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A Movement of Selfless Love

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer did not have to help Jews escape Nazi Germany and flee to Switzerland.  After all, he was safe and sound in New York in the early 1940’s. He was free to stay in America and preach the gospel from the safety of a free church pulpit or teach New Testament in the peace and freedom of a university. But the gospel he preached compelled him to return to Germany and stand against Nazi aggression.

Before he was executed by the Nazis in 1945, he wrote the following words that I believe the American Church that is embedded in a narcissistic society needs to hear again and hear loudly:

Cheap grace is the preaching of….forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate. Costly grace is…the gospel which must be sought again…

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I am currently readingHeinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the SS and Gestapo” by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is referred to in this work. The first reference says:

The Abwehr had been a failure, staffed by amateurs and used as a convenient cover by a number of members of the resistance, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and (Eberhard) Bethge, Hans Bernd Gisevius, Otto John and Josef Muller (173-174).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1924. CreditArt Resource, N.Y.

Coming to terms with the genocidal century just past, especially the unvarnished evil of Nazi Germany, has prompted theologians and philosophers to adjust and recalibrate much of what they thought they knew. Writers as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Pawlikowski, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel — some more successfully than others — have all struggled to reconcile the existence of the divine with unspeakable atrocities, many of them carried out in the name of God.

Few theologians witnessed the juggernaut of Nazi depravity at closer range than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Strange Glory,” Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding, and in the course of more than 500 pages, we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.

Born the sixth of eight children in Breslau, Prussia, in 1906 to a psychiatrist and his wife, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged environment but one that was not especially religious. When Dietrich announced at age 13 his intention to become a theologian, his siblings questioned and even belittled his choice, arguing that the church was hopelessly irrelevant. “In that case,” the undeterred teenager replied, “I shall reform it!”

After his family moved to Berlin, Bonhoeffer attended the Grunewald Gymnasium, graduating at the precocious age of 17, and in 1923 settled in for a year of study at Tübingen University, while the Weimar Republic continued its downward economic spiral. Insulated by his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer barely noticed. The following year, he set off on an aesthetic summer in Italy. Whereas Martin Luther had been repulsed by the opulence and corruption he witnessed on his visit to Rome four centuries earlier, Bonhoeffer was rather enchanted with the Eternal City and even, in Marsh’s telling, lured by the “beauty, exuberance and grandeur” of Roman Catholicism.

Bonhoeffer’s theological training began in earnest under the tutelage of Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf von Harnack at Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1924. These were tempestuous times, not only politically but theologically. Although the eminent theologian Karl Barth had also studied with Harnack, he rejected what he saw as Harnack’s enervated liberalism, tethered as it was to nationalism and reduced to social utility. Barth sought a fresh understanding of divine transcendence.

Bonhoeffer was entranced, and in ensuing years he would seek to embellish Barth’s insights by emphasizing the ethical and communal ramifications of doctrine, insisting that the Christian Gospel unfolds most authentically within community, “not through individual social or ethical experience.” Bonhoeffer was searching, Marsh writes, “for a more embodied, vital and dynamic Protestantism.” The danger in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Marsh acknowledges, is that his notion of the kingdom of God, in the context of rising nationalism, could be commandeered in the service of Germany, especially when the German theological establishment “presumed the providential blessings of the warrior God.”

Bonhoeffer’s brief stint as an assistant pastor to the German Lutheran congregation in Barcelona provided a respite from the growing crisis in Germany and also exposed him to those less fortunate (although he continued to live comfortably). Even more formative was his year in the United States for postgraduate study in 1930. Although he was underwhelmed by his courses at Union Theological Seminary — and found that among his fellow students everyone “just blabs away so frightfully” — he responded to the Gospel he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he became a pastoral assistant. And a road and rail trip through the South and into Mexico allowed him to see firsthand the effects of poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer came to admire the social conscience of Union students, although he found no more sustenance in the preaching of liberal Protestants in the United States than he had in Germany. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he lamented.

Back in Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer continued his engagement with the poor in parish work, but the Lutheran church in Germany was quickly capitulating to Hitler’s regime. Nazi banners ornamented the churches; one minister declared, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s initial protest centered on the so-called Aryan paragraph, passed by the Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It mandated the removal of all Jews, even baptized Jews, from civil service, which included the churches.

The protests were unavailing. As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, “the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously.” It was also where Bonhoeffer developed a lifelong, homoerotic relationship with a student, Eberhard Bethge, although Marsh insists it was chaste.

Marsh is a bit less persuasive in making the case that Bonhoeffer in no way cooperated with the Nazi regime. An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.

For the rest of the review…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer : There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler. meaning, journey. Meetville Quotes

The ministry rise of Brad Hoefs was meteoric, and his collapse was just as sudden. In one confusing episode, he went from successful pastor at one of the fastest growing churches in his denomination to a public disgrace. From family man to family embarrassment. He didn’t understand why, and neither did they.

Growing up, Brad had watched his father deal with symptoms of manic-depression. His dad took medication, but the family wasn’t supposed to talk about it. Not understanding his family history, Brad, as an adult, spent months taking steroids prescribed by his doctor for a medical condition, not knowing that these steroids could have unfortunate side effects.

Soon after, he began to have times of surging energy, creativity, and nonstop drive. It paid off. King of Kings Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, rode this wave right along with him, growing from 800 to 3,000 in seven years.

He lived under tremendous stress as pastor of a large church, and he had just endured a long and taxing fight with the city to purchase property that would allow his church to expand.

Ironically, he had never felt more alive. He was invigorated by the challenges. At times he was so inspired, he would go away to a hotel and work day and night, barely sleeping, for four or five days at a time. He would come home with months’ worth of work done in five days.

He was riding a wave of enthusiasm and productivity most people could only dream of.

But with this soaring mood came something darker he couldn’t name—a sense that he was out of control. He needed grounding, to manage his racing thoughts and emotional flights. So without understanding why, he engaged in bizarre behaviors that seemed to help ground him.

I can’t ‘cope.’ I’ve got to live! – Brad Hoefs

He sped at 80 mph along country roads at night, opened the car door, and touched his foot to the pavement passing by underneath. He visited places where people had been murdered. He went to dangerous locations late at night. The effect of these experiences? “I would feel bad. The guilt would bring me down so I could manage,” he said.

Sometimes he drove all night and found himself eating breakfast in another city, with no idea of how he’d arrived, no memory of the previous eight hours.

One night, driving around the city, he stopped to use the bathroom at a public park with a bad reputation. Here, in an incident he remembers too dimly for true recall, his dream life turned to a nightmare in the form of a citation for indecent exposure. Sitting in his car, with a ticket from a police officer in his hand, he felt something he’d never experienced before: a crushing and desperate depression that made him want to end his life. “I was ready to kill myself. I had a plan,” he said.

Local media reported on the story of his citation, and his church and the community were shocked.

“For the next three months we basically bled to death,” Hoefs says. No one could understand what had happened. Church leaders privately asked him to resign. Under his therapist’s direction, he told them he would deal with that issue later, and he went to a hospital in Michigan to get help.

For the rest of the post…

Chapter 6 of Jon Walker’s book, Breakfast with Bonhoefferis called “Jesus Defines”. 

Bonhoeffer teaches “that Jesus must be central to our lives. He is the mediator between God and us, but he also is the mediator between us and others. When we become believers, we can never look at anyone the same. We have to look at them through the lens of Jesus and interact with them according to our relationship with Jesus.” (75).

Bonhoeffer said, “Our hearts have room only for one all-embracing devotion, and we can only  cleave to one Lord. Every competitor to that devotion must be hated” (75).

Jesus…will not tolerate wishy-washy disciples (77).

Following Jesus means we must stay in the present and cooperate with him as he works through our circumstance no matter how difficult they seem (79).


“The first call which every Christian experiences is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1987-074-16, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.jpg

August 15, 2014

Pray for FergusonIt’s hard to know how to respond to everything we see in the 24-hour news cycle. News, commentaries, social media, and television report hundreds of injustices (and thousands still go unreported). How do we choose which ones to engage?

Honestly, it can be numbing at times, if not daily. Terrible stuff happens all across the globe every minute — and as it was once said, “We have more on our plates than we can say grace over.”

On top of that, we’re prone to respond to things that we feel relate more to our own lives. So when we receive news that’s far removed from us, we emotionally disconnect. It’s understandable considering how much comes at us constantly. Many of us don’t respond in the grief and outrage that actually fits with the news of infanticide in Third-World countries or Christian persecution in the Middle East. We care, at least in principle, but it’s just not a core concern.

The same is true about the most recent tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. Many of us don’t know how to respond emotionally because we can’t relate to the situations surrounding Michael Brown’s death.

Michael Brown and the Facts

Since the news began reporting on Mr. Brown’s death, things have only escalated. A helpful article from the New York Times reported that Michael Brown was killed Saturday in Ferguson, igniting protests and outcries in St. Louis County. The report revealed that Mr. Brown was unarmed when shot. What actually happened is still in question. One side said he and a friend were stopped on the way home from the store because they were walking in the middle of the street. Witnesses say Mr. Brown’s hands were in the air when he was shot several times, while the police say that Mr. Brown was shot during a fight over the officer’s gun.

It is hard to understand why an officer would need to shoot a teenager “several times” over a fight with a gun, just as much as it is hard to believe that an officer would unjustly kill a teenager with his hands up.

At the end of the day, only those present know what really happened. But given the facts, we all can admit it’s quite possible that a fatal injustice was done to Michael Brown. Despite the lack of details and our ignorance about the situation, what then is the Christian’s responsibility? Is it right to remain apathetic when we hear about tragedies such as these?

Human Like Us All

As a Christian, even if you can’t relate, you have an opportunity. As a black man, I don’t connect with the situation as easily as some might assume. I’m not from the city or suburb. I’ve never had a negative encounter with the police. It’s unlikely I would ever be bold enough to run from the police or resist arrest. It also helps that what many have ignorantly profiled as “suspicious clothing” isn’t a part of my wardrobe these days. Therefore, the chances of me getting gunned down by the police are slim. From what I’ve read, the most obvious thing Mr. Brown and I have in common is that we’re both young black men.

But more than that, the young man killed was human — like us all. He was made in God’s image. Regardless of the circumstance surrounding his death, we can care. Every Christian can respond to this situation. If an injustice took place, it matters because, according to the Scriptures, injustices are an abomination to the righteous (Proverbs 29:27). And regardless of what actually happened, we have a responsibility to pray for “all people” (1 Timothy 2:1), without prejudice.

The Christian First Response

So what should our response be? Every Christian can pray.

John Calvin, commenting on 1 Timothy 2:1–2, writes,

Some might reason thus with themselves: “Why should we be anxious about the salvation of unbelievers, with whom we have no connection? Is it not enough, if we, who are brethren, pray mutually for our brethren, and recommend to God the whole of his Church? For we have nothing to do with strangers.”

This perverse view Paul meets, and enjoins Christians to include in their prayers all men, and not to limit them to the body of the Church.

Therefore, in that same spirit, I encourage every Christian that encounters tragedies and injustices like this to pray. Pray for Ferguson, Missouri. Pray for peace to be restored in this city. Pray for Michael Brown’s family as they mourn the loss of their loved one. Pray that if they don’t know our Lord Jesus, that they would come to know him through this tragedy. And pray that if they do know Jesus, he would give them peace that surpasses all understanding.

For the rest of the post…

by Bryan Fischer   – Guest Columnist

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bryan FischerRobin Williams’ desperately sad ending arouses our sympathy, as it should. But we must not confuse our sympathy with God’s salvation. There’s only one path to eternal life.

Robin Williams’ suicide, as is every suicide, is a tragically sad thing. My heart hurts to think what Williams’ inner life must have been like at the end to drive him to such a terrible decision. My heart aches for those he has left behind – his wife, his children, loved ones and friends. His death has left a hole in their lives that nothing and no one can fill.

RIP Robin WilliamsIn the wake of his suicide, billboards and media pundits alike have been assuming that Robin Williams is now in heaven, making God laugh along with other funny men who left this earth before their time. So is he?

There is one thing we do know and one thing we do not know that can help us think clearly about Robin Williams’ eternal destiny.

The one thing we do know is that access to the presence of God and life in the age to come is reserved exclusively for those who have placed their eternal trust in Jesus Christ.

Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). There is nothing remotely ambiguous about that statement. All roads may lead to Rome, but only one leads to eternal life. The only door that leads to life is the narrow gate that Christ himself has opened. As Peter puts it, “[T]here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Why do some people have difficulty accepting the exclusive nature of ‘only one way’ to heaven? (Select all that apply)
They find it ‘intolerant’They don’t like to think about eternityThey like to think they can get there on their ownThey want to be in controlThey believe ‘a loving God’ would be more inclusive

The world naturally will stiffen their necks when they hear these words and throw epithets at those who verbalize it. But their argument is not with us, it is with Jesus himself. He is the one who said it. We simply agree with him.

Now Williams’ desperately sad ending arouses our sympathy, as it should. But we must not confuse our sympathy with God’s salvation. There is one and one path only to eternal life, and that path has not been altered by so much as one centimeter in 2,000 years. That’s what we know.

The one thing we do not know is whether Robin Williams did business with God in his dying moments. While his mother was a Christian Scientist (a counterfeit form of religion which is neither Christian nor scientific), his father was an Episcopalian – so it is certainly possible that Williams heard the gospel in his formative years and may have remembered it all his life.

The thief on the cross did not place his faith in Christ until he was drawing his final breath. His last words were,“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In response, Jesus’ last words to him were, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 22:42-43).

It takes but one moment, one whispered, even agonized, prayer, to pass from eternal death to eternal life.

No one but the thief and Christ knew that this transaction had been made. The thief’s wife and children didn’t know, and it’s unlikely that any of the onlookers heard this private exchange. As far as everyone knew, this man died as he lived, a sinful, unrepentant and broken man.

Yet we know better now, and one day we will be where he is, with Jesus in Paradise.  Will we see Robin Williams there? We don’t know. Only two men know the answer to that question.

For the rest of the post…

August 2014


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