One of the Christmas gifts that I asked for and received was the biography of Henri Nouwen, Wounded Prophet. It is not a fast read…like Nouwen’s books themselves, the biography (written by Michael Ford) causes me to stop and think.
Last night I read a section that has stuck with me all day today. It is a passage I am not sure what to do with. The context is Nouwen’s profound love of the circus. He writes about the circus and its spiritual parallels in several of his books. (I particularly like his picture of God as the catcher on the trapeze “whose hands are always there to receive and welcome home.”) (p. 22)
I’m not quite as sure what to do with another picture—that of the pastor and of Christ both as clowns.
Nouwen recognized that people respond to clowns not with admiration, amazement, or tension but with sympathy, understanding, and a smile. Of the virtuosi, people might exclaim, “How can they do it?” but of the clowns comes the realization, “They are like us.” Tearfully and joyfully the clowns—in reality peripheral people who “evoke a smile and awaken hope” through their humble, saintly lives—share the same human weaknesses as everyone else. It was significant (Nouwen noted) that pastoral psychologists such as Heije Faber and Seward Hiltner had used the image of the clown to understand the role of the minister in contemporary society. In one sermon, written for seminarians, he said that the circus would be depressing if all people looked up to view the artistes whose breathtaking heroics were hard to emulate.
“But the clown saves us: He is our man, because he fails, like we do, he makes mistakes like we do, he says to us, nonvirtuosity are OK too. And in his white face we recognize ourselves in our daily tasks of which so many fail. . . . Christ is the clown who came into our circus and made us laugh because he came to tell us that we are not what we
perform. He came for the crying, the persecuted, the weak, the hungry, the poor. He who is called to be a minister is called to be a clown.”
Probably it is my stereotypes and pride of pastoral leadership that makes me chafe at that picture. Part of me believes it is correct…but part of me is really uncomfortable with it. Does it minimize Christ? Does it trivialize ministers? I’m not sure.
Give me your insights. What do you think?