Rebecca and I (along with our daughter Rachel from San Diego who was able to join us for Thankgiving break from college) are in Holland for five days. Invited and hosted by Laurent Nouwwen (Henri´s brother) to give the address at the Henri Nouwen Stichting (Foundation) annual event in Utrecht, we are enjoying our time in old Europe. About  250 people attended the event which included a reception, vesper service and classical concert pieces on piano and trumphet. We were asked to speak about our personal mission in the world, and how to live it from the heart, as Henri Nouwen inspired us to do. What follows are my notes for the evening, which may be helpful to others who are tying to discern their mission in this season of life.

Notes for Annual Henri Nouwen Stichting Talk, Utrecht  21 November 2009

By  Michael  J. Christensen

Vocation: that unique mission in the world each believer is called to live and fulfill.

But what is my personal mission?  And how do I live it in the world?   Is my calling once and for all, specific to time and place, or does my vocation change with the seasons of life, and with different geographies of where I find myself in the world? [1]

I.                  What I learned from Henri(my teacher at Yale): I am sent.

Henri Nouwen was my teacher at Yale during a time when I was trying to discern my vocation in life, especially what next to do in ministry.  So I took a course from him each semester as was there.  More than the subjects he taught, the way he prayed and sought to discern the will of God impressed me, and I learned from his spiritual life.  He believed strongly, and so do I, that each of us are sent into the world to fulfill our mission.  This is what Henri Nouwen writes in one of the last books he wrote:

“We seldom realize fully that we are sent to fulfill God-given tasks.  We act as if we have to choose how, where, and with whom to live.  We act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die.  But we were sent into the world by God, just as Jesus was.  Once we start living our lives with that conviction, we will soon know what we were sent to do.”(Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, April 23)

A.   I am sent into the world , just as Jesus was sent, as God’s beloved child; 

·        that God has a plan and purpose for my life;

·        that I have been gifted and equipped to fulfill my mission;

·        and that I will have general and specific tasks to accomplish, people to meet and work with, things to do together….

B.    Out of the conviction that I am called and sent, my mission assignment will be revealed in God’s good time and way. In the meantime, I will make myself ready, open, and available to do God’s work.

·        Spirituality is the practice and process of discerning God’s will, knowing God’s time (kairos), being available, and preparing for and doing  the work God has for me to do in this present moment and season of life.

·        Ministry is not something we have to make happen or try to do.  Mission simply happens when we are faithful in prayer, meditation, friendship, family life, intentionally living the spiritual life.

·        Mission is the fruit of finding your gifts and making them available to others; To quote Elizabeth O’Conner:  ministry is “…dipping into our own life and offering what we find there.”  (Letters to Scattered Pilgrims)

C.   I will be supported by companions in the community of faith to fulfill my mission.  

·        We are sent out two by two, or in mission groups (Luke 9 – 10)

[We are not sent out alone.  Nor with adequate provisions.  Jesus said don’t take your staff, cloak, or bag of money, but make yourself dependent on the hospitality of those you seek to help.  So that there can be mutuality in ministry.]

·        Mutuality in Mission:   we don’t minister to the poor but with the poor, and among God’s poor.

·        Reverse Mission:    I gain much more than I give.  I go to serve but find that I am served…

Image of communion with God and ministry with others:   “Ministry is the overflow of your love for God and others.  Ministry is when two people, whose cups are filled with God’s love, toast each other in community, and their glasses of wine spill over.   Ministry is the extra, the splash over… (Spiritual Direction, p.131)

All these things I learned from my teacher, Henri Nouwen.  But what I will say next what I discovered on my own over 27 years of ordained ministry.

II.  What I learned from life:   “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” 

What I learned about living my mission over the past 27 years of full-time Christian ministry (as pastor, teacher) is that I don’t choose my missions, they choose me.    Children of Chernobyl, People with AIDS in Malawi, Shalom work in the world—these are mission projects that somehow captivated my attention and chose to engage me in action.  As Henri says, “a calling is something that you have to do, that you cannot not do.”   I have to teach and train others, I have to do what I can to save the life of 1000 AIDS orphans, I have to respond with compassion to the person or group of people God puts in my path.

A.   Children of Chernobyl in Belarus and Ukraine (1990):

After the Berlin wall came down, the door opened for ministry in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.   I was invited by CitiHope International to go to Minsk and assess the needs of children with cancer, a generation at risk for radiation-induced cancers—a group that became known as the ‘Children of Chernobyl.’   When my friend, Rev. Paul Moore, and I met Dr. Olga Alenikova, and her patients at the pediatric hematological center, I found it hard to believe that she lacked the medicine needed to save lives.   She showed us her patients—all children with cancers—who were dying without medicines.  Her cupboards were bare.  They needed the miracle oncological drug— Methotrexate— available in the West, but not in the USSR.  Dr. Olga said she was an atheist because she could not believe in a God who would allow her children to die when there was a way to save them.  Paul Moore, my more evangelical friend, asked her:  “Olga, how many vials of methotrexate would it take for you to believe in a God of miracles?”  “What do you mean,” she asked. “Well, would it take 100 vials,  200 vials?  How many to believe that God really cares about your children?”    She then shouted out:  “One thousand vials.”    That was all Paul Moore needed to challenge our constituency to sponsor medicine for the children of Chernobyl, and by Thanksgiving time, 1990, CitiHope delivered not 1000 but 2000 vials of methotrexate to Dr. Olga in her hospital.  And do you know what she said?   “It’s a miracle!”    She came to believe in a God of miracles who could assign someone the mission task of connecting resources with needs.  

That’s how God works in the world.  {BTW, methotrexate was the same drug our family needed 7 years later to save our own daughters life that had leukemia.  Amazing connection between the miracle drug needed to save the lives of children of Chernobyl and our own daughter Megan.  But that’s another story.)  [Note:  The story of this mission is told in my book, Children of Chernobyl.   Which led to WV mental health promotion project in Belarus and USAID mental health project in Ukraine, 17 mission trips, etc]

B.    MalawiMission:  Hope Home Orphan Care

In 2005, another invitation from CitiHope International was issued to do an assessment of need of AIDS orphans in Malawi. I took Rachel with me, who was then 15 years old.  Together we visited several orphan care projects, including FOMCO.  There we met over 200 kids who had been affected by AIDS and needed basic nutrition, safety, education, a home.    I was inspired by the model of foster care in Malawi in the wake of the AIDS pandemic.   Extended families were organized to include a number of orphans in need.  Guardians were either grandmothers or aunts or neighbors or often older siblings.   They had love in abundance.  They needed hope.   We helped raise hope by offering food aid and support for these extended family units, often with 15 kids.  While Rachel volunteered at the center, I helped organize a system and put practical provisions in place to feed and care for AIDS orphans in Malawi. Practical vision is one of my gifts, and I felt God called me to use it to help save the lives of 1000 AIDS orphans.  

WorldHope Corps, an organization I started, is now caring for 100 orphaned and vulnerable children in our Hope Home program.  And we provided “Hope Scholarships” to send 19 youth to secondary school or college.  Since that first mission trip, I have taken groups on 5 other mission trips, and will return to Malawi again in January to dig our 10th village well, and start an economic venture to help sustain the work.  Again, I did not choose this mission project, it chose me, and keeps me engaged.

C.   Communities of Shalom

After 10 years of teaching theology and directing the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew University, God called again with a new mission assignment.  My Dean suggested that a good way to utilize my gifts and mission experience at Drew would be to develop a training institute for students called to do community work and ministry.   The National Shalom Resource Center at Drew, which I direct, equips ministry teams in over 100 sites in the USA and Africa to do what is called Asset Based Community Development. (ABCD).   It’s a particular approach to ministry that focuses on the strengths of a community rather than its deficiencies, assesses its resources rather than needs, and mobilizes its assets to build community from the inside out, so that it doesn’t have to depend on external resources.    I find it deeply fulfilling and am able to integrate my various academic interests and mission callings under the banner of Shalom.   The movement’s theme verse of scripture has become my own personal leit motif:   “Seek the shalom of the community where I have sent you, says the Lord. for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.”  (Jeremiah 29:7)

Conclusion: Where will we find Messiah?

If it’s true that we do not choose our mission, but our mission chooses us, then how do we prepare for our assignment?  What do we do with our life?  Where do we go to be found and called upon when needed?

I like the old rabbinic tale called “Where to find Messiah?”    A younger Rabbi asked the older Rabbi, where will we find Messiah when he comes?  The older Rabbi said, “We will find Messiah when he comes outside the gates of the city changing the bandages of the lepers.”   Quote parable from Spiritual Direction, p. l28.  

We make ourselves available to God and wait to be called, by tending to our own wounds as well as the wounds of others…outside the gates of the city where the poor are found.

For information on the Henri Nouwen Foundation in the  Netherands, contact: 

Lauren Nouwen

[1]What is my mission in life?  How do I discover my purpose and calling?  What are my gifts and graces for ministry?  What is the relation of my talents and skills, my strengths and experience, my motives and abilities, to God’s mission for me?  What part does choice, chance and circumstances play in discerning my vocation?  How is God’s will for me made known?  These are questions of spiritual discernment—listening to the voice of God in our hearts in deciding what best to do…given my personal and family constraints, current circumstances and present opportunities.