Feb 21 – Feb 27: From Relevance to Prayer

Reading: Part I – From Relevance to Prayer (p 25 to p 47)

Thanks to each of you for joining us on our Lenten journey—whether you have posted a comment or are following along quietly.  We have been richly blessed by those of you that have opened your hearts and shared your experiences and insights so beautifully.

This week Henri leads us to look at our lives through the twin lenses of  Jesus’ response to the temptation to turn stones into bread at the outset of his ministry and the three-fold question “Do you love me?” that he posed to Peter—and to each of us—as his earthly ministry was ending.  Henri captures the essence of the Gospel and the challenge of our mission to build up the Kingdom of God when he exhorts us:

The great message we have to carry, as ministers of God’s Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of human life. (p 30)

And Henri then offers us the discipline of contemplative prayer to help us live our calling.

As will be the case for three consecutive weeks, you are encouraged to reflect on the temptation, the question, and the discipline and to prayerfully consider how they are related to your own life experiences—either now or in the past.  I will pose several questions that may help get you started.  Finally, please share your thoughts and insights on these questions or anything you find meaningful, to the extent you are comfortable.

1.  In reflecting on the temptation to be relevant, Henri describes the modern secular world  and the challenges it poses to Christian ministers, indeed to all Christian people.  (L)oneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world… (M)ore and more people are suffering from profound moral and spiritual handicaps without having any idea of where to look for healing.
a) Does Henri’s characterization of the secular world reflect circumstances you observe in your own life or in the lives of others?  b) How are you or other Christian leaders you are aware of responding the challenge posed by Henri?

2.  In presenting the question, “Do you love me?” Henri describes the unconditional and unlimited love only God can give as “God’s first love.”  And the the broken reflection of that love that we receive from parents, our spouse, our children, and others in our community is the imperfect and sometimes painful “second love.”  Henri writes:
Jesus’ heart is the incarnation of the…first love of God…  Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing… And when we live in a world with that knowledge, we cannot do other than to bring healing, reconciliation, new life, and hope wherever we go.
a) How does Henri’s description of God’s first love and human second love align with your experience?  b) What steps have you taken or seen others taking to open your heart to Jesus’ heart and to bring God’s first love into the world.

3.  In describing the discipline of contemplative prayer, Henri says, The original meaning of the word “theology” was “union with God in prayer”… Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-formed opinions about the burning issues of our time.  Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus…
a)  What disciplines or practices do you or others that you know use to develop a heart that knows God intimately through “union with God in prayer”?   b) On page 45 Henri compares the Christian leadership of those rooted in a relationship with Jesus and those that are not.  Have you experienced these different approaches and what was the result?

We look forward to another rewarding discussion this week.

Peace and all good.

27 Replies to “Feb 21 – Feb 27: From Relevance to Prayer”

  1. Friends,

    Thanks to each of you for your open and heartfelt comments. It is a blessing to each of us sharing this Lenten journey, whether actively commenting or walking along silently and benefiting from the insights of others. I also want to apologize to those who had to wait longer than usual to see your comments posted. I have been in and out of daytime and evening meetings this week, preventing me from visiting the site as often as I would like.

    If anyone has more comments about the reading this week, there is still plenty of time. And we are looking forward to discussing the next section From Popularity to Ministry beginning on Sunday.

    Peace and all good.

  2. It requires a sharp eye and heart, to look into one’s or another person’s moral and emotional condition to be able to determine feelings of loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship etc.. For example, I have close family members who at first glance seemed to “have everything”. But then, as I approach them with compassion, I can clearly observe their moral and spiritual handicaps.
    Personally, in my early career days, I became obsessed about gaining all kinds of skills “to be able to convert stones into bread”. The irony was that my employer did not take any advantage of this new knowledge and new skills. I just became frustrated/empty.
    Later in life, I realized that developing a closer relationship with Christ was more fulfilling to me than what I had previously expected if I would become very successful in the secular world.
    I purposely decreased so that others were able to increase. Some people still judged me as if I had seek refuge in God, because of my apparent lack of worldly success, but in reality, I was no longer afraid to be irrelevant.

    I can bring healing, reconciliation, new life and hope to people only if I can freely enter into the suffering of this life (just as Christ did in the Incarnation) and with Christ’s grace. Moving from my zone of comfort, to a zone of sacrifice seems to be where the call and answer is. The “second love” is imperfect and painful because our ego is in our way.

    One of the first disciplines to develop a heart that knows God intimately is the acceptance of a dark and painful road which all joy and almost consolation is excluded (ref: St. John of the Cross).
    Periods of self probation, and mortification of senses and being able to cope with periods of dryness, and temptation to give up are all important to achieve union with God in prayer.

  3. The timing of this chapter is nothing but Divine! I have an 18 year old daughter who is struggling in life right now. The ‘obvious next step of college’ seems to be closing its door to her and we have been left with the struggle between what is her purpose and societies pressure of education is the only way to success. The foundational purpose that Henri so clearly lays out is undoubtably ideal and seemingly impossible but is a concept that is imperative! “The desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved. There is no reason to be afraid. In love God created your inmost self and knit you together in your mother’s womb.'”

    At 41, I can say this is my greatest desire… but at 18, it is not even apart of her thought process. But here is what is most beautiful to me – I get to say to my daughter, “You are loved and there is no reason to fear. It is in love you were knit together…” and when she draws near to the comfort of that idea, she will be able to pass it along to the next despaired brother or sister.

    This purpose has to start here, in me, first! When I can embrace the idea of “lower” and let the desires of relevance and success fall away, only then can I carry the reflection of true love into a hurt and broken world.

    1. Thank you for sharing this story, which touches me and helps me understand how much the world needs the message of Christ’s love.

  4. I have both experienced and witnessed in others the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship etc. of the contemporary world. Since coming back to the church and rekindling my spiritual life I have also experienced the feeling of irrelevance because as Henri says “it seems that” my “efforts are fruitless.” In fact things seems to be getting progressively worse. My heart rejoiced when I read that “the leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation.” I can claim my irrelevance instead of battling against it. In order to live out this vocation I need to know the heart of Jesus and hear him ask me “Do you love me?” And this involves the discipline of contemplative prayer. For me this is Christian meditation. This reflection has been so encouraging for me and I thank God for all the participants and their sharing. May God continue to bless you all and give you peace.

  5. My favourite writing from this week is p.30. “God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.” This explains the goodness of God which we receive. As Tony Capolo says in his book What’s so Amazing about Grace , “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you less.”

  6. As I was reading today, hearing Jesus asking me if I love Him…….I was reminded of the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:4, being told that they had abandoned their first love and that their lampstand would be removed if no repentance……removal of the lampstand signifies for me ineffectiveness…the ineffectiveness that comes with trying to be relevant without the grounding of a growing, personal, loving relationship with Jesus. I find myself relaxing as I recognize the simplicity of leadership grounded in “dwelling in the Presence of God”, all that is mentioned p.43 concerning leaders/men and women of God….on a personal note, in relation to Jesus’ appearance to His friends after resurrection, God’s beauty in the wounded Christ gets my attention, wounds take on a different look for me…reminding me of my first love with a heart of gratitude..now I remember.

    1. Your insights inspired me. Thank you. They helped me to understand why one local spiritual leader inspires me and another does not in my life.

  7. By encouraging a brother who’d left the church to return, I kept emphasizing that God would forgive him of anything, unlike someone who was in his life at the time. I’M having a problem with forgiving that person who was prominent in his life. I’m dealing with that still. I keep in my mind that “first love” of God as compared to “the second love” of others. Hoping that through my prayer time I will learn more about God’s healing grace that will help me to forgive the person who hurt someone so dear to me in my life. I thought I’d dealt with this issue. I’m thinking it is brought back to the forefront for me as a temptation–temptation to be angry and therefore not allowing God to handle this hurt within me. I will not give in! “Do you love me?” Yes I do, enough to put away these feelings and follow you!

    1. I feel for you in the struggle with dealing with the feelings you thought you had already dealt with! I had a similar battle with angry feelings resurfacing after I had thought God had enabled me to forgive someone. However the one act of betrayal that I had forgiven had many facets, some of which continue to come to the surface and cause hurt. I was so disappointed in myself, thinking my forgiveness could not have been real, but I came to realise Jesus words about being required to forgive ’70 times 7′ could apply to a single act, not necessarily to to 70 times 7 separate or repeated sins. Sometimes the consequences of the original hurt are experienced afresh, and a new conscious act of forgiveness is needed, but without having to feel that the first act of forgiveness was unreal. A fresh touch of Gods grace and love can help you to ‘handle’ the ongoing hurt and anger. I love it that there is no sense of rebuke in Jesus repeating “Do you love me?”but joy in the deeper level responses the repeated question elicits.

      1. Thank you for sharing with me your thoughts on this. I did feel like I’d progressed. Not giving up on forgiving in this situation and glad God doesn’t give up on me either!

  8. Relevance means little to me now because I am retired which may enable one to be more open about ones feelings and beliefs.. Yet I still have a deep desire for friendship and intamacy in my family relationships. I do not always find it. The Catholic Sacraments are a lifeline for me, also daily prayers has become what I basically live on though Rosary, Liturgy of the hours, Magnificat etc. These seem to open up spiritual nurture that keeps me alive. I know what it is to want to be held figuratively and literally as Nouwen did in his time of recovery. Prayerful practices and a few friends are a blessing in dealing with feeling of loneliness.

  9. From Pat Martin
    I am a late and first time participant but am looking forward to being a part of the discussion. I’ve been part of a small book group centered around Henri Nouwen’s writings for 6+ years.

  10. I’ve read everyone’s posts so far and am touched and humbled by what has been shared. We do not walk the journey alone.

    The thought that is standing out to me this week is “every time fear, isolation, or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God” (38). Often in ministry I find myself feeling these three things in various subtle ways that I barely notice. They creep in below the surface when not as many people show up as I expected, when I take a comment personally that wasn’t meant that way, or when I feel disconnected from friends and colleagues. To name them for what they are and to be consciously and prayerfully aware that they do not come from God is freeing.

    So this week my spiritual challenge is to first recognize when they creep in and second to remind myself that they do not come from God. How freeing!

  11. I am so far from being this person, this kind of mystical leader: “… every word spoken, every word of advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately.” What I hear in Henri’s words is a call to pray without ceasing, to practice the presence of God, to listen more deeply than I have ever done.

  12. I felt very encouraged reading Henri’s section on relevance – or lack of. The characteristics of the secular world that Henri mentions in this first section have been and still are to a lesser extent part of my life. I can, on occasion, feel lonely or a little depressed. During those times I will turn to the Lord in prayer but sometimes that is not enough. I need “God -in -the-flesh”, so to speak, a close friend to just listen to me or simply be with me! Here in Ecuador I can also feel that sense of ” uselessness” (or irrevelance) when I see so much unjustice around me and there is nothing I can do about it. So many people can’t afford their medicine and I can only help one or two. But at the same time, I have realized that what people need more than material help is friendship, a real “presence”, my company. When I visit the sick I feel animated when I see their faces light up when I walk through the door. Yes, they are happy to receive Jesus in the Eucharist (and the Word) but they are also happy to receive Jesus in the person. As St. Theresa’s Prayer says, “Christ has no body now but yours.” We are called to be Christ’s body to others simply by our presence.

  13. This has been such a wonderful reading, in which I find that I’m really asking myself where my relationship with Jesus really is? The love question is so poignant as to my ministry in which I can not give what I do not have. The challenge is to grow in my love for Jesus, his word, his church, and those areas that I’m having personal issues with. Henri really has touched my heart, and I am finding these questions very soulful. Also, in my ministry I find that these questions are making me be more honest with my giving spiritual advice to “Love God with all your heart,” with much careful thought and not just saying out of rote. I’m so happy I have entered in this first time discussion and book. Thank you.

  14. The richness of this first chapter on seeking to become irrelevant overwhelms me.
    First: this chapter helps me to finally understand one of the traditions my “Anonymous” fellowship espouses. The tradition states ” Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our program.” Couldn’t anonymity and irrelevance be mildly synonymous? We face our addictions on a level playing field: rich, poor, old, young, etc. Our accomplishments are clearly irrelevant on the addiction battlefield. Why not the other battlefields we fight together as Christians?
    Second: my current pastor has a problem accepting “the Mystics.” He also has a problem with claiming strong opinions on situations and issues the bible is not clear about, believing that they are theological danger zones. I see people leave the church because of it. This seems to me to be the divisiveness spoken of on page 45. However, when we are willing to be intimate with our Lord, and not just theologically correct, Nouwen claims we can be ” 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.”
    Finally, it grieves me that my son-in-law, a new pastor, is experiencing the same harshness in the ministry as I feel from time to time in my own growing congregation. I will send him In the Name of Jesus for some encouragement. This first chapter is worth its weight in gold!

  15. During lent and advent my local parish offers evenings of Taize Prayer. I find this form of prayer with simple chanting music, scripture and periods of silence a very mystical Experience.
    My experience with the Christian leadership of those rooted in a relationship with Jesus compared to those who are not has been and continues to be in the context of the issue of homosexuality. As a Catholic parent of a gay child I have benefited from the love, compassion and wisdom of the first and been hurt and alienated by the second.
    Henry’s writings are a wonderful source of comfort and inspiration.

  16. I wrote the following reflection last week as I was reading these chapters and was so blown away by Henri’s angles on the meaning of being “relevant.” Though my reflection does not directly address this week’s questions, I guess that, in fact, getting over one’s own relevance is necessary in order to have an open heart and bring God’s first love into the world.

    Here it is:
    Many of us struggle with the tension between the self that can “do things, show things, prove things, build things” for the sake of relevancy and the self that can do those same things for the pure love of God. If I am blessed with certain talents and a life that affords me opportunities to use those talents in the service of others, I feel responsible to do, show, prove, or build. However, how to avoid wanting the attention to be on me more than on the good I may have accomplished? Can I just be, so to speak, the anonymous donor of a good action? Can I do good without becoming smug, self-righteous, or proud?
    What I love about the St. Vincent DePaul Society is the practice of making home visits both to determine the nature of a family’s need for our help and to establish a personal relationship with that family. There is nothing like a home visit to flip the focus to one struggling family. Could I muster the courage of the single mom who must work two minimum-wage jobs, fight the landlord over black mold and roaches, hustle her children past the drug dealer in the apartment complex parking lot, and pray that she won’t be laid off at work again? Home visits are both an exercise in humility and an act of love. It is there that I find the least temptation to relevancy for myself.

  17. I have had a slow start this Lent, but after spending time this evening reading last week’s posts, I feel that it is not too late to join the dance! I am so encouraged by each of you, I feel like I am coming home to special friends and looking forward to making new ones.

    I hope to respond to this week’s questions soon, but for tonight, I just want to say thank you to Ray and to all of you who will be meeting here for this Lenten journey. God bless!

  18. I found Henri’s distinction between a first and second love really helpful to me right now. Having just moved from Louisville home to Boston, my primary purpose was to reconnect with friends and family. As a single woman I wanted to re-establish roots and recapture history. I got pneumonia soon after arriving. It felt hurtful and angering to find out that friends could not be there for me in ways that I hoped they would be. Disappointment began to set in. Reading Henri’s words and meditating on them caused me to see that only God, my first love could fill this hole in my soul. Whether in Louisville or Boston, my children, friends and family could not make up for my losses as a child. Only in asking God’s Spirit could say with assurance” don’t fear, trust in God” and “wait on Him until He answers.” The unavailability of my community forced me albeit resistantly, to seek a deeper intimacy with God in this troubling time in my life.

    1. I too have family and friends who have rejected or ignored me in times of deep need even after I have been faithful to them for years. another thing I have experienced is these same persons changing the rules about what has been accepted as normal parts of close family relationships and expected me to just go along with the changes even if I did not agree. Here is where Henri’s teaching on counting on your first love and not the seconds has helped, I am also now active in Catholic church,(after 40years as a Protestant mainline pastor. The sacraments especially the Eucharist and reconciliation seem to help me find my first love (God) in a way that helps me cope. Blessing on your struggles. Peace David

  19. What a powerful reading. Many things for me to meditate on and consider its application to my journey and ministry to others. Yesterday, as I was getting a manicure and pedicure, my stylist of 8+ years shared her intense brokenness and despair over her fractured marriage. It was during her sharing of her intense pain that I was able to extend love and caring to her. Because, you see, though she is a Muslim and I am a Christian, we are both married women who desire to be deeply loved by our husbands. I am blessed to have such a husband and God so obviously put her in my path to walk with her on this journey. I hope in some way, she will see the love of Christ through me. We have both grieved the loss of a parent, so although we may respond differently (I through faith in Christ), we still cried together as we grieved. If the Lord brings Kathy to your mind, please pray for her and for me as I seek to continue to extend love to her.

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