September 1, 2014

Preparing for Advent and Christmas

He will come again in glory
It's now September, which means that Advent, followed by Christmas, is not far away. It's likely that those who lead the church in worship are already preparing. This post may be of help. 

The Advent/Christmas season celebrates, in this order: the future, present and past "comings" of the incarnate Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ ("advent" is from Latin "adventus," which means "coming"). These celebrations begin a new cycle in the church's annual worship calendar in much of Western Christianity.

For an incarnational, Trinitarian perspective on the meaning of this season, together with other resources to help with preparation, see the past issue of GCI's Equipper e-magazine that is posted at www.gci.org/files/Equipper6.11.pdf (note: this year, November 30 is the first Sunday of Advent and December 21 is the fourth).

He came in the flesh, and through the Spirit continues to come

August 25, 2014

Holding one's tongue, practicing meekness

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 12345, 6.

In chapter 4, Bonhoeffer addresses the topic of ministry within Christian community. He begins by noting an evil that quickly arises in community: a spirit of competitive, self-justifying judgmentalism. It arose early on among Jesus' own disciples: "There arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be the greatest" (Luke 9:46). Because this spirit quickly destroys fellowship, "It is vitally necessary that every Christian community... face this dangerous enemy squarely, and eradicate it (p90). But how? Bonhoeffer suggests several remedies, all related to spiritual disciplines that help us minister (serve) in truly Christ-like ways. We'll cover two of these disciplines this time and more later. 

1. The discipline of holding one's tongue


According to Bonhoeffer, an important and effective antidote for the insidious poison of self-justifying judgmentalism is to hold one's tongue: 
....The spirit of self-justification can be overcome only by the Spirit of grace; nevertheless, isolated thoughts of judgment can be curbed and smothered by never allowing them the right to be uttered, except as a confession of sin.... He who holds his tongue in check controls both mind and body (James 3:2ff). Thus it must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him... To speak about a brother covertly is forbidden, even under the cloak of help and good will; for it is precisely in this guise that the spirit of hatred among brothers always creeps in when in it seeking to create mischief" (pp91-92).
Bonhoeffer notes James' related admonition:
Speak no evil one of another brethren, He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law; but if thou judge the law, thou are not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who are thou that judgest another? (James 4:11-12).
And then he quotes Paul:
Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers" (Ephesians 4:29). 
Bonhoeffer comments:
Where this discipline of the tongue is practiced right from the beginning, each individual will make a matchless discovery. He will be able to cease from constantly scrutinizing the other person, judging him, condemning him, putting him in his particular place where he can gain ascendancy over him and thus doing violence to him as a person. Now he can allow the brother to exist as a completely free person, as God made him to be. His view expands and, to his amazement, for the first time he sees, shining above his brethren, the richness of God's creative glory. God did not make this person as I would have made him. He did not give him to me as a brother for me to dominate and control, but in order that I might find above him the Creator. Now the other person, in the freedom with which he was created, becomes the occasion of joy, whereas before he was only a nuisance and an affliction. God does not will that I should fashion the other person according to the image that seems good to me, that is, in my own image; rather in his very freedom from me God made this person in His image. I can never know beforehand how God's image should appear in others. That image always manifests a completely new and unique form that comes solely from God's free and sovereign creation. To me that sight may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every man in the likeness of His Son, the Crucified. After all, even that image certainly looked strange and ungodly to me before I grasped it (p93).  
Rather than looking down on others because they are different, we should rejoice in the diversity that God has placed within our faith community, and make a place for each to serve:
Each member of the community is given his particular place, but this is no longer the place in which he can most successfully assert himself, but the place where he can best perform his service (pp93-94).

2. The discipline of practicing meekness


Leadership and other forms of service within the church is not about position or "the use of domination and force" (p94). Rather it's about serving others with grace, in meekness. To be a true servant of the fellowship requires first learning to think little of oneself. As Paul said, let no man "think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Romans 12:3). On that point, Bonhoeffer quotes Thomas a Kempis:
This is the highest and most profitable lesson, truly to know and to despise ourselves. To have no opinion of ourselves, and to think always well and highly of others, is great wisdom and perfection.
Bonhoeffer then comments:
Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.... Because the Christian can no longer fancy that he is wise he will also have no high opinion of his own schemes and plans. He will know that it is good for his own will to be broken in the encounter with his neighbor. He will be ready to consider his neighbor's will more important and urgen that his own. What does it matter if our own plans are frustrated? Is it not better to serve our neighbor than to have our own way? (pp94-95).
But if everyone in the community exemplified this attitude of meekness, how would the word of God ever be declared in power? How would authority be administered within the community? These are meaningful questions, and we'll address them next time when we'll continue discussing the topic of ministry in Christian community.

August 18, 2014

Solitude and silence

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7.

So far, Bonhoeffer has emphasized the corporate practice of the spiritual disciplines. Now he addresses our time alone:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. 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.... But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.... If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.... Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship (p77).
Bonhoeffer thus emphasizes the importance of personal silence and solitude for the spiritual health of both the individual and the community. For Bonhoeffer, the silence that accompanies solitude does not mean being speechless as though unable to talk. Rather it means willingly keeping silent--particularly as it relates to silence "under the Word." Bonhoeffer comments: "The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue.... Silence is nothing else but waiting for God's Word and coming from God's Word with a blessing (p79).

Of course, being silent for extended stretches of time is difficult for most of us in this world so full of mindless chatter and empty talkativeness. Therefore, according to Bonhoeffer, silence must be learned and then intentionally practiced as a spiritual discipline: "Real silence, real stillness, really holding one's tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness" (p79). Doing so is worth the effort (and sacrifice), because being silent in the presence of the Lord, before his Word, bears wonderful fruit. "It leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time.... After a time of quiet we meet others in a different and a fresh way" (p80).

Times of silence are vital for the spiritual practice of meditation, which, sadly, is absent from the lives of many Christians in our noise-filled world. Some, of course, are fearful to meditate. But as Bonhoeffer notes, rightly practiced, meditation, "does not let us down into the void and abyss of loneliness; it lets us be alone with the Word.... In so doing it gives us solid ground on which to stand and clear directions as to the steps we must take" (p81).

Bonhoeffer encourages us to focus our meditation on the words of Holy Scripture. Doing so leads directly to prayer and from prayer to intercession (a particular prayer focus). All these disciplines occur in the presence of the Lord our High Priest who leads us and carries our prayers, intercessions and thoughts to the very throne of the universe.

Such spiritual practices, of course, take time. And so we are challenged to offer our time generously to the Lord. As has been popularly said in our day, a mature Christian is "too busy not to pray"; not to meditate; not to be silent. Great blessings come our way, and through us to the community of faith, when we take time to practice solitude and silence.

August 11, 2014

Trinitarian theology---Calvinist or Arminian?

Jacob Arminius
John Calvin
Unfortunately, some try to force-fit Trinitarian theology into the continuum that exists between Calvinism  and Arminianism. Doing so overlooks (or at least oversimplifies) the history of Christian theology, which goes back to the Apostles and from there flows in multiple streams, including Orthodox streams in the East; and Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Episcopal and other streams in the West.

Contrary to common misunderstandings held by some (many?) Western Protestants, Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only theological "games in town." Trying to locate Trinitarian theology within the continuum between those dueling theologies is like trying to force the proverbial square peg into a round hole. The result, often, is badly misinformed criticism of Trinitarian theology.

Martin Luther
In a recent post on The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) professor Douglas Sweeney showed how trying to fit Lutheran theology into the Calvinist-Arminian continuum is a similar mistake. He concludes the blog post, titled "Was Luther a Calvinist?" with these words:
The wrong thing to conclude...is that Lutherans are hesitant Calvinists, or two-and-a-half-point Calvinists, or imperfect Arminians. Lutherans are Lutherans. Their theological frame of reference is not closely related to the Calvinist-Arminian continuum. Lutherans have their own theological history, one that has contributed in major ways to the evangelical movement. 
There are, of course, similarities between all Christian theologies. Trinitarian theology does have common ground with Calvinism and Arminianism. But there are important differences. We do an injustice to all theologies when we try to force them into the grid of another. Instead, we should evaluate each one on its own merits, comparing it principally to the revelation of Jesus Christ himself.

Jesus is ultimate Theology. His person and work (which are inseparable) constitute the complete and final revelation of the true knowledge of God. Every Christian theology, being faithful to the orthodox, historical, Christian faith (as summarized in the early creeds), bears something about this true knowledge of God (i.e. true theology). There are similarities that can and should be noted, and the truths found should be appreciated and embraced. But there are real differences to be noted (without demonizing any of them). Within my tribe (Grace Communion International), we find incarnational, Trinitarian theology to be the most faithful representation of the theology found in the person and work of Jesus--his revelation of the nature and work of God.

The roots of that theology are found in the writings of the Apostles. It was then developed by some early church leaders (most notably Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers--pictured below). These leaders sought to understand the theology that upholds the truth concerning Jesus given in Scripture and through the church's life in the Spirit.


T.F. Torrance
The teachings of these early church theologians greatly impacted the formulation of the Nicene Creed. Their teachings then informed 19th Century theologians like George MacDonald and 20th Century theologians like Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance and J.B. Torrance. Through prayerful study of Scripture and the writings of these and other Trinitarian theologians, the Spirit led GCI to what it sees as a more accurate understanding of the incarnational, Trinitarian theology that underlies the doctrines of the Christian faith.

To learn more about this theology, read GCI's booklet, The God Revealed in Jesus Christ. To learn more about T.F. Torrance, click here to read chapter one of Myk Habet's helpful book, Theology in Transposition.

August 4, 2014

Spiritual disciplines together

For other posts in this series on the book Life Together, click a number: 123, 4, 67.


Last time in this series reviewing Life Together, we noted Bonhoeffer's exhortation for churches to practice together the spiritual disciplines. He mentioned first praying the psalms together. Now we'll look at his emphasis on the communal practices of Scripture reading, hymn singing, praying and partaking of the Lord's Supper. In these ways, the community of believers, by the Spirit, share together in their Lord's love and life.


Reading Scripture together
According to Bonhoeffer, "Holy Scripture...is God's revealed Word." He regards this Word as an integrated whole, comprised of both Old and New Testaments. The Word is connected by "inner relationships...of promise and fulfillment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping," through which, through the Spirit, we are given "the full witness of Jesus Christ the Lord" (p51).

This Word becomes an integral part of community life as the congregation reads aloud lengthy passages of Scripture. The communal practice of Scripture reading stands in contrast to the modern habit of occasionally reading of limited, individual verses (what today we might call "sound bytes")--a practice that falls short in that it fails to reveal the multiple, Christ-centered interrelationships within the Word made evident only as lengthy passages of Scripture are read aloud in community gatherings.

Singing hymns together
Bonhoeffer on guitar
By singing hymns together, the community experiences a shared voice that yields a shared heart (song being the language of the heart). According to Bonhoeffer (who was a pianist, guitarist and singer)...
Where the heart is not singing there is no melody, there is only the dreadful medley of human self-praise. Where the singing is not to the Lord, it is singing to the honor of the self or the music, and the new song become a song to idols (pp58-59). 
As we sing hymns in unison as a community, we "sing words of praise to God, words of thanksgiving, confession, and prayer" that is "completely the servant of the Word...[that] elucidates the Word in its mystery" (p59).

This power of singing in unison should not be lost by having music that is more performance than participation (as is now common in some churches). "It is the voice of the Church that is heard in singing together. It is not you [or some solo performer] that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song" (p61).

Praying together
The prayers together are "our word" in response to "God's Word." As people living together under the Word of God, we are led to pray together, in the name of the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. Such community prayer will, naturally and importantly include intercession for the fellowship as a whole and its members individually. The one praying those prayers will be praying as a brother among brothers. 

The use of formal, written prayers (like those found in prayer books) can be helpful, but the community must not allow prayer together to become formalized, empty ritual--there needs to be a certain freedom and spontaneity. As Bonhoeffer notes, "the poorest mumbling utterance can be better than the best-formulated prayer" (p65).

Partaking of the Lord's Supper together
Bonhoeffer advocated that a Christian community partake of the Lord's Supper each time it meets. By doing so it receives from the Lord, at his Table, many distinctive gifts, including these:

1) At the Table, we come to know Jesus more deeply as "the giver of all gifts...the Lord and Creator of this our world, with the Father and the Holy Spirit" (p67).

2) At the Table we understand more fully that Jesus is not only the giver of such gifts, but is, himself, the gift. He our divine Mediator and Savior--the one who serves us at the Table with the elements that present anew to us his own renewing, healing life. 

3) At the Table we experience the manifest, personal presence of Jesus. What happens there is far more than symbolic; fare more than ritual. Jesus meets us and shares with us his actual life and love. Grace is imparted in mysterious, though tangible ways. At the Table we truly are nourished by the presence of the Lord himself.

4) At the Table we are reminded of our obligation to others in the community. We receive the bread not as "my bread" but as "our bread." At the Table "we are firmly bound to one another not only in the Spirit but in our whole physical being" (p68).