February 18, 2020

Another Look: Profoundly Human

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In the story of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14), we hear 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.

When I first wrote this post a few years ago, I was 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 was 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.

Comments

  1. How can we look into our neighbor’s eyes when we categorize him/her as “other” just because he believes a bit differently than us?

    How can we look into our neighbor’s eyes when we are fractionalizing populations into political groups to be scorned?

    How can we look into our neighbor’s eyes when we are so certain of our own rectitude that we do not even consider the possibility that we are wrong?

    How can we look into our neighbor’s eyes when a simple difference in opinion causes us to disregard others’ point of view?

    How can we look into our brother’s eyes while we sit so righteously in a seat of judgment because we are so enlightened about the failure of the “evangelical circus” in which scores of thousands of our brothers and sisters still find fulfillment?

    And how can we look into anyone’s eyes when we object to someone suggesting that we look deeper into our own hearts in self-examination?

    These are some things that came to my mind after reading this post and applying it to myself, and it isn’t pretty…

    • I’m a white, cis-gendered, evangelical patriarch [ the reality – you work hard and then you die ] and it is my burden and privilege to cling to Jesus, try to follow Scripture and care for those of whom I am responsible – few of which agree with me. Mostly I pray for my people/family.

    • Christiane says

      OSCAR,
      your words remind me of an old Jewish story, this:

      ” Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”

      The Rabbi stared back into the faces of his students and with a gentle voice responded:
      “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you and you can see that that person is your brother or your sister, when you can recognize that person as a friend,
      then, finally, the night has ended and the day has begun.” ”

      This old Jewish story brings to mind this from St. John’s Gospel:
      “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
      He was in the beginning with God.
      All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.
      What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
      The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ”

      In the mystery of the Incarnation: all mankind comes to be reconciled within the Person of Jesus Christ, the new Adam

  2. Christiane says

    “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.” ”

    Amen, Amen, Amen

    as the mother of a son with Down Syndrome, I have seen the truth of your words in my own life and in the lives of others who are touched by ‘the ones we deem ‘helpless’

    my son with Down Syndrome, although ill and profoundly mentally challenged (no speech), was able to walk. He also was touched by those who couldn’t walk, who lay on the stretchers at his group home . . . . my son would care for them in his own way, by bringing them toys and laying the toys very gently into their hands

    seeing this for the first time, I began to understand something for which I have no words

    • If that doesn’t humble the hearer (ME included) then there is little hope but a miracle from the Creator.

    • Wow. That is so much the point I was aiming at below. He embodied love without any biblical edicts to lead him. That’s beautiful Christiane.

  3. To love the Lord and love ones neighbor as oneself is not a theological, conceptual construct. It is a movement of ones whole being. Intellect (religious knowledge) is certainly part of the ‘whole being’ but it is not the locomotive element of this train.

    • And as someone once said, loving God and loving one’s neighbor is the whole point of the law. I’m becoming more and more convinced that we have misinterpreted Jesus’s command to make disciples and teach them his commandments and have warped it into something he never intended. We have made studying the book synonymous with “making disciples” and memorizing Scripture into “teaching his commandments” when in reality, Jesus wants us to imitate him in the way he loves his Father and the world.

      • Or, to quote Thomas Merton, ” Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.” I think that gets to the heart of what Jesus means by becoming his disciples.

      • I think you are right, Scott. And it saddens me to think of all the years I’ve kind of wasted being involved in trying to “make disciples” which was mostly trying to market the Christian brand and get people to buy. It’s hard to imitate Jesus, very hard, but so much easier to recite some Bible passages and try to get others to so the same or to spout some political view and try to get others to see that it’s the view of God.

        • Christiane says

          ” It’s hard to imitate Jesus ”

          about the closest we can come is to come along side others and show kindness to them, I think

  4. CM, I don’t know where it disappeared to, but the Al Mohler vs Andy Stanley article appeared on my RSS feed from iMonk. That was really interesting to read!

  5. Ben Carmack says

    ” 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.”

    A number of people are beaten or sexually abused by family members, teachers, pastors or coaches. Man is capable of great cruelty to his “brothers.”

    If an abuse victim came to us for help or counseling, would it be helpful to tell such a person “Look for God in people”? I’d submit that it would be unhelpful, and possibly very hurtful to do such a thing. Victims of injustice often understand, in a very personal way, the deep depravity of their fellow men.

    Understanding this, the traditional practice of pointing to God’s Word as the ground of our self-understanding is liberating and pastoral. If we look to ourselves or others in order to understand who God is, we’ll be left confused. That’s because we’re all sinners. We have the image of God in us, but that image has been twisted. If you want to understand God, you’re going to have a hard time doing that by looking at your neighbor, and certainly looking to yourself.

    St. Paul’s words are helpful: we should imitate others *as* they imitate Christ. Christ is the standard.

    • What happened to “inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you have done it for me?”

      The Bible itself records Jesus as telling us to look for God in even the most unlikely of people.

      • –> “The Bible itself records Jesus as telling us to look for God in even the most unlikely of people.”

        Maybe even more so this: to NOT look for God in the most LIKELY of people. (Or maybe to not to expect to FIND God in the most likely of people.)

        I’m thinking of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law who should’ve been representing God, but weren’t.

        • As I walked my dog, another thought occurred to me. Is it safe to say that people can look for God in even the most unlikely PLACES, and also in contrast to NOT find it where they most likely SHOULD (aka Church)?

          If my church isn’t a place where people can find the hope, mercy, forgiveness, joy, light and love of Jesus – if my church has become self-righteous and focused on the Law – then I need to either help my church change or find another church!

        • One more follow-on thought…

          I often find better, clearer glimpses of God (and maybe more specifically JESUS) in secular movies than I do in Christian movies.

    • Systematic theology is known to cause myopia…..

    • “the traditional practice of pointing to God’s Word as the ground of our self-understanding is liberating and pastoral.”

      I don’t completely disagree with you, Ben, but I think you’re missing an essential biblical perspective. The pastoral goal for even the abuse victim is to see them get to the point where he/she is able to give and receive love freely in healthy relationships with others. Of course one must point to God’s perfect love in contrast with the imperfect love of our fellow human beings and the actual evil we are capable of committing. But I consider it pastorally irresponsible to put a complete separation between understanding God through scripture and through those who bear his image. If I do that, why would an abuse victim even trust me to guide him/her to an accurate understanding of what the Bible says? How could my counselee be sure I wasn’t twisting scripture to abuse him/her myself? That’s exactly why many “spiritual leaders” get away with abuse.

      I reject the radical “biblical” or “spiritual” approach.

      • –> “The pastoral goal for even the abuse victim is to see them get to the point where he/she is able to give and receive love freely in healthy relationships with others.”

        Amen.

        Chap Mike, one of our speakers at Cannon Beach this year spoke about the need to have a healthy “self” in order to be healthy to others. What I really liked and appreciated was his psychological approach as well as his scriptural approach. 100% Bible all the time can actually become unhealthy.

      • Ben Carmack says

        “I don’t completely disagree with you, Ben, but I think you’re missing an essential biblical perspective.”

        What’s this about the Bible? I thought we were supposed to move beyond all this Bible-centered-ness? There you go again, shoving your interpretation down my throat. Tsk Tsk.

        Smile. That was sarcasm.

        “Of course one must point to God’s perfect love in contrast with the imperfect love of our fellow human beings and the actual evil we are capable of committing.”

        And how do you know that God and His perfect love? Through Scripture first and foremost. We’re born with a distorted view of reality. We can’t see straight. When God miraculously saves us through the Word (a little Luther here), we get, as it were, a new pair of glasses. What was unclear is now clear. We see everyone around us in a new light, as fellow image bearers. We see them as Jesus would see them.

        What comes first? The Word. That isn’t modernism. It’s just Luther. Not just Luther, it’s Christianity.

        “But I consider it pastorally irresponsible to put a complete separation between understanding God through scripture and through those who bear his image.”

        I agree. As is typical with many of these posts on our relationship with Scripture, the tone taken toward Scripture is dour. People who care about the Bible just have their noses in books and don’t care about people. People who care about the Bible are Pharisees. Modernists. Bad guys. You shouldn’t care about the Bible so much. Gee, is that pastorally responsible? I beg to differ.

        • –> “When God miraculously saves us through the Word…What comes first? The Word.”

          Ah, but…

          John 1:1, King James Version (KJV) – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

          The Word isn’t necessarily “The Bible”, which by the way, didn’t exist until pulled together well after Jesus died. At some point along the way, a theology developed which props the Bible up to a position it shouldn’t hold, equal to God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is NOT an element of the Trinity.

        • Ben, I just think the point of today’s post needs to be said and said plainly, amid all the cliché “sufficiency of scripture” talk I used for 25 years and which still predominates the conversation in evangelical circles. When you also factor in that evangelical pastoral education offers little to nothing in the way of instruction or experience with regard to pastoral care, then the Bible alone crowd (of which I was a card-carrying, award-winning member for decades) has set themselves up for this critique.

          I write this just hours after attending a funeral officiated by a Baptist pastor that had not one word in it acknowledging the actual grief of the family. I call it cruel and inhuman.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Did the funeral eulogy go Hellfire-and-Damnation and end with an Altar Call?

          • Ben Carmack says

            I don’t see why, as a Lutheran, you would have a problem with giving the Word priority of place. You’ve read Luther and the confessions he penned. You profoundly disagree with your own tradition, to say nothing of low church evangelicalism. Don’t you think your readers deserve an explanation?

          • Ben, where did you read that I don’t give “the Word priority of place”?

            This is a question of balance and a more comprehensive description of God’s presence and work in the world.

            If you want an overview of my understanding of Scripture, read this post: https://internetmonk.com/archive/65205

        • Would respectfully disagree. The idea that the Word saves or God saves us through the Word IS entirely modernism.

          • I don’t agree with that, either, Stuart.

            I would agree that “the Word” narrowly defined as the Bible has become overly emphasized.

            In the Lutheran tradition, we have a threefold understanding of “the Word.”

            1. Jesus Christ, the living Word.
            2. The Word proclaimed, beginning at creation, continuing through the history and experience of Israel, and fulfilled in the person of Jesus, now proclaimed in the power of the Spirit through the church.
            3. The written Scriptures.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        The pastoral goal for even the abuse victim is to see them get to the point where he/she is able to give and receive love freely in healthy relationships with others.

        And those who have never been on the receiving end of abuse are always quick with the Sufficiency of SCRIPTURE(TM). Whether glib God Saith BIBLE! BIBLE! BIBLE! or the smug assurance of the Spiritually Superior.

        A couple decades ago, I picked up a book titled The Strong and the Weak by a Swiss psychologist named Paul Tournier. One of his points was that “the strong” (those with strong personalities) often mistake their personality — never doubting, always right, outgoing and dominating — for Fruits of the Spirit (and Proof of their Salvation) when it’s just how their personalities are wired.

    • However much the scriptures are the word of God, they are also human words. When we go to the scriptures for our understanding of who God is, and who we are in relation to God, that understanding is necessarily mediated by the words of human beings. In Christianity, the usual mode of understanding God, and one’s self-identity in relation to God, is through other human beings; pointing to the Bible as the way God reveals himself to us does not sidestep that fact.

  6. Mike Jones says

    I really liked this and it is something that I have thought a lot about recently. I’ve joined multiple social media sites to keep contact with my 5 kids across the country. Somehow, when you join those things, old friends find and “friend you.” That’s okay. I see a lot of things written daily from about 100 + friends. In this politically-charged year, I’ve also witnessed a lot of hateful talk. I try not to get involved with these arguments, but sometimes (once every few months) I post a comment. But I have noticed those (mostly Christians, my 50 or so un-religiously affiliated friends/family don’t usually do hate postings) who do the hate postings are those most remotely removed from the “enemy” they are writing about. For example, those who posted things about the “Black Lives Matter” movement is just a godless, liberal conspiracy to make the good Christian white folks look bad, live in cities where there are no blacks. They have no black friends. They don’t work with blacks. It is the same for Muslims (and Arabs in general). I have had the privilege of living with Muslim people, used their toilets, going to their Mosques, eating their food, played with their children and etc. I wish, at times, I attended an all-black church. It is hard to hate people you are intimate-friends with.

    I have had periods in my life when I had people I hated. During those times, I was with groups who practice a “fort” mentality that there are “us” and “them” and we should avoid “them” so we are not tainted. Now I must constantly fight against my prejudices and dislike for evangelicals. So, I sense that it is now a disciple that I must rekindle my old relationships with these folks and feel their lives so I don’t grow to hate them too.

  7. I really appreciated this post, and yesterday’s. Both go to the heart of what it means to be human.

    And your diagnosis of the problems that lead people to forget their shared humanity is spot on.

    I don’t know how to stem the loss of human connection and empathy that occurs when faith turns to biblicism and when a particular interpretation of what is written takes precedence over the flesh and blood need and suffering all around us. I only hope that I am learning more and more to avoid those tendencies in myself and walk alongside others.

  8. CM, this has been a wonderful week of postings to IM. As always, thanks for all you do.