Tag Archives: liturgy

Blogging through the Book The Selfless Way of Christ by Henri Nouwen


English: Chanting the Gospel lesson during Div...
English: Chanting the Gospel lesson during Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox church Русский: Литургия в русском храме Покрова Пресвятой Богородицы, Дюссельдорф, Германия, 21 сентября 2009. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter 3, A Self-Emptied Heart

The discipline of the Christian disciple is not to master anything, but rather to be mastered by the Spirit.

 It is completely counter-intuitive to “work” toward discipline and achievement by submitting. We think we must work hard, and then harder. We think we must do certain things over and over until we get them right. The truth is that our most important lesson is to learn that we never will get it right. We can only get the Spirit. If we are where the Spirit leads, if we are doing what the Spirit asks, our weakness, our failure, our inability to do anything but fail becomes immaterial. We do the obedience; the Spirit does the accomplishment.

Nouwen speaks of three disciplines that lead us to empty our hearts in order that Christ may fill them. 

The Discipline of the Church is so much more than the phrase “go to church” ever implies. When I was a little girl, “go to church” was a very important weekly event. I had special “church” clothes. We had special Sunday dinner on that day. I vividly remember my red patent leather purse in which Mother put my special church handkerchief with a nickel tied up in the corner for my Sunday School offering. To a six-year-old, those were the important things about “going to church,” but that is not what the discipline of the church is.

The discipline of the church, says Nouwen, “is the discipline by which we as a people represent the living Christ in time and space.” This is what the liturgy is all about. I did not grow up with the liturgy. In the churches of my childhood, worship services had little that would remind anyone of the liturgy I enjoy so much today. Nouwen writes of liturgical worship as “the celebration by the people of God of the Christ-event.” That certainly fits my experience. As we progress through the seasons, certain elements are changeless, timeless, while others morph from season to season telling the story of the Christ event, reliving the Christ event, bringing the Christ event to life for us each week. As Nouwen points out, “Christ is God acting in human history” and in the liturgy, we celebrate and live that work every week. We empty our lives of self and fill our selves up with Christ. 

In the secular world, such discipline is not respected. In fact, churches are seen as hierarchies and rule-makers, not focal points for personal transformation. Nouwen does not try to deal with that issue, his focus being those who are faithful and trying to grow in faith. Nevertheless, those who are faithful must live in the midst of people who either dismiss or actually attack the idea of church or the liturgy. To those who do not know Christ and who do not enter into the liturgy as the discipline Nouwen describes, the liturgy becomes an empty ritual of repetitive phrases whose only redeeming feature is an occasional poetic or musical mountaintop. 

The discipline of the book is the way the Word of God continues to become flesh in us. That idea is overwhelming. Yet, anyone who reads the Word of God with heart and soul fully engaged has this experience. By means of meditation, which Henri Nouwen defines as, “the discipline of inner attentiveness to the Word,” we take in the Spirit and the power of the Word, and we are “formed into living Christs.” It is a sacramental experience, and it is world-changing. When we engage in this discipline, it is easy to be distracted by Satan’s whispers that we should be relevant, spectacular and powerful. Instead of learning from what we read, we must allow the reading of the Book shape our lives. Our temptation to learn draws us back to the temptation to upward mobility. The discipline of being shaped takes us downward with Christ to lives of service. We empty ourselves of accomplishments and fill ourselves up with Christ. 

Even within the church, however, the discipline of the book is falling into disrepute. Some Christian scholars treat the Bible as the expression of human beings at a specific stage in the evolution of human beings. They interpret ancient texts as if the words and situations must be reframed by contemporary ideas. The revelation of absolute truth is melted down in a crucible of human reason in order to arrive at a new thing on the earth, a human telling God what truth is. These scholars say things like, “The Bible does not address things that we know today, so we must act on our new knowledge without being limited by the Bible’s old ideas.” It is hard for faithful Christians to share the faith with secular thinkers, but it is even harder when church leaders keep changing the message. Nouwen would undoubtedly find that situation to be yet another example of Satan’s temptation to be relevant. 

Who among us can go empty-handed into the place of solitude? Yet this is the deepest discipline, the discipline of the heart, the discipline that leads us away from a heart that “ought” and “must” be busy about church work to the very heart of God. This is the sort of prayer that leads us to take up burdens we would prefer not to bear. In the heart of God, those burdens are lightened. If we cannot escape our own needs, then the burdens of others will be too heavy. 

This discipline puts people of faith in the most stark contrast to secular thinkers. Secular thinking requires that each person recognize that this world is all there is. Secular thinkers cannot empty themselves. Secular thinkers dare not empty themselves. There is nothing else. They must do it all themselves. They must choose and work and advance entirely on their own. Secular thinks believe that if we fail, we fail on our own. Unlike secular thinker, people of faith need only be faithful, not successful. Obedience is our part; success is the work of the Spirit. 

Nouwen recommends something many people will find troubling. He recommends a spiritual director. This person will have the obligation to inquire about, and we would have the obligation to report, the status of our prayer life. Who wants that? Does anyone voluntarily give someone else the right to ask, “So, why didn’t you take time to pray this morning?” Yet without some external force, someone to monitor our days, it may not be possible for us to let go of self and let go of our own needs enough to empty self and be filled with Christ. 

How do we go downward with Christ into complete servitude? We empty our selves and let self be filled up with Christ. The three disciplines – the church, the book and the heart – it sounds quite simple. Yet anyone who is honest will not find it so simple. To empty self and be mastered by the Spirit is to descend from the heights of self-fulfillment to the depths of service and self-effacement. It is an essential path, but few find it.

What’s in it for Me?

Joshua 5:10-7:26

My husband and I don’t wear big signs that say “Christian,” but we don’t keep it a secret, We believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, and when we feel that He is guiding the conversation, we invite people to church. We get a lot of different reactions, but the most common is something like this: “I really like to go to a church if I get something out of it. I used to go to church a lot, but then I realized one day that I wasn’t getting anything out of it, so I quit.” I wouldn’t belittle this reaction to church attendance, but it is hard to know what to say. The problem is that we don’t think of church as something we do in order to get something. Our participation in church is much more about loving service and obedience to God’s call. When we attend, we are inspired, and we do learn things. But the real point of attending worship is to worship. In fact, the word “liturgy” is derived from Greek words, leit- people + ergon work, which is to say that liturgy is the work of the people. Worship derives from Old English roots that mean “to ascribe worth to.” It would be right to say that Handel’s “Worthy is the Lamb” is the apotheosis of liturgical worship.

The story of the arrival of the wilderness-weary Israelites in the Promised Land is a story that puts a fine point on the question of what we get out of knowing God. At the beginning of the passage listed above (Joshua 5:10-7:26), the Israelites eat the Passover in the new land, and that is the end of manna. For the first time in forty years, they eat fresh fruits and vegetables, the produce of the Promised Land. Manna had been a gift when they first began to eat it, but the Bible records that the Israelites wearied of it. The generation that entered the Promised Land behind Joshua had never eaten anything but manna. Can you imagine their delight the first time they bit into a peach? They probably thought this moment was evidence from God that there was something for them in following him.

These events took place at Gilgal, their staging point for the coming attack on Jericho. Joshua 5:13-15 describes something even more marvelous. Joshua had been out spying out the ground for the attack on Jericho. As he stood contemplating the battle, he saw a man who said, “The place where you stand is holy.” This explains a lot about the battle for the Promised Land. If you recall, this is the land God promised to Abraham generations before. This is the land from which Joseph was taken to Egypt, where Israelites lived for 400 years before Moses came to lead them back to the Promised Land. How could God promise this land to Abraham? How could he promise it to the Israelites? There were people living on the land before Abraham, and there were people living on the land when the Egyptian escapees arrived there. Where do they get off claiming that God can give them this land?

The man who spoke with Joshua gives us the answer: the land belongs to God. It always belonged to God. In fact, if you read the Bible carefully, you soon discover that in God’s economy, all the land belongs to him, as well as the cattle that graze upon it and the whales that swim in its oceans. When the man who met Joshua told him that the spot where he stood was holy, it could have been any place. There is a big lesson in this little story. James summed up this lesson beautifully when he wrote, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, the eloquent and beautiful King James Version) The lesson is that all that we have and all that we are is the gift of our gracious God. We owe him thanksgiving and grateful stewardship of all that we receive.

This little story puts the big story of the conquest of Jericho in proper context. The marching, the trumpets, the wall that came tumbling down. The bloody destruction of men and women, children, animals, all living things within the walls except for Rahab and her family. The scruffy desert wanderers who had just arrived in Canaan defeated a powerful center of commerce surrounded by a high, thick wall, designed to repel real armies, not families marching around and singing praise to God. The people were full of excitement and delight. Everything looked good. God was working things out to their advantage. It appeared that they would get something out of all the misery they had endured since leaving Egypt after all.

One man wasn’t satisfied with the ego trip, however. He wanted something he could hold in his hands. I see that in dissatisfied church-goers, too. People come to my church, and they participate in a colorful and aesthetically pleasing liturgy, but they go away without “feeling” anything. They are not promised anything, but rather, they are urged to go forth and give service. There doesn’t seem to be anything in it for them. It isn’t at all like the churches where people are told that faithful Christian living will be rewarded with good jobs, comfortable houses and plenty of food for their children. It isn’t like the teleseminars that promise you that the universe wants you to have whatever you really want if you just get in synch and make your desires clear. They feel like Achan, who looked at all the “stuff” being gathered up for the Lord’s treasury and wondered where his share was. God could surely spare a little something for Achan. Didn’t God have enough already?

We are all tempted by this logic, and never more than in contemporary culture. The “Occupy” movement is all about a feeling that somebody else, be it God or man, has more than he “needs” and I have less than I “need.” It is all about my right to decide what is enough for someone else, even God. It is all about my right to judge what others have as if their possessions exist only because I have been shortchanged. Maybe Achan thought he actually needed the things he stashed out of sight of whoever was managing the Lord’s treasury that day. Or maybe he really thought God had no right to keep all the treasure for himself. Maybe Achan thought God was being profoundly unfair to everybody, so Achan said something like, he who helpeth not himself, the same he shall not be holpen.

The root of Achan’s problem is the root of most human discontent. Achan failed to recognize that all the wonderful things, all the land, all the animals, all the people, belonged to God already. The Israelites were conquering Jericho as God’s servants, and they were asked to demonstrate their stewardship of God’s gifts first. If you have read the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you have read the references to the “firstfruits.” The birth of an animal, the beginning of harvest, even the firstborn child, was all dedicated to God. The firstfruits were to be put in God’s treasury or else redeemed. God claimed Jericho as a firstfruit of the blessing of a homeland for the Israelites, and Achan ignored God’s righteous claim, because he wanted something for himself.

We are all guilty of the same thing. The people who put it into words are not worse than the rest of us; they are exactly like us. We all want rewards and privilege and possessions. The “Occupy” movement is just like the rest of us. When we are honest, we know that we all must grapple with envy, jealousy and covetous hearts. No matter how satisfied we are on most days, we all have our moments when we wonder why God didn’t give us the same benefits as somebody else. (I won’t say “everybody else” because we all know that the number of people in the world who have less than the 99% in the US is astronomical.)

I hear a lot of people say that the Old Testament is out of touch with reality, but I don’t believe it. The Old Testament is more real than most reality TV. Those folks were genuine scoundrels. They were just like the scoundrels in the news. Criminals, celebrities, politicians, scheming businessmen – they are all there, and much, much more. The story of Achan is quite real and down to earth. Any of us could be Achan, because any of us could be Eve. Satan was there, whispering in Achan’s ear, just as he whispered in Eve’s ear, “Did God say …?” The lesson of Achan is not implacable, ruthless justice in the name of God. The justice administered that day was simply the way justice was administered in that era. The truth of Achan is timeless, and we do well to listen to it. 

Every wild animal of the forest is mine,

the cattle on a thousand hills.

I know all the birds of the air,

and all that moves in the field is mine.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,

for the world and all that is in it is mine.


Psalm 50:10-12

We are blessed with God’s grace and presence in our lives. We are gifted with God’s abundant generosity, and our responsibility is simply grateful stewardship of those gifts. God’s goodness is not focused on our personal gratification, but rather on the provision of all that we need according to his purposes. What’s in it for me? The presence and power of the Most High God in my everyday life. That’s what.