Monday, September 28, 2009

The Day Together

The Day With Others
Greenville College Chapel Address
Brian T. Hartley
September 28, 2009

This morning, change is all around us. Yesterday, for instance, felt like summer, but when we got up this morning we were reminded that it was really fall. I’ve just returned from a conference in Indianapolis where the entrance to and exit from the airport has been completely rerouted. Just last year, business around the hotel where we met was humming along. But within just a year’s time, things have significantly slowed and we all noticed many of the businesses along High School Road have shut down or boarded up. In the short period of one year, the world economy has significantly shifted.

In such times, our tendency is to look around for some way of getting our bearings—of reaffirming our essential identity. Such was also the case for Jesus’ disciples in the wake of his death, resurrection, and ascension. They suddenly found themselves facing a very different world and without the guidance of the one they had called, “Master.” It was in such a maelstrom that the early church was born, a church in which, according to the book of the Acts of the Apostles, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (2:42). This morning we want to briefly explore one aspect of what this vision of the church has to teach us about our “life together” (Bonhoeffer’s title).

Several years ago, thanks to the granting of a sabbatical by my colleagues and the administration, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester as a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota, associated with St. John’s University and Abbey, a Benedictine community attached to the Liturgical Press and something of a think-tank for Christian theologians looking to build bridges through the practice of common liturgical traditions. Praying with the monks there, while spending afternoons hiking in the woods on their thousand-plus acre nature preserve, proved to be a powerful stimulus to my own thinking, writing, and understanding. Finding a rhythm to my prayer life and making a vow to pray with and for the church and the world has since become an important part of my own spiritual development. Front and center to that growth has been learning from others, both now and in the past, who have emphasized the importance of starting the day with communal liturgically-based prayer.

In his little volume, The Rhythm of God's Grace, Anabaptist theologian, Arthur Paul Boers, points out the problems of a form of prayer that is always ad hoc, self-directed, disconnected, and subjective. I know that I need the discipline that comes from praying daily in a fixed fashion which provides spaces for me to hear and be engaged by the larger community. I find more freedom in framing my own prayers when I am guided by the words of the saints, hammered out over time. Boers concludes: "Such fixed-hour prayer helps us pay attention to God and God's realities, 'the deepest thing we know.'" It embraces the whole of one's life. It offers consistent disciplines on a daily basis," (5).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his second chapter of Life Together, entitled, “The Day with Others,” speaks of the value of these elements of common devotion and of the necessity of beginning and ending the day in such a way. “Morning does not belong to the individual,” he proclaims, “it belongs to the Church of the triune God. . . the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. . . . Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs,” (41, 43). The pattern for this, of course, is found in the Scriptures themselves where those who sought most closely after God are always to be found rising early to commune with the Lord. And, according to the gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus himself became the primary paradigm for such activity. Paul Bradshaw points out that this Jewish practice had clearly established itself in the pattern of morning and evening prayer which emerged in the fourth century. As the church came together first thing in the morning, intercession on behalf of both the church and the world was the central orientation (Daily Prayer in the Early Church, 150-154).

That life of prayer for the church has always included learning to pay attention to the Psalter—the community of faith’s first great hymn book. As Bonhoeffer says, “From ancient times in the Church a special significance has been attached to the common use of psalms. In many churches to this day the Psalter constitutes the beginning of every service of common worship,” (44). Why is this? It is because the psalms occupy that liminal space between God’s Word and the prayer of men and women; praying them helps to guide us in the great school of prayer. They do this both by giving us the appropriate content for prayer, as well as the classical patterns for praying. They give us permission to be fully human before God—something we recognize in Jesus, himself, who cries out from the cross the words of the 22nd psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Typically, after the prayer of the psalms, there follows a hymn and we move directly into the reading of Scripture. Early on, the church sought to bring together both Old and New Testaments as a means of reflection and teaching. Responding to the challenge of Marcion and other early Christian heretics, the church adopted the tradition of the synagogue where both Torah and Haftorah readings were meant to fit together and mutually illuminate one another. By setting the New Testament alongside the Old, by juxtaposing them, our fathers and mothers in the faith were saying something about how they viewed these texts as being mutually dependent on one another.

Sometimes, though, Bonhoeffer maintains, we may complain that these readings are too long or that we cannot understand them. To this, he suggests that we remember that the Bible is always bigger than we are, that it will always challenge us to rise up to it, rather than our maintaining that we cut it up into bite-size pieces. The Scriptures, Bonhoeffer reminds us, are a corpus—a living body—so that by reading them through using the lectio continua, or consecutive reading method, or by following the lectionary, we are being woven into the larger narrative of the people of God. “Consecutive reading of Biblical books,” he says, “forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men,” (53).

Learning the Scriptures simply takes time and effort. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Hebrew word at this point, where he speaks of the necessity of “masticating,” of chewing over, the words before us. One who refuses to do so, he claims, can make no claim to the title of “evangelical Christian,” (55). The truth is that, when all other words fail, the Scriptures remain are one true resource. When I teach my course on worship, I always remind students of the power of God’s word in the funeral liturgy. When we are wounded and vulnerable because of the death of a loved one, we long for the tried and true—the comfort food of the Body of Christ. We turn, naturally, to such passages as Psalm 23 or John 14, because we know that therein lies a common voice, a perpetual question.

The prayers of the Psalter and the reading of the Scriptures are normally followed by the singing together of a hymn, something Bonhoeffer calls, “the voice of the Church, praising, thanking, and praying.” All of our singing is done together as wayfarers, people who are on a journey. In response to the question of why Christians sing when they are together, Bonhoeffer responds: “The reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because here they can unite in the Word. . . The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words,” (59).

Congregational singing, though, is not the same thing as musical performance. Bonhoeffer is quick to call for rigorous elimination of vanity and bad taste, especially castigating “the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range,” or the solo voice “that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant,” (60). Congregational music is meant to supplement, not dominate, the worship setting. The seminary chapel where I take my students on retreat demonstrates this not only theoretically, but architecturally, as well. The musicians who accompany in worship have their places off to the side—not center stage. Or, as in many Jewish synagogues, the music leadership comes from behind the congregation. These are all clear ways of demonstrating that singing is meant to widen our spiritual horizon, not focus it on a few performers who are front-and-center.

All of these elements—being guided by the prayers of the church, reading from the Psalter, hearing the Scriptures, and singing the hymns of the church together—lead us to the fellowship of the Table. The Scriptures, Bonhoeffer reminds us, “speak of three kinds of table fellowship: daily fellowship at table, the table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and the final table fellowship in the Kingdom of God,” (66). That is why the Table of our Lord is oftentimes situated in the central position in the chancel of the congregation: it teaches us that everything that comes to us comes from God the Father, through Jesus the Son, and is made known in the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. It also reminds us, as Bonhoeffer claims, that table fellowship has both a festive quality and implies obligation. This particular time of year has traditionally been thought of throughout the West as a time of thanksgiving as the fields and fruits of harvest are brought in. Anyone who has tasted the glories of an apple pie from fresh fruit here in southern Illinois can attest to the joy that it brings! But, as we sit at table together, we are reminded that this is not my food, but our food, our daily bread. “The fellowship of the table,” Bonhoeffer says, “teaches Christians that here they still eat the perishable bread of the earthly pilgrimage. But if they share this bread with one another, they shall also one day receive the imperishable bread together in the Father’s house,” (69).

The world in which we live makes tremendous counter-claims. We are encouraged to indulge ourselves in hedonistic behavior and to spend our way to happiness. We eat fast-food individually, separate from the community. We say a quick prayer on our own, separate from the community. We listen to our IPOD’s pre-programmed to music self-selected, separate from the community. We surf the Internet in an isolated cubicle, separate from the community. Whether we like it or not, the culture is telling us that we are primarily individuals, independent consumer spending-units, whose goal is to, according to the market mantra, “have it your way.”

In contrast, as Christians, we have been called to sing an entirely different tune to a different God. Like Christ’s disciples, we are beckoned away from doing our work only unto self into a community of the faithful who learn to pray together, listen to one another, and to become the people of God in service to the world. Doing this requires enormous effort in the midst of the toxicity of a self-indulgent, me-oriented, capitalistic American culture. Learning to speak the language of Zion oftentimes seems quaint, at best, and dangerous, at worst.

This month of September, a time when the verdancy of summer gives way to the slow dying of the light, is always tinged with some sadness for me. I have inscribed in my calendar the anniversary of the death of three of my four grandparents—all of whom died in this month which begins the slow slide into autumn. Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my maternal grandmother—the last to go. The world that she and my grandfather sought to tame was harsh and difficult—one wracked by the vagaries of economic depression, agrarian failure, and childhood maladies. She and my grandfather learned to work with their hands and to toil long and hard for their meager fare. They served congregation after congregation, dodging mice in the basement as grandpa labored at building a sanctuary above; boiling dandelions and scraping the bottom of the barrel for grains of corn meal in order to feed themselves, their children, and their charges. They did the best they could, handing on the traditions of the faith and both my parents and those in my generation have had to rewrite a somewhat different understanding of the old, old story in words more appropriate for the brave new world in which we find ourselves.

As a child, I can still remember my grandmother’s parents kneeling together next to their bed on the cold wooden floor praying our names aloud as the winter wind whistled through the cheap clapboard frame house which stood defiantly against another Iowa snowstorm. A faithful child to this pious couple of German descent, grandma was raised to read her Bible faithfully, to labor in the Lord’s service diligently, and to pray as if her life, and those of her children depended on it. On the last day on which I saw her alive, she had been reduced to a shadow of her former self. She sat hunched over in a wheelchair, an afghan draping her withering legs for protection as she stared somewhat incoherently ahead. She seemed mostly lost and unresponsive, resorting most often to guttural grunts and groans. I looked deep into her eyes, hoping to somehow detect a faint flicker of recognition.

After a few minutes, the one-way conversation died out and I wasn’t sure what else to say—other than to pray with her, as I always did. But in the background, the piano was playing and a few of the residents were singing along. The nursing home administrator had told our family that this was my grandmother’s favorite activity, the one time when her tongue would be loosened and she would seem to become herself again. And so, I looked right at her and began to sing: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to whom belong; they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.” And, sure enough, the hint of a smile began to cross her lips and, like a child, she joined right in.

These are the words of the Christian community, along with so much else that make up our common liturgical heritage—from the Gloria Patri, to the Prayer of Confession, to the words of the Psalter. These eternal truths make their ways into our minds and onto our hearts, conforming us to another reality than the cultural construct which surrounds us. They make up the liturgy of Zion and, when all else has faded in our memories, they remain with us. They have been said and sung by countless generations before us and they will continue to exist long after we are gone. This is how the people of God begin their day, with others—both the living and the dead—and we are invited to join in.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Day Alone

The Day Alone
Greenville College Chapel Address
September 7, 2009

Standing on high places can be both a dizzying and an isolating experience. Whether gazing down at the Colorado River valley at the Grand Canyon or at the remains of Glastonbury Abbey from the tor above, there is a sense of utter aloneness that comes from the feeling of the wind cutting into the flesh and the sense of perspective that comes from seeing an entire civilization at one’s feet. The monks at St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana, where I take my class every fall, inhabit what they refer to winsomely as “the hill,” a summit first occupied in 1854 when a few brave Benedictines built a cabin in the- then western wilderness. Over the next fifty or sixty years they would drag huge blocks of Indiana sandstone from the quarries miles away up the formidable climb using horses, donkeys, mules or whatever animal power was close at hand. The current abbey church, completed in 1907, stands as a stark monument to all of this hard manual labor which must have gone on day-after-mundane-day. That labor enables others who come to the monastery the rare experience of being alone as the chill of the night air steals across the grounds on a cold wintry evening or early morning.

Though this experience of “aloneness” was common for our ancient ancestors, it has become something of an anomaly for modern men and women. Wherever we go, we find ourselves constantly accompanied by others or, at least, by “virtual” others. For instance, I have noticed a trend on our own campus that has developed primarily over the last five or six years. Between classes, it used to be that our quad was lined by small groups of people in conversation with a few lovers sprinkled about. While I still see these smaller beehives of activity, they are fewer and particularly less noticeable in this ten minute interlude. Instead, they have been replaced by scores of individual conversations going on between persons crossing the quad and the “unseen other” at the opposite end of a cell phone conversation. It would be interesting to try and add up all of the variegated conversations happening at once during this brief span as we ignore the real presence of one another while engaging an invisible conversation partner at the end of an invisible communication uplink. Being “plugged-in” in this way, whether on a cell phone or a computer, has become “normal” for us in a way previous generations would find extraordinarily abnormal.

This desire to constantly be “connected” creates an environment where noise is our constant companion. Barbara Brown Taylor (When God is Silent, 13-16) points out that we live our lives against a wall of constant noise. For some, it is company, like the “white noise” that comes from the hum of electricity. For others, it is an addiction, like those who seem to have IPOD plugs permanently implanted in their skulls. The result is something of a paradox: we have become hard of hearing even as we have become afraid of being alone. We do not know how to listen well and, instead, have substituted the endless chatter of talk radio for the dinner table believing that we are engaging in an actual conversation while all the time we are simply droning on without listening to one another. And, because we can no longer really listen, we have turned elsewhere for “listeners”: to places like chat rooms, radio hosts, or psychotherapists. Our worst fear, after all, is that we might actually have to be alone in a world of silence.

It is in this, our own present existential predicament, that Bonhoeffer’s words seem perhaps prescient: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . (and) Let him who is not in community beware of being alone,” (77). The German theologian points out that neither can we escape ourselves, nor can we escape having to stand alone before God, concluding with, “If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.” This model is clearly imbedded in the gospel tradition where we see Jesus continually withdrawing for solitude and prayer in order to face the challenges of the day and the “life together” he attempted to inculcate in this little band of disciples. This retreat into solitude remains one of the unique traits of our Lord’s Galilean ministry.

In his little book, Clowning in Rome, Fr. Henri Nouwen develops further this connection between solitude and community:
Solitude is not private time in contrast to time together, nor a time to restore our tired minds. Solitude is very different from a time-out from community life. Solitude is the ground from which community grows. When we pray alone, study, read, write, or simply spend quiet time away from the places where we interact with each other directly, we enter into a deeper intimacy with each other. It is a fallacy to think that we grow closer to each other only when we talk, play, or work together. Much growth certainly occurs in such human interactions, but these interactions derive their fruit from solitude, because in solitude our intimacy with each other is deepened. In solitude we discover each other in a way that physical presence makes difficult if not impossible. Writing later in The Way of the Heart, Nouwen claims that, “solitude is not simply a means to an end. Solitude is its own end. It is the place where Christ remodels us in his own image and frees us from the victimizing compulsions of the world. Solitude is the place of our salvation,” (17).

During the dozen years or so that I was serving as a full-time parish pastor I found myself growing ever more frustrated trying to live up to the demands of ministry—particularly in cities like London and Toronto. The cries of occasionally well-meaning, but ill-informed, church leaders to grow the church ever larger and to buy into an entertainment-oriented, celebrity-pastor-focused congregation began to grate on my ears and were counter to everything I read in the gospel. At times, I’m sure I sounded biting and cynical with some of my colleagues. No matter how many hospital visits I made, how many sermons I wrote, how many committee meetings I attended, it was never enough. Time with others was considered essential and necessary, while time alone was thought to be simply retreating for the next charge up the hill.

It was at such a juncture that my friend, Fr. Henri, wrote to me in a personal letter:
There was a time when I really wanted to help the poor, the sick, and the broken, but to do it as one who was wealthy, healthy, and strong. Now I see more and more that it is precisely through my weakness and brokenness that I minister to others. I am increasingly aware of the fact that Jesus does not say, ‘Blessed are those who help the poor,’ but, ‘Blessed are the poor.’ For me, this means that I have to come in touch with my own poverty to discover there the blessings of God and to minister from that place to others. . . I pray that you embrace your own weakness and your own suffering and your own pain with trust that, in this way, you can follow your Lord and make your own wounds a source of healing for others. Thus you can also become a true light for the world and a sign of hope and a prophetic voice that calls for peace and justice, (Private Correspondence, March 28, 1991).

As a result, I returned to what I knew to be true and began to try and live out the importance of time alone and the embracing, not of my own gifts and talents for ministry, but of my weakness. That meant intentionally carving out more time alone whether for a run in the park, a day on retreat, or a week in the summer secluded in a cabin in the north country. Building definite blocks of time into my daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly calendar became absolutely necessary and helped to save my own soul, as well as those around me who were in danger of my misplaced attempts at salvation. When we engage such solitude, as Bonhoeffer points out, we cannot lay down conditions as to what we expect from the encounter. We must simply accept what we are given. He suggests: “There are three purposes for which the Christian needs a definite time when he can be alone during the day: Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession,” (81).

Scripture meditation requires us to carefully ruminate over the text for the day and to hold it up like a mirror to our daily lives. As we do so, we don’t ask what it has to say to other people, but what God is saying to us—now. At such times, the text is not some desiccated object upon which we perform surgery, but it has the possibility of being transformed into God’s living Word. I tell my Homiletics students that you know when this word is ringing true because it should both “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That is, as I wait upon God and allow the words to wash over me and deep into my heart I am always asking, “What is the word for me today, Lord?” This takes time; it cannot be rushed. A few years ago a company even came out with a product intended to reduce the Bible to a singular 100-minute exercise.

We live in a world that confuses the gospel with efficiency, as if God really cares whether we worship according to a script carefully integrating the latest technology. Instead, the gospel message tells us of the first disciple, Mary, Jesus’ mother, who “pondered all these things in her heart.” Scripture meditation is a bit like making a good stew. One does it slowly, over low heat. Over a several hour period you keep coming back to it and sampling it, adding a bit more salt here and there, dumping in another onion or clove of garlic. And, just as the stew doesn’t always turn out to be what we expected, meditation oftentimes results in dry patches. Bonhoeffer suggests that we should not be discouraged at such times: “’Seek God, not happiness’—this is the fundamental rule of all meditation. If you seek God alone, you will gain happiness: that is its promise,” (84).

Scripture meditation then leads us to prayer, which Bonhoeffer defines as, “nothing else but the readiness and willingness to receive and appropriate the Word, and, what is more, to accept it in one’s personal situation, particular tasks, decisions, sins, and temptations,” (84-85). Learning to pray, though, takes time. We live in a world of distractions where we are constantly being entertained. I sometimes find it helpful to allow certain ideas and persons to come into my head, and then to incorporate them into my prayer. Above all else, such prayer is more about “listening,” than “telling.” We think that we have to tell God what is going on and what He needs to do about it. Instead, learning to simply wait with one’s ears open is central to private prayer.

Such prayer usually brings us back around to intercession—the lifting before the throne of God the needs of others. In fact, Bonhoeffer maintains, “a Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” (86). Of central importance is owning up to and confessing before God our inability to get along with others. Intercession provides us with the opportunity to be open and transparent about our need to paint the other as our enemy. Bonhoeffer says, “Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. . . to make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in his mercy,” (86).

Now, if you are anything like me with a tendency to demonize a large portion of humanity, you could spend your whole day in intercession. Learning to lay one’s burden down for critique and self-judgment comes harder for some of us than others. But this is at the heart of what the apostle Paul understood to be putting to death the “old man.” We are no more alone than when we are with ourselves and when we begin to realize the deceitfulness of our own hearts. Intercession, if done regularly, reminds us of our common need for grace and of the lying in which we daily engage, if only to ourselves. This is why it is absolutely necessary to find time to be alone--even if it makes us extraordinarily nervous at first. For some, it will come as close to peering into the abyss as any other encounter.

Today, the necessity of finding time to be alone has been exacerbated by our unwillingness to face up to our own mortality. Behind our extraordinary need to be connected at all times, our desire to be immersed in a culture of toxic noise, and the value we place on sheer busy-ness, lies, I am convinced, our fear of death. No topic is perhaps quite so off-limits in our culture of youth as is this ultimate and final appointment. One scholar has even gone so far as to suggest that whereas in the Victorian era the forbidden topic for discussion was sex and everyone was obsessed with death, today the obverse is true.

Thomas Lynch, in his wonderful little book, The Undertaking, sketches out the history of many of the rituals we have devised to avoid having to think too long or deeply about death. He says, “a person who has ceased to be is as compelling a prospect as it was when the Neanderthal first dug holes for his dead, shaping the questions we still shape in the face of death: ‘Is that all there is?’ ‘What does it mean?’ ‘Why is it cold?’ ‘Can it happen to me?’” (21). Lynch posits a connection between the emergence of both the toilet and the modern-day funeral home: “Just about the time we were bringing the making of water and the movement of bowels into the house, we were pushing the birthing and marriage and sickness and dying out. . . And just as bringing the crapper indoors has made feces an embarrassment, pushing the dead and dying out has made death one,” (36-37). Barbara Brown Taylor goes so far as to claim that death is God’s final defense against our idolatry, that, “when we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God,” (When God is Silent, 39). As we approach death, “the breath goes out and it does not come in again. No one knows it was the last until it is gone, and the silence that follows it is like no other sound in the world,” (Taylor, 37).

I was seventeen the first time I watched a man die. By that time, I had already witnessed half a dozen autopsies. I had stood by as the coroner’s saw had done its worst—severing sinew from bone and carving thin slices of tissue from the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and various other organs in order to look for signs of disease. But those had been lifeless bodies which, while striking a certain curiosity in one so young, I had been able to depersonalize. But working with the doctor on call that night on a man younger than I am now, sending volt after volt of electricity into his non-responsive body was somehow different. Yes, a typical cardiac arrest could be construed as essentially accidental, as the author, Joan Didion, writes: it is a sudden spasm rupturing a deposit of plaque in a coronary artery, with ischemia following, and the heart, deprived of oxygen, entering into ventricular fibrillation. But to the emergency workers gathered around, it is also, as my British friends would say, “bloody hell.” For, when it was all over and the doctor had pronounced the inevitable, I looked down at my hands which, in those days before AIDS, were blood-spattered and devoid of gloves of any kind. Someone had mentioned reaching for the rib-spreader which would have meant everyone donning gloves, but it was clear that cracking the man’s chest would have been an exercise in futility.

Because this was my first time to prepare a body to take down to the morgue, the veteran nurse, Barbara Dungee, came and walked me through the entire procedure. I won’t attempt to mortify you with the details; they only serve to reinforce the ignominious nature of death itself. By the time I was twenty, your age, I had performed the routine so many times that I could almost do it in my sleep. But what never changed was the cold, antiseptic chill of death itself that pervaded the room after yet another battle with the great enemy. The monitor which had faithfully belched out its blips and alarms always stood silent sentinel next to the remains. In that brief window of time, between life and rigor mortis, the body almost miraculously retains its warmth and only gradually yields to its waxy glaze of morbidity.

In those liminal moments, I would oftentimes reflect on the conversations I had had with the deceased as I would circulate from room to room emptying catheters, supplying ice chips, carefully washing the flesh and applying lotions and ointments in an attempt to hold death and disease at bay. When a man who is used to commanding others finds himself alone in a room, draped only in a hospital gown with a pimply-faced adolescent extending a warm cloth with which to wash his privates, the conversation can oftentimes turn quite personal. I found myself, not necessarily by choice but by default, playing father confessor to more than one wayward executive. I heard confessions of sexual indiscretions, unethical behavior--all the loves and hates that make up a man’s life. There were requests for morphine, for smuggled-in pornography, for forbidden foods. One time I even had to sneak a girlfriend out the back when a wife arrived early, rather unexpectedly, at the nurse’s station.

But, in the end, each person had to face death alone and prepare to meet his or her Maker. At such times it was my privilege—something I didn’t recognize at the time, but have only come to realize in hindsight—to listen to final confessions and to overhear tearful good-byes. Later, as a pastor, those death-bed experiences would come in handy when I stood guard beside loved ones with dying family members. Watching the divine breath (the ruach of life) leave a person is a holy and sanctified moment. One is tempted to turn away from beholding the face of God. The ancients developed a process called the ars moriendi, the art of facing death, and spent a lifetime preparing for the inevitable. Because death was so prevalent in their society, they learned to be prepared at any moment. We, on the other hand, go through life glibly denying its reality and so find ourselves always surprised by its inevitable knock at our door. We find ourselves reduced, as Didion reminds us in her prize-winning book, The Year of Magical Thinking, to “the most terrifying verse I know: merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.”

The best way to prepare for the event is by learning to live in the silent interstices of life, recognizing the need to be alone with God and to listen for all we’re worth. Because what deadens us most to God’s presence within us is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, there is no surer way than by keeping silent, (Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, 105). Out of that void you will find prayer happening: waking at night when the silence in your room is palpable, or rising in the morning to trace the emergence of the autumnal sun against the horizon. But, whether it is alone in the dark or alone in the breaking light, it is then, and only then, that you begin to recognize that still, small voice and you know in your heart of hearts, that it is He, the One you have longed for all along. And in that fragmentary moment when the fear of being alone, truly alone, is realized, then, and only then, is it that you recognize that you have never really been entirely alone after all.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

An Introduction to Bonhoeffer's Life Together

“Life Together”
A Chapel Address by Brian T. Hartley
Greenville College
August 31, 2009

Will Willimon, who served for many years as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, relates the story of a student who came to visit him in his office after a life-changing experience in Philadelphia under the direction of Dr. Tony Campolo. The young man told Willimon that Campolo had gotten everyone fired up about Jesus, herded them onto several buses and proceeded to drive them deep into the heart of the urban core. What had once been a raucous, hand-clapping, back-slapping group degenerated into a bunch of quiet, scared, college students. When the bus pulled up in front of one of the worst-looking housing projects in Phily, Tony jumped on the bus, opened the door, and called out, “Alright gang, get out there and tell ‘em about Jesus. I’ll be back at five o’clock.”

“We made our hesitant way off the bus,” the student said, “stood there on the corner and had prayer, then spread out. I walked down the sidewalk and stopped before a huge tenement house. I gulped, said a prayer, and ventured inside. There was a terrible odor. Windows were out. No lights in the hall. I walked up one flight of stairs toward the door where I heard a baby crying. I knocked on the door.”

“’Who is it?’ said a loud voice inside. Then the door opened a crack and a woman holding a naked baby peered out at me. ‘What you want?’ she asked in a harsh, mean voice. I told her that I wanted to tell her about Jesus. With that she swung the door open and began cursing all the way down the hall, down the flight of steps, backing me onto the sidewalk. I felt terrible. ‘Look at me,’ I said to myself. Some Mr. Christian I am. How in the world could somebody like me think that I could tell about Jesus?

I sat down on the curb and cried. Then I looked up and noticed a store on the corner, windows all boarded up, bars over the door. I went to that store, walked in, looked around and remembered: the baby had no diapers and the mother was smoking. I bought a box of disposable diapers and a pack of cigarettes. I walked back to the tenement house, said a prayer, walked in, walked up the flight of stairs, gulped, stood before the door and knocked.

“’Who is it?’ said the voice inside. When she opened the door I slid that box of diapers and those cigarettes in. She looked at them, looked at me, and said, ‘Come in.’ I stepped into the dingy apartment. ‘Sit down,’ she commanded. I sat down on the old sofa and began to play with the baby. I put a diaper on the baby, even though I have never put one on before. When the woman offered me a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, I smoked. I stayed there all afternoon, talking, playing with the baby, listening to the woman.

About four o’clock, the woman looked at me and said, ‘Let me ask you something. What’s a nice college boy like you doing in a place like this?’ So I told her everything I knew about Jesus. It took me maybe five minutes. Then she said, ‘Pray for me and my baby that we can make it out of here alive.’ So I prayed. That evening, after we were all back on the bus, Tony asked, ‘Well, gang, did any of you get to tell ‘em about Jesus. And I said, ‘I not only got to tell ‘em about Jesus, I met Jesus. I went out to save somebody, and I ended up getting saved. I became a disciple (The Intrusive Word, 75-77).

Like the young man in Willimon’s story, many of us may believe that we wield the keys to the kingdom—that God has somehow seen fit to bestow upon us special knowledge with which we must somehow save the world. In that same vein, we believe in an individualistic, lone-ranger Christianity where, having once whispered a prayer we have now become God’s gift to humanity. As such, we march off confidently like the soldiers in World War I, only to find ourselves dispirited in the trenches of the real world—trying to make sense of what could have possibly gone wrong. What has gone wrong is that we have a misconception of what the Christian faith is all about and we have confused the kingdom of our Lord with our own petty empire-building. We, who have gone out in an attempt to convert others, are greatly in need of conversion ourselves.

In the first of a planned five-book series, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, Eugene Peterson claims that, “Getting saved is easy; becoming a community is difficult—damnably difficult,” (250). Having just come off a lifetime’s project of translating the entirety of the Bible, perhaps no one has a better insight into this theme than does Peterson. For, it is clear as one reads through the story of both the people of Israel and the emerging Christian community that our call to be “little Christ’s” as Martin Luther suggested, is oftentimes thwarted by our own misperception and misunderstanding. Those of us who use the lectionary on a regular basis, are all too aware of this in the readings this year from Mark’s gospel where the disciples appear, all-too-often, to bear more resemblance to the Three Stooges squabbling amongst themselves than to the saintly alabaster figurines with which they are portrayed in medieval cathedral art.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book, Life Together, forms the basis for our thinking this semester, came to understand this difference between some kind of initial encounter with the gospel and the necessity of being converted into a Christian community. A classically-trained, brilliant, young German theologian, Bonhoeffer did his academic work in the wake of the destruction of the modern optimism which had characterized life in Europe prior to the Great War. That war resulted in millions of deaths and the loss of an entire generation—mostly men who were just slightly older than he. While we rightly mourn the loss of lives on 9/11 or in the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the casualties in both were miniscule compared to what Europe lost in the first quarter of the last century. This unprecedented slaughter by those who called themselves “Christian nations,” led to a severe crisis of faith from which the church in Europe has never fully recovered.

The young Bonhoeffer knew that the tired clichés of the past, the old paradigm for living one’s life, would no longer work. So, in the early 1930’s he began to beckon several of his more serious students at the University of Berlin to a seminary community in Finkenwalde. I picture the young Bonhoeffer as being someone like my colleagues Kent Dunnington, Lesley Allen, or Christina Smerick, who seem to ooze a kind of charisma that is attractive to impressionable students. Bonhoeffer’s seminars, his open-ended evening discussions, and field trips, all attracted a number of students, many of whom became his closest colleagues in the nascent church struggle. In 1932, these young theology students began to organize frequent weekend trips to a rented cottage in the country to “talk theology,” to engage in rudimentary spiritual exercises, to take long walks in the woods, and to listen to Bonhoeffer’s record collection. The young professor was absolutely enthralled with two forms of classic Americana: the emerging jazz scene and the old African American spirituals. In fact, he had been tempted a few years earlier to accept a post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he had stood out like a sore thumb at Sunday worship in predominantly black churches where segregation was still deeply imbedded in American culture.

As Bonhoeffer and his younger charges listened to records, cavorted through the countryside, and joined together for prayer and reflection, they began to think seriously about how to form authentic Christian communities through a structured spiritual life into which would be integrated appropriate forms of service to people in need. Though these beginnings in community life were informal and spontaneous, they provided the earliest sparks for the creation of the sense of community which was to be front and center on his agenda for the next decade or so. Bonhoeffer had grown restless with those who spoke of Christianity only from their academic ivory towers, but he was also concerned about the “no-nothingism” that was allowing groups like the Nazis to make inroads into the national church. From this point on, he was interested not merely in reflecting upon the church but in being a part of a church-setting committed to God’s Word, accepting the self-sacrifice embodied in the cross of Jesus Christ. His longing for a type of community that was both courageous and obedient would prove fortuitous in the emergence of the crises which came to face the German nation and the world at large over the next ten to fifteen years.

As one reads through Bonhoeffer’s opening chapter, it is clear that he believed that uniting with others for a life together under the Word of God was not an option for some (that is, a kind of self-selected monastic model), but was a necessity for all who called themselves by the name of Christ. This community of Jesus Christ, according to his work, contains three essential requirements for life together.

First, Christians need one another because they represent and authenticate the origin of salvation outside of ourselves, as those who are given to us and yet are not under our control. That is, our brothers and sisters in Christ become the objective bearers and proclaimers of the divine Word of forgiveness and grace. This flies in the face of some of the methodologies which are popular today in both evangelism and discipleship which smack of both prideful hubris and manipulation. If we see each human being as made in the image of God, we come to realize that ours is not necessarily the task to deliver the Word to them and walk away, but to learn to listen carefully and thoughtfully for God in and through the other.

Sometimes those of us who are something of control freaks recognize this need only when all of the familiar props are torn away from us. I have with me today a major league baseball signed by a group of theologians with whom I was ensconced at Wheaton College a few summers ago. I was at that point where I was beginning to write my dissertation and felt totally overwhelmed by the task before me. That night, several of us caught the train into the city and made our way over to watch the White Sox do battle with my favorite team, the Toronto Blue Jays. There we sat, a group of up-tight theologians of every denominational brand and stripe, in the midst of a drunken crowd in south Chicago, waiting and hoping for a foul ball to come our way. The only home run hit that night was by Jose Cruz, #23 for the Blue Jays, who just so happened to foul one off in our direction. While a big bad Southern Baptist brother blocked those to the right, Jeff Kisner, my Presbyterian friend held off a horde of evil-smelling Brewskies to the left. Diving under the seats, I retrieved the ball for our fearless leader, the late Dr. Robert Webber, as a token of our esteem. On the last day of the conference, Bob and my friend, Steve Moroney, who teaches at Taylor, proudly pulled out that ball, signed by one and all as a sign of encouragement to me as I did research and wrote over the next three summers. If you read the dedication at the front of my dissertation, you will see a whole host of names of brothers and sisters without whom I could never have finished that task.

Second, just as salvation comes to us from Christ alone, so community with God and with one another is restored only through Christ. As the origin and source of all community, Christ remains the mediator between God and human beings. In that capacity, Christ is also the mediator between human beings themselves. When we try and establish community on our own, we discover nothing but abject failure. If you take a course with my colleague, Theresa Holden Blue, you will find that there were many attempts at community in 19th century America. In fact, one such utopian community, New Harmony, is just across the border from us in Indiana as you traverse Interstate 64. Reading the records of these communities is a reminder of how difficult it is for people to simply learn to get along unless there is a point of reference. The early church discovered such a point of reference in Christ as they devoted themselves to prayer, the Eucharist, and to the mutual sharing of their goods. If one attempts to establish community based only on human energy, the result is always failure.

Third, the nature of the church as community is encountered in the Bible under the metaphor of the “body of Christ.” This presupposes that all Christians are chosen and called to community with God in and through Jesus Christ, the one who initiates and represents the new humanity. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us,” (25). This means that the one who wants more than what Christ offers is looking for some kind of extraordinary spiritual experience grounded, not in the reality of the crucified Christ as he is made known in the community, but in some ideal, what Bonhoeffer calls “psychic,” reality.

This leads Bonhoeffer on a rather lengthy excursus through the second half of the first chapter where he continues to maintain that, Christian brotherhood is not a human ideal, but a spiritual reality. At the heart of his argument is the fact that this community is one brought together by Christ and grounded in Christ; as such, it includes what I oftentimes refer to as a motley band of rejects. One of my favorite illustrations of this is the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz,” where four unlikely characters are brought together in order to accomplish a task. Individually, each has a fatal flaw which threatens to undo him or her; but, collectively, this almost comical group is able to do what none of them individually could accomplish. As they learn to trust one another’s gifts, to employ their strengths—not for themselves, but for the good of the group—they become not a random group of improbable friends, but a divine “communitas.”

Likewise, this year, you may find yourself thrown together with other individuals not of your own choosing. Whether it is that guy lined up next to you on the football field or that pesky girl who lives across from you, you do not have the human power within yourself to build community with him or her. As Bonhoeffer points out: “Human love lives by uncontrolled and uncontrollable dark desires; spiritual love lives in the clear light of service ordered by the truth,” (37). Our human inclination will always propel us in the direction of sectarianism, not fellowship and forgiveness. In contrast, spiritual love does everything in and through the cross of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t take pleasure, as Bonhoeffer says, “in pious, human fervor and excitement,” but, “it will rather meet the other person with the clear Word of God and be ready to leave him alone with this Word (the living Christ) for a long time, willing to release him again in order that Christ may deal with him,” (36).

Bonhoeffer’s writings reveal that his understanding of Life Together was not some pie-in-the-sky seclusion of the cloistered life or some miraculous super-spiritual highly-charged assembly for worship. The experiment which he put forth was one that would have to ring true in everyday life, not just with the ones who are like us, but even in the midst of our enemies. He was especially cautious of those who developed a false sense of community through retreats of short duration. “Nothing is easier,” he said, “than to stimulate the glow of fellowship in a few days of life together, but nothing is more fatal to the sound, sober brotherly fellowship of everyday life,” (39). In this respect, his warning is analogous to what I oftentimes say to engaged couples. To play a bit on Peterson’s words: Getting married is easy, building a marriage of mutual love and support is hard—damnably hard.

In the Exodus story narrated in our Bibles, there are 14 references to the people’s incapacity for community in the first three months of their salvation. Quarrels and arguments were the order of the day. I find great comfort in discovering that “these saved people don’t know the first thing about getting along with each other,” (Peterson, 251). Throughout this coming year, whether it is your first or your last, I hope that you will remember Peterson’s words and begin to embrace your calling to the cruciform journey. I pray that you will discover at Greenville College a home, a safe place, where you will be valued for who and whose you are. This can be a reality if you understand that this requires learning to die to self and live to Christ. And, this “life together,” this grace gift from God, can and will transform your understanding of the God we serve and the challenge to be peace-makers and kingdom-builders in the restoration of all of Creation.