Monday, October 31, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 64

On pages 57 – 59 Bonhoeffer explores the relationship between “silence” and “speaking”, and then in pages 59 through the end of the chapter he focuses on meditating on the Word, prayer, and intercession. He first establishes the place of silence in The Day Alone and then proceeds to demonstrate how silence is to be exercised, for silence is not passive, it is listening to God and His Word; silence is communion with God; silence is conversation – not a conversation in which one person speaks over another, not a conversation in which we interrupt God, but rather fellowship (communion, koinonia) in which we, the children, listen and then respond.

There is nothing meritorious either in being silent or in speaking. To be silent does not make us spiritual; neither does talking.

“Silence is misunderstood as a solemn gesture, as a mystical desire to get beyond the Word. Silence is no longer seen in its essential relationship to the Word, as the simple act of the individual who falls silent under the Word of God,” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015, Reader’s Edition, page 58).

Bonhoeffer continues His emphasis on the community living under the Word of God; this is an emphasis from which he does not depart – his thinking and writing are anchored in God’s Word. Speaking, silence, prayer, intercession, meditation, vocation – all of life for Bonhoeffer is to be lived under the Word of God – life together is found living under God’s Word.

“In the end, silence means nothing other than waiting for God’s Word…” (page 58). James writes that we are to “in all humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls,” (James 1:21b). Waiting for God’s Word does not simply mean audibly hearing the Word any more than throwing seed on the ground means planting seed. The ground must be prepared, the furrows plowed, the seed sown, the seed covered, the seed watered.

“Receiving the word implanted” means allowing the Word to germinate and take root in our souls, and this means that we need to be still, to be silent, submitted to the Word and the Holy Spirit. Seed sown on shallow soil may quickly spring up, it may appear to be a good and exciting experience – but because there is no root the plant will not last and therefore religious life and preaching and teaching become one quick experience after another with little sustainability. There are congregational gardens with no perennials and even few annual plants – most of what is in them are cut flowers with short life expectancies.

Bonhoeffer writes on page 58, “But everybody knows this [silence before God’s Word] is something that needs to be learned in these days when idle talk has gained the upper hand.” If everybody knew this then (which I doubt Bonhoeffer really thought) can we say they know it now? What is idle talk?

It is too easy to relegate idle talk to things outside the church world; the world is the world is the world – the present age is the present age. While Bonhoeffer was concerned about the talk of the world, the context of Life Together, and of much of the struggle of his life, was the professing church. Bonhoeffer fought for substantive talk in the church, for talk grounded in God’s Word; he fought for the life of the German church and he strove to imbue the international Ecumenical Movement with thinking and language that mattered – much of what he encountered in both the ecumenical movement and the German church was idle talk. Idle talk led to moral, ethical, and spiritual capitulation. Words matter, God’s Word matters the most.

Conversation in life together ought to be the fruit of listening and receiving the implanted Word of God rather than a telling and retelling of religious fads, of the “spiritually” popular, of the latest self-help program, of the newest program to make life better. Sadly idle talk is found through all academic and economic and social groups of the church. In much of academia new thoughts and new ground must be advanced in order to publish papers and books and gain advancement. In the masses the faddist and popular are marketed to appeal to immediate needs and feelings – the focus is often on experience. The Word is not viewed as transformative, Jesus Christ is not the image we seek to be conformed to – the salvation of men and women and children is no longer the call of the church – we want a “better life” we do not want “life eternal”. Of course “idle talk” can be dead tradition as well, that tradition which stifles the living Word, which displaces the Head of the Body.

This all means that we must seek Christ in His Word today and tomorrow, building on the foundation of those who went before us. It means that we must build on Jesus Christ and only on Jesus Christ. It means that outside of His Word all is idle talk. This does not mean that all talk needs to be “religious” or “churchy” or “spiritual” – otherwise we then have idle talk. God has given us all things to richly enjoy and He desires that all of life be lived in communion with Him and with one another – when we live unto Him and in service to one another, doing all in the name of our Lord Jesus – then we have talk birthed of the Word that builds up, that encourages, that has its roots in our souls – talk born of the Word that is from eternity past into eternity future – the Word and the talk of God birthed out of our silence before God. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

It Takes A Church

Working through Bonhoeffer’s Life Together over the past few months I have found myself renewed, on the one hand, with a passion for the community of believers; and discouraged on the other hand, wondering whether the fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer (John Chapter 17) that we all be perfected into one is possible. That does seem heretical, to question whether the prayer of Jesus Christ will be answered; I don’t doubt that it will be answered in fulfillment, but in the natural one (at least I) wonders how it can be.

As a young man with the “Jesus People” in California my heart was captured by Ephesians 4:7 – 16 with its image of the Body of Christ fully functioning and growing up “in all things into Him who is the head – Christ.” As a young adult in the Charismatic Movement, the image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians Chapter 12 likewise captured my imagination. Bonhoeffer’s image of the church in The Cost of Discipleship and Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Church Life were influences in my teenage years. How well I recall shortly after Vickie and I moved to Virginia in 1989 that we not only were led by the Holy Spirit to a home fellowship that meant much to us, but that we were also introduced to brothers and sisters throughout the Commonwealth who were seeking life together.

I could write a book about the dynamics of church life that I’ve seen throughout the years, and maybe I will; if I do it will be both descriptive and Biblically prescriptive; for on the descriptive side life together can have myriad appearances, while on the prescriptive side there is Biblical command and guidance applicable to all times and places and gatherings of God’s people.

A recent editorial in Touchstone Magazine titled, School’s Out,, reminded me of our fragmented approach to the Christian life. I gently disagree with the article on two fronts, though by and large I have no immediate problem with the piece. As far as an editorial piece goes it’s ok – but it only gets a “C”.

In the first place, to think that the next president or next Supreme Court can reverse the downward plunge of the United States is naïve. We didn’t get here overnight and we aren’t likely to see anything reversed that will have a long-term effect – we are the products of generations of self-delusion, deconstruction, and moral, ethical, and spiritual sabotage. This society is only living out what it has been taught, that we are the products of time plus matter plus chance. Sadly the “church” has played a part in this – and I think this is true across the theological spectrum. I am certain that I have played my own part – so I am guilty as well.

My second point of departure with the editorial is the idea that the current presidential administration’s ruling on bathroom use and the like was the tipping point in public education  - something like this could have only happened if were we already well beyond the tipping point. We have been far beyond the tipping point for years. The curricula of many public schools have been attacking the image of God for years.

I agree with the editorial that the whole “salt and light” idea of sending Christian children to public schools needs to be revisited. Aren’t we offering our children to the fires of Molech? And isn’t the reason we often do so economic? It strikes me that many Christian parents who say they want their children to be “salt and light” in public schools are asking their children to do something which they, the parents, don’t do – and that is to witness for Jesus Christ. I think I know a pretty good cross section of working Christians and most of them admit that they don’t witness. I have a friend leading a Sunday school class of retired men and, according to my friend, none of them have ever shared their faith. Do we see the hypocrisy of asking children to do something that adults don’t do?

But here is my main point-of-departure with the editorial, as well-meaning as the author is – there is no call for the church to respond as the church, as the people of God. While this may have been in the author’s mind when he wrote, he does not explicitly state it. Are children and families important enough to the church for the church to step forward with clear statements of truth and clear alternatives to public education? Are local congregations and regional and national associations of Bible-believing churches prepared to support the education of children in alternative settings? If we ask a family to sacrifice financially to provide their children with healthy education are we as a people prepared to sacrifice alongside them? What about those families who already live at or below the poverty level? Are we prepared to sacrificially come alongside them?

And this brings me back to the beginning of this piece, where is the unity that Jesus Christ prayed for? Where is the sense of identity that we are His body and members one of another? We each seek our own, not the things which are Christ’s.

Bonhoeffer thought that if Christians did not know how to live life together that they would not survive the Nazis – and he wasn’t primarily thinking about physical survival. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

God and Country?

“God and Country” is a term many of us grew up hearing. It was part of the ethos of my upbringing – a significant part. It was, if you will, “the American Way”. The ideal behind “God and Country” is an ideal that can inspire to the point of worship – and therein is the danger, for if our actions are our worship, if our words reveal our worship, then there is a dilemma for the Christian – for we are to have no other gods before (in the presence of) God, and no Lord that is coequal with Jesus Christ.

The teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles is clear that we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”, but we are also to “render to God the things that are God’s”. Worship belongs solely to God, and that was the problem for the Roman state when it came to Christians – they would not worship Caesar, they would not worship the personification of the state. The Early Church had a sense of its heavenly citizenship and they lived in accordance with that sense, that identity, as a people distinct from the world around them.

Roman citizenship was something to be valued and prized, one could be a subject of Rome, in the service of Rome, but not be a citizen. Roman citizenship had special protections and benefits. And yet Paul, a Roman citizen, writes to the Roman citizens of Philippi (a Roman colony) that they are citizens of heaven – he writes this in Philippians Chapter Three, a chapter in which he emphasizes that he counts all things as rubbish for the sake of knowing Jesus – including his own impeccable Jewish and religious pedigree.

The Early Church knew the difference between Roman citizenship, as valuable as it was, and heavenly citizenship.

There is a warning and a lesson here for the church in America. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 63

“Many people seek community because they are afraid of loneliness…Christians, too, who cannot cope on their own, and who in their own lives have had some bad experiences, hope to experience help with this in the company of other people. More often than not they are disappointed. They then blame the community for what is really their own fault.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 55.

In the first few pages of the chapter titled The Day Alone, Bonhoeffer touches on the tension of our individual callings and lives in Christ, and our collective calling and life in Christ. One wishes that Bonhoeffer had the time to more fully explore this aspect of life together for his limited interaction with the subject could lead some readers to unbalanced conclusions. For example, in the first paragraph on page 56 he quotes Luther, “All must fight their own battle with death by themselves, alone…” Then in the next paragraph Bonhoeffer writes, “You are not alone even when you die, and on the day of judgment you will be only one member of the great community of faith in Jesus Christ.”

So we will die alone but we will not die alone. So we will live as individuals but we will not just live as individuals, we will also live as a people. We will live as people who can be alone but we will not live as people who can be alone, we will live life together.

“We recognize, then, that only as we stand in community can we be alone, and only those who are alone can live in the community. Both belong together,” page 56. Bonhoeffer goes on to observe that those who want community with no space for the individual “plunge into the void of words and feelings”. These people, I think he means, live off of others and cannot stand to be alone; they feed off of others – demanding that they be with others without interruption. Some dangers inherent in this are: the person in question does not cultivate his own relationship with Jesus Christ; he does not develop his own understanding of the Scriptures (to be sure this is to be understood in the community of the church); his own prayer life languishes. The people among whom this person lives are often drained by this person’s constant demands for time and attention. There can be a temptation for others to control this person, fostering the person’s unhealthy dependence on an individual or a group – it can lead to manipulation.

Bonhoeffer then observes that those who reject community in favor of individualism “perish in the bottomless pit of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair,” page 57. In a sense this person hurts only himself; if he has a family then he also hurts his family. While he hurts the church by not being a functioning member of the body of Christ, the most apparent damage he does is to himself and his family.

Bonhoeffer quotes Luther again, “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer, they (the community of faith) suffer with me.”

So we are individual members but we are one body; we have individual callings but we have a collective calling. We have a collective calling but we are individual members. John Chapter 17 informs us that we only have witness as we have Trinitarian oneness; that Trinitarian oneness can no more be explained than the mystery of the Body of Christ can be explained. We can partially describe Trinitarian oneness and we can partially describe the mystery of the Body of Christ – but only partially. Paul calls marriage between a man and a woman and the marriage of Christ and the Church a great mystery – and when he uses the term “mystery” in this context I understand it to mean not a mystery that has been unveiled (as it normally means) but rather a mystery that is being unveiled – the curtain is being drawn back – the process continues.

Bonhoeffer writes on page 56, “If you neglect the community of other Christians, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your being alone can only become harmful for you.”

As a practical matter we do not have litmus paper that we place on the tongues of believers to determine where they are in the spectrum of aloneness – community. We seldom have a realistic sense of another person’s heart, soul, inner workings – the labyrinth is too much for us to negotiate; why we don’t even know the depths of our own selves. So we ought not to be too quick to think we know where another person is or what another person needs or where a person has come from or where a person is going. Souls and hearts and minds take time to grow, to be pruned, to suffer, to grow again – to discover who Jesus Christ is, to discover who His body is, and to somewhat discover…incrementally discover, where he or she fits into the call of God individually and the call of God to the Body of Christ. Perhaps this is a voyage of discovery that never ends? Perhaps we ought to be patient with one another – after all, Jesus Christ is the Head of His Body. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Which Kingdom? What Voice?

“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this realm,’ ” (John 18:36).

What would have happened had the followers of Jesus Christ stirred up the populace and attacked the Jewish and Roman leaders? Could they have freed Jesus? Could they have freed Jerusalem and Judea from Roman domination? Would the church have been born on the Day of Pentecost? Would there have been a Gospel? Would we be yet in our sins? Would Jesus, the Prince of Peace, today be associated not with a cross but rather with a bloody sword due to the actions of His followers?

One of His followers did indeed use a sword in Gethsemane and was rebuked by Jesus. Prior to arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday this same follower sought to convince Jesus that Jesus should save Himself from rejection and death and was not only rebuked by Jesus but told that he was playing the role of Satan and not setting his mind on the things of God but the things of man (Matthew 16:21 – 23). Jesus followed this rebuke by stating that to follow Him meant taking up the cross, denying self, and losing one’s life for His sake and the Gospel’s. This remains the call of Jesus Christ, it remains the requirement of Jesus Christ – as Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Do we desire the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of man? Are we seeking to preserve the Gospel by loving Christ and others and peacefully articulating, in word and deed, the message of Jesus Christ? Or, are our hearts and minds engaged in self-preservation – desiring the kingdoms of this world, the American “dream”, and agendas which draw our souls away from the Kingdom of God?

At a time in our nation when our nation needs (as it always does) the church to be the church, the voice of Jesus Christ, articulating the hope of the Gospel and the coming Kingdom of God; our shallow theology and thinking, our tenuous confession of Christ, and lack of identity as the People of God, has shown us to be a confused and manipulated people – without unity, without the confession of Jesus Christ, and without moral courage – for it takes courage to say in word and deed, “I will stand with Christ and with Him alone. His kingdom is not of this world and I am in His kingdom.”

We can only have one God and we can only serve one master and we can only desire one kingdom…and we can only look to one savior. Our nation or political or economic agenda must not be the god of the Christian nor can these things be our savior. To be sure we must pray for our leaders and be good citizens, but no earthly citizenship should take precedence over our heavenly citizenship, and no interest should take precedence over the interest of Jesus Christ and His kingdom and His Gospel.

Where is the clear articulation of the church in America that we are the people of God and that we will live within a nation in chaos loving people, serving people, and clearly sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the peril of our own well-being? Where is our willingness to suffer and be marginalized for the sake of Jesus Christ? Where is our voice for the defenseless, for the stranger, for the politically and economically and socially disenfranchised?

Are we able to say that we will love and minister to people of all political agendas? Or are we so embedded in the political and economic life of this nation that we can no longer live as citizens of God’s kingdom? Have our actions and words renounced our heavenly citizenship?

Two of my historical mentors are François Fenelon and Andrew Murray; the former a French Roman Catholic archbishop and the latter a Dutch Reformed pastor in Africa. During wars between the English and French, Fenelon ministered to soldiers on both sides – yes, he was a subject of Louis XIV but he was first and foremost a subject of Jesus Christ.

During the Boer War Murray also ministered to combatants on both sides. In Fenelon’s case both sides respected him for his ministry; in Murray’s case many on both sides disdained him for they thought he should choose sides. Sometimes people will understand us and accept us, other times they will not – that should not be our consideration. Both of these men were citizens of the Kingdom of God first and foremost – there could be little confusion about their testimony.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted by religious people with political agendas, using him as an argument to vote one way or another. What these people miss is that Bonhoeffer came to the place early on, during Hitler’s rise to absolute power, when he realized that the church must stand as the church and speak from the Kingdom of God into the world as a distinct voice, the voice of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer realized that the politicization of the church would be the death of its testimony to Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer became increasingly isolated, he was considered too radical, he was not taking political and economic realities into consideration, those who had once stood with him separated themselves. Yes, there were others like Bonhoeffer, but they were few. Pragmatism and self-preservation caused many pastors, theologians, and the church to capitulate to evil – foolishly thinking that things would get better, stupidly arguing that they could moderate evil. They used the “lesser of two evils” as an argument and found that the lesser of two evils is still not only evil…it is absolute evil – for evil is evil and when we baptize an agenda as the lesser of two evils we anoint it as the authority in our lives – we subject our hearts and minds to it – we pollute ourselves and those around us. The lesser of two evils becomes the evil in our hearts and minds.

The choice of the church is not a choice to vote one way or the other – the choice before the church is whether we will live in the Kingdom of God and speak from that kingdom and live as citizens of that kingdom – serving all around us in love and charity and grace and seeking to bring them to Jesus Christ. If we must vote, then let us vote with our lives and not with our ballots – the world does not need our ballots, it needs our lives – it needs to hear and see the clear articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We have lost our voice for Christ for we have not used our voice for Christ; let us recapture an awareness of who we are in Jesus Christ – let us return to our first love – perhaps the light of our candlestick will be rekindled. 

Monday, October 10, 2016

Only One City

How foolish for those who profess to follow Jesus Christ to think that there is more than one city we should be seeking – what fools we make of ourselves.

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their god, for He has prepared a city for them,” Hebrews 11:13 – 16.

That heavenly country invaded this world some 2,000 years ago, first in the person of Jesus Christ, then in the person of His body, His church. Yet we ignore the commandment that we shall have no other gods before the true and living God; we go so far as to claim that an earthly nation can be a “city set on a hill” – the church functionally says that it can have more than one husband. Paul wrote to the church in the Roman city of Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven.”

It is not the infidelities of our political “leaders” that we ought to focus on – it is the infidelity of the church, it is our own infidelity. Do we think that when John wrote that we are not to “love the world or the things in the world” that he was giving throwaway esoteric advice? We are the woman at the well engaged in serial relationships, we are the woman caught in adultery, we are ancient Israel and Judah thinking that we can form alliances with surrounding kingdoms and that we can adopt their gods with impunity.

O that we would learn to be faithful to Jesus; knowing that He alone loves us, He alone died for us, He alone cleanses us, and that He alone has made a home for us. O that we would come home to Jesus – that His church would be faithful to Him. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 62

After the chapter titled “The Day Together” comes the chapter “The Day Alone”. Bonhoeffer doesn’t see these as two compartmentalized areas of life but rather as life itself, as life together; for we cannot have one without the other. This presents a challenge for those of us who compartmentalize life because we are not accustomed to seeing life holistically – when we think of “balance” we tend to think in terms of life’s compartments being balanced against one another rather than in terms of ourselves living in holistic balance – as individuals and as a people. The “shalom” of the Bible is holistic.

Compartmentalization has sealed off areas of life from one another and has provided us with rationales why we cannot witness to others, why we cannot obey Jesus Christ in some compartments (such as work and profession and politics), why we can engage in entertainment that is not holy, and why life need not be integrally interwoven with the people of God.  It is as if we pass through “air locks” as we move from one compartment to another lest one area of life contaminate another. We are losing (have lost?) our holistic humanity, we are machines and not men, a bank of computers and not humanity.

But to return to Bonhoeffer; he begins this chapter with a point and counterpoint and we can only understand his holistic approach as we walk with him through the chapter and through the book.

Because blog posts are short I’m going to begin reflecting on this chapter by reaching a few paragraphs into it and then in future posts drop back to the beginning and work up to where we are beginning – otherwise I think too many questions will go unanswered for too long and that we will jump to incorrect conclusions about what Bonhoeffer is writing.

“Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 57.

Bonhoeffer wrestles with this thought throughout the chapter and the chapter cannot be understood apart from this statement. In the preceding chapter we focused on the Day Together, in this chapter the focus is on the Day Alone, but we cannot think about the Day Alone unless we also think about the Day Together – and so Bonhoeffer addresses the Day Alone in the context of the Day Together, just as in the Day Together he speaks to our individual participation in life together. Everything we do in the Day Alone affects our life together – there are no compartments, no air locks, no firewalls – we are members of one another.

In Galatians 6:1 – 5 I think we see Paul working through this same dynamic:

“Brethren, if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load.”

We are to examine our own work, and yet living in community we know one another’s work to the point that if one of us is caught in a trespass that we can restore our brother or sister. We are to bear one another’s burdens but each one of us must also bear our own load. We are in one of Bonhoeffer’s chapters (The Day Together) and then we are in the other (The Day Alone) – we are in both at the same time, they cannot really be separated – they are holistic. Our challenge is to go beyond thinking about one and then the other into thinking about both together and living both together until we cannot think about them separately – until we live them in unity.

“Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.”