Christians in Practice?
Which books do you put by the loo?
For me, there are three different sorts.
First, there are those that offer possibilities to my kids, but which they'll never look at if I recommend them. At the moment that includes Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems and Spinoza in a Nutshell. A particular success in category was Who's Buried Where in England which gave a potted biography of some of the country's greatest doers and thinkers.
Second, are those that offer an 'instant hit': these never get rotated off that little shelf. They are books to flick open at any page to for a few lines of information, inspiration or reflection. One of these is the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, an 18th Birthday present. Originally one volume, it's now collapsed into three of different lengths - but still offers daily challenge and wonder. Alongside it sits Oliver Rackham's History of the Countryside, which works much better in the loo than it sounds as if it should: every paragraph is a fresh insight into the creation of our landscape.
In the final category are a few go-to books which retain lifelong wisdom that somehow always seems fresh.
Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership is one of these. A short, simple read, it's nonetheless deep and challenging. A book to pick me up when I'm feeling stuck, to remind me of what's really important in my life's journey - and to ask 'are you there yet?' The answer, of course, is no - but thank you, Henri, for asking so gently.
I imagine it's a book that most people reading this blog will know. It charts three temptations to the Christian minister/leader: to try to be relevant, popular, and powerful. Don't tell me you haven't been often tempted by at least one of those. Nouwen shows how the devil tempted Jesus with all three, and outlines the alternatives in faithful Christian practice.
It's a nourishing read in itself, but what especially interests me for this blog is how Nouwen ended up writing this book. He has spent over twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, so he knows how to do theory and formal education. But a mid-ministry crisis led to a profound change - and a move from academia, as Nouwen went to live with people with learning difficulties in the L'Arche community.
Nouwen describes this move as both a calling and as an answer to a prayer for guidance. His experience at L'Arche is transformative. His learning becomes concrete and practical, and his examples are of surprising individual encounters. Despite the preconceptions of a background in academia, he finds he learns much from those with learning disabilities. He learns from their dispositions; from their straightforward spontaneous testimony; and perhaps above all he learns what community really means, as he sees the call to be not to be relevant, popular or powerful reflected in the people around him. These are things that can be understood with the power of abstract thought, but only learnt by experience, whether direct or indirect.
Moving from academia to L'Arche, Nouwen discovers that his ministry in community is not the fruit of his learning. It is simply not that linear. Rather, he can only minister to them because he learns from them; and in fact he learns from the people he ministers to because he ministers to them.
He sees this relationship between ministry and learning emerge in his role in the community, but it also affects who he is in relationship to the wider world. Nouwen continues to give lectures and retreats from time to time, but now, when he does so, he must either seek the blessing of the community to depart from them; or to take members of the community with him. In this short book we see both options unfold.
So, Nouwen's humility continues to call me, and to help to illuminate the work of Christians in Practice. It seems appropriate that his humble wisdom is to be found in the humblest corner of the house. I'm sure he'd approve.