Thursday, February 27, 2014

Keeping it simple (Luke 9:3-4a)

SCRIPTURE: Luke 9:3-4a (TM) – larger reading Luke 9:1-6
He said, "Don't load yourselves up with equipment. Keep it simple; you are the equipment.

Philip Yancey in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, shares this story: Blessed are the merciful. I learned the truth of this Beatitude from Henri Nouwen, a priest who used to teach at Harvard University. At the height of his career, Nouwen moved from Harvard to a community called Daybreak, near Tornonto, in order to take on the demanding chores required by his friendship with a man named Adam. Nouwen now ministers not to the intellectuals but to a young man who is considered by many a useless person who should have been aborted.

Nouwen describes his friend: “Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.

“It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him to his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of his day with therapeutic exercises.” 
On a visit to Nouwen in Toronto, I watched him perform that routine with Adam, and I must admit I had a fleeting as to whether this was the best use of his time. I have heard Henri Nouwen speak, and have read many of his books. He has much to offer. Could not someone else take over the menial task of caring for Adam? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted what was going on. “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted. “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Then Nouwen began listing for me all the benefits he has gained. The hours spent with Adam, he said, have given him an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. Early on, as he sat beside that helpless child-man, he realized how marked with rivalry and competition, how obsessive, was his drive for success in academia and Christian ministry. Adam taught him that “what makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love.” From Adam’s simple nature, he had glimpsed the “emptiness that desert monks achieved only after much searching and discipline.

All during the rest of our interview, Henri Nouwen circled back to my question, as if he could not believe I could ask such a thing. He kept thinking of other ways he had benefited from his relationship with Adam. Truly, he was enjoying a new kind of spiritual peace, acquired not within the stately quadrangles of Harvard, but by the bedside of incontinent Adam. I left Daybreak convicted of my own spiritual poverty, I who so carefully arrange my writer’s life to make it efficient and single-focused. The merciful are indeed blessed, I learned, for they will be shown mercy.

In his instructions to the disciples Jesus boiled down their real challenge… “to keep it simple” as paraphrased in The Message. His point is well taken: “you are the equipment”. Somehow, over time, we the church have lost sight of that truth.

Our ministry and life has become extremely complicated. Henri Nouwen discovered a truth that escapes the best of us. How many of us would have walked about away from Harvard to take on the humble role of servant? How many of us would relinquish the opportunities of speaking engagements, staying at the finest hotels and eating at 5-star restaurants to be the caregiver of a total invalid? How many of us would pass up on the notoriety of a successful writing career to be a nursemaid to a man-child?

My guess… not one of us… no, not one. But, could it be that the fame, the fortune, the notoriety, the books, the speaking engagements was simply loading down Dr. Nouwen with unnecessary “equipment”? By moving to Daybreak and taking up the responsibilities of caring for Adam was his way of keeping it simple?

In considering Jesus’ instructions to his disciples we just might to think differently about the idea of “equipment” and “keeping it simple”. How much of what we are presently doing is just going through the motions? How much of the “trappings” of our church and really unnecessary “equipment”?

How can we make our witness more effective? What needs to change to find the peace, spiritual peace, that Dr. Nouwen discovered by taking on the role of a servant? I know that I am not up to the task, but the Christ in me is if I would but give him the freedom to move in that direction.


Make me a captive Lord and then I shall be free.

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