Review: Jean Vanier

jean vanier

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man Anne-Sophie Constant. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A biography of Jean Vanier, the founder and guide of the L’Arche homes where assistants and cognitively disabled live together in community. 

On May 7, 2019, one of the most remarkable saints of our era went to his eternal rest and reward. Anne-Sophie Constant, who enjoyed extraordinary access to this man, completed earlier in the year her biography of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche houses for the disabled. She describes a man who lived at peace, and as a truly free man during his life. She writes in introduction:

The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices; from intellectual, religious, or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion (p. x).

The biography traces his life from childhood. Raised in a devout Catholic home, he learned a life of service from a distinguished father, an amputee survivor of World War I who eventually became the Secretary General of Canada. Vanier enlisted in the Navy after World War II was declared, serving on the H.M.S Vanguard on a royal trip to South Africa, meeting the future Queen Elizabeth. A rising officer, he later experiences a near death experience falling overboard, and loses his fear of death. After the war, he leaves the service, and while living with his parents, when his father was ambassador to France, he meets the future Pope John XXIII and the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

His travels take him to the hospitality houses of Dorothy Day and Friendship House in Harlem, places practicing radical hospitality toward those on society’s margins. Studying philosophy and theology preparing for the priesthood, he joins the Eau Vive (Living Water) community for meditation and prayer, only to find himself in leadership of the community during a conflict-fraught period, then later to a Cistercian abbey. Father Thomas, a professor and friend accepted the chaplaincy of Val Fleuri in Trosley, a facility for cognitively disabled men.

Vanier joined him in Trosley, first helping in the work at Val Fleuri, and then in July of 1964, when he decides to buy a home and invite some intellectually disabled men to live with him. The home was named L’Arche, (The Ark). Knowing little what should be done, he discovers that the greatest need of these men is to know they are loved. Constant writes:

   Jean has a profound intuition of human beings and of their beauty. “They don’t realize that they are so beautiful!” he says. “They are so crushed with guilt and feel very dirty. They don’t have any self-confidence. They do not realize that they are loved. They don’t know how valuable and how precious they are” (p. 75).

They live as a spiritual community and Vanier and his assistants discover that these men minister to them as they form a spiritual community. And so a movement begins.

Constant describes the spread of this movement from one house to an international movement of 150 houses in 80 countries. She also describes a process where Vanier moves from a leader to a guide to a messenger of the gospel for the disabled. As he ages, Constant chronicles Vanier’s ability to let go, to relinquish leadership, even as he represents this movement in the highest circles of the Catholic church.

The biography captures the genius of Vanier’s work:

Jean Vanier does not “take care of” people with intellectual disabilities. He lives with them. He lives with L’Arch members Eric, Doudou, Pauline, and Rene. (p. 111).

Vanier’s freedom is of the man who listens to the voice of Jesus, the voice speaking within him rather than hewing to the pressures and expectations of society. He does not fear making mistakes, and he does make them. He does not fear being with those of seeming low status on the margins. He is one who has died “to the ‘false me’ of our social constructs and fears” (p. 117).

The biography describes the life of someone who first came away to listen to God, and thus was able to hear the call of God to community of the intellectually disabled who were precious to God, and fellow members of Christ’s body, people to be lived with. While not all will be called to the kind of work Vanier did, Constant’s biography offers the hope of the radical freedom that comes as we yield ourselves to the God who bids us to listen to his voice, to walk in his ways, and to extend his love in the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Lay It Down

Lay It DownLay It Down, Bill Tell. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2015.

Summary: Through a personal crisis, the author discovers the freedom of the gospel in terms of three miracles.

You are a successful ministry leader and suddenly experience a series of incapacitating panic attacks when facing ministry opportunities. After a season of rest you take the step of trying to find out what is going on and whether life can be different.

That is the situation Bill Tell faced as a senior leader in a prominent discipleship ministry. He discovered that deep down he struggled with issues of self-worth that went back to his childhood and that to cope, he had devoted himself to a life of achievement in ministry that had become an exhausting treadmill. He longed for freedom from such existence, and paradoxically discovered it in the message that he had proclaimed but had not really lived into for many years.

In a season of counselling and personal study, he discovered three miracles of surrounding the work of Christ that spelled freedom. The first of these was that God viewed him differently. The good news of the cross was of God’s unconditional acceptance apart from any good behavior and in spite of any bad behavior. This meant he no longer needed to “perform” to merit God’s love. He was freed from condemnation, punishment, and fear, and freed for living in peace and grace.

The second miracle was realizing that in Christ, God makes us different. The gospel transforms us from the inside out. We are freed from working on not sinning and to mature into who we are in Christ. This doesn’t preclude effort, but he observes that “the gospel of grace is never opposed to effort–it is opposed to earning” (p. 140). We are freed to obey, to love, and to bear fruit, all of which emerge out of a relationship of being loved by Christ. He contends that:

“When we have a new heart, freedom does not make us want to run wild and sin more. It makes us want to walk with Jesus” (p. 107).

The final miracle is that God relates to us differently. We are adopted children, family, with Jesus as our brother. This frees us from an identity rooted in shame to one in which we are the beloved of God.

Martin Luther reportedly urged those around him to “preach the gospel to yourself every day” (source unknown). It seems to me that this is what Bill Tell has done compellingly in this book, beginning with his story of transformation from panic attacks and burnout as a senior ministry leader to one who discovered a new freedom in the gospel. What Tell writes in his chapters around the “three miracles” is simply a very clear and personal restatement of the basic Christian message–that we are saved by grace alone through the work of Christ alone, that we are transformed by Christ’s indwelling presence that enables our loving obedience and growth in Christian character, and that we are adopted as God’s beloved children. Meditating on this book chapter by chapter can be a good way to preach the gospel to oneself.

The only thing that would have made this book better for me would be if Tell would have woven more of his narrative subsequent to his crisis through the chapters on the three miracles, particularly in how this has shaped his ministry leadership, how life is different because of this transformed perspective, and how he applies this in mentoring emerging leaders. Perhaps that is too specific or too much for this book, but I hope he will address this in the future. What Tell has given us is a vulnerable account of his own personal crisis and how even Christian leaders can have distorted understandings of gospel, often because of deep wounds in one’s own life. He points us to a kind of “second conversion” where the “truths” of the gospel become lived, and life-giving realities that are in fact the birthright of every believer.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Shackles

Chain_Gang_Street_Sweepers,_1909

I had the opportunity to attend two Martin Luther King Day celebrations because the choir I sing with performed at both of them. There were many speakers, including community and state leaders, other singers, youth speakers, quotes from Dr. King and more. I was reminded both how far we’ve come on the road of racial reconciliation, and how far we still have to go. But there was one word that stood out in my mind.

Shackles.

I was watching an interpretive dance group and one of the songs talked about “shackles” (I believe the song was “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary. Certainly the image of shackles is a powerful one in the African-American experience, particularly harking back to the fetters or bindings that were used to restrain slaves at various points, as well as work gangs of prisoners. To talk about being freed from shackles is a powerful image of the hopes and aspirations of blacks–to be able to move about and live and work freely.

It occurs to me that there are two kinds of shackles. One kind are those imposed upon us by another, often unjustly. It may be the shackles of a trafficked person or slave. It may be economic shackles of limited opportunities. It may be the shackles of prejudice and limiting stereotypes. It may be an abusive and manipulative relationship.

There are also the shackles we knowingly or unknowingly place on ourselves. It may be the shackles that come from bad decisions. It may be shackles that come from an addiction that started out as curiosity until it overpowered our judgment. There are the shackles of our compulsions, our needs for control.

I wonder if often we are restrained (a form of shackles?) from efforts to remove the shackles of injustice because at least some of those who would be released also have shackles of the second kind.

I see some problems with this:

  • Shackles are shackles. Whatever the source, they restrain and restrict the full expression of a human’s dignity.
  • No matter the source, shackles are difficult, if not impossible to loose without help. We usually can’t break the hold of a shackle by ourselves.
  • When someone is in shackles, invisible fetters extend to those around them. The prejudiced person is not free to encounter the real person against whom they are prejudiced. The family of the addicted live lives indelibly marked by the shackles of the addicted one.
  • Even privilege is a form of shackle that binds me to a life that misses the gifts of those on the margins.

One speaker spoke of how far we’d come in electing a black President. Yet the years since that election have been fraught with new expressions of racial hatreds and tensions. The shackles of our problems with race as a nation are powerful and not easily broken. Do we need, as a nation to cry out for help from one greater than our nation, greater than the sum of us? I’m reminded of the declaration of Jesus when he began his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19a, NRSV)

Might it be that an important part of Martin Luther King Day is to remind us to cry out for release of the things that shackle our lives, whether imposed by others or by ourselves? Might that not lead us to a greater urgency, and a greater mercy with the things that shackle others. If we know in ourselves the despair of shackles, the longing for freedom, and the joy of liberation, should we not then do all we can to bring “release to the captives”? And wouldn’t that be, at least in part, a realization of Dr. King’s dream:

“Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty we are free at last.”

 

Review: God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture

God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture
God, Freedom and Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered Culture by Ron Highfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book makes an important contention regarding the questions of human freedom and dignity: our efforts to source our dignity and freedom within ourselves, far from enhancing our dignity and freedom, will invariably undercut our identity. Likewise, far from diminishing our dignity, to love and trust the Triune, self-giving God leads to the fullest expression of our humanness, imaging God in the very ways this occurred in the incarnation of the son, whose deity is in no ways diminished by his humanity, nor his humanity in any sense diminished by his deity.

As you can tell from this summary, there is much careful thought and argument to be found in this book. The first part of the book explores the “me-centered” self and how this arose in western thought. In relation to God, this self alternates between Promethean defiance, sullen subservience, or indifference. God is a rival in a zero-sum game whose omnipotence is to be feared and competed with, and whose omnipresence creates in one a source of dread. Yet the challenge of such a self is emptiness and aloneness–any being is in fact a threat to its supremacy.

Much of the second half of the book dispels misconceptions about God that lays the groundwork for a God-centered self. For example, Highfield notes that God doesn’t have power but IS power and thus to grant us power doesn’t diminish God but only enhances us. Perhaps the high point for me was the discussion of the self-giving love of the triune God for each other and the fact that we are loved as greatly in Christ as Christ is himself by the Father.

This is a rich book worthy of being read slowly and reflected upon. I’ve chosen to simply outline some of the main contours of the writer’s argument because to fully do it justice would require a much longer or review. Instead, I would simply commend reading the book itself!

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Review: A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future

A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Guinness contends that great powers basically destroy themselves from within before they ever fall to external enemies. I write this on the day our government has shut down because our leaders cannot even agree to fund the obligations into which they’ve entered. Guinness’s book seems prophetic and especially relevant today.

He argues that freedom has been the fundamental and driving idea of the American experiment. But freedom has two aspects, freedom from and freedom for. His concern is that our understanding of freedom has been pervaded by the former to the neglect of the latter. He argues this was not always so and that we can learn from the framers the positive virtues necessary for sustaining freedom. He believes we can use history to defy history. A repeated refrain in the book is, “For Americans must never forget: all who aspire to be like Rome in their beginnings must avoid being like Rome at their ending. Rome and its republic fell, and so too will the American republic–unless…”

He argues that what is essential is observance of what he calls “The Golden Triangle of Freedom” He argues that freedom requires virtue which requires faith which requires freedom. By this, he means freedom only flourishes in the presence of moral excellence and the cultivation of civic virtue. Virtue in turn must be rooted in some sense of the ultimate–the fear of the Lord, as it were. And faith in turn must be sustained by freedom–free speech, free exercise, freedom of conscience.

He speaks trenchantly about the dangers of overreach which have brought down many of the great powers and it is plain that he sees this as a form of hubris of which we are enamored. He concludes the book with a call not to return to some golden age of American life but nevertheless to return to the American virtues framed by our founders who drew on both biblical and classical sources. He references the beautiful metaphor of the eagle and the sun–the mighty bird whose flight is illumined by something greater and higher.

While this book is published by a religious publisher, Guinness frames his argument in the language of the cultural public square. Whether one is a person of faith or not is beside the point in engaging this book. What is striking to me is that this Irish ex-pat (connected with the Guinness family of brewing fame) seems to love the United States and care deeply for her future. I would encourage others who love this country to consider his argument for sustaining our freedom.

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