Over the past 2 weeks I have read 2 of Henri Nouwen’s better known books: In the Name of Jesus and Life of the Beloved. I read them in very different places of life, thinking about very different things – but I needed them both.
In the Name of Jesus is Nouwen’s book on Christian Leadership going into the 21st century. He lays out the temptations of leadership, the cures, and the practices to help you get there, its a a-b-c/a-b-c/a-b-c structure. The temptations – to be relevant, powerful, spectacular, are a fascinating starting point for Nouwen because they are not particularly malicious temptations. A non-Christian reader would find this a deeply strange book because it is a powerful refutation of every other leadership book on the market. A simple 150 pages reminding you that Jesus never asked you to be a great leader, and if you will lead in his name, you must lead like him. I would recommend it for people going in to ministry roles. I would suggest it as one to revisit every so often. Nouwen’s language is simple and clear and straight-forward. It is hard to misunderstand him, even if occasionally we might want to.
I read this book in two sittings. The first was from 3-5 am on a Wednesday. Tortured by anxiety that wouldn’t let me sleep, anxiety from the very leadership Nouwen writes about, I found his words true but unpleasant. A reminder of how far I was from where I wanted to be. Nouwen can be like that.
A week later, I read Life of the Beloved on a plane flight home. It was Christmas Eve. My husband napped on my shoulder, as did most of the other passengers on the 7am flight. If In the Name of Jesus coincided with my restless anxiety, it seems only fitting that Life of the Beloved was a book I opened to the sound of slumber of everyone around me. Nouwen wrote the book to a dear, non-religious friend, trying to explain what it means to be a spiritual person in a secular world. The core thesis is this: You are the Beloved. Everything else hinges on you believing that. He (always so structured, I love that about him) orients the book around the four verbs of the breaking of the bread: taken, blessed, broken, and given. The book moves slowly but powerfully through the four movements, and is laced with the heartfelt urgency and compassion of a man trying to explain to someone he loves that he is so much more than this secular and cruel world tells him he is. This book is almost unbearably gentle, and kind. It whispers compassion in every page. Its a powerful, intimate thing to read, and one which I will hold on to.
So my Christmas was framed by a conversation with my dear friend Henri. First with his confrontation of how my anxiety was so clearly not what God wanted. How all I could hear was all that I was not. And then a soft voice, telling me, as much as I was willing to believe, that I was beloved.