Because life is a series of edits

The Irrelevance of Relevance

In Books, Humanity, Writers on July 14, 2006 at 10:02 am

I’d always heard about (and wanted to read for some time) Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, a book about Nouwen’s life and ministry working with the mentally handicapped after being a priest, as well as a professor at Harvard.

Why the move? Nouwen writes:

“After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues…I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death…Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.” (20)

So, he moved to L’Arche, a faith-based community founded by Jean Vanier in France in 1964 “to bring together people, some with developmental disabilities and some without, who choose to share their lives by living together.” Nouwen describes the transition as “from the best and brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society.” (22)

In the book, Nouwen struggles with his own sense and desire for relevance:

“Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted on.” (28)

In a one-year-past kind of way, I resonate with Nouwen’s experience, remembering back to our first summer here at Covenant and being, for the most part, unknown to so many. Gone were the twelve years of ministry and memories with The Navigators; in their place were fears of what others might think of me (or perhaps more honestly, fears of whether people would even think of me at all). I went through this crisis of anonymity for most of the summer, reliving it with every new introduction. It was awful and yet needed, as I realized how so much of who I was could (still) be wrapped up in other people’s perspectives of who I was. It was junior high all over again, and I had made the mistake of believing I had graduated.

For me, the challenge of relevance has everything to do with the fact that I think I can and should be relevant to the world. This, I suppose, drives my quest to read, to think, to write, to learn. These are all good things in and of themselves, but they become drudgery when I feel I don’t do them enough – read enough, think enough, write enough, learn enough. This “enough” factor should be a diagnostic for me that I’m moving from a healthy to an unhealthy perspective of myself and who God has created and redeemed me to be, namely his child.

As Nouwen chronicles his experience with those at L’Arche, it’s obvious how impacted he was by the acceptance of those in the community and also how little his relevance to them or others counted. Perhaps this is what handicapped people can teach us – that we who are consumed by the quest for relevance are the ones who are sadly but truly handicapped:

“The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.” (30)

I’m grateful for men like Nouwen who have gone before me in the process and had the courage to share their experience with others. The book is a short one (a booklet, really – only 107 small pages), and a helpful, reflective read that might help see the irrelevance of relevance.

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  1. It’s been too long since I read this book for me to comment with great insight, but I remember feeling conflicted when I read it. There is an essential call to humility that I agree with–a critique of American/Emersonian self-reliance, self-actualization, self-aggrandizement. That was helpful in the book.

    But there was something about the book that always bothered me, though I don’t remember if I ever pinpointed it. I think maybe it is simply that I disagree with the idea that we don’t need to be relevant. As God’s people we have a mission. Using the Apostle Paul’s words, we are to be Christ’s ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation. That is a relevant mission. And in that mission, we are to strive toward a goal, as Paul says, we are to run the race in such a way as to win the prize. In order to continue to strive to accomplish our mission, we must be relevant to people. Paul, again, tells us that we are to be all things to all men.

    A case in point of my frustration with Nouwen is when I read the final quote from him that you provided in your post. It sounds nice and spiritual. But when I deconstruct it a little bit, it seems too trite to be of much use. Moses was the most humble man who had lived to his day, but he didn’t have an attitude of “this is me world; take me or leave me.” He pushed himself and his gifts and skills to the limits in order to accomplish his mission (though, admittedly that sometimes got him in trouble). And, while it is true that ultimately it is the person of Jesus who is our Savior, and not His teachings or moral example or anything like that. During His actual life-on-earth ministry, people were mostly drawn to Him by what He could do for them, whether that was teach or heal or perform miracles or whatever. Yes, that was an accommodation to fallen, sinful, self-centered people, but that’s who we’re ministering to as well.

    Maybe I’m really quibbling with Nouwen over semantics or the way he’s framing his point. Maybe his critique of relevance is simply a different way of expressing a critique of that self-reliant spirit that I mentioned before. It is certainly important to recognize when we’ve crossed that somtimes hard to see line between ministering out of our own strengths and skills and resources and ministering out of the grace of God in the love of Christ by the power of the Spirit. You touched on that, Craig, when you mentioned the “enough factor”. That kind of attitude, which I struggle with as well, is really a form of legalism, isn’t it, that seeks to merit affection and favor from God. Certainly Christian leaders need to be shaken out of that kind of mindset or they will inevitably burn out.

    Or maybe–and this is where my lack of remembering much of the specifics of the book is troublesome for my argument–maybe Nouwen is more concerned about critiquing relevance according to the world’s standards, which says that people are valuable based upon what they can offer or do or how much power or prestige they have. I could get on board with that too. I’m just concerned that we not frame Christianity as some sort of call to an existential positive self-esteem, as though we are to say to the world, “Jesus loves me and that’s all I have to offer you.” Instead I think we are to say, “Jesus loves you, and because He loves me, I’m going to work my butt off to prove it to you.”

    Or maybe I’ve totally missed/forgotten Nouwen’s point and I’ve bee rambling on about something that is totally irrelevant to the issue he’s dealing with. But, I hadn’t left a comment on your new blog yet so I thought I’d take the opportunity. Sorry to be so long-winded.

  2. Thanks, Nick, for a helpful “first” comment (didn’t know you were reading, but glad you are). I agree with what you’ve written here as a caution against the “take me or leave me” justification that one could read into Nouwen, and I’m glad you felt the freedom to voice your concern. I need it.

    As you alluded to at the end of your post, I think the key to reading this book is to understand Nouwen’s thoughts as coming out of his transition from Harvard to L’Arche. You hit the nail on the head when you said “maybe Nouwen is more concerned about critiquing relevance according to the world’s standards, which says that people are valuable based upon what they can offer or do or how much power or prestige they have.” I think that’s right.

    What I was trying to say (albeit clumsily) is that so often, my temptation is to be relevant for my sake and not for someone else’s. This impulse, at least from my reading, is what Nouwen was trying to point out when he compared the two environments (Harvard and L’Arche) – those at the former pursued relevance for the personal benefits it might bring; the latter’s perspective on relevance was much less concerned (if at all) about such perks.

    I like what you said: “As God’s people we have a mission. Using the Apostle Paul’s words, we are to be Christ’s ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation. That is a relevant mission.” Indeed, it is when it is for the sake of others; when for the sake of my own self-preoccupation, not so much.

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