The school where I’m teaching this week is in the Bavarian region of Germany, a predominantly Catholic part of the country in contrast to the prevalence of Protestantism in the North. Both Protestant and Catholic claim to follow Jesus and declare without hesitation that “Jesus is Lord”. The meaning of the declaration, though, was sorely tested between the late 1920’s and the end of WWII in 1945, as Hitler rose to power by blending “God Words” with a call to nationalism in order to revive both faith and state. That he rose without substantive resistance in spite of his unabashed disdain for both the God of the Old Testament, and all Jews, is a study in itself, but not the point of this post.
My interest resides in those few who DID resist, because a careful look at the players reveals that they were thrown together from North and South, Catholic and Protestant, united in their conviction that actively standing against the raging tide of darkness was essential. There was of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant Pastor. And behind the scenes, when the training of pastors needed to go underground, the non-institutional ‘seminary’ led by Bonhoeffer was supported and hosted by a rich Prussian Heiress named Ruth Von Kleist. Bonhoeffer would eventually have a profound influence of some Catholics in the south who were part of a small, non-violent resistance movement consisting of young adults called “The White Rose”. In addition, the Catholic community would influence Bonhoeffer, offering him hospitality and fellowship at a monastery during his days in Munich. Bonhoeffer would write during those days that he was humbled by their magnanimous and generous spirit, which led to his own musings on the need to work hard at recovering the unity of Christ’s body.
Another profound influence for the “White Rose” was the Catholic theologian, Carl Muth. His publishing work had been destroyed by the Reich, but he continued to write, “in exile” in his small home on the outskirts of Munich, where these young people (made up of both Catholics and Protestants) came to glean from his wisdom, study, and find shelter in the midst of their own storms. And who most profoundly influenced the Catholic Muth? Protestant Existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
Lessons learned? I’m increasingly convinced that the true church neither resides within particular institutional walls, nor values much of what passes for theological discourse. Within the various institutions, there will be those few who are passionate for “doing justice”, “loving mercy”, and “walking humbly with God”. They’ll also be intent on the pursuit of “love from a pure heart, with a good conscience and a sincere faith”. I say this because, while Catholics and Protestants in the established church were carrying on the very vital conversations about the nature of transubstantiation, and arguing about the role the human will plays in our salvation, six million Jews, along with thousands of Gypsies, mentally ill, physically deformed, and homosexuals, were mysteriously disappearing from the country, ultimately to be shot, gassed, or burnt in ovens. Hitler didn’t give a damn about the established church because they collectively cowered under his threats, allowing themselves to be pushed into pietist irrelevance. It was the others, the ecumenists residing on the margins, who were a threat to his house of cards.
Thank God there were those few who set aside the “morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language…” (I Timothy 6:4), choosing instead to stand for what matters. Bonhoeffer, Muth, Ruth Von Kleist, Hans and Sophie School are the people I point to as my heroes, and they’re Protestants, and Catholics.
I pray to God that we learn from this because I see similarly destructive ‘in fighting’ unfolding in this age between the neo-Calvinists and the Emergent church. But when darkness covers the world, I’m confident that there’ll be a few who will stop fighting each other long enough to stand together for what matters, and I pray I’ll be counted among them.
As we move into the advent season, I’m looking out the window of my room, located in southern Germany, across the Bodensee lake to the shores of Switzerland, only a few short miles away. I’m reading, “The Shame and the Sacrifice” while here in Germany, which is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, the German pastor who had the chance to remain in America as WWII was beginning, but elected instead to return to his homeland in order to walk with his own people through what he anticipated would be a dark and difficult time.
There’s a profound sense in which Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany becomes a powerful and rich example of the very thing we celebrate at this time year: “God with us.” Bonhoeffer’s shepherding instincts led him back into the fires from which he could have so easily excluded himself. It would be wrong to say that the decision was easy for Dietrich, but once it was made, there was no looking back. He entered fully into the life of the German people, identifying increasingly with the resistance movement inside Germany, and shepherding people towards fidelity to Christ in the midst of everything collapsing all around him, including the church. These identifications with truth and life, with mercy and justice, would ultimately cost him his life.
As I sit here on the shores of this lake, I ponder the reality that, at the very time millions were trying to get out – Dietrich was going back in. It’s this kind of identification with people in their suffering that makes Jesus visible among us, and it’s this that is rare in these days, when Christianity has become a commodity often, more than a community. Our privatized, customized, and invidualized paths give us all great freedom, but at what cost? I fear that we swim for the shores of comfort and privacy too often, when what’s needed is identification with one another in community, sharing, rejoicing, and suffering together.
How can we who are charged with leadership both exemplify and nurture this spirit of incarnation, of being ‘with’ one another?
As I travelled from Munich to Friedrichschaffen on the train yesterday, I felt a little out of place because the truth of the matter is that I wear my outdoor recreation clothes for everything, including traveling on trains in Europe. But Europeans don’t do this. I don’t think I saw any clothing on any of my fellow train travelers labelled “North Face”, or “Patagonia”, or “Mountain Hardwear”, other than the American (who, it turns out, was at Cal Poly the same year as me, but I digress). It’s not that the people of Bavaria don’t do sport, they do – at least as much as Seattlelites and probably more. They do, however, save their recreational gear for, well, recreation.
As a result, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that if you see someone wearing a ski jacket, or sweats, or some sort of wicking 1/4 zip mock turtleneck micro-fiber thing, they are probably just starting or finishing some outing whereby they’ll be sweating and need this clothing for actual protection. The clothes speak of the person’s identity as athlete much more here than at home, where some people who wear Patagonia never venture any farther than their refrigerator for adventure, and where the walk to the car is the longest hike they’ve had in months, years maybe.
In Seattle, you see, we like to look the part. I sometimes wonder if we even begin to believe that wearing the clothing will somehow make us more athletic, simply by virtue of the wearing. I know I’ve been guilty of inhaling an extra piece of cake simply because I own climbing gear and am sitting on the sofa reading about people who do high caloric sports. It’s silly, of course, but I’ll bet I’m not along. What’s worse, I’m convinced that’s what some of us are doing with our faith. Let me explain:
For an increasing number of Christians, in our polarized Evangelical community(s), it seems that certain issues have become the spiritual equivalent of wearing brand name outdoor gear. Wear your Calvinism (or your non-Calvinism) by making sure that you can articulate it, defend it, and beat up relentlessly on those who view it differently. Do the same thing with your soteriology, and your pneumatology, and your ecclesiology, and all your other “ologies” so that you have the right Bible, know the right verses, and believe the right things. There, now you look like Jesus.
Except, uh, pardon me but… you don’t; at least not necessarily. You might look like Jesus, but I promise you that it won’t be because you have the right clothing, which means having all those ologies refined and articulated to the point of being ‘doubt proof’, and ‘bomb-proof’. In fact, the real proof of your faith won’t reside in your ability (or mine) to defend whatever it is that we say we believe, but rather to actually live it.
This is where things get really tricky, because the reality (and this is why I like this word picture), is that there are people Patogonia Pentecostals, North Face Free Church types, and Mountain Hardwear High Church Anglicans all seeking the summit. The last time I climbed Rainier I watched a couple of guys make it to the summit and back carrying flannel sleeping bags and wearing Levi’s. Not advised, surely, but they got there, while the buff, cross-fit hardened, tanned and trained guy from Sweden throw up on his down parka and 12,000′ and needed to get down to thicker air.
You just never know do you. I think Jesus hinted at that right here. I think this is why I’m more interested in whether someone wearing a label is actually loving their neighbor, or ignoring them; if they’re confessing their sins to someone or hiding them from everyone, even themselves; if they’re serving those on the margins with compassion, or hiding in a Christian subculture. The truth of the matter, of course, is that there’s people with good gear summiting, and people with good gear never getting off their butts and doing a blessed thing, other than arguing about whether Patagonia is better than North Face.
I offer these words of challenge to myself as well as the readers because I have my own outdoor gear that often convinces me I’m a Christ follower, when I’m really just wearing the uniform. Next week, in the ski town where I’m teaching, my “Mountain Hardwear” prima-loft jacket might lead people to think I’m just about to hit the slopes, until they know I’m an American. Then they’ll know that all my jacket means is that, like reciting the Apostle’s creed, I’ve got the label. The proof however, will be in the skiing, or the living – and maybe if we were doing more of that, there’d be fewer arguments about who’s label will get them higher, faster.
I wake this morning intending to skip rope in the backyard forest, but as I sip my morning coffee, the sunrise is too inviting for such confinement. I’ll run the stairs at the Aqua Theater while the sky gives me a light show to ease the pain. As I’m jogging down to the lake, the husky pup is wandering around on the grass by the 358 bus stop and as I jog past, he attaches himself to me like I’m some sort of long lost friend. I try to shake him off, but it’s no use; he won’t leave.
As we get to the lake, another dog distracts him for a moment and I jog on, thinking I’ve been liberated. Just as I begin to relax, though, he’s there again, this time sniffing yet another dog on a leash. The dog’s owner and I team up, and within minutes we’ve identified the husky owner and called them on her cell. Mission accomplished.
As I run the stairs, my heart is filled with thoughts of attachment and adoption from last night’s movie (see previous post). “We’re, all of us, like that husky pup” I think to myself. It seems that, though most of us who’d be reading this kind of blog have a roof, food, and some sort of family, behind the curtain of our sufficiencies there are ways in which we’re isolated: from each other, from meaning, even from ourselves. In our isolation, we attach ourselves to whatever comes along – the next vacation, the next promotion, the next big thing. But when the carnival ends, we’re still roaming around, emotionally, spiritually rootless. Like the husky who’d wandered off, we too are ‘prone to wander’, ‘prone to leave the God we love’, as the hymnist writes.
Ah, but there are calls to come home. For me these calls come when the sun paints the clouds as it simultaneously lights up the autumn leaves, clinging to their last days on the trees around the lake. The call comes from laughter, intimacy, beauty, and friendship. I’ll never forget Barry Mcguir’s testimony. The rock musician who began with ideals that he hoped would change the world, wandered aimlessly through drug tripping and emptiness. His call home came from an afternoon on a fishing boat when some dolphins began following the vessel. He started playing with them and the animals responded to him for miles. Barry would later write that those dolphins were his invitation home, and so he turned the corner and began heading in a different direction that day, a direction that would ultimately lead him to Christ.
All of this is more than theory for me. Both my adoption and the early death of my dad have left me feeling like a wanderer more than a few times. But in my own feelings of drifting, I’ve always come across an invitation to come home to the Good God who calls himself Father.
I’m thankful, this Thanksgiving, for invitations, both those offered to me, and those I’m privileged to offer to others. Good invitations, you see, are the roadmap home. Tomorrow I’ll sit with friends, grown children, a wife of 30 years who’s my best friend, and tears will fill my eyes because I believe in every way that all of it, every single gift, comes from the One who is forever calling me home.
Blessed Thanksgiving to you!
I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I like sports movies. Maybe it’s because I’m adopted. Maybe it’s because the subject of class and racial divides is increasingly on my radar these days for many reasons. Whatever the cause, I knew that, before I left for my teaching trip overseas, I needed to see this movie. So tonight I did. Here’s why it’s high on my list:
1. I like that Hollywood portrait a southern Christian Republican family in a positive light. I’ve grown accustomed to the mockery of that demographic, but not this time.
2. Long after the movie’s ended, I’m still thinking about how actions seem so vastly more important than ideology. I’ll be blunt in saying that I have a tolerance limit for esoteric discussions about Calvinism and Arminianism, Republicanism and Socialism, er, and Democratics. And while I vote independent, and believe in election, free-will, and eternal security, I’m proud to say that I have heroes who are Calvinists and heroes who aren’t. They’re heroes because they lived well – you know, loving their enemies without getting violent, serving the poorest of the poor, giving away millions of dollars, that kind of thing. That stuff, done is Jesus name, is what matters. This movie shatters our notions that some ‘party’ has the moral high ground.
3. I’m reminded that our calling to reach across the chasm of social and racial divides is a central theme in the outworking of the gospel, and I left the the theater thinking about what this means in my life.
4. It’s about the power of family and, for those of us privileged to be adopted into strong families, a reminder that we’ve been the recipients of a special kind of love.
I hope you’ll take a few hours and invest them in this movie over the weekend. I’m guessing it might be a bit more thought provoking than Twilight, but I’ll miss that one, so I could be wrong.
Remember that I’m musing here, not preaching. The purpose of this blog, at least some of the time, is simply to incite discussion. That’s surely the case this time….
I’m driving up the writing cabin to work on my book project, listening to NPR as I park on the interstate during the end of rush hour. It’s here, about 30 miles north of Seattle, that I learn that November 19 is the 20th anniversary of “Convention on the Rights of the Child”, which is a UN declaration that seeks to hold nations accountable for providing fundamental rights to children. Child slavery, sexual exploitation, access to education, are a few of the named elements.
I didn’t even know about this Convention until I heard this piece. “Every nation in the UN has signed on” I hear. Then, before I have a chance to feel good, the commentator adds: “except two.” Then, while I’m wondering what kind of nations could possibly say no, I hear this: “The United States and Somalia are the only nations that have refused to ratify the convention.”
This morning, I decide to do a little research, and discover the following:
1. We’re in the company of a nation with one of the worst human rights records on the planets. That’s the fact. In my opinion, that we’re standing alone with Somalia should, at the very least, cause a little humble introspection. Maybe we should reconsider our position.
2. I discover that the US helped write the language for the charter, so isn’t necessarily opposed to the principles. Instead, there seems to be questions about whether the US would be sacrificing it’s sovereignty by allowing itself to be held accountable to other nations. My response: Isn’t this true of any treaty, signed at any time, with any nation? I know we sign other treaties, and certainly expect other nations to bow to our will (have you heard of our insistence that Iran release its nuclear waste? It’s in the news and their response is that this demand threatens their sovereignty). Do we expect others to sacrifice their sovereignty for the common good while we’re unwilling to do so? The sovereignty issue seems to me to be a ruse, though I’m open to further light.
3. Then I read this: Ratification of the UNCRC by the United States would require the U.S. governments to appear before the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, a panel of child rights experts from around the world, every 5 years to explain their implementation of such issues as universal health insurance for all American children, currently a human right in all other western industrialized nation (Wikipedia). “Hmmm” I say to myself. “It appears that today’s news about health care has collided with a twenty year old refusal to ratify this treaty. Of course we can’t ratify it. If we did, we’d need to obey it. If we obeyed it, we’d need to make sure every child has access to health care. And that, as we’ve all come to learn, is something that lots of Americans don’t want. Of course we’d never say it that way – we’d talk about how our system’s the best in the world, praise free markets, and point out our government’s failure to deliver mail without losing money. But blow away the smoke and people opposed to public health care are forced to this: if a child has no coverage, parents should need to choose between bankruptcy and care, if that’s even an option. For many, of course, they just won’t go… until they go to emergency room with pneumonia – and by then it will be too late. Deaths of children due to lack of health insurance number around 17000 a year according to conservative US News and World Report.
We Christians love protecting life in the womb. But as soon as you’re born, you’re on your own, or so it seems from my chair, as I observe the pro-life position. I’m pro-life myself, but happen to believe that it extends a bit further than a child’s day of birth, happen to believe, with the UN charter, that this child, who did nothing to inherit his/her parents wise or foolish choices, ought to have a chance to live by having education, water, and yes… even health care.
“Socialism!!” The cry is in my ears before I’ve even finished typing, let alone posting. So we, and our good friends in Somalia, refuse to sign the treaty, to which I say this:
“Happy Birthday Children’s Rights. I’m glad most of the world gets it. I hope someday we will too.”
I’m in the midst of bringing my studies in Acts to a completion, and this last section, when Paul’s life shines so brightly, seems especially appropriate this time of year. It’s the time of year when, especially up north, the light drops lower into the sky and the shadows are long. Leaves have blown away and naked branches shake. And here in raincity we’ve the added beauty of clouds creating interplays of light and shadow in an infinite array of patterns. It’s a remarkable time of year, a time when darkness and light seem to be at war.
Thankfully, we live with the confidence that in just a few short weeks the darkness, which has seemingly been getting the upper hand, will turn once again enter its annual season of defeat as light inevitably triumphs. For some of us, the season is the most beautiful of all, not because we like the darkness so much, but because the darkness makes the little shards of light all the more poignant and powerful. A single candle in my home office at 6:00PM in March? Meaningless. On November 17th? Priceless.
If ours is an age of darkness, then, I’ll go on record as saying that it’s a great time be children of light, because the whole light and dark thing works, not only in the physical world, but in matters of the heart and spirit as well. Ours has been described by many voices as a ‘new dark age‘. The signs of darkness are seen more by absence than presence: absence of initmacy, meaning, hope, beauty, love, trust, hope, integrity. Evidences of the absence aren’t hard to find, whether one looks to our current wars and the pathologies that caused them, our current economic crises and the greed that got us there, or the crises within the many systems that are supposed undergird and sustain civilization, such as education, family, and the arts. It’s a mess of darkness, no doubt, as someone else mused here.
Why the hope then? Two reasons: First, just like any autumn, the darkness creates both a longing for, and an awareness of the light. “The People who are Walking in Darkness have seen a Great Light” said the prophet, and God knows that the darkness is here now. In a world of fanatic suicide bombers, terrorism, and militarism, acts of peace and love still happen, and they shine all the brighter for the context in which they appear. Generosity shines in the midst of obscene greed. Love for the least of these shines in the midst of a culture that worships youth and beauty. It’s time to quit moaning about the darkness, and recognize these days for what they are: moments when our calling as children of the light will stand out in stark contrast.
When people who are longing for light see light, they’ll turn to the light. Thus we’d better not simply let our light shine, we’d better prepare to love and serve those who turn to the light in these days, and I’ve a feeling the harvest is just getting started. Prepare? Yes. They’ll need places to sit in our churches, compelling worship they can understand, the Bible taught in terms that are simple, accessible, and applicable. They’ll need to learn how to take up their own calling as harvesters of light, so that they can share let theirs shine too, in their homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and wherever the Light sends them.
I’m hopeful for a second reason: We believe that Light will triumph. I’m looking out my office window right now as I write this in the late afternoon. The darkness is winning, and will reign for about the next 15 hours; by December 21 it will reign for about 16 hours each night. But then the light will triumph, the days inexorably lengthening as we who live here collectively lift our spirits, or feel them being lifted by the light. This is the way it is. This is the way it shall be. Light will triumph fully, finally, over the darkness, as we read here.
Our calling, as I’ll share on Sunday, is rooted in our identity as ‘harvesters of light’, those who receive the harvest of light and hope that is found in Christ, so that we might share it during times of light famine. I think about this calling every November. I ask Christ that, rather than cursing the darkness with whining, bitterness, fear and paralysis of soul, I’ll be light, or at least light a candle of hope through my words and deeds, so that the light of Christ, which our world is longing for more than they know, might see; and turn; and live. May this be our prayer…
What are some signs of light you’re seeing in the midst of these dark days?
We had a German student staying at our house twenty years ago this week and together watched the stunning news out of Berlin, as people armed with nothing more than hammers and picks dismantled the wall between east and west. We were stunned then and, as the subsequent weeks unfolded, even more so as nation after nation in Eastern Europe declared their freedom from the totalitarianism of the Soviet machine. I was privileged to travel through east Germany shortly after the wall had fallen and the east had opened. At the time the poverty was still palpable, evident in everything from food to architecture. Things are different now, where Berlin offers all the evidence of upward mobility and freedom, as people stand in line for lattes and the landscape rises with some of the most progressive architecture in the world.
As I look back on both the opening up of Eastern Europe, there are lessons to be learned:
1. Faith spoke to oppression then – it had better continue to do so now. The Polish Pope’s visit to his homeland was just one of numerous instances of faith, which totalitarianism had tried so hard to keep in the grave, resurrected. The events of Timasora in Romania were equally powerful. In a remarkable convergence of circumstances that can only, retrospectively, be seen as the sovereign hand of God at work, Christ followers put their lives on the line in pursuit of liberty, and turned the tide of history.
The church hasn’t always been so bold, or so right. I hope and pray that we can learn from the example of our friends in the faith from two decades ago, and that we will stand up to oppression in all forms, including human trafficking, and the reality that infant’s lives are snuffed out without ever seeing the light of day. I’m asking myself what my role is in standing up against oppression, praying for both eyes to see and strength to obey.
2. Democracy and Capitalism aren’t magic pills – It was thought that the demise of communism and moves to democracy would, in and of themselves, lead cultures and nations to prosperity. The results, however, have been spotty. The reunification of East and West Germany was perhaps the easiest and most successful transition but they had the advantage of an existing infrastructure into which the east could be assimilated. Even there it was hard. The rest of eastern Europe has not been so fortunate.
The reality is that democracy and capitalism work only to the extent that there are some inherent moral underpinnings to a culture. Without these foundations, the freedoms of these systems became a petri dish in which greed, corruption, and graft will grow unchecked. We see this throughout eastern Europe to this day, which is why my friend in Romania is trying to mentor an emerging generation of cultural leaders, so that they’re rooted and grounded in Christ.
We need to learn from this, because though the clothing is different, the obscene bonuses offered wall street and banking execs in the wake of their greedy behavior in indicative of the reality that we too are losing our way. Capitalism in an amoral society necessarily leads to corruption and oppression. It’s happening everywhere these days, because when people reject Christ, sins aren’t only sexual, they’re economic, as you can discover here.
3. God is surprising us… Nobody saw it coming, including think tanks everywhere, and the CIA. I look back on that week in November 1989 with great fondness, because the relationships that began that week, opened up opportunities for me to travel and teaching all over the world, and learning about how God is at work in various cultures has shaped my theology more profoundly than any other element. I also look back fondly because that week, as my German friend had tears in her eyes, hopeful that she might finally meet relatives her were on ‘the other side’, I realized that when God’s ready to move on something, He moves. Psalm 2 says that God laughs at the raging schemes of humanity when we assert that ‘our will be done’. He’ll allow it, but not forever.
That week gave strengthened my faith, giving me the confidence to believe that God is moving in human history. Subsequent to those days there have been terrible wars, Genocides, and acts of terror, reminders that humanity is still raging against God’s rule. But the day will come when all the dividing walls will fall. May we embody the hope that certain future; right here; right now.
O Lord Christ…
Thank you for the reminders in history that you are on the move. Thank you that you use people to bring slices of hope and liberty into the world, foretastes of your full reign. Make us such people; people of courage and sacrifice, generosity and integrity, that the world might see and know foretastes of your future and certain reign. Thank you for the ‘glimpses of glory’ that come about when walls fall down. Give us the grace to work with you in knocking more down, all around us, today and everyday.
The room from which I’m writing right now in Canada looks south. The beauty out the bay window is more than stunning; the beauty almost makes me ache. Crisp golden leaves dancing in the wind as clouds envelope Vancouver island to the east, and waves whitecap the sound, while the other sound is rain hitting the window.
Then I open my computer to post, and right after I’m finished posting about his beauty, and the good God behind it, I read the news of the shootings at Fort Hood. I don’t know details, other than twelve dead, but I’m shaken from this isolated island of peace and sanity, reminded that creation groans, and that darkened hearts open fire. I won’t go into a tirade about war because I happen to believe there’s a time and place for everything (Ecclesiastes 3), but I’ll say this much: Behind the curtain of patriotism, and behind the bravado of ‘will to win’ and all that entails, men and women are walking through hell for this ‘objective’. I don’t know answers, so don’t misread me. I’m not sitting in judgement on our previous president or our present one. But my God… we need wisdom, and even more important than that, we need the humility to recognize the we need wisdom.
Where does this humility come from? It comes from seeing. I hope, I pray, our leaders will look hard; hard enough to see what they don’t know. Only then will they look for new wisdom, and I thoroughly believe that it’s the new wisdom, which isn’t really new at all, that we need as a nation right now – God help us. Maranatha.
It’s still lovely outside – but this juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy? I want to close the blinds OR turn off the news. And yet, this is our world, and I pray we’ll learn to live here, better and better.
PLEASE POST YOUR PRAYERS….