In The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen recalls a striking incident from several years ago. He was serving as chaplain on a Dutch cruise ship making its way to Rotterdam. They were in a thick fog. Everyone was edgy and nervous as the ship crept along virtually blind in the water.
The captain was pacing back and forth, anxiously trying to get his ship through the fog without slamming into anything. Suddenly, in mid-pace, the captain collided with his chaplain. Pre-occupied and stressed, he cursed the chaplain and ordered him off the bridge.
“But when I was ready to run away,” Nouwen writes, “filled with feelings of incompetence and guilt, the captain came back and said: ‘Why don’t you just stay around. This might be the only time I really need you.'”
The experience became for Nouwen an image of the modern minister. It is also a parable of the modern church.
He writes, “There was a time, not too long ago, when we felt like captains running our own ships, with a great sense of power and self-confidence. Now we are standing in the way. That is our lonely position: We are powerless, on the side … not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.”
This position on the side is a source of great discomfort for many people of faith. There are those who insist that God’s faithful should be captains of all reality. They believe that people of faith should be in charge. The idea is at least as old as Constantine.
These days, following Nouwen’s parable, we are on the side. We are deposed rulers, stripped of our divine prerogatives. We have been reduced to the status of mere citizens in a body politic where one idea is regarded as good as the next. We’re second stringers, benched during the big game, watching it all from the sidelines.
At least, that’s how it feels.
But here’s the rub. The church was never intended to rule—that’s why we have never been very good at it. Our authentic identity has to do with serving, healing souls and reconciliation. It’s the taste of power in our mouths that keeps us from embracing our proper vocation.
In other words, being on the side is exactly where we belong. It’s where we started from, and the place from which we have always done our best work. Being on the side puts us where the hurting, rejected, despised and lonely are found. It’s where Jesus was going every time he turned to his disciples and said, “Follow me.”
In our culture, being on the side is equated with being second-rate, second-string. From the perspective of faith, being on the side means something very different. Jesus took his stand on the side.
From there he affirmed an on-the-side theology that proclaimed the last shall be first, the humble are the truly great ones, and that sinners get in to see God ahead of the self-righteous and the powerful.
James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.