Henri Nouwen begins this section as a sort of review by saying, “Our vocation as Christians is to follow Jesus on his downward path and to become witnesses to God’s compassion in the concrete situation of our time and place. Our temptation is to let needs for success, visibility, and influence dominate our thoughts, words, and actions to such an extent that we are gripped in the destructive spiral of upward mobility and thus lose our vocation.”
Let me at this point, share with you Martin Luther’s understanding of “vocation.” Luther said that we are all called to a job – be it a farmer, a banker, a pastor, a stay-at-home parent, etc. That is our “job.” But, much to the confusion of the majority of people who equate who they are with what they do, Luther proclaims that our “job” is NOT our “vocation.” Our vocation is defined is our “calling in life.” Our calling in life (vocation) as Christians is to be the best Christian we can be, in the place we are. Therefore, if I am a banker, my vocation is to be the best Christian banker I can be. Luther makes it very clear in his writings that one’s vocation, not our jobs, is the highest calling we have in life.
Therefore, when Nouwen says in this introductory quote that upward mobility can cause us to lose our “vocation,” he is speaking about losing our sense of “vocation” as we spend all our time working in and for our “jobs.” Luther and Nouwen would both agree: To lose our vocation is to lose the most important call that we have.
Now on to session four:
Nouwen begins by asks this question: “How do we conform our minds and hearts to the mind and heart of the self-emptying Christ?”
He answers this question by turning to the spiritual disciplines. He writes, “Formation is transformation, and transformation means a growing conformity to the mind of Christ, who did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself ...Thus discipleship cannot be realized without discipline. Discipline in the spiritual life, however, has nothing to do with the discipline of athletics, academic study, or job training, in which physical fitness is achieved, new knowledge is acquired, or a new skill is mastered. The discipline of the Christian disciple is not to master anything, but rather to be mastered by the Spirit. True Christian discipline is the human effort to create the space in which the Spirit of Christ can transform us into his lineage.”
Nouwen then speaks about three particular spiritual disciples: The discipline of the church, the disciple of Scripture and the discipline of Prayer.
The discipline of the church
It is through our participation in the church that “we remain in touch with the true story of God in history.” Without this participation and expansion of our understanding of life, Nouwen says, our Spirit’s will not only not be fed, but our lives will become “self” centered, rather than “Christ” centered. He points out that living self-centered lives will leave us unsatisfied. It leaves us “bored and restless, for our Spirit will always be calling us to something more.” That “more” is Christ, and this thirst can only be quenched by becoming a participant in God’s ongoing story in history.
The discipline of attending church not only connects us to the story of God in history, but reminds us that it is the door that we enter the story of Jesus “as a people represent the living Christ in time and space.” Gathered as church we unite with the people of God from all time, living out our part of God’s story in our time and place. That, writes Nouwen, is where we find our meaning and significance.
How big is your concept of “the church?” Do you see the church as place meant to meet your needs, or as a place where we gather to be a part of God’s history and meet God’s needs?
Take some time to think about your place in God’s unfolding history?
The discipline of Scripture
The Word of God isn’t just “word.” It is “living word.” The difference between word and living word, is that living word changes us. For instance, to say, “Will you marry me?” to your girlfriend or boyfriend, isn’t simply words like, “What do you want for supper?” The former are words that are living in you and you share them – “I love you with all my heart and I want to live the rest of my life with you as my partner.” Likewise, the person knows how they reply is going to change their lives forever. Living word is word that changes us.
That’s why Nouwen points out that the discipline of reading Scripture isn’t to capture information but rather it “requires eating the Word, chewing on it, digesting it, and thus letting it become true nourishment. Thus, the Word descends from our minds into our hearts and there finds a dwelling place ... it gives us a new heart and new mind, to conform us to Christ.”
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, John tells us that Jesus equals The Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Jesus incarnated the living Word of God in the world and continues to do so today through the Holy Scriptures.
The Bible speaks often about the Word of God entering our “hearts.” This means that the Word of God must become more than “head knowledge” and becomes “heart knowledge,” When the word enters our hearts it directs how we are going to live and act. It changes us!
In school and work we are encouraged to read the material given to us and “get it in your head.” That is not the primary way we are to read the Scripture. The Scripture is meant to “move” our hearts so that we see things differently and act differently.
I challenge you to read the three parables in Luke 15 today, not from the perspective of your head (memorizing the who, what, when and where of the story) but rather letting the words speak to you in your current situation and see if the Bible’s words take on new and wonderful meaning.
The Discipline of Prayer
Nouwen calls Prayer, “The discipline of the heart.” He also says it is the hardest of the disciplines to follow. He says this because we have been brought up to think prayer is only asking for help, or praying for others, when in actuality prayer is meeting Jesus and entering into a time of deep intimacy. And as we know, when we are intimate with others, we open ourselves up and become vulnerable – that’s scary, and that’s why so many don’t ever enter deeply into prayer.
“The discipline of prayer (the heart) is probably the discipline we give up most easily. Entering into the solitude of our closet and standing there in the presence of our God with nothing but our own nakedness, vulnerability, and sinfulness, requires an intense commitment to the spiritual life. Personal prayer is not rewarded by acclaim, does not translate into helpful projects, and only rarely leads to the inner experience of peace and joy. Yet, personal prayer is the true test of our vocation ... If we indeed desire to see God in and through the humiliated Christ living among us, and if we indeed want to follow Christ wherever he leads us, we need a pure heart, a heart free from the ‘ought’s’ and ‘musts’ of our world.”
Nouwen states we have to be very intentional about praying. “There is nothing romantic about prayer. If we take the discipline of the heart seriously, we have to start by setting aside a time and a place when and where we can be with God and God alone, not once in a while, but regularly. We need to look at our agenda and reserve time for personal prayer so that we can say honestly and without hesitation to those who want to see us at that time, ‘I am sorry, but I have already made an appointment then and it cannot be changed.’ For most of us it is very hard to spend a useless hour with God. It is hard precisely because by facing God alone we are also facing our own inner chaos. We come in direct confrontation with our restlessness, anxieties, resentments, unresolved tensions, hidden animosities, and long-standing frustrations. ... It is this painful stripping away of the old self, this falling away from all our old support systems that enables us to cry out for the unconditional mercy of God.”
In true prayer, we open our hearts to God AND as Nouwen wonderfully points out, “Through the discipline of the heart, we reach the heart of God. ... Prayer always leads us to the heart of God.”
When our hearts are open to God and we enter God’s heart – that is when we can walk into the world with the heart of holy compassion and minister to the deepest heartfelt thoughts and needs of others. That is a bringing forth of the very kingdom of God!
Do you find prayer easy or difficult? Why?
The challenge this week is find a time and commit to spending that time in prayer each and every day (start at 5 or 10 minutes). In time, this will become not only a holy habit, but a time you long for.
We will look at the question of “What does this all mean?”