In Conversation with Steve Bell

Sometimes it pays to be bold with emails. I have long had a deep affinity for the music of Steve Bell. Not only is he a gifted musician and singer/songwriter, but he also conveys a deep thoughtfulness about the matters of faith. Steve loves the Church, and he loves Christians. He also loves the Psalms. This made him one of the first people I thought of when I desired to have these conversations.

Please enjoy the video below. Unfortunately, Steve’s audio is fairly quiet, so you will have to turn up your volume to hear him. Blessings!

When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

A Conversation: with David O. Taylor

The Psalms have become a source of constant inspiration for me. They have informed my prayer-life far more than any liturgical resource or devotional text out there. Within the Psalms I find the language of praise, adoration, and awe-struck worship; I also find the words for when I need to lament, cry, and yell. The Psalms affirm to me that there is nothing about my life – nothing about me – that cannot be presented to God. Nothing is to be hidden. I can live my life with Jesus open, and unafraid.

Open and unafraid. That is the title to David O. Taylor’s book on the psalms. I was delighted when the formation small-group in my parish chose David’s book to work through. I am excited to begin this journey into the Psalms with them, in only a few short weeks.

On a whim, I decided to contact David to see if he had time to chat. Happily, he agreed. Below is our conversation; I know you will be blessed by David’s insight and passion for the Psalms. (Apologies for the time when the video get’s stuck – just stay with it and it will right itself). Enjoy!

Being Kingdom-Minded

Note: This post was originally part of a blog series called “52 Weeks of Simplicity”. I got so distracted that I never completed the series!

I have noticed the strangest urge within me. Every time I sit at my desk with my Bible open, in preparation for sermon work or Bible study, a small voice goes off in my brain demanding that I check the current feed on Facebook or Instagram. When I sit reading, my mind immediately goes to a thousand tasks that I have before me. But when I engage in any of those tasks, I long for the quiet focus of silence and solitude.

Have you struggled with a similar thing?

We live in a world of constant noise and distraction. There is always something to tear us away from what we focus on in any given moment. Images flash before us, ever changing what we are thinking about or reflecting on. Music provides an endless soundtrack to life; we find it in malls, in banks, in hospital waiting rooms. The frenetic pulses of the world we live in, like a migraine that won’t end, eventually takes it’s toll on us.  The world views slow, methodical, focus a detriment and multitasking a virtue. We say things like ‘I wish there were more hours in the day’, or ‘If I only had a few more hands’ or ‘please stop the world I’d like to get off!’ We feel exhausted and tired because of the ceaseless pace of the world we live in.

Is this there a way to break out of this type of life? Can we combat the overexposure of sights and sounds, the barrage of messages highlighting self-indulgence, and that internal sense of being overwhelmed? Can Jesus lead us into a different way of living?

Jesus points us to a life of unhurried grace. He calls us to not worry over “what we shall eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Instead of running after the things of the world, the things the heavenly Father knows we need, Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom. When we do this, Jesus promises that all those things we tend to stress over will fall into our lives. They will be “added to us” if we but set our eyes, hearts, and souls toward following the Kingdom.

Like you, I have grown up with this verse. I have sung it as a hymn in churches many, many times. Yet I never really thought about what that verse points us to. What does it mean to seek first God’s kingdom in our lives? How do we go about this? And how does living for or in the kingdom of God, differ from living for or in the kingdom of this world?

Have you ever seen the movie City Slickers—starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? In this movie, Palance plays an old rugged cowboy named Curly, while Crystal acts the young mid-life crisis-baring city person. Crystal’s character is in awe of Curly because, as Curly’s life makes sense. He seems undistracted and singly focused. In the central scene of the movie Curly, with cigarette dangling from his mouth, says to the burden-laden Crystal, “You city folk are all the same. You spend 50 weeks tying knots in your rope and then think two weeks up here will untangle them for you. None of you get it. Do you know what the secret of life is. This. (Curly holds up his finger) One thing. Just one thing.’ With one speech Curly seems to disarm the frenetic distractions of the world.

Hollywood, of course, takes it’s typical turn and suggests that everyone must find their “one thing.” Unfortuantely, what this means is that everyone is called to seek his or her kingdom. The movie never really explores the glaring irony that seeking his own kingdom was what got Crystal discouraged in the first place. How do you define your “one thing”, when you feel lost and do not know where to look?

Jesus makes a stark difference between two fundamentally opposed manners of living. There is the way of seeking the kingdom, first and foremost in our lives; and there is the way of ‘The Pagans’. The way of the kingdom is unhurried, focused, and diligent. The way of the kingdom is to follow the path that Jesus hold out. We do not find the kingdom; we do not create it or produce it. The kingdom erupts around us. It is a gift of Jesus we are invited to enter, enjoy, and participate in.

This is contrasted with the way of the pagans—the way of the world. The way of the world is to run around in an intolerable scramble, trying to achieve that which we are worried about, yet can never fully receive. The way of the world is to find the clothes that make the man, to win with the most toys, and to keep up with the Jones’. Of course, whenever we believe ourselves to have procured our ultimate goal, we find it hollow and fleeting.

Jesus tells parable after parable about the centrality of following his Kingdom; it is a person searching for a rare pearl, a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep; a father searching for his lost son. The kingdom of God is to be that which redefines all of life. Unlike life according to the world—telling us we are to flit about in ten thousand directions at once, chasing everything and finding nothing; a simple, kingdom focused life arranges all actions, duties, and tasks around one unified and definitive principle and goal—life in the kingdom of God; life as a disciple of Jesus.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Psalm 73: A Song for the Faithfully Forlorn

We all get discouraged or frustrated in our faith. Our spiritual lives rarely occur exactly as we would imagine or hope. After all, we live in an imperfect world, and we bear those imperfections within ourselves. We all struggle. We all question. We all, at times, raise our voice to the heavens and scream “why?” These experiences are not a denial of our love for God. They do not indicate a loss of faith or a deconstruction of our spiritual life. They are a natural part of our relationship with the Lord. This is why the Book of Psalms are so important for us. The psalms show the normality of our questions and discouragements; they teach us how to voice our discomforts honestly and faithfully. Psalm 73 is a good example of this.

The psalm (attributed to Asaph) begins by heralding stalwart faith. Asaph speaks to God’s utmost goodness in providing for the righteous. He sings, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This affirmation almost rolls off the tongue. It reads like it may have been a spiritual slogan common to the day. Is this something Asaph had heard before? Was this the go-to response whenever someone voiced struggle or doubt; the ancient equivalent to a patronizing pat on the should and a softly spoken “there, there”?  Did someone turn to Asaph, immersed in a time of turmoil, and hurt, and offer the not-so helpful response of “There, there…Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” As if mouthed by one of Job’s friends, the subtle charge of such a statement implies that Asaph, mired in confusion and discouragement, is not pure in heart.

Have you ever had someone offer you such not-so-helpful spiritual soundbites?

Of course, Asaph believes this statement in principle. Yes, God is good.  Yes, God’s goodness is known to Israel. The problem is, in this moment, Asaph doesn’t experience this goodness. He is struggling. He is discouraged. His song describes how he has almost slipped and stumbled. The solid base of Asaph’s faithfulness appears shaken. The problem is not so much the imperfections of life, in and of themselves. What truly stings is how the arrogant and wicked appear to prosper. They seem blessed with unrestricted happiness.

Here is where the discouragement finds its roots. Do you see how verse 3 seems to contradict verse 1? Slogans of faith seem triumphant enough. They are catchy and repeatable. They stick in our minds. God is good…all the time…and all the time…God is good! Yet Asaph simply cannot deny that when looks at his own life, set against the lives of the arrogant and wicked, the goodness of God appears one sided. The wicked have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong. They live free from burdens. Despite scoffing at the Lord, they “lay claim to heaven” and enjoy the delightful possessions of the earth. Power, prestige, and privilege befall the wicked. Asaph, however, is left feeling divinely cast aside. For ten verses his complaints come gushing forth. Asaph holds nothing back.

Who hasn’t borne these questions today? How can we not? Mass media continually bombards us with new occurrences of prideful arrogance, violence, or oppression. We lift the rich and famous as the elite to emulate. Hollywood brags the good life, even though we are all aware of the deep narcissism, selfishness, and personal destruction that lurks behind the scenes. Despite continuous occurrences of personal, professional, and relational breakdown, the world tells us to look at them as if they are “always free of care as they go one amassing wealth.” Oh, if we could be like them, we think. Oh, if we made the money they did! Oh, if we had their house, their car, their glamour.

Asaph has these exact feelings. He is brutally honest, with himself, and with God. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”, he says. Can we be as honest enough to admit that, at times, we bear a similar envy?

What is the faithful response to such discouragement? How do we exude faithfulness when this sense of envy rises within us? Where do we go when we ask the haunting question “how come them and not me?” Asaph feels all this deeply. He feels that his faithful following of God’s ways has garnered him nothing but affliction and punishment. “In vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence”, he laments.

Feelings of deep spiritual discouragement are wrapped in dismay, hurt, and profound sadness. They are felt in that deep inner place where we are most uniquely ourselves. We should not, however, rush past our laments. We should not minimize these feelings or attempt to explain them away. Leaving our spiritual discouragement unexplored does us no spiritual good. To do so is to avoid meeting God in life’s unpleasantness. Too often our faith becomes abandoned as a result. The psalms diligently articulate feelings of discouragement to illustrate that they are a normal side of our spiritual lives. None of us are immune. Thus, instead of avoiding these feelings, or these questions, we should engage them. This is exactly what Asaph does in his song; Asaph enters his spiritual discouragement and begins to walk through it.

In his song, Asaph considers whether his faith is worth it, whether it really matters to believe in the Lord. Yet by sitting with these questions, Asaph concludes that the momentary delights of the world hold no weight against the eternal blessings of the Lord. He recognizes that wandering away from the Lord, in pursuit of vain pleasures, would be to abandon who was created to be. It would betray who he is at the core of his being.

Asaph comes to this realization in the sanctuary of God. In this sanctuary he is surrounded by people who struggle with the same struggles and ask the same questions. The sanctuary of God does not peddle easy answers. To be clear, Asaph does not return to the patronizing slogan of verse one. The sanctuary of God simply reminds him of the vision of God’s eternal glory and blessing. Surrounded by the worshiping (and lamenting) community, Asaph perceives the ultimate end of all who chase after momentary delights. When their spirits depart, they return to the ground, and all the baubles of the world come to naught. So instead of looking enviously upon the wicked, Asaph begins to set his gaze on the greatness of the Most High.

Of course, his newfound realization does not make his struggles vanish. Asaph does not escape his feeling of daily struggle or affliction. Tomorrow, the wicked will still flourish, and (most probably) Asaph will still feel discouraged. The difference is, despite the discouragement, despite the confusion, even despite the doubt, Asaph can say with confidence “I am always with you.” Spiritual discouragement, then, is an invitation to journey to a deeper place of faith. Relaying our honest struggles, as Psalm 73 illustrates, does not drive the Lord away. We lay hold of God more tightly when uncover our honest selves

The Lord is not offended by our questions. The Lord does not abandon us when we feel discouraged or dismayed. Our questions do not discredit our faith nor do our struggles indicate a deconstruction of our spirituality. They are but a deeper way we reach out to God for guidance, council, and support. It is because God is the one who journeys with us in the messiest of places that we can voice our laments. Even when our own hearts fail, God is the strength of our hearts, forever. God is faithful to us, even if we can’t see it.

We are all psalmists at heart. We sing out our joys and our dismays, our victories, and our struggles. We need not mask how we feel; the Lord knows it anyway. And as we sing, we are invited to experience the deep reality that, through it all, the Lord is our refuge, our guide, our strength, and our delight. We don’t have to figure things out. We don’t have to arrive at some “solution” to our plight. The spiritual life is not a Disney movie; things don’t always get wrapped up neatly at the end. That’s ok.

Despite his struggles and doubts, Asaph ends his song on an important note. “It is good for me to be near God”, he cries. In the end, that’s enough. This is where we, as psalmists, rest our faith. We rest not in well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory spiritual slogans nor in polite pats on the shoulder. Our faith is built not by gritting our teeth and pretending that we do not hurt. Instead, sing. We join Asaph’s psalm with our own. And despite the ups and downs and twist-turns of life, we dare to believe that it is good for us to be with God.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

A Valley of Bones

Have you ever felt the need to comment on something but find that you have no words to do so?  That’s how I feel in this moment. The country weeps in the wake of the newly discovered mass-grave on the property of a Kamloops Residential School.  Such things are what you expect to find in the despotic regimes of tyrannical rule.  It is not something you picture occurring in the lush landscapes of British Columbia.  The terrifying question is how many other graves like this exist. 

As if nothing could make this discovery worse, this unmarked, secret grave is filled with the bones of over 215 children.  This news makes my heart ache for so many reasons.  As a human being, I am sickened that anyone could so consistently, and flippantly, discard the bodies of children. As a Canadian, I hate that my country so easily adopted practices and attitudes that destroyed Indigenous lives and communities.  As someone raised in BC himself, I detest that Indigenous children were so de-valued, so unloved.  Did no one consider, even for one moment, that the bodies of these lifeless children should be treated with even the smallest amount of decency and respect?  Topping everything off, I feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment that Christian people, and the denomination that ran the school, could have so profoundly missed the point of the gospel.

Since the news of this discovery, I have been thinking a lot about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  This is probably because the discovery was made a few days following our celebration of Pentecost, and I preached on this passage.  Still, the picture of Ezekiel standing in a barren valley, looking upon a pit of lifeless bones, all strewn about, is hauntingly relevant for this time.

In this text, God’s Spirit leads Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry, exanimate bones. The bones are dry because they have laid in this spot for years, maybe even decades. The bones are long discarded, the people and families that once animated them long forgotten.  It is a vision of hopelessness and despair.  In response, The Spirit poses a question to the prophet, “Can these bones live?”

What if this is the precise question that we are asked today, as Canadians, as neighbours, as Christians?  Can the bones of these children live again?

Yes, they can.  These bones will live if we are willing to be affected by this discovery.  These bones will move with life if we allow them to shock us out of our comfortable complacency, the pleasant but action-less lip service that we sometimes give to things like TRUTH and RECONCILIATION and JUSTICE.  The bones will be an empowered force of God if we allow them to dismantle the long-standing and systemic denial of personhood that the Indigenous community frequently suffers under in our country.

Most importantly, these bones will live if we treat them, in death, with the respect they deserved in life; If we make the effort to uncover their names, their families, and their histories.  These bones will live if we take the burden and cost upon ourselves to provide a proper and dignified burial. 

But the bones of these children will never live so long as we see them as nothing more than a problem of the past. The bones will not move again if we see them as a footnote in a history text that we never read.  If we refuse to let these bones reach out to us, we condemn them to be dry for eternity.

As I write this, I find myself applying this question to myself, asking whether my own bones can live.    What if the Spirit’s question does not refer only to the bones of the children, but also to ours?  What if our bones have become dry to decency and compassion? What if we have become so accustomed to those privileges that we label “rights”, that we have become desiccated to the ever-loving Spirit of God within us?

Can our bones live?  They wont if we allow this discovery to simply be replaced by the next news cycle.  Our bones will not live if we say “Well I didn’t do anything to those children!”  Our bones will not live if we look at what is right and decide that it costs too much of our money or our time.  Our bones will not live if we refuse to hold our superiors accountable.  We will neve be spiritually alive so long as we refuse to join the Lord as he weeps beside the grave.

Ultimately, Ezekiel’s vision of the hopeless valley becomes a vision of a valley filled with life.  The disconnected bones become a vast multitude, made alive by God’s Spirit.  This occurs because Ezekiel interacts with the vision.  He prophesies to the bones.  He allows those bones to be a part of his faith experience, and he is ever changed for it.  May we allow ourselves to enter into this current bone-filled valley.  Although it may be uncomfortable, may we, under the Spirit’s leading, also speak to these bones, and allow them to speak to us.  May we be changed by them, and by doing so, find ourselves changed by the animating Spirit of God. 

Lessons in Prayer 2: The invitation to be dissatisfied

Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your prayers? Have you felt that despite your best efforts you have never plumbed the depths of everything that prayer can offer you?  Have you looked longingly to the saints before you, wishing to uncover a fraction of the prayerful intimacy they seemed to enjoy? I know I have.

For many years, I condemned myself for these feelings.  Although I loved prayer, would speak of prayer, and preached on it often, internally I felt I was describing something of which I only scratched the surface.  My dissatisfaction with prayer even, at times, drove me away from prayer. I believed my dissatisfaction was indicative of my failings in prayer.

Dissatisfaction with our prayer life is a sign of deepening faith, not the absence of it. This shift in understanding is vitally important. We can spend an exorbitant amount of time condemning ourselves for our own frustrations, instead of recognizing that the frustration is Christ’s invitation to journey deeper. Deeper prayer begins with a sense of restlessness, a desire for more. Satisfaction in our prayer life is indicative of a stalled prayer life.

The saints before us, to whom we often turn when looking for inspiring instruction in prayer, knew this reality well.  Their lessons on prayer did not come from a point of mastery, but from the heart of desire. They desired more in prayer. This realization gives us the right to own our frustrations in prayer; to articulate them and act upon them.  It is as we rest in our prayerful dissatisfaction that we actively trust that God works within us to move us to deeper prayer experiences.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many today are like me. I would not be surprised to learn that many within the church have never received a lesson on prayer. It is assumed that all the talk, reading, and preaching about prayer will suffice in developing active and ongoing prayer in our lives. In my own liturgical context (Anglicanism), it can be easy to leave our lessons about prayer to the specific liturgies printed in our liturgical texts. I am guilty of doing this in my own ministry. It is assumed that those who spend their time diligently mastering the “what” and “where” of a particular prayer book will naturally develop a rich prayer life. This is not a criticism of The Book of Common Prayer, or any specific liturgical text. Prayer books have a strong place in Christian history. Indeed, periods of deepening in my own prayer life have often coincided with a more frequent use of liturgy. Since shunning Morning and Evening prayer in seminary, I have discovered the value of these rites for our spiritual lives. In fact, I would now make the case that an inner familiarity with the “what” and the “where” of the prayer book does develop a rich prayer life within us. Yet our prayers must progress past rote reading. If the use of the prayer book is the only thing that defines our prayer-lives, then surely something is missing.

Prayer must move past simply reading words on a page. If it is true that many in our churches have never been taught the way of inner prayer, then I fear the church may have slowly drifted into a casual prayerlessness – an inability to engage in the activity of prayer from deep within our hearts. Our prayers can far too easily become reduced to nothing more than the internal recitation of memorized words with very little contemplation or concern. In this case our hearts remain disengaged. When this happens in our churches, and in our Christian lives, prayer becomes so routinized that the internal force of prayer has been lost. Prayer becomes reduced to words that are spoken, either in the silence of our minds or in response to the instruction from the liturgical leader.

Have you been feeling that your censer has been running on fumes?  Do you lack the intensity of prayer, both in power and desire, which marked the saints of old? In my pastoral ministry I have come across countless lifelong, faithful Christians who harbor an inward guilt because this is what they are feeling. They look upon their internal feelings of dissatisfaction and believe that it equates to failing in prayer. Yet prayer is a journey, and we in the church need to recapture the radical notion that our dissatisfaction is but an invitation. This is the way of Christian prayer. None of us ever rise to the top; it is not a skill we master.  Prayer, for the follower of Jesus is a way of being, an internal movement of heart and spirit through which we respond to the Lord’s presence in us, and in the world. Prayer is not simply something that we add onto our lives, it is the very ground out of which our life grows. Without prayer we simply cannot, we do not, live the Christian life.

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.

True Liberation – A reading of the Parable of the talents

(This post be long!)

This post arises out of question, posed on social media, about how we might mistakenly interpret this parable based on the privilege and capitalism of our North American context.  I took that to heart and looked for alternative interpretations, based largely in liberation theology.  I started writing out some of my thoughts on this and kept writing… and writing…. and writing.  I have included subheadings so that you can take this post in chunks if you so desire.  Peace!

Two ways not to read the parable

I have recently been sitting with the Parable of the Talents.  This is a well-known passage, albeit a difficult text to navigate homiletically. Is the master a good person or a bad person?  Did the third servant act in honour or in shame?  What exactly is going on?  The normative reading of this text lends itself to an interpretation where the first two servants are hailed due to their resourceful reproduction of talents. Each receive a double-return on their investments.  They earn money for the master and are duly praised for it.  The third servant does otherwise.  His failure to produce talents leads him to condemnation.  Not only is he verbally rebuked, but he is stripped of his resources and cast outside “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It seems cut and dry.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does.

Liberation theology lends itself to a different reading.  Liberations theology demands that we step away from the power-dynamics of a capitalist system to recover how the Gospel would have been received in the original context.  This is a good and needed challenge, and one I support.  We ought always to seek out how the gospel was, and is, received by those outside the dominant class of power and privilege.  After all, until the time of Constantine, this would have defined the Christian community.  Jesus spoke truth to power and combated, in word and deed, the exploitive practices of the empire.  Furthermore, the radicalness of Christ’s message was spoken to the those who were on the bottom of society, as opposed to those gilded in the golden halls of power.  The challenge must be heard.  The parable cannot be about increasing our power at the expense of others.

Interpretations rooted in liberation theology turn this parable on its head.  The third servant is not the bad guy, but the hero.  In burying the talent, the third servant refuses to be complicit in the master’s quest for economic rule by exploitive means.  The master, here, is rendered the evil capitalist. The third servant, therefore, acts as the prophetic witness against the exploitation of the poor.  The servant’s suffering at the end of the parable is a call for the Christian community to bear with the suffering of the weak and powerless.  Various interpreters will offer subtle nuances, but by-and-large, this is the interpretation.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does either.

Looking at the context

We can never uproot a passage from its context.  Sure, scholars may propose that Matthew inserts this parable into the narrative at this point for a certain literary purpose, yet this is always merely conjecture.  In the end, we have to deal with the Gospel record as we have it. It is always a danger to excise a passage of scripture from what comes before and after it. 

When we take the context into consideration, what we see is that this parable is about the kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching about what it means to live within the dynamic rule of the messiah, as they wait for his return.  This becomes clear when we see how the parables of Matthew 25 are put together. Jesus begins the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids with the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” While this phrase does not begin the parable of the talents, it is clearly continuation of the theme.  Consider verses 13 and 14, when read together; they read: “So, watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  For it will be like a man going on journey who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.”  Jesus is clear that the parable of the bridesmaids is about preparation for, and reception, of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is inaugurated by the Bridegroom himself. The parable of the Bridesmaids makes the clear point that those who are inadequately prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom are clearly in the wrong.  The following parable, flowing seamlessly from verse 13, continues with this theme. 

Evidence for the kingdom focus of the parable is also seen at the end of the parable.  The master does not imprison the third servant.  This occurs in other parables and would have been the recourse of any earthly businessman (see the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18).  Rather, the master casts the wicked servant “outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This is eschatological language, not economic nor punitive.  From start to finish, the parable seeks to articulate what it means to live amid the kingdom of God.

Looking at the master

We must also take into consideration how the master is depicted in this passage.  The third servant charges the master with being, essentially, a thief.  The rhetoric of the third servant accuses the master of being a hard man, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he did not gather seed.  Make no mistake here, the third servant insults the integrity, the honesty, and the godliness of the master. 

But is this what we see of the master?  The only indication that the master is a harsh man comes from the lips of the third servant who, as we have seen, is in opposition with the master.  In response, the master uses these words against the third servant, implying that his actions were not consistent with his own viewpoint. 

Typically, verse 26 has been hard to translate.  Some translations render the verse as a question: “So, you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Rendering this verse as a question implies that the master questions the very foundation of the third servant’s perception of himself.  Other translations render this verse conditionally: “If you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed, then you should have …” Even this reading, however, does not imply that the master agrees with the servant’s outlook.  In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the master agrees with the servant’s depiction.

It hard to base our vision on the master simply on the rhetoric of the third servant.   This becomes particularly more problematic when we consider how the master is depicted at the beginning of the parable. The way Jesus presents the master is extravagantly hyperbolic. The master gives away an extremely large amount of money.  A silver talent was worth roughly 20 years of wage for a common laborer.  This means that the master doles out roughly 160 years worth of wages to his three, trusted, servants. (Giving out golden talents would only increase this extravagance.) Again, Jesus presents a vision of the master as extravagantly generous. One must wonder if Jesus would use such hyperbole if he wished to articulate the real-world dynamics of an oppressive and tyrannical economic system.

Is money the main thing?

Jesus appears to present a situation, rooted in economic imagery, in which money is not of ultimate importance.  In giving out the talents, the master takes the abilities and uniqueness of each of his servants into careful consideration; each receives their distribution of the talent “according to his ability.” The master seems to know each servant deeply.  Similarly, when he returns from his trip in foreign country, and settles the accounts of the servants, the unit of talents gained seems to be of little importance.  The master does not comment on the productivity, reliability, or resourcefulness of the first two servants, but on their faithfulness. “Well done good and faithful servant” he says to each person.  He commends them for their faithfulness and trustworthiness.  Furthermore, the reward for their faithfulness is to enter the joy of their Lord.   Again, the amount of talents given, and received upon his return, appear inconsequential.

So, what of the third servant?  Did he sin by failing to produce talents?  An interesting question to pose is what would have happened if the third servant had invested, but lost, the original talent?  What if he came to the master in the same way as the other two, yet did not have a sizeable increase to show for his efforts? Would he have still be cast into the darkness?

I would argue that he would not.  Why?  Because the force of the parable does not appear to be about how many talents a person produces. If the master’s true focus is faithfulness, not productiveness, then the failure of the third servant is his faithlessness before the master, not his lack of production. 

The issue at hand is not the lack of talent-production, but the lack of interaction with the talent itself.  The servant buries the talent in a field and thinks no more of it until he hears of the master’s return.  To borrow a phrase from Chesterton, the servant found the work too difficult, and therefore left it untried. He shunned the business of the master and refused to take up the call to act on the master’s behalf.  The master, therefore, is correct in his description of the third servant; he is “wicked” insofar as he is opposed to the will of the master, and “lazy” insofar as he refuses to act on behalf of the master.  The third servant’s sin is inactivity.

Returning to the context

In fact, this is consistent with the overarching flow of Matthew’s narrative.  In Matthew, the Parable of the Talents occurs after the Transfiguration. Jesus has marched into Jerusalem as the final leg of his journey to the cross.  At this point, Matthew presents a large block of dialogue, beginning in the 24th chapter.  Salient to this discussion are many of the images that Jesus uses within this block of teaching.  Here Jesus speaks of a fig tree that does not produce figs, lamps that do not light, servants who do not act, and disciples who do not serve.  In each case, the issue at hand is the failure of the tree, lamp, or servant, to fulfill the purpose for which it was created and called.

More to the point, Matthew’s cluster of parables actually begins in chapter 24, with the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant.  Here, Jesus presents a tale of a master who puts servants in charge of his household, while he is away in another country.  The faithful servants are the ones who heed the master’s business – working diligently though they know not when the master shall return.  The faithless servants are the ones the one who shuns the master’s work.  Again, the punishment is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The message is plain. It would seem odd for Jesus to pose two parables, composed of the same situation, yet involving different meanings.  I would also argue that it would be odd for Matthew to place two parables, composed of the same situation but involving different meanings, almost back-to-back to one another.  This would be confusing.

One final question

One final question must be posed if one seeks to view this parable from the standpoint of popular liberation theology.  The question is this: Where is the liberation?  Jesus frequently speaks good news to the poor and downtrodden.  The ill are cured, the forgotten are noticed, the untouchable are embraced.  Christ’s kingdom is a radical reorientation of human life.  In the Kingdom of God, self-serving economic systems, and tyrannical power-structures, so implicit in the way human society works, are frequently turned on their head.  This is precisely what lead to the critique that early disciples were “turning the world upside down.”   

If the third servant is praised and lauded for his radical and prophetic critique of the dehumanizing ethics of a capitalist system, then where is the encouragement to those poor and helpless of the world?  After all this occurs in other places, most notably the Parable of the Unjust judge.  Here, Jesus’ depiction of a judge who refuses to hear the case of a poor widow is abundantly clear.  The judge is seen as unjust, and the widow, though powerless, is clearly in the right.  This parable uses the literary structure of “lesser to greater” –ensuring that God is not to be understood to be the unjust judge.  The point of the parable is that the powerless are heard. Therefore, disciples should pray and “not give up”.  The woman is victorious in her case, and the unjust judge gives appropriate judgement.  There is also the call to the poor and powerless to continue their pleading for justice.  Even an unjust judge will eventually hear the cry of the poor and powerless due to their persistence.  Liberation is clear.

In the Parable of the Talents, however, there is no liberation offered.  The servant is punished by the master, removed into the outer darkness, and spends an (arguably) eternity in weeping and teeth gnashing.  If this is the case, the message is that this is the future for those who stand up to the coercive economics and evil ways.  No reward is received, no eternal vindication, just weeping. 

Would this be an encouragement to Matthew’s readers? Would this encourage the faithful allegiance to kingdom ethics to any of the poor and distraught of the 1st century world?  I hardly doubt it.  It speaks of nothing but destruction.  Furthermore, vague applications referring to the church’s call to “stand in solidarity with the poor and helpless” does not help this matter.  In the context of the parable, if one reads it this way, the rich get richer, the poor continue to be victimized, and no liberation can be found.

Jesus never shies away from the hard truths of discipleship. He speaks plainly about how allegiance to the Lord may bring about division, persecution, and even death.  In fact, Jesus begins this grand narrative by speaking about the end of the age, and the persecutions that will occur.  Jesus is open and forthright: “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (24:9).  Amid this sobering reality, however, Jesus offers good news. He states that the “one who endures to the end will be saved.”  The same dynamic occurs in the Parable of the faithful versus the unfaithful slave, the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, and the Parable of the sheep and the goats.  Despite words of judgement, and the implicit challenges to lax discipleship, liberation and salvation is always extended.  The call of the gospel is clear.

But not in the parable of the talents?  If taken to be some exhortation against non-jubilee economics, this parable stands out dramatically from the rest, If the master is evil and the third servant righteous, then this parable makes absolutely no sense given the arc of Matthew’s narrative.

Conclusion

Given all this, I simply cannot see how we can understand this parable in the way suggested by some liberation theologians.  I see no warrant to see the master as an evil despot, simply because he is presented as rich beyond imagination.  Nor do I think we can force the third servant into the framework of stalwart hero – a suffering servant as it were.  There is simply no indication within the parable itself that this is what is going on.  Reading into the text in this way does not make it true.

We must remember, however, that this parable is not about the maximization of economic wealth. This parable is concerned with faithfulness, not growth or production.  The true liberation of the Gospel comes not from what we produce, or the various talents we can attach to own efforts.  True liberation is a gift of God, bestowed upon us in grace.  What our master looks for is not the ever-increasing production of bricks, but the heart of faithfulness that is willing to take up the Lord’s generous invitation to join his kingdom.  It is this, that I believe, the parable rightfully articulates.

Are Disciplines Necessary?

This post is based on a presentation made at the ACW Regional Retreat in September 2020.

Are Spiritual Disciplines really that important?

Why are Spiritual Disciplines important?    Is not believing in Jesus enough? Are disciplines just a form of works righteousness, some mistaken attempt to earn our salvation?  Do we really need to worry about things like church attendance, prayer, or reading the Bible?   

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

Some may see an emphasis on spiritual disciplines as just a fad.  After all, the language of spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, emerged popularly in 1978 with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Since then, other works began to surface – and today, there is quite a lot in this field.  Thus, some may say that this whole emphasis on disciplines and formation is just a flash in the pan.   Yet this is not only to misunderstand what Foster speaks of in his book, it is to misunderstand what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. 

God’s people have always sought out ways to live out their faith. Spiritual practices do not stem from some individual simply thinking up some creative or interesting things to do (and then saying to everyone that they need to do it too).  Rather, spiritual practices – that which we call disciplines – are based on how Christian people have continuously expressed their faith in Jesus.  The disciplines are nothing new.  Sure each new book may have a different ordering of disciplines, a way in which the author thinks of them or characterises them, yet the disciplines themselves have journeyed with the people of faith, ever since there was a people of faith.

Understanding the historicity of spiritual disciplines, however, only takes us so far.  Disciplines are important in our spiritual lives for a myriad of other reasons.  Below is an exploration of three of those reasons.

  1. Discipline are how we live like Jesus.

What is the purpose of Christianity? To what does it aim to, or pursue?  Growing up, I, like so many people, believed that I knew the answer. Christian faith is about going to heaven. After all, that’s where we end up.  

It can be easy to think that Christian faith is mostly about what happens to you when you die -about getting to our eternal destination.  Have you ever heard people refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Such a slogan assumes that leaving the earth is that to which the faith ultimately aims.  If we believe in Jesus and accept the truth of what he did on the cross, then we will have obtained the minimal entrance requirement to get past St. Peter at the pearly gates.  “For God so loved the world that those who believe in Jesus will get into heave when the die.”  At least, that is how that verse can be easily understood.

But if faith is only concerned about what happens to us at death, then we are saying that our faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives.  Forgiveness is not about freeing ourselves, or others, from spiritual baggage, it is about managing our sins so that they do not mess up our chance for a heavenly mansion!  Faith is merely about passing God’s final exam.  But if we think that faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives here, then we will miss about 90% of what Jesus was on about.  After all, why did Jesus talk about forgiving our enemies, loving our neighbours, or tackling anger and prejudice in our hearts, if, in the end, none of that matters?

Disciplines help us answer the question “how do I live my life the way that Jesus lived his?’  If we understand that Jesus was perfect in faithfulness, then would not his life be one we would want to emulate? Reflecting on Christ’s life naturally leads us into certain habits and practices.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus served others.  Jesus engaged in times of silence and solitude.  Jesu was knowledgeable of the scriptures. If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then these practices help us do just that.  

2. Spiritual disciplines help our faith grow.

You cannot grow in any area of life without diligent discipline. If one wants to be good at piano, one must put in the time necessary to cultivate a habit of piano playing. This is discipline, the willing acceptance of activity toward growth in a particular area.   Athlete’s discipline themselves to perform certain activities at certain times. A quarterback, for example, trains his muscles so that when he needs to make that game-winning pass, he can do so.  A figure skater trains relentlessly so their bodies know how to execute a triple axle. The point of the discipline is to make the activity an engrained part of lif, so that the individual can perform that action without conscious effort or thought.

The biblical writers often take up the image of athlete to describe the spiritual lives. In the same manner as we talk of the training of athletes, Paul exhorts us to “train yourself to be godly.” We need to create the necessary habits which will produce the life we want to grow into.  If we have a vision of what Christian life is about, and the intention to pursue that life, then we must cultivate the means of achieving that growth. 

This is a far cry away from works-righteousness.  Works righteousness amounts to an attempt to earn our salvation, to merit our way into the kingdom of God.  Spiritual disciplines vehemently reject any notion that we earn grace.  Still, this does not mean we are to be passive.  To rework one of Dallas Willard’s phrases, spiritual disciplines are opposed to earning, not effort.  Disciplines help us grow in our faith precisely because they call us to intentionally engage, and embody, our faith.  Disciplines focus us.

After all, we live in a world of competing voices, competing intensions, and constant distractions.  It can difficulty to turning our attention fully to spiritual matters.  In this way, living the Christian life, is not always easy.  Therefore, it takes dedication, devotion, and discipline.  In the same way that a person who has never played the piano will never waken to miraculously find themselves able to play Rachmaninoff, it is a safe bet that we never simply stumble into spiritual maturity.  A healthy spiritual life takes effort.  We grow into it.

3. Spiritual disciplines occur in cooperation with the Holy Spirit

We are not merely talking about disciplines of activity merely for the sake of activity.  Spiritual disciplines are not the same as an exercise regime.  We are speaking of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities engaged in cooperatively with the Holy Spirit.  For most people, on any given day, our questions of faith are not the grand theological questions of doctoral dissertations.  Rather, our questions or concerns, or the wrestling in our faith, are about how we experience the dynamic of God’s presence in our lives. They are the boots on the ground kind of questions: “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?”  “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?”  “Can I recognise God’s voice?”  Disciplines help us work through these questions, and in doing so, recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we deny the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian life, we too often attempt to tackle our questions with the unhelpful word of just “try harder.” Struggling with Bible reading? Well just grit your teeth, pour a double shot of espresso, and dive into 2nd Chronicles!  If your mind wanders in prayer – well concentrate harder.  When we do this, we often find that the efforts of our will only get us so far. Richard Foster says this

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God, so that He can transform us. The Apostle Paul said “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”…That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines; they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. (6)

Spiritual disciplines are not how we try harder, they are how we open ourselves to the activity of God.  In this way, spiritual disciplines are actions we do in our own power, to open ourselves to that which is beyond our own power.  We move with the Spirit in our disciplined activity, and in doing so, experience the empowerment of the Spirit.