I’ve spent years chiseling away at the beautiful façade I’ve constructed around my faith. At times, the chisel has been traded for a sledgehammer:
- When I watched as a lone Buddhist monk was turned away from entering a megachurch because he wasn’t dressed appropriately
- When I heard Mother Teresa condemned to hell by a prominent theologian
- When my Christ-following husband battled drug addiction
- When I realized the existence of genuine Christ-followers outside the bastion of Evangelical Fundamentalism
- When I discovered the loneliness of being a poor working mother in suburban women’s ministry
- When, with fellow MKs, I confronted abuses we’d suffered as children on the mission field
And then my children became adults.
Nouwen’s “Ministry of the Future”
When I have reached the edge of despair, I have often found a voice of hope in the writing of Henri Nouwen. His gentle words addressing heartaches, failures, angers, and doubts coax my wounded and wandering heart and mind back to the welcoming embrace of God.
I recently picked up The Wounded Healer and was astonished to read how much the United States of 2022 has in common with the United States of 1972. Fifty years ago, Americans had been through years of protests and violence over the Vietnam war and Civil Rights. They were disillusioned by government deception, deeply divided, enticed by free love, and they found ways to numb the threat of nuclear war with drugs and drinking. The setting is familiar.
Nouwen writes in the introduction:
“What does it mean to be a minister in our contemporary society? This question has been raised during the last few years by many men and women who want to be of service, but who find the familiar ways crumbling and themselves stripped of their traditional protections.” (The Wounded Healer, p. xv.)
Yes, it’s a book written for ministry leaders, but I think the practices Nouwen proposes in place of “familiar ways” and “traditional protections” might also be taken as wise guidelines for how to talk to and live with the people I love who are asking hard questions today. I’ve pulled out three: articulate the movements of the Spirit, learn the ways of contemplative criticism, and practice true hospitality.
Articulate the movements of the Spirit
When Nouwen writes that the minister of the future must articulate the movements of the Spirit, he is speaking primarily of Spiritual Direction. But foundational to living with someone in a period of deconstructing their faith, is accepting that God is at work in their heart and mind. Patience for the process comes when I have allowed the Holy Spirit full access to my own heart and mind.
Have I wrestled with my own questions? What am I holding onto for security? Where am I resisting the Holy Spirit? Have I let go of the need to be right? Have I repented of pride? This examination is humbling, but it clears the fog of our own understanding.
“As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work [ministry]…. only he who is able to articulate his own experience can offer himself to others as a source of clarification” (pg. 38).
“Offer” is key. It allows for the possibility of rejection.
Learn the ways of contemplative criticism
The contemplative way is marked by prayer. Nouwen writes that the minister of the future is a person of prayer, a person who has to pray, and who has to pray always. This communion with God leads to attunement with Christ and is the source of perspective and compassion.
Nouwen’s contemplative critic doesn’t get caught up in debates over “the trivial concerns of a possessive world.” Rather, they make room for questions, ask good questions, and learn when to get out of the way of the Holy Spirit’s work.
“[The contemplative critic] constantly invites his fellow man to ask real, often painful and upsetting questions, to look behind the surface of smooth behavior, and to take away all the obstacles that prevent him from getting to the heart of the matter” (pg. 45).
The contemplative critic considers how to answer and does more listening than talking. Listening well is difficult, especially when what’s being said triggers defenses. Sometimes, they may not be able to fully articulate what they’re deconstructing. They may not differentiate between something they’ve experienced personally and the experience of their peers or the wider world. Verbal processors dump all kinds of things into the conversation when they’re sorting their thoughts. Am I getting stuck in feelings of shame or guilt? Are my regrets making me defensive? I have to choose to hear their heart, and I must learn to filter mine.
Practice true hospitality
Nouwen brings up hospitality “as a healing ministry” at the end of The Wounded Healer. “Hospitality is the ability to pay attention to the guest,” he writes (pg. 89). And “… hospitality asks for the creation of an empty space where the guest can find his own soul” (pg. 92). This isn’t a fancy dinner, it’s a welcome with open arms, and a safe place for deconstructors to wrestle with big questions.
It is this vision of hospitality that Nouwen revisits in Reaching Out, which I picked up to read as soon as I finished Wounded Healer. To parents he writes:
“Our children are our most important guests, who enter into our home, ask for careful attention, stay for a while and then leave to follow their own way…. they are guests we have to respond to, not possessions we are responsible for” (Reaching Out, pg. 81).
To practice true hospitality—to give my adult child “space to find their own soul”—I need to take the long view of their journey. It’s not easy, but it’s good for me – and for them – for me to let go and trust their future to God.
Chipping away at my own façade
I’ve spent restless hours picking at myself. Maybe you have, too.
If you’d religiously followed every teaching in Growing Kids God’s Way, or homeschooled your kids through high school, or joined Moms in Prayer when they were in kindergarten like you always intended to, or not let them watch Harry Potter, or sent them on mission trips—on and on as you work your way through the playbook for Good Christian Parenting in the United States in the 21st Century.
Maybe you did so many “right” things, but there were important things you couldn’t do. So much of “Christian Parenting” depends on having two healthy parents devoted to nurturing faith. So much of mothering my children was devoted to surviving the devastating effects of addiction, to protecting them from experiencing the abuses I’d suffered in Christian community, and to working to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Maybe it was or is that way for you. If you’ve done some deconstructing of your own, you are in a good place to offer hope and presence to someone in process.
It’s the minister of the future that Nouwen calls the “The Wounded Healer.” Our service, he writes, “will not be perceived as authentic unless it comes from a heart wounded by the suffering about which [we] speak” (The Wounded Healer, pg. xvi).