By Dr. Judy Bartel de Graner
Jesus Christ was baptized, was acclaimed by the Father, was full of the Holy Spirit. I love Luke’s gentle words as he paints the rest of the astounding story. That same Holy Spirit then led Jesus into the desert and for the next forty days, the greatest educator, missionary mentor and teacher of all times was tempted.
- He was tempted to be relevant –
- He was tempted to be spectacular –
- He was tempted to be powerful —
Henri Nouwen, in his little book, “In the Name of Jesus”, underscores the danger of those three snares. For twenty years this Christian scholar and academician had lectured at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. Then his life fell apart. He discovered that what others called a “breakdown” or “burnout” was really, for him, a lack of intimacy with the Lord.
He was offered to direct an institution called Daybreak, one of the L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people. They were not interested in how relevant he was to the academic world nor how up to date with the latest technologies. They were not awed by his spectacular writings nor the letters after his name. They were not impressed by his power to persuade or his positions of authority. All they needed to know was what he was like right then and there. They needed an answer to, “Are you going to eat with us tonight?”
Through those “poor in spirit…” Henri was healed. In the process, he also overcame the need to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful.
So, what’s wrong with “being relevant?” It can become a snare when it means that you are main figure in the spotlight — the showman turning stones into free bread. People look up to you for solving their problems, meeting their needs, or taking on the role of their savior. The antidote is not the antonym — to be irrelevant. Henri did not have to become disabled to communicate with them. He had to slow down, quiet his heart, and be genuine. He had to take time to practice the presence of Christ. He had to allow himself to enter their inner circle of authenticity and be part of the family, the community.
The antidote to the temptation to be spectacular was not to be dull or unimpressive. Henri was not obliged to stop excellent writing or creating amazing educational tools. He did not have to reject titles as long as they were earned in obedience to God’s direction. Rather, the cure to the “be spectacular” poison was to practice the character of Christ. He modeled genuine love and concern, he mentored the community and, in turn, learned from them. He laid the foundation for other’s lives through being an example rather than through the achievements he could claim.
The antidote to the need to be powerful was to empower others, to inspire hope and love. Godly, transforming power did not come through exercising authority over his students but through influence — the influence of being Christ-like, of modeling integrity, and of having a servant’s heart. Spirit power came from helping his students become the best they could be and to give God all the Glory. He earned respect whether he was in a position of authority or not.
Henri writes that what was most important to God he learned from the disabled. Early into his tenure at Daybreak he was asked to speak at the fifteenth anniversary celebration for the Center of Human Development in Washington, D.C. He invited a new friend Bill, a mentally disabled yet somewhat articulate man, to be his conference partner. Bill was thrilled and, in the days leading up to the conference, kept repeating to Henri, “We are going to do this together, right? We are going to do this together.” “Yes,” Henri answered, “we are doing this together. You and I are going to Washington, D.C. to proclaim the Gospel.” To Henri’s surprise, during his first conference, Bill left his seat, walked up to the podium, and stood behind him. Bill had a clear understanding about the meaning of “doing it together”. Once in a while he inserted a comment and he organized Henri’s papers as Henri finished each one and set them to one side. Bill’s presence inserted a lighthearted normalcy into what could have been a dry presentation. He was genuine, he was authentic, he took Henri at his word, he was open and friendly and lived what is meant to love one another. Bill was not relevant, not spectacular and by no means powerful. But by the end of the weekend conference, it was Bill who gave the closing comment and received the standing ovation.
Last night I reread Henri’s words, underlined many again and allowed them to hit home. Have I fallen into the trap? Far from mentally-disabled, my Bible School and ISUM students are smart, techy and savvy to the latest man-made doctrines floating through YouTube. Am I tempted to be wiley, oh-so-relevant, impressively spectacular and a model of achievement, power and authority? Have I been tempted to put on a cloak of acculturation instead of asking for a new heart, and new point of view? Have I been tempted to just “do” instead of “be”? Am I attracted by the trap to promote individualistic achievements, to impress with efficiency, projects, buildings — to be noticed as the outstanding “one” instead of as a member of a team? Do I insist on my student’s individual performance even if he or she could learn more by working as part of a team or being coached? Have I been tempted to be powerful by association and authoritarian by position or by the letters after my name; instead of empowering my students to be the best they can be? Perhaps all my students need to know right now is, “Judy, are you going to eat with us tonight?”
Jesus did not win just one battle in the desert. His showed us how win the war, to triumph through a lifetime of living out His desert declarations every day. He showed us communion, fellowship, community. He showed us how to leave a foundation from which those who follow us can do greater things.
Henri Nouwen ends his book with a challenge. I will quote him and substitute the word leader with teacher.
“I leave you with an image of a teacher with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying teacher, the vulnerable teacher and the trusting teacher. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage and confidence . . . “
So be it. Amen.
 Nouwen, Jenri J.M. In the Name of Jesus, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York: 1989, pp. 92-93.