“As Christian ministers we are called to speak and act in the name of Jesus Christ. If we do not do that and become neutral enablers, I think that we betray our vocation.”
Before Christmas I started writing down phrases on post-it notes that stood out to me while reading. I didn’t have a plan for these but wanted to keep them in front of my eyes for a bit as they seemed worth pondering. I decided that I would start writing some posts called phrases I love. The idea is simple, when I read or hear a phrase I love – something that really sticks out to me – I’m going to write about it. Riff on it. Tell you what it evoked in me and why. I’ll intersperse these on the blog as they come to me. I’ve also created a space for them on the menu bar and will organize them there. Anyway, here goes.
There is a wonderful book, released late last year, that I’ve been taking my time with called Love, Henri: Letters On The Spiritual Life. I’m a really big fan of Nouwen’s work. Nouwen was brilliant and certainly feeds the mind, but my soul often feels refreshed when I read his work as well. This particular book is a collection of his correspondence over the course of a couple of decades (December 29th, 1973 – August 4th, 1996). Apparently Nouwen was the kind of person who kept and responded to all the letters that he received (immediate guilt sets in as I look at my inbox). These letters have been donated to the Nouwen Archives and have there been preserved; many of them now appear in this book. What a gift to the church.
The phrase that struck me came from a letter that he wrote on September 27th, 1976 to an Episcopal priest named Reverend C. Leland Udell. In the course of this particular letter Nouwen wrote: “As Christian ministers we are called to speak and act in the name of Jesus Christ. If we do not do that and become neutral enablers, I think that we betray our vocation.” These are all very strong words, but the words that stood out to me in particular were neutral enablers.
I think it was a year or two ago when Jesus’ words in Luke 6:26 struck me as really strange and immensely counter-cultural for the first time. Jesus said: “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” This cuts across the grain of common leadership understanding – whether found in a leadership book, or a pastoral training classroom. Most of us want to learn how to keep the peace in places of contention and, let’s be honest, churches can sometimes be places of contention. But sometimes – many times, in fact – peace simply becomes code for lack of conflict. It is a great temptation of pastors to value lack of conflict, or tranquility, over “the things that make for peace”.2 There is a difference. A big difference. The truth is that often times the things that make for peace will first of all make for one heck of a storm. Try and mention racism, prison or immigration reform, for example, on Facebook without starting a fight. To use the classic Jewish qal wahomer – how much more in the pulpit. Some would say that we should steer clear of such issues and just “preach the gospel,” or “preach Jesus.” The problem is, these things are (or aren’t!) gospel, and to really preach Jesus means that we need to address issues of injustice. Pastors, particularly in America currently, need to be prophetic witnesses to the Kingdom of God. But notice what Jesus says: if everyone speaks well of you, chances are you are a false prophet. Jesus won’t give a neutral ground in his categories. He doesn’t say you are a prophet or you aren’t a prophet; he says you are either a prophet or a false-prophet. These are tough words but I think this is what Nouwen was getting at through his term neutral enablers. If we never speak up and put our necks on the line for those whose necks are already on the line, “we betray our vocation.” We become neutral enablers when we should be prophets.
There are two things that should probably be said here. First, being a bull-in-a-china-shop is not the same thing as being a prophet. Sometimes people cause a stir in their community because they lack wisdom or good pedagogic skills. If we are to address injustice we need to do so with all of the wisdom, intellect, and appropriate power that we can manage.3 We owe this to those for whom we speak. Otherwise, we can make things worse instead of better through our carelessness. When I think of people who have spoken with a prophetic voice in recent history, all of them are wise, well studied, and thoughtful delivers of truth they proclaim.4
Second, it is true that we must speak words of comfort as well as words of challenge. But both are necessary. If we only speak words of comfort we may in fact be neutral enablers; false prophets. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us of the double nature of true religion when he writes that “[religion] is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame.”5
I’d love to know some of the people that you feel are speaking to difficult but necessary issues in our day.
1 Henri Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters On The Spiritual Life. (New York: Convergent, 2016). 23
2 Luke 19:42
3 When I speak of power, I mean a cross-shaped (cruciform) power.
4 I think of people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Pastor Brian Zahnd, and Gary Haugen, just to name a few.
5 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How To Avoid The Clash Of Civilizations, 2002. (London: Bloomsbury, 2003). p. 11