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Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

My cancer has returned and is expected to be aggressive, which means I know I’m living in my own end times, my own eschaton. I have tried a bit of a thought experiment, trying to use my own situation to better imagine and identify with Bonhoeffer in prison. The circumstances, though, present too great a contrast. I’m home, not feeling too badly, and being cared for by a truly amazing wife.

Yes, like Bonhoeffer, I know the end is near but it is not unjust for me as it was for him. And I am 74, retired, thankful for a long and full life. He never reached 40. My life has been productive in minor ways (I’m glad to have had the privilege of helping people) but his life and his death were both productive in ways few of us will ever experience.

Nonetheless, I have “done my bit,” as the citizens of England used to say during WWII, doing their bit to contribute to the war effort.

Part of what makes Bonhoeffer so admirable is that he so effectively maintained his sense of the sovereignty of God, his trust in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, even when all the earthly evidence suggested that he was the victim of injustice. Injustice is the enemy of God and injustice seemed — to onlookers — to be dominating Bonhoeffer’s last years. Yet he chose to affirm in multiple ways that it was his Lord who reigned in his life. His was a faith deeper than appearances. He walked by faith, not by sight.

And God has been honoring him ever since.

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the inescapable lessons Bonhoeffer and his friends had learned since the beginning of the Nazi reign was that they were in far less control of their own lives than they had thought in their younger years. What once seemed a basic right, that of planning one’s own life, was now seen as a pipedream.  They could do little to determine what each day would bring or what they might be doing tomorrow.

Such loss of freedom could be accepted as mere fate or, as Bonhoeffer is encouraging, it can be freely chosen and affirmed as an expression of faith. The former leaves one inclined to ignore personal responsibility — a fundamental sin in Bonhoeffer’s view — while the latter means one continues to respond to (be responsible to) God.

When we live by faith, we live as if each day were our last and simultaneously as if our tomorrow is gloriously beautiful. Bonhoeffer remembers that Jeremiah spoke of great destruction for Jerusalem, even while telling the exiled Israelites in Babylon to settle down and make good lives for themselves.

It may be, of course, that it is not we who will get to enjoy the wonderful tomorrow, at least not on this earth, but the next generation. Bonhoeffer might well have had Abraham in mind at this point. He was promised the land, though his clan did not in fact  possess it for more than four centuries. Nonetheless, god the the surety of tomorrow, whenever it may come.

Realizing that, we do not lose heart at the troubles the present day may bring. We wait patiently and responsibly through them, knowing that Jesus Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Thank you, Lord!.

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This is a short blurb about the sovereignty of God in our lives. It is one of those many passages in Bonhoeffer that makes us wish we could sit down with him and ask lots of questions.

I quote it in full:

I believe that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil. For that to happen, God needs human beings who let everything work out for the best. I believe that in every moment of distress God will give us as much strength to resist as we need. But it is not given to us in advance, lest we rely on ourselves and not on God alone. In such faith all fear of the future should be overcome. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are not in vain and that it is no more difficult for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate but waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.

These are the words of a man who knows his life is in danger, whose family and country are already suffering under Hitler, the Nazis, and the war machine they have put into action. Bonhoeffer trusts the promise of Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good for those who love God. . .”

Notice that he is also aware, however, that human cooperation is a part of the story. It is not as if we can simply do whatever we want whenever we want and God will somehow magically guarantee a positive outcome. The devil had tempted Jesus to believe in that illusion (Matthew 4) and had been rebuffed by Jesus. We are not to test God but cooperate with him, using the strength — and wisdom! — he gives us day by day, moment by moment.

The worst thing, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, would be for us to “rely on ourselves and not on God alone.” That’s offensive for those people infected by hubris who in fact want very much to rely on themselves alone and not need the “crutch” of faith at all.

As a new Christian more than a few decades ago, I puzzled over the relation between doing things without actually having a sense of being directed by God and doing nothing without a certainty of God’s will. I quickly decided, of course, that were I to wait for definite leading, I would simply sit in a dark room motionless for a long time. It is to posit a false dichotomy to say we must choose being doing and waiting.

Isaiah 30:21 was very helpful for me. “When you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.'” The Lord’s guidance normally comes as we step out in faith, not before.

There is something else in Bonhoeffer’s words which grabs my attention. God, he says, “waits for and responds to sincere prayer and responsible actions.” Surely this is the most amazing idea of all: The omniscient,omnipresent, never-changing Creator of the Universe responds to the prayers and responsible (=faithful) actions of his children.

Take this sentence and chew on it for a few weeks: Our Lord and his children are in a mutually responsive personal relationship.

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Students of Dietrich Bonhoeffer often see references to the last words Dietrich spoke before going to his execution: “This is the end, but for me the beginning.”

He had been a person of faith all his life. We can’t even identify a time when he first began to believe. But this we do know: He remained a man of faith to his last breath. The end can only be the beginning if God and his promises are true, which is exactly and precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed.

Those last words could well be inscribed on one’s tombstone but, were Bonhoeffer to choose, I wonder if perhaps he would have opted for words from his prison letter of July 21. “May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself,” he wrote to his friend Bethge.

Above all, may God lead us to himself. This is a perfect prayer to begin a day. . . or end a life. May god so lead you.

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“Who stands firm? Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call. Where are these responsible ones?”

So wrote Dietrich in his 1942 essay called “After Ten Years.” He was still trying to finish what he intended to be his major work,
Ethics
. The essay was to be included in that book.

The paragraph quoted above is an example of a fundamental theme in Bonhoeffer’s thought, namely that God is the center and ground of all reality. I suppose we all believe that in one sense or another but Bonhoeffer is unique in how totally that thought governed all others for him. He rejects all human efforts to make ourselves into good people or strong people. All that is expected of us — and all we can do — is to be faithful to God.

Again, that doesn’t sound very radical, but all around me and sometimes even in my own mirror I see people who are trying very hard to do the right thing, to make themselves into good people, and who are usually discouraged by their lack of success. In truth, it is difficult for us to believe that God holds us accountable not for being successful but for being faithful. We are responsible to God, which — as Bonhoeffer understands — means something deeper than mere accountability. We are to be responsive to God. His is the initiative. In the ultra-simple way Barth put the matter, our lives are to be one continuous Yes to God.

What freedom awaits those who discover this simple truth!

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If I were to write a book on Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “the world come of age,” I would ask the publisher to put on the cover a photo of Michelangelo’s colossal statue of David.

david-full-frontIt was four days ago that I first saw the statue in person, though I have admired it from photos for many years. It very clearly is one of the greatest expressions of artistic genius ever produced.

Though the “subject” is the biblical David about to face and conquer the giant warrior called Goliath, the only biblical aspect to the statue is that David is shown holding a sling and a rock. So I do not admire it as an expression of biblical truth.

Instead of portraying David as a young boy totally incapable of being a soldier at all, let alone single-handedly taking on a giant, Michelangelo has made David a mature and supremely fit man. What is most vividly conveyed is that David is absolutely confident that Goliath will be no match for the sling and stone.

Completed in 1504, this statue is probably the most perfect representation of the humanism which fueled the fire we now call the Renaissance. Mankind can conquer any challenge! There is in this David no hint of faith or of any need for God at all. In fact, quite contrary to the biblical story, this David is himself a giant. He is 14 feet tall and stands on a pedestal which itself seems to be more than 6 feet high. When you stand at the base, you are looking up 20 feet to see his head. This David is more than twice the height of the real Goliath!

When Bonhoeffer used the phrase “world come of age,” he did not mean that he thought the world has achieved some level of power and virtue that leaves God with no necessary role in the world. Rather — and this is very important if we want to understand Bonhoeffer at all — he meant that those who influence and shape the cultures of the world now consider themselves to be men of great personal confidence in need of no dependence upon the supernatural. And that is exactly what the David embodies.

Evangelicals in America and — to a lesser degree — Britain have come in the last two centuries to conceive of the Gospel as Good News to those who feel the need for salvation and deliverance. Thus, says Bonhoeffer, we have been left with little to say to those who might take David as their standard bearer.

The problem is the church, having narrowed the Gospel to mere salvation, does not know what to say to a world thus come of age and accepting responsibility for itself. We have dumbed down the Gospel to the level of a needy child that we can barely imagine what we might have to say to a grown up world. That’s not the world’s fault; it is ours. We Christians have go to grow up. It’s that simple.

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Doing some reading yesterday I bumped into another writer struggling to figure out what Bonhoeffer meant by speaking of “religionless Christianity.” I am really surprised that anyone would find this an odd statement.

Years ago one of the cute little sayings that was bouncing around Evangelical circles, at least in the US, was, “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship.” I heard it often in the late 60s and the 70s. It was always commended and I never heard anyone argue against it or question what it meant. It just seemed obviously true to all of us. The essence of Christianity is our communion with Jesus Christ. It is not the habits, liturgies, jargon we have developed over the centuries. No form of worship, no special “holy” language, no particular rules of behavior or answers in theology make us Christian. We are Christian only when we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus Christ. What’s so hard to understand?

Way back in Barcelona, when Bonhoeffer was only 22 years old, he said that, “Christianity contains a seed of animosity to the church . . .” Sixteen years later, sitting in his prison cell, he returns to that thought. He has had time to observe the church under fire and to realize that “church-ness” (to make up a word) cannot withstand the heat. Religion burns up in the fires of a fury like Nazi Germany but devotion to Jesus Christ is purified as in a refiner’s fire.

Bonhoeffer does not in any sense mean we are to lose our commitments to Bible, to prayer, to fellowship, to being church. But he most certainly does mean we are never to confuse these with the heart of our faith, which always and only is the living person of Jesus Christ himself.

And, just as importantly, we must never, never convey to the world around us that we stand above all else for Right Answers (making us the intellectual superiors of all others) or Right Rules (making us morally superior). We are to be a people marked by gratitude for the grace of God and by the love and integrity which are the characteristics of our living Lord.

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