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Professional Vices & Swimming for Life

~Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

“Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at the followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.”

Ministry can be frustrating at times. I will occasionally vent to Krista about different things and she will ask me if I am angry. I usually reply that I am not angry, just a little frustrated. Its funny how the “frustrating” things can be stifled enough for a smooth word, smiling face, and polite handshake but deep down those little frustrations turn into what Nouwen calls hidden anger, frozen anger, insidious anger. How can we keep our frustrations for building up into such things which create biting resentment and paralyze generous hearts. I think we have all known ministers who have fallen into this. We can see it in the ministries they lead and hear it in their conversations.

This section from The Way of the Heart is actually the first part of a chapter on solitude. Henri Nouwen talks about how the Desert Fathers would “swim for their lives” into the desert to escape the temptations of this world. I find it ironic that he is using swim to describe anything that happens in the desert but when we think about the release that is found in intentionally stepping back from our frustrations to let the Spirit guide us, His counsel satisfies our thirst in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So much so in fact that we can swim for our lives.

“If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.” We are not called to lead people using grim and dull ministries. The Gospel of Christ is cause for celebration. Celebration flows from a generous heart, heartfelt words, genuine smiles, and nail-scarred handshakes. Frustrations get in the way of celebrations. How can we swim for our lives and free ourselves from professional vices (like anger) without stepping out of contemporary ministry settings?


Fan the Flame

There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney, and go along their way. Look here, now what must be done? Must one tend the inner fire, have salt in oneself, wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down – maybe to stay? Let him who believes in God wait for the hour that will come sooner or later. ~Vincent van Gogh

This was quoted by Henri J.M. Nouwen in The Way of the Heart. He is talking about silence. He uses this quote to reflect on how we seldom tend the inner fire of our souls. We want others to be warmed by it so badly that we stand with the door open saying, “Come inside and get warmed!” Yet, all this really does is cool the inside which was once warm. Instead, we ought to stoke to fire and get it roaring. You can tell about the warmth inside by looking at the chimney. A wisp of smoke means a weak fire.

Henri Nouwen says that, “The word is the instrument of the present world and silence is the mystery of the future world.” By choosing not to speak, we keep the door closed and wait patiently for the hour to come when someone will see the billows of smoke escaping from our chimney, and then – sooner or later – someone will knock on the door and find warmth inside.

My Clinging Fears and Single Minded Attention to Christ

“Only in the context of grace can we face our sin; only in the place of healing do we share our wounds; only with a single-minded attention to Christ can we give up our clinging fears and face our own true nature. As we come to realize that it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us, that he is our true self, we can slowly let compulsions melt away and begin to experience the freedom of the children of God.”
~Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
I saw this painting, Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar, a long time ago. I did not realize what it was until reading Nouwen’s Way of the Heart and googling it to see what he was talking about. It illustrates the above passage. It seems we often try to fight our “demons” in a context where there is no grace and forgiveness. I often will ask for forgiveness knowing that I do not deserve it but also feeling like I cannot really have it. I am not sure why I do this, perhaps because I often fail repeatedly and do not want to feel that the grace being offered is cheap. I think it probably cheapens the grace even more when I do not ask for forgiveness in a context of grace with only Christ in mind. If I could think about Christ and becoming like him when I am in need of forgiveness, then perhaps I would not feel that the grace being offered is unattainable. In Grünewald’s painting, St. Anthony is in need of help and Christ is right there to provide it.
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