- John Van Sloten
Quieting our Ambitions (Henri Nouwen & I)
Last night my wife read Psalm 131 for our evening devotions;
"My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore."
Whenever I hear these words I hear them in the voice of Father Henri Nouwen.
Years ago, Nouwen led a weekend retreat at our church. I can still see him standing before our small group, with an enlarged Van Gogh sketch (Mother and Child) on an easel beside him.
Before reading the Psalm he unpacked the sketch a bit - a child sitting on her mother's lap, head on her chest, the quiet intimacy of eye contact, no need for words, interlocked fingers. Nouwen's gentle voice matched the scene perfectly.
Then he read the Psalm.
Then, looking each of us in the eye, his tone changed and he incredulously said, "My heart is not proud?... This is not true! My heart is proud all the time!" I was taken aback by his authenticity. If Henri Nouwen can be this honest...
For the next 20 minutes he confessionally unpacked each line of the Psalm, "My eyes are not haughty - not a chance... I do not concern myself with great matters - I do all the time... Like a weaned child I am content - I could only wish."
It was almost uncomfortable, hearing someone of this stature bare their soul so fearlessly. To this day his integrity convicts me.
Today it does.
Over the past year and a half I've had a lot of time to catch my breath, get healthy, and self reflect. I am now convinced that I will never get my pride (and my desire to do great things) in check. My self-centered heart will always be self-centered.
Which is where grace comes in of course.
Where I continue to be all about me, God continues to be all about me. Where I can't fix myself he fixes me. When I get to the end of myself he's there. The other day I told my wife that I now realize that I can't be the person I want to be, that I know I should be, I do not have the character or strength. The part of me that wants what it wants is insurmountable.
It was a sad admission, and probably more truthful than I've ever been.
While there was a bit of self-condemnation in that moment, condemnation wasn't the last word. Even as I said those words I knew that I was speaking them before God. And I knew that God was gracious. And I knew that he uses messed up souls all the time. So I pledged to continue to trust and have hope, come what may.
Then a few days later, having come clean, I started to wonder what great next-plans God has for my life. Really.
The prophet Jeremiah had it right, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (17:9)
(P.S. After writing this post I watched this short Nouwen sermon clip... encouraging timing)