In the Name of Jesus – Henri J. M. Nouwen

I suppose a “namesake” post is a fitting beginning. In his short work, In the Name of Jesus, Henri J. M. Nouwen reflects on the praxis of gospel “weakness” and humility in the life of a pastor. The topic of gospel weakness is oft-ignored but vital to the life of the Church. Nouwen’s reflection on pastoral weakness and humility reveals many facets of this value.


First, with respect to the temptation to be relevant, gospel weakness involves rejecting the urgent and the frenetic for the prosaic and measured or rhythmic. Our culture, both within and without the Church demands an “ever onward and upward” movement, such that we easily forget to live in the present. If one is successful or competent in meeting these demands, it results in gradual marginalization and suppression of the Spirit, and risks spiritual death. Rather the pastor more than seeking contentment in the rhythm of the every-day, pastors should also “claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there. Sign me up! May God enable me to pursue Him and not competence, or growth, or whatever prize the world dangles before me.


Second, with respect to the temptation to be spectacular, Nouwen chastened me in my strong desire and temptation to please men. Gospel weakness is not aloneness. Gospel ministry must be communal and mutual. Though tempted otherwise, I am not a problem solver, but a witness to Him who solved the problems. Nouwen’s antidote to the temptation to individual heroism is the cycle of confession (repentance) and forgiveness. Indeed, this cycle is the oil of the Christian life that smoothes and distributes the application of grace.


I used to get the feeling that marketers (and litigators) really went downhill when they started to believe the things they were saying to sell the product. The reverse is true for pastors because theirs is THE metanarrative; all reality is suffused with the impact or imprint of the Incarnation. When the message gets separated from the pastor’s union with the Son of Man, it makes room for the Father of Lies to step in, shore up the rift, start keeping house, and planning expansion. In Nouwen’s words, “When spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body becomes carnality. . . Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body, not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.” (67-68)

The Father of Lies builds foundations of carnality in the secret dark. But confession brings the dark powers out of carnal isolation into the light of day. Forgiveness disarms them and makes possible integration between body and spirit. Thus, pastors are called to be full members of their own communities, accountable to them and needing their affection and support. Lord, let me never succumb with the conventional wisdom that good leadership requires a safe distance.

Third, with respect to the temptation to be powerful, Nouwen challenged me with the extent of our temptation to replace love with power—“a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds.” Each of these circumstances finds people who are vulnerable. Though the tendency to solve problems rather than offer Christ and His first love looms large, the exercise of power rather than love will harm my parishioners. Indeed, it is “easier to be God than to love God, to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (77) Thus, I pray for the humility and Christ-focus that will enable me to “be led where I would rather not go.” Years ago, when I was testing my calling to the pastorate, an ex-pastor told me he became an ex-pastor when he realized that he loved being a Shepherd much more than he loved the sheep. They were a means to his end. Lord, show me how to steadfastly love the sheep and to love being a Shepherd only because it means I can follow Jesus and lead others to follow him through death and into resurrection life.


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