Thursday, May 25, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 91

“First of all, it is the freedom of the other, mentioned earlier, that is a burden to Christians.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 78.

We want to make others into our own image, if we can do that then we need not bear with them for they will be like us – no doubt perfect…but perhaps never perfect enough, others will always need us to make them more perfectly perfect. If only others appreciated our efforts!

“But when Christians allow God to create God’s own image in others, they allow others their own freedom (page 78).” This “freedom” is a burden; the nearer the other person’s likes and dislikes to our own, the nearer the other person’s opinions and passions – the less of a burden; but as distance grows then burden grows. As Bonhoeffer notes, we have individuality, talent, weaknesses, peculiarities – these all can try our patience and lead to conflict. Jesus Christ must transcend these differences and preferences, the reality of who Christ is in us and who we are in Christ must be affirmed as we guard the unity of the Body and Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). It is no great thing to experience and affirm unity when we are similar in appearance, custom, speech, and action; we don’t need the grace of God to get along with those with whom we have natural affinity and comfort. There is no “higher good” or transcendent vision when such people gather together, they need not sublimate their own agendas and preferences – there is no need to for they all are in basic agreement in speech and practice – they have all decided to part their hair to the right or left or down the middle, they all agree to stand up and sit down seven times in each worship gathering.

Are we willing to not only tolerate “the reality of the other’s creation by God,” but are we willing and committed to “affirming it, and in bearing with it, [and] breaking through to delight in it” (page 79)? This requires, I think, not only a Biblical understanding of the image of God, but a commitment to time together, to listening, to praying, and to confessing. To know one another we must serve one another; we must wash one another’s feet.

We may talk about the church being a body with many members, but we live as if all the members must be the same; all hands, all feet, all brains, all hearts. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians Chapters 12 – 14, common sense tells us that a body isn’t like this, common sense also tells us that we need all the parts of the body; and yet we seldom live like this. More often than not we live as if we were the head of the body, individually and collectively; we live as if we were the heart of the body; we live as if the body is to serve us. In other words, we live as if we were the sun of the solar system and that all the planets should be viewed in relation to ourselves. Individuals can be like this in local congregations; local congregations can be like this in their denominations and traditions; and denominations usually are like this in relation to the universal Church of Jesus Christ. We measure others by ourselves and we give others freedom when they live and speak within our image, and we deny them freedom when they do not conform to our image.

Relationship is work, bearing with one another is work. We want the easy way. We want God to sprinkle holy fairy dust on other disciples and make them like us. We want Him to speed up the process of time so that we need not invest time in others. We want others to be given spiritual insight so that when they see us (individually or our traditions and denominations) that they will recognize that they see the embodiment of Divine truth and practice.

It is a grand and wonderful thing to be called out of death as Lazarus was, but unless the grave clothes are removed our lives are bound.

When we break through barriers to others, we break out of ourselves. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (6)

My earliest books were Little Golden Books. I don’t know if parents give these books to their children anymore, or grandparents to their grandchildren, but I am thankful to have not only read them but also to have seen them. If you read them as a child, can you still see them?

I couldn’t find any recent statistics on the bestselling children’s books of all time, but as of 2001 it was not a Dr. Seuss book; it was a book written by Janette Sebring Lowery and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The cover of that book is still in my mind, I can see it after all these years. I also recall the covers of The Tawney Scrawny Lion, and Tootle. A quick search on the internet brought up other book covers that I immediately recognized and which evoked memories. I am glad to see these books still in print, I hope they are still being purchased and shared with children.

But it is images that I have been thinking about, for in a world of visual filth and pollution, in which children are daily exposed to visual toxins, it is good to have pure and innocent images in one’s internal art gallery. A little adult reflection on the cover of Tootle or The Tawney Scrawny Lion can be a fine respite for the adult living in a world of filth and who is willing to say, “There must be something more than the acquisition of things, of power, of position, of money.”

Chesterton said that all he really needed to know he learned in the nursery of his childhood. Images of innocent beauty, ideals of courage and honor and virtue, visions of hope and destiny and calling – these are (or were) the elements of childhood. But of course, as Chesterton continues, adults soon tell the adolescent and young adult that they must forget all that nonsense and get on with life, get on with getting the most toys, the most accolades, the highest position – forget childhood – be a man…be a woman!

Today we rob children of childhood in myriad ways. We give them a compass that points not to the north of virtue and character and calling, but one that points to money and things and success – not success as a person of integrity and selflessness, but success in a promiscuous materialistic world. We give them electronics instead thoughtful art and books and the exploration of nature; we give them activities instead of relationships. Children may know how to play organized and competitive soccer with one another, but they do not know how to build friendships with one another, how to go on an adventure in the backyard with one another. Children may play on a baseball travel team and win trophies, but they do not know how to play a pickup game in a neighbor’s yard with Bryce Harper or Derek Jeter – their imaginations lie dormant.

The image of The Poky Little Puppy is an image worth pondering, a drink of pure water in the cesspool of society.

Image result for the poky little puppy

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 90

Third, we speak of the service involved in supporting one another. ‘Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). Thus the law of Christ is a law of forbearance. Forbearance means enduring and suffering.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 77.

Bonhoeffer points out that other people are not burdens for pagans, for pagans don’t have relationships with people who are burdens. While this is obviously a generalization, it is worth pondering. More to Bonhoeffer’s point in this section is his statement, “The other person is a burden to the Christian, in fact for the Christian most of all” (page 77).

Is this true? It is not something that blends with our cotton-candy Christianity where everything is geared to us having better and better lives. It is not something that meshes with our society which insists that we come first and that we deserve all that we can get and that in getting all that we can get that we avoid pain – including the pain of bearing with others.

“Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled” (page 77 – italics mine). To know someone is to know, in some measure, the imperfections of the other person. It is even to know, in some measure, the other person’s sin. This is a difficult proposition for those of us living in a cubicle culture, in a society in which we not only have technological firewalls, but in which we have relational firewalls. The roteness of religion and the isolation it fosters protects us from bearing with one another and from others bearing with us. We “don’t want to be burdens” and we don’t really want to bear burdens – we want to control others, control relationships, install firewalls, and to protect against intruders…and sadly in living thusly we protect against the Prime Intruder – the Living God in Christ Jesus.

We can have religion without bearing with one another in love, but we cannot have koinonia, we cannot have communion, we cannot have what the Bible calls “church”.

Bonhoeffer writes that, “The burden of human beings was even for God so heavy that God had to go to the cross suffering under it. God truly suffered and endured human beings in the body of Jesus Christ” (page 78). This bearing, Bonhoeffer reminds us, was akin to the way a mother carries a child, the way a shepherd carries a lost sheep…God took on human nature. Bonhoeffer pens these words, “Then, human beings crushed God to the ground. But God stayed with them and they with God. In suffering and enduring human beings, God maintained community with them. It is the law of Christ that was fulfilled on the cross. Christians share in this law” (page 78).  

Our calling in Christ is to bear one another’s burdens; we can do this because Christ has borne our burdens. Christ says to us, “Even as I have done this for you, even so you are to do this for your brother.” (Consider John 13:34-35; 15:12 – 13). Bonhoeffer quotes Isaiah 53 in picturing Jesus Christ bearing our burdens as he writes that, “…the community of the cross” is that in which we “must experience the burden of the other” (page 78).

Our time and our agenda and our self-righteousness are all enemies to bearing with one another in love. We must surrender our time to know others and to be known. We must surrender our agenda to surrender our time and to realign our priorities…are we really seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33)? We must surrender our self-righteousness to bear with one another, for to bear with one another means that I must allow others to bear with me – but how can another person bear with me if I insist on a self-righteous protective fa├žade? We hide behind our firewalls; we install security systems in our hearts and minds, and as soon as we sense an intruder we shut down into a state of nondisclosure. We have learned to be clever, learned to play games.

Of course we have all been hurt, and we will be hurt if we bear with one another. God was hurt on the Cross. He was wounded on the Cross. He was put to death on the Cross. Shall I consider myself above the suffering of God in Christ? No doubt some of us have been mocked. Was not Jesus Christ mocked on the Cross? No doubt we have known abandonment. Well, what of the Great Abandonment that Jesus Christ experienced that resulted in the cry that pieced the cosmos, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We have never known, and those who know Him will never know, the depth and darkness of that abandonment.

Bearing with one another means that we will be hurt; in our calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus Christ there is the explicit image of death, dying, pain, loss, and self-denial (Mark 8:34 – 38). There is also the explicit image of koinonia and glory (Romans 8:12ff).

Bonhoeffer writes that if we are not bearing with one another that we are not living in Christian community. He writes that if we refuse to bear with one another in love that we are denying the law of Christ (page 78).

On our best days we are frail and not up to the calling of bearing with one another in love; but Christ in us and through us is well able to teach us to live in the depths of His love. As we trust Him we can learn to trust one another. Nothing will happen to us that has not already happened to Him, our merciful and faithful High Priest (Hebrews 2:14 – 18). As we are drawn into the fellowship of the Trinity we can see the glory of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and in taking away the sin of the world we not only rejoice that He has taken away our own sin, but the sin of our brother and sister.

Let me see my brother not only as he appears to be, but as who he is in Christ. As I see my brother in Christ I can bear with him as he works out his salvation with fear and trembling, knowing that it is God who works in him (Philippians 2:12-13). I am not called to control my brother, but to bear his burden. Let us not deny our present difficulties, but let us work through our difficulties in the light of the perfect salvation we have in Jesus Christ – let us learn to see the end from the beginning.

Shall I look for someone to bear with today? Will I recognize the opportunity when it comes?

Am I living in long-term relationships in which bearing one another’s burdens is the fabric of life?

I hope there is someone who will bear with me today…I need it. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 89

“The other service one should perform for another person in a Christian community is active helpfulness…Nobody is too good for the lowest service” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 76.

This reminds us of the words of James, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15 – 16). Also John (1 John 3:17), “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”

While these passages from James and John speak of giving material assistance, the giving of material assistance is an act of service and acts of service take many forms. On the other hand, simply giving material assistance can be an excuse for not serving with our time and presence. For some, giving material assistance means that they need not use their time for others nor engage directly with others; for others, using their time ostensibly for others means that they need not contribute financial resources.

Living in koinonia entails helping others who need help. It also means serving others whether they need help or not. Acts of service become a way of life in Christ just as listening with the “ears of God” becomes a way of life in Christ. The rhythm of life incorporates listening and serving and (as we will see in future posts) supporting and forgiving one another.

Bonhoeffer writes that, “Those who worry about the loss of time…are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…” (Page 76). We tend to be selfish with our time for we see it as our time and not God’s time. We have our agendas, our “to do” lists, and they tend to take precedence over everything else. Bonhoeffer cautions against thinking and acting as if theology, reading the Bible, and other religious work and activity is “so important and urgent” that we refuse to be interrupted and refuse to serve others. Bonhoeffer wonders if, perhaps, the priest who passed by the man fallen among thieves might not have been reading the Bible.

“…we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service. We do not manage our time ourselves but allow it to be occupied by God.”

When we serve others it often requires that we connect with others. It requires that we place ourselves at their disposal. It may require that we perform menial tasks. It often requires that we perform tasks beneath our abilities. It may mean that we perform tasks that we are uncomfortable doing or with which we are unfamiliar. It may mean that we leave our comfort zones. It may mean not only the surrender of our time, but also of our egos, our agendas, our aggressive attitudes toward accomplishing our own goals.

When we consider those around us are we asking not only, “How can I listen?” but also, “How can I serve?”

To be sure, some of us are better with our hands than others; but I think there is always something we can do. More than once I have been thankful for a broom and a dustpan, they have given me something to do while others who are more talented use their talents at a higher level. My two hands my not be trained to make a precision cut in lumber, but they can hold the wood for the carpenter making the cut. I can bring a friend a cup of coffee. I can pick up trash. I can plant a tree. Washing dishes has been a refuge for me when others cook and prepare meals. Surely I can serve – not only when there is a critical need; I can serve simply to serve and to encourage my brother and sister.

I think it would be fruitful if seminaries and Bible schools required acts of service – it would be a good reality check for many students; getting dirt under one’s finger nails is important for the transformation of the heart. Sadly many in vocational ministry, (certainly not all), think working with one’s hands beneath them. Perhaps every seminary professor should sweep the halls occasionally? Perhaps every pastor and teacher should scrub a toilet? Just as importantly, perhaps we all ought to be challenged to go on a quest to perform acts of service in daily life – to by love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).

“One can joyfully and authentically proclaim the Word of God’s love and mercy with one’s mouth only where one’s hands are not considered too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness.” (Page 77).

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Knowing As We Are Known

“I am the good shepherd, I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father…” John 10:14 – 15a, ESV.

I was reading this a few mornings ago when I stopped, looked at it, reread it, reread it again, and then reread it again. The words “just as” flooded my soul. To think that Jesus knows us as He knows the Father; to think that we know Jesus just as the Father and Son know one another. Of course we may not know that we know, and our knowing is an “already not yet” proposition; the reason that we can know is that by the grace of God we do know.

This idea of “even as” is pronounced in the Upper Room (John Chapters 13 – 17). We are to love one another even as Jesus loves us (13:34; 15:12). Just as the Father loves Jesus, Jesus loves us (15:9). When we keep the Father’s commandments just as Jesus has kept them we abide in the Father’s love just as Jesus does (15:10). As the Father sent Jesus into the world Jesus sends us into the world (17:18; 20:21). We are called to be one just as the Father and Son are one (17:21, 22). The Father loves us even as He loves Jesus (17:23).

We don’t “see” all of these things as clearly as we will, they seem impossible to believe, impossible to experience – and yet they are there, statements of truth by Jesus Christ. Shall we allow our experience to determine our belief? Shall our experience mold and define our belief? If so, our actions will follow our belief.

Or shall we accept the words of Jesus as truth and therefore believe them and trust in them and order our thinking and lives accordingly? Shall we stop looking at what we are not and start looking at who we are in Christ? Shall we look at the things that are seen, which are temporal; or shall we look at the things that are not seen, which are eternal (2 Corinthians 4).

Later today I have a meeting at a construction site. Some of the people on the site can read blueprints quite well, some can read them moderately well, some cannot read them at all. This means that some only do what they are told to do and cannot see beyond the immediate task at hand. Others can read enough to have a fairly good idea of what is to come. Yet others can see the end from the beginning.

Life is about “knowing” – knowing Jesus, knowing our Good Shepherd. We are called by the Good Shepherd to know Him and to be known by Him just as the Father and Son know one another. This is far beyond me, but it is true.

So we find ourselves with Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12), “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

God wants to be known, He wants you to know Him, He wants me to know Him, He wants us to know Him. Jesus was born so that God would be known; known to the point of being heard, and seen, and touched; known to the point of coming to live within us, in Jesus Christ, in intimate relationship.

We, who are so leery of having others truly know us, we who hardly know ourselves, have a Father who says, “Come and know Me just as I know My Son and My Son knows Me; come and know us…and in knowing us you can learn to know one another.”

What will we do with this invitation today?

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Lifetime of Books – Musings (5)

One of the earliest books I remember was an illustrated book on the Civil War. The illustrations were not childish, they didn’t look inviting or warm and cuddly, but neither did they portray war – a subject I’ll get to below. I just took a quick look on Amazon for children’s books on the Civil War and found that many of them had cutesy illustrations, childish – why? Peter Rabbit ought to look cutesy, not a soldier and certainly not a slave.

I am a bit sorry I had that Civil War book – it didn’t portray the horror of war. Better to have a book without pictures than a book with illustrations that do not show war as war. One of the results of Matthew Brady’s photographs during the Civil War was that they brought home to those civilians removed from the war the horror of war.

As a young boy I recall watching a television program about the Holocaust. I don’t know if my mother gave any thought to allowing me to watch, but in retrospect I’m glad she did because I never forgot the images of the concentration camps. Could not I have seen Matthew Brady’s photographs as a young boy? Perhaps they would have guarded against me glorifying the Civil War.

There is a popular Civil War artist in Virginia whose paintings are sought after. I noticed in my Amazon search that he has illustrated children’s books about war, including the Civil War. I have never been drawn to his work, in fact I’m repelled by it. It is too clean, too mythologically “noble”, too deceptive. I’m not suggesting he means to be deceptive, I’m not sure what he means to do, but I do know that both children and adults are living in a fantasy land if they think this artist’s portrayals are the way the Civil War was or the way any war has been.

It took me most of my life to see the Civil War for what it was, and continues to be – a tragedy, a horror, with slavery running before it, through it, and after it. If we’re going to have children’s books about war they ought to be ones that cure children of any idealistic ideas about killing people and devastating families…same for adults. I never had any idealistic ideas about the Holocaust, I wish that I had never had any idealistic images or ideas about the Civil War…or any war.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 88

“It should be no surprise that we are no longer able to perform the greatest service of listening that God has entrusted to us – hearing the confession of another Christian – if we refuse to lend our ear to another person on lesser subjects. The pagan world today knows something about persons who often can be helped only by having someone who will seriously listen to them…But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been entrusted to them by the one who is indeed the great listener and in whose work they are to participate. We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 76. [Italics mine].

Because in the next and final chapter, Confession and the Lord’s Supper, Bonhoeffer will explore confession in some detail, I will only briefly touch on confession in this post. Confession of sin and struggle to one another is greatly misunderstood and this misunderstanding leads to lives of isolation and mistrust. It is possible to be with one another and yet live in relative isolation. We may be in close physical proximity to one another and yet live in inner isolation. As a pastor I have seen many examples of brothers and sisters who have “gone to church” together for decades and yet do not really “know” one another. It is not unusual to counsel professing Christians who “go to church” and yet live lives of isolation – not knowing anyone and not being known. This does not mean that these people do not spend time with others, it means that spending time with one another is not the same as knowing one another. Activities together are often a smokescreen to cloak our isolation; ultimately it is only when we listen and pay attention that we know another person.

Where there is no trust there can usually be no confession, and without attentive and respectful listening there usually can be no trust. Our society trusts (to some degree) the trained and licensed psychologist or psychiatrist because not only is listening to people “their job” but because they are also bound by legal standards of nondisclosure. We do not trust one another because we worry about disclosure, we worry about condemnatory judgement, we worry that the forgiving words of Christ will not be spoken to us by our brother, we worry that our brother will think less of us and that our confessed sin or struggle will be seen as our identity, and we cling to our self-righteousness. Healthy confession can only be encouraged and nurtured in a safe place, and the Body of Christ ought to be the safest place on earth.

Bonhoeffer refers to God as “the great listener”. We might also refer to God as “the One who pays attention”. He knows about the sparrow, He knows the hairs on our head, He knows us from the inside out. Are we attentive to others? Do we give others our time, our attention, and our ears? Are we listening with “the ears of God”?

Prayerful listening is listening with the ears of God; it is paying attention to the other person and at the same time asking God to open our ears to hear what the person is saying – often this goes beyond the actual words spoken because people will not always say what they mean and clarifying questions may be required. Time is also required, for people often do not say what they really want to say until they know we are listening to them, and so they begin by talking about lesser things until they sense they can trust us in that moment – they need to know that they have our attention before they will say what they really want to say. Only after we have prayerfully listened to the other person, and listened to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, can we speak a Word of God to others.

For most of us the above requires practice and discipline. We must learn to consciously put others first, we must learn to surrender our time to God and to others. This does not mean that we are tossed to and fro throughout the day and are subservient to interruptions, nor does it mean that we cannot say, “You are important to me and I want to spend time with you and listen to you, but I have an obligation right now that I must meet, can we please schedule time together?” But again, it is only with practice and experience that we can learn how to listen to God and to others. There is a time to give place to interruptions and there is a time to acknowledge the interruption and then schedule future time with the person. At the core of this is the Lordship of Jesus Christ – does the day belong to me or to Him?

Am I listening to others with “the ears of God”? What is the other person saying? Am I filtering what I hear through the Scriptures? Am I listening to the Holy Spirit guide me in the Scriptures as I listen? Do I hear the heart of the other person? Am I wearing and using the Divine stethoscope?

With all the medical technology we have today the stethoscope is still in use; there is something about a doctor listening to my heart and lungs through a stethoscope, there is something about the physical connection – for a few brief moments the doctor is actually listening to the inner rhythms of my body. Can I not give others time to listen to their souls? Can I not listen with the ears of God?

What about you?