...when a "hero" in the faith is the real deal: A genuine, gracious person who is everything in person that we hope they would be.
Having met a few Christian leaders in my day, I have had enough disappointments to be wary when I am going to meet someone in person whom I have only met previously through writings. But these past few days reminded me of another time when I met one of my spiritual heroes and was so very pleasantly NOT disappointed.
Nineteen years ago this month, I had an opportunity to meet Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was at the time, the most influential writer for my journey of faith. I have read virtually everything that he has written and his vulnerability, humility and spirituality was the tool that God used to inspire me to seek a deeper well of spirituality. So many of his ideas became wisdom that I have lived by. And meeting him was so very sweet. My friend Mark and I met him at Daybreak in Toronto. He gave us a tour of the facility, he showed us a huge copy of Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son and spoke of its meaning to him. He led a small worship service and served me communion (the only time as an ex-catholic that I have ever partaken of the Eucharist in a Catholic mass since becoming a protestant in college), he took us to lunch, he bought us pizza and beer and wine and we talked for hours. Then he gave us books. As many of his books as we didn't have. He was attentive, kindly, sweet and prophetic all at the same time.
While my interaction with him was less personal, for the past few days I have been at Laity Lodge attending a retreat with about 50 other folks that was taught by Bishop N. T. Wright. Readers of this blog know of my high regard and deep appreciation for Bishop Tom. Now, having met him, my respect and regard is all the more. He is a brilliant man, a passionate teacher, a deeply committed, prayerful pastor who has only inspired me all the more to continue to study the Scriptures while listening to the deep hurts of the world. His scholarship is clearly in service to the church for the sake of the mission of Christ to the world.
He was generous with his time, he signed our books and engaged in meals and conversations and answered questions with all who would wanted. He joined in worship, he attended the morning devotional and the late night worship and music service. His wife, Maggie, was charming and caring and funny.
While I have many memories of my time years ago with Fr. Henri and have a number reflections and lessons from Bishop Tom, that I will certainly continue to glean and pass on through this blog in the days to come, I am sitting here today keenly self-conscious about how grateful (and I guess, relieved) I am that both of my "heroes" (and many others along the way through the years) have NOT disappointed me.
I am more aware than ever of the profundity and high wire act of incarnation that is at the heart of the Christian faith. And how very painful and disillusioning it can be when a Christian leader disappoints.
God's most risky strategy of using human beings as partners in the work of redemption and restoration has been so famously fraught with failure, but as G. K. Chesterton reminds us, every misstep by a Christian only affirms both the veracity of the Scriptural teaching of original sin and the truth that all human beings are fallen and in need of redemption. The Spirit of God offers us new birth and new life, but we do feel the effects and groaning of incompleteness and brokenness until Christ is fully formed in us.
The theologian who communicates academic arrogance, the leader who comes across like a most worldly power-monger, the pastor who can't live out the faith he or she so passionately proclaims all leave a mark. We are more disappointed than most of us want to admit when our models and mentors don't measure up or seem more human than we need them to be. Recent biographies of Nouwen point out his battles with depression and his struggle with sexuality. I am sure that Bishop Tom has his share of oh-so-human attributes, too. I am not so naive as to need my spiritual heroes to be perfect and I pray that the small band of people who read or hear my words don't need me to be either.
Christian faith is not simply a matter of a holy book, doctrines and lessons to learn, but about people living out these texts and incarnating the story so that it becomes a real and vibrant encounter of the presence of God through a human instrument.
And it is so nice when it actually works out that way...