Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) Catholic priest, Harvard professor, Best-selling author, Direct-caregiver
From “Low Pay, Long Hours, No Applause” by Phililp Yancey, Christianity Today magazine, November 18, 1988, page 80.
Adam is a 25-year-old man who cannot speak, cannot dress or undress himself, cannot walk alone, and cannot eat without much help. He does not cry or laugh. Only occasionally does he make eye contact. His back is distorted. His arm and leg movements are twisted. He suffers from severe epilepsy and, despite heavy medication, sees few days without grand-mal seizures. Sometimes, as he grows suddenly rigid, he utters a howling groan. On a few occasions, I’ve seen one big tear roll down his cheek.
It takes me about an hour and a half to wake Adam up, give him his medication, carry him into his bath, wash him, shave him, clean his teeth, dress him, walk him to the kitchen, give him his breakfast, put him in his wheelchair and bring him to the place where he spends most of the day with therapeutic exercises.
In 1985 author Henri Nouwen moved from his post at Harvard University to a community called Daybreak, near Toronto. There he took on the daily, mundane chores related above: a ministry not to intellectuals, but to a young man who is considered by many a vegetable, a useless person who should not have been born. Yet in a recent article in World Vision magazine, Nouwen insisted that he, not Adam, is the chief beneficiary in this strange, misfitted relationship.
From the hours spent with Adam, Nouwen says, he has gained an inner peace so fulfilling that it makes most of his other, more high-minded tasks seem boring and superficial by contrast. As he sat beside that silent, slow-breathing child-man, he realized how full of rivalry and competition, and how pervaded with obsession, was his prior drive toward success in academia and in the Christian ministry.
From Adam he learned that “what makes us human is not our mind but our heart, not our ability to think but our ability to love. Whoever speaks about Adam as a vegetable or animal-like creature misses the sacred mystery that Adam is fully capable of receiving and giving love.” From Adam, Henri Nouwen learned—gradually, painfully, and shamefully—that the way up is down.
My career as a journalist has afforded me opportunities to interview diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars include NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the ones who dominate our magazines and our television programs—yes, our Christian magazines and Christian television programs, too. We fawn over them, poring over every little detail of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the places they go, the toothpaste they use.
Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these people, our “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. And in a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seem tormented by incurable self-doubt.
I have also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for 20 years among outcasts—leprosy patients, the poorest of the poor, in rural India. Or the health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town in Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.
I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow, in the process of losing their lives, they have found them. They have received the “peace that is not of this world” such as Henri Nouwen described in his article, a peace he discovered not within the stately halls of Harvard, but by the bedside of incontinent Adam.
During the past two years, I have winced at the snidely jubilant tone that has often characterized media coverage of the televangelists’ scandals: See, those Christian superstars are no better—no, they are worse—than the rest of us. I have grieved over reports that contributions to almost all Christian organizations have fallen dramatically in the wake of the scandals. I consider my gifts to such organizations as World Vision, American Leprosy Mission, World Concern, Wycliffe, and Mendenhall Ministries as the highest-returning investment I can possibly make.
Maybe the underlying problem behind the scandals is that we have distorted the kingdom of God by training our spotlight not on the servants, but on the stars. As Henri Nouwen said in his article,” Keep your eyes on the one who says, ‘Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness.’ … Keep your eyes on the one who is poor with the poor, weak with the weak and rejected with the rejected. That one is the source of all peace.” In other words, keep your eyes on the servant, not the star.
The Gospels repeat one saying of Jesus more than any other: “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Truly, the way up is down.
Matthew 16:24-26 — Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
John 14:27 — (Jesus said), “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Matthew 23:11-12 — (Jesus said), “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
You are never tired, O Lord, of doing us good; let us never be weary of doing you service. But as you have pleasure in the well-being of your servants, let us take pleasure in the service of our Lord, and abound in your work and in your love and praise evermore. Amen. –John Wesley