Henri Nouwen Advent Reflection

A friend of mine, JR Woodward, loves the writing of Henri Nouwen as much as I do. Today this appeared on his blog and serves as a word of encouragement for us.

“I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God’s saving power…Our temptation is to be distracted by them…When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence – the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair.

The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises.” – Henri Nouwen

These gentle words are both piercing and prophetic.

Returning to God’s Ever-Present Love

“We often confuse unconditional love with unconditional approval. God loves us without conditions but does not approve of every human behavior. God doesn’t approve of betrayal, violence, hatred, suspicion, and all other expressions of evil, because they all contradict the love God wants to instill in the human heart. Evil is the absence of God’s love. Evil does not belong to God.

God’s unconditional love means that God continues to love us even when we say or think evil things. God continues to wait for us as a loving parent waits for the return of a lost child. It is important for us to hold on to the truth that God never gives up loving us even when God is saddened by what we do. That truth will help us to return to God’s ever-present love.”
~Henri Nouwen

Nouwen identifies what is perhaps the biggest point of confusion about God’s love; unconditional love and unconditional approval. Unconditional love is the hardest kind, because it begs us to offer a love that doesn’t always feel good. This love says hard things when they are called for. This love sees past relational comfort to the well being of the whole person. And what is more, this love demands the greatest measure of forgiveness between the beloved, because to go the distance with proper love is the most expensive option for all. But the rewards are great. From God’s perspective, we experience love to an unimaginable degree in the cross, and as Nouwen says above, this love will help us return to God. Form our perspective, when we follow God’s pattern, we extend this same love and participate in returning others to God. We can be sure that this is the economy of the new creation we hope in; an inheritance that won’t spoil or fade.

Happy New Year – Do you know you are Beloved?

I would like to extend a very Happy New Year to the readers of Toward Hope and I would also like to pose a question for you. Do you know that you are beloved? No, really…do you know this in a deep way? Do you know that you are loved beyond measure by the one who breathed life into you? Perhaps the dawn of a new year is a fitting time to reflect and remember this truth about yourself. Come with me, if you will, on a journey of how I have been blessed this day… and perhaps you might share my blessing.

Yesterday as our family was getting ready to visit our good friends Rick and Cari, our son, Nathaniel, fell sick. That meant we stayed home cleaning up after him and celebrating the New Year with a little sickness. It was a quiet night. After the kids went down, I thought to read, so I reached for Henri Nouwen’s book, “Life of the Beloved” and thought this short book would be a great way to start the new year.

This book is a letter to a dear friend of Nouwen’s named Fred, and is an attempt to explain the spiritual life in simple and understandable terms. It is written with the non believer in mind. Nouwen offers the single word “beloved” as the one to cling to; the word that summarizes the essence of the spiritual journey toward God. The journey toward realizing our belovedness is the one that leads to God. How simple a truth that we so often forget; our “belovedness”. So are you beloved?

The answer is “Yes” according to Nouwen. Even those of us in the Christian faith who know in our heads that we are beloved struggle to live out this truth deeply from our hearts. even as Christian’s we struggle for affirmation, approval, and rejection of self in debilitating ways that hinder our growth. Nouwen writes this book in the spirit of the affirming voice of God upon Jesus at his baptism (Matt 3:16-17) and suggests that we are chosen in similar regard. He reminds us that the latent feelings of self-rejection that lie within are only remedied by a realization of our belovedness. For recognizing our belovedness can soothe the deep “…darkness of not feeling truly welcome in human existence” (pg. 32). Can you identify with this feeling of not feeling welcome in the human experience? I often can and think this is the source of much idleness and fear for me.

In the rest of the book, Nouwen takes us through four key words that provide a map for identifying the Spirit’s movement in our lives. The words: “Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Shared“, provide a context for realizing our belovedness. If you remember, I reviewed Robert Benson’s book, Living Prayer, and one of the chapters focused on these four words as being the pattern of the Eucharist. For in the same way as the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and shared, realizing our belovedness requires that we traverse these movements in our lives as we journey toward God. It is, after all, the same pattern woven in the life of Christ and if we are disciples we ought to follow this same path. For it is the path to freedom from self-rejection and the stories that cripple our lives and enslave us to foreign gods.

So I pray that you know that you are beloved on this day. Know that on you the favor of God rests and he is well pleased. You are chosen and blessed by God and in a mysterious and miraculous way, your embrace of “belovedness” brings out in others that they too are beloved. May you live in the peace of your belovedness this year and may your journey toward God be blessed with much fruit and freedom.

Active Waiting

Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes already present what we are waiting for. We wait during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the conviction that we have already seen God’s footsteps.

Waiting for God is an active, alert – yes, joyful – waiting. As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting, and as we remember him we create a community ready to welcome him when he comes.

~Henri Nouwen

Above is some timely wisdom to help us plunge the depths of discipleship in our time. For the compulsion to move past things and hurry-up besets us like a plague of epidemic proportions. Perhaps this wisdom is the corrective needed for the journey along the road less traveled? For buried beneath our compulsion to not wait lies a notion of control to seize the future on our own terms. Where does this leave the disciple? Often not following the voice of love that leads into all truth. The disciple who is unwilling to wait and listen will miss the presence of the Lord and the whisper of His leading; and surely this is not discipleship. 

Settling down, examining ourselves and our surroundings, and waiting for the Lord’s invitation, will lead us further into freedom than any culturally formed assertion of self-will could ever promise.

Nouwen – Remaining Faithful

“Many people live with the unconscious or conscious expectation that eventually things will get better; wars, hunger, poverty, oppression, and exploitation will vanish; and all people will live in harmony. Their lives and work are motivated by that expectation. When this does not happen in their lifetimes, they are often disillusioned and experience themselves as failures.

But Jesus doesn’t support such an optimistic outlook. He foresees not only the destruction of his beloved city Jerusalem but also a world full of cruelty, violence, and conflict. For Jesus there is no happy ending in this world. The challenge of Jesus is not to solve all the world’s problems before the end of time but to remain faithful at any cost.”

What does remaining faithful at any cost mean? Does it mean that remaining in Christ, in union with Him, throughout the tumultuousness of life is the end of each of us? This seems golden and good. If we believe that remaining in Christ leaves us most open to Him working in us and through us, then it seems natural to consider that our lives will reflect His love outward and allow for the furthering of Christ to this world in tandem with the Spirit. We become conduits in our faithfulness. God’s love moves through us, filtered by the beauty and uniqueness of our personalities.

Even in the world we live in, the church can be the hope of the world with Jesus, regardless of any impending gloom. While I agree with Nouwen that there is no happy ending in this world, when we are faithful to Jesus and His impulse to move through us, there is a happy ending to this world.

On the Journey Towards Being Vulnerable

The following is a weekly reflection sent by the Henri Nouwen Society to my email. In addition to daily quotes from Nouwen’s work, Bread for the Journey, (see my posts here) members of the Nouwen Society contribute to weekly reflections (Subscribe). This week, Steve Imbach’s contribution is a valuable one for those willing to engage deeply the work of God in their lives.

“Our media are saturated with images of individuals wearing the mask of “all togetherness”. I rub shoulders daily with people quick to reassure me of the unreality “I’m fine, thanks”. I find myself trapped in a superficial community, stuffed in my self-imposed cocoon of fear and shame, afraid to admit my brokenness and weakness. I can’t face the possibility of rejection and loss, not making the cut, not fitting in. To break out of this prison, we are invited into the honesty of becoming vulnerable. Vulnerability dismantles our obsession with getting it right.

As I take off the mask of “all togetherness”, I discover a vast world of freedom. In my vulnerability, I become accessible to fellow companions on the journey. My vulnerability invites others in, offers understanding and empathy, but also can be a cry for help. Even though vulnerability’s path is often painful, its reward of deepening intimacy is welcome. Being vulnerable opens my heart to a larger worldview. I become free to explore beyond the exhausting self-focus of supporting my false image of “OKness”. I find myself challenged to deeper transparency as I sing along with Leonard Cohen “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.


Steve Imbach is a Spiritual Director with Soul Stream in the Vancouver area.

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Crossing the Road for One Another

“We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics.

There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbours.”

~Henri Nouwen

Picking up on two previous posts, here and here, Nouwen cements for us that being a Kingdom neighbour requires that we cross figurative roads of hostility that separate people from each other and God. Blessed are the peacemakers! Regardless of gender, orientation, race, religion, or lifestyle, we are called to cross the road and turn hostility into hospitality. Doing so is an enactment of the incarnation where God came close to us in Jesus. Let’s avoid being too preoccupied with our own pursuits and make ourselves available for crossing roads of division in our neighbourhoods. Let’s also remember that we cross roads in response to God’s great love that came near to us in Jesus.

What roads in your community need crossing?

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Who is My Neighbour?

“Love your neighbour as yourself” the Gospel says (Matthew 22:38). But who is my neighbor? We often respond to that question by saying: “My neighbours are all the people I am living with on this earth, especially the sick, the hungry, the dying, and all who are in need.” But this is not what Jesus says. When Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan (see Luke 10:29-37) to answer the question “Who is my neighbour?” he ends the by asking: “Which, … do you think, proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the bandits’ hands?” The neighbour, Jesus makes clear, is not the poor man laying on the side of the street, stripped, beaten, and half dead, but the Samaritan who crossed the road, “bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them, … lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.” My neighbour is the one who crosses the road for me!

~Henrei Nouwen

Do we cross the street for others? Are our lives marked by the neighbourly duties that bring grace and healing? Nouwen’s perspective on who the neighbour in the story “really is” radically turns upside down the trite sentiment of mere awareness that those suffering should be consoled. Instead it aligns neighbourly faithfulness with intentionality and action. This is more than reacting as best as we can to situations were we can help; it requires that we be proactively aware of what is happening across the street. Neighbourly love demands that our lives have a sense of mission about them that is focused on God’s greater purposes and not our own. Can we drink this cup?

Recognizing Christ in Suffering Communities

"Communities as well as individuals suffer. All over the world there are large groups of people who are persecuted, mistreated, abused, and made victims of horrendous crimes. There are suffering families, suffering circles of friends, suffering religious communities, suffering ethnic groups, and suffering nations. In these suffering bodies of people we must be able to recognise the suffering Christ. They too are chosen, blessed, broken and given to the world.

As we call one another to respond to the cries of these people and work together for justice and peace, we are caring for Christ, who suffered and died for the salvation of our world."

~Henri Nouwen

With the words above, Nouwen expresses something of the mystical nature of Christ and his incarnation. It is nothing less than mystery to see the suffering Christ in suffering people; for the reality of our closeness to God is most realized when our realities fall apart into suffering. So as we care, may we care with the truth in mind that it is Christ in us and in the ones suffering that we tend to and console; care for and love. With an outlook such as this, we see each moment of suffering as an outpost of hope as the Christ in us manifests the incarnated love that has conquered death.

Words That Create Community

"The word is always a word for others. Words need to be heard. When we give words to what we are living, these words need to be received and responded to. A speaker needs a listener. A writer needs a reader.

When the flesh – the lived human experience – becomes word, community can develop. When we say, "Let me tell you what we saw. Come and listen to what we did. Sit down and let me explain to you what happened to us. Wait until you hear whom we met," we call people together and make our lives into lives for others. The word brings us together and calls us into community. When the flesh becomes word, our bodies become part of a body of people."

~Henri Nouwen

It is important to share stories. As a community of believers, we cannot get away from the interaction of God in every aspect of our lives; in moments of tragedy and beauty. He is always there and working and is woven into the very fabric of our lives by the Holy Spirit as a divine thread. This experience of creating community that Nouwen touches on has the power to inspire and evoke faithfulness. It can bring forth from the experience we live a rich vision of God’s presence in all things to restore them. This gathers people together to live the mission of God. But it requires that we devote ourselves to a careful watchfulness of how God is mysteriously moving in the stories we tell.  It requires that we be good listeners.

Church Retreat

This weekend our Church is off on its yearly retreat in Hope. It is a memorable time of community, worship, teaching, and especially friendship. It is a time to reconnect with people from our other four congregations that we rarely see. It’s a time to gather as a community and remember God among us. This weekend is also a time to build tradition into our young families; a tradition I am hopeful will serve to form us uniquely as God’s people.

I am leading prayers tonight. I thought a journey into the Examen prayer might be appropriate as a means to help people pay attention to their day and remember how God was working in us. There is a tendency for a weekend like this to pass by as a blur in the midst of activity, so I feel it important to impart a practice that can help us pay attention.

Tomorrow I am with the “Edge” kids; those in grades 5-7. I will be giving a talk about “Incarnational Living”; one of our core values. I am using the motif of God’s adventure to express the sometimes complex ideas of the Trinitarian Mission. This is in one way a very helpful exercise for me to land the stuff I learn in a way that is simple and understandable. Id say that is some of the crux of the leadership task.

As a final note, I thought I’d post up a Henri Nouwen quote on Being Like Jesus.

“Very often we distance ourselves from Jesus. We say, “What Jesus knew we cannot know, and what Jesus did we cannot do.” But Jesus never puts any distance between himself and us. He says: “I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father” (John 15:15) and “In all truth I tell you, whoever believes in me will perform the same works as I do myself, and will perform even greater works” (John 14:12).

Indeed, we are called to know what Jesus knew and do what Jesus did. Do we really want that, or do we prefer to keep Jesus at arms’ length?”

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Jesus Is Merciful

“Jesus, the Blessed Child of God, is merciful. Showing mercy is different from having pity. Pity connotes distance, even looking down upon. When a beggar asks for money and you give him something out of pity, you are not showing mercy. Mercy comes from a compassionate heart; it comes from a desire to be an equal. Jesus didn’t want to look down on us. He wanted to become one of us and feel deeply with us.

When Jesus called the only son of the widow of Nain to life, he did so because he felt the deep sorrow of the grieving mother in his own heart (see Luke 7:11-17). Let us look at Jesus when we want to know how to show mercy to our brothers and sisters.”

~Henri Nouwen

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A holistic spirituality…

"Why do people think the spiritual life demands withdrawal from the ordinary? Because they’ve been taught, at least by implication, that the physical is a block to the spiritual. When we assume that the spiritual, unlike the physical, is impervious to corrosion, then we assume that all things material are not to be honored. But the fact of the matter is, the material is the vehicle of the spiritual."

– Joan Chittister

I like this comment. It reflects a real and earthy spirituality, unlike the semi-Gnostic heavenly minded fluff that is reflected in some circles. From the likes of St Benedict, to Brother Lawrence, and to Merton, among many others, this type of spirituality grapples with the texture of incarnation and holiness. 

Jesus is Poor

"Jesus, the Blessed One, is poor. The poverty of Jesus is much more than an economic or social poverty. Jesus is poor because he freely chose powerlessness over power, vulnerability over defensiveness, dependency over self-sufficiency. As the great "Song of Christ" so beautifully expresses: "He … did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, … becoming as human beings are" (Philippians 2:6-7). This is the poverty of spirit that Jesus chose to live.

Jesus calls us who are blessed as he is to live our lives with that same poverty."

~Henri Nouwen

I like Nouwen’s wisdom. It challenges and invites. I say challenges because at the core to becoming poor, as he describes it, is a choice. It is a letting go of the senseless striving for assertion and prestige and status that we hope will elevate us to some place of success among the socially and culturally acceptable ones our world so praises. I say invitation because there is something of extraordinary beauty that lies at the centre of letting go of the striving and casting oneself into the seemingly irrational trust in the God who promises to provide. Can we trust to the point of poverty that promises life to the fullest?

Nouwen Series on the Cup of Life

I just posted a short, four part series on the Cup of Life by Henri Nouwen. Please read them in the following order to benefit from the continuity and stream of thought.

The Cup of Life

Holding the Cup

Lifting the Cup

Drinking the Cup

May the thoughts of Nouwen stir in you a vivid imagination for faithfulness and the courage to hold, lift, and drink, the cup of your life.

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