Lent Wednesday Devotions – 2021 – “The Selfless Way of Christ”
Henri Nouwen was an important spiritual leader in our generation (January 24, 1932 -
September 21, 1996). He promoted growing deeper in our faith through reflection, prayer, and meditation. He also promoted time with God, privately and in community. His life story is so interesting, but one I don’t have time to delve into at this time. I encourage you to “Goggle” him and read about his life.
One of his greatest gifts that he gave to us in his life (he died unexpectantly at the young age of 64), is his understanding that the Christian journey isn’t a journey that moves us “upward” but “downward.” As Jesus showed throughout his ministry – descending from the heights of heaven to become one of us, Nouwen too came to learn that as we grow deeper in the faith, we become not a holy guru’s, but servants ready to help the least of all people.
In his own life, Nouwen went from being a prestigious professor at Yale University, to working at a L’Arche home which ministered to people who had severe physical and mental disabilities. He stated he found the most meaning in life, at L’Arche. One of his books that laid out his understanding of what he called “Downward mobility” is “The Selfless Way of Christ.” The subtitle is: “Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life.” It’s the book we will use this Lent season to reflect upon.
I have broken his book down into four sections. Week one we’ll look at how the world has a difficult time understanding “Downward mobility” as it constantly promotes the opposite journey: “Upward mobility.”
The second week will take a closer look at the journey of downward mobility.
The third week we will look at what Nouwen calls “The Lure of Upward Mobility” by taking a close look at Jesus’ battle with Satan in the wilderness at the start of his ministry.
The fourth week we will look at things we can do to empty our heart of those things that prevent us from journeying more deeply with Christ, and deeper into our call of “downward mobility.”
On the final Wednesday, I will do some pondering about what we have looked at in the previous four weeks.
I know this is a different kind of Wednesday Lent practice – in fact this is the first year of my 34-year ministry where I won’t be leading Wednesday services during Lent. But it is what we think is best during the Covid pandemic. It is different, but that doesn’t mean bad, or less. In fact, I pray that through these extended devotions the Holy Spirit will open our heart to see the world and our lives in a different light and draw you to walk deeper into the life of servants for Christ.
If you have some thoughts, questions and or reflections on any of these devotions, please share them. It would be interesting to hear how you are perceiving the words of Henri Nouwen.
If you find these devotions helpful, I encourage you to purchase the book. I looked on a couple sights and the book costs around$14. At the end of the study if people are interested in the book, I’d be happy to get your name and order a copy for you.
With the introductory comments out of the way, lets jump in and begin our journey.
“Moving Downward in an Upward Society”
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Henri Nouwen writes: “One of the earliest Christian hymns describes the humility of Christ, who, though ‘his state was divine,’ did not cling to his equality with God ‘but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave’ (Phil. 2:6-8 – It is thought that Paul was sharing the words of an early Christian hymn here). Even at the dawn of the church this voluntary self-emptying of power, status, and security offered a powerfully counter-cultural statement. It set the way of Christ in bold contrast to the values of Empire, and thus set a challenge to all Christ’s followers.”
“The selfless way of Christ” is the theme of his book and our Lent focus. Nouwen wrote this book in 1981 at the height of the “Yuppy” movement. Yuppy is short for “young, upwardly mobile professionals.” The Yuppy movement projected the belief that to be somebody you had to be powerful, relevant and spectacular. At this time, Nouwen was a professor at Yale and he found that younger people were having a difficult time living in and thinking about their spiritual lives because it was so counter-cultural. From that insight his book “The Selfless Way of Christ” was born.
To be a Christian, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a witness to God’s word in the world, through our speech and our actions. To do this we have to know Jesus. Knowing Jesus is not “knowing about” him in the sense of intellectual knowing, but rather knowing him by being in relationship with him. As Nouwen points out, “The basis of the mission of the twelve apostles was not their knowledge, training, or character, but their having lived with Jesus.” He then adds, “when our ministry does not emerge from a personal encounter with Jesus, it quickly becomes a tiring routine and a boring job.”
In other words, to live out our Christian lives in the world means we have to have a living faith by virtue of a living relationship with Jesus. “Our ministry and the spiritual life belong together. Living a spiritual life is living in an intimate communion with the Lord. It is seeing, hearing, and touching. Living a life of ministry is witnessing to him in the midst of this world.”
Nouwen goes on to say something very profound when he looks at our ministry and journey with Jesus, “Our life in Christ and our ministry in his name belong together as the two beams of the cross.” What he means by this, is there is both a vertical and a horizontal dimension to our spiritual lives. The vertical speaks to our relationship with Jesus and the horizontal speaks to our relationship to others.
How is your spiritual life?
How does the idea of both a vertical and horizontal dimension of our Christian lives?
Do you have an intimate relationship with Jesus? If not, what can help you begin to develop one?
As you can see when Henri speaks about our “faith life” or “spiritual life” he is not just talking about doing specific things, he is rather calling us to live in, and live out, what Jesus is calling us to do. He puts the challenge this way, “The Spiritual life presents us with a ... radical demand: to be living Christ’s here and now, in time and history.” He doubles down on the challenge when he adds, “Regardless of the particular shape we give to our lives, Jesus’ call to discipleship is primal, all-encompassing, all-inclusive, demanding a total commitment. One cannot be a little bit for Christ, give him some attention, or make him one of many concerns.”
The call to give our all to Christ is a difficult call to follow, but make no mistake, it is the call that Jesus has given us. As Jesus says, “No one can be the slave of two masters” (Matt. 6:24). Nouwen does not hesitate to confront us with the uncompromising demands of his call: “It is a narrow gate and hard road that leads to life ... Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 7:14, 10:37). These challenging words are not meant for only a few of Jesus’ followers who have so-called ‘special vocation,’ rather they are meant for all who consider themselves Christians. Nouwen points out that Jesus’ call really is radical and it is challenging. Nouwen concludes, “There is no easy way to follow Christ.”
The call of Jesus is a call to be a servant; to descend to the level of a helper. As he says on Maundy Thursday, “Do you know what I have done to you? [These words follow Jesus’ foot washing] You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (John 14:12-16).
Nouwen is showing us how radical and counter-cultural Jesus’ call is for us, for we live in a society that is characterized by an overwhelming demand for upward mobility. In your own life, can you see how you have been surrounded with the call to move up in the world? Do you feel the pressure to constantly strive to “be more” and “get more”? What has this done to your spiritual life? What does that do the life of those around you?
Before any of you think that Nouwen is to squelch the drive to be more than we are now, please know that he is not. He is rather asking us to define in new ways what “be more” means. Society he points out defines “be more” as striving to have more of everything. Jesus defines “be more” as becoming “more” of a servant to the world and those in need. Nouwen writes, “I am not denigrating ambition, nor am I against progress and success. But true growth is something other than the uncontrolled drive for upward mobility in which making it to the top becomes its own goal and in which ambition no longer serves a wider ideal. There is a profound difference between the false ambition for power and the true ambition to love and serve. It is the difference between trying to raise ourselves up and trying to life up our fellow human beings.”
As a fitting example for a country that has just gone through a contentious election, Nouwen says “We are so dedicated to the goal of ever-increasing growth and development that we cannot image anyone being elected to public office without promising to increase the nation’s wealth and power. Those who advance an agenda based on different values effectively exclude themselves from national leadership.”
Henri Nouwen would appreciate the story that is told of a man who upon reflection on his life told this to his children and grandchildren, “I spent my life climbing the ladder and I made it to the top, only to find that my ladder was against the wrong building.” Nouwen wants us to all stop and think about the assumptions that society is telling us, and see if maybe there is a different place to target our ambitions and energy. Nouwen would point out that Jesus has given us a definite path. The question is who are we going to believe, societies ways or Jesus’?
When it comes to deciding how to live, who are you going to believe, society or Jesus?
What are the implications of your answer?
We will take a closer look at what “Downward Mobility” means.