love me tender...

One of the blessings I have discovered in my nearly 40 year sojourn with Henri Nouwen is this: he was as anxious as I am at times - and equally haunted by doubt - even as we trust in God's grace.  To be sure, Brother Henri was a whole lot smarter than me (most of the time) and understood the movement of the Spirit with greater clarity. But as I read through his writings again - especially The Inner Voice of Love, Reaching Out and the collected notes/lectures that comprise the Spiritual Formation series - I am reminded that we both wrestled with inner fears like me right alongside an abiding awareness of God's presence. Like the Psalmist of ancient Israel, my soul sings but then seems to hide or get lost even as I hope in the Lord.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
   so my soul longs for you, O God. 
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God? 

My tears have been my food
   day and night,
while people say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’ 

These things I remember,
   as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
   and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
   a multitude keeping festival. 
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God. 

My soul is cast down within me;
   therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
   from Mount Mizar. 
Deep calls to deep
   at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
   have gone over me. 
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
   and at night his song is with me,
   a prayer to the God of my life. 

I say to God, my rock,
   ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
   because the enemy oppresses me?’ 
As with a deadly wound in my body,
   my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
   ‘Where is your God?’ 

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
   and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
   my help and my God.

For a few days I have been leafing through my old Nouwen texts, noting what I have underlined in the past, and what speaks to me today. Even 20 years after his death, deep speaks to deep:

As long as we are trying to run away from our loneliness we are constantly looking for distractions with the inexhaustible need to be entertained and kept busy... We become dependent on the shifting chain of events leading us into quick changes of mood, capricious behavior and, at times, revengeful violence. Then our life becomes a spastic and often destructive sequence of actions and reactions pulling us away from our inner selves. It is not difficult to see how 'reactionary' we tend to be: that is, how often our lives become a series of nervous and often anxious reactions to the stimuli of our surroundings. We are often very, very busy - and usually tired as a result - but we should ask ourselves how much of our activity... is part of an impulsive reaction to the changing demands of our surroundings than an action born out of our own center?
- Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

Two of the insights I have learned by observing the ebb and flow of serenity and anxiety in the
written work of Nouwen include:

+ The necessity of inner tenderness:  How many times have I been my own harshest critic? How many times have I treated my soul like someone I hate rather than love? How many times have I skipped God's assurance of pardon and forgiveness and meted out only punishment? Who would be surprised to know that I wept the first time I read Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11: 28-30?

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

I mentioned this once to another clergy person who worshipped with us in Tucson - a strong and gentle soul who had been on the cutting edge of the HIV/AIDS epidemic before the disease was understood - and she broke down in tears, too. "I tried so hard to be present and loving to so many..." Learning to love, forgive and cherish ourselves is a key component in our spirituality of tenderness.

+ The willingness to start again:  Some people are uncomfortable with the Scripture where Jesus tells Nicodemus that "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." (John 3: 3) To be sure, this text has been used to polarize and exclude, but that is not it's intention. Rather, it is an invitation to respond to grace - or new insights - and move out of the prison of our habits of shame, fear and anxiety. Nouwen puts it like this in his reflection on the desert fathers and mothers:

The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people's fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives?...How horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be (with all its busyness!)
- Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart

I know that when I become angry and resentful of ministry, people and sometimes even God, three things are true:  a) I am overly tired, b) I am starved for prayer and solitude, and c) I am in need of pardon so that I can be still and start again. My feelings are a clue - an invitation from above and within - but the message is usually upside-down just like God's kingdom.  When I want to rail and shout, it would be better to be silent. When I want to flee and chuck it all, it would be more satisfying and redemptive to stay engaged. When I want to be angry with another, it is usually and invitation to let God heal my inner hurt in solitude.

Last night, before I finally fell asleep, two thoughts were running through my head that oddly relate to a spirituality of tenderness:  1) I have always been attracted to Elvis Presley's song, 'Love Me Tender,' not in a schmaltzy or sentimental way, but rather as a prayer. It is simple, honest and healing. And 2) while I make jokes about Blanche Dubois's credo in Streetcar Named Desire, I think it is one of the hidden keys to living a satisfying and sacred life:  "Who ever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Two broken people  sharing gifts with the world in the most ordinary ways.


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