In these let­ters I’ve been shar­ing some of my expe­ri­ences with prac­tic­ing a par­tic­u­lar dis­ci­pline each month. This mon­th’s prac­tice was birthed by a quote Hen­ri Nouwen wrote about the expe­ri­ence of trad­ing in his Har­vard teach­ing post and boom­ing speak­ing and lit­er­ary career to live and work at L’Arche Day­break com­mu­ni­ty, a home for peo­ple with men­tal and phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties. The quote has been mess­ing with me for months.

I am deeply con­vinced that the Chris­t­ian leader of the future is called to be com­plete­ly irrel­e­vant and to stand in this world with noth­ing to offer but his or her vul­ner­a­ble self.
— Hen­ri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus 

At L’Arche, Nouwen’s typ­i­cal mech­a­nisms to impress were stripped away. All of his world­ly accom­plish­ments were not only super­flu­ous, but hin­drances. This expe­ri­ence and oth­ers led Nouwen to begin to frame rel­e­van­cy not as some­thing to chase, but a temp­ta­tion to avoid. 

In response to Nouwen’s quote, this last month I have worked on for­sak­ing the temp­ta­tion to be impor­tant, or pop­u­lar, and to avoid pur­su­ing strate­gic con­nec­tions and rela­tion­ships. I decid­ed to quit polic­ing my rep­u­ta­tion and to embrace irrelevancy. 

Seek­ing after impor­tance was­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing I thought I had much of a prob­lem with, but prac­tic­ing irrel­e­van­cy sound­ed inter­est­ing, coun­ter­cul­tur­al, and fun. 

To review, the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines are not pious activ­i­ties to earn me reli­gious points, nor are they spir­i­tu­al self-help to feed my obses­sion with hav­ing my own way. They are not about to-do lists or ways to relieve my guilt that I don’t mea­sure up. It makes me so sad when peo­ple view the dis­ci­plines as oblig­a­tions. Rather, they are invi­ta­tions, invi­ta­tions into a life with God, filled with all the grace, won­der, wild­ness, and prun­ing that in his love and good­ness he choos­es to give. The dis­ci­plines are ways of sub­mit­ting our lives and will over to God as best we can, often in small and seem­ing­ly insignif­i­cant ways. But, the results from the dis­ci­plines far exceed what we put into them; this is an act of grace. This is the way and means of grace. Quite sim­ply the dis­ci­plines are a means God uses to change us. The dis­ci­plines are how we grow spir­i­tu­al­ly. And, they are about love, not guilt.

As with oth­er dis­ci­plines, a good place to start seems to sim­ply become aware — to observe. To begin prac­tic­ing irrel­e­van­cy, I start­ed to look for oppor­tu­ni­ties to let go of any impuls­es to be impor­tant. Once I did so, chances to prac­tice this dis­ci­pline began to appear in the strangest of places. 

Why did I want to tell the bus dri­ver about all the states and sites I had vis­it­ed? Did he real­ly want to know? No. I want­ed to look cool. I want­ed to boast about how well-trav­eled I was.

Why did I want to tell my class that I had heard the author of our text­book speak? Was it real­ly help­ful to their learn­ing process? Or was it just to give me a lit­tle more cred­i­bil­i­ty to be teach­ing the class? 

Why did I tell the music pro­duc­er on the plane about my band? Why did I smooth­ly work in the fact that we had been play­ing shows every week for the pre­vi­ous thir­teen weeks? Why am I telling you? 

Why did I become frus­trat­ed that I was stuck in a con­ver­sa­tion with an unin­ter­est­ing per­son when some­one impor­tant” was try­ing to talk to me? What did I real­ly hope to gain? 

Why did I feel jeal­ous when some­one else was invit­ed to speak at an event and not me? Why did I start mak­ing a men­tal list of all the rea­sons that I was the bet­ter choice? Why did I sud­den­ly become crit­i­cal of the oth­er peo­ple involved? I did­n’t even want to go to the event. But, I want­ed to be asked. The truth was clear; I want­ed to be seen as hav­ing some­thing rel­e­vant to say.

What was most dis­turb­ing to me was how sly I was at mak­ing sure oth­ers were aware of my awe­some­ness. Some­times it was so sub­tle and even sound­ed hum­ble. I was good. Real­ly good. 

At first these real­iza­tions were sort of painful and embar­rass­ing. But, my self-dis­gust was quick­ly replaced with a prayer­ful smile. I felt God laugh­ing at me, in a good way. He gen­tly took me to an aware­ness of how being rel­e­vant is about iden­ti­ty, worth, and val­ue. And how I was look­ing for these things in some pret­ty ridicu­lous ways. 

It is impor­tant to remem­ber that it is not bad to want to be spe­cial or have great worth and val­ue. God pur­pose­ful­ly placed a long­ing for love and sig­nif­i­cance in all humans. Our ache and desire to be val­ued is like a bea­con echo­ing through all of our exis­tence, call­ing us home, home to our true selves, home to where we can be loved well. 

The ques­tion is not of our sig­nif­i­cance and val­ue, it’s what do we do with the long­ing? Do we puff up with pride and wait for the world to affirm us? Do we dip our desire in false humil­i­ty and secret­ly hope oth­ers will see some­thing good in us? My try­ing to be rel­e­vant is real­ly just a cheap and extreme­ly inef­fec­tive way to get a legit­i­mate need met — all while God eager­ly waits to speak the truth into me about who I am no mat­ter how beau­ti­ful I am. 

Once I got over the embar­rass­ment of real­iz­ing that I’m poten­tial­ly look­ing to oth­er peo­ple to define my sig­nif­i­cance, I found the dis­ci­pline of irrel­e­van­cy to be immense­ly help­ful. Tak­ing a back­seat cre­at­ed space for me to lis­ten to oth­ers and be more present. The time and drudgery it took to show my rel­e­van­cy” was time away from lis­ten­ing. Try­ing to look impor­tant turned the focus to me. Enter­ing into a con­ver­sa­tion, for­sak­ing any agen­da of per­son­al rep­u­ta­tion­al gain was free­ing. Easy. Fun. 

When I’m at a social or work event, who do I spend my time with? And why? Am I just as con­tent to spend the time lis­ten­ing to and engag­ing a per­son who seem­ing­ly has noth­ing to offer me? And just who am I to judge the sig­nif­i­cance of oth­ers? Jesus left us a real­ly help­ful exam­ple of spend­ing time with those on the mar­gins, those who could­n’t help advance his min­istry from a world­ly sense.

Grace is need­ed. God’s love is need­ed. Humor is needed. 

One week after look­ing for oppor­tu­ni­ties to denounce my rel­e­vance, a brief write up of my new book was print­ed in a mag­a­zine named Rel­e­vant. This did a num­ber of things for me. First off, I laughed. I laughed a lot. It felt holy. Sec­ond, it brought up a new strug­gle. In prac­tic­ing the dis­ci­plines I have become very aware of how con­flict­ing my motives can be. A mix of motives resides in almost all situations. 

This was a per­fect exam­ple. I want­ed to tell peo­ple how fun­ny it was, but in order to do so, I would have to reveal that my book was being reviewed in a cool magazine.

Yet, how could I do that and remain irrel­e­vant?” So often our spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ties come with an oppos­ing mix of good, hon­est, self­ish, and self-serv­ing motives. 

Once again, in fac­ing my con­flict­ed inten­tions, I find the best rem­e­dy is anoth­er good laugh. I smile as I lay before God the truth about who I am, the good and the bad. I feel him smile back. I feel his accep­tance. I feel his care. I’m loved too much for my fail­ures to detour his goodness. 

And so, when I talk to friends about how I’m work­ing on being irrel­e­vant, I some­times men­tion how my book was men­tioned in Rel­e­vant mag­a­zine and some­times I don’t. But, each time I notice I pay atten­tion to what I’m say­ing and why. I observe my heart and my desires. 

Hav­ing a new­ly released book is a won­der­ful time to prac­tice unim­por­tance. It has been a lot of fun avoid­ing get­ting caught in the exhaust­ing dance of try­ing to con­vey my accom­plish­ments and sig­nif­i­cance. There is great free­dom in not feel­ing like I need to let peo­ple know about me. I nev­er real­ly thought I had the desire to feel impor­tant, but that is what prac­tic­ing the dis­ci­plines does, we become aware of issues we don’t know we have. This is a good thing; it is an opportunity.

After a month of train­ing in being irrel­e­vant, I often found not much had actu­al­ly changed in the words I said or the peo­ple I spend time with. What did change was my moti­va­tion and my heart. And, like with many of the dis­ci­plines, after a lit­tle bit of time prac­tic­ing them, I’m left want­i­ng to com­mit them to life­long work.

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