Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Henri Nouwen: "The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance"

Aren't we priests and ministers called to help people, to feed the hungry, and to save those who are starving?  Are we not called to do something that makes people realize that we do make a difference in their lives?  Aren't we called to heal the sick, feed hungry, and alleviate the suffering of the poor?  Jesus was faced with these same questions, but when he was asked to prove his power as the Son of God by the relevant behavior of changing stones into bread, he clung to his mission to proclaim the Word and said, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). ...

The secular world around us is saying in a loud voice, "We can take care of ourselves.  We do not need God, the church, or a priest.  We are in control.  And if we are not, then we have to work harder to get in control.  The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence.  If you are sick, you need a competent doctor; if you are poor, you need competent politicians; if there are technical problems, you need competent engineers; if there are wars, you need competent negotiators.  God, the church, and the minister have been used for centuries to fill the gaps of incompetence, but today the gaps are being filled in other ways, and we no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions."

In this climate of secularization, Christian leaders feel less and less relevant and more and more marginal.  Many begin to wonder why they should stay in the ministry.  Often they leave, develop a new competency, and join their contemporaries in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world.

But there is a completely different story to tell.  Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair.  While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world. 

Bret Easton Ellis's novel Less Than Zero offers a most graphic description of the moral and spiritual poverty behind the contemporary facade of wealth, success, popularity, and power.  In a dramatically staccato way, he describes the life of sex, drugs, and violence among the teenage sons and daughters of the super-rich entertainers in Los Angeles.  And the cry that arises from behind all of this decadence is clearly: "Is there anybody who loves me?  Is there anybody who really cares? Is there anybody who wants to stay home for me?  Is there anybody who wants to be with me when I am not in control, when I feel like crying?  Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging?" Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience than we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident society.  Medical technology and the tragic increase in abortions may radically diminish the number of mentally handicapped people in our society, but it is already becoming apparent that more and more people are suffering from profound moral and spiritual handicaps without having any idea of where to look for healing.

It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear.  The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.

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