Chris Pritchett "Finding Myself in God" | Episode Transcript
Karen: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. We invite you to share the Daily Meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family.
This year, we’re commemorating the 25th anniversary of Henri Nouwen’s death. We have partnered with Creative Communications, a division of Bayard Publishing, to develop a series of booklets titled Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living: Insights from a Spiritual Master. This has become the title of our very special online conference we’ve scheduled for June 4th and 5th. If you’ve not already checked this out, please go to our website. We have such a wonderful lineup of speakers, such as Father Ron Rolheiser, Sister Helen Prejean, Dr. Vanessa White, Dr. Roberto Goizueta, Sister Simone Campbell – and we have the authors of this booklet series, Reverend Marjorie Thompson and Reverend Chris Pritchett.
Chris Pritchett is my guest today. He’s a Presbyterian minister, based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He’s a member of the board of the Henri Nouwen Society, and Chris is the author of three of the booklets in this series. We at the Henri Nouwen Society set out to address the key spiritual questions of our day, offering biblical answers as well as rich insights from Henri Nouwen. Here are the five titles in the series:
Identity: Finding Myself in God;
God: Discovering the Divine;
Love: Experiencing Deep Connection
Suffering: Transforming Our Pain; and
Freedom: Finding Peace in Anxious Times.
Chris, you have written three booklets in the series. Our goal with it in this anniversary year, we would offer small groups and individuals, these well-crafted study tools to enhance their spiritual formation. Chris, what is spiritual formation? What does that mean?
Chris: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I think it was Dallas Willard who once said there’s really nothing that really should be considered spiritual formation, but it really should be considered spiritual transformation. I still use the term spiritual formation, but I think what he was trying to say in that thought is that we’re all formed by some spirit. We’re all formed by something. We’re formed by all sorts of things in our lives, and some of those for good and some for ill, but we’re formed by our context, our culture, our families of origin, our religious experiences, the people who teach us, or what we read – all sorts of things. And so, spiritual formation is really about aligning our lives with the Holy Spirit. It’s to be formed in the Spirit as Christians.
And that’s a journey of moving our beliefs that we affirm in our heads, down into our hearts and into our experience. And so, there’s a practice element to that, where we take time each day to engage in spiritual practices – and there are individual spiritual practices and corporate spiritual practices. And when we engage in those, we partner with the Holy Spirit and, by grace, we are transformed more and more into the likeness of God and the character. I mean, the goal is Christ and the goal for the Christian is to become more and more like Jesus. To not just believe in Jesus, but to believe like Jesus, to believe as Jesus believed, to have the compassion that Jesus had. And so, spiritual formation is about putting on the character of Christ, as Saint Paul would say in Colossians 3.
Karen: Well, that’s interesting, because it’s about two years ago that we began this process of partnering with Creative Communications. And they are a publishing company that probably might be known by many. They might not identify that name, but they may have gotten those little Advent or Lent booklets that come through the church. And they might’ve seen those, and often focusing on Nouwen’s writing, and they have been doing that for years. They have produced a number of really rich little additions to those times of year in people’s lives. But they were really eager to somehow be part of our celebration of this 25th anniversary year. This is a year that marks 25 years since Henri died, and so we began to say, “How could this have a maximum impact?”
And they decided that they wanted to do a booklet series with us, and the concept was we would take people through the year. And then we started looking for writers and I happened to suggest, because you just joined our board at that point, I happened to suggest that you might be a writer to consider, simply because I had seen some things that you had written already and been very moved by them. And it turned out you were the choice. I was so delighted. So, you set out into the first three, and we’re today going to focus maybe on a couple of them. But I found, for example, one of the very basic questions for me is, does Henri Nouwen have anything to offer to this process from your perspective?
Chris: Oh, well, absolutely. I should just say that it’s truly a great honor and privilege to serve on the board of the Society, and my friend Mark Peterson connected us when we were in the Doctor of Ministry program together. And Henri has just been so profoundly important to my spiritual formation, personally. When I think of spiritual formation, I think of Henri Nouwen. He’s one of the first people that come to mind. There are a few others, but I was looking on my shelf, too, and pulling out all my Henri books in preparation for this, and I’ve got 27 of them on my shelf here. Yeah, I do. The first one that I ever read, I was in college and I was taking a class called, Theories of Classical Rhetoric, and we were studying memory.
And as you know, it’s just as part of the classical rhetoric worldview, we were studying the practice of memory. And so, we read The Living Reminder. And that was my introduction to Henri, The Living Reminder, and I was in college. So, it’s a book that’s for ministers or for clergy. That wasn’t in my worldview at that point, but as a Christian doing ministry in some capacity, that book is about how the minister is, in her presence, to be a living reminder of Jesus Christ. And so, ministry is so much not about technique or about skill sets, as much as it is about showing up as the living reminder of Jesus Christ. So, showing up as a little Christ for another.
And that was a really profound introduction for me to Henri, and I would say also to spiritual formation. And much of my spiritual formation since that time has also been wrapped up in my vocation as a minister, too. So, I think his writing goes to the depths, right? It integrates psychology, spirituality and theology to the point where we can have a pathway to find healing, because spiritual formation also involves healing. It has to involve healing, because even as Henri says, we are all broken, just as Jesus was broken on the cross, and as he broke the bread before he gave it to his disciples. So, too, we are broken, but we put that brokenness under the blessing.
Of course, we’re not defined by it, but there are broken pieces of our lives where we’re invited to seek healing in Christ, even in this life. And so spiritual formation is a wonderfully exciting and life-giving journey, because of the healing component to it. And Henri had an incredible way of creating space. I think in the brevity of his writing, he actually creates space for reflection on our own spiritual journey. So, you read about him, and in the particular of Henri’s story, you get the universality of all of our stories, and we find ourselves in his writing and it raises questions about my own life and the wounds that I’m carrying, or the lies that I’m believing. And it always comes back to finding ourself in God and in God’s love. And that’s really what the journey of solitude is. It’s about when everything else is stripped away. There’s the love of God that is there, and that feeds you and that transforms.
Karen: It’s interesting, because I just happened to be, my eyes are looking at something you wrote here: “According to Nouwen, ‘We slowly grow to believe the lies that I am what I do. I am what others say about me. I am what I possess.’ And that’s why Nouwen’s message of our truer and deeper identity as beloved children of God is so important.” And I do think it is the disarming honesty of Henri. It’s not a false honesty, he obviously shares his battles, and then it kind of opens you up to share your battles. Now, one of the things I’ve loved about your booklets, you’ve let us know who you are and some of the battles you’ve lived through, which I thought was really valuable. So maybe you might tell us just a little bit of your story, because the journey is in here; as a pastor, it hasn’t been straight up into the right all the way, it has been stuff you’ve had to deal with.
Chris: There’ve been a lot of turns, and God’s presence has been with me. I can see in retrospect his hand in my journey, and just a part of my story was growing up as an only child in a home with two loving parents, [who] also had a lot of pressure on them, and on the family as well. And so, there were some challenging times growing up. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and was very involved and I was an altar boy. I went to Catholic high school. I went to confession every week. I think one of the most formative experiences was that every Good Friday, my mom would take me to the church, and give me time to go and look at all the stations of the cross and meditate on the stations of the cross as a young boy.
And only in retrospect does that have this sort of profound place in my memory. I went through a time when I was a teenager, a very kind of dark time where I was struggling with my identity. I was really battling a dark depression, and I got to the point where I was contemplating suicide. And I had gotten kind of swept up with a violent gang, and I was initiated, jumped into this gang and got into trouble, crashed my parents’ car, things like that. I was involved in drugs and my life was really unraveling. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the church or God at this point or my parents or anything like that.
And one night in February, I was 16 years old and I stayed up all night kind of crying out to God, asking God if he was real and if he was there. And if he was, whether he’d show himself to me. And “I don’t think I want to live,” and this and that. And I was contemplating suicide. And through that night, I sensed a profound kind of comfort that I had not experienced before. It was sort of like this sense came over me, that everything’s going to be okay, and that there’s a future for me. I didn’t know what to do with that. It was profound and very real to me. So, I called a friend the next morning, a good friend of mine who had gone on some mission trip to Mexico with his Presbyterian church’s youth group or whatever, and came back and had sort of a changed life. He didn’t want to party with me anymore and he wanted to study the Bible and serve others and things like that.
And so, I called this friend of mine and I said, “I had this experience last night.”
And he knew that I was a troubled teenager at this point, and so he came, rushed over to my house and gave me a big hug, and I asked him what this was all about, what had happened.
I said, “I don’t want to live this way anymore. I want my life to change, and I want to get out of this mess that I’m in.”
And he said, “Well, you became a Christian.”
And I said, “Well, what do you mean? I’ve been a Christian my whole life.”
And he said, “You accepted Jesus into your heart.”
And it’s evangelical language. I didn’t have any category for that. Like, what does that mean?
“Come and see.”
And so, he brought me to his youth group and there was a group of 80 or so teenagers gathering on Wednesday nights with a youth minister. And they welcomed me and they played games together and they prayed and they sang songs and they were trying to grow together and have a personal faith in God and spirituality and stuff. And I loved it. I thought, “This is incredible, this is the environment that I need to be in.” So, I left one gang and I joined another gang!
And it was during that time that I would say that the transcendent God that I knew from my childhood became immanent for me. And we know that God is both transcendent and immanent. He’s other, he’s big, he’s other-worldly, and we need that power. But also, this One also wants to be my friend, as well. My Lord wants to be my friend. How does that work, you know? And so, I kind of ate all that up and studied, [the number] three in the Bible for the first time, and all of that, went to the Christian college and started studying theology. And because of the way in which the church helped me provide a spiritual family and a pathway for my own spiritual growth, I wanted to give back in the same way.
So, I was working with teenagers in college and then right after college. I wanted to go into ministry, and so I sensed a call to go to seminary and I enrolled at Fuller Seminary and then started volunteering at the church. And then I got my first job as a youth director at the same [church], overseeing the youth group that kind of brought me in off the street, so to speak, and that was this wonderful, incredible gift to be given this job. And on the first day that I was offered the job, I found out that I had stage-three testicular cancer. My wife and I, we had been married for just one year. I was 24 years old, and so we’re kind of babies and brand new into ministry, and I would have to go away to do chemotherapy.
And so, I would go for a week at a time to the City of Hope in the Pasadena area and get chemotherapy morning and night for five days. And then I would go home and recover for two weeks. And during those two weeks of recovery, I would minister to the youth and be part of the church and do my job. And the church was very accommodating of my cancer through that experience. And the boys in the youth group, after I lost my hair, they shaved their heads to show their solidarity.
And it was during that time, and I was going to seminary, that I read my second Henri Nouwen book, which was In the Name of Jesus, and I ended up writing my Philosophy of Ministry paper based on that book. And that was really profound, to read that book while going through cancer in my first year of ministry. That’s because it was through that book that I really learned about the authenticity of ministry and what it is to be called in Jesus’s name. Again, it’s kind of like The Living Reminder: We’re not called to be popular or successful, and boy did I want to be popular and successful and relevant. And I was part of a church that was a dynamic church, and they had a dynamic preacher. It was this wonderful preacher. Everybody loved him. He was on a pedestal, and I thought I needed to be like that. And then I got whacked with cancer and I thought, “Well, that’s just not going to happen.” I mean, if I’m going to have it, it’s not going to be my relevance. It’s going to be the relevance of Jesus Christ at work in my life.
And that’s all I can do, is just offer what I can. And so that was a really important way to begin ministry. And it’s a challenging way to do ministry, too, because our spirituality is . . . you can get kind of lazy and I can easily forget. There’s a sense in which the wakefulness that Jesus calls us to, you know, like in the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples, and he says, “Can’t you just stay awake?” You know? And I feel like a lot of ministry is just about staying awake, seeing what God is doing.
Karen: I bet a lot of pastors and priests and leaders feel that, and this has been an incredibly challenging time we’re living through. I mean, we didn’t see it coming, but we’re all in it together at this point. It is a time where it would be easy to despair and there’ve been losses beyond what anybody could have imagined. I’m sure you have had to bring people through that. You’ve probably faced your own. It’s really interesting. I love the fact that God met you in a place where the ground was really shaking from underneath you, and there was a real sense of genuine despair. And it’s funny, that’s maybe one of the things I really enjoy about Henri, too, the honesty of his heart battles.
The Inner Voice of Love is a beautiful book to look at for things like that, where he writes himself some imperatives. “This is what I’ve got to remember: Just try to remember, I’m beloved. Just try to remember this, just try to remember that.”
One of the things that I’m really aware of right now, we’ve been looking at sort of what are the trends that are happening out there, and one of the things that’s been very obvious is that people will often say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” It’s almost like walking away from that, and I’m curious, because I’d love to hear how you address that, because we are spiritual. We are spiritual beings, that’s a beginning place, but I found as I delved into the next little booklet, called God: Discovering the Divine, I found myself going, “Okay, people are still asking, ‘Can I find God?’” They want to find God but, you know, that maybe religion gets in the way, and maybe that’s one of the things that’s being a bit wiped away in this process. What are your thoughts?
Chris: Yeah, that’s a great question, and such an important thing to be thinking about. There was a while for which, when I heard that phrase, “spiritual, but not religious,” I was really critical of it and just wanted to kind of counter it all the time. And now there’s part of me that actually likes it. You know, I like that phrase, because there’s a part of me that feels like I’m like that, too, you know? Or at least I seek to be like that, even though I am very religious. But it’s my spirituality that really is what matters, and the religion is the container for that spirituality, for me. I think the challenge, though, is that when I use the word “spiritual,” I think about the Holy Spirit and the third person of the Trinity, the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the ruach who hovered over the waters of creation, and the pneuma that blew through the early church and turned timid bumblers into courageous followers.
And so, there’s a particular person of the Spirit that I think about in my imagination, when I use that word, and I think that of course there are a lot of folks who might use that word and it might just mean anything, it could just mean feeling good: “I’m not religious, but I like to go out into nature and that feels spiritual in some way,” you know?
And so, I think that there’s really good conversation pieces that can happen around that, and I absolutely believe that the Holy Spirit is accessible to any and all people. You don’t need to believe intellectually, and all the parts of the Nicene Creed, to have an experience of the Holy Spirit. I mean, in fact, we see that all throughout scripture as well. And so, I think there’s a real sense in which people are connecting with the Spirit, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. And I think if the church can help meet people in those spaces and to help name it for what it is, as we see it – like for instance, I participated in a six-day retreat that was called the Men’s Rite of Passage, and it was a retreat that was organized by Richard Rohr and the men’s ministry that he started, called Illuman.
And it was out in nature and there’s lots of silence. There’s some Native American drumming, there’s meditation, there’s hard group work. There are all kinds of different kinds of stuff that takes place in this retreat, and there was not a whole lot of religion in the way that you think about what religion is. There was no building, there was no formal liturgy, there was no incense, there were no sacraments, there was no practice of confession, things like that in the formal religious sense. But we were gathered around the Spirit and it was an interfaith gathering, and I think we all met the Spirit through this time in very powerful ways. And it was attractive to people who are not interested in churchy stuff, but want to meet a wild God out in wilderness, you know.
Karen: That’s lovely, “a wild God.” There’s a little quote in here in this book, God: Discovering the Divine, and I thought it was charming: “The reason atheists have more in common with Jesus than most Christians is that atheists and Jesus both reject the kind of God that does not exist, an always angry and unloving God.” I think that’s a fabulous quote, and it does just open up our reality, as you’re describing what you experienced as a wild and wonderful, bigger God than that limited one that we can give.
Chris: Yeah, and in that quote, I was, without naming it, I was getting into what we call the apophatic tradition as opposed to the cataphatic tradition. And the apophatic tradition is the theology by negation and it serves as a counter or as a corrective to the cataphatic tradition, which can be tempted to say too much about God. And so, the apophatic tradition wants to say what God is not, and that’s really important for us, too. And so, Jesus and the atheists share in that apophatic affirmation that God is not a certain way.
Karen: Well, I think one of the great things that Henri has done, probably, for you and for me is he’s made God so much more attractive. Because the bottom line is he keeps saying, “You are beloved, you are beloved.” And it’s hard to wrap our heads around it. There are times when we can’t agree with God on that, but it is the profound and deep truth. The entire story of the scriptures is a story of God who is in constant pursuit of humanity from the moment of Adam and Eve until God with us in Jesus, and that is the God that Henri helps us find. And it does mean we have to get rid of some of the toxins in our life. I think some of the things we’ve chosen to accept about ourselves become toxic and destructive and . . .
Chris: They no longer serve. Yeah. They don’t serve us anymore. Right. They don’t serve us anymore.
Karen: Now, let me just see here. You’ve written: “Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation and despair begin to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God. This sounds very simple and maybe trite, but very few people know that they are loved without the conditions or limits.” Nouwen writes that, “without any conditions or limits.”
You know, one of the things about these study guides is you’ve got great questions in them. I really want to encourage people to think about getting this. It’s wonderful, good instruction, information, but they’re also great questions. And you know how it is: If you want to get the right answer, you have to ask the right question. That’s really a kind of philosophical truth, that when you start asking the right questions, it moves you forward. It loosens you from where you might’ve been stuck. So, I would encourage people. These books are wonderful, and as I said, the whole series is called Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living: Insights from a Spiritual Master. You have packed them full of really deep, spiritual truths and life-giving ideas – the very best of Henri Nouwen, and I’m really grateful.
Chris: Well, thank you so much, Karen. It was an honor for me, a huge honor and a great challenge for me. I want to develop as a writer even more. I enjoy writing as a pastor for my congregation, and this gave me an opportunity to be challenged in a greater way, too, and so I’m very grateful for that, and I’m looking forward to continuing to write along these lines as well. I’m especially grateful for Marjorie Thompson as well, and her partnership in this series. She is an incredibly prolific and fantastic writer, and she has taught me a lot as well, in our conversation.
Karen: Now you’ve begun, you’re fairly new in Salt Lake City, Utah. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there. Tell us about your church.
Chris: So, I serve a church called Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church. The reason it’s called Mount Olympus is not because we’re into Greek mythology, but because it’s located right at the base of Mount Olympus here in the Wasatch Front in Salt Lake City, and it’s a wonderful church. It’s a 60-year-old church and multi-generational. We’ve got a lot of young families and kids and elderly folks, and they interact very well with one another. It’s a church that is concerned with social justice issues, as well as Christian education. We have a small staff, a preschool that’s fairly large and all kinds of different ministries here at the church, and so it’s a great place to be.
And so, I serve as the pastor for the church. I get to preach every week and lead worship, and I’m teaching a class on the Apostles’ Creed as well on Sunday mornings, and so it’s really a wonderful place to be. And the outdoor environment is just incredible. Of course, the church has all these different kinds of mountain biking groups and skiing groups and hiking groups. And that’s really good, because there’s a real sense in which appreciation for God’s creation and for encountering God in creation here in this beautiful place. And it’s also interesting, because we’re a religious minority. This is the headquarters of the Latter-Day Saints here in Salt Lake City, and so there’s a strong Mormon influence. And many of them have found their way into our church, which is wonderful, too. So, it’s a very interesting and wonderful place to minister.
Karen: Well, I think I really desire today that we would give people a little sample of what’s in these booklets so that they would get a thirst for it. I would say, as you’re looking ahead into the year, if you would like to have that experience of spiritual formation and transformation, this is a vital, valuable tool. But I also want to invite everyone: Come to our conference, June 4th and 5th. And we have an absolutely stellar lineup of people that are speaking. I’m so excited. Chris is going to be there. Marjorie’s going to be there. We have Sister Helen Prejean. We have Sister Simone Campbell, Dr. Vanessa White, Dr. Roberto Goizueta, and we have Father Ron Rolheiser, and some wonderful, wonderful little savory special bits woven throughout. So, I would love everyone who is listening: Take a look at our website; sign up for Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living. I think your life will be richer. And I feel like God has just gone before us and given us something that we can really offer, like a feast we can offer. So, we would welcome all of you.
And Chris, thank you so much for sharing just a little bit of what we might find in these booklets. Believe me, they are really packed with good things and I think I’m going to invite some friends and use them as a study guide, because I think they would work so well, and I’d love to do that. And you’ve done such a good job of weaving Henri and scripture and the honesty of your own life through the pages. So, it really is a valuable tool. I’m grateful for it.
Chris: Well, thank you so much, Karen. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and for your leadership of the Society, where as part of the board, we’re just so blessed that you’re at the helm – your creativity, your innovation, your passion for Henri’s work and for getting it out there to as many people as possible. It’s just so meaningful and so good for the world, and so I’m thankful for your leadership and grateful for this time.
Karen: Oh, thank you, Chris. That means a lot. That means a great deal coming from you. I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope you got as much out of this chat with Chris Pritchett as I did. I just love him. He is a really special young man. We hope this has whetted your appetite to come to our conference in June, and also to get this series. Churches around the world are being encouraged to use these booklets as study guide materials for small groups or for individual study. You can find the links to the conference and to the booklet series on our website.
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