Thinking Out Loud

Busy-ness, As Usual

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 22, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Gethsemani Lake

Sitting toward the back of the auditorium at Southern Methodist University, a harried, distracted young associate pastor in a busy Dallas suburb, I felt as though the speaker at the lectern was talking directly to me. Henri J.M. Nouwen was at the podium delivering the address that would soon be published as a book, The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry (New York: Seabury, 1980).

I would like to say that I have never forgotten the lessons I learned that day. The truth is that I have forgotten them repeatedly. I had even forgotten that I had once learned them. Each time I learn these lessons, it is as though for the first time.

Of this I have been reminded, because I brought my old copy of Nouwen's The Way of the Heart with me on retreat to Gethsemani Abbey earlier this month. In the back of the book (which I apparently bought in 1980 for the princely sum of $7.95!) were the notes I had written to myself the first time I read the book. Written in pencil, more than thirty years ago, were the things I had learned. Or thought I had learned. Because reading them again on my retreat, I couldn't recall learning these things way back then. Yet, I do recall sitting in a coffee shop with another young pastor after we heard Nouwen's lecture that day mulling over his stark diagnosis of our calendars full of activities and our hearts drained of meaning and life.

I might have forgotten I had ever learned the cure, but I surely remember commiserating over the disease. And when I re-read the book, sitting in my room at the retreat house with winter skies threatening and winds whistling through the window, the remembrance of my first encounter with Nouwen came back in a flood.

He wrote:

"Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives.

"Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time and rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying or doing. We simply go along with the many 'musts' and 'oughts' that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. ... [W]e ought to move up the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we [ministers] are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people!"
(Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 21-22.)

I remember this other young pastor and I, sipping our coffee between comments to one another, reflecting on the accuracy of Nouwen's assessment of the lives we lived. Two stunned young ministers, silence at times hanging in the air between us, as we squinted at the light that came glaring down on our lives and our ministries. "What good are we doing?" we asked each other. Acting compulsively out of our own fears and anxieties, resentment, and anger, greedy for success and starving for applause and approval. "What sort of liberation are we offering our people who are also caught up in the same vicious cycle?"

The conversation I remember. I just don't remember ever knowing in my heart of hearts, at the core of my being, what I had written in pencil in the back of that book. Here's what I wrote down:

"We thirst and we hunger after God, but we are not filled because we refuse to be filled. We go only far enough, take only enough of a drink or a taste to say, 'Ah, that is good. Thank you.' But we do not drink to fill or eat the feast provided. In a solitary place God waits for each of us, to show us ourselves in radiant, direct honesty, to show us our abject hunger, our spiritual dehydration. God waits in the desert, in the wilderness of trials for us. And if we want God we must go there alone. This is the painful news: Our need is great, absolute. Without [God] we will die. This is the good news: [God] waits for us in the solitude of transformation. [God] promises to fill us and to send us on changed."

Maybe I did learn what Nouwen was talking about after all. Or maybe I just regurgitated a paraphrase of his message. I really don't know. I rather suspect I had not yet suffered enough, had not yet thirsted or hungered or hurt enough to really long for the filling and healing about which I was writing. But maybe that is just the arrogance of age now speaking. Surely a young pastor can feel spent and tired and can suspect that his ministry is an act of vanity because he detects the compulsions that drive and motivate him. Surely a young pastor can discern the anger she feels at her people for not living up to her expectations or appreciating her sufficiently, but discerns also that the anger may really come from her own fear of being found wanting. It is a strange thing to enter into this sort of conversation, your contemporary self wondering at whether you were once wiser than you are today. But really, all such speculation is ultimately fruitless because we are perennially pretty clueless at whatever age we find ourselves.

The author of Galatians speaks of the danger of constructing again and again edifices of self-justification that he had previously torn down. I think he may be reminding us that progress in the life of the Spirit is not linear. We don't rise rung by rung on Jacob's ladder, getting steadily higher and nearer to heaven with each step. Rather, progress in the life of the Spirit is a matter of spiritual proximity. Inasmuch as we entrust ourselves to God, to the degree that we rest in God, conscious of our utter dependence upon God, we may be "making spiritual progress," if that's even the way to say it. Perhaps better, we testify with St. Paul that daily we just keep dying to the self, the false self that wants defending and craves security and longs for validation because it thinks that if it gets enough external confirmation of worth and accumulates just a little more of whatever the world values it will finally and forever we safe. According to St. Paul, the score-keeping that validates the false self has been nailed to the cross, where Jesus died, where we also have been crucified. And the life we live now hangs on trust in the God who promises love for us in the dying breath of the risen Jesus. (See: Galatians 2:15-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:2-16)

A story from the Desert Fathers that Nouwen relates helps me to understand the nature of the lifelong pilgrimage we are on. He tells the story of Abba Elias, a holy man tormented by demons. The demons persecuted him, taunted him, threatened him. He tried desperately to fight them off. Finally the old man cried out, "Jesus, save me!" And immediately, the devils fled. Just as suddenly the Lord spoke to Elias, who by that point sat sobbing. "Why are you weeping?" asked the Lord. "Because the devils have dared to seize a man and treat him like this," answered Elias. The Lord said to him, "You had been careless. As soon as you turned to me again, you see I was beside you." (Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, 29.)

From time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to find ourselves trying to live as though we could defeat the powers of evil on our own, as though we don't need God to provide every breath of life and whatever strength we possess. And from time to time in life and ministry, we are likely to discover that our attempts to live life under our own power are utterly illusory, that before very long we have become victims of all the demons of hell, the compulsions, fears and anxieties, the anger, resentment, jealousy and greed that become so easily the driving forces behind our actions. In such moments, if we are very fortunate, we will come to ourselves and realize that we are in real danger of losing our souls even while we are preaching the gospel to others.

The task is to keep turning to the God who is always beside us and within us, always present, though hidden in the solitude of that wilderness to which we can resort whenever we wish, where the Spirit and the Word of God never fail to bring healing. There is a river that makes glad the city of God, the dwelling place of the Holy. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be shaken, though the nations rage and the kingdoms tumble and the earth itself trembles. However distracted we may be by busy-ness, as usual, God waits for us there, while the river eddies, pools and flows.

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