March 10, 2011

For Lent: Downward Mobility

The first Sunday in Lent has the same gospel story every year. Told in versions by Matthew, Mark and Luke, the forty-day temptation of Christ in the wilderness begins our own forty days of wandering. Each year on this Sunday, I remember my teacher Henri Nouwen and the sermon/lecture he preached on this subject in the late 1970s. I think it was the finest address I have ever heard. It was entitled, “Downward Mobility.”

It was in this lecture that Henri first articulated the principles that would make up the foundation of his later book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. He took the three temptations of Christ and told this auditorium of Yale seminarians that they represented:

  1. The temptation to be relevant. 
  2. The temptation to be spectacular. 
  3. The temptation to be powerful. 

“The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call. We make ourselves believe that we are called to be productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government. But this is giving in to the temptation to be relevant and respectable in the eyes of the world. (Nouwen)” For Henri, Satan’s offer for Christ to turn stones to bread was a trap set so he would give in to being the relevant leader we all seek to be. And Christ resisted that temptation.

The temptation to throw one’s self from the pinnacle of the temple was presented as the desire to do something spectacular. Remember he was speaking to people in the earliest formation as ministers in the 197X and let me tell you this was a temptation we all felt. We were ready to shake the world. And instead, Henri let us know that much of our faithful service would dwell in the realm of the mundane.

And then he concluded with the temptation to be powerful and warned us this was the most powerful of all. “There is nothing more challenging to subdue than our obsession with power.”

Henri would leave Yale the next year and travel in South America. As his students we all knew that what he was doing was walking away from the very temptations he had so beautifully laid out for us. His tenured position at Yale was for him the epitome of giving in to all three. Instead, his later career took him to a L’Arche community for the adult developmently disabled, a far distance from Yale’s ivy covered walls.

Every year at this time I remember Henri’s historic lecture. Relevance, popularity, and power are so often seen as key ingredients of an effective ministry but they are really more temptation than vocation. Henri Nouwen reminded us that they are the ways of the world and not the path of faith.