Advent: The Downward Way
I have just written this article for my church magazine at Broomfield:
One of the most inspiring spiritual writers of the twentieth
century was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest called Henri Nouwen. A renowned
speaker and writer, he held prestigious lecturing appointments at Yale and
Harvard universities in the United
States. But the honour and esteem did not
satisfy him. Throughout his life he struggled with insecurity.
His life began to change when his sister-in-law gave birth
to a daughter with Down’s Syndrome. He also went to Peru and lived with a desperately
poor family, where he experienced the love of small children playfully crawling
all over him.
But most of all his life was transformed by involvement with
the L’Arche communities, who serve adults with severe learning disabilities. First
of all he lived in one of their centres in France;
later he left university life and moved permanently into the Daybreak community
in Toronto. There
he spent his time caring for a young man called Adam. Every morning it took one
and a half hours to wash, dress, feed and medicate him before the business of
the day. It was a far cry from the acclaim of academic life and the success of
authoring over forty popular spiritual books.
Nouwen had joined Daybreak, not out of a noble desire to
serve but out of his own need. There he found not only that he had the
opportunity to show love; he received it, too. Much of his life journey can be
summed up in some words he wrote about five years before joining Daybreak:
‘The great paradox which Scripture
reveals to us is that real and total freedom can only be found through downward
mobility. The Word of God came down to us and lived among us as a slave. The divine
way is indeed the downward way.’
Nouwen lived ‘the downward way’. His life was marked by ‘downward
mobility’. And this is an obvious and important theme for us as we enter Advent
and prepare for Christmas. ‘The Word of God came down to us and lived among as
a slave,’ wrote Nouwen. ‘Emptied himself of all but love,’ said Charles Wesley.
‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ It is a downward
journey from Heaven to a manger, and eventually to a cross.
I wonder how we shall mark the downward journey, both this
Advent and throughout our lives. I suspect many of us came to Broomfield due to a desire for upward
mobility. It’s a very nice place to live. Debbie and I would freely confess we
are happier at the thought of our children going to school in this area, rather
than where they would have gone had we stayed longer in my last appointment. Some
of us don’t like the idea of even going to the Post Office
in nearby Melbourne,
with all its social problems. (Not that I think the withdrawal of the Post Office from Broomfield
was in any way admirable, you understand: it has created great difficulties for
elderly people in the village.)
But Christians get sucked into the ‘upward mobility’ values
of the world. We climb ladders of education, careers, property and social
lives. Without thinking we absorb these lifestyles and become indistinguishable
from the society in which we live.
I am not suggesting we all put our houses on the market and
abandon Broomfield for Melbourne or some other area, although that may be the
call for some. And indeed I hear that several members of the Oasis Church that
meets at KEGS have done exactly that, to add to the Christian witness on that
estate, along with the Catholic nuns there and other churches.
But I am suggesting that the way in which we support the
disadvantaged at Christmas needs to be more than a ‘one-off’. However worthy it
is to support CHESS, Prison Fellowship, Hand In Hand or other causes, a
commitment to ‘the downward way’ needs to be incorporated into our lives. Christmas
reminds us each year of God’s permanent commitment to the poor, disadvantaged
and vulnerable. May that be reflected in our individual witness and in the
ministry of this church.
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