Mike Yaconelli was one of the pioneers of contemporary youth ministry. He started a publishing company, wrote books and curriculum and travelled the world speaking to thousands of churches and youth workers and students.
When he was about fifty years old, he read some of Henri Nouwen’s books on spirituality. And since Mike was kind of eccentric at times, he called up Henri to thank him for his book and asked if he could visit him.
Henri said yes.
Now, a little about Henri’s story.
An academic and widely read Christian author, Henri worked his way up to a teaching post at Harvard. But while he was there, he wrote: “Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger.” So he left, and spent the next ten years of his life at a L’Arche community north of Toronto.
L’arche are intentional communities of people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Kind of like enVision, except the clients and support workers all live and worship together.
So Henri Nouwen left Harvard to go to L’Arche, to feed and wash people who had no idea what Harvard was and who had no use for the skills he had worked decades to obtain.
While not easy, his time at L’Arche became a gift. It taught him what it means to be the beloved of God.
So it’s in this context that Mike visits Henri.
On his first morning, Mike sat in a circle with Henri, other staff and some of the core members at L’Arche. Mike expressed his initial uneasiness with some of the residents who drooled, made grunting sounds, or rocked back and forth in their chairs.
When Mike was invited to explain the reason for his visit, he told the group about his hurried and harried life, about how he was trapped on a treadmill of speaking engagements, writing deadlines, managements hassles, travel, while also trying to pastor a church, work, and maintain relations with his wife and kids. Finally, he told them he had come to L’Arche because he knew that the treadmill he was on was the same one Henri had escaped. He confessed that he wanted to get away from it all, to withdraw from everyone he knew, to start over. But he painfully admitted that he didn’t know how. His life was out of control, and he badly needed help.
During a break, Mike was on his way to the washroom when one of the intellectually challenged residents approached him. Standing uncomfortably close, he suddenly poked Mike in the chest with his finger. “Busy!” the man loudly announced, appearing proud of himself for having discerned Mike’s problem.
Mike admitted that instinctively he received the appraisal as a compliment. “Yes, that’s right,” Mike replied. “That’s exactly right. I’m busy.” After all, in Mike’s world the longer you work and the more exhausted you are, the more status you seem to have. Nobody wants to be in the shameful position of having to admit they’re so insignificant that they don’t have too much to do.
While he was still acknowledging how busy he was, the man poked Mike in the chest again, this time even harder, and with his voice louder and firmer declared, “Too busy!” This time Mike felt embarrassed and a bit annoyed. “You got it, pal. That’s my problem.” But deep inside he wanted this harassing person to simply back off and leave him alone.
Until he looked into the man’s eyes and saw them filling with tears.
The resident began to cry in earnest now, and through his sobs he ask a one-word question that Mike insisted had haunted him ever since: “Why?”
In that watershed moment Mike realized that was the question he come to L’Arche to answer. Out of the mouth of this innocent, compassionate stranger with intellectual challenges had come deep wisdom.
It was resurrection moment. At age 50.
“Finally, I accepted my brokenness… I knew I was broken. I knew I was a sinner. I knew I continually disappointed God, but I could never accept that part of me. It was a part of me that embarrassed me. I continually felt the need to apologize, to run from my weaknesses, to deny who I was and concentrate on who I should be. I was broken, yes, but I was continually trying to never be broken again – or at least get to the place where I was very seldom broken…”
“At L’Arche, it became very clear to me that I had totally misunderstood the Christian faith. I came to see that it was in my brokenness, in my powerlessness, in my weakness that Jesus was made strong. It was the acceptance of my lack of faith that God could give me faith. It was the embracing of my brokenness that I could identify with others’ brokenness. It was my role to identify with other’s pain, not relieve it. Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing…”
He concludes with this:
“There is an anticipation, an electricity about God’s presence in my life that I have never experienced before. I can only tell you for the first time in my life I can hear Jesus whisper to me every day. “I love you. You are beloved.” And for some strange reason, that seems enough.””
With a ridiculous amount of plagiarism from Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God by Fil Anderson, The Rabbi’s Heartbeat by Brennan Manning and Holy Weakness by Will Braun (Conspire Magazine Spring 2009).