on a heart at rest

As an assignment for my Christian Spirit class this past semester, we were asked to take a day-long retreat and read Henri Nouwen’s book The Way of the Heart. Fourth century Christians, now known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, lived in a time of intense worldliness in the city, and saw the desert as the only place where they could live out their Christians lives with integrity. Taking his cue from their spiritual disciplines, Nouwen discusses silence, solitude and prayer as timelessly helpful rhythms of life. After the retreat, we wrote a small piece on what we learned, which I have posted below. I was so grateful for a day of rest, and gifted with a new definition for “ministry.” Read on!

Layers of anxiety and busyness swept off of me with every kilometer I drove to my aunt and uncle’s farm, located in an agricultural area of Ladner, BC. Sitting in the solitude of sparsely furnished rooms and looking out to surrounding farmland served as a powerful contrast to the distracting character of bustling city life. Thinking I would begin my day with some Scripture, I began to read Psalms and a bit of Luke. However, I soon fell asleep. The evident fatigue was alarming to me, alerting me that I was depleted of rest I needed in order to spend a day engaged in solitude. Nouwen envisions solitude as a place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the compulsions of the world. I realized the critical need to discipline myself regularly to slow down enough to be able to be attentive to Christ’s shaping words and work.

The farming area was remote, serving as another stark contrast to my life in the city, and especially in contrast to the life of relational ministry I had been a part of for a period of my life ending earlier this year. Due to the demanding nature of that work, I had learned to relish every opportunity I had to be “inaccessible,” and still turn off my phone or social media to “escape” regularly, but I learned during this day away the silence is not just emptiness. Nouwen corrects this view by saying that true silence is actually concerned with bringing the heart to rest within the richness of God’s presence. This kind of silence, I soon found in practice, demands great energy; it is not a matter of being “turned off” but decidedly relaxing into God’s approval and control.

I took Nouwen’s advice to settle on a brief, repeated prayer later in the day. My thoughts were stilled as I rested in the first word, “Lord” of the Jesus prayer. The intensity of even the one word of the 7-word prayer, said repeatedly aloud made me aware of his presence in a way that I had not experienced. As I kept praying and journaling into the evening, I chose to light candles instead of extending my day with artificial light. This also served to remind me of my body’s limits, and the need to rest.

For me, this spiritual retreat mostly served as a critique of the busy life, and especially the busy life which is often a hallmark of “ministry.” Nouwen’s book refreshed me with a new definition for ministry: being able to provide others a glimpse of the heart at rest with God, rather than only being bodies or minds who fill needs. To truly reflect the heart of God is made especially difficult in a world which draws our attention in many directions, asking for help; this retreat made clear to me my own daily desperation for solitude, silence, and prayer to provide what is truly necessary.

on how to be a theology student in an unjust world

As I am entering this new season as a full-time student, I am burdened.

Internal dialogue (from frantic notes in class today):

[…] I cannot speak for the marginalized without being with them, spending my life on their behalf, and learning from them. I can’t remain confined in this classroom [of wealthy people] without being with people [in poverty], and learning what problems exist on the ground. My heart is not for the middle-class white people; my heart is to be among the least of these, just BE with them. Sure, the world and the classroom might need a voice for the marginalized among them, but I cannot offer that voice from where I currently stand. […] I want to learn in an environment that challenges me. This environment does not challenge my pre-suppositions in any way. I’m not running up against anything that is making me come alive. [..] I cannot ignore urgent needs [providing presence, meals, housing, community, accountability, mentoring]; I just can’t. Like, I just feel like I’ve already been presented with so many things [feed the hungry; clothe the naked; give water to the thirsty; deny yourself; take up your cross; go the extra mile] that I’m not yet obedient to. Why do I need to fill my head with knowledge when I already have things to do?

See, if you know me, you’ll know that a lot of my thinking was turned on its head a little while ago when I read The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne (and thought he was the best thing since sliced bread). Shane advocates for a “true” Christian life which involves moving into the neighbourhood, suffering, etc. And he also says things like this:

Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.

Ugh.

And so, while I was trying to quell these voices today, I google-searched “what is wrong with Shane Claiborne” … and actually came up with quite a lot. It hadn’t really occurred to me before that what he writes isn’t exactly… the Word of God according to which I believe I should live my life… that (according to one article) his thoughts could easily be characterized as “popularized Christian anarchism for young, disaffected, middle-class Americans.”

So yeah, using relying on Shane, and ignoring the need to put him through a Biblical lens (or even seek for the voice of Jesus in this area of my life) … kind of problematic.

And then, coming across these beautiful words by (my fave) Henri Nouwen (posted by someone as a comment on this blog post by Rachel Held Evans, titled ‘How to follow Jesus … without being Shane Claiborne’):

There are few things as radical as genuinely knowing your neighbours, loving those you encounter every day, living your life with the simplicity that not only frees up money, but also is free of the disease of over-activity so that you can actually have the time to do all of the above.  As Henri Nouwen wrote:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.  My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets.  It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.  But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own and to let them know with words, handshakes and hugs that you do not simply like them- but truly love them.”

Because radical love is what it’s about, isn’t it? Just maybe.