Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

You need to read the book, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyI was introduced to the book during a couple talks [1] [2] by the author, Eric Metaxas. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated by such a lengthy, historical biography. But his stories and wit captured my interest, and thankfully he did not betray that style while writing the book.

Despite knowing the way Bonhoeffer’s life ended, I found myself eager to continue reading as the story of his life unfolded. This was due in part to the engaging writing of Metaxas, as well as the contagiousness of Bonhoeffer, himself, and the fascinating life he lived. My historical knowledge was enhanced, and my faith was immensely challenged.

From an historical perspective, I confess there were numerous aspects regarding Hitler and his ilk that I had not previously known. So, too, regarding the plots against his life by those determined to put an end to his tyrannical reign. It was sickening how the Nazis were able to use a bastardized version of “Christianity” as propaganda to win over believers in their cause.

Likewise, the helplessness of watching the church (both within Germany and without) struggle to be faithful and uncompromising was saddening, to say the least. I realize such an assessment comes from a safe distance afforded by historical perspective. Bonhoeffer was sickened by the rationalization of some leaders within the church to justify acceptance of, and in some cases support for, the Third Reich. Others within the church believed the church should avoid any involvement. Metaxas summarized Bonhoeffer’s frustration with that view when he wrote,

When the state is trying to encroach upon the church, this is a proper sphere of concern. But for Bonhoeffer, the idea of limiting the church’s actions to this sphere alone was absurd. The church had been instituted by God to exist for the whole world. It was to speak into the world and to be a voice in the world, so it had an obligation to speak out against things that did not affect it directly. (p. 280)

“At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The prolific writing of people during Bonhoeffer’s lifetime enables us to get to know them far better than we often know people today. Sure, our generation often reveals far too much superficial information about ourselves online, but rarely do people have the discipline to express their innermost thoughts, longings, struggles, and emotions through the written word, as did Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries. Metaxas copiously integrates many of these letters into his story of Bonhoeffer’s life.

It’s hard to summarize how fervently Bonhoeffer lived his faith, and strived incessantly to know God more intimately. It wasn’t something he did, it was who he was. Studying Scripture and praying were not religious habits he strived to do on a regular basis, they were a way of life for him. Perhaps the best way to give a sense for Bonhoeffer himself is through his own words. I end with just a few of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes from the book.

  • A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day. (p. 90)
  • Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness. (p. 69)
  • Do not try to make the bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. (p. 272)
  • … extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really knows the Bible. (p. 272)
  • Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering round the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer. (p. 271)
  • I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind? (p. 484)
  • Where God tears great gaps we should not try to fill them with human words. They should remain open. Our only comfort is the God of the resurrection, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who also was and is his God. (p. 349)
  • It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions. Is that a sign of confusion or inner dishonesty or is it a sign that we are guided without our knowing or is it both …The reasons one gives for an action to others and to one’s self are certainly inadequate. One can give a reason for everything. In the last resort one acts from a level which remains hidden from us. So one can only ask God to judge us and to forgive us…. At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand. (p. 336)

Talks By The Author

[1] Eric Metaxas at Family Research Council (October 2010)

[2] Eric Metaxas at Calvin College, January Series (January 9, 2012)

Forsaken: A Good Friday Reflection

(As part of the annual Good Friday service at our church, someone shares a short reflection on each of the Seven Last Words of Jesus. This year I was asked to share my thoughts on Matthew 27:46.)

“About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” —Matthew 27:46

Forsaken. It’s hard to imagine Christ feeling forsaken or abandoned. He is the Son of God, and yet at that moment on the cross, he felt forsaken by the Father; left alone. Was he really expecting an answer from the Father? Did he, the Son of God, not know the reason he must suffer this death alone?

When Jesus spoke these words on the cross, he was quoting Scripture. They are the very words that David used in Psalm 22. The psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” At his time of complete separation from God the Father, Jesus turned to Scripture.

In a way, we should not be surprised, as Jesus frequently quoted Scripture. It was the basis of his teaching. He used it in the wilderness to rebuke Satan. He even believed that Scripture was a more powerful witness than his miracles. And after his resurrection, the Gospel of Luke tells two stories where Jesus appeared to his disciples, and he used each occasion to point them back to Scripture.

On the road to Emmaus, Luke records, “… beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:7). And after Jesus departed, the disciples “… asked each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us’” (Luke 24:32)?

Likewise, when Jesus appeared to the Eleven and showed them his hands and feet he “… said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). Jesus used those few precious moments after his resurrection to show them how his life tied back to the Scriptures now contained in the Old Testament, and how his life is the fulfillment of all of it.

When Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, I believe he intended to point us to Scripture. In fact, portions of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion seem to mirror the very psalm Jesus was quoting. The psalm talks about the insults heaped upon David, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. ‘He trusts in the LORD,’ they say, ‘let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him’” (Psalm 22:7-8).

Listen to the similarities in how Matthew describes the crucifixion scene: “Those who passed by hurled insults at [Jesus], shaking their heads…. ‘He saved others’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:39-43).

But David doesn’t end the psalm with abandonment or despair. Instead he sings God’s praises, and triumphantly declares his dominion over all nations, to the ends of the earth.

It’s easy to feel at times as if God has left us to fend for ourselves in today’s world. We can’t find a relationship that will last, or a consistent job to provide for our families. We pour our lives into raising our children, only to have them grow up and seemingly reject God. We finally gain the courage to share our beliefs about current events or politics with friends and co-workers, only to be thoroughly mocked for being out of touch. The church or denomination we’ve grown up in chooses what’s easy or acceptable to the world rather than the hard truth of Scripture. Sickness or a tragedy claims the life of a parent, a spouse, or a child. There are times we don’t feel God’s presence, and it seems we are alone, abandoned, forsaken.

It’s hard to imagine the extent to which Christ felt abandoned at that moment. It was apart from God the Father that he bore the burden of the world’s sins through an agonizing crucifixion. If we ignore Christ’s free gift of grace, if we do not admit our sin before God as well as our need for a Savior, we will spend eternity in hell, apart from God. But Christ willingly endured that separation on the cross so that we don’t have to.

When we feel abandoned, forsaken, look to the cross, follow the example of Christ, and turn to Scripture. For it’s in Scripture we find comfort that Christ “was not abandoned to the grave” (Acts 2:31). It’s in Scripture we are warned we will “experience persecution, but never abandonment” (2 Co. 4:9). It’s in Scripture that God promises, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

No, if we accept God’s gift of salvation, we are never forsaken or alone. Christ was forsaken at that hour, so that we will never be.

Finding a Church, From Peanut Butter to Potblessings

When we first decided to move to Virginia, we assumed the majority of our new friendships would come through whatever church we joined. As such, we were anxious to find a church home. As it turns out, this wasn’t the only assumption of the move we got wrong.

Church (S)hopping

As was the case with many aspects of moving, trying to find a new church home was a new experience for both of us. I am a Preacher’s Kid (PK), meaning when I was growing up there was someone in our family handling the decision of where to attend church. Since I attended college in the same city as my home church, I continued attending there fairly regularly through my college years. And while my wife isn’t a PK, her family also had a consistent church home in each place where they lived.

After getting married, my wife and I began attending my home church, where my dad was still pastoring. Remind me to tell you sometime about the dynamics, both good and bad, of attending and participating in a church where your dad is the pastor. A blog post for another day …

“Church shopping” has always implied to me a lack of commitment to a local church family, or an unhealthy consumerism approach to church

Having come from such a stable church environment growing up, and being sensitive to issues pastors deal with regularly, I’ve generally been less than impressed with people that hop from church to church anytime they didn’t like the type of coffee served after the service, the font used for the bulletin, the volume of the sound system for the music and/or preaching, or even the location of flags within the church. (Let’s pretend these are all hypothetical examples.) “Church shopping” has always implied to me a lack of commitment to a local church family, or an unhealthy consumerism approach to church (“The church isn’t meeting my needs.”)

While I always knew it was true, I am now more sensitive to the many legitimate reasons to visit and experience multiple churches in search of a church home. Having moved into a new state with no familiar churches or denominations, we found ourselves in such a situation.

As way of disclaimer, I realize our search for a church is a completely different experience than someone who is not yet a Christian, or who has never been part of a church. I can only relay this experience from our perspective. However, in writing up our thoughts, I’ve found myself wondering at each point how someone who hasn’t grown up in the church would perceive or experience this process. I’m assuming in most cases they wouldn’t even get to the point of seeking out a church without first having some interaction and/or invitation from some part of the church. If and when a person in that situation does visit a worship service, are they wanting or expecting different treatment than what we, as Christians, were desiring? And that challenge is only one of many facing the church today in an effort to be relevant and effective in sharing the Good News with a society in need.

Herein lies what we experienced in finding a new church home.

Denominational Deliberation

We have always been members of Reformed denominations (CRC and RCA). While it would be fun to embark on the history of the relationship between those two denominations, I’ll spare you the details for now. Suffice it to say it’s about as fun as playing Dutch Bingo. (And yes, the RCA was in the right.)

Unfortunately there are no churches from either of those denominations within reasonable driving distance of where we now live (even by D.C. driving standards). This meant only one thing: there was no easy path in finding a new church.

You can’t evaluate a church, its denomination, and their beliefs without evaluating and affirming your own beliefs.

One of the first decisions we encountered was whether or not we wanted to attend a church associated with a denomination or a more independent church. As is the case with being part of any group, I haven’t always agreed with actions taken by my denomination or its leaders. However, a denomination can also bring many benefits to the local church, such as checks, balances, and stability. (Yes, you can consider this ironic foreshadowing.) As we began visiting churches, we found the idea of denominational affiliation comforting when matched up against independent churches still being led by the founding pastor. Too many of the aspects in those churches we visited appeared to be based solely on the beliefs and preferences of the individual pastor, even as was explained to us by members of the church or the pastor himself.

So we decided we’d prefer a denominational church, but the denominations represented in our area were all unfamiliar. Including the aforementioned independent and pseudo-affiliated churches, we eventually attended churches representing the Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian denominations. Needless to say we had some research to do regarding the beliefs and traditions of each of those churches and denominations.

Learning about these churches actually helped us learn more about ourselves and our own beliefs. You can’t evaluate a church, its denomination, and their beliefs without evaluating and affirming your own beliefs. And it’s one thing to do it from the comfort of home while evaluating the beliefs espoused on websites; it’s quite another to be participating in a worship service and needing to quickly read ahead with responsive readings or prayers to know if you’re actually comfortable reciting along. (To all my Calvinist friends out there, we’ve learned that some churches recite more than the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds.)

Of Course I Have a List

So what exactly did we want to find in a church? Anyone that knows me knows a list was quickly compiled. We wanted a church that was theologically sound, had good preaching, was in a convenient location from our house, had programs for young kids and couples our age, was working to reach the hurt and lost, had a solid nursery, and engaging and Spirit-filled worship. Shouldn’t be too hard to find …

The Visits

Visits: The Online Visit

It’s disheartening in this day and age that some churches still do not realize the importance of their presence on the web. We visited every church online before ever stepping foot inside their building, and for a number of churches the online visit was the only one we made. In some cases that speaks well of their online presence, as they clearly indicated what to expect, and we knew it would not be a good fit for us. In other cases we knew we didn’t want to visit, either if there was no web site or what was there frightened us away. I know we’re not alone in evaluating churches initially by their presence online.

We visited every church online before ever stepping foot inside their building …

I’ll also say what a comfort it is to have consistency between a church’s online representation and the in-person reality. Accuracy in describing worship styles and expectations for dress is obviously beneficial, but simply having consistent marketing of the look and feel of the website with signage and material at the church is a comforting feeling when arriving for the first visit, knowing I’ve got the right place.

Visits: The Consecutive Approach

Before moving to VA, an interim pastor of ours gave us a piece of advice about visiting churches. He recommended visiting a church for 3 or 4 consecutive weeks, arriving at different times, and sitting in different locations. This helps ensure you meet a mix of people, experience multiple worship services from varying perspectives. Otherwise you could easily be greeted by the only friendly greeter in the church (or perhaps the only grumpy one), sit by the only nice family in the church (or the only rude one), hear the pastor’s only good sermon (or only his worst one). By attending on consecutive weeks, odds are you’ll get a more accurate assessment in each of these areas.

Visits: The Gifts

Many of the churches we visited provided us with gifts. The gifts included jars of jelly, a coffee mug, and a candle. Nice touches making visitors feel welcome. In smaller churches we were easily identified as visitors, so someone made an effort to present us with the gift. In larger churches, there seemed to be a visitor’s center. We never checked out any of the visitor centers, but I’m guessing some of them provided gifts. Clearly the smaller churches have an advantage in identifying visitors, in this regard.

Visits: The Personal Friendliness

Another area where smaller churches can have an advantage is in friendliness. When your church is small enough to recognize visitors, friendliness is imperative. Almost all churches we visited greeted us and were friendly, but only the small to medium sized churches actually made an effort to learn our names, find out why we were visiting, and offering to help in any way they could. The larger churches weren’t rude, but there was generally nothing more than superficial greetings.

Oddly enough, that same size that provided comfort on initial approach left us feeling unnoticed and somewhat empty upon departure.

I’m sympathetic to the challenges faced by larger churches in this area of friendliness. One church we visited numerous times has 5 weekend services. Needless to say identifying visitors is near impossible. Even so, people that knew we were visitors for various reasons made no effort to introduce us to others, get us integrated, or help us find our way.

A larger church does does afford a level of comfort on an initial visit that’s hard to match with a smaller church. The larger sized churches allowed us to easily blend in without feeling like we were on the spot. Oddly enough, that same size that provided comfort on initial approach left us feeling unnoticed and somewhat empty upon departure. What is I’m sure a draw for these larger churches also ends up being a deterrent for people wanting a church family and not simply a place to attend worship.

Visits: The Follow Up

Most churches followed up with us in some fashion. (We did our best to provide our contact information whenever requested, to see how each church would respond.) A couple churches subscribed us to their email newsletters, while some churches sent generalized snail mail. One larger church sent a welcome packet of sorts, signed by the pastor. A couple churches called as general follow up. One pastor sent us a hand written note, one pastor called and later visited our house for a chat, and one pastor and his wife even had our family over for dinner.

Lessons Learned

I offer you a few of the lessons we learned.

  1. First impressions are important. For us, that started with the website, and carried over to the first visit for churches we attended. Visitor recognition and treatment, fair or not, ended up being an important factor for us.

    We lovingly refer to one of the churches we visited as the Peanut Butter Church.

  2. Welcoming visitors doesn’t stop once they’re seated. A woman who initially greeted us at one church was kind enough to explain a few things to us during the worship service (e.g., the process they used for serving Communion). A couple years after that visit I still remember her help and the impact it made on us.
  3. Names are important. Introduce yourself, and express some interest in people you know are visiting. Simply asking their name will leave a lasting impression, much more so than a typical greeting.
  4. For families at our stage of parenting, the nursery is almost as important as the worship. One church we visited didn’t have a nursery, and all their friendliness and follow up couldn’t help overcome the lack of nursery. Parents need to feel safe leaving their children with complete strangers, so anything that can be done to ease the process will not go unnoticed.
  5. Worship style is important, but nothing trumps actual substance.
  6. Visiting numerous churches in our neighborhood provided a sense of community. As we drove around town, or met new people, it provided a great frame of reference to see the churches actively involved in the community.
  7. Church announcements can go a long way in hindering true worship. We lovingly refer to one of the churches we visited as the Peanut Butter Church. Every Sunday, the worship service started with an intense time of singing and praise. As that portion of the service completed, they immediately launched into mundane announcements regarding their life as a church, squashing any hope of maintaining a worshipful focus on God. One such announcement included a nurse from the congregation who took it upon herself to inform everyone of a very serious peanut butter recall.
  8. Be careful using exclusive lingo. For several weeks, the Peanut Butter Church made announcements about an upcoming Potblessing event, about which it was clear everyone was excited. After 2 or 3 weeks, we finally realized it was a traditional church potluck, but not wanting to say the word “luck” in church, they cleverly changed the name to potblessing. We were shocked on a number of levels.

Celebration Church: Our New Church Home

After what seemed like an eternity of visiting churches, we finally found a place we call home: Celebration Church. It’s actually the very first church we visited when starting this process, and we’ve been an active part of the church ever since.

The Clear Winner?

Celebration is a church plant, and started small. Both of those meant it didn’t initially have as many of the features (you remember “the list”) as other churches we visited. For example, we were both fairly burned out coming from our church in Michigan, and wanted to find a place where we wouldn’t immediately have to be involved in everything. However, being a small church plant means there is plenty for everyone to do. We eventually felt Celebration could be helped through the gifts God has given us more so than some of the larger churches we visited.

Celebration Church

Also, when we joined, and for some time thereafter, we were the only family in the church in our same family situation (just starting a family, with 2 young children). There weren’t any other young couples (yes, we still consider ourselves young). We kept hoping that with us being there, the next such couple to visit wouldn’t feel like they were the first.

Even though it didn’t win the point total on paper, we clearly felt this is where God wanted us.

The Denomination

Remember how I mentioned something about denominations providing checks, balances, and stability? When we first visited this church, it had a different name and was part of the Episcopalian Church. They were fairly open with us about some of the struggles they were experiencing denominationally, and kept us informed while we were visiting other churches. They soon left the Episcopal Church, and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Basically they are still an Anglican church, but now part of a relatively new denomination started by the Anglican Church in Nigeria.

Our family has been challenged, encouraged, and discipled. We are grateful for Celebration’s faithfulness to God and His Word …

Much has been written about the reasons for people leaving the Episcopal Church; suffice it to say it’s about far more than the one or two items you read about in the press. I don’t pretend to understand all the issues or the long road some of these life-long Episcopalians have traveled, but I can say with certainty they had very Scriptural reasons (e.g., dealing with issues of salvation).

We have much to learn about Anglicanism and its rich history. As with most other denominations, there is a spectrum of how its churches live out their faith, both in terms of theology and worship styles. Celebration celebrates much of the liturgy of the Anglican faith, using a nice blend of relaxed contemporariness while maintaining reverence and appreciating the historical faith.

Our Church Home

What the church has lacked in size, it has made up for with powerful exegetical teaching, rich and engaging corporate worship, and an encouraging body of believers. Our family has been challenged, encouraged, and discipled. We are grateful for Celebration’s faithfulness to God and His Word, and it’s been a humbling privilege to watch Celebration continue to grow in more than just numbers and programs.