Following Jesus in Anxious Times

by | Feb 20, 2020

Jesus said, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.’
John 14:1

Sometimes I buy a book based on the title alone. Sitting in the office of the priest I see for spiritual counsel, this title caught my eye: Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety by the late Henri Nouwen. In an instant I knew that this was to be my reading companion in Lent. If you’re still looking for Lenten inspiration, I invite you to join me. 

Published in 2019, Following Jesus is based on six talks that Nouwen gave for a church in Boston in Lent 1985. It was a particularly unsettled season in his life. Two years earlier, he had returned from a failed missionary effort in Peru that had left him isolated and restless. He then accepted a prestigious teaching position at Harvard Divinity School, but the competitive academic atmosphere only added to his feelings of loneliness and uncertainty. 

Thus his topic–how to follow Jesus in an anxious time–wasn’t theoretical for Nouwen. Reading his words, you can feel his soul-searching energy. Shortly after giving these talks Nouwen would leave his position at Harvard and move to Toronto to become a residential chaplain in a L’Arche community for people with intellectual disabilities. “By articulating his vision for what it meant to be a follower of Jesus for these talks,” writes the editor, “Nouwen clarified his own vocational path.” 

The book begins with Nouwen inviting each of us to look at ourselves and ask the question, “Am I following Jesus?” He continues:

Often we are more wanderers than followers. We are people who run around a lot, do many things, meet many people, read many books. We are very involved. . . Yet if we are asked what we are so busy with we don’t really know. 

The result of all our activity is fatigue. “People who wander from one thing to the other feel that they are lived more than they live. It’s very tiring; exhausting, actually.” 

As a result, some of us simply give up. We watch television, sleep a lot, find our escape in one distraction or another, but nothing excites us anymore. We have moved, Nouwen observes, from wandering to just sitting: “Both types of people, the running-around ones and the just-sitting-there ones, are not moving anywhere. There is something of the wanderer and something of the person who just sits there in all of us.” 

Yet there is good news: 

It is into this deeply tired world of ours that God sends Jesus to speak the voice of love God. God sends Jesus to speak the voice of love. Jesus says, ‘Follow me. Don’t keep running around. Follow me. Don’t just sit there. Follow me.’ 

I am convicted by Nouwen’s distinction between wandering and following. While following Jesus doesn’t mean living an easy life, it doesn’t cause the same kind of fatigue I feel when I’m running from place to place, event to event, trying to prove my worthiness. In following Jesus, I’m freed from the burden of needing to please everyone, or to be all things to all people. I need only listen to one voice. 

Nouwen ends his introductory chapter with the story from Scripture of the prophet Elijah hearing God speak–not in thunder, nor earthquake, nor in fire, but in the sound of sheer silence and a still small voice. “The voice is very sensitive,” he writes. “It can be very quiet. But the voice of love is already within you. . . Get quiet and spend time trying to hear it. . . it says, ‘I love you,’ and calls you by name. It says, ‘Come, follow me.’” 

In our anxious wandering and tired stuckness, Jesus speaks. Join me in taking time this Lent to listen. His word will most certainly challenge us to love in ways far beyond our capacity, and yet we will be sustained by the very grace we are called to share.