Dave and Jody decided sixteen years ago to do their staying in a small, littered corner of Cincinnati. This was not a place that well-suited their preferences. These were not people with whom they shared a natural affinity. West Norwood, Ohio, is a small community, which, in almost every way, is unlike any I've ever called home. Its front porches accumulate a litter of their own kind. There is not much to call meticulous or beautiful here where the houses sag from their foundations with a palpable kind of sadness. Everything you might expect to find here, you do: crime, racial tension, economic hardship, addiction. Dave and Jody call it home, having heeded a call from Jesus to stay. Their life until that point had been perpetually disquieted by a string of moves: new communities, new apartments, new vistas. And always the secret lure of moving was buoyed by the insidious belief that something better could be had elsewhere. It wasn't until Dave stood over the grave of Thomas Merton, the writer monk, that he finally saw that lie unmasked for the naked truth of it: you have been discontent all your life. I want you now to stay.
It's been sixteen years of making sense of the call, sixteen years of radiant imagining about what God could do in a place like West Norwood when a community of Jesus followers gathered for life and mission in His name. It's not my story to tell, of course, but one that Dave hopes will figure into the book he is now writing.
The story I can tell is one of the humble, lanky man, who led us this past week at our writing retreat, the one who stands tall because something has been shrugged from his shoulders. Where so many of us are lurching through life, clamoring for attention and straining for our small piece of significance, Dave is a man whose manner of speaking and living is unhurried. When he stands pouring boiling water over a filter of coffee grounds, he pours slowly and turns the cup carefully, a process that demands precision and care. "There are easier ways to make coffee, of course," he acknowledges, but his life is a grander vision than mere efficiencies.
Andy said it well in his write-up of our week together: "Dave has led us in these things with a light touch – he has genuinely led us, to be sure, but has mostly done so in nearly imperceptible ways, willing to risk the possibility that we might actually fail to get what he would hope for us and God would want for us this week, but nonetheless confident that somehow through all of this we will indeed bring to birth the words we have been carrying."
A leader who risks the possibility that his followers might fail? I confess that is not the leadership I have most often experienced within the walls of my churches. And that is not the leadership to which I have also aspired. But it seems to represent well the leadership of Jesus, whose followers did fail and miss the whole point of it for quite some time. It is a leadership whose essence is ultimately incarnational, and the truths those leaders might hope to pass on aren't encapsulated in a pithy sermon or two. They are embodied truths, truths that absorbed deep under the skin and passed with the salt and pepper.
I am deeply grateful to have spent a week at the Convent, this retreat center situated in a landscape not many would call beautiful, and I am deeply grateful to have spent it under the leadership of Dave Nixon, who lived before me the humble and unhurried life of a servant.