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    Entries in Dietrich Bonhoeffer (3)


    Community Begins with Christ

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ." He further states, "It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God's Word and sacrament." If that isn't enough, Bonhoeffer reminds us, "The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer."

    One of the greatest longings of our time, it seems to me, is for community. And one of our greatest fears, both expressed and unexpressed, is that of being alone. For many, our longing remains unfulfilled, even among those who claim to take part in Christian community, try as we might to connect with others either publicly or online.

    Which leads me back to Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer identifies two ways community is realized for the Christian: in and through Jesus Christ.

    While commentators quibble over the exact meaning of the phrase in Christ, all seem to agree that it is a reality entered into mystically by faith. I think of the words of Paul in Galatians 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." There has been a crossing over, a transformation, a change of status. Those trusting Jesus are no longer apart from him, but now stand in him.

    What does this mean for community? It means, first, that Christian community is not first achieved by some action on one's own part, but rather is enacted by the person and work of Jesus Christ. We have been incorporated into the Christian fellowship. We do not create it.

    But to enter into the community, we must come through Jesus Christ. And it is through him that we encounter our brothers and sisters. Jesus has made such a community possible through his body and blood. He is our mediator, and the one in whom we receive peace, not only between God and human beings, but between brother and sister. Bonhoeffer says it simply: "Christ opened up the way to God and to our brother."

    Lastly, Bonhoeffer claims that the goal of all Christian community is this: "they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation." It is within the fellowship that we are reminded of what Jesus has done not only for you and me, but for all of creation.

    Bonhoeffer incisively reminds his readers that not every Christian experiences the visible fellowship of other believers. The sick, infirm, the scattered, the solitary missionary worker, they remain part of the fellowship in and through Christ, but lack the daily experience of a common fellowship. For most of my readers, face to face interaction with other Christians is not only possible, it is routine. And, dare I say for some, it is taken for granted.

    So, the next time you interact with others in Christian community, remember how the fellowship has been made possible: in and through Christ. Remember that the presence of other Christians is a gift, graciously given because of God's recognition that it is not good for human beings to be alone (Gen. 2:18).

    Recall that your interactions with other Christians are made possible through Christ, who has removed the barrier of our own egos and united us to one another (it is difficult to feel superior to anyone when one begins to realize the depth of one's own sin). It is difficult not to feel love for others whom Christ has redeemed.

    Then, lastly, remember that you are present with your brothers and sisters as a herald, a bringer of the message of salvation. Spread the Word. Perhaps in doing so, Christians who experience aloneness and lack of community will begin to realize the richness of Christian fellowship, and the true joy of being united to one another, and to God, together.


    The 5 Most Important Reads of My Life

    Several months ago I shared a Kindle Deal for one of the books that will follow, saying it was "one of the five most important books I have ever read." A friend asked for the other four, and I turned to my book shelf and considered my choices. I pulled books and flipped pages. I made a stack. I have been carrying that stack with me ever since. It has been by my reading chair at home, on my desk in the office, in the back seat of my pickup, and in the book bag I carry to the library and coffee shops. I have thought, "Why these?" There is a theme that runs through all five.

    Discipleship to Jesus Christ.

    I've blogged a lot about books. I've written reviews and compiled lists of what I have read, and shared deals (when they come along) with others. I love books.

    When I was a graduate student at The University of Kansas, I spent hours in the stacks of Watson Library. It is an immense collection. I always felt like I was one of the few souls to wander back and forth in 1 East, the lowest level in the farthest corner of the library, where the Biblical Studies and Biblical Theology collections reside. The location is not without irony. One could say that the contents there were either forgotten or neglected, or its nearness to the foundation was somehow apt considering the origination of the university, as institution, itself.

    Any great book that I read during the academic years, filled with footnotes, sent me on a quest, searching the stacks for primary sources. I read Richard Adam's Watership Down and Karl Barth's Dogmatics in Outline thanks to one of the authors I'll cite below. I also read Soren Kierkegaard, Wendell Berry, Oliver O'Donovan, and many others thanks to Watson. I began keeping a record of the titles I had read in 2009--I wish I had done so during the entirety of my career at KU.

    I remember one day, leaving Watson Library, I had two book bags filled to the brim with titles. I ran into a colleague, Autumn Thompson. She asked, "What are you working on?" I said, "Oh, five or six of these are for a paper. The rest are for personal study."

    I am thankful for those years.

    Now, the list. These five books have shaped my imagination and have been foundational for my discipleship to Christ. They have also informed my philosophy of ministry. I don't agree with everything in each book. If you don't have at least one or two quibbles with any author, they either aren't giving you enough substance, or you aren't really reading. But I have found these men insightful and extremely helpful.

    5. Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship by N. T. Wright

    N. T. Wright is one of the most important New Testament scholars of our day. He is also a man of the church.

    I purchased this little book in the fall of 2005 or spring of 2006. It is a collection of sermons, dedicated to "the congregation of Lichfield Cathedral," but delivered in various ministerial settings. "A church without sermons," Wright declares, "will soon have a shriveled mind, then a wayward heart, next an unquiet soul, and finally misdirected strength." I was captured by this book because it was written for the people of God, and the object of each sermon is the person and work of Christ. Wright is correct in his preface saying, "The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him in his world. That is, of course, if it's the real Jesus you are looking at."

    These sermons were helpful at the time, and as I glance back over the pages and review my underlinings and margin notes, I'm reminded of my own hunger to know Christ, to discern him as he is, and to serve him well. I also wanted to be part of a church that lived in to the fullness of his calling. But the reason this book has been an important read is because of what followed. Over the past eight or nine years, I've done my best to read everything Bishop Wright has published. I had read Borg and Wright's The Meaning of Jesus at Baylor University. But Following Jesus is what inspired me to chase Wright's work, evaluate it, critique it, and apply it. His work has helped me to grow as a disciple--even the academic work has had a pastoral function. Wright describes the disciple well:

    'Disciples' means not just head-learners, not just heart-learners, but life-learners. We have to discover, through prayer, study of the Scriptures, and above all devotion to Jesus himself such as we express when we come to his table, how we in our generation can implement the decisive victory which he won.

    4. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany in the year 1906. His story has become well known to many Christians, primarily for his resistance to Hitler and his death at the hands of the Nazi regime. His brilliance as a theologian has also been much discussed, and The Cost of Discipleship is his best known work.

    When I was in my mid-twenties, the demands of following Christ were the focus of much of my reflection. Whether this is simply a condition of young-adulthood or a reaction to the present age, I was discontented with aspects of the Christianity I had received. I had questions about sacrifice and suffering, about purpose and ecclesial identity. I had questions about God's reality, particularly his magnitude. I perceived that God, as I understood God at that time, had been presented as domesticated and tame. The wisdom of years has led me to reflect that the reasons for my discontent were likely internal rather than external. The blame could not be squarely placed on "the church" or "my church." I suspect they belonged largely to me, the learner. And I trust that God was at work in my dis-ease, drawing me nearer to his reality, challenging my preconceived notions, and calling me to consider his grandeur. I was being called to worship the only reality worthy of devotion, God, the Almighty.

    Bonhoeffer, then, became a friend. His work was centered on learning from Christ and its consequences. He writes, "The actual call of Jesus and the response of single-minded obedience have irrevocable significance. By means of them Jesus calls people into an actual situation where faith is possible." Through obedience, we learn to trust. By applying the words of Jesus and living according to his calling, we discover that his commands align us with the reality of his kingdom, and thus we confirm the utter reliability of his word.  Of course, this kind of obedience is not without suffering, rejection, and crucifixion. As Bonhoeffer states, "Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross."

    Bonhoeffer's meditations on suffering and the demands of discipleship, contrasted with the "easy-believism" and fluffy theology of our age, renewed my vision for the gospel. His writings enabled me to see differently, and to imagine a different kind of life for the disciple. I appreciated Bonhoeffer's exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, which I have come to believe is a key text for any renewal or revival of Christian holiness. And I also appreciated his love for the Church--the community of Christ. Bonhoeffer's theology carries ecclesiastical assumptions. Discipleship is undertaken to Christ, but always together with those whom he has called.

    3. The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson

    I would not be back in pastoral ministry at University Baptist Church if not for this book, and a small company of friends who were gracious enough to discuss it with me. That's how profound, and how healing, I found Peterson's reflections on the pastorate. I have read this book three times since publication in 2011, and the underlinings and margin notes in my copy are plentiful.

    Peterson writes with insight concerning the pastoral vocation. Like the others I have listed, his work has been generated within the context of church. Rather than lobbing holy hand grenades from the ivory tower of academia or scoffing from the margins, Peterson has led and participated in God's work among his people. He's been there for births and for funerals. He's lived the life of the pastor. And life as a pastor is serious work and hard work, not to mention troubled work, at least during our time.

    Peterson writes:

    North American culture does not offer congenial conditions in which to live vocationally as a pastor. . . In the process of realizing my vocational identity as a pastor, I couldn't help observing that there was a great deal of confusion and dissatisfaction all around me with pastoral identity. Many pastors, disappointed or disillusioned with their congregations, defect after a few years and find more congenial work. And many congregations, disappointed or disillusioned with their pastors, dismiss them and look for pastors more to their liking. In the fifty years that I have lived the vocation of pastor, these defections and dismissals have reached epidemic proportions in every branch and form of church.

    I wonder if at the root of the defection is a cultural assumption that all leaders are people who 'get things done,' and 'make things happen.' That is certainly true of the primary leadership models that seep into our awareness from the culture--politicians, businessmen, advertisers, publicists, celebrities, and athletes. But while being a pastor certainly has some of these components, the pervasive element in the two-thousand-year pastoral tradition is not someone who 'gets things done' but rather the person placed in the community to pay and call attention to 'what is going on right now' between men and women, with one another and with God--this kingdom of God that is primarily local, relentlessly personal, and prayerful 'without ceasing.'

    Peterson tells great stories, all of which provide some insight in to the vocation. He's honest. The pastoral vocation is glorious and heartbreaking. It is challenging. But it is good work. Though this book contains many lessons, it reinforced for me the importance of prayer, and the nature of witness. Peterson writes, "A witness is never the center but only the person who points to or names what is going on at the center--in this case, the action and revelation of God in all the operations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

    As a pastor, I call attention to that reality--and together we heed the direction of the Triune God.

    2. A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic by Stanley Hauerwas

    As most of my readers know, I received my seminary education at Dallas Theological Seminary. My interest in Christian ethics reaches back to Baylor University, where I sat under Dr. John A. Wood and Dr. Dan McGee. Molly, concurrently, was a student at Perkins School of Theology - SMU. After one of her classes, she told me that I should read Stanley Hauerwas, whom she thought I would enjoy. And so during the 2006-2007 academic year, I grabbed a copy of Community of Character either from a second hand book shop or from a book give away hosted by a retired United Methodist bishop at Highland Park United Methodist (I'm not really sure), and I started reading.

    I was captivated.

    The emphasize on narrative, story, and the implications for ethics transformed my approach to my formation as a Christian. Hauerwas deepened my understanding of virtue, and how the virtues are best understood within a tradition, a community. His five essays on the family, sex, and abortion, which constitute the third and final section of the book, impacted my thinking on each of those topics.

    Hauerwas has written many books, but this work was my first foray into this thought. I own most of his works, and I've read nearly everything he has published. Hauerwas has continued to help me think as a Christian, and refused to allow me to neglect the church. Following John Howard Yoder, Hauerwas also helped me to see the political nature of Jesus' life, message, and kingdom, and the implications this holds, at present, for our constitution as a people. As Hauerwas states, "there can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church. The truthfulness of Jesus creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form." As Hauerwas states elsewhere, the church does not have a social ethic, but is a social ethic, and therefore, the story of Jesus is one which the church must exemplify. Jesus must be determinative for our story together, one that encompasses the totality of our ecclesial life. Hauerwas writes, "Jesus determines the story as the crucial person in the story. Thus his identity is grasped not through other savior stories, but by learning to follow him, which is the necessary condition for citizenship in his kingdom."

    Once again, this book has continued to impact me because of its emphasis on discipleship, and for the claim that the calling of the disciple to follow Jesus is inseparable from the calling into the body of Christ. In the essay "Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom," Hauerwas claims, "To be a disciple is to be part of a new community, a new polity, which is formed on Jesus' obedience to the cross."

    Hauerwas solidified my interest in ethics, which I suspect will last my whole life long. Most importantly, however, is that he helped me to see that Christian ethics are inseparable from the person and work of Christ. Christian principles cannot be abstracted from his person. They must be lived within the context of his kingdom, under the reality of his present lordship, in the unique, particular locality of the ecclesia, or the church. Life under this rubric is dynamic, creative, and bold. It is the call to witness, to live together as the people of God under the reign of God, secured in Christ. Our present reality, and our future hope, is firmly established in his completed work.

    1. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard

    Dallas Willard is best known among Christians for his work in the area of Christian spiritual formation. Though I never knew him personally, Molly and I were deeply saddened when we learned of his death in May of 2013. Like many others who have read his work or who heard him speak, it was not only Willard's words that were striking, but his character. Seldom have I encountered such a striking correspondence between someone's message and overall presence. And from the stories I have heard from those who knew the man, my impressions have only been confirmed.

    The Divine Conspiracy is a masterful work, and though it was not the first book by Willard I read, it endeared me to his work. My friend Mike Hibit encouraged me to buy this book in the spring of 2006. I can remember Mike reading an excerpt at his apartment, located above The Golden Goose in Gardner, Kansas. The illustration Mike selected was about a plane in flight, upside down, and our need to be turned right side up. Soon after, I was working through my own copy in my apartment in Overland Park, thinking hard about "Gospels of Sin Management," and my own communication about the life and message of Jesus. I was challenged in my own discipleship, and wondered if I, too, had fallen victim to neglecting Jesus and his teachings in favor of a transactional understanding of salvation or a sloganeered, politicized gospel that claimed Jesus as champion, but paid little heed to his person, presence, and reign.

    Willard helped me to see that Jesus has been lost as our teacher and to rediscover that Christ is accessible and knowable as our Master. Willard's claim that Jesus is the smartest man to ever live, and that his way is best, resulted in a new approach to my own spirituality. Willard's argument in The Divine Conspiracy hinges on the intelligibility and unity of The Sermon on the Mount. His emphasis on kingdom as present and available to those who call on Jesus as King helped me discover the richness of life with God. Jesus, despite claims the contrary, has remained incredibly relevant and intriguing, quietly standing at the center of history, calling all people to himself.

    Willard writes:

    I think we finally have to say that Jesus' enduring relevance is based on his historically proven ability to speak to, to heal and to empower the individual human condition. He matters because of what he brought and still brings to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives and coping daily with their surroundings. He promises wholeness for their lives. In sharing our weakness he gives us strength and imparts through his companionship a life that has the quality of eternity.

    He comes where we are, and he brings us the life we hunger for. . . To be the light of life, and to deliver God's life to women and men where they are and as they are, is the secret of the enduring relevance of Jesus. Suddenly they are flying right-side up, in a world that makes sense.

    Before his death, Dallas Willard said that he believed the church very well may be on the precipice of a new and exciting chapter in its life, one in which the redisovery of Jesus as teacher and the reality of life in his kingdom could lead to genuine transformation. Willard's enthusiasm, I believe, stemmed from the groundswell of interest in Christian spiritual formation, and the redisovery of a gospel that brings us into an encounter with Jesus, as well as a reconceptualizing of faith as knowledge that leads to action (for more, see Willard's Knowing Christ Today).

    I have since become a student of Willard, and have read all his other works. My philosophy of ministry has been profoundly shaped by his intellectually sophisticated, yet pastorally sensitive presentation of Christian truth. I recommend this book to anyone--though it does demand work on the part of the reader. I've been glad to discuss it, to great benefit, with other Christians.

    Have a comment?

    Please, resist the temptation to Jesus Juke. The Bible happens to be important to me as well.

    What are the most important reads of your life?


    Keep Working :: Optimism and Obedience

    Photo Credit: carf on Flickr

    The essence of optimism is not its view of the present, but the fact that it is the inspiration of life and hope when others give in; it enables people to hold their heads high when everything seems to be going wrong; it gives them strength to sustain reverses and yet to claim the future for themselves instead of abandoning it to their opponents.  It is true that there is a silly, cowardly kind of optimism, which we must condemn.  But the optimism that is will for the future should never be despised, even if it is proven wrong a hundred times; it is health and vitality, and the sick person has no business to impugn it.  There are people who regard it as frivolous, and some Christians think it impious for anyone to hope and prepare for a better earthly future.  They think that the meaning of present events is chaos, disorder, and catastrophe; and in resignation or pious escapism they surrender all responsibility for reconstruction and for future generations.  It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; and in that case, though not before, we shall gladly stop working for a better future.

    -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Will for the Future", October 16 Entry in A Year with Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Daily Meditations from His Letters, Writings, and Sermons