For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘faith

Before you read this post, if you commented on the original post about having cancer and moving to London, I finally had the chance to reply. Click here and go to comments to read my responses to your lovely prayers and good wishes.

The other afternoon, the Associate Pastor of my new church came rushing into my office. “I have to show you something!” Stepping to the window, she pointed to a man in the park next door. Wearing a full tuxedo, top hat and tails, he sat atop a speaker, holding a tuba on his lap.

As he began to play along to the oompah music blaring from the speaker between his legs, fire began to shoot out the top of the tuba. With each puff of sound, there also arose a puff of fire, spewing from the top of the horn.

IMG_20160721_172950121 (2)

This is a fuzzy picture of Flaming Tuba Guy, without the fire. I promise I’ll replace it with a good picture, including flames, next time he’s in the square.

It was street performance at its finest, and a crowd soon formed. My colleague explained that he frequents this corner, and he has become, for her, a treasured part of the London landscape. After sharing her delight, she went back to her office to get back to work.

Not me. I’m like, “OMG, he’s got fire coming out of his tuba! It’s amazing! How does he do that? I’ve gotta stop everything and get outside and take a picture!” Because, really, what in my life and work at that minute could outdo a Flaming Tuba Guy?

I’m sure, as the weeks pass, he will fade into the background. The day will come when I also get annoyed that I can’t concentrate over the sound of the oompah music, or can’t pass the sidewalk because of the crowd. That first day, however, I had to stop everything and get a closer look, to pay attention and marvel at the spectacle of the Flaming Tuba Guy outside my office window.

As I contemplated Flaming Tuba Guy on my way home, I realized how much my breast cancer diagnosis is like Flaming Tuba Guy.

When it first happened six weeks ago, I felt like everything stopped. I couldn’t think about anything else, see anything else, do anything else except imagine myself as a cancer patient. Everything in the world shrunk down to a small hospital room, a blurry gray image on the screen, and pink ribbons everywhere. I stopped in my tracks, and so did all of you—my friends and family and community—to grapple with this unexpected thing confronting me.

As time has passed, along with more tests and doctor visits and procedures, breast cancer is slowly becoming just another part of the wider landscape. Some days, it’s there, and a big part of my life. Last Monday, I had a minor surgery (sentinel node biopsy), just 9 days after entering the country and three days after starting my new job. I spent a 14-hour day at the hospital, and the next day in bed recovering. Even then, I had lots of time to sit and wait, and I did some reading and planning for church.

Some days, it’s like the crowd in the street or the annoying earworm. By Wednesday after my surgery, I could spend most of the day doing what I love: ministry and motherhood. I had to juggle my schedule for a doctor’s appointment, deal with not wearing deodorant due to my incision, and get help lifting heavy objects for two weeks while I heal. Those things are annoyances, but nothing that stops my daily living.

Other days, it’s not a factor in my decision-making at all. By the weekend, I felt pretty good, and we took the chance of my good health and London’s rare good summer weather to explore the city. We spent the afternoon on Hampstead Heath, including climbing all the way to the top of Parliament Hill. On Sunday after church, we explored Oxford Street and Regent Streets, a major shopping area. Regent Street was closed to traffic, and there was music playing and thousands of people packing the streets because Magnum was handing out free ice cream. We explored the amazing Hamley’s Toy Store, which is the best I’ve ever seen. Other than the lack of deodorant, it was a cancer-free day.

While I know that the coming regimen of chemotherapy will make for more rough days ahead, I’m taking comfort in the claim that cancer is going to be like Flaming Tuba Guy. It’s gonna stop me, distract me, captivate me sometimes, because it’s breast cancer, for goodness sake. But not every day. Not all the time. It will be a part of my London landscape, but not all of it.

Thanks, Flaming Tuba Guy. Oompah on, my friend.

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Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life by Glennon Doyle Melton, Scribner, 2013, 300 pp.

Carry On WarriorI have a significant number of friends, drawn from both clergy circles and mom circles, who are huge fans of Glennon Doyle Melton and her Momastery blog, almost like fangirls with their level of devotion and *squee*. Although I’ve been reading Momastery for a long time, I’m not in that camp. I’m not generally one to go fangirl anyway, and Momastery never tempted me. I admire Glennon Doyle Melton and her mission of connecting people together. Her blog regularly makes me draw in a sharp breath in recognition, or moves me to tears, or makes me feel heard and understood, or says something I want to say in a way that is much more clever. To be honest, even though I know Melton sees a much more inclusive vision, it sometimes felt too much like #whitepeopleproblems, a place for suburban, white and wealthy moms absorbed in their own struggles. Her writing annoys me sometimes, so much so that I can’t even make it through a blog post because of ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS.

So, I didn’t reach for Carry On, Warrior right away. I knew it was important to read it, that I would find some great things inside, but I also felt like it might give me a headache.

I was wrong. Because it’s a book and not a blog, Carry On, Warrior is edited. That means it’s all the best, most wonderful stuff from Momastery, refined and honed into greater beauty. Glennon Doyle Melton is a good writer, and I suspect she had a good editor, because what emerges here is a stronger, clearer and more compelling voice for Melton, but one that remains uniquely hers. It’s still raw, not polished; authentic, not packaged. She’s become a much better writer, and what I found in Carry On, Warrior is a beautiful memoir of faith and hope. It’s only fitting that Melton, whose best appeal is her vulnerability about her own struggles, lives that story again as a writer. This isn’t a mess, it’s a beautiful, humorous collection of essays on life and love that reveals the holy in all our mess.

Melton tells stories from her brutiful life (beautiful + brutal, a term she coined), and invites us to see where God is present in them and in our brutiful lives. She covers her journey through addiction recovery and an eating disorder, the ups and downs of marriage and parenting, and finding faith and family. She has a straightforward way of explaining things using everyday metaphors that is deceptively simple. Her observations seem obvious, until you consider them for just a moment and realize their power. It’s a skill like Jesus, taking ordinary stuff and imbuing it with holy meaning. Also like Jesus, at every turn she offers glimpses of beauty and hope. I guess I probably sound like a fangirl now, against my will.

Below are some of my favorite examples, to get a sense of the power of Carry On, Warrior.

I like to compare God’s love to the sunrise. That sun shows up every morning, no matter how bad you’ve been the night before. It shines without judgment. It never withholds. It warms the sinners, the saints, the druggies, the cheerleaders–the saved and the heathens alike. You can hide from the sun, but it won’t take that personally. It’ll never, ever punish you for hiding. You can stay in the dark for years or decades, and when you finally step outside, it’ll be there. It was there the whole time, shining and shining. It’ll still be there, steady and bright as ever, just waiting for you to notice, to come out, to be warmed. … The sunrise was my daily invitation from God to come back to life. (19)

Here, in an open letter to her son, she tackles two of the most divisive questions among Christians today, the interpretation of scripture and what it means to be born again. Suddenly, all those divisions seem to fall away.

Much of the Bible is confusing, but the most important parts aren’t. Sometimes I wonder if folks keep arguing about the confusing parts so they don’t have to get started doing the simple parts. … If a certain scripture turns our judgment outward instead of inward, if it requires us to worry about changing others instead of ourselves, if it doesn’t help us become better lovers of God and life and others, if it distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing down here–finding God in everyone, feeding hungry people, comforting the sick and the sad, giving whatever we have to give, and laying down our lives for our friends–then we assume we don’t understand it yet, and we get back to what we do understand. Chase, what we do understand is that we are reborn.

The first time you’re born, you identify the people in the room as your family. The second time you’re born, you identify the whole world as your family. Christianity is not about joining a particular club; it’s about waking up to the fact that we’re all in the same club. (141)

She comes head-on at one of my favorite topics, the importance of church in Christian life.

Any faith worth a damn is a faith worked out over a lifetime of relationships with other people. Church is just a commitment to try to live a life of a certain quality–a life of love, of humility, of service–alongside others for whom you care and allow to care for you, even when that’s difficult. It’s a group of regular old humans trying to love each other and the world in superhuman ways. And so it’s a hard way of life, but to me, it’s the only way of life that makes any sense. When people ask me if faith, if church, is comforting to me, I say, “Sort of.” But mostly it’s challenging. (219)

With this book, Glennon Doyle Melton has moved well past the title of “mommy blogger,” and become a writer whose truth-telling cuts through the noise and gives voice to the presence of God in the midst of our everyday lives. I have flags in three pages already, with plans to use quotations for upcoming sermons. This is after already developing an entire sermon on her principles (We Can Do Hard Things) just a few weeks ago. I look forward to reading much more from her in the future.

The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez, Westminster John Knox, 2007, 99 pp.

This is the first of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The-Apostles-Creed-for-TodayJusto Gonzalez always offers an accessible, straightforward, learned perspective on topics of Christian history and theology, while remaining attentive to the life of faith. His theology is fairly orthodox (he is United Methodist), but he does not ignore questions or controversies. His book on the Apostles’ Creed is no different. While it was among the shortest I read in this whole series, it still contained a great deal of insight and information I found nowhere else.

Gonzalez begins with a “fact or fiction” analysis of the origins of the creed, describing the fiction that the original disciples each authored one sentence of the creed while sitting around a table and the fact of the creed’s uncertain origins but precursor “R” (for Rome) widely known throughout the early Christian community in the early second century. He also traces the use of the creed in interrogatory form from early Christian baptism to its status as a personal statement of faith or even a test of faith in contemporary context.

The remainder of the book offers a short, 3-5 page commentary on each section of the creed, which Gonzalez divides into 13 sections. The commentaries he offers are brief, but insightful. Rather than the approach many authors take of seeking scriptural support for each creedal claim, Gonzalez mixes a bit of scripture, some early Christian context, and some history of the controversies that were implied by each creedal claim. The result was a helpful, interesting mixture of ideas for preaching.

For example, one of the observations I found only in Gonzalez’ work was a discussion of the Roman paterfamilias and Greek pantokrator as context for the creed’s opening lines. To the original ear, the image of “God the Father Almighty” likely conjured power and authority far more than tenderness and care. However, that same power and authority did point beyond the worldly powers of Rome and all systems of oppression toward a higher authority of redemption, especially when paired with addressing Jesus as Lord.

Gonzalez has a way of honing in on the key questions that are at stake in the creed, and naming them in such a way that we see how those same questions remain at stake for us as well.  His brevity in this book summons the critical issues, adds relevant context, and leaves us with plenty to ponder. I recommend this slim volume to any preacher studying the creeds for its thought-provoking content, and to small groups looking for a study. Each chapter also contains a few questions for discussion.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans, Nelson Books, 2015, 269 pp.

Searching for SundayI am enormously grateful for the voice of Rachel Held Evans and the contribution she makes to the contemporary conversation about what it means to be a Christian, to be a church, to love God and live as God intends. For me, she is added to a growing list of authors whose work gives a fresh eloquence to ancient questions, people like Rob Bell and Nadia Bolz-Weber. When I read their books, I never feel like I am reading anything monumental as a new idea or paradigm-shattering concept, but instead I find a new generation voicing the ancient-yet-always-new vision and theology at the core of our Christian faith. I know that for some people, these authors rock the boat and rock their world. That’s not the case for me, though it doesn’t make me any less of a fan. It’s as if someone gives eloquent voice to what I’ve been thinking for 20 years already. I’m indebted and grateful to these authors for giving me a way to share this with others, whether those whose boats need rocking, those who’ve already sprung a leak, and those feeling about to drown.

Searching for Sunday offers a refreshingly life-affirming take on the traditional seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick and marriage. Evans made the journey out of fundamentalism and found a new home in the Episcopal church. This book traces that evolution by placing her personal stories in sacramental context, tying these holy acts to the ordinary elements of our lives. I loved the way she makes these holy mysteries accessible and interwoven with the water, bread, hands, sins of our lives.

Mostly, I love her prose. It’s not the major, overarching insights of the book that draw me–it’s the minute crystals of light that she captures, phrases and ideas I want to remember and revisit for preaching and teaching the future. Here are a few of my favorites.

This book is entitled Searching for Sunday, but it’s less about searching for a Sunday church and more about searching for Sunday resurrection. It’s about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again. (xviii)

I hadn’t yet learned that you tend to come out of the big moments–the wedding, the book deal, the trip, the death, the birth–as the exact same person who went in, and that perhaps the strangest surprise of life is it keeps on happening to the same old you. (14)

Most days I don’t know which is harder for me to believe: that God reanimated the brain function of a man three days dead, or that God can bring back to life all the beautiful things we have killed. Both seem pretty unlikely to me. … What the church needs most is to recover some of its weird. … We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love. There’s nothing normal about that. (21-22)

I often wonder if the role of the clergy in this age is not to dispense information or guard the prestige of their authority, but rather to go first, to volunteer the truth about their sins, their dreams, their failures, and their fears in order to free others to do the same. … There is a difference, after all, between preaching success and preaching resurrection. (112)

I could only proclaim the great mystery of faith–that Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again, and that somehow, some way, this is enough. This body and this blood is enough. At Eagle Eyrie I learned why it’s so important for pastors to serve communion. It’s important because it steals the show. It’s important because it shoves you and your ego and your expectations out of the way so Jesus can do his thing. It reminds you that grace is as abundant as tears and faith as simple as food. (140)

If you are looking for words to describe how God is alive in the church, ancient and new, Rachel Held Evans points the way. She reclaims the historic witness of the church and places it squarely in the middle of our 21st century mess, and sees where God is alive and moving among us. Her words give me words to claim faith anew.

 

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.

First PaulI was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.

Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:

First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)

Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.

Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.

The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,

Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)

Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.

The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.

The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.

“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)

Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.

The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.

I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.

 

Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated by R.H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth, Simon & Schuster, Touchstone edition, 1959, 316 pp.

51G4bZO8VMLThis last Epiphany, the lectionary presented the first two chapters of the Sermon on the Mount. As I approached a multi-week sermon series on those famous words of Jesus leading into the season of Lent, it seemed an appropriate time to re-read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic. I have also been lately pondering the idea of discipleship, its importance in our current context and how, as a church, we direct our efforts toward growing disciples.

The opening chapter on cheap grace versus costly grace always cuts to the quick, and it has made this book such a classic, even though it was written long before Bonhoeffer’s incredible story of resistance to the Nazis. However, in my reading this time around, I focused instead on the themes of discipleship, starting here:

Hitherto the Christian life had been the achievement of a few choice spirits under the exceptionally favorable conditions of monasticism; now it is a duty laid on every Christian living in the world. The commandment of Jesus must be accorded perfect obedience in one’s daily vocation of life. (48)

Reading with different eyes this time, I saw the way that Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace accorded with many descriptions of Christian life under Christendom. “The antithesis between Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world.” (51) Bonhoeffer saw that the easy merger between Christianity and citizenship led to a cheap and shallow faith, because it required neither sacrifice nor dedication to practice it. Authors in our context today refer to this as American Christendom or civic religion–a system of basic weekly attendance, public rituals and shared beliefs that amount to little transformation, and barely resemble the Christianity of Christ. (See Robinson, Dean, and Reese, among others.)

Bonhoeffer then presents the distinct marker of true discipleship: obedience. “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes… For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.” (63-64) The next several chapters go on to describe the requirements of single-minded obedience to Christ–not to ideas or principles or communities, but to Christ alone. The foundation of discipleship for Bonhoeffer is simple obedience to Christ in all things. The remaining chapters of commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and the subsequent section on issues of church doctrine (baptism, communion, saints, community) are all teasing out what it means to be absolutely obedient to Christ.

I was struck by the power of this idea of obedience in Bonhoeffer’s own context. The Cost of Discipleship was originally published in Germany in 1937, as Hitler and the Nazi regime were consolidating their power over the German people by demanding absolute obedience to the Fuhrer. Obedience to orders was a ubiquitous concept at the time–and Bonhoeffer simply substituted another figure whom we ought to obey. Replacing obedience to “law and order” or the Fuhrer with obedience to Christ and the law of sacrificial love turns everything upside down.

I also ponder how this works in our 21st century American culture, when obedience is loathed as a word and a concept. Especially in my progressive United Church of Christ context, obedience is connected with behavior that is uncritical, unfaithful, immature, and an affront not only to the individual but to God. We like to imagine that we have a more collegial relationship, even with the Almighty. We do not just follow orders (especially since we disagree about what those orders might be), but we see ourselves as evolving on a spiritual journey. We speak of becoming mindful servants, not mindlessly obedient–not even if our mind is replaced by the mind of Christ. It’s tough to imagine an invitation to absolute obedience to Christ generating a lot of interested new disciples.

And yet, I did not disagree with Bonhoeffer’s perspective about obedience (although I did take issue with some other things later in the book). What hope have we for nurturing new disciples if obedience remains a dirty word? How can we speak of the same thing in new ways? The ideas of fidelity, loyalty, dedication, belonging and identity might address the same concept in a way more appealing to 21st century American ears and hearts, yet I think something would be lost in translation. When it comes down to it, discipleship requires saying “yes” to Christ’s command to follow, which means a resounding “no” to much of the ways of the world.

There are, of course, many other things that can be said of this spiritual classic, but I will leave those to another future re-reading. If you’ve never read Bonhoeffer, or never read The Cost of Discipleship, I commend it to you highly. The first five chapters represent some of the most powerful insights on discipleship in all of Christian theology.

 

 

 


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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