Grunts and groans

Watching my wife and her brother care for their dad in the last year of his life made me realize just how much we need God’s love, and how helpless we are to save ourselves. Jana’s dad had owned his own business. There was nothing he couldn’t fix. His faith led him to serve on mission trips around the world. Yet eventually, he could no longer help others or himself.

We live in a culture which celebrates and rewards the ability to get things done. Yet I’m convinced that “getting things done” often separates us from God. One person who realized this was Henri Nouwen, a priest, theologian, and bestselling author who taught at Ivy League schools. He was in demand around the world as a conference speaker.

Nouwen spent the last ten years of his life living in a community for the mentally disabled. He lived in a small room with a single bed, a bookshelf, and few pieces of furniture. The people he lived with didn’t know he was world famous. They couldn’t even read his books. He spent two hours every day helping a young man named Adam who was profoundly disabled, bathing and shaving him and guiding his hand as he tried to eat. Adam could only grunt and groan.

People would ask Nouwen if this was the best use of his time. Couldn’t someone else do these things, and allow Henri to do what world theologians are supposed to do? Nouwen would say, “I am not giving up anything. It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Today, mental illness is in the news nearly every day. At any moment, one in five people experience mental health issues. Over the course of our lives, 45% will experience mental illness. Being a city-center church, many people who are seriously hurting come to us.

My wife loved her dad, even when he could no longer do for her or himself or others. In the same way, we’re called to love those who can’t respond in a way that we’d prefer.

Henri Nouwen came to love Adam. In the process he learned what it must be like for God to love us—spiritually uncoordinated, able to respond only with what must seem to God like grunts and groans.

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