Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 68

“Whereas in our daily worship together we read long, continuous texts, in our personal meditation on Scripture we stick to a brief selected text that will possibly remain unchanged for an entire week.”

“In our meditation we read the text given to us on the strength of the promise that it has something quite personal to say to us for this day…We expose ourselves to the particular sentence and word until we personally are affected by it…We are reading the Word of God as God’s Word for us.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 60.

If Bonhoeffer were here I’d ask him to describe “long, continuous texts” and “brief selected texts”. In our age of short attention spans and not understanding the context of Scripture my counsel is to work within the context of a passage – the passage in its context and the words within a passage in their context. I also think it is vital to expect that when I hear the personal Word of God spoken to me through Scripture that I know that that Word must be in harmony with His Word to the Church of Jesus Christ – so the tension, if we can call it a tension, is that while I anticipate God’s Word to me as an individual that I also expect that Word to be in harmony with the entire Bible and with the Church of the Bible.

On page 61 Bonhoeffer acknowledges that “we must first have understood the context of the text”- an important element as we encounter the Word of the living God.

Within a passage we can find ourselves meditating on particular words or verses, and those words and verses and pictures can be our focus, our food, for a day, or days, or a week or more. We can roam the passage, ponder it, read it, repeat it, and meet our Lord Jesus in His Word. The Holy Spirit will speak to us, enlightening our hearts and minds, engrafting the living Word of God in our souls. As Bonhoeffer writes (page 61), “…we are…waiting for God’s Word to us.” The Word of God is a living experience – it is anything but dead letter.

Bonhoeffer writes (page 61), “…God has come to human beings and wants to come again.” While God comes to us in many ways, and while the many ways in which He comes can inform our understanding and experience of Scripture – they inform Scripture in supporting ways as opposed to definitive ways. We can feel David’s loss of a child because we have lost a child; we can identify with his repentant pleas for we, by God’s grace, know repentance; we can know the danger of thinking ourselves exceptions to God’s commands just as David did – and we can know the terrible results of such thinking. When we ponder creation we may have a sense of what the psalmist felt when he wrote Psalm 19. We may cry with blind Bartimaeus for the Son of David to have mercy on us. We may know the desperation of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment.

But while the many ways God comes can support our understanding and experience of the Bible, when God comes to us in and through Scripture the Scripture definitively informs our experience and understanding of all things, including our experience of God in all things. Scripture molds us and gives light to all of life, Scripture is that authority to which all other experience and understanding must bow the knee and humbly wait for the final Word. Scripture proclaims who God is, who we are, and what all else is – there is nothing else by which we may chart our course with absolute confidence, for Scripture is the one absolute given to us by God – the atmosphere of earth is dense, the fog is thick, the horizon we may not see, but we can always trust the Word of our God and we can expect Him to meet us throughout our lives in Scripture enlightened by the Holy Spirit. We can also anticipate that when we live life together that our experience and understanding will have the “amen” of the church – historical and contemporary. (This “amen” in the contemporary church may not always be readily found, as in Bonhoeffer’s own life when he stood against compromise with the state church and the totalitarian state apparatus, but we must nevertheless do our best to submit ourselves one to another in both the fear of God and in the fear that we may be missing the mark of discernment – hiding from the examination of others is usually a sign that we need examination).

“It is not necessary for us to get through the entire text in one period of meditation. Often we will have to stick to a single sentence or even to one word because we have been gripped and challenged by it and can no longer evade it” (page 61). When we go s-l-o-w we allow the seed to grow. When we are in a hurry we miss the intricacies of a passage, its fabric, its texture, its interplay. We do not “see” because we travel too fast. We do not “hear” because there is too much noise. When the soil of our souls is trampled upon it cannot receive the Word of God to a depth where it will germinate and grow. In devotional reading, in meditation, s-l-o-w is good, s-l-o-w is very very good. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 1

In recent days I have been drawn to Hebrews Chapter Eleven; it is an old friend but perhaps a too familiar friend. I recall my excitement some 51 years ago when I first read this passage – I loved reading Hebrews 11 and Romans 8 aloud with their ending crescendos. I recall reading one of these chapters (I can’t recall which one, it may have been both), to my friend Tommy Parkman as we stood on a small bridge over a small creek in Rockville, Maryland. I was so excited about the message of both passages, and so excited about the way they were written. Both of these chapters were my early companions in the faith, alongside Mark 8:34 – 38, which I also loved reading aloud.

As I’ve pondered Hebrews Eleven these past few days I’ve realized that an element of my life has been too passive – this is a tension in following Christ; on the one hand we want to rest in Him, abide in Him, and to allow Him to live through us. However, mystery of mysteries, we are also called to “obtain promises” and seek the God who is a rewarder of those who pursue Him – to ask and seek and knock. Paul addresses this tension in Philippians 2:12 – 13: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” As a Puritan prayerfully wrote, “By grace let my will respond to thee, knowing that power to obey is not in me, but that thy free love alone enables me to serve thee.”

I have fallen into the trap of reacting against an extreme, in this case it is the “Name it and claim it” approach to the Bible and God. As a result I have not pondered “faith” in the context of Hebrews Eleven as fully as I should have. Oh I am convinced we are strangers and pilgrims and that we should be seeking that city whose builder and maker is God – I am passionate about that and even more so in the current social and political environment in which I think that the professing church has lost its Biblical voice; but there are other facets of this passage that I have not explored, not meditated deeply upon – it is as if I’ve hurried through an art gallery from one end to the other, never contemplating the paintings, never allowing them to draw me into them.

An irony in this is that one of my passionate passages is Hebrews 12:1-3, I love preaching and teaching this passage and when I do I set it in the context of Hebrews Eleven – so the more I understand Hebrews Eleven the better my context of seeing Hebrews 12:1-3.

Lord, teach us to see the unseen. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 67

“The period of meditation is useful for personal consideration of Scripture, personal prayer, and personal intercession…Spiritual experiments have no place here.”

“This time for meditation does not allow us to sink into the void and bottomless pit of aloneness, rather it allows us to be alone with the Word. In so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear guidance for the steps we have to take.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 60.

We are called to delightfully meditate on the Word of the Lord day and night (Psalm 1). The follower of Christ who mediates on His Word develops roots in His Word, feeding the soul, informing the day, drawing life from the Vine (John 15). Are we convinced that without Jesus Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5)? If we are convinced of this we will pant after His Word as the deer pants for the water, our souls will yearn for the Word of God and the Presence of God (Psalm 42).

While we experience the Word in communion with one another, and while we learn to hear the Word collectively as the people of God, we are also called to know and experience and hear the Word as individual sons and daughters of the living God. The two are interrelated and inform each other. If Jesus Christ is the Word of God, then the Word of God is our life – not the dry dead-letter word that is twisted and tarnished by man, but the sacramental Word of God through which God pours His grace and fullness in Jesus Christ. We crucified the Word of God some 2,000 years ago, it is wise that we not do it again.

I don’t know what observations led Bonhoeffer to warn against “spiritual experiments” but it is a warning I endorse. The enigma associated with the warning is that while we should not seek “experience” per se, that when we seek and encounter God in Christ that we will experience that encounter – after all it is a relationship. We may be surprised at the experience, it may not be what we expect – there are times it may be in low octaves and other times it may be in high octaves – there may be times it is exuberantly demonstrable and other times it is almost imperceptible – the Psalms reflect this.

There are times when we are encouraged to seek a particular experiential facet of our relationship with God in Christ – consider Paul’s words about the peace of God in Philippians Chapter 4 – we are God’s children and we can seek the good things of our Father. Therefore, it is important to distinguish what we mean when we teach that we are not to seek experience for the sake of experience and should beware of spiritual experiments. We are to seek nothing outside our Lord Jesus and seeking experience for the sake of experience can lead us into delusion and deceit – we can think we are something when we are nothing. Even worse, we can use our experience as a litmus test for truth and fellowship.

It is a sad thing to see a congregation that does not experience God; it is also a sad thing to see a congregation that seeks experience for its own sake. Our lives must always be about Jesus Christ, first, last, and always – only in Him do we have light and life and proper contextual understanding and wisdom.

Meditation in the Word guards us against seeking experience for the sake of experience because the Word informs our hearts and minds, its roots go deep into our souls. The deeper the roots of the Word in the soul the straighter the tree will grow up into Christ Jesus. When our days begin in conversation with the Word they can continue in conversation with the Word and the Word will form and mold our experience in conformity with the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). Life must always be about Jesus Christ – outside of Christ there is no life. If Christ is our life…then how strange not to center our thoughts and hearts in Him…how strange not to meditate on Him and His Word both day and night.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 66

“We will not discuss here all the wonderful fruits that can come to Christians in solitude and silence. It is all too easy to go dangerously astray in this matter…It [silence] can be a paradise of self-deception…Be that as it may, let none expect from silence anything but a simple encounter with the Word God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 59.

One can sense the tension in this passage; listening (to the Word) silence is critical, but we are not to seek to emulate someone else’s experience, we are not to seek to replicate today what we experienced yesterday – life in the Holy Spirit is real and it is an experience – but it is an experience which He bestows on us, it is not an experience that we can manufacture. Bonhoeffer writes (page 59), “Their silence will be richly rewarded if they do not set any conditions on how they expect this encounter to take place or what they hope to get from it, but simply accept it as it comes.”

When we seek experiences that manifest themselves in certain ways we face the possibility of us producing the experience and its manifestations. There are pitfalls in all that we do when we take our eyes off Jesus. If we simply seek intellectual adventure then our minds drive us, if we seek certain feelings then our emotions lead us – we are neither minds nor emotions, we are people created in the image of God, and then recreated in Jesus Christ, who have minds and emotions and much much more – more than we realize. While we are to seek the gifts and graces of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is not up to us how those gifts and graces express themselves (other than whether we will submit to the Holy Spirit and the Word so that they will be expressed in decency and in order – 1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:39 – 40).

Practices, such as listening silence, that are engaged in for the sake of “spirituality” can become an end in themselves – there is no merit or benefit in being spiritual – but there is great benefit in knowing Jesus Christ. The person who lives in Jesus Christ is spiritual, but not all spiritual people live in Jesus Christ. Thus we have Paul’s relentless propositional phrases, “in Christ”, “with Christ”, “together with Christ”.

How do we guard against living in a “paradise of self-deception”? When we live life together we not only practice listening-silence, we also practice sharing the Word with one another. When we live life together we have brothers and sisters who in love can question our words and actions. When we live in koinonia there is a mutual giving and receiving of the life of Christ and His Word that keeps our lives in the light of day – we cannot hide when we live in the light of the New Jerusalem. Living in community in Christ helps us distinguish between the gold of Divinity and the fool’s gold of earth.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 65

“The silence before the Word, however, will have an impact on the whole day…The silence of the Christian is listening silence…It is silence in conjunction with the Word…There is a wonderful power in being silent – the power of clarification, purification, and focus on what is essential.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), (page 58).

If we begin the day in conversation and submission to the Word, and in listening silence before the Word; we can live the day in interior conversation with the Word, in submission to the Word, and in listening silence before the Word. In submission to the Word our hearing can be tuned to the Word, our actions conformed to the Word, and our words…when they are spoken…will hopefully be in submission and in conformity to the Word…hopefully they will be words spoken in due season seasoned with salt.

It can be difficult not to be reactive in a world that bombards us with noise; with words coming at us from media, texts, emails, and phone calls. It can be difficult not to wear down in the onslaught of noise and to lose our discernment, and to cease conversing with the Word, hearing the Word, and submitting to the living Word.

When we are exposed to ceaseless talk we are tempted to participate in it, the talk has its own momentum as flood waters; often before we know it the talk takes a dangerous direction and we can be carried along by its current. This is not to suggest that we avoid social conversation and live in verbal isolation, but it is to say that since we must all give God an account of our words, and since our words affect people in multiple ways, that we ought to learn to live in listening silence so that when we do speak that we are speaking words of spirit and life and wholesomeness.

“But silence before the Word leads to proper hearing and thus also to proper speaking of God’s Word at the right time. Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But what is essential and helpful can be said in a few words,” (page 59).

If we are always silent and never speak then we are not faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. The problem with many Christians isn’t that they never talk, it is that they don’t talk about Jesus, they are spiritually mute – they may talk to others but their hearts are disengaged from the Word and the witness of the Word. Why they often don’t even talk to one another about Jesus, the weather is a much more comfortable subject. We are not to be just silent, we are to be silent before the Word – submitted to the Word and listening to the Word.

Listening silence has two aspects, the first is listening to the Word and the second is listening to others – both of these are enabled and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. We can learn to simultaneously listen on multiple levels. What is the Word saying to me about the current situation or conversation? What is the other person saying, what are the words the person is saying? What is behind the words the person is using? That is, what is at the heart of the conversation – often the words a person uses mask the core issue, problem, or desire. As we listen to the Word of God and the words of others we can learn to pray, asking the Holy Spirit to help us listen to the Word, to others, and to Him – at one and the same time. Then, at the right time, we can ask a question, share a thought, we can speak in submission to our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherever we are, we are there for the benefit and blessing of others.

Listening silence begins with listening to the Word in the morning, it begins as we learn to meditate on the Word of the Lord both day and night. We don’t really spend The Day Alone (this chapter’s title), we spend the day in the Word, in submission to the Word, and in fellowship with the Trinity. As we spend the day alone we realize that we are also spending it in the koinonia of believers, for we are an extension of the fellowship of the saints, of the household of God – we are never far from them and they are never far from us.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

It Takes A Church – (3)

One of the many forms of persecution is economic persecution. For every professing-Christian business owner and employee that refuses to obey the immoral laws of man, even though there may be dire economic consequences – how many are there that rationalize disobedience to God to avoid economic catastrophe? Let us not judge harshly if we, the church, and the local congregation, will not stand with them and open our financial resources to support them.

If we will not engage in basic witnessing in the marketplace, rationalizing away our disobedience to the command of Christ to make disciples of all peoples, how can we hold our brothers and sisters to a standard of obedience higher than our own disobedience?

We need the church, the communion of saints, the local (and beyond) Body of Christ, to strengthen us and our families in obedience to the Gospel. We need one another – we need the support, and reassurance, and comfort of one another. We need to know that we and our families do not stand alone. It takes a church to foster and sustain faithful witness to Jesus Christ.

This entails cultivating an identity as the people of God, an identity that transcends the present age and the things of this world. It entails being members of one another in our resources as well as ourselves – for the two cannot really be separated; how can I say I give you my love if I do not give you my pocketbook? It means that the Gospel Mission and the edifying of the Body of Christ is our individual and familial purpose in life as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Do the members of our congregations trust the church to walk with them through economic persecution? Through job loss or the loss of a business due to obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ?

We are so individualistic (and I fight this in myself) and we are so geared to place our economic well-being before most other considerations, and we are so accustomed to rationalizing away obedience to Jesus and sacrifice for others, that I doubt the church in the United States is much of a threat to those forces opposed to the true and living God. We need to be a distinctive people in Christ to oppose the forces of darkness, a people with a monogamous relationship with Jesus Christ. Perhaps we will come to be that. I don’t know.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It Takes A Church – (2)

When I do marital counseling a question I ask is, “Tell me about the friendships you have with other Christian couples. Couples who really know you, couples you are close to.” I don’t want to know about couples they know, couples they are in Sunday school with, even couple they “do things” with occasionally; I want to know about couples with healthy marriages that they have parity relationships with. The answer invariably is that marriages in trouble seldom have close relationships with couples in healthy marriages. In this question I’m not looking for the husband’s friendships, or the wife’s friendships – I’m looking for the couple’s friendships.

I ask this question because almost thirty years ago there was a season of life in which I had a few acquaintances whose marriages were in trouble, and I asked myself if there were any common denominators. The one characteristic that I identified was that none of the couples had close relationships with other couples in healthy marriages. Just as I, as a man, need relationships with brothers in Christ; so Vickie and I, as husband and wife, need parity relationships with other Christian couples.

Sadly the individualistic way of life that has infiltrated the church has affected marriages and families; marriages live in isolation more often than not with the result that there is little mutual encouragement, strengthening, and modeling from marriage to marriage. Just as individuals live lives surrounded by barriers, so do marriages.

We think that books and videos and retreats can sustain or heal marriages – when only sustained healthy relationships in Christ within His church, and particularly with other marriages within the church, can nurture and grow a marriage over a lifetime. Just as individual Christians need to experience life together, so marriages need to live life together.

There are holistic healing dynamics within the Body of Christ, when we live in koinonia these dynamics function, when we insist on living our own lives without regard to Jesus Christ and His body, without acknowledging that we are members of one another, then we are on dangerous ground, unhealthy ground – whether as individuals, families, or marriages. It takes a church to have a healthy marriage.