Listen to “Stuck”
“He knew presidents, kings, and many famous people, but he rarely mentioned them, preferring instead to reminisce about individual leprosy patients. He talked openly about his failures and always tried to deflect credit for his successes to his associates. Every day he rose early to study the Bible and to pray. Humility and gratitude flowed from him naturally, and in our time together I sensed a desperate lack of these qualities in myself.
Most speakers and writers I knew were hitting the circuit, packaging and repackaging the same thoughts in different books and giving the same speeches to different crowds. Meanwhile, Paul Brand, who had more intellectual and spiritual depth than anyone I had ever met, gave many of his speeches to a handful of leprosy patients in the hospital’s Protestant chapel. Obviously, he had spent hours meditating and praying over that one sermon. It mattered not that we were a tiny cluster of half-deaf nobodies in a sleepy bayou chapel. He spoke as an act of worship, as one who truly believed that God shows up when two or three are gathered in God’s name.”
“Because of where I practiced medicine, I never made much money at it. But I tell you that as I look back over a lifetime of surgery, the host of friends who once were patients bring me more joy than wealth could ever bring. I first met them when they were suffering and afraid. As their doctor, I shared their pain. Now that I am old, it is their love and gratitude that illuminates the continuing pathway of my life. It’s strange – those of us who involve ourselves in places where there is the most suffering, look back in surprise to find that it was there that we discovered the reality of joy. He then quoted another saying of Jesus. “Happy are they who bear their share of the world’s pain: In the long run they will know more happiness than those who avoid it.”
When I read that I thought of Paul’s long stay in Ephesus among people who were common and uneducated. While his success early on had been astonishing Jews in the synagogue and proving to them that Jesus is the Christ, in Ephesus he found himself with a completely different audience. No longer able to preach and move on, he would have to be more than a restless apostle. Instead, he settled down with those the classical world despised and looked down on, the ignorant and foolish, the coarse and ill-mannered. These were not Jews in Rome he could win with deep theology. He is stuck among people who did not have the basics.
But, here he would learn to submerge himself in the tedium and frustration of working with complicated lives of people who are broken, flawed, distorted, and out of control. At the same time, it was only by staying in one place that he would discover some of the deepest relationships of his life. The years in Ephesus would change Paul into something he never imagined for himself. He became a local pastor to people.
This interruption became the source of some of his finest work. When we read the passage on love in his letter to the Corinthians it is obvious it was not the result of lofty theological debates. He was able to write that because he came to understand what it meant to love real people with enormous flaws and sin. The time at Ephesus with the rough and difficult people shaped some of his greatest thinking and writing. The constraints on his life, the pressures, and sense of being “sentenced” produced extraordinary results that might never have happened otherwise. Our best comes often in the midst of our worst periods. Our best comes often from being stuck.
Henri Nouwen had gained the fame and acclamation he had long desired as a writer, theologian and celebrity professor at Yale and Harvard. Yet, his very deepest contributions were made after he moved to L’Arche, a community for severely handicapped men and women. From the perspective of his peers, it was the end of a stunning career. For Henri, it was going home. “I’m a very restless person but L’Arche became for me the place where I really came home. I’m still a restless person but in the deeper places of myself, I really feel I’ve found home. In many ways, the little ones, the people with limited gifts, have become for me those who have called me home.”
Perhaps it will be the same for you. The very place you or others consider you to be sidelined will prove to be the source of your best work. If you allow it, it will be home.