Archive for February, 2013

One of the most poignant sentences in all Bonhoeffer’s writings comes early in Life Together: “The believer need not feel any shame when yearning for the physical presence of other Christians, as if one were still living too much in the flesh.” I cannot read it without my heart jumping ahead and seeing Dietrich in prison. Even the slightest contact with spiritual or biological family gave him great joy.  Most of the long, long hours between such contacts he was, in the words of his poem “Who am I?”, he was “Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird, struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled. . .”

In Life Together he is writing about the experiences of the Finkenwalde seminary he had established. It was a blending of school, church, monastery, and mission base. When I think of our churches, it seems a glaring contrast to what Bonhoeffer and the seminarians experienced: We are together so very little and share our hearts so seldom. We barely qualify as real koinonia, real fellowship, don’t you think?

Yet our hearts yearn to know and to be known by our Lord and by one another. What holds us back?

I know the commonly given reason: We’re too busy. I don’t believe that for a moment. We have manufactured busyness as a means of evading the very thing we most deeply want, loving and being loved. We fear being disappointed, let down, rejected.  We are underestimating the capacity for love and grace which our Lord has given to each of us. So we don’t open up because we fear our imperfect hearts won’t be respected.

And just as commonly, I believe, we underestimate what our love and care could mean to another person. We don’t reach out because we fear our love won’t matter.

Bonhoeffer taught his students not just to devote time each day to concentrate on opening themselves to the Spirit of God in private times of meditation but to open themselves to one another in confession. But such matters were fit into a broader context of living together, studying together, worshiping and singing together, and playing together.


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The idealist is a real threat to a community, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The one who enters a community or fellowship with a preconceived notion about what is best for everyone else ends up bullying or manipulating or shaming everyone who falls short. Oddly, the idealist is never likely to come close to the ideal because the spirit of judgment and condemnation twists his or her soul. they may sound very spiritual in calling us to greater devotion to God but if they are merely shaming us for not being sufficiently devoted, they are simply adding to the burden and making spiritual life for difficult for us all.

Only Christ can even identify the right ideal. What is the highest law?, asked the scribe. Love, said Jesus. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The idealist needn’t pressure us to be better. It is enough to love us, to simply love us. We’ll learn together that love is infectious. What a nice infection to have!

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One of the two most popular books by Bonhoeffer is The Cost of Discipleship (now called simply Discipleship). It is a spiritual challenge to read the book because he calls us to recognize that grace does not mean we get a free ride through life. Grace frees us to be responsible to our Lord and costs us our very lives. “If any would follow me,” said Jesus, “they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and come after me.”

Seven years after writing the book, Bonhoeffer is in prison for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He reflects back on the book and says he now recognizes the dangers of the book, though he still stands by it.

We Evangelicals are sometimes puzzled by that odd line. What could be the dangers of a book that calls us to walk more fully with Jesus Christ? Bonhoeffer didn’t answer that question, leaving us each to seek our own understanding. My thought is that Bonhoeffer looked back over the seven intervening years and realized that the book was incomplete: He expressed very well one dimension of our life with Christ but left out many.

Perhaps most importantly, Discipleship speaks of a very private, inner commitment to Jesus Christ but does little to develop at least three other dimensions: the formation of our spiritual life, the communal nature of our life with Christ, and the love of public  justice as well as personal righteousness.

His second most popular book, Life Together, goes far to correct the neglect of our life in communion with one another, our brothers and sisters in Christ. (His third and fourth most popular books, Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison, go far to help us see what it means to work for justice.)

Life Together is not a difficult read. . .unless you stop to dwell on any of the large number of deep, challenging insights. I’ll point out just one for now:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Idealists have a way of making us feel guilty for not being spiritual enough. Those who are more mature tend instead to simply show us by example the way toward spiritual maturity. The idealists want to push us, poke us, prod us to be more faithful. I cannot escape the feeling, when I’m around such folk, that the driving force behind the pressure they put on us is their desire for us to grow in Christ so that we can carry them.

Those who convey judgment toward us for our spiritual immaturity are themselves spiritually immature. Bonhoeffer recognizes such people as a threat to the fellowship. The spirit of judgment will pollute the spirit of the community.

Faith, said a friend of mine in Hawaii years ago, is marked first of all by an acceptance of reality. Idealists don’t like today’s reality and want to jump ahead – or push the rest of us ahead – to tomorrow’s reality. The problem, of course, is that we can’t get from yesterday’s Point A to tomorrow’s Point C without passing through today’s Point B.

God loves you today just as you are. He’ll guide you into whatever he wants for you tomorrow. Rest in his love, wisdom, power, and perfect timing!

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Sound Bites is a series of brief looks at some of the provocative and challenging phrases and sentences which readers have found fascinating. Additions to this series will not come quickly because I want to give readers a chance to read at least some of the materials about Bonhoeffer’s life which are important so that bonhoeffer’s ideas can be heard in the context of his life.

The book Discipleship (called The Cost of Discipleship in earlier editions) begins with this strong claim by Bonhoeffer:

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

When I first read those words many years ago I was delighted. I had been a believer only a few years, having had no church background at all, but I was already quite suspicious that the “gospel” I had been taught did not fit well with Scripture.

I heard repeated emphases on the idea that salvation is free but rarely did I hear that to follow Jesus we had to deny ourselves and take up our own crosses. I was reminded often that the gospel is the good news of our salvation but no one at first told me that the gospel is not about me at all but about Jesus and the kingdom of God.

Bonhoeffer seemed determined to hear the biblical message in a more honest way than I had been taught, so I soaked up his challenges as echoes of Jesus’ own words. “Cheap grace,” he said, “means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system.” Cheap grace is merely “a cheap cover-up for sin.” “Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner.”

In all these ideas I was being reminded of Jesus in the Gospels and of Paul in Romans and of James. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” wrote Paul, [but] “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . .” Yes, I could see that salvation was free but clearly salvation is not the whole story. “Faith without works is dead,” insisted James.

Bonhoeffer also wrote, “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance. . .”

All salvation requires is faith but faith in turn requires work and that work, in simplest terms, is to follow Jesus to the Cross. Salvation is free but it costs us our lives. Bonhoeffer puts this chain of ideas together in ways that, half a century later, I’m still finding challenging and exciting.

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