Reflections on Nouwen: Hero vs. Servant


“I pray that these last three weeks [of Lent], in which you [God] invite me to enter more fully into the mystery of your passion, will bring me a greater desire to follow you on the way that you create for me and to accept the cross that you give to me. Let me die to the desire to choose my own way and select my own desire. You do not want to make me a hero but a servant who loves you.”  –Henri Nouwen

I just read those words in one of Henri Nouwen’s Lenten devotionals that I receive online, one each Sunday during this season of Lent.  I have been a big Nouwen fan for many years, finding much of substance in his writings as well as many ideas and sentiments that resonate with my own.  Occasionally, though, I stumble across something he has written that seems to have been written just for me, just for that moment, just for the situation in which I find myself.  The above excerpt is one of those such “finds.”

The last sentence is the one that spoke to me first:  “You do not want to make me a hero but a servant who loves you.”  Perhaps that is another facet of what this experience with fatigue is about….?

I certainly do not claim to be anyone’s hero…but I will admit to having a deep and long-standing desire to be such.  I remember, as I was growing up, first wanting to be a vet (we lived on a farm) and then a truck driver (think, 18-wheeler!  Not sure where that one came from….!).  As I matured, though, and college and thinking about “real world” careers approached, I found myself thinking that I wanted to be a teacher.  I wanted to influence young lives as mine had been influenced by my teachers.  I wanted to be the kind of teacher that inspires her students to greatness.  I wanted to change their lives, and thus the world, for the better.  I wanted to make a difference.  I wanted to be a hero!

It took me quite a few years, and even more painful experiences, to realize that teaching was not, in fact, my calling in life.  There was the one time, for example, when I was teaching a religion class at a small Christian high school, and I stepped into the classroom full of students to find a certain male appendage artistically drawn on the chalkboard…..!!  My first thought was, “What is that?”…followed almost immediately by my second thought:  “Oh my gosh!!!  That’s a–I didn’t learn how to handle a situation like this in seminary!!”  So what did I do?  Rather than simply erase it and move on, I panicked and told this class of 10th grade students that I wanted to know who had done it.  After the completely unexpected (not!) silence–with the exception of the muffled giggles and snorts–I did what any master teacher would do in such a delicate situation.  I told them to take out a piece of paper, open their Bibles, and start copying the Old Testament, word for word…until someone told me who had done the dirty deed of drawing the unsolicited illustration on the board.  I never did learn with certainty who did it, but I did learn (on that occasion and many more!) that classroom management is not my strong suit.  (And perhaps they learned something of Genesis that they had not known before??  🙂  )  It grieved me to think that I was not, in fact, cut out to be a teacher….

I so badly wanted to inspire…to influence…to be a hero….

Perhaps I just needed to find another avenue to be that person.  Perhaps, if not as a teacher, then as a coach?  When our son Ryan was 5 years old, he wanted to play soccer, so we dutifully signed him up for the YMCA’s Kinderkick League (i.e., soccer for 4- and 5-year-olds).  I carefully avoided checking the box on the registration form that said, “I am interested in being a coach,” and even the one that said, “I am interested in being an assistant coach.”  Yes, I had played soccer, and even loved it, in high school, but given my underwhelming performance as a teacher, and the similarities I perceived between teaching and coaching, I did not feel the slightest urge to go down that road again!  But then the Sports Director from the Y called me and said that there just weren’t enough coaches for the number of kids that signed up, and that they really, really needed another coach or two, and would I please consider serving as a coach on my son’s team…. How could I say no??  They clearly needed me!  Time to put aside my reservations and step up.  Besides, these were just 4- and 5-year-olds.  Surely I could coach 4- and 5-year-olds!  They wouldn’t need lots of intricate drills, well-planned plays, or heavy-duty conditioning.  They would just need someone to run around with them, make sure they were having fun chasing the ball around, and encourage them, right?  “Good job!”  “Way to hustle!”  “You’re doing great!”  Surely I could do that!…. Maybe I could be a hero for these 4- and 5-year-olds….  And so, per against that little voice inside me that was screaming, “Don’t do it!  Don’t do it!”, I said yes.  I was on the road to hero-dom!

Well, let me just say that coaching 4- and 5-year-olds is much harder than it looks!!  We made it through the season, and I think most of the kids did have fun most of the time…with the possible exception of the one little boy whose father yanked him off the field (before I could!) for punching another little boy–also on our team!–in the nose during a game….. But I sure didn’t feel like I did much inspiring or influencing.  Mostly just trying to get through the practices (who knew an hour could last sooooo long?!) and the games.  I realized that I was not destined to discover my hero-dom as a Kinderkick soccer coach.  The lesson learned from that experience, by the way, was not that I had missed my calling by not becoming a professional coach, but rather that 4- and 5-year-olds have no business being expected to learn how to play soccer!!  Run around and burn off some energy?  Fine.  Work on kicking a soccer ball?  Fine.  Begin to grasp the concept of using your feet and not your hands?  Maybe.  But playing soccer??  Really??  At that age and developmental level, it should at least be called what it is:  Mob-ball.  Or Clump-ball.  Or Let’s-all-kick-each-other-in-the-shins-ball.  Or even, Put-my-kid-on-a-field-and-let-him-run-around-for-an-hour-while-someone-else-is-in-charge-ball.  But not soccer.  🙂

Surely there would be a place where I could be the hero I so deeply desired to be.  I just knew I had something special to offer, something uniquely “me,” something that would–yes–inspire and influence those around me, and change the world for the better!  I tried other things–I went to seminary, I was ordained as a Minister in the United Church of Christ, I worked as a school chaplain and then as a youth pastor.  I’ve volunteered in various capacities in my church, in hospice programs, in my kids’ classrooms at school, and at a nearby soup kitchen.  I’ve taught Sunday School, both adults’ and kids’ classes.  And more!  And I have felt good doing all of those things, and found them meaningful…but nothing ever really fulfilled my long- and deeply-held desire to be a hero….

And now, here I am, living with what has become, technically, chronic fatigue–not having the energy to do much of anything, let alone anything “noble” or hero-esque!  I spend my days trying to “budget” my energy so that I can be available to my family when they’re at home, and get a few things done for my family when they’re not (think: grocery shopping, laundry, walking the dog, having a cup of coffee with a friend….Well, that last one is more for me!).  I’m rarely able to get through a day without spending a couple of hours napping.   It was feeling like my opportunities to fulfill that lifelong dream of being a hero had gone by the wayside.  Or had at least been put on hold…

…until I read Nouwen’s words that I quoted above.  And it struck me–perhaps God has not called me to be a “hero” in the way I’ve thought about it throughout my life, but simply to be “a servant who loves [God]”….  

Perhaps the type of “hero” that I’ve wanted to be and believed I could be if only I could find the right setting, is not the type of hero that God wants me to be, that God created me to be….

And perhaps the fatigue is “the cross [God has] given me” to bear, which is allowing me–or at least helping me to move closer to–letting go of my “desire to choose my own way and select my own desire.”

What I want more than anything–even more than being a hero–is to discover, and to be, the person God has created me to be, following God on “the way [God creates] for me….”  For me, not for anyone else.  I have spent my life doing good things for others–but have they been God’s things for me?  Perhaps…but perhaps not.

Perhaps in this experience with fatigue, God is giving me an impossible-to-ignore opportunity to slow down…to be still…to listen…to claim my Belovedness in my being rather than in my doing…to let go of the dream of being a hero who inspires and influences, in exchange for the reality of being a servant who loves and is loved….

God, thank you for this opportunity to grow in my understanding of who you have made me to be.  It is disguised as fatigue…but underneath the wrappings of tiredness, the true gift can be found–the gift of discovering more deeply the Life which you have created for me, and the Life which you have created me for….  If only I can hold on to this Gift….



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