The circle, and bread, of life

by the Night Writer

Like a big fist pounding on my door,
I never felt such a love before…

— Bruce Cockburn

Sunday thoughts.

In church this morning we were exhorted, during the singing portion, to remember that with a shout the walls will come down. “The wall” in this case being whatever is standing between us and God’s will in our life. As I thought about it I remembered the wall, largely of my own making, that had stood between me and God. I had been pretty impressed with its craftsmanship, as I recall. And one day that wall didn’t fall, but suddenly had a large hole punched through it from the other side.

Twenty-two years and two months ago, my wife and I were in a small ultra-sound room while her ob-gyn — the same man who had performed her tubal ligation following a bout with endometriosis five or six years earlier — ran the hand-held device over and around her abdomen. Her home-pregnancy test had been positive that morning, and her report had caused some surprise and concern on her doctor’s part. Surprise because he had never had a ligation “fail”, and concern because the test raised a possibility that she was having an ectopic — or “tubal” — pregnancy, which is a serious problem. As he moved the scanner back and forth, up and down, we all watched the grainy, black and white images on the screen as the patterns shifted. I remember the doctor saying, “Hmmmm” and “Hmmmmm” and “Hmmmm” every so often — but nothing else! Finally I asked, “Is it a baby?”


“Is it where it’s supposed to be?”

“Yes, it is!”

I don’t know what the learned professional, who had carried out the procedure, was thinking then. I do know that I, the expert who had carried on a campaign of intellectual seeking, asking (and even demanding) evidence from people of what God had actually done in their lives, now had to wrap my mind around a startling new reality. Certainly the first impulse was to try to pick up the imploded bricks from that wall and try to fit them right back where they came from. I would, however, come to see these as just so much rubble to be cleared away.

It didn’t happen overnight, but the clearing definitely began. I was very new to the “things of God” at that time. Willing to “try” something new but probably not that firmly anchored. I had heard some wonderful and exciting teaching but it was still largely theoretical at the time. A new and dawning awareness of the reality and power of the Word of God was coming into my life as a preview of the teaching and discipleship I would be receiving in the years to come, and that first punch from the other side of the wall would be followed by a series of shakings and renovations (via revelations) that probably aren’t finished even now.

My daughter arrived a little more than eight months later and I was able to learn and grow in these things as she, herself, grew. The lessons and experiences my wife and received shaped our lives and our decisions and were reflected in the way we lived and raised our first daughter and the one who came after. Even though there were often voices who said, “That’s not how you should do it” or “you’re only making it tougher on her in the long-run”, we resisted much worldly wisdom and held fast to what we were seeing and experiencing and stayed committed to putting in the values and expectations we thought our girls would need to succeed. We raised them not as though we were their friends, but to help them become the kind of adults we’d be pleased to have as friends. I’d have to say we (and especially God) have been very successful in this mission.

Two days ago, we were once again in a small ultra-sound room. My wife, myself, my two daughters, as well as the husband of the eldest. Two generations gathered around the machine, hoping to catch a glimpse of a third as the technician ran the scanner back and forth, up and down, on my married daughter’s stomach. At last, there was the proof. He has given us a son…and so very much more.

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.


by the Night Writer

The other night someone’s comment made me pause, as I do around this time of the year, to reflect on the Christmas message of a Savior coming amongst us. Readers familiar with my annual “Christmas Special” will recall that the first benefit of faith (and grace) is not in getting what we deserve, but in not getting what we deserve. So, anyway, the other night I thought, “God, I just wanted to get off the hook.”

And then the thought appeared in my mind, “You misunderstand. You are the hook.”

Then on Sunday my pastor stated that our vision for the coming year is to “join and knit” as a community. When he said that I remembered “the hook” and then, instead of thinking of a sharp fish hook, or a big shepherd’s crook, I thought of crocheting hooks and how they work: reaching out, hooking the yarn, pulling it close and wrapping it with another piece of yarn. The finished product is something snug and warm and when you look at it you cannot tell which piece of yarn submitted to the other because all you see is the union. As in a marriage. As in a community. As in a fellowship.

The thing is, to join and knit you need someone willing to reach and someone willing to be reached. And not just reached, but pulled into something bigger and better and that is a hard thing. You can organize several skeins of yarn and lay them close together and admire the color and texture of each individually and imagine what the sweater or afghan might look like, but if each keeps to itself you have lovely yarn and not much else.

A friend of mine has chosen the word Discipline as her theme for the year. It’s a good word, and a useful ideal. I choose a variation of the word, however: Disciple. I resolve to continue to let myself be discipled, and to be willing to disciple others.

You can hear me now

by the Night Writer

I spoke to our Inside Outfitters group back on December 19th, elaborating on the “return from captivity” message I originally shared with the men at Red Wing. This was our annual Christms meeting where the men of our church go all out in preparing hams, fried eggs and pancakes with special toppings for breakfast while the ladies (and some men) bake cookies for the guys in the Teen Challenge residential program. Unlike other messages I’ve presented to this group, however, this one was recorded and put up as a podcast on my church’s website. You can listen to it here (under the “Building and Defending Your Home” title. It may surprise some of you who know me well to learn that I really don’t like the sound of my voice, but you might get something useful from this message. If not, feel free to browse that website and you’ll find several messages that have been shared by the Reverend Mother!

My hind foot

by the Night Writer

We’ve just gone through the Thanksgiving holiday and we’re heading fast for Christmas. It’s an easy time of year to be thankful and to think of the blessings we’ve received, especially from God. But what if your life doesn’t look or feel that blessed at the moment? Do your present circumstances define the quality of your relationship with God?

Consider this:

Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither [shall] fruit [be] in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and [there shall be] no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God [is] my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ [feet], and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.
— Habakuk 3:17-1

We started looking at this scripture in church a couple of months ago, and one of the things our pastor pointed out that the words “I will joy” in that verse mean are a translation of the Hebrew words that mean “to go in a circle; to dance, to leap for joy, to rejoice, exult, be glad, to tremble.” He asked us to picture what that would be like, to be so strong in your faith and trust in God that no matter what the present circumstances looked like you could not just be happy, but excited, twirling around, exulting that the Lord is your God. Then he exhorted us to actually do that, to find the time in our prayers, meditations or worship, to realize His faithfulness and mercy and get up, spin around and rejoice — perhaps in the way you’d react when your favorite team does something good.

That was a simple enough sounding challenge, but hard to do without feeling self-conscious whether you were in public or alone. Nevertheless it was a challenge my wife heeded, first in her own personal worship at home and later when she felt led to do it in the privacy of the restroom at her work, even though business had been dreadfully slow at her job for months and even though the division where I work had been put on the market for divestiture; the types of things that can cause one to have some concerns about the immediate future. So then what happened?

Well, it so “happened” that in the time that she began doing that new business started to come into her company and my division was sold — but to a company that wanted to keep us operating intact; not only does no one lose a job, but new growth opportunties are also on the horizon. Oh, and she discovered an opportunity through our on-line bank to re-finance our already low, fixed mortgage at a lower fixed rate that pays off the remaining balance in seven years instead of nine, saving us some $40,000 in interest payments. Woot! I mean, *circle dance*!

Now, I’m not saying that jumping joyfully in a circle is the secret to financial relief or increase; we need to be wary of the human ability to take a small part of a scripture and turn it into a doctrine. I will say, however, that it can deepen your awareness of the relationship you have with God through Jesus Christ (you may hear that name between now and the end of the year). Reading and meditating the word and the promises of God, then actively celebrating its reality in your life, is like a catalyst to even greater joy and appreciation of that relationship. The power and the change in your life doesn’t come from saying just the right words or doing just the right dance; it comes from the relationship and from appreciating that relationship. And as you do that, words and dances may just start to come to you…and perhaps something else as well.

Return from captivity

by the Night Writer

Miles from home. Your foundation shaken. Your family at risk. Your past a curse, your future uncertain. Enemies await.

And yet, hope grows.

For the last six months or so I’ve been making the hour-long drive down to the Red Wing Correctional Center a couple of times a month. While it is primarily a juvenile facility they have one building for adult males, and I go to visit with the guys and conduct informal chapel services (actually more of a discussion). I never know what to expect: sometimes 10 guys will sign up in advance to attend chapel and then only three will actually show; other times three will sign up and 10 guys will turn up. There are a few “regulars” who I have gotten to know and a couple of these guys will be released in the next month or so. I was thinking about these guys as I prepared for last Sunday’s visit and my mind turned to the book of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah is a first-person account of a man returning from captivity in Persia to a ruined Jerusalem and how he was led by God to restore the city and the hope of the people there. He was welcomed by some, and there were some who were not so happy to see him return, and the men rebuilt the walls and their homes with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. There are a lot of parallels in the book of Nehemiah for men preparing to return to their home after a period of captivity. These range from Nehemiah’s reaction in Chapter 1 to the news from home (not just that he prayed, but what he prayed), to the plots of his enemies and resistance from his own people, to the way he went about his business, to the ultimate success of his mission and restoration of “his people.”

During our discussion I shared the part in the scripture where prominent people and officials in the area — who were presumably finding the present situation much to their advantage — were not pleased to see that “a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.” (Chapter 2:10). As I read that I was moved to look around the table to each man, and one by one say, “they were not pleased to see that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Jerry…of Tim…of George…” and so on. At first I only meant to say it to one or two guys, but as I saw each reaction I simply had to go around the table. Physically, each man twitched or rocked back or shivered when I spoke to him and each face shifted…not in anger, but in something else that shifted the hard planes and tight jaws, loosening them as their eyes unavoidably focused on some spot ten feet behind me. Even the ones I came to last in the circle, who knew it was coming, had the same reaction. One young man, B., looked as if he might even be ill.

B. and I have talked a couple of times about his situation and the mistakes he’s made; not the ones that landed him in Red Wing (I don’t know, and don’t want to know why any of the men are there) but in relationships. He has a young infant son who he’s barely seen. After the meeting we spoke one-on-one for a few minutes. B.’s going home soon and knows he’s going to have trouble with the family of the mother of his child. Previously we’d talked about love being wanting the best for someone else’s life even if it cost you something and how his actions didn’t always put “best for her” in first place. I asked him about his son: “Do you love him?”

“Yes, with everthing that I have.”

“Why? How can you love someone you hardly know when he can’t do a thing to benefit you right now?”

“I don’t know. I just know that I want to protect him, be there for him.”

“That’s because love is a choice you make, it isn’t a feeling,” I said. “If you go by your feelings you’ll change your mind every day. If you remember your decision and hold on to that, you can change the way you act, even the way you make decisions.” He nodded, reset his jaw.

We spoke a little longer about things we’d talked about before, about actions, not words, showing that there’s been true change and about outliving your mistakes one day at a time. I told him a true story of how I’ve seen that happen very close to me, and it appeared to give him confidence. B. may be gone before I return. He extended his hand, thanked me for coming and then said, “…and thanks for, you know, taking an interest in my life.”

During the group discussion the men and I had also talked about how Nehemiah had organized the reconstruction and defense of the city, about how he had instructed the men to “rally to the sound of the horn” when there was trouble at some spot, and how each man worked with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. Today, however, for these men going home, fighting with a weapon is a sure ticket back to Red Wing or someplace worse. We shifted then, to the scriptures that say, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Cor 10:4) and that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood” and what our true weapons and defenses are (Eph 6:11-18). I suggested that if our weapons are not carnal then likely our tools are not, either, and that they can trust the word of God (the sword of the spirit) and as they do so, God will be using his trowel to patch and restore the walls and replaster the gaps in their lives.

Finally we talked about each of them finding a place to fellowship with believers, where you can stand with other people; people you can trust to “rally to the sound of the horn” when you are in trouble and people who could expect you to rally, in turn, when needed. Driving home I thought about that a lot, and about how I didn’t have to “go to prison” to learn that lesson, but how doing so really helped me to appreciate it.

Hate is impatient, hate is unkind

by the Night Writer

1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 7, in reverse

Hate is impatient and unkind; hate envies and boasts; it is arrogant and rude. It insists on its own way; it is irritable and resentful; it rejoices at wrongdoing, and does not rejoice with the truth. Hate bears nothing, believes nothing, hopes for nothing, endures nothing.

On a day like today

by the Night Writer

My birthday was last week, and one of the presents I received was a collection of daily excerpts from the writings of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (thanks, Ben). Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, only days before Hitler committed suicide and the arrival of allied troops in Berlin. This morning my book made note of this sad anniversary, and it reminded me of the post I did on this date back in 2005, which was also the week Pope John Paul II died. Bonhoeffer’s words are timeless, mine much less so, but his always stir me so much I decided to re-run that post here again today.

“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.

One of the things that Bonhoeffer wrote while he was in prison was the heart-rending microcasm of despair and hope in the poem “Who Am I?” It’s one that I’ve had posted on the wall of my office at work for years.

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would walk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible, woe-begone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!

Lumpy, part 2

by the Night Writer

A short time ago I wrote a brief post about Romans 12:2, comparing our lives to a lump of clay either conformed by the world or transformed by God; either squeezed or pressed into a mold or filled and expanded as if by a hand reaching inside us as we spin to bow us into a bowl or vase or some useful vessel.

One thing I didn’t note at the time is that in both cases, the lump of clay has very little say in what it gets turned into. Conformity is a matter of channeling our thinking, while transformation is a matter of renewing our mind (or having it renewed) so that those channels are overflowed. We might go along with either activity but once we submit to either we don’t know just how it will turn out.

Not that we don’t try, especially when it comes to the transforming/expanding touch of God the Father. Having spent our lives conformed, we almost can’t help ourselves from repeating the process as we are being transformed. At first we are in awe of what God has done and is doing, especially when we are aware of the quality of the material that He’s working with. All too soon, however, it seems we can’t resist trying to shape God into something that suits our purpose instead of the other way around.

A little bit of revelation, or a transcendant, even miraculous, experience can seem like our destination rather than just a signpost on our way. When God wants to continue to work in our life we’ll still instinctively hunker down, even with (or because) of our new understanding, and decide that “God obviously can do this, but there’s no way He’d do that.” It’s as if he just put up a frame and a roof on our new house, but we don’t think he’s qualified to do the plumbing as well; especially if we’ve always handled the plumbing ourselves.

Conforming is easier because we have a sense of when we look like the other items on the shelf; transforming is harder because we’re continually changing as the Master Potter spins, shapes and elongates, perhaps even adds a handle. Yet in effect we’ll say, “No, please, I’ll just stay a salad bowl. I never thought I could even be a salad bowl, but please don’t turn me into an urn.” Ceasing to conform and beginning to transform usually means throwing out some old thought or doctrine we had in favor of a new revelation; but it’s as if we think that there was only one or two thoughts or doctrines that needed to change.

It’s amazing how quickly we become expert theologians, even as the potter says, “You ain’t seen nothing yet, Lumpy.”