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Filtering by Tag: Henri Nouwen

Through the Ruins of the World  

Jean Hoefling

Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.  
     —Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons

In his book of meditations on the icons of 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev's, theologian Henri Nouwen says this about the iconographer’s famous “Christ the Redeemer:”

When I first saw… I had the distinct sense that the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos. A sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of the world.

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You Learned What You Were Ready To Learn

Christina Lee

The Sower - Van Gogh Of all the pranks I’ve ever pulled, my favorite remains convincing every guy in my music theory class to dress up like our professor.

We loved Dr. Clemmons. He was kind, funny, patient and generally excellent. He was also sartorially predictable.

Stonewash tapered jeans, sneakers, white tucked-in button-down, red tie, brown belt, wire-rim glasses. This was his daily uniform. And the night before the final, I called every guy I knew on campus to rustle up 15 identical outfits. The next morning, the guys paraded in one by one.

Surrounded by his clones, Dr. Clemmons laughed, high-fived, and took time to pose for plenty of pictures before he settled us down and passed out our final exam.

I was so proud of myself. It didn’t really occur to me that he might have preferred I spend finals eve studying for his test. I don’t remember my exact grade in the class, but it’s safe to say it was less impressive than my costuming skills.

Years later, we ended up attending the same church, and I worked up the courage to ask him, “How did you put up with all of us? I wish I could go back and take your class now. I’d be such a good student!”

My former professor laughed and said, "Well, you learned as much as you were ready to learn.” 

This spring, I’m teaching poetry, and I think about those words most every day. Seventh grade brains are all over the map, developmentally. While one girl is crafting an iambic treatise on good and evil, the chick beside her is writing a rambling declaration of war against the girl who stole her boyfriend, and the boy behind them is writing a very descriptive piece re: failing to hold in a fart.

And I swear to you, these students are all doing their best.

I can get disheartened, bringing my students everything I know about poetry in the best way I know how, and getting back poems about farts and hot dogs.

Henri Nouwen said that when serving others, he was always fighting “fear of rejection, hunger for affirmation, and a never-decreasing search for affection.” And I notice this neediness in myself sometimes.

I can still remember one student from last year (we’ll call him Jake) standing before the class, intoning his poem about chips in a mortified monotone, “So crunchy /so crisp / the salty surface / I lick.” As he spoke, his eyes blazed with the injustice of my assignment.

This year, we held a school-wide poetry slam, and I got to see many former students perform. This slam was voluntary; so imagine my surprise when chip-boy bounded up to the podium. As he introduced himself, I steeled myself for a rough few minutes.

But his poem was incredible. It was clear and vivid and powerful, and he spoke with pride and confidence. As he strode off stage, I hooted and hollered with the crowd, but I felt a little twinge behind my smile. What had I done wrong last year? How had his current teacher helped him unleash this masterpiece? Why had I ended up with a listless ode to Hot Cheetos?

Breakthrough moments like this are a teacher’s version of a bonus check, so it makes sense that sometimes we’d be a little greedy for them. But these moments belong to our students, not to us.

Don’t get me wrong: a good teacher never stops asking a student for his best. She gives feedback and sets high expectations. But she also knows how to release control, to trust her students, and to allow them to develop at their own pace.

When we release our students from our own “hunger for affirmation,” ironically, that’s when we teach best.

Rilke says, “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows.”

As I prepare to say goodbye to this year’s group, I hope I have taught them well. I hope I’ve helped them understand a little more about writing, literature and poetry. Yes, I even hope they did well on their state testing.

But I also hope I’ve helped them feel permission to be themselves, and gracefully accepted the gifts they have brought me, even if they weren’t the ones I asked for. I hope that I’ve let them to learn as much as they were ready to learn.

Cat Dish Leadership

Joy and Matthew Steem

Steems November post My first introduction to Anne Lamott was her statement, “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.” There was something about this punky comment that wooed me.

I admired and appreciated her honesty; her lack of pretence made me feel like this was an individual I could share camaraderie with. This is not to say I don’t sometimes sniff about for the dangers of false authenticity: the idol our culture has made of “being authentic" when “keeping it real” can just be another façade. Still though, I can't suspect everybody and Lamott feels like somebody worth listening to, perhaps even a leader of sorts.

I admire her for her truth telling ability: for her willingness to expose her faith, foibles and failures. She articulates the exhausting degree of vulnerability required in giving ourselves to loving and being loved. Her discussions of life drip with gore and hope, and help me see beyond the brute side of mortality. She hints that some interactions and memories and experiences can be processed in so many different ways that we may not be as tied to personal history as it sometimes appears. The food of our souls, like the food of our mouths, can be fermented and stewed or boiled and roasted or chopped and salted. In short, in Anne I hear echoes of something that is flesh and soul affirming. And, the invitation to explore both the heights of Love's radiance and the grass betwixt my toes engages me.

But even with all this, I inwardly tense up a little on the idea of Lamott as leader. A companion on this life's journey? Sure. A leader? I have an uncomfortable time with her informality; her willingness to expose her inward processes and come right out and verbalize her struggles. Perhaps my discomfort is rooted in one idea of what separates leaders from followers.

Several years ago, Christian Century ran a post by Adam J Copeland. In his article, "Why Lead," he suggests that we might do well to reinvigorate our current conceptions of leadership with a bigger emphasis on "followership."  Leaders, then, are faithful followers on the path of love, wisdom, humility and self-sacrifice. For Copeland, leadership is a lot less about accomplishment, power, innovation or public relationship potential; it is about openly and heartfully following the one who is Love. But what does that look like in practical terms?

Henri Nouwen depicts leadership in very personal terms. For him, leading is the ultimate act of vulnerability. He understands the mantle of leadership as one that requires the laying down of one's life: the complete abdication of ego,  individualism, control and power. That is,  "making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life” (In the Name of Jesus)

I wonder if Nouwen's profound insight on leadership has something to do with the feeling one gets in rehabilitation groups. I've briefly glimpsed their power myself, and I've heard others comment on the same phenomenon. Being in the presence of people with such intentional honesty and openness about physical, emotional, social and spiritual struggles has a lasting impact. Pursuing the path of wellness requires honesty, both with others and ourselves. We do not grow when do not examine our hearts, hurts and hopes. A social worker who I am privileged to call my friend has commented on the potential of some workers to fall in love with their clients. The reason? Honing the vocabulary of honesty is deeply attractive. Most of us recognize that we all have proclivities to certain types of destructive behaviors, but not all of us have the courage to examine and voice them and seek guidance and share our hearts with others.

If I understand Nouwen correctly, it is the calling and duty of a leader to bare his or her heart and soul: to be a leader is to lay down facades in the hopes others will find their way to faith through that act of sacrifice. In this perspective, I hope that one day my own followership can mirror a meagre degree of honesty that Lamott has revealed to multitudes.