September 21, 2020

Profoundly Human

By Chaplain Mike

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we heard a story from Jesus’ lips about how the trappings of religion can keep us far from God. Oddly, the benefits of the religious life that enhance our thoughts, words, and actions, that re-order our relationships and priorities and bring us new purpose and direction, can also corrode our hearts. Such is the human capacity for self-deceit and self-righteousness, that we can transform God’s undeserved blessings into trophies of pride and weapons of contempt.

It’s even more dangerous than that. In the very situation where we are trying to do a faithful and obedient deed, our religious habits can lead us astray. We can forget the simple human act. We can define, “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8) in such “spiritual” or ecclesiastical terms that we neglect the common practices of ordinary neighborliness that actually embody such Biblical instructions.

It may be time to close the Book, exit the sanctuary, and look into our neighbor’s eyes.

At the moment, I am reading two “new” books by the late Henri Nouwen. Both were assembled from his writing, notes, journals, and courses by friends. (Reviews to come later this week.) As always, when reading Nouwen, I am struck by the simplicity and utter humanity of his words. For Nouwen, any claim to a life with God is not authentic unless it makes us profoundly human. We find God in the brother as well as in the Book, in our neighbor in the world as well as among his people.

Though his ability and wisdom were apparent from the start, Nouwen’s chose to leave the academic world of Harvard University to live among mentally handicapped people, first at L’Arche in France and then at Daybreak community in Toronto. These intimate experiences of companionship and service pressed a deep sense of humanity into Nouwen.

His first assignment at L’Arche was to care for a severely handicapped 24 year-old man named Adam. Adam could not talk, walk, dress or undress himself. His body was misshapen and he suffered from epileptic seizures. One could have no ordinary converse with Adam. Nouwen helped him get up in the morning, bathe and toilet, and transported him to breakfast. He assisted him with eating, which Adam loved to do, taking over an hour at the table for a single meal. In sheer silence. Through this daily companionship, the teacher, a master with words, learned to be silent. The activist learned to be still. The one who thought he must be constantly doing the Lord’s work learned to simply be with another human being.

Their relationship lasted for ten years, and then Adam died. In their time together, God spoke to Henri Nouwen through this profoundly disabled man. He learned to embrace Adam as a brother and friend. He realized that the ones we deem “helpless” can give as much or more than they receive. Adam taught this renowned scholar and priest to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”

Nouwen used to tell a tale from the Talmud to remind religious people that we must not allow our “spiritual” practices to lead us astray from our calling to love our neighbors, to be friends with people like Adam.

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the solders who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every person in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to the Rabbi and asked him what to do. Torn between handing over the boy to the enemy and having his people killed, the Rabbi withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. In the early morning, his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’

Then the Rabbi closed the Bible, called the soldiers, and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the Rabbi had saved the lives of the people. But the Rabbi did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said: ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said: ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the Rabbi replied anxiously. Then the angel said: ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’

• Spiritual Direction, p. 26f

It may be time to close the Book, exit the sanctuary, and look into our neighbor’s eyes.


  1. It’s nice to have this lesson here every Sunday. Today I was at a job-related seminar and missed church.


  2. I found that 3 prior denominations I irregularly attending preached “doerism” as the method to remain in or grow in God’s grace. I then found one that focuses exclusively on my receivership in my relationship with God. Christ for me in baptism, communion, absolution through the proclamation of the Gospel every week.

  3. Christiane says

    thank you for the story about the rabbi and the young man . . . it has meaning on so many levels when you look into it . . . so many levels

  4. My Husband had bulbar-onset ALS. I, too, learnt to sit patiently whilst my Husband struggled to eat. Three hours…until he had a feeding tube inserted.

    We sat in silence since he could no longer speak. But our eyes…our hands…yes; we conversed. In all our 25 years together, our conversations had ranged widely in many delightful, heady realms. Now I spoke: about my day, my reading, my heart, my struggles. I spoke about our Daughters, their newly-adult lives. He listened attentively, and would comment with his hand-held communication device.

    I, too, learnt communication was simply being; sitting shiva together as we grieved our old life… I learnt humility in the face of my Husband’s vast, unshakeable faith. I learnt trust and commitment: sickness and worse really happened sometimes because here we were.

    I also learnt not to squander time as I sat there watching my Husband slowly eat…and I learnt to chew my food! ;p

  5. I think therapy animals can bring a silent blessing to sick people
    and to old people who are in nursing homes.
    The non-verbal forms of communication are much under-rated.

  6. Henri Nouwen has enriched my life immeasurably over the years. I worked for many years among the developmentally disabled, both mildly and severely disabled, and was deeply blessed in all of it. I’m a better person because of it.

  7. Tony Russell says

    After 35 years as an accountant, most of which I hated, the Lord took me out of the office, closed the door and led me to work in caring for people. I often think that if I had not been a Christian I would have become paranoid, because so clearly He was out to get me.
    I now look after a charming man with cerebral palsy. He cannot speak; is mobile only from the shoulders up,but has taught me so much. Serving him at a basic level has supplemented all the other teaching I receive about serving Him which I could not have found elsewhere.

  8. We all have much to learn from the life of Nouwen, and from people like Adam. I have an autistic nephew named Buddy who is high-functioning, and approaches the world in the simplest of terms…things are good or bad, and there is no in-between. Buddy bags groceries at a local grocery store three days each week, and does his job to the absolute best of his abilities. He’ll never drive or get married or experience “life” as most of us define living…but I’ve never met an individual who is so profoundly sincere in his motives, or cared more about the needs of others. As Buddy says grace before meals and utters “God is great, God is good…”, with his eyes clenched tightly shut, and in the most sincere and reverent of tones, I always wish that I meant this prayer have as much as he does. The Kingdom truly belongs to such as these…………

  9. Stoped by, and glad I did. Thanks to all who shared from profound experiences. i am now a sobbing mess. Beautiful! Thanks

  10. Rob Graham says

    Despite being an agnostic I have a deep interest in spiritual and philosophical matters.

    This post spoke to me. One of the few things I believe is that it is not your belief that marks you as a good person, it is your actions.

    Thanks for spreading the word, Chaplain Mike.

  11. Thank you for the reminder. I think the tendency to allow the “religious trappings” to debilitate us is the necessary consequent of religiosity. That is, religion outside the bounds of Christ. I know for me personally it is the preaching of Christ that excites me to Godly living. It is the centrality of Christ that is the antecedent that causes me to go look into my neighbor’s eyes. The consequent.