Tag Archives: theology

Prayer (Week 1)

26 Jul

Prayer is at the core of human existence. We can’t help but to pray. It is the natural longing of the human heart to be in contact with the Divine. Thomas Merton said, “Prayer is an expression of who we are… We are a living incompleteness. We are a gap, an emptiness that calls for fulfillment.” There is a gaping hole inside each of us that can only be filled by relationship with Jesus. But there is enormous struggle in prayer. Many believe in the power of prayer theoretically but struggle mightily with it in practice–myself included. There are so many questions that come to mind. What is the purpose of prayer? Does prayer change God or me or both? Why do some prayers get answered and others go seemingly ignored? Why is prayer so difficult if it is a natural inclination of the heart? Does God hear us? Is prayer simply “manifest destiny” as some argue?

Over the the next 5 weeks I will be blogging on the topic of prayer and I hope to speak to many of the aforementioned questions.

Before we address anything specifically I think it is important to understand the heart of prayer. We pray, not because God demands it, but because he desires it. The God who saturates the universe–the eternal, uncreated and unending God–is intimately concerned with us. He hears our prayers. He desires us. To truly experience prayer you must first acknowledge and accept your identity as a beloved child of God. The Father wants to be in an intimate relationship with you. I dare you to believe it.

“Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth but from falling in love.”
-Richard Foster

Blogging through Bonhoeffer 5

12 Jul

We all wear masks. In this new age of social media and constant connection, we carefully craft an image of ourselves. We post things that make us seem smart, influential, good looking and, most importantly, better than other people. We are constantly monitoring this social media persona to make sure nothing happens that would jeopardize the image we’ve worked so hard to create. But this reaches far beyond the digital world. Our lives are lived behind masks. We buy homes and cars we can’t afford to impress people we don’t like to achieve something that we’ve been told matters.

This culture seeps into the church. We do whatever we can to appear spiritual. We do everything that’s needed to fit into the church subculture. Conversation soars with lofty spiritual ideas. We are fluent in Christian jargon. We act the part. It is no surprise that people can go to the same church and engage in conversation regularly for years and never truly know each other. There is an elephant in the room and no one seems to notice. The elephant is sin. We are, by nature, sinners in desperate need of grace. When we try to interact as pious devotees we are masked. It is only when we are all well acquainted with our brokenness that we can truly be in community as the people of God.

Bonhoeffer speaks directly to this issue in chapter 5 of Life Together. He challenges us remove the masks that we are so comfortable hiding behind. “He who is alone with his sin is utterly alone.” Many Christians find themselves in utter desolation. We are to blame for this issue. The church has a reputation for being a place where sinners do not feel welcome. No one wants to experience the judgement of the pious. So, they hide their sin. Bonhoeffer reminds us of the words of James, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you might be healed” (James 5:16). Confession is the prescription to this diseased culture of pious judgement. Bonhoeffer says that when we confess our brokenness to brothers/sisters in Christ we find healing. When we peel back the masks and confess our sins we experience forgiveness.

“Sin wants to remain unknown.” Darkness is the healthiest place for sin to grow. Sin takes us into isolation and tells us that no one understands. Sin tells us we are alone in the struggle. And the farther it drags you into isolation the darker it becomes. Light is the antidote for sin. When we openly bring our sin into the light by confessing it to our brother/sister we take away its power. “The expressed, acknowledged sin has lost all its power.”

Bonhoeffer says that “the root of all sin is pride.” We like our image we’ve created too much to let it be known we are weak sinners. But the thing we run from is the thing we desperately need. “Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation.” We are not fond of humiliation. But if we are to be like Christ we are to be intimately acquainted with abasement. The cross is the ultimate indignity. Jesus Christ, the God of the universe, hung naked on a cross, bearing the sin of all humanity for our sake. “The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner.” Jesus will meet you at the place you acknowledge your brokenness.

Bonhoeffer, later in the chapter, says that “Confession is conversion.” It is when we openly confess our sin to a brother that we find again the forgiveness of sins. It is in our confession that we experience salvation anew. Bonhoeffer also says that confession is discipleship. When we bring our sin into the light we are forced to face it and turn from it. Confession helps us to see the sheer ugliness of our sin. Often we give our sin to God in an abstract way and then move along. In the presence of a brother we must face the reality of our brokenness. Bonhoeffer says that we should confess “concrete” sins, not abstract ones. We should confess that we lied to our boss Tuesday, not that we lack self-control. When we speak of specific sins, we are forced to face our sinfulness. There is even a measure of pride in sharing abstract sin. You could revel in your humility to be able to be so transparent. It is hard to have any measure of pride in confessing a concrete, specific sin.

Jesus said that if you have a problem with your brother that you should leave the altar and go make amends with him. Bonhoeffer echoes this when he says that a perfect time for confession is before you partake of communion. It is clear that our actions affect the purity of our worship.

Bonhoeffer closes the chapter with some practical guidelines for confession. He says that there shouldn’t be anyone who bears the sole responsibility of hearing confessions. He says that it should be divided equally and naturally amongst the family of God. Confession is something to be shared. Anyone who does not regularly confess sin should not listen to the confession of others. We are all equal–sinners saved by grace.

We are given the opportunity to bear each other’s burdens in confession. We can stand firmly on the promises of God and offer forgiveness to our brother or sister for the sins they have committed. We can have full confidence that the Father forgives based on the promises of scripture.

Expose your sin to the light. Don’t allow yourself to burrow into the darkness. You can rest in the fact that you are a beloved child of God. He forgives without limit or restraint.

Blogging through Bonhoeffer 4

6 Jul

Chapter 4 “Ministry”

The disciples of Jesus, those closest to the incarnate Christ, those who knew the his message most clearly, missed the point sometimes. In the Gospel accounts we see them arguing with each other over who was the greatest among them. It is firmly within human nature to size each other up. I find myself wondering if I could beat random strangers in a fist fight. The guy sitting in the booth beside me at Kickstand is in no way threatening me. He hasn’t said one word to me. Why do I find myself having these thoughts? Girls size each other up in different ways. Condescending looks abound. This is us at our most primal. We quickly dismiss these thoughts. But the truly insidious thing is when this carnal comparison creeps its way into our spiritual life. You find yourself thinking, “I am so much more mature than that person. I am far smarter than that person. If that person could only achieve my level of spirituality. Woe to that poor soul who isn’t me.” Bonhoeffer starts off chapter 4 warning us against this type of behavior. “It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification. He finds it only in comparing himself with others, in condemning and judging others.” There is no room for comparison in the Kingdom. We are the body of Christ. The heart is no more important than the brain. We all work individually for a corporate purpose. There is no jostling for position in the Kingdom. Our only posture is that of Jesus in kneeled service, washing the feet of brothers. We are all co-laborers in this Kingdom task.

Bonhoeffer outlines several ministries that are often overlooked in Christian ministry. The first is the ministry of holding one’s tongue. “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.” The Proverbs speak to this issue. “Where words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19). I feel like John Mayer’s “My Stupid Mouth” is my theme song sometimes. I am a verbal processor so I have a very thin filter for my thoughts. God is working with me in this area. Sometimes the best thing to do is shut up. When anger rises, it feels good to let our tongues rip impulsively. This is of no benefit for ourselves and others. But impulsive angry yelling is rarely the biggest issue. We have all become quite good at cloaking our anger in passive aggressive gossip. Bonhoeffer’s advice hit me in the gut. “He who holds his tongue in check controls both his mind and body. Thus each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.”

The next ministry is the ministry of meekness. Paul reminds us in Romans to not think of ourselves too highly. The Christ-follow is keenly aware that he/she is not the center of the universe. Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth. So much is shoved down our throats about authoritative leadership–that in order to “succeed” we must be strong and dominate. Jesus flips that and shows us the way of the Kingdom. Tender meekness is strong. Domination by force is weak. We are to love and serve our neighbor in humble meekness of heart. “He who would serve his brother in the fellowship must sink all the way down to the depths of humility.”

This ministry of holding the tongue and ministry of meekness will lead to the ministry of listening. We are often quite thrilled with what we have to say. We half-heartedly put up with what our brother or sister has to say so that we can get on with our own thoughts. This is a grievous sin. This lack of listening to our neighbor will lead to the same posture with God. “But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.”

The ministry of listening will lead naturally to the ministry of helpfulness. If we keep our ears open to the needs of others it will cause us to respond. “Only where hands are not too good for deeds of love and mercy in everyday helpfulness can the mouth joyfully and convincingly proclaim the message of God’s love and mercy.”

The ministry of bearing is the call of every Christian. We are to “bear one another’s burdens and fulfill the law of Christ” as Paul instructs. To bear someone as a burden is to love them truly. Often, our effort to love a brother is a convoluted mess. If we could see a clear view into our hearts, we would see that our love is based upon what we will receive in return. We will see that we love those who have much to offer us in return. Thomas Merton would say this is actually not love at all. The love we give is a mere prerequisite for the love and status we will get. This darkness creeps its way into the people of God. Bonhoeffer says we must fight this at all costs. “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” Merton puts it this way in No Man is an Island: “Love seeks its whole good in the good of the beloved, and to divide that good would be to diminish love.”

It is only when we are submersed in these other ministries that God will use us in the ministry of proclaiming. Bonhoeffer says that when we fail at the ministry of listening, we will not be given an ear when we proclaim the Word. This is of utmost importance to a community, specifically the people of God. We frequently quote St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words” (which, by the way, is used out of context). Bonhoeffer urges us to use words to proclaim the Word to those outside the faith and to our brother or sister in Christ. We are to call out sin. “Where Christians live together the time must inevitably come when in some crisis one person will have to declare God’s Word and will to another.” We are to hold our brother/sister accountable to the life God called them to live. We have to confront with our words. We do all of this in the context of love. If you get excited to call out your brother’s sin, be sure you are not “speaking the truth in love.” Bonhoeffer says that we must be humble enough to hear God’s Word from a faithful brother/sister to us. The measure in which we are receptive is the same measure people will receive our words.

Bonhoeffer finishes the chapter with the ministry of authority. He directs this message to pastors. “The church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servant of Jesus and the brethren.”

Are you tempted to size up others in our community and compare yourself to them?
How would life be better if you held your tongue more?
Do you find yourself trying to become strong by the worlds standards to measure up?
How can you work toward meekness?
Have you ever encountered someone who had a conversation with you simply to hear themselves speak?
Do you find yourself avoiding helping people in mundane tasks and justifying it? Are you avoiding the ministry of helpfulness?
Are you bearing anyone’s burden the way you would want someone to bear yours?
Have you been silent when God is telling you to challenge someone close to you that needs to live up to their God-given potential?

Blogging through Bonhoeffer 3

27 Jun

In chapter 2, “The Day with Others,” Bonhoeffer showed us what our life with others, centered around the person of Christ, should look like. In chapter 3, “The Day Alone,” Bonhoeffer explains what spiritual aloneness means for the Christ-follower.

Bonhoeffer begins the chapter with an indictment on people that look to the church to alleviate their loneliness. “The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear.” This is strong language and I find myself challenged by it. I hate to be alone. This is no secret. I am energized being in a crowd of people. I start to go stir crazy by myself. Bonhoeffer would tell me that I desperately need ‘”the day alone.”

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Some of us go to community looking to get our needs met. Others run from community to bask in aloneness, where the self is king. There is a “together/alone” continuum that we need to find our rhythm in. Truth is found in the tension of opposites. Togetherness means nothing apart from aloneness and visa-versa. We are called to both community and solitude. “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”

Henri Nouwen calls silence and solitude (which cannot be divorced) the furnace of transformation. It is when the noise and pace of life stops that we hear the still small voice of Jesus. But we run from it. Even those that enjoy being alone rarely experience solitude. We use our aloneness as an opportunity for distraction. We read a magazine, watch 14 episodes of Lost, or mindlessly browse the internet. Be sure, this is not the solitude that Bonhoeffer speaks of. He quickly dispels the selfish aloneness as well as the mystical approach to silence. Christian solitude and meditation is not about emptying ourselves and becoming aware of some mystical reality beyond our world. “Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the word of God.” When we are bathed in the Word of God we find ourselves silent, meditating on what has been lodged into our soul. The Word doesn’t stop communicating when silence begins. The God who inspired the scripture continues to speak to us in the most intimate way. Silence and solitude are not ends but means to an end–intimacy with the father. But too many times we allow the noise of our busy lives to distract us from the voice of God who speaks in the stillness. If we step away from the commotion and retreat to a solitary place, like Jesus did so many times, there the voice of Abba Father speaks tenderly to his children. But it is also in the stillness that we see the darkness of our own heart. So we run. We don’t like facing our fears and our hurts. But it is in precisely that place where God wants to meet you. He wants you at your most vulnerable.

It is only in the context of this deep intimacy with God in solitude, silence, and meditation that the individual can truly enjoy community. Bonhoeffer concludes the chapter with a question about the purity of the Christ-follower’s aloneness. He asks, “Has it (our solitude) transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works?”

Your solitude shouldn’t lead you some existential euphoria or state of centeredness. It shouldn’t make you withdraw from the world. It should cultivate your heart to prepare you to dive head first into a community that loves each other and the world.

We stand alone together.

-Joseph Phillips

Blogging through Bonhoeffer 2

21 Jun

The Day with Others

In the first chapter Bonhoeffer clearly defines Christian community. He takes away every lofty ideal we may have and grounds us in the truth that community is only found in Christ.

In the next chapter, “The Day with Others,” Bonhoeffer gives us a practical example of what a day could look like for a community living around the truth of Jesus as Savior and King. He says, “A day is long enough to sustain one’s faith; the next day will have its own cares.” How we live our days is how we will live our lives. Bonhoeffer lived this truth with his seminarians at Finkenwalde.

He starts the chapter with the day’s beginning. He says the dawn of day is a metaphor for the resurrection of Jesus. The dark night has passed and a new day has dawned. Jesus is alive and we are awake to that truth. Bonhoeffer says that worship begins immediately upon our waking up. The silence of night is broken by the praise of God’s people. Our wakefulness should not be a time to mentally gather the day’s concerns. The dawn of day is a time for us to attune our hearts to God’s heart.

In the next section, Bonhoeffer shows us the “Secret of the Psalter.” The Psalter is simply the Psalms. We are taught that the Bible is the Word of God. However, we run into a hermeneutical dilemma when we read the Psalms. Many of these Psalms are prayers to God from an individual. How can God’s Word be our words to God? When David prays out of incredible anguish or sorrow, is that God’s word? When David prays for extreme vengeance for his foes, is this too God’s word? Too often we simply skip over these passages in favor of the easily applicable ones. We find our favorite verses or passages that give us comfort and read those. Bonhoeffer says that the Psalms are to shape our prayers as they shaped the prayers of Jesus and the Church. How then are these strange passages applicable or God’s word? Bonhoeffer says, “A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none of than Jesus Christ himself.” Bonhoeffer says that Jesus is praying the Psalter through the Church. Bonhoeffer also points out another perspective that we often miss. We assume that the prayers we see in the Psalter need only to be applicable to us. However, we are a part of the family of God and though we may not know the depth of suffering David or other writers speak of, other members of the Body may be experiencing this first hand. We, then, are to pray on their behalf with words shaped by the Psalms. The Psalms become our school of prayer. We learn to pray selflessly based on the promises found in the Word and we learn that at times Jesus is praying the Psalms through us.

In the next section Bonhoeffer talks about the reading of Scripture together. Often times we are tempted to pick and choose scripture readings that help us get through the day. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are incredible nuggets of truth found in single verses of scripture. However, Bonhoeffer says that to truly read scripture we must read it as a whole. We are not to solely read uplifting nuggets we hand select. We are to find ourselves caught up in the entire sweep of scripture. He urges us to read every book of the Bible and to read chapters at a time. (When we read like this) “We become part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, Godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dwelt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgement and grace.” He continues, “It is not that God is a spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.” How often to we lose sight of this reality and read only to be comforted for our daily needs?

Bonhoeffer moves on to talk about our corporate worship. He says that the “new song” is sung first in the heart. He says that worship is our corporate ability to pray the same prayer and declare the same thing together–namely that Jesus is Savior and King. He says that the music is subservient to the Word. When we make the music our aim we worship an idol. Jesus Christ, the Word, is the one whom we worship. How often do exalt the worship style over the God to whom our worship is aimed?

Bonhoeffer goes on to talk about our corporate prayer. He says that prayer is the most natural thing for a Christian community to do. He urges us to pray even when we don’t feel like it. He said in the previous chapter that God is not a God of our moods and emotions. He says that prayer can be beautiful and profound but not genuine. God is always after our heart, not our carefully rehearsed sincerity. Do we pray from a place of purity?

All of life is a matter of worship. The line of sacred and secular we have created needs to be erased. Bonhoeffer speaks to this when he talks about eating together. We are to worship the giver of the gift (food in this case) and also to realize the giver of the gift is the ultimate gift himself.

Bonhoeffer then speaks to an issue that we all could use a fresh infusion of God into–our work. We have been told that work is a necessary evil in our world that distracts us from doing spiritual stuff. I have personally heard recently, “I just wish I could quit my job so I could do stuff like read my bible and pray all day.” Bonhoeffer says that there is a reason why God worked 6 days in the making of creation and rested 1. God has made us for work. “Prayer should not be hindered by work, but neither should work be hindered by prayer.” We need a fresh dose of Colossians 3:23. Bonhoeffer says, “In work the Christian learns to allow himself to be limited by the task, and thus for him the work becomes a remedy against the indolence and sloth of the flesh.” What if God is using work to make us holy and more like himself? What would a work day look like in the reality that we are in the presence of God working for his Kingdom purposes?

Bonhoeffer says that the end of the day is a time for reflection on the days work and also an opportunity to make amends for any wrongs done during the course of the day. We are not to sleep on our anger toward a brother. Therefore the evening is the time to make things right with your brother/sister in Christ. The days ends as it began, with prayer to the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). Bonhoeffer encourages us to echo the prayer of the ancient church, “that when our eyes are closed in sleep God may nevertheless keep our hearts awake.”

The sun rises again and a new day begins…

-Joseph Phillips

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