Relevance: In the Name of Jesus

by Len Hjalmarson

This past year I finished the final year of interaction in a learning cohort out of ACTS. Recently one of the women in my cohort quoted Henri Nouwen from In the Name of Jesus:

“The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there (p. 35).”

In the following discussion someone referred to the Great Commission. The implied focus was clearly evangelism and getting people into heaven. In response I wondered if part of Nouwen's push away from relevance is because it pushes us to utilitarianism and activism. It seems we constantly face this dynamic that even in serving our egos become involved. We become focused on the goal, because it makes us look good to succeed, when someone "prays the prayer." Sadly, we commodify people. We take a good thing and make it bad; beginning with the Spirit, we "end with the law."

Activism so easily becomes divorced from love. Any time we divorce our work for Jesus from our prayer in Jesus we distort God's kingdom purpose. Distortion may result because of dualism, a need to connect with cultural measures, or just a personal need to appear spiritual.

Part of my response in conversation was that the only relevance we need to work at is relevance to Jesus. I know.. that could be taken as dualistic also.. if it wasn't for the incarnation :). I argued that if our great joy is making Him smile.. we may find ourselves relevant to those around us but in very different ways than our church culture might dictate.

She then asked, "How does being relevant push you toward activism?"

I recalled that Paul at Prodigal Kiwis reflected on the life and work of missiologist David Bosch.

“…Out of our zeal to see church growth to take place, we bring into the text the meaning (and therefore the agenda) we have pre-determined. Spirituality as obedient action means obeying what the Bible actually says, not what we want it to say…”

“…For Bosch, then, spirituality has to do with being in tune with what God is doing in the world and participating in God"s work (missio Dei). Spirituality is rooted in one's eschatological and soteriological framework. It is different from the Pentecostal or contemplative traditions where one's union with God serves as a worthy end goal. Bosch would go farther. Spirituality as seeking God is not and cannot be the end goal. Spirituality is essentially being in tune with Jesus Christ and being in service of God's plan for the world…”

Let's start by noting that this tension between the active life and contemplative life is very western, Helenistic and dualistic. I don’t think it would have occurred to the Hebrew mind to frame the question. So.. do we avoid asking it?

In the west we must ask it; we must ask it in order to achieve awareness of the problem. This is the culture we have been formed in, and until we “see our seeing” we are not going to move beyond our distorted frame of reference.

Franciscan Richard Rohr years ago formed “The Center for Action and Contemplation.” He says the important word in the title is “and.”

I doubt if those of us formed in western culture will ever completely move beyond this dualistic lens and the separation of action and contemplation. But I think the Gospel itself pushes us beyond that dualism to a completely different paradigm: incarnation, and union.

Jesus was the Word. But rather than giving us a set of propositions or merely speaking into our darkness He became incarnate as the Light. He came into our world in the flesh; He was embodied, local, personal, human. Fully human, He lived and moved in the power of the Spirit. What we interpret as a rhythm of action and contemplation in His life is really the outworking of His union with the Father. There is nothing mechanical or programmatic about it. He isn't following the latest fad for spiritual formation.

Ours is not a choice between action and contemplation. These are part of a rhythm, an organic outflow of interior life. We shouldn’t have to choose, and ideally shouldn’t even have to worry about such categories. Formation is about being united in Christ and renewed in His image. The end goal is not activism or contemplation: the end goal of Spirituality is Jesus. And note that there is no NT conception of the ekklesia that represents isolated units making choices: there is no cartesian individual, there is only the Body.

All that is not the love of God has no meaning for me. I can truthfully say that I have no interest in anything but the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. If God wants it to, my life will bear fruit through my prayers and sacrifices. But the usefulness of my life is his concern, not mine. It would be indecent of me to worry about that. - Dominique Voillaume

As we seek to rediscover a missional center, we mustn’t fail to discover something deeper at the same time: the inner life of the Spirit - a contemplative center. Some of the push toward action by reflective types is in reality just a rehearsal of the modern dynamic: the need to be busy, the need to be effective, the need for affirmation, the need to feel good about myself in the world. Too often it is the need to see results that are measurable, quantifiable, and that justify my life, or salary, or position.

More fundamentally than any of these things, we need to be found in God. If we are deeply rooted there, His life will move us. Too much action in the name of God is really a compulsive need for movement, a codependent cycle, another need to be in control of my world, a subtle return to the old idolatry under a religious banner.

The monastics understood this better than I do. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote more than a hundred sermons on the song of songs, the great love story of the Old Testament. In sermon 18 he writes on 1:2 “Your name is oil poured out..”

“The man who is wise will see his life more as a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water til it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself…. Today there are many in the church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare…”

“You too must learn to await this fulness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”

Similarly, Jean Vanier writes,

“The more we become people of action and responsibility in our community, the more we must become people of contemplation. If we do not nurture our deep emotional life in prayer hidden in God, if we do not spend time in silence and if we do not know how to take time from the presence of our brothers and sisters, we risk becoming embittered. It is only to the extent that we nurture our own hearts that we can keep interior freedom. People who are hyperactive, fleeing from their deep selves and their wound, become tyrannical and their exercise of responsibility only creates conflict.” From Community and Commitment

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in January, 2007