At one of my Pre-Christmas Youth Minister gatherings we had a "book exchange" instead of a gift exchange. I love and hate book exchanges because while there is a great chance of getting introduced to a great author that someone else treasures, there is also a great chance of getting stuck with a book that has been stuck, un-read, in a drawer by someone's toilet for the last three years.
But, one of my good friends, Molly, is a very literary and spiritual soul, and usually brings good books. So, I looked forward to stealing her book as soon as possible. She is also a Henri Nouwen fanatic. I read most of a small book by Nouwen in college, and it just didn't do anything for me. I though He had three strikes against him: He was Catholic (which I had no taste for at the time), he was Canadian (still not sure about them), and he did not teach in what I considered a very "Biblical" way (I was, at the time, a fundamentalist-ish Bible Church Christian who believed that good teaching came in the form of Biblical proofs, using Biblical prooftexts, constantly saying "and the Greek/Hebrew of this text really says...", while throwing in a funny and relevant illustrative story every now and then).
So, while what he said was nice and didn't seem heretical, it just didn't speak to me. I never finished the book.
Fast forward 10 years to this party. Molly brought a Nouwen book "In the Name of Jesus". This book wasn't my first choice, but the pickings were sparse, and heck, if Molly liked it, it can't be all bad. So I picked it up. And it sat in my stash of Christmas books until today (I usually get a small library of new and used books every Christmas). I picked it up finally.
I started reading it, and it started speaking to me. About 1/3 of the way through, I realized it was the same book that I read in college. It is amazing how time and experience change your perception. It took me all of about 2 hours to finish the entire book.
In this book he dealt with critical issues about the nature of ministry in the [post]modern world that I have been wrestling with for the last year. How do we stand for Jesus in a consumer society that sucks the life out of everything just to make a buck? How do we proclaim a Suffering Savior that calls us to suffer and sacrifice along side Him in the midst of a culture that says "New! Improved! Easier! Better! Try it for 30 days and if it does not work, double your money back!"? In the face of a culture that idolizes pastors who have 20,000 seat stadiums as sanctuaries, what should pastors do who could never be that hip, trendy, cool, or relevant?
Nouwen uses Jesus' experience of temptation in Matthew 4, and Peter's re-instatement and call to ministry in John 21, as the framework to build a theology of ministry that confronts the powers and principalities of consumer culture. He calls us to question and deny the temptation to be "relevant", "popular", and "powerful", by choosing to be irrelevant, despised, and self-emptying like our Lord. Only by irrelevance will we speak to the deepest needs of culture. Only by being despised will we create a community of total acceptance, confession, and forgiveness. Only by emptying ourselves will we ever be filled with the power of the resurrection.
I thought this book was totally irrelevant for the last decade. But, in it, God spoke to me as clearly as he has in the last decade. The quote that I read and re-read at least 20 times today was this:
"I am deeply convinced that 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." (p.17. Henri Nouwen. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. 1989. Crossroad: NY).
If you have 2 hours to kill and want God to speak to you, I recommend this book highly.