Lisa Harper "Love & Imperfection" | 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 Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, or perhaps even a recording of Henri himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen and remind each listener that they are a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce today’s guest. Today on this podcast, I have the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Harper. Lisa is a pastor with a great strength for encouraging her audiences through wit, authenticity and biblical wisdom. She’s a theological scholar and a wonderful, very funny, gifted communicator. I love how Max Lucado describes Lisa Harper: “One of the best Bible tour guides around.” She’s written 12 books, including A Perfect Mess: Why You Don’t Have to Worry About Being Good Enough for God.
Lisa, you are known for combining solid biblical teaching with comedic wit and masterful storytelling. I see some of this reflected in the titles of your books, such as The Sacrament of Happy, Untamed and so many other good ones. Lisa, would you please introduce us to the Jesus you know?
Lisa: Oh, my goodness. He’s so kind, and so, so, so compassionate, so kind, so accessible. I grew up in church. My dad left us when I was a little girl, five years old, and I think like most kids who experience divorce, you think it’s at least partly your fault. I thought if only I had been prettier or used my inside voice more, maybe my dad wouldn’t have left. And it was soon after my father left us that my mom took us to a different church, because where I grew up, a divorce was gossip disguised as a prayer request, and so she didn’t feel comfortable in our old church.
We went to a new church and I can remember it like it was yesterday. This was 50 years ago. I’m 57, and the preacher started talking about how our heavenly father is a God who doesn’t walk away from his children. He’s not a father who walks away from his children, and I remember just being so compelled by the idea that I could have a dad who didn’t leave me, that I gave my heart to Jesus. And so, you know, I’ve been walking with Jesus since I was a kid, but I, for decades, didn’t think he liked me very much. I thought God had sent Jesus to deliver me from my sin, but the idea that he was an accessible God who actually loved me – that was kind of a fairy tale. It was too good to be true. You know how Psalm 23 says that mercy and goodness will follow us. He has been so graciously relentless in his pursuit of me that I’m undone by his kindness. I’ve walked with God for 50 years, and if I had one word to describe Jesus, it would be kind.
Karen: I love that, and I identify with that, too. I lost my father at six. My father died, but it was interesting. It became real to me that I had a heavenly father who would not abandon me. So, I get that. I understand it, and you have to know how generous, and as you say, kind, God, is that he breaks through, into that child’s heart and mind and lays a foundation of relationship that is counter to whatever you’ve experienced as a child. That’s amazing. One of the things that I received for Mother’s Day this year is your wonderful little book: Life: An Obsessively Grateful, Undone by Jesus, Genuinely Happy, and Not Faking it Through the Hard Stuff Kind of 100-Day Devotional. The title says so much about who you are and what you have to offer. You’re funny and you’re witty and you’re authentic, and you’re all these different things. What a treat! You have spoken, not just to me and not just to my daughter, but to my granddaughters. They happen to enjoy you. So, I just want you to know you’re kind of generationally linked to all of us.
Lisa: Karen, that’s so, so kind. I can’t believe that. I’m always surprised, gratefully surprised that God has allowed me to both hold a microphone and a pen and talk about him. Because, you know, I grew up thinking you had to have it all together. You know, you had to have a matching sweater set and the quilted Bible cover, and you just had to really be above reproach – and I am more of a hot mess. I can tell you more stories about where I’ve gotten it wrong, and God has redeemed me. And I’m not trying to act like sin is no big deal. I told somebody that if sin was no big deal, Jesus could have just gone to after-school detention. He wouldn’t have had to go to the cross. Sin is a big deal. So, I’m not trying to make light of the sin in my life, or mistakes I’ve made. But it took me so long to really believe that perfection wasn’t a prerequisite for relationship with God, and so the fact that I get to tell stories about Jesus, I’m still pleasantly surprised anybody besides my mom reads them.
Karen: How did you get past that, perfection being a prerequisite? Take us on that route.
Lisa: God’s patience. I was really dutiful. Like I said, I didn’t believe that God could delight in me when I was younger. I knew he had saved me from my sins and I believed as best I could as a kid that he wouldn’t abandon me, although I certainly struggled with abandonment issues on into my teens and early adult years. But I think it was just being honest about my own life. You know, when I was really honest about “Boy, I keep struggling,” or I was very attracted to abusive men when I was younger. I had creases of molestation on my heart, and so that was a real draw for me. And so, when I would get free of yet another toxic relationship, I would think, “Oh, my goodness, God just keeps pulling me out of pits that I’ve dug myself,” you know, and carrying me to a new place, until it was really his grace that enabled me to kind of let go of my own preoccupation with performance. Thomas Chalmers writes about “the expulsive power of a new affection,” and he talks about how the closer you get to Jesus, that intimacy with Jesus, our desire to really – and you know, Henri Nouwen talks about it so amazingly our, oneness with Christ, our intimacy with Christ – as you get closer to Jesus, that love for Christ crowds out the lesser affection. And I think that’s what happened with me. Just the more and more I believed Jesus, the more I actually leaned into his affection.
I tried for so long to be a dutiful kid, to do the right thing, but I had a really hard time just leaning into his embrace. And the more I kind of leaned into his grace, almost because I collapsed there, the more it was like, “Oh, my goodness, he doesn’t need me to be a good kid and he’s not looking for my fruit. He’s looking for my faith,” I heard Tim Keller say recently, and it really resonated with me. He was talking about the man in Mark’s gospel who says, “I believe; help my unbelief,” because he’s so overwhelmed, you know, worried to death that his son isn’t going to make it. And he said that it’s helplessness, not holiness that is the first step to accessing intimacy with God. And man, it took me a long, long, long time to get there. But I think I finally failed enough to go, “I’m going to quit dancing for the approval of others, and I’m just going to trust that he actually loves me.”
You know, he didn’t just come to deliver me. He came because he delights in me, and honestly, it’s Henri Nouwen, it’s a few writers that would write about intimacy with Jesus, with such authenticity. You know, they didn’t write like, “Here’s an acrostic and do this application.” It was so much more about spiritual formation and our internal life with God. They became my tutors. I love to read, and so as I began reading things, I think I began realizing, “Oh, I’m not the only one.” I have this ache for intimacy with God and yet I’m such a mess, and I’d read, like, The Inner Voice of Love and I’d go, “Oh, this is true.” So, God has been so patient with me.
Karen: It’s interesting, because when you’d mentioned The Inner Voice of Love, I went back to read it again myself and I was shocked. It’s a feast. Oh, I want to recommend it to everybody who’s listening. And on the back, it says: “This is Henri Nouwen’s secret journal. It was written during the most difficult period of his life. When he suddenly lost his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God. And although he experienced excruciating anguish and despair, he was still able to keep a journal in which he wrote each day, a spiritual imperative to himself, which emerged from his conversations with friends and supporters.” And those spiritual imperatives are short, but each one is just a feast of truth, and Henri had to just realign everything in him. He was crushed, but he came back and he just came to this. I often see this image of him being someone who had a pendulum in him, but when the pendulum came to center, it was really on Jesus, and that’s how he functioned. But this book is full of just wonderful imperatives.
The other thing that’s kind of interesting about that time in his life, we often think that’s the most unproductive time in our lives, when we’re really down. Well, this book in itself is probably one of the finest books that Henri wrote, and it took about five or six years before it was shared, because it was so personal. And the other thing that got started during that incredibly lost and desperate time that he was going through, was The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is his classic, probably the most-read book by Henri Nouwen. So, it’s interesting how our dark places, our down places are places where God’s there and not surprised at all.
Lisa: Right, and I love that you said they are in some ways our most fruitful places. And I do think our culture tends to equate spiritual success with some type of other success, whether it be you have a platform or you have a commercial success and well, goodness now, it’s been 13 years ago. Karen, I just went through a really, really, really dark season where I lost two relationships. My father died and I was diagnosed with cancer, which ended up being not that big a deal, but it presented initially as being a big deal, and I just had always been able to pull myself up by my bootstraps. So, I would teach grace, but I had a hard time living it, and it was kind of like wet soap. I couldn’t hang on to it.
And it was during that season where I felt, goodness gracious, like I just could barely put one foot in front of the other. And God said to me so clearly – I don’t think I’ve ever heard God’s audible voice, but you know, when you hear him so loud, it may as well be audible – and he said, “Lisa, you’ve been running from fear your whole life. I’m going to take you to the basement, and I’m going to sit there with you in the dark until fear doesn’t own you anymore.”
I mean, I’d already been to seminary, my first go-round. I had a master’s in theology. I knew just enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous, and I’d been in the vocational ministry for 20 years. But I mean, I just hit rock bottom. And it was during that season, not unlike what Henri described. I’m not saying I went through as much grief as he did – that’s all relative – but it was my own dark night of the soul, and it was about six months of. . . I mean, I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without saying the name Jesus out loud. I had to speak his name to kind of give my heart just enough oomph to swing my legs over the side of the bed. And I’ve always been kind of one of those good girls. I push through, even if I’m sick, I’d take a Tylenol and go volunteer at the homeless shelter. I’ve never been classically weak, and I think that was one of my biggest, really, one of my biggest failures as a Christ-follower was, I didn’t know how to be needy with God.
And I wasn’t honest about places where I was really, really broken. And it was that really dark season that changed the topography of my heart. That’s when I feel like I really learned to be honest with the Lord, to lean into the embrace of Jesus. I didn’t have anything to bring to the table, and I couldn’t say, “Here’s my potential; breathe on it, Holy Spirit.” I thought I had no potential, and he just brought vibrancy out of void. He’s so kind. So, knowing that he wrote this in one of those seasons where he had, from what I understand, that he didn’t expect it to be published. And yet it has encouraged, I would imagine, millions of people at this point.
Karen: Yes, it’s interesting, because I think it was people who had gone through valleys. His dear friends who shared those passages, who went, “This is really good, this is important, this will help others.” And so, they persuaded him to bring it out. Sometimes you wonder if the intimacy of your struggle is just too raw and too private. But in a way, it goes back to being the wounded healer. You can put your wounds out there and realize they can help others.
Take us back on the recovery journey, because I bet you have shared that with many. What did God give you at the bottom of that valley that has never left you? What’s there that you’ve learned?
Lisa: You know, I think – and I won’t even go so far as to say I’ve learned it. I’m not fixed, I’m freer than I ever had the faith to pray for. I feel like I’m still in the process of learning so many things about God. What I began to learn is that his presence satisfies my soul more than answers do, and some of the places I was wounded when I was a kid, I was pretty self-protective. I presented as the super-friendly extrovert, but I was hiding a lot of pain. And I would think, “If only I could figure this out, or if only I could get the answer to this.” Thinking that life was kind of linear, like if I get to this point, I won’t have sorrow anymore. I won’t have anxiety anymore.
And he just gently tutored me to the place of beginning to understand that it really isn’t about getting my questions answered, it’s about being satisfied in his presence. And he really is a mess. I mean, Karen, I think there was a corner of my heart, even in my, I’d say thirties and early forties, while I was an emotional agnostic, and so I could spout all kinds of theology. But there was a corner of my heart that was really afraid that God . . . of two things: One was that I wasn’t good enough for God. The second one was that maybe God wasn’t enough for me. If all I had was God, would I actually have hope and be satisfied? I thought I needed somebody with skin on. And in that season where, I mean, I had nothing but God, his presence was enough and more than enough, more than I ever hoped for.
And that’s what I feel like he continues to teach me. I got to become a mom through the miracle of adoption, and I’ve had my little girl home from Haiti for seven years. I could talk to you for 50 podcasts about her. She’s an amazing kid. She’s just . . . of course, all our kids are miracles. I always say my kid is the most amazing kid in the world, but she’s tied with yours; they’re all such miracles. But I tell people pretty often who will talk to me about adoption, and they just can’t wait till God gives them their child or they’re pregnant and can’t wait, or there’s some infertility. Or just thinking, “If only I could have a job, I’d be satisfied.”
And I’m like, you know, Missy is second to my relationship with Jesus. Missy is the greatest thing, greatest gift God’s ever lavished me with, but she is not my hope. Missy’s not the reason I get up in the morning; Jesus is. And I’m so thrilled I get to be her mama, but you know, her shoulders can’t carry the weight of my emotional expectations. Jesus is the only one who can give me wholeness and that kind of supernatural peace, and I am still learning that. You know, I was hospitalized with COVID. I’ve been home from the hospital for a month now, and I had one night when they weren’t sure they were going to be able to stabilize me, and I overheard the medical personnel and realized I was having a brush with death. And I’ve always been physically strong and, you know, I race mountain bikes and ride motorcycles and snowboard, so I’m a risk-taker. But I’ve never been hospitalized because my body was weak. I might’ve been in an accident, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t breathe.
And there was a moment that first night when I realized, “Oh, wow, I might not get out of here.” And it was such an interesting thing, because I felt such peace with God. And I thought, “Wow, this is what peace with God feels like. I’m not afraid to die, even if I’m 57.”
And then, like right on the heels of that, I found myself telling God what he already knows. And I was like, “God, Missy’s first mama died when she was a baby, and she’s only 11, and I don’t know if her little heart could handle being orphaned a second time, and so, you can take me whenever you want to take me, but could we just wait until Missy’s a little older, until she’s a young adult?”
And I thought, “What in the world are you doing that for, dingbat? Here you just had this wonderful peace with God, you trust him, and on the heels of that you’re telling him what he already knows and essentially telling him, ‘I need you to be good with regards to my daughter.’”
And so, I think for me to ever think, I completely grasp something about God, I think the only thing I really hang onto is he’s good, and I’m not him, because the other step I feel like in my humanity, I have to relearn. And that’s why I think being in his word is so important. I think we only get closer to Jesus through the revelation of the Holy Spirit and the revelation through this love story called the Bible. And so, apart from the Spirit and his word, man, I am kind of a prodigal waiting to happen.
Karen: Well, I’ve got to say, I’ve got bits and pieces of your story, and I love the part about Missy. I love that God brought Missy into your life, and I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk about the COVID part, but boy, that’s right to the edge of life. My goodness.
Lisa: Oh man. I told you I was scared when I was younger. One of the things I was really afraid of, even though I didn’t know it and probably wouldn’t have admitted it, was intimacy. And so, you can’t experience deep intimacy with others unless you’ve been willing to go there with God. At least, that’s my opinion. And I had been in some not-so-great relationships. Like I said, I was drawn to abusive men, and God protected me from the men I was drawn to. And a few good godly guys I dated, God protected them from me, because I was a hot mess express. And so, I got to my early forties and realized, “Oh, my goodness, those years when it is normal for people to get married and have children, I’ve missed that window.”
And I don’t think God is at all capricious, but that there are consequences for sin and our choices. And I realized those years that I could have had children, biologically, I really wasted those years, and I thought, “My goodness, I’m not going to get to be a mom.”
And it’s too long a story, but I mean, Karen, me getting to be a mom is pure grace, I mean, just pure grace, because I was an older, single woman. There are adoption agencies that are closed to you if you’re single. I was even in my late forties. There are countries, whole countries that are closed to you, if you’re single or in your forties. And I get that, because you want to make sure a child is in a stable environment. But just the way he wove me into Missy’s story – and my little girl wasn’t supposed to survive, because her mama who I never got to meet, I got woven into Missy’s story after her mother passed away, her first mom.
I cannot wait to meet her and go: “Look at our girl.” But she was very, very sick with AIDS and unwittingly, Missy has HIV. And she was very, very malnourished and had tuberculosis and had struggled with cholera. I mean, just so many things, from a very rural, impoverished third-world village. And so, I wasn’t supposed to be a mom. She wasn’t supposed to survive. And God just, I mean, he poured grace on us. And so, it was a long journey and it was a two-year adoption process and it was definitely a roller coaster. But I’ll look at her sometimes. She had a review session today, because she’s got a test coming up for the end of sixth grade, and I’m kind of still in the honeymoon season of motherhood, even after seven years – nine years, if we count the adoption process. She’s just this beautiful, happy kid.
And she just comes barreling in the door, grinning from ear to ear, and she was like, “Mom, can I have a quesadilla?”
“Oh, my goodness, honey, you can have the whole cheese factory.”
She’s just a miracle, but I think we are all surrounded by miracles. It takes God opening our eyes to see them. And I’ve made every mistake known to motherhood, but the one thing I do well is gratitude, because I still can’t quite believe that he’s redeemed my life to this point. I’m so grateful. He’s just done so much, and it’s a blast. I mean, I wish I had the metabolism of my twenties. You know, I wasn’t in stretchy pants all the time. That’s really my main grief, you know? It’s just, life is sweeter than I would have had the faith to pray for.
Karen: Well, I am so glad, that’s a wonderful part of your story. I mean, there’s so many parts and I’m going to encourage people after this podcast, go to our website and you’ll get links to all the different books that Lisa’s written, and there’s ones that you’re going to want.
Now, one that she wrote was The Sacrament of Happy. You dismantle the old-school idea that joy, not happiness is truly a spiritual emotion for the Christian family. Christian followers are actually called to happiness: “We’re free to express genuine joy, fulfillment and contentment, regardless of the personal and global tumult around us.” It’s interesting to hear that, because even your daughter, in a sense, comes out of what was a tragic situation, which the world couldn’t solve, which the world could look on and grieve. It was so dreadful, what was happening there. But tell me a little bit about The Sacrament of Happy. I mean, I don’t think it’s just about being funny. Tell us, do you really think God wants us to be happy? Do you really think that?
Lisa: Yeah, I do. I think first you kind of have to go, “What are you talking about when you say happy?” because that word itself, people have very different ideas when they hear that word. And in our culture, that word usually conjures up this image of “everything’s going great,” and that’s not biblical happiness. I didn’t realize until I started studying the biblical context of happy, that our Bibles are saturated with the word “happy.” It’s not usually translated “happy” in the Old Testament. Oftentimes it’s translated “blessing,” and same with the New Testament. The Old Testament in the Hebrew, the word is asher and the New Testament, it’s makarios. And it’s an accurate translation to say that word means “happy,” but it’s closer to “contentment” and “fulfilled” than our 21st-century, first-world understandings of happy. We understand happy as, “I’m wearing my skinny jeans. I’ve got plenty of money in the bank and I just got my hair done,” you know?
So, we tend to base happy on happenstance, if your circumstances are going according to your liking. That’s not at all how the Bible describes happiness. In the biblical context, it’s much more closely related with fulfillment and contentment in God. And so, it’s like I was studying happiness at the same time, Karen, the Lord impressed me to study the book of Job. And I was like, “Oh, you’re kidding me.” I have avoided Job like the plague, because it just seems like, “Ugh, this book!” I thought, “Man, that’ll be like sticking your hand in a blender.” But I started studying Job. I actually spent an entire year in the book of Job.
And the thing that slayed me was, toward the very beginning of the book and chapter one – and for anybody listening, who’s not familiar with Job, he’s this real guy, a historical character in the Old Testament who loses everything. He loses his business, and he was a very, very wealthy man. If he would have been living today, he’d be trading on Wall Street. He loses his entire wealth. He loses all of his children, and he had six children. He loses just everything. He loses his health, too. And so, I can understand losing your wealth, that wouldn’t be as big a deal to me, but to lose his son and to lose his daughters. I just can’t even imagine that. And he lost them all in one fell swoop in this tragic accident. And when he’s grieving that, he’s really honest about it. It says he shaved his head and he tore his robe. I mean, he’s not pretending like everything’s okay. Those were signs of deep grief in that ancient era.
But in the same verse that it tells us he is grieving, it says he fell on the ground and he worshiped, and he has this basic understanding that everything I have is from God. It’s all God’s anyway, and I’m going to trust that somehow, some way, he’s good. And so, I think, Job gave me a context that helped me to understand that Romans 8:28 is not hyperbolic. I think Christians throw that phrase, that verse around sometimes at very inappropriate times, like funerals. And that verse says that God will work everything out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes. And it almost sounds like this perky, Pollyanna, “Oh, well, everything’s going to be great.” And you think, “Please don’t tell me that when I’m grieving the loss of a loved one, or when I just found out the lump in my breast is malignant.”
And, we forget Romans 8:28 is in the context of the beginning of Romans 8. It says we’re going to groan inwardly as we grieve, because this world isn’t our home. Kind of like the whole point of The Inner Voice of Love, and so many of the other things, The Wounded Healer – I was going to say Doctor Nouwen, I respect him so much – that he wrote. Can You Drink the Cup? All those give you the Nouwen view of human suffering. And so, I think all too often, we’re taught to just pretend like you don’t hurt and put on a happy face. And that’s not at all what Job does. Job says, “I’m dying today, I’m grieving today, I can’t handle my circumstances today, but my God is still good.”
And that’s Romans 8:28. It’s: “You may be groaning today, but God is still good.” It’s just, we’re so human. We can’t see beyond time and space. And I think that’s what Henri Nouwen writes about so beautifully. There’s something about not thinking that suffering means God is mad at us. You know, he’s only a uni-browed librarian waiting to smack us over the head if we step out of line. He is always kind. He’s always good. Sometimes life is really hard, and to me, true happiness, biblical happiness, godly happiness is to go, “Even in this, my God hasn’t abandoned me.”
You know, I lost two adoptions before Missy, and one of those was heart-wrenching because I lost the adoption four days before I was supposed to bring the baby home. And I mean, Karen, I felt like my heart had just been torn in two by a sword. I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get my heart back again in one piece. I was devastated. And it was two weeks after that that I got the call about Missy asking if I’d be willing to step in the process with Missy. And I don’t for a moment think that that adoption loss was divinely causative. There were some really horrible things around it. So, I’m not saying, “Oh, God took one thing and gave me another.” It wasn’t like that. But because our God is good, something that was really painful and really horrible – and it wasn’t his will. It was part of the Fall – but he still used that to kind of plow my heart up, to prepare my heart for this two-year journey of adopting a child that doctors told me wouldn’t even make it through the adoption process, that she would pass away. And so, God doesn’t . . .
I think most of the pain we walk through is because of the Fall. We live in a broken planet that is marred by sin, but God doesn’t waste pain. He’s really, really kind, and if the grief he allows us to wade through, if we will accept it – I’m not saying we’re masochists and saying, “Oh, please hurt me more” – but if we go, “Okay, I don’t understand this, but I’m going to keep my heart in the game and trust that somehow, someway he’ll use this.” I think it fuels our compassion. And I think our world needs to know that God is good, and our world also needs to know that people who love God are not going to pretend like they don’t hurt. Instead, we’re going to be willing to step into a hard place with other people and say, “How can I help? Can I just walk with you as you grieve?” I don’t think the church has done a very good job at actually walking alongside people who ache.
Karen: No, I think you’re right. I think you’re right, and sometimes the only ways that we learn to do that is really to come in contact with our own hurt and own it and somehow invite God to the depths of those places where we are really hurting. I found that this year, one of the great realities that has in a way surprised us, you know, we’re often asked, “Has Henri got something to offer to today?” And what we have been discovering, as people have gone through this very, very challenging year where they are limited in so many things, how much the meditations, the words of Henri Nouwen have been a resource, have been a help. And I’ve been so glad that we could offer that. I’m glad that his life has a fruitfulness that continues here. It’s 25 years since he died, but there’s this wonderful fruitfulness in those words, and I think they’re fruitful because they’re so full of honesty.
Lisa: Oh, absolutely. And I think in some ways, like you said, because we’ve gone through such unexpected pain, I think maybe somebody who 25 or 30 years ago might not have been willing to kind of pull back the veneer of their life and go, “Boy, I’m really struggling today” – I mean, all you have to do is open your phone and you see suffering, you see anguish, you see some really hard times. So, again, you have somebody like me who talks about happy and they go, “Oh my goodness, you are kidding me. She’s going to be a Pollyanna.” It’s like, no, how do we find peace and contentment and fulfillment when the world, as we know it, is really difficult.
At the beginning of the pandemic, about six weeks into it, someone very, very close to me committed suicide. And I mean, Karen, it was like, we were already struggling with the pandemic. We had a hard time getting Missy’s medicine. I lost a year’s worth of work. So, like everybody else, I already had kind of the normal disappointment and the concerns. And then, all of a sudden, this friend took his life and I was just like, “Goodness gracious.” You just feel that it’s almost overwhelming. “How do I step into this? I’m already sad now. I just don’t really know how to navigate it.” And I went back to The Wounded Healer, because I thought if I’m going to in any way help some friends of mine and family members who are grieving this loss with me, how do I stay connected? And there’s that place – well, every word of that book is amazing – but there’s that place where he talks about the tragedy of ministers not being willing to burn their fingers.
And I just remember thinking, “Oh, goodness,” because I’d been so disappointed in this first month-and-a-half of the pandemic, I’m almost in that posture of trying to shield myself from any more hurt or any more disappointment. And then I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I have to be willing to burn my fingers, to get my hands and my heart burned, because that’s what we’re called to be as Christ-followers, as agents of reconciliation, as wounded healers.” And so, I mean, I’m only 57 years old, so I’m still wet behind the ears when it comes to wisdom, but I feel like his books are more pertinent now than ever before.
Karen: Well, I’m delighted to hear you say that. That means a lot. It’s funny, interestingly enough, when I became the Executive Director, I was eager to hear, was Henri Nouwen’s name still in the spiritual conversations of the day? And I just want to say to you that actually, I found you because you’re one of the people that’s in the spiritual conversations of the day. And so, I think that’s a really important thing to realize that you’re speaking. And we would all rather not have lives that are marked by wounds and marked by mistakes, but somehow when you can take those and you can offer them up, because God has come into the midst of them and made himself so real in the midst of that, that you have something really wonderful to offer. I saw a beautiful quote on the back of your book, Untamed, and you wrote (and this is interesting): “Too many people settle for relating to Jesus merely as a comfortable friend and a companion, when what we all need is an untamed savior, a fearless champion, tough enough to conquer our shame and compelling enough for us to follow him without hesitation.” And you write about yourself: “I finally realized my caricature of Jesus wasn’t big enough to calm my anxiety or heal my wounds or defeat the wickedness in our world.” I found that so powerful, that you chose to be honest, that you’ve had to continue to grow, and that’s what I think makes it exciting to come alongside you, Lisa, and see who you are and what you’re doing.
Lisa: Thank you. Well, and you know, Karen, don’t you find yourself when you go back through and reread, like you’re saying The Inner Voice of Love, and you go, “oh, wow,” because truth isn’t stagnant, you know? Because our hearts are always changing, and because our understanding of God is hopefully growing and maturing and vibrant. We go back to truths and go, “Oh, now I can see another facet.” It’s like a diamond. You hold it up to the light and go, “Oh, wow, I see a whole ’nother color that I didn’t see before.” And so, I feel like my understanding of who God is, is constantly getting bigger. And instead of being overwhelmed and I’ll never know God completely, I’m so glad he’s not such a small God that my finite mind could contain all of his goodness and all of his kindness and all of his mercy.
And so that’s why Henri Nouwen was one of those writers that to me – the word of God is the most important thing. We’ve got to have our nose in our Bibles. It’s not a rule book, it’s a love story. But second to the word of God, there’s just a few people I reread on an annual basis. I’m constantly going back to their books, and those would be Henri Nouwen and Frederick Buechner and C.S. Lewis. There’s just a few who I think were so profound, and they were such sharp instruments in the hands of God. I don’t think he will ever be irrelevant.
Karen: Well, I just want to thank you. Your books are rich. They’re a treasure. I’m going to encourage our audiences to take a look and be sure and pick up a Lisa Harper book, or you can actually hear Lisa preach. I noticed there’s lots of sermons online and she’s a real treat. I mean, you’ve got a taste of it today. This woman’s funny, but funny in a profound sort of a way, and I love the fact, Lisa, you’ve been willing to take those things that scarred you deeply, those things that were intimate and private, and we would all like to hide. You took them out and said, “There. God met me there.”
Lisa: I feel like the tides have shifted some just since I was in my twenties and thirties and first in ministry, but it’s not all about, “let me give you an acrostic for how to have a successful, productive life.” It’s more about being honest with each other and being real with God. And again, when I first, Karen, started reading Henri Nouwen in my, I’d say probably, late twenties, I couldn’t understand even what he was saying. I just knew I needed it, but I was such a poser. I wasn’t honest enough to apply a lot of this stuff, but it gave me something to go, “Oh! Oh!” It took me years, I think, to really, and I’m not saying I’m even there yet, but to begin for my heart to go, “Okay, that’s me, I’m not afraid anymore.”
I mean, if you could see my copy of The Wounded Healer – and this is probably my tenth copy, because I’m always giving it away – it is coffee-stained and wrinkled, and it looks like it’s been hit by a truck, because I’ve just gone back to it time and time again, and in The Inner Voice of Love, you know the “control your own drawbridge?” That changed my life. I mean, it is not too strong to say it changed my life, because I was such a people-pleaser, and I just didn’t know we were even allowed to control our drawbridge. I thought everybody came in, and I continue to use that as I teach, just a framework for here’s what that looks like. It doesn’t mean you let everybody into the innermost sanctum of your heart. God doesn’t say you have to do that. You have wisdom on who you’re completely intimate with. But I’m just so tickled I got to talk to you today, and I hope to meet you someday face to face.
Karen: I’m so grateful that you took time to meet with us today, and I wish blessing on you and good health as well on you and on Missy. May you be well.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. Lisa Harper is so full of wisdom and wit. If you enjoyed this podcast, share it with your friends and we’d be grateful if you’d take time to give us a thumbs-up or a good review. For more resources related to today’s program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned in today’s podcast, as well as book suggestions and links to sign up to receive our free, daily Henri Nouwen meditations. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
Praise from our podcast listeners
Help share Nouwen’s spiritual vision
When you give to the Henri Nouwen Society, you join us in offering inspiration, comfort, and hope to people around the world. Thank you for your generosity and partnership!