Saturday, October 23, 2010

Turning Stones to Bread: The "First Temptation of Christian Ministry" - The Temptation to be Relevant (From Henri Nouwen's "In the Name of Jesus")

The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. The great message that 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 true source of all human life.

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread…Aren’t we priests and ministers called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives? Aren’t we called to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor? Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the word, and said: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”.

One of the main sufferings experienced in the ministry is that of low self-esteem. Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but they do not see much change. It seems that their efforts are fruitless. They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and doctors are often more trusted than they.

One of the most painful realizations for many Christian leaders is that fewer and fewer young men feel attracted to follow in their footsteps. It seems that nowadays, becoming and being a priest or minister is no longer something worth dedicating your life to. Meanwhile there is little praise and much criticism in the Church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?

The secular world around is saying in a loud voice, “We can take care of ourselves. We do not need God, the Church, or a priest. We are in control. And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control. The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence. If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent negotiators. God, the Church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions”.

In this climate of secularization, Christian leaders feel less and less relevant and more and more marginal. Many begin to wonder why they should stay in the ministry. Often they leave, develop a new competency, and join their contemporaries in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world.

But there is a completely different story to tell. Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, 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.

The cry that arises from behind all this is clearly: “Is there anybody who loves me; is there anybody who really cares? Is there anybody who wants to stay home for me? Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying? Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?” Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident society.

It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Christ there.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)