Listening to Dietrich

In the opening days of the pandemic, when everything came to a grinding halt and people everywhere were looking for a way to fill the time, I decided to read through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. My rational was simple: Bonhoeffer’s experience of being away from his family and friends during the high celebrations of Good Friday or Easter, might prove helpful to me in my own sojourn away from the community of faith. Indeed, this proved to be true. Bonhoeffer’s words provided me both clarity and perspective. I found myself moved by his words. His reflection on the being able to hear the church bells from inside his prison cell, and how that lifted his reflection to the unceasing presence of the Church was particularly relevant for me at the time.

I have always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work Life Together has become the top book in my library (besides the Bible of course!). I used many of Bonhoeffer’s insights in my doctoral study on Christian community. In fact, I joked with many of my fellow students that my thesis really ought to be three words: “Read Life Together.” During my studies, I moved from Life Together, to Bonhoeffers own doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio.” A thicker read, a harder read, but worth it, nonetheless. The two sing texts together splendidly. In many respects Sanctorum Communio is the theological basis upon which Life Together is founded.

Thus, following my walk through his Letters and Papers, I decided to tackle some of Bonhoeffer’s other writings. I jumped to Discipleship, which I had read before yet forgotten just how profound this work is. What was particularly moving for me as I re-read this work was the decision remain cognizant of the Nazi regime continually playing in the background. After all, this was the very context in which Bonhoeffer was writing, and the very world he was addressing. Aided by the excellent editorial notes, Bonhoeffer’s profoundly prophetic teaching reverberated with new clarity. I began to see the depth of his faith, his passion, and his bravery.

Since then, I have continually had Bonhoeffer by my side. I re-read Life Together and then moved to Creation and Fall. I even began listening to a podcast through The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, hosted by Pastor Robert Schenck. Recently, my wife gave me the devotional “A Year with Bonhoeffer,” and I have just begun tackling Bonhoeffer’s Ethics – A series of writings he worked on between the years of 1940 and 1945. After all, as Schenck says frequently in the podcast, “if you want to understand Bonhoeffer, you have read Ethics.”

Throughout this time, Bonhoeffer’s voice has continually risen out of the pages of history. I find his words to possess an uncanny clarity and relevance for our lives today, particularly considering the many social, political, theological, and ethical questions we are facing. When I spend time with Dietrich, I often forget that I am reading a theologian of the past. His voice is pre-eminently current.

Case in point:  On the very day when supporters of President Trump, on his strong insistence, stormed the Capital Building in the United States, in direct defiance of law, order, and the democracy they hold to so dearly, I read these words from Bonhoeffers Ethics:

For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminals. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.

Beside these words I wrote “This is scary.” The obvious similarity between the despiser of humanity in Bonhoeffer’s day, and that which is occurring south of the border is frightening to say the least. I cannot read these words and not hear Bonhoeffer speak directly to our world, and our time.

It is not simply the similarity between the two individuals that is frightening. Underneath it all is the church’s continual vacillation to governmental power. Bonhoeffer constantly spoke against the state church of the day, and their complicity in the Nazi program. With full knowledge of the horrors of the holocaust the church bowed its head and abandoned its theological and moral principles. Sadly, in some cases, the church acted in full support. Well known, and well-regarded, theologian of the day, Paul Althous referred to Adolf Hitler as “a gift and miracle for God.” To be clear, this was not said by some unknown theologian on the fringes. At the time of this statement, Althous was a professor at the University of Erlangen and had long established himself as one among the most prominent of Lutheran theologians. Preeminent Bonhoeffer Scholar, Victoria Barnett, writes “[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches’] failure to respond to the horrid events…was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches’ lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.” (The Role of Churches in Nazi Germany | ADL)

This makes my heart hurt, but honestly, so does the capitulation of the Evangelical Church in the States to the modern day “despiser of humankind.” After all, it is probably not too much of a stretch to assume that many of the individuals marching on the Capital probably self-confess to be pious and devout Christians. But even if this is not been the case, the church today has been silent amid all the dehumanizing activity of the sitting president. While we may be uncomfortable drawing a direct comparison between Donald and Adolf, we should not ignore the fact that silence of the church in our day is eerily similar to the silence of the church in the 1930’s and 40s.

Given this, Bonhoeffer’s voice sounds louder and louder in my mind and heart. His witness is frighteningly prophetic. And yet, therein lies some hope. For if Bonhoeffer was a pastor who could fearlessly speak against the horrors of his day, then this opens the door for us all. We can speak out. The church can have a voice. What is more, in the witness of his words, and his martyrdom, the church does have a voice. So, let us rise and listen to Dietrich. Let us hear the faithful call to dismantle all the lies and falsehoods of today. More importantly, with Bonhoeffer’s insistence and example, let’s hear the call to be a better Church, and better Christians.

The day I fell out of love with contemporary praise music (again)

I remember distinctly the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship music.  It was during my first year of university.  While always a Christian, my faith grew in passion and energy through the Vineyard explosion of the 90’s. This deepening of my faith coupled with my learning to play the guitar.  Almost instantaneously I found myself playing in worship bands and youth retreats.  I eagerly sought the newest recordings from Vineyard and Hillsong; Brian Doerksen and Darlene Zschech were my companions in faith and worship. During this time, contemporary worship was very much the background music of my life.

Then it happened.  I had purchased the latest worship offering from Vineyard, Langley, titled “Winds of Worship Volume 8.” The album contained some worship songs I already knew and loved, songs like “Not Be Shaken” and “I Lift My Eyes Up (Psalm 121). Along with the album, I purchased the accompanying music book and was excited to learn the newest offerings in contemporary worship. Words can never really express how my heart sank as I listened to the first song on the album.  The song was called “Hop on the Bus”, and began like this:

Hop on the Bus
God’s on the move
There’s a seat for me
There’s a seat for you.


I have nothing against singer/songwriter Scott Underwood, but I had to question the theological depth of these lyrics.  I remember sitting in my room thinking “Is this what contemporary praise music has come to – a vain appeal to hype and emotionalism?” I classified the song as corny, not fun, and annoying, not memorable.  More importantly, however, I found that the song offered nothing in the way of an intelligent articulation of faith. I guess no one really cares about theological truth when you can get people to jump around during a worship set. That was the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship.

I had hoped that things had gotten better in the years between then and now.  Yet this same sense of spiritual heartbreak occurred just the other day as I drove my 14-year-old son to school.  My son exclusively listens to Toby Mac and loves to listen to Shine FM when in the car. While my worship-sensibilities rest more with hymnody and Taizé, I rejoice in my son’s enjoyment of worship music.  

As we drove, Chris Tomlin’s newest hit “God’s Great Dance Floor” came up in the rotation. My son listened as the song began, then looked at me quizzically.  “Where is God’s dance floor?” he asked.  As we listened to the song together, my son interjected with appropriate questions, questions pertaining to the song’s lack of theology.  “Is God’s great dance-floor earth, or heaven? If it is on earth, where is it?  If it is in heaven, is this song about death?”  Then there was the doozy of the question, the one that (I think) goes to the central problem with Tomlin’s hit “What if I don’t feel like dancing?” 

Rising within me were the same concern as those from the tail end of my Vineyard days.  Is this where contemporary worship has led us?  Ultimately, praise songs like “Hop on the Bus”, and “God’s Great Dance Floor” are not written to edify people or educate them in the faith.  They exist only to entertain.  What is sought is emotionalism and hype. Consider some of the lyrics of Tomlin’s song.

I’m coming back to the start
Where you found me
I’m coming back to your heart
Now I surrender
Take me
This is all I can bring

These lyrics sound nice, but ultimately have no meaning. What does it mean to “come back to the start” anyway?  The song itself never discloses this, and so the worshiper is left abandoned.  If we find the answer from the song itself, then “coming back to the heart of God” is seen only in the context of our surrender to upbeat music and call-and-response type lyrics.  Theologically, however, this makes absolutely no sense.  The place where God “found us” is in our own creation.  We are created in the image of God.  God is the first mover in this relationship of ours; we love because he first loved us. 

The miss-guided theological point of this song is clear: being in God’s heart will move us to dancing.  To come to God in faithful surrender is to be blessed forever by an upbeat and happy life.  Life with God is one big party.  As Tomlin proclaims (over and over and over) we feel alive, and come alive, on God’s dance floor.

All of this is a lie.  The song presents a false understanding of Christian faith.  While it may play well on the stage it is devastating to our Christian lives.  What happens when we find out that life is not a constant party?  What do we do when all the dancing stops and the upbeat tempo of life is met with tragedy, hardship, or struggle?  As to my son’s question, what happens when we do not feel like dancing, or cannot dance, because of the weight of all we carry?  Tomlin is not worried about this.

Back in the day, hymn writers sought to describe the finer points of theological truth with their hymns. Sure, the tunes may have been ripped from the contemporary music of the day, but the content of their lyrics were saturated with theology.  This is not to say that they always got it right.  Personally, speaking I cringe whenever we describe the newly born Christ-child through the phrase “no crying he makes.”  This makes no sense theologically and undercuts the very incarnation the hymn is trying to disclose.  But they hymn is trying to disclose a nuanced theology of the incarnation. Hymns of the past attempted to educate the church with the truth of the Gospel. They made people think and reflect on their faith. You may not like all the hymns the Wesley’s wrote, but you cannot deny the theological density infused in each one of them. 

This theological richness has meant that these hymns have borne the test of time, evidenced by the fact that Tomlin, and others, often repackage these hymns as praise songs.  The church today still sings out Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and How Great Thou Art.  Even the more pastoral or sentimental classics like “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” continue to find a place in many churches of varying denominations.

I doubt if anyone today is still singing Hop on the Bus.  And, for all its flash, I am willing to bet that next year no one will be signing about God’s great dance floor.  Tomlin’s hit will be replaced by what ever high-emotional, catchy tune is the “it song” for the moment.  Therein lies the inherent problem with so much of contemporary worship.  We have created a praise-culture that simply moves from emotionalism to emotionalism, from frenzied experience to frenzied experience.  For Tomlin, the dancefloor is the concert stage.  The point of the song is to have concert goers sing along to the chorus as they jump around in a state of frenzy. When that no longer occurs through these lyrics, they will be replaced by others.

This is not written to shame Tomlin.  I, actually, like a lot of the songs he pens. I think he is a good and faithful artist.  But I think, with this song, he succumbed to the temptation that plagues so many – the temptation to be liked.  I feel that with this song, he drifted away from the call of worship in favour of the desire to be marketable.   This is a temptation that we all feel at times, me include.

So, all of this is to say, to myself, but also to my fellow worship leaders, organ directors, pastors, and priests – let us do better.  Let us return to an understanding of worship as a point of education. Let us not treat our congregations as theological simpletons, feeding them with sound-bytes that offer little to no nourishment. Let us empower our congregation to grow spiritually and theologically.  Perhaps what the church needs today is less catchy tunes and more theological depth to what we sing.  So, whether we use organs or guitars, let us sing faithfully, passionately, and deeply.

A prophetic push: A review of Conrad Mbewe’s book “God’s design for the Church.”

When one loves to read, write, or ponder, the nature of the church, it can be tempting to remain rooted in one’s own cultural or denominational context.  This would be a mistake.  The church is not simply the church as it exists in Canada.  Thus, ever since I found my affinity ecclesiological works, I have attempted to hear voices form outside my own context. Conrad Mbewe’s God’s Design for the Church was the latest text I took up in this way.  I received a complimentary copy through Crossway’s blog review program, and it is as part of this program that I offer this review. 

The story behind Mbewe’s book is one of the things that first captivated me.  Mbewe is unashamedly writing about, and for, the African context.  He describes how the church in Africa has exploded exponentially, with new church congregations popping up on a weekly basis.  While not criticizing this, nor denying that the western church can learn a lot from the African context, Mbewe breaths a word of caution.  Such church pop-ups are not always rooted in biblical reality. Thus, Mbewe tackles various situations and ideas, that for a western Christian may appear nonsensical, even humorous at times, yet are real threats to the church in Africa.  As he writes “I recognize the need for the application of Christian truth to vices that are peculiarly African” (16).

What I valued most in this work is the anecdotes about the African church that flow throughout the work.  I found this valuable precisely because it pushed me beyond my own context.  For example, Mbewe speaks of the tendency to make the preacher of the Gospel simply another form of “witch doctor” or “tribal chief.”  The danger in this, as Mbewe explains, is that the congregation blindly bestows authority and power upon the church leader.  Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the new churches in Africa, Mbewe explains, have no biblical or theological training.  For example, Mbewe speaks of one church leader who told his congregation to eat grass to draw close to God (45). In telling such stories and anecdotes, Mbewe masterfully speaks to the pertinent theological or biblical point.  Thus, while learning about the uniqueness of the African church, Mbewe also provides a great education on the biblical and theological roots for any ecclesiology.  

In this way, I found that Mbewe’s book spoke prophetically to the western church.  Consider some of the issues common in the African context: “Church leaders sometimes want to use the power of their numbers to sway political elections” (43); Worship songs are “about some vague “blessing” that God bestows upon us.  What matters are the danceable tunes…They do not lead to true worship, only self-indulgence”(67); the need to “bring back servant leadership”(109).  In each of these descriptions, and many more like it, I found a correlation with that which plagues the Christian church in the western context. In reading about the Church in Africa, and about the issues and concerns there, I was more able to hear the challenges and concerns for the church in my own context.

God’s Design for the Church is a unique read.  It opened my eyes to a church culture beyond my own.  I did not agree with everything that Mbewe wrote about, either biblically, theologically, or denominationally.  That’s ok.  Ultimately, I finished my read feeling like I was better equipped to serve the church in my own context, by reading about the Church in the African context.  And for that I am grateful.

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Hubris and Humility, When I get too big for my britches.

We know David to be hero of the Old Testament.  He is the man noted to be “after God’s own heart” (1st Samuel 13:14); he slew Goliath when everyone else was too scared to enter the battle field (1st Samuel 17); he grew to be a mighty warrior, a successful king, a consummate leader.  To top it all off, it is of “David’s line” out of which the Messiah is to come.  You can’t get much more of a compliment than that!

All that beings said, we cannot forget the David is also a man with flaws. In scanning David’s life, we see that David was a man who frequently lived out a sense of entitlement.  David lived and acted with a great deal of hubris.  This self-confidence served him in his tasks, but as he progressed from fabled hero, to military strategist, to mighty King, we see David’s confidence turning to pride.  David begins acting out whatever desire or wish that enters his fancy.

One of the most intriguing examples of this is David’s desire to build the temple of the Lord.  We read about this in 2nd Samuel 7.  Having been named King and now residing in the palace, David reflects on a lack of a “house” for God.  Here he is, in a palace of Cedar while the ark of God lies in a tent.  Surely this shouldn’t be the case, David thinks.  And so, resolved to rectify the situation, David sets out to construct the temple.

To be fair to David, I am sure that his desire to build God’s temple was born initially out of faith.  Furthermore, he did go to the prophet Nathan and seek counsel (it was Nathan who spoke out of turn).  Yet part of me wonders if something more is going on within David.  Is David’s desire to build the temple entirely altruistic?  I wonder if this is an instance of David being too big for his britches? I wonder if David believes that the Lord needs David to manage the LORD’s affairs in the world.  After all, he was the one who slew Goliath; he was the one who brought the ark back to Jerusalem; he was the one who was the continually saved the nation, he was the glorious king of Israel.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to believe that David thought “now the LORD needs me to build the temple, because nobody else is able to.”  The fact that building the temple would establish David as the head of the political and religious life of the nations probably didn’t hurt either!  Such an action would have only served to strengthen David’s authority and garner allegiance from all of Israel. (As smart as savvy as he was, I can’t believe that this escaped his notice). The point is, instead of humility and humbleness, David moved to erect the temple out of a misplaced attempt to manage where God resided, and how God was approached.

Do I ever live out such hubris?  Do I ever fall in to a mistaken belief that Jesus needs me to micromanage his affairs in this world?  Instead of humility and acceptance, do I ever believe that I am the one who gets to call the shots, with the Lord dutifully falling in line behind me?  Honestly, there are probably times when I do this.  I probably do this when I believe that God’s presence and activity in church is contingent on my perfect sermon or the perfect execution of liturgy.  I probably act like David a bit too much when I assume that God thinks about everything the exact same way I do; and when I assume that the head of the Church needs me to save his Church, am I not getting a little too big for my own britches?

David does not build the temple; he is told to cease-and-desist.  Nathan comes to him with the divine word that he is not the one to build the temple.  Yet, God’s response to David in this is beautifully instructive.  David isn’t just told “no”, he is reminded of the LORD’s power and guidance in the establishment of the nation, and his own family.  David is told how God has moved with the Israelite’s each day and how no ruler of the nation was ever tasked to build the LORD a house of cedar. I think there is a not-so-subtle reprimand here.  God is, in effect, saying “Who do you think you are to assume that you are the one to do this?”  David, with all the hubris flowing through him, is called to humility. He is reminded of his rightful place before the true and rightful King.

And then God says something profound.  God takes David’s desire, stated in verse 2, and flips it on its head.  In light of David’s desire to build God a house, the LORD affirms “I will provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so they can have a home” (7:10).  Furthermore “The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you” (7:11).  Again, David is lovingly put in his place.  The LORD does not need David to establish a house, because Israel’s future is in the LORD’s hands.  God is in control. David’s task in life is not manage God’s presence and activity in the world, but to humbly receive the blessings that God bestows.  David is asked to follow God’s lead; to do that which Gods him to do, and to not do what God does not call him to do.  Instead of crafting a house for God, God will establish a house for David.  Despite the great accomplishments and accolades David may have to his name, in the end, he is but a servant of the heavenly King.

It can be hard to be taken down a peg, to have God address our prideful hubris.  But this is necessary if we want to live our lives faithfully before God. In love, God reminds us of our place as part of His creation.  We are people formed of the earth, crafted in God’s image, redeemed by His love.  As such, God calls us to the place of submission.  We are called to receive, not create, the will of the Lord.  Furthermore, in those times where we may not know what the next phase of our journey is, we are called to wait for the Lord.  God does not need our management-strategies or our directions. God does not need us to create a path, construct a legacy, build a future.  These things are in God’s hands, and despite our knowledge or insight, God’s plan will prevail.  Instead of attempting to manage divine things, therefore, we should use our energy to be diligent in prayer and humble in spirit.   After all, as David’s son once put it, “Unless the Lord build’s the house, we but labour in vain.”

Bonhoeffer, Statistics, and the True Focus of the Church.

Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse?  I mean, sure he was invited.  We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine.  We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor.  However, is that where it ends?  Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?

This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal.  In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?”  The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada.  At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more.  Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom!  The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond.  Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.

This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past.  When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established.  One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!”  Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.

Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be.  To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future.  Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?

When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature.  Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community.  (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)

Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church.  For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige.  The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37).   We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community.  We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.”  In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure.  As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36).  Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37)  We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst.  Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community.  Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.  The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)

Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?

It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications.  We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day.  I believe such a response is misguided.  One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry.  Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige.  In fact, the exact opposite was the case.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda.  The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future.  Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught.  Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however.  The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.

Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality.  Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside.  The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust.  Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them.  Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent.  In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past.  Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.

This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years.  Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future.  There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!”  Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence.  This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations.  Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics.  Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts.  Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

 

*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).