Archive for the ‘Bonhoeffer’ Category

I generally write a short reflection for our (Cliftonville Moravian Church) newsletter. Here is the May instalment:

Quite a few years ago now, when I travelled extensively with work, I would often pick up items of interest from the countries, town or cities I visited.  One of my favourite items is a Malaysian painted face mask I bought whilst visiting the Johor Bahru region, a few miles across the causeway from Singapore.

These masks, I later found out, were historically tribal attire that was used in a range of ceremonies, in addition to decorating homes.  I was struck by the intricacies of the hand-painted design and the beautiful mixture of vibrant colours that really brought an inanimate object to life.

And so this ‘souvenir’ sits proudly on a display shelf in my sitting room; the colours catch my eye each and every time in walk in to the room.  It is a welcoming face that reminds me of an earlier period in my life, filled with travel and the joy of learning about new and diverse cultures, some of which are significantly different to our own.

The mask is an item known to many cultures throughout antiquity.  In our own contemporary society, we frequently ‘put on a mask’, although in a metaphorical sense. We hide our true emotions behind that mask, which can be multifaceted and every changing, but however it manifests itself, it always has a spiritual dimension at its core.

How many times, I wonder, do we hide our true emotions behind a smile or an upbeat demeanour?  How often, do we say ‘I’m fine’, when the truth is somewhat different, or even radically different – when we are struggling to cope with a painful life event or series of perceived failures? Or what about those instances when we wrestle with a spiritual malaise that there seems to be no answer to?

In truth, we can never really tell at first glance whether or not the facade is real or forced; it can take some time to unearth emotional turmoil and pain bubbling underneath the surface.  And that is why we need to take to heart that aphorism attributed, sometimes to Plato, but by others to John Watson: ‘Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. How hard that battle actually is we can only guess at, in each individual we meet, from an emotional and physical distance.

As a therapist I see people from all walks of life; many exhibit an outward demeanour of confidence and contentment with life, but behind the mask, constructed to please others, or even to convince themselves, there is much suffering and pain, struggling to find an outlet.  As a Minister I know that those who care for others are sometimes the hardest hit and feel under the most pressure to retreat beneath the facade they have either carefully constructed and cultivated, or has been projected on to them.

But society is changing, and I would contend, very much for the better.  No doubt you are aware that recently, in their quest to encourage us all to tackle the stigma and prejudice that still sadly accompanies mental illness, the new generation of the royal family have been very proactive in encouraging us all to step from behind the facade and to talk openly of our emotions.  That can only be a good thing, for individuals, but also for wider society. The typical ‘stiff upper lip’ approach of our culture has been advantageous in displaying fortitude and Stoicism, but leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the emotional health and wellbeing of ourselves and others.

As a community of faith, we should be especially alert to these messages of openness and honesty.  After all, Jesus himself was a master of seeing beyond the facade and engaging with the real person behind it.  When we consider those many awe-inspiring and life-changing encounters he had in his earthly ministry – reaching out and touching the spiritual core of those on the margins.  We read of a Jesus who could see the pain of the Samaritan woman, the struggles sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, and the spiritual distress of the woman who was haemorrhaging and ostracised from her community.

Also as a community of faith, we are reminded in an equally important manner of the Jesus who saw beyond the legalistic and pious mask of the Pharisees, and found within a dearth of spiritual connectedness with the God of grace and love for all.

So what do we do?  Where do we go from here?  Well, it is no small step to admit our vulnerability, to each other as a loving, Christian community; it is no small step to open up and admit when we need help or support, emotional or otherwise.  It can be hard too, to see those around us in the light of their own struggles.  Remember those words of the famous Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’:  “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer.”  And I would add, not being ashamed to own that suffering and to let others enter into our emotional and spiritual lives to share in all that we go through; we can only do that by ridding ourselves of the ‘all is well’ mask.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer did of course put this more poetically than I ever could, when he observed: We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” And we can only do that when we begin to chip away at that facade and reveal our true selves to those we live in community with, and to live honestly in the light of God’s love.

We all have burdens that we carry – some less significant and disabling that others – but they are burdens nonetheless that prompt us to turn to God.  We all know those immensely powerful words, uttered by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.

But as we turn to God, we need to be cognizant of the fact that he works through others in their vulnerability, and opens us up to new possibilities through our vulnerability.  Here, I want to finish this short reflection with the words of Teresa of Avila:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

So I look now at my magnificent souvenir mask, as an object of beauty and a reminder of new cultural vistas explored, but also as an aide memoire that the mask is not always meant to be worn – the contours of our true selves is infinitely more cherished and loved by God than any facade we may construct.

Every blessing, Scott

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Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton

My Sermon from Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, 25th December 2016

We come here this morning, in the midst of a hectic time of commemoration and celebration, to sit in this sacred space – a place of calm and reverence.

This year has been a tough one – it is no exaggeration to say this.  As I speak there is geopolitical turmoil, terrorism, refugees dying, war and enormous uncertainty on the world stage.  Many think that this is unprecedented.  And yes, it is in some ways – the scale of refugees on the move is enormous; tyrants and dictators are wreaking havoc and poor governance and maladministration rears its ugly head in the form of hunger and poverty.

But none of this, in the broadest terms, is new.  Consider the nativity narratives – amidst the darkness of turmoil and uncertainty there is the unquenchable light of hope, love and expectation in the form of Jesus Christ. And as is so simply, yet eloquently written in John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And indeed the darkness will never overcome it – as Christians, we have hope in abundance and peace that can never be subdued.

Now, it is certainly true to say that the life of faith is one of constant reflection, and I do think therefore that it is fitting that today we reflect on the writings of two very different, but equally insightful and influential Christians – the Lutheran Pastor and Nazi Resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Cistercian Monk, Poet, Mystic and Peace Activist, Thomas Merton.

I’ll read some their words now, and then we’ll very briefly contemplate what they are saying to us.

We begin with Bonhoeffer:

“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in the lowliness of a stable and not in the glories of material wealth and opulence.  He is a radically different Leader.  And yes, we see him, not just in one snapshot of historical time, but we encounter him every day, time and time again; we see him in the eyes of those we meet, especially those on the margins – the disenfranchised, the dispossessed and the forgotten. There is nothing more radical than this; with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the world, with its love of hierarchy and power, has changed forever.

And now back to Merton:

“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” 

Here Merton does not mince his words.  Again, we are drawn in to the reality that the religious elite, then and now miss the point of faith and how it should be lived in the light of the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Faith has nothing to do with titles, buildings and being seen to be doing the right thing.  Rather it is about recognising and adopting an attitude of love, compassion, humility, sacrifice and service.

With this insight in our hearts, let us turn to Bonhoeffer:

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” 

God is in the manger! It doesn’t get any more radical than that! And so if we entrust God with all that we have and all that we are, all will be well.  Even during those times when life seems unbearable, and we struggle to carry on, nothing ultimately can harm us. Yes, there may be tumult all around us, but within the depth of our being, there is peace.  God is with us, no matter what.

Now back to Merton for the final time:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room”.

This offering from Merton is a fitting quote to end on, largely because it sums up the previous themes we have hear explored.  The reminder that the Christian faith is often counterintuitive, that God has, as one Liberation Theologian put it, ‘a preferential option for the poor’ is there in bold and unambiguous language.  Why? Well, because it is a perfect echo of the Gospel message, not just that which we glean from the infancy narratives, but beyond through Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection.  Making room for Jesus in the midst of the prevailing culture, which drowns out the Christian message, is a calling we all receive. Looking in the right place for that voice, for that presence, is the journey we are asked to undertake, again and again. Christmas, and our reflections on it, is just the very beginning.

The world was never the same following that first Christmas time.  God calls us each and every Christmas time, to never be the same in the light of that message.  And so Christmas is a time of newness and reflection; Christianity is not easy – it was never meant to be, and the nativity narratives are a testament to that. But we need to lose heart; Jesus Christ is the ultimate beacon of hope that reaches out to us in our lostness and brokenness.  And as such, we never journey in faith alone.

Finally, on this special day, let us then dedicate ourselves to growing in faith and service; let us take the radical nature of the nativity to heart, where love and compassion drown out the noise of darkness, this Christmas Day and forever more.

AMEN

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Lutheran Minister, Activist & Theologian (image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German Lutheran Minister, Activist & Theologian (image was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv)).

“God travels wonderful ways with human beings, but he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way that people want to prescribe for him; rather, his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof. Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety—that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it. Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas

I’ve just come across this fascinating interview with Martin Marty who recently appeared at the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest to talk about his book, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’: A Biography.”   Marty was in discussion with Owen Youngman, professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School.

There are a number of biographies of Bonhoeffer, but this book is completely different – Marty charts the life of Bonhoeffer’s book and the impact it has had and how this has changed over time.

Marty’s book is part of a new series produced by Princeton University Press.  The others, which are available at the moment, include Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography. G. Wills and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography. D.S. Lopez, Jr. The others, which are planned for the future are as follows:

  • The Book of Revelation: A Biography
    — Bruce Chilton
  • The Analects of Confucius: A Biography
    –Annping Chin & Jonathan D. Spence
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography
    –John J. Collins
  • The Bhagavad Gita: A Biography
    — Richard H. Davis
  • Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography
    — Martin Goodman
  • John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography
    — Bruce Gordon
  • The Book of Mormon: A Biography
    — Paul Gutjahr
  • The Book of Genesis: A Biography
    — Ronald S. Hendel
  • The Book of Job: A Biography
    — Mark Larrimore
  • The Lotus Sutra: A Biography
    — Donald S. Lopez
  • The Greatest Translations of All Time: A Biography of the Septuagint and the Vulgate
    — Jack Miles
  • The Passover Haggadah: A Biography
    — Vanessa Ochs
  • The Song of Songs: A Biography
    — Ilana Pardes
  • Rumi’s Masnavi: A Biography
    — Omid Safi
  • The I Ching: A Biography
    — Richard J. Smith
  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography
    — David Gordon White
Fascinating stuff!  You can get more information by clicking on this link to the Princeton University Press website: http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/series/lgrb.html.
…….and here’s the interview with Martin Marty, courtesy of Book TV:

Saturday 9th April marked the 76th anniversary of the death of the German Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of a Nazi regime in its death throes.

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One of the first books I bought on becoming a Christian was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’.  I found myself enthralled as I watched Bonhoeffer’s theological outlook evolve as a consequence of his own harrowing experience as a vociferous opponent of the Nazi regime.  His personal circumstances, upbringing, education and understanding of the church and its role in society came together to produce a radical Christocentric theology.

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