The old man gets rubbed out

by the Night Writer

When I was younger my athletic endeavors gravitated toward the whacking and smacking games like football and hockey. Even when I played the more “finesse” games like soccer and basketball, my style tended to be more physical; in all games I was never going to be the one to make the pinpoint pass or long-range shot but I took a savage satisfaction from re-arranging someone’s internal organs or surviving a similar attempt on my own. That was fun for a few seasons but it took a toll on my body — though most of the payments were deferred well into the future. Consequently I have been seeing a chiropractor for the past couple of weeks.

I have also been continuing the Bible studies with the men in the Red Wing correctional facility, some of whom have spent significant time in heavy security prisons such as Oak Park and Stillwater before coming to Red Wing. In our last meeting we were talking about becoming new creations in Christ, and what that looks like in our lives. There was talk about putting off the “old man” and putting on the “new man”. I try to be as down to earth as possible in these discussions and my recent health experiences gave me a useful example.

I told the guys about the three surgeries I’ve had on my left knee since I was in college, and how lately I’ve been experiencing chronic pain above my right hip and periodic numbness and weakness in my legs. When I accompanied my daughter on her visit to a chiropractor to have her baby “spun” before delivery I ended up having an exam of my own. After I described my symptoms the doctor had me stand up straight while she took some notes and measurements, then she had me lie on a massage table for more of the same as she determined that I didn’t have a disc problem. Long story short, however, the combination of pain and numbness I’ve been experiencing wasn’t being caused by the hip, per se, but by all the years that I’ve been favoring my left leg and making the right side do most of the work. Standing “straight” my posture was three inches forward of it’s proper axis and also twisted a bit to one side. The doctor also described how pressure had stressed several of my joints and ligaments to where they were virtually locked at level 5 on a 5-point scale, or, in more descriptive terms, at “red alert” on the fight or flight scale. I was a little dubious about the diagnosis, but after she put me back on the table and pressed steadily on various parts of my body for thirty minutes I got up and couldn’t believe the sudden increase in range of motion, the absence of pain and how I suddenly felt two inches taller and ten years younger. I went home that afternoon like a new man, able to bend and stoop to pick up things without first thinking out a strategy.

That feeling, I told the men, was like first receiving salvation or the revelation of Christ and the Holy Spirit living within me. In getting up from that massage table I suddenly felt free of the things I’d done to myself and the mistakes of my youth, and even from the things I hadn’t realized were hurting me and distorting my life. The rest of that day and the next I felt great, but inevitably my “flesh” overcame me as my body started to revert back to what it had been accustomed to. Old habits – and old muscle memory – are hard to break. Now I go back to the chiropractor to receive further adjustments, and each time there’s less work for her to do and more response from my “new” man. For the guys, I compared these ongoing adjustments to going to church or Bible study regularly. I make progress each time, but the “old” body still wants to come back during the in-between. Conceivably, there could come a time when I’ve been totally “renewed” and don’t need the chiropractor to lay hands on me other than for maintenance. What I especially wanted the men to understand, however, is that if I truly want to make progress I need to do the exercises and stretches the doctor gave me to do in between times; it has to become something that I take on for myself. Otherwise I’ll simply be looking to the doctor to make things better without changing anything myself — just as we can sometimes do with our pastors or with going to church or Bible study. Sure, I might get temporary relief or encouragement, but without a personal change and commitment the results will be both fleeting and diminishing. To do that, I may have to change my stance or mentally catch myself when I start to fall into an old, familiar posture and deliberately shift my weight and re-align myself.

A final thought: I spent all those years consciously and unconsciously favoring my left leg, thinking I was doing something “good” by trying to make its life easier. The end result, however, was that that leg became weaker (approximately 85% the size of my right leg) AND the distortion ended up weakening my “good” side, causing pain and restricting the things I can do. Favoring the left leg did it and me no favors in the long run; we need to accept and understand that doing the things we need to do may be uncomfortable and even painful in the short term but will ultimately pay off. Similarly, we may need to look at others in the body of Christ the same way. Not that we should be deliberately callous or unsympathetic — it is “our” body after all — but expecting others who come to us in crisis to stretch and exercise is ultimately good for them. Certainly there are times when an arm or a leg needs to be in a sling or cast and supported, but those parts also need physical and spiritual therapy lest they become too dependent. When that happens our good intentions and their dependence can end up distorting the joining and knitting of our joints and keeping us from reaching out (in even greater strength because of our rehabilitated members) to others who need help.

Grilling at the Graybar Hotel

by the Night Writer

A little over a year ago I started going down to the Red Wing Correctional Facility a couple of times a month to host a chapel service for the men. Red Wing is primarily a youth facility, referred to by Bob Dylan in his song “The Walls of Red Wing”, but they do have one “cottage” (more like a dorm) that holds 42 men. As prisons go, I suppose it’s not too bad a place. For some of the inmates it is their first prison, but most of the men have come from heavier security facilities such as Stillwater or Oak Park where they have already done significant time. Red Wing is often a last stop for these men as they near their release date, spending several months here under lighter security and with the possibility of supervised visits outside the facility to go to church or serve on work crews.

Last fall some of the guys asked if I’d consider doing a Thursday night Bible Study instead of the Sunday chapel so they wouldn’t have to choose between the chapel service or going outside when they had the chance. That wasn’t a problem, and after working things out with the prison administration we started Thursday meetings in November. One of my scheduled visits even fell on Christmas Eve and I was pretty excited about the opportunity to do that but unfortunately the snow and ice storm that hit that day kept me from making the trip. I made it down there the Sunday after Christmas, though, and brought a package of microwave popcorn for every man in the cottage. The reaction that day, and the reports I had from the guys on Thursday nights got me thinking about what other out-of-the-ordinary thing we might do for the cottage, especially as the Thursday night bunch were showing a strong interest in serving others. Eventually the idea came to me to have the Bible Study put on a cook-out for the cottage. I jumped through a couple of hoops with the prison administration and was a little surprised to receive permission. I was aided by the woman who coordinates volunteer activities who also suggested inviting all the other volunteers to the cook-out as a thank you.

With that settled, the Thursday group got together and hatched our plan and set a date. My church would provide the angus burgers, chicken breasts, cheese, BBQ sauce and jalapeno peppers and the prison kitchen would provide the buns, beans, potato salad, onions, lettuce, watermelon and root beer floats for dessert. My guys were very enthusiastic about the plan, especially “T.” who entered the prison system in his teens and has very nearly spent half of his life in prison. He was also nervous about grilling. “I’ve never cooked out in my life,” he told me.

Last Thursday, June 10 was the date we settled on and we worked out all the details. We even prayed for good weather! You might, however, remember that it rained just about every day last week, including Thursday. In fact, a doozy of a thunderstorm hit Red Wing earlier that afternoon. I was unconcerned; to my mind, this was something God had inspired and He would make a way (in fact, probably had already made a way) for this to happen. Sure enough, even though it rained throughout my drive to Red Wing, it had become a light drizzle by the time I pulled into the parking lot. By the time I’d passed through security and was inside the walls of Red Wing it had stopped completely. The guys and I got the charcoal fired up for the burgers and we put the chicken breasts (which had been pre-smoked in mesquite) in the kitchen ovens to heat. One of the guys in my group, T., told me how concerned he’d been about the weather, especially during the storm earlier in the day. “T,” I said, “you have to walk by faith, not sight. This was something God planned, so you just have to trust in the end result, even if a few storms show up along the way.” He grasped the idea.

“You’re right,” he said. “I’m going to have to remember that.”

I had been told by the Volunteer Coordinator that we wouldn’t be able to say grace in front of the entire group before eating. (For that matter, brats weren’t allowed on the menu because we couldn’t have any pork products; in fact, if we put any pork on the grill the prison would have to throw the grill away). That didn’t mean, however, that the cooks couldn’t say grace before we carried the food to the cottage. Part of the prayer was that the men would feel God’s love through the evening. We had people already set up to serve the guys as they came through the buffet line, but I positioned myself behind the servers so I could see the faces of the men as they came through, much as I do on the Saturday morning Inside Outfitters breakfasts. I wasn’t disappointed … and neither were the men! If anything, I was amazed at how they conscientiously loaded their 10-inch foam plates with a chicken sandwich, a burger, beans, potato salad on top of the beans, watermelon on top of the potato salad and all the cheese, onions and jalapenos they could fit under a bun. They all carried their plates into the dining area and filled the tables there and began eating, talking, laughing and generally having a good time, which I assumed was pretty much typical for the dinner hour. One of the men who I hadn’t met before told me, however, that one of the best parts of the night was that guys were socializing with each other. Normally, he said, everyone stays pretty much to himself or with one or two friends.

Before dessert the coordinator thanked the various volunteers who had come for the evening (there was an older lady there who told me she teaches a crocheting class – “We call ourselves ‘the Chain Gang!'”) for the time they put in, and then introduced me as the head of the Thursday Bible Study and sponsor of the feast. There was some very satisfying applause, whistles and “whoop-whoops”. I had been told, of course, that I couldn’t preach or mention God if I spoke to the group, so I merely said that one of the men I was eating with that evening had already thanked me and said that something like this really helped the men feel as if they weren’t forgotten while they were inside. I then indicated the volunteers who were present and told the men that they were an indication that people outside were constantly thinking of them and planning things to do them good. “As proof of that,” I said, “a good friend of yours even asked me to do this cook-out so that you’d know he hasn’t forgotten you, even though you might not have talked for awhile, and I just want to say, ‘you’re welcome.'” And with that — along with more applause, a lot of smiles and nods…and a very relieved look on the face of one of the coordinators — I was done!

I spent some time mingling with the guys, congratulating T. and the Thursday night bunch, and getting a few stories from some new guys. It may have been overcast outside, but it was glowing in that dining hall and it was still going strong when I finally gathered up my things and got ready to leave. Something that T. had said to me a couple of weeks ago came back to me. “Listening to you,” he had said, “I’m beginning to believe that there are no such things as accidents. That everything happens for a reason, especially the people that you meet.”

In a reflective mood, I thought of Dylan’s song again as I checked out through Security, ready to pass once again through the “walls of Red Wing”. Some have assumed that young Bob had spent some time in that facility, but that’s not been proven. In fact, his lyrics don’t describe the facility that I’ve seen, but there is a verse that does seem to fit as I consider the choices I’d made in order to be there and the things that I’ve learned from the men I’ve met over the past 16 months

Oh, some of us’ll end up
In St. Cloud Prison,
And some of us’ll wind up
To be lawyers and things,
And some of us’ll stand up
To meet you on your crossroads,
From inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.

I stowed my gear in the car and headed back for the Cities. A couple of mile north of Red Wing it started to rain again.

Going “my way” or the “highway” and avoiding the ditches. Part 2

by the Night Writer

ELINOR: Surely you don’t compare your conduct with his?

MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.

— from “Sense and Sensibility”

In Part 1 I outlined the reasons and the need to pursue self-development, but also the risks of emulating someone who’s life may turn out to be not that exemplary or even all that helpful. If your role model swerves into behaviors or beliefs that make you uncomfortable it can be very liberating — or very disillusioning. What standard do you use in determining if you’re being led into exciting new revelation or into an old deception merely packaged in a new way?

Well, the Apostle Paul knew the “one simple secret” long before all those acai berry ads started popping up on websites. Since I didn’t come up with it myself, I’ll let you have it for free: “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Well, maybe that isn’t so simple, but at least it’s short. Do you see, however, the three-way relationship implied in just those few words?

The premise is that a healthy Christian life is one where we try to be more like Christ and that process involves a 3-way relationship: one, follow Christ; two, follow someone more experienced as they “imitate Christ”; and three, help someone less experienced along the same road. Ideally this means that all three people in the process — the person who’s disciple I am, myself, and the person(s) I’m discipling — are all looking to Christ as our ultimate example while being guided by another. The external standard is critical because without one — or without a relationship with someone to hold us accountable to that standard — we can easily lie to ourselves about how we’re doing, or cut ourselves some slack, thinking no one’s going to know. We can also lose the critical awareness of considering the impact our actions will have on someone else.

That’s not to say that this process hasn’t been abused, especially within a Christian setting. We all can think of cases where religious leaders, in large groups or small, have disastrously led their disciples astray. In the instances that come to my mind, however, the leader lost sight of imitating Christ; not surprisingly, the followers soon forgot that part of it as well. The focus needs to be on the leader and the follower living up to an ideal beyond themselves. Then, if you truly imitate Paul, you should in turn be trying to set an example for someone else to follow as well. That means people should see something worth emulating in your life; you should see something worth emulating in someone else’s.

A discipleship relationship is an accountable one where each party essentially says, “examine my life.” There has to be accountability in the relationship for it to be true discipleship. You have to be in regular contact. I don’t think you can have this kind of relationship with someone you only see on TV or hear on the radio — or read on-line. You may be inspired by what you see, hear or read, but there isn’t a relationship or any personal exchange between you unless there’s regular two-way contact of some kind. If you’re a disciple, you have to say that you are and you show that you are by doing what the other does.

For the “leader” it is an awesome responsibility to live consistently to your standard and being willing to have your actions watched and judged. That alone is enough to make many shy away from the responsibility. Conversely, or perversely, there are some who don’t mind receiving the attention or being in the spotlight. To be a true leader, however, you can’t be focused on what you can get out of it, you have to be concerned about helping other people benefit.

Being a leader, however, is not an agreement to live “perfectly” or to never miss it. It is, however, the willingness to say, unabashedly, that this is what I am pursuing, this is how I’ve benefited by doing so, learn from the victories I’ve achieved and the mistakes I’ve made, and will continue to make.” Probably the purest and most natural discipleship responsibility and opportunity we have is in raising our children, and yet a number of people will not step up to this mantle and standard and be that kind of example in front of their kids — it’s easier to leave it to the schools, the teachers, the youth pastors, the television, the peers — and so much easier to lay the blame on these when the time comes.

For the disciple the hurdle is being willing to acknowledge the lack in your life, recognizing that there is a difference between you and the person you would emulate (as the first step in seeing how different your life is from Christ) and in humility saying, “I’m not what I should be, please help me.” It’s difficult to make that admission out loud or even to ourselves, even when we see the need. Again, it’s far easier to say to ourselves, “I’m not really so bad or that far off; I’m certainly not missing it as much as some people.”

I’ve seen it time after time in people who find themselves in desperate enough straits where their fear overcomes their pride and they cry out for help, receive relief and support in the present crisis, but draw back from the opportunity to make the kind of long-term commitment in their lives that can give them the wherewithal to survive or even avoid the future storms, let alone help someone else get out of the same type of situation. Part of the reluctance is due to the perception of giving up one’s will or admitting a weakness (really it’s just admitting it to yourself; God — and likely everyone else — already sees it). The rest of the reluctance comes from exposing yourself so that your life can be examined — both by the person you would emulate and by the ones in the future that you should, in turn, be discipling.

In a superficial, self-centered world personal development becomes a self-directed way of trying to fill a void that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It can be the spiritual equivalent of being like those who undergo serial surgeries and injections in the hope or belief that if their noses or waists were smaller, or their lips or busts larger, or their tummy more tucked or their thighs more adducted they will at last be happy. And then, if they’re not happy, there must be some other procedure that’s required. Well, except for that one little extra procedure (and the next, and the next) that’s required to be truly happy.

The soulish equivalent is saying this year I’ll become a vegetarian, next year go vegan, and the following year become a raw vegan and then I’ll be a Better Person. All of it seems to be aimed at exalting the self, while a Christian, discipleship approach is about the denial of self. No, not the false humility of outward spirituality or the use of literal or metaphorical hair-shirts to mortify the flesh while taking pride in the process, but seeking a greater revelation of how small one is in the scheme of God, but still how precious.

If our objective is to become like Christ, what does that really mean? What will it look like? Ultimately, can it be achieved by our reaching up, or by God reaching back? Consider this excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Ethics:

Christ remains the only one who forms. Christian people do not form the world with their ideas. Rather, Christ forms human beings to a form the same as Christ’s own. However, just as the form of Christ is misperceived where he is understood essentially as the teacher of a pious and good life, so formation of human beings is also wrongly understood where one sees it only as guidance for a pious and good life.

Yes, we all want to be “good” people, but our perception is that if we can just focus on getting all the “bad” things out of our lives then all that will be left will be “good”. Or we think that if we can just do everything the “right” way we will be transformed. Either way — in reference to Romans 8:12 — we are trying to conform ourselves to the world as we see it, using our standard to set and measure goals, rather than being transformed by the revelation of Christ in us.

Christ is the one who has become human, who was crucified, and who is risen, as confessed by the Christian faith…To be conformed to the one who has become human – that is what being really human means…All superhumanity, all efforts to outgrow one’s nature as human, all struggle to be heroic or a demigod, all fall away from a person here, because they are untrue.

It’s not that seeking to improve ourselves is wrong or unnatural; it’s just that thinking we can do it ourselves leads us into one ditch or another. In the one ditch we can become obsessed with obtaining a perfection beyond ourselves through perfect man-made doctrines or by our pursuits. The other ditch, however, is to think that we’re irredeemably base and corrupt. What’s missing is the revelation that our elevation isn’t about us reaching for God, but about God reaching for us; it’s God sending Christ to make a way for us and in us.

The real human being is the object neither of contempt nor of deification, but the object of the love of God…To be conformed with the one who became human means that we may be the human beings that we really are. Pretension, hypocrisy, compulsion, forcing oneself to be something different, better, more ideal than one is – all are abolished. God loves the real human being. God became a real human being.

While it is God that does the drawing and shaping, it is clear from scripture that he puts others in our life to facilitate this — both to help us to learn and to help us teach others. It’s not something we do on our own, and church is an important part of the process. Again, however, we have to realize that we tend to put the focus in the wrong place. Just as when we think self-development is the be-all and end-all of our improvement, we can think that just getting to church is the objective.

Don’t let your time spent in church define your religious life or level of commitment. Jesus actually spent very little time in synagogues but was out and about with people, eating, teaching, healing, sometimes to large groups but often to individuals. That does not mean we don’t have to go to church, however. Church is an important place to go to be taught, to receive ministry ourselves and to encourage other believers but ultimately it should prepare us to act in a Christ-like way when we leave the building. From that perspective, church should be the starting point, not the culmination of our spiritual week. Modern discipleship appears to be focused on getting people into church; our objective ought to be getting the Church out to people.

When Jesus spoke the Great Commission in Matthew 28 he said “go and make disciples of all nations”. He didn’t say, “get them into your church so you can disciple them.” But that’s a subject for another essay.

Going “my way”, or the “highway”, while avoiding the ditches. Part 1

by the Night Writer

Note: if you’re looking for the Monday Anorex[st]ic Inaneymous, scroll down to the next post.

About this time last year, an emerging star and influential blogger in the Self Development field announced that his personal journey had brought him to such heights of self-awareness and emotional and spiritual development that it was unnatural for him to be constrained within the bounds of traditional marriage. He was therefore eager to explore polyamory, with his wife’s full support and his own confidence that it would have a positive affect on his two young children. Not surprisingly, he was divorced (or in the process of divorcing) before the year was out. Now, this month, he has just announced how excited he is about the transcendent growth opportunities he’s discovering in the world of sexual bondage and domination. Boy, I bet you just can’t wait for next December’s Christmas letter, eh?

No, I’m not going to name this yutz and send any traffic his way should you have any morbid curiosity in watching a family and career go through the wringer, or in reading comments from people who think that his critics are unevolved, unenlightened dumb people. I bring it up because this is the time of year when folks like to make resolutions and set objectives for the coming year. The desire to improve one’s self, or to overcome a debilitating habit, is natural and laudable; especially if one is able to summon the will-power and self-discipline to reach that objective.

Sometimes that might be something personal and prosaic such as losing weight or getting in shape. Other times we set more ambitious objectives to not just change our habits but to renew our minds and think in healthier, less self-destructive ways. Often in doing so we find ourselves wanting to emulate some successful person, whether they’ve got a new diet, a new book or a new-found reason for celebrity. While the “Be Like Mike” Nike campaign was a branding breakthrough in 1992, it tapped into a much-older human tendency to naturally want to mimic the fashions, behavior and over-all “cool” of those we admire. “If I could only be like him (or her)” is an underlying theme of a lot of advertising.

That’s because it sells a lot of soap — or books for that matter, especially in the self-help or personal development areas where we’re especially eager to find some here-to-fore secret, but nevertheless easy, way to be better than we are. Or, as one person I admire says, “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different.”

The problem with picking a guide for your personal development journey is finding someone “authentic” whose character and charisma transcends the hype of Hollywood celebrities or the perfectly groomed PR profiles of captains of industry. But how do we know we’re following a leader and not a billboard? As with the case cited above, what if the moral compass of the person we’re following gets so distorted by the magnetic pull of his or her own ego and lusts that we both lose sight of true north? (One thing that will happen is we’ll likely be told that true north is only outdated thinking that no “smart” person believes exists anymore, anyway.)

Given the potential for abuse, I might question a person’s ultimate motives for setting out on such a quest or series of quests, and what standard he or she is going to use to measure progress. I want to ask, “Is this all for your own benefit or for the benefit of others?”

Well, duh, it is called “personal development” after all, and one pretty much takes it as a matter of faith that if I am happy then those around me will be happy, too. I mean, that’s what the commercials always seem to promise, right? Speaking of faith, perhaps another question to ask about motives is, “Are you doing it in the hopes of evolving yourself into a better, even god-like, human — or have you considered simply becoming more like God?”

As humans, we will naturally find ourselves influenced by someone’s teaching or example; in fact, it’s virtually impossible not to be unless you’re one of the minuscule percentage who is truly an original thinker. If we’re Christians, however, our examples would ideally help us be more “Christian” — the term that was first used by those in Antioch to describe that weird new sect of people who were “Christ-like”. Whether secular or religious, however, what standards do we use in determining who is a good leader or example, or evaluate our own ability to lead or be an example to others? Following a religious leader is not necessarily any better or safer than following some new age guru. Recent and ancient history are rife with disastrous examples. Mindlessly following anyone because of a few signs and wonders (or best-selling books and appearances on Oprah) is dangerous. While the popular stereotype of Christians as superstitious idiots is all around us, I believe that a true Christian walk engages and stimulates us intellectually as well as spiritually. After all, Romans 12:2 tell us to renew our minds, not chuck them overboard.

I believe there is a proven model that improves not just our own lives and enables us to improve the lives of others, with built-in fail-safes that will keep us from ending up dead in some jungle or blowing ourselves up in a market. What is it? Check back on Tuesday for Part 2.

Life Shepherds

“Now I’m thinkin’: it could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. But that ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.”
– Samuel L. Jackson as “Jules” in Pulp Fiction

I didn’t start seeing the words “life coach” until I began following the Manival. Many of the blog contributors to that weekly carnival describe themselves as a life coach. I have nothing against the title as a profession or a hobby, but seeing those words made me think, “Why don’t people just get a pastor?”

The word pastor means shepherd, and I’ve had the same pastor for more than 20 years now. He, along with who and what he represents, have played an important role in my thinking and actions today. His teaching and his example have greatly contributed to the success of my marriage, my relationships with my kids and my employers and co-workers, my finances and has provided me with the peace and confidence to channel the abilities that were given to me into new and positive areas. Of course I realize that not everyone has this same advantage, though I consider it to be a necessity rather than a luxury. It makes me even more appreciative of the “coaching” that I’ve received.

Isn’t this what you’d want in a coach — a teacher, exhorter, advisor, someone to comfort you in the trials and discomfort you when you’re getting complacent? I have been led into green pastures and to still waters and in the paths of righteousness. My soul has been comforted, even when it looked as if I was surrounded by things that wanted to kill my spirit, and I have sat comfortably at the table with my enemes, willing and able to share goodness and mercy.

Of course what some might call coaching, and others might call mentoring, the church calls discipleship. And one of the things that I’ve been taught is that even as I am continually discipled I need to be always reaching out and discipling others. As I continue to learn and grow I need to be willing to help others do the same. It’s become so engrained in me that I hardly notice that I’m doing it, but I can see it in the interactions I have with our multiple-church men’s group, the “Fundamentals in Film” class I’ve been doing for more than two years with a group of teen-age boys, and the upcoming “How to be Marriageable” group, and in some of the surprising relationships that have developed in my life. Futhermore, while my blog is mainly for my own amusement, it also plays a role in this.

Even so, like Jules in the quote above, I sometimes have to try real hard to get out of my comfort zones, habits and selfishness to be a shepherd, and that’s where having an older, more experienced shepherd comes in handy. That, too, however requires letting go of some selfishness, or at least, self-interest. I’ve not been one who lays down his pride easily or who likes to admit that I don’t have all the answers — at least not audibly. Oh sure, I can curse myself and my perceived failings to no end internally or under my breath, but admitting it out loud is a lot harder. I think that’s not an uncommon attitude and probably the biggest reason so many people have not allowed themselves to be discipled/mentored/coached. It’s all too easy and common to merely want everyone else to change while we stay the same.

And we’re deceived, of course. The fact is we will all be discipled by someone or something, even if we don’t realize that it’s happening. The only choice we have is deciding who/what it is we will follow.

I figure that I’ve probably got enough experience (good and bad), accumulated wisdom and random revelation to hang out a shingle as a Life Coach, but I don’t know if that’s something I want to be, professionally, as opposed to something I just do day-in and day-out with whoever happens to be coming along. I do have a well-paying corporate drone job that I’ve thought of ditching from time to time. It more than covers our bills, however, which allows me the time and freedom to pursue these other activities that are more satisfying, if apparently unremunerative. I suppose I could try to do these things professionally but most of the people I’ve become connected with aren’t in a position to “pay” me in ways that the mortgage company and Visa recognize.

I don’t know that I’ll ever “go pro” — especially when it’s been so much fun to be an enthusiastic amateur!

“This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life.”

Those were not the words of Pope John Paul II, but of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed 60 years ago today by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II.

I thought of these words this week as the world honored the Pope and I listened to commentators in every media try to put their political spin on what a life of faith should look like. And when I thought of their words in the context of this anniversary, I could only shake my head at the subtleties of God and offer a bitter smile. Bitter at the foolishness and presumption, but a smile nonetheless in order to share in the laugh God must have been having.

Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes. Supremely talented and perceptive, he saw spiritual truth in a clear light and threw himself into writing it down and vigorously living it out in total commitment to the lives of those around him, yet he was also capable of the loneliest touch of inner doubt. He was one of the earliest and most unyielding voices in opposition to Hitler as far back as 1933 and struggled to shine a light on Hitler’s co-opting of the German church and to reconstruct Christian ethics.

Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s life, his friends arranged a position for him in America ahead of the coming war, only to have him turn around and return to Germany almost immediately, saying:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.

A pacifist, he ultimately saw the need to try and throw a spoke into the wheel of the Nazi war machine and was arrested in 1943 and accused of being part of a plot to kill Hitler. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer wrote prodigiously and powerfully, cramming each paragraph with stunning clarity and revelation almost as if he sensed his time was short (he was 39 – younger than I am now – when he died). As he watched the German church crumble around him and embrace the unbiblical tenets of Nazism, he exhorted his followers and his country that obedience and belief were bound together, saying “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who obeys, believes.”

You can find out much more about his incredible and courageous story here on the pages hosted by the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, but let me return to the present and the spirit of our age so much in evidence the past few weeks, and what Bonhoeffer might wryly refer to as another example of

“the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.”

What he meant was that we all too easily fall into iniquity by trying to determine for ourselves and by our own standards what pleases God. Today there is a lot of easy talk about spirituality as we boomers age and find that our first commandment – “Love thyself” – doesn’t sustain. Christian or otherwise we seek to set our own standards for what is “good enough,” forgetting what it cost those who came before us to raise God’s standard. Journalist David Brooks calls it “building a house of obligation on a foundation of choice,” or, “orthodoxy without obedience.”

You can be thought to be spiritual merely for acknowledging there is a need for spirituality without admitting that you have any responsibility to live up to it in any way. It is a spirituality that honors teachers but not a Messiah. It is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” and described as being the greatest threat to the Church. The threat, however, wasn’t from the world but rather from within the Church.

The complacency of cheap grace allowed Nazism to subvert the gospel in the German church, and the spiritual complacency of America in the 50s and 60s germinated the seeds that bear so much bitter fruit in our culture today. (Btw, you might find it an interesting study to compare the origins, thinking and actions of the original Nazis with the origins, thinking and actions of those who are the first to label others as Nazis today.) It is this “cheap grace” with which we try to cover a multitude of sins while projecting a rich aura of tolerance and enlightenment. As Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, “The Cost of Discipleship”:

This is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without contrition. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the Cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

In what I have read of the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and – though I am not a Catholic – what I have seen in the life of Pope John Paul II, I sense they both understood that their own lives were not too dear a price to pay for the sake of future generations. As Bonhoeffer wrote in one of his letters from prison:

“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”

Notes: For anyone interested in gaining a deeper sense of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and vision I highly recommend “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Letters and Papers from Prison” as a start (don’t expect to rush right through these, however). “Ethics” and “Life Together” go further into what a thriving life in the spirit and in fellowship with others is about for those who want more. There are also two excellent DVDs available. Especially moving is “Hanged on a Twisted Cross,” surprisingly and effectively narrated by Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, and the very polished “Bonhoeffer” from Martin Doblmeier.