Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 6

I met a violist the other day in my travels to New York and we spoke about our shared passions for chamber music and opera. Violists do not receive a lot of attention in a quartet or an orchestra. There are very few times when this magnificent stringed instrument is allowed to sing and share the richness of its sonorities.

 

And yet, some of the most beautiful compositions in all the world are written for the viola and “hidden” in the midst of the complexity of musical notes and phrases.  Johannes Brahms wrote magnificent music for the viola in his Sextet Opus 18 and later Opus 36. Wagner’s Tannhauser is literally filled with wonderful passages for the viola which are “hidden” in the mist of vast orchestration and melody but vitally important nonetheless.

 

I was easily drawn into the images that Henri Nouwen provided in his fifth letter to his nephew, Marc. “God prefers to work in secret,” he writes. “You must have the nerve to let the mystery of God’s secrecy, God’s anonymity, sink deeply into your consciousness because, otherwise, you are continually looking in the wrong direction. In God’s sight, the things that really matter seldom take place in public. It’s quite possible that the reason why God sustains our violent and homicidal world and continues to give us new opportunities for conversion will always remain unknown to us. Maybe while we focus our attention on the VIPs and their movements, on peace conferences and protest demonstrations, it’s the totally unknown people, praying and working in silence, who make God save us yet again from destruction” (page 68).

 

How many times in my life have I focused so intently on the “melody”, the VIP as Nouwen suggests, that I have missed moments of sheer grace in the “hidden”. It takes discipline, as Nouwen writes to be able to listen for, and to be open to, those moments – and such magnificent moments they are!

 

I pray that as we move closer to Christmas Day, in this season that is so filled with noise and distraction, we listen intently for the “hidden” – that space where God can let something truly new take place within our lives. Then we can truly make music of the heart like my friend who plays the viola.

 

I look forward to reflecting with you.

 

Be at peace today - Brian


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 5

Dear Friends:

 

When I am in New York City, I make it a point to pay a visit to MOMA (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art). I am not a devotee of modern art, but I like to be challenged to think in innovative and creative ways and the museum never fails to make me ponder anew.

 

Last week, I was strolling through the second floor and came across a work by the American artist Sharon Hayes entitled: Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love? The medium which the artist chose to use was a five-channel public address system audio installation and five spray paint posters on paper using the title of the work. From September 17–21, 2007, Sharon Hayes emerged from the corporate headquarters of UBS in midtown Manhattan, at lunchtime to speak to an anonymous lover. Beginning “My dear lover” or “my sweet lover,” the texts Hayes spoke were addressed to an unnamed “you” who the speaker was separated from for some unexplained reason. Woven in between comments on and about personal longing and desire, were comments about politics, war and the trauma and dislocation of living in a moment of war. It is a powerful piece that speaks poignantly to the times in which we live.

 

I reflected on Hayes’ work as I was rereading the fifth letter by Henri Nouwen to his young nephew, Marc. In particular, I was struck by the lines: “’Love your enemies’. In these words we have the clearest expression of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Love for one’s enemy is the touchstone of being a Christian” (page 54).

 

Is that your standard or criterion by which you judge yourself as a disciple of Jesus? Challenging isn’t it? But, Nouwen has a means of speaking straight to the truth of the Christian way and life.

 

There were times last week, as I was walking the streets of the Big Apple (after the Macy’s Parade and on Black Friday) where my guard was very high - living in that motto of “See something, Say something”. The world’s events have made even going to a joy-filled event like the Thanksgiving Day Parade a cautionary endeavor. It seems as if our world and especially our nation lives more out of fear these days than faith (trust). How would our lives be different if we actually prayed for our enemies and got along peacefully with our daily affairs than living with the anxiety and belief that something awful is about to happen.

 

“An eye for and eye” has not gotten our world any nearer to peace and tranquility. “They will hear from us soon”, may have made us feel good at the moment but has brought with it over the course of the last decade an escalation in violence and terror. I cannot remember any period in my life where the world, or this nation, has not been in some sort of conflict, have you?

 

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those curse you, pray for those who treat you badly… Treat others as you would like people to treat you.”

 

What if you and I started the revolution all over again? What if you and I prayed for the folks who call themselves ISIS; the man who stormed the Planned Parenthood facility last week in Colorado; the young man who shot those dear Christians gathered for Bible study in Charleston; the thief who lives in East Cleveland; the friend who spoke ill of us the other day to a neighbor?

 

It seems trite to say this, but I find no other way out of the mess we humans have made except “on our knees” praying feverishly for God’s grace, mercy and guidance. Our world, our leaders, our communities in which we live, you and I are in need of a conversion. As Nouwen wrote so beautifully: “Jesus challenges us to move into a totally new direction … a complete interior turn-around, a transformation.”

 

There are living exemplars which give all of us hope. The church members in Charleston. The Mennonites in Pennsylvania. The brother of one of the victims of the Colorado shooting last week. The brother of a slain concert goer in Paris. These people have crossed over and are examples to all of us of Light standing against Darkness. These bright lights have made Nouwen’s words a reality: “Within prayer, you quickly discover that your enemies are in fact fellow human beings loved by God just as much as yourself. The result is that the walls you have thrown up between “him and me,” “us and them,” “ours and theirs,” disappear. Your heart grows deeper and broader and opens up more and more to all the human beings with whom God has peopled the earth.”

 

Who is your enemy? Who is your enemy that is in need of prayer? In God’s eyes, we are all the same.

 

May we encourage one another in the days ahead, in this journey called life, to be about prayer so that the conversion to love as God loves may begin in our hearts but spread to everyone whom we meet.

 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections.

 

Be well - Brian


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 4

I was rereading Nouwen’s fourth chapter, Jesus: the Descending God, on the train from New Canaan to New York City yesterday in preparation for this reflection. Little did I know that the stimulating image that Nouwen offers in the very first paragraph would come to reality just a short time later.

“It is a work of art made by human beings. But unless God’s sun shines through it we see nothing.” (Referring to the rose window in the Cathedral in Strasbourg)

I had the good fortune to attend the dress rehearsal of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 as played by Danil Trifonov and members of the New York Philharmonic. This piece has the reputation as one of the most technically daunting of all the standard piano concertos in the repertory. In the program notes for the concert, readers were reminded that pianists have often called this concerto the “Everest” they feel they must conquer, no matter what effort is required of them.

The composer apparently had no difficulty in accomplishing the task. While most of us who can play the piano can easily reach an octave, Rachmaninoff had hands that could play an interval of a 13th!

What makes this concerto stand out from all of the rest is the cadenza near the end of the first movement. Rachmaninoff composed two versions of an extensive cadenza, reflecting alternative ways of getting into and back out of a myriad of notes and ideas. Most interpreters use the second version which is slightly less challenging. But, yesterday, the young Trifonov, following the example of Van Cliburn and other musical legends, played the longer version to magnificent effect.

The piano concerto and its dazzling cadenza are only notes on a page (“art made by human beings”). It takes a spirited individual, blessed with talents given by the Creator of all things, to be able to “shine through” and open for all the listeners at the rehearsal an opportunity to be transcended. This is indeed what happened.

As I travelled back to New Canaan to spend time with my sister and her family, I reflected and gave thanks for all of those many moments in my life where God’s spirit had shined through a person, a work of art, lines of a poem, a thought provoking sermon, the lyrics of a song, the musical motif of an opera by Verdi, the rose window at Chartres Cathedral (the star leading the three Magi), and on and on and on. They were all works of art made by human hands but transcended by the power of God.

Where and when have you experienced these moments of the divine?

One more thought about Nouwen’s letter. His words on prayer, beginning at the bottom of page 47, with the opening phrase, “For me this weeding out….” is one of the most straight forward and powerful statements about the process and power of prayer. It needs no commentary except the encouragement for each of us to read that paragraph over and over and over again.

I look forward to reflecting on what you experienced in this chapter.

Be well.


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 3

The third letter from Henri Nouwen’s “Letter to Marc about Jesus” is the longest and perhaps the most important of the seven addresses to his nephew. Nouwen deals with the subject of a compassionate God based on his experience with Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheimer Altar in Colmar, Germany. What does it mean that Jesus is the compassionate God?

From the Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin, the word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” Nouwen believes that “the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is the most fundamental, the most far reaching event ever to occur in the course of history” (Page 27). He adds, “to look suffering and death straight in the face and to go through them oneself in the hope of a new God-given life: that is the sign of Jesus and of every human being who wishes to lead a spiritual life in imitation of him. It is the sign of the cross; the sign of suffering and death, but also of the hope for total renewal” (page 30).

With the events in Paris and Beirut and Central Africa last week, the questions the author raises made me pause to think about what it means for God to suffer with us. “How can God really love the world when God permits all that frightful suffering? If God really loves us why doesn’t God put an end to war, poverty, hunger, sickness, persecution, torture, and all other misery that we see everywhere?” (Page 31-32).

Nouwen found the truth of compassion when he lived among the poor of Central and South America. For these men and women, Jesus became as a friend who walked with them through thick and thin – no matter what. Nouwen writes: “the great secret in life is that suffering, which often seems to be so unbearable, can become, through compassion, a source of new life and new hope.”

What would this world of ours truly look like if we reached out to our enemies with compassion instead of bombs? With empathy instead of hateful speech? With kindheartedness instead of the ego driven need for power and control? I dare say that it would be a world which we have only dreamed about! 

But by the power of God, that dream is possible for nothing is impossible with God.

I close with a parable from the Hindu tradition that I believe speaks not only to Nouwen’s point but also our response to the terrorists who wish us harm. It is entitled: “The Saint and the Scorpion”.

One day a sadhu went to the river to bathe. There he noticed a scorpion struggling in the water. Scorpions cannot swim and the sadhu knew that if he did not save the scorpion, it would drown... 

Therefore, carefully picking up the scorpion, the monk rescued it from drowning and was just about to set it down gently on land when the scorpion stung his finger. In pain, the sadhu instinctively flung his hand and the scorpion went flying, back into the river. As soon as the sadhu regained his composure from the sting, he again lifted the scorpion out of the water. Again, before he could set the scorpion safely on land, the creature stung him. This drama went on for several minutes as the sadhu continued to try to save the life of the drowning scorpion and the scorpion continued to sting his savior’s hand before reaching the freedom of the riverbank.

A hunter watched as the saint carefully and gingerly lifted the creature out of the water, only to fling it back in as he convulsed in pain from each fresh sting. Finally, the hunter said to the sadhu, "Forgive me for my frankness, but it is clear that the scorpion is simply going to continue to sting you each and every time you try to carry it to safety. Why don't you give up and just let it drown?

The sadhu replied: "My dear child, the scorpion is not stinging me out of malice or evil intent. Just as it is the water's nature to make me wet, so it is the scorpion's nature to sting. He doesn't realize that I am carrying him to safety. That is a level of conscious comprehension greater than what his brain can achieve. But, just as it is the scorpion's nature to sting, so it is my nature to save. Just as he is not leaving his nature, why should I leave my nature? My dharma is to help any creature of any kind - human or animal. Why should I let a small scorpion rob me of the divine nature which I have cultivated through years of prayer and enrichment?

Dear Reader, what do you think?


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letters to Marc About Jesus - Week 2

While reading this second chapter of Henri Nouwen’s “Letters to Marc About Jesus”, I was struck by the theme of freedom. Two moments came to my mind.

When I was 11, my parents took my sisters and me on a European vacation that included time behind the Iron Curtain. Going through “Checkpoint Charlie”, the Wall, the buildings of East Berlin still marked with the spray of the bullets of war, and a border crossing into Czechoslovakia where police boarded our bus and zealously checked our passports, left an impression on me that is still as vivid today as it was many years ago. When we finally crossed over from Czechoslovakia into Austria, the forty or so on the bus broke into a spirited chorus of “God Bless America”. I never thought of it as a sign of our moral or nationalistic superiority; but, rather an emotional release of how important the power of freedom.

Many years later in the 90’s, I was on pilgrimage with friends in Israel/Palestine. On this particular trip, we were fortunate to travel to a Palestinian Refugee camp in the West Bank, a short drive from Bethlehem. This was not your typical “gated community” that you might find on the California or North Carolina coast. These were men, women and children sectioned off and “caged” because of their race and nationality. The roads were filled with deep and dangerous potholes, the United Nations flag flying atop a checkpoint, and the home small and poorly made.

In the midst of that chaos, was a family that offered American pilgrims a glimpse of Middle Eastern hospitality. In the midst of all the pain and struggle was a father who was truly free and spoke confidently of his Christian faith and hope in a future where Palestinians and Israelis lived in peace. I never forgot him because it seemed to me that the easy way out would be to hate, to fight, and to rebel against the powers and principalities of this world. Instead, in this constricted environment was a family who was freer than I was because of their tremendous faith in a liberating God. A God who even in the darkest and cruelest of man-made detention could find a way to bring light and hope.

What experiences have you had, good reader, with people you have met on this earthly pilgrimage who were truly free?

I look forward to hearing about them in these posts.

Blessings to you - Brian


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letter to Marc About Jesus - Week 1

Letter One – Jesus: The Heart of Our Existence

Welcome! I am so delighted that you have decided to join our study as we reflect on the words of one of the most respected and widely read spiritual mentors of the late twentieth century – Henri Nouwen. What I have always admired about Nouwen is his ability to refrain from preaching or exhortation and sharing instead, in an honest and most poignant way, the abundant spiritual life which he found in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In these letters to his nephew, Marc, Nouwen seeks to express what is essential in one’s life and journey. What does it meant to live a spiritual life in a material world?

In his first letter, Nouwen writes that, “the spiritual life has to do with the heart of existence”; “the place where we are most ourselves, where we are most human, where we are most real” (page 5). To live spiritually, Nouwen believed that one had to live with Jesus at the center of one’s life. For Nouwen, the journey of the Christian life is to have Jesus become more and more important – “to live in solidarity with him” (page 7).

What I so admire about Nouwen is his ability to speak honestly about times in his life when Jesus had been pushed to the rear – when the cares of this world, the “problems of church and society” overshadowed the message of Master. This speaks to me because I think of all the many times in my life when I experience the same struggle – not to allow the problems of the day-to-day cloud or obscure my vision of keeping Jesus first.

But to assist us in getting the conversation started, I wish to draw your attention to the four questions near the beginning of this first letter: “What do I really believe? What kind of role does the church play in my life? Who is Christ for me? Does the Eucharist make sense to me?” (page 4)

I thought that by answering these questions, we can begin to enter into a spiritual conversation about “the essential”.

What do I really believe? 

Can you answer that question with confidence? More importantly, are you willing to share your answer with others in these posts?!

So, here goes… What do I really believe?

I believe that every human being on this planet is created in the image of God – the divine dwells in them and our vocation is to acknowledge, marvel and respect that divine light.

I believe in the God whose love knows no boundaries, the One worshipped by Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of many faiths throughout the world and in every time and age.

I believe that Jesus is a way to God. My way to understanding God. I cannot say the “only” way to God for I have friends on spiritual paths in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam who lead extraordinary lives of purpose and meaning. I believe it is not my place to judge their journey but to share my faith and experience their faith in ways that lead to reconciliation and wholeness among all people.

I believe that prayer grounds the seeker (and I wish I did more of it!).

I believe that Soren Kierkegaard was right when he penned: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

I believe that each and every day a person must laugh, especially at one’s self and the absurdity of life.

I believe that the three most beautiful musical instruments in all the world are the cello, the French horn and the human voice (I put that in just to see if you are still reading!)

In my daily work as a hospice chaplain, I have come to believe that listening is more important than speaking.

I believe that doubt can lead to faith.

I believe in love that was made manifest from the very core of the Divine. Love is trust and faith, in all circumstances. Love is never giving up - even in the most devastating conditions. I believe that love was the principal message of Jesus: “When you love one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” I believe that people must love, unconditionally.

I believe that light will always triumph over darkness.

I believe in grace. I believe in its power, the freedom it gives, and I believe in giving it as much as possible.

Most importantly, I believe that God’s last word for this world is not death but resurrection!

I look forward to the conversation with you.  God’s blessings – Brian


Rules of Engagement

You are entitled to your opinion as much as the next person is entitled to their opinion. These discussions over the course of the next seven weeks are for our mutual enjoyment and benefit. You may disagree – but you must do so in a spirit of love and common understanding. If I should discern that a post is “attacking” in nature or derogatory, I will pull it from the site. Your assistance and understanding is gratefully appreciated!

Book Study: Letter to Marc About Jesus

Welcome to COSJ's first online book study!  Whether you are near or far, we are glad you have joined us on this journey.  

Henri Nouwen’s short book, Letters To Marc About Jesus will be the focus of our book study. In these very personal letters, Nouwen gives his 18 year-old nephew a “taste of the richness of life as a Christian.” These brief explorations are helpful guides for our own reflections about our lives – our Christian lives – and how we can share that richness with others.


Our virtual discussion begins on Wednesday, November 4th and will continue for 7 weeks. Each Wednesday our minister, Brian Suntken, will post questions or reflections for study. You can read the corresponding chapters in the comfort of their own home or favorite book nook and participate in the discussion from wherever you are at any time you wish.  Letters to Mark About Jesus is published by Harper Collins Publishers and is available as a hard copy book, Kindle book or E-book from Amazon, or is available at the Learned Owl Bookstore in Hudson. 


We look forward to a spirited exchange of ideas and dialogue as we explore this short book and discover new possibilities in our faith.