THE KINGDOM FOR BEGINNERS
Preached at Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church, Scarborough, ON
March 11, 2012
Henri Nouwen was a Roman Catholic priest, psychologist, and author, who is considered to be one of the finest spiritual writers of recent memory; his books have impacted millions of Christians around the world. He was originally from Holland, but came to United States for graduate school and ended up teaching at some of the finest universities in the world: Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. But in his early fifties, after 20 years of living a very privileged life as an academic and famous author, Nouwen decided to give it all up and move to Richmond Hill, believe it or not. Why Richmond Hill? He came to join the l’Arche community there, called l’Arche Daybreak.
Some of you have probably heard of l’Arche. It was founded by Canadian Jean Vanier in 1964 as a community for people with intellectual disabilities, or mental handicaps, and has spread around the world to 40 countries. L’Arche is French for “the ark,” as in Noah’s Ark. L’Arche takes a unique, faith-based approach to providing homes for people with disabilities. It is not at all like a nursing home. There are no “clients,” there are no “patients,” and there are no “staff.” At l’Arche, the “able” the “disabled” live together in community, in fact they live together in regular houses, and they relate to one another like families more than anything else. Everyone is treated as a person of equal respect and dignity; they all take responsibility for their household, and they have relationships of mutual support and accountability. Their households have close to a one-on-one ratio of non-disabled and disabled people. You might think, that doesn’t sound very efficient! Do they really need one non-disabled person for each disabled person? But the point of l’Arche is not to be efficient, but to be a place where everyone is valued as a child of God.
So in 1985 Henri Nouwen left Harvard to move to l’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill. He abandoned the most exclusive circles of intellectual life in order to live amongst people who were intellectually disabled. And, for the rest fo his life, much of his writing focused on how much he learned from these supposedly disabled people. In his wonderful book, In the Name of Jesus, he says,
“The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.”(27)
The fact that he was a Harvard professor meant nothing to these people. He was used to relying on his credentials and his accomplishments to impress everyone, but suddenly he was put into a place where people didn’t care about how many letters he had after his name. He continues,
“I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again.” (28)
In spite of all that he had accomplished, this very accomplished man was learning to become a beginner again. And he found that, when he humbled himself and became a beginner, he learned a lot about following Jesus.
I think of Henri Nouwen’s experience of “starting life all over again” when I read this story in Matthew 18, where Jesus calls the disciples to humble themselves and become like little children…
Read the rest here: Sermon 120311 MATTHEW 18 1 to 14