These words from the late Henri Nouwen, author, teacher & priest challenge us to see our faith life, our following Jesus, in a very different way from what the world around us sees as successful. Not upwardly mobile, but in fact the opposite. Nouwen sees the life that Christ lived on earth as the exact opposite from what our society suggests is the good life.
“The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record - that's what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame. The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility.” (Henri Nouwen, Downward Mobility)
In many ways, our society tempts us with the good life. Do all you can to get to the top, earn all you can, get all the fame you can, be a success! You will have it all! We love those stories of people who have come from nothing and have achieved so much. But Nouwen is not interested in these, because we can be seduced by them in thinking that is the good life, when followers of Jesus are called down a different path.
"Indeed, the one who was from the beginning with God and who was god revealed himself as a small, helpless child; as a refugee in Egypt; as an obedient adolescent and inconspicuous adult: as a penitent disciple of the Baptizer; as a preacher from Galilee, followed by some simple fishermen; as a man who ate with sinners and talked with strangers; as an outcast, a criminal, a threat to his people. He moved from power to powerlessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to ignominy. The whole life of Jesus of Nazareth was a life in which all upward mobility was resisted…The divine way is indeed the downward way.”
On this first Sunday in Lent, we always hear about the 40 days where Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, as we begin our own Lenten journey. For Nouwen, those temptations that Jesus faced, are also temptations we face with that upward mobility:
1. The temptation to be relevant.
2. The temptation to be spectacular.
3. The temptation to be powerful.
1st Temptation, Satan’s offer for Jesus to turn stones to bread was a trap, you have the power Jesus to perform it, to be the relevant leader we all want you to be, but Christ resisted that temptation.
“The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call. We make ourselves believe that we are called to be productive, successful, and efficient people… But this is giving in to the temptation to be relevant and respectable in the eyes of the world.” (Nouwen)The second temptation to throw one’s self from the pinnacle of the temple was presented as the desire to do something spectacular. Show the world, who you are Jesus, let those angels catch you! Wow! Nouwen tells us that much of our faithful service would dwell in the realm of the mundane not the spectacular, faithfulness lived in our everyday lives.
And then the temptations are concluded with the temptation to be powerful, look Jesus I will give you the world to control, just follow me and Jesus doesn’t bite. Nouwen warns us this is the most powerful temptation of all.
“There is nothing more challenging to subdue than our obsession with power.”For Nouwen, Yale represented the temptations he talked about, so he walked away from that. He would travel in South America and his later career took him to a L’Arche community for the adult developmentally disabled. Nouwen’s lived as he spoke, trying to avoid those temptations.
In Arthur Miller’s iconic American play, Death of a Salesman, we watch someone who longs for and gives into those temptations. Willy Loman works a territory in the posh New England countryside. Willy longs for the success, power, and wealth he sees among his well heeled be clients — clients who barely give him the time of day. Despite his poor sales, Willy lives the illusion of success. He brags to his two boys, Biff and Happy:
But, in reality, Loman’s pitch doesn’t cut it. Willy loses his job, his dignity and (he believes) the love of his family. He takes his own life in the hope that his family can cash in on the insurance policy. At his funeral, only his immediate family & best friend are there to mourn him. His grown son Biff, says scornfully,
“Boys, they know me up and down New England. The finest people. And when I bring you boys up there, the doors will open for all of us. ‘Cause one thing’s for sure, boys, I have friends in high places. I can park my car in any street in New England and the cops will protect it as if it were their own . . . I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. ‘Willy Loman is here!’ That’s all they have to know, and I go right through.”
“He had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong. He never knew who he was.”The Spirit leads us into the wilderness this Lent to consider the questions that Willy Loman could never grasp: Who are we? What are we looking for in this life? What do we value and treasure on this journey to eternity?
And on this journey we are tempted: be relevant, be spectacular, be powerful, be upwardly mobile.
Instead, this Lent take the time to go your solemn deeps, to find that essence of life inside you, that authentic self. Make time to look quietly and prayerfully beyond the Willie Loman facades we all hide behind, the upward mobility our society says to follow and realize the promise our lives hold and the joys yet to be realized. As Nouwen puts it:
Our journey has begun, it is a journey to the cross, but let us be faithful to it, for in it, we will find Jesus and life. Amen.
"It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life."