Almost 20 years ago I signed up for Gordon Cosby’s class on Servant Leadership. Ten Tuesday evenings at the Church of the Saviour in DC. I bought ten train tickets.
The first night of class Gordon handed all eighteen of us a photocopied manuscript of Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved. The assignment for the following week didn’t seem too overwhelming to a pastor who had been out of seminary and in parish ministry for over a decade: read the book and journal for two pages on the question, “Do I really feel that I am the beloved?”
I caught the bus from the Church’s Festival Center to Union Station and discovered that the Richmond train was delayed. Frustrated, I found a chair and thought, “At least I have a book to read.” Three-and-a-half hours later my train arrived. Two hours after that we pulled up to the Staples Mill Road Amtrak station. I had read Life of the Beloved, and it blew me away.
Let me see if I can explain why.
Did I mention that at the time I had been working as a pastor for over ten years? That’s ten stewardship campaigns. Ten Advents and Easters. Ten years of supervising staff and coordinating annual planning. Ten years for this pastor added up to almost 200 funerals, about 40 weddings, around 120 baptisms, too many Bible studies to count, not to mention over 500 worship services and sermons. (It makes me tired just to think about it.)
As an adult at midlife, I was doing the work of being a Christian to the best of my ability. And all those years of doing things that add up to following Jesus had effectively buried how and why I had become a follower of Jesus in the first place.
The journey had started when I was a young child and some nice ladies at our church taught me and the other children to sing:
Jesus loves me, this I know/For the Bible tells me so./Little ones to him belong/I am weak, but he is strong./Yes, Jesus loves me….
I have known that I am loved by God almost as long as I have known anything. As I grew older and comprehended more fully what Nouwen calls “First Love,” it nudged me into the baptismal pool and later swept me into a surprising career choice. My experience is that when you realize you are loved by God, you find yourself empowered to make surprising choices.
And then as you live into the choices, the tendency is to forget the startling experience of God’s love that moved you to make the choices to begin with.
This is why churches have retreats and camps and revivals—to reconnect Christ followers with the God-love that started them on the journey. Life of the Beloved is like a revival or a week of church camp in that it takes us back to how God took hold of us.
Nouwen explains that the voice of God that broke through to Jesus at his baptism (“This is my beloved Son. I am well-pleased with him.”), is the same still, small voice that is trying to break through to us. Imagine God whispering to you right now, “You are my beloved child. I am well-pleased with you!” When these words echo deep within you, the embrace is astonishingly transforming.
Life of the Beloved is at the same time the simplest and most difficult book I own. The simple truth is that you and I are loved by God. The hardest thing in the world is to remember God’s love when life is bruising and exhilarating us.
What I’ll share with you on Sunday is that Henri Nouwen not only reminds us of God’s First Love, he lets us in on the ways he learned to keep that love front and center.