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In the COVID-19 pandemic, we need “Life Together” more than ever. Churches are opening up slowly only to take a step or two back. We want to be together. Since we are all created in the image of God, we were also created for life together in community. The Trinity (God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit) is a community. This pandemic has hindered our community–our “Life Together”. Zoom is fine, but it is not “Life Together” as followers of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s classic work, Life Together, can prepare us for the day when we truly get the green light to gather together with no restrictions.

Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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When I ask newcomers what brings them to our church, the most common reply is, “I’m looking for community.”

I often wince hearing that phrase, fearing they won’t stay for long. It’s not that desiring community is a bad thing. The problem is the assumption that community is found, like stumbling upon a hidden treasure.

One cannot “find” community, because it isn’t something to be discovered. Community is never found, only built.

Why Do We Look?

Facebook, Instagram, and similar technologies are marketed as tools to help us connect with others—yet in the process these technologies are reshaping our notions of connection and community. It’s a sad irony that, in the social-media age, more and more people report feeling lonely even as we’re more “connected” than ever before. What gives?

The internet has redefined community in terms of choice. For most of history, community has been a given—something bound to your physical location and comprising your neighbors and classmates and church down the street. You were literally stuck in a community, which forced you to forge relationships with the people you had.

Those days are gone. You can now form a community with anyone, anywhere. You can find a Facebook group for virtually any hobby or interest; you can interact with faraway people’s daily lives via Instagram stories from the comfort of your bed; you can now even attend “church” in the palm of your hand.

We now treat community like a stop at Chipotle. You can curate your community, just like your burrito, down to your exact preference. In turn, our nation and churches have become more polarized and tribal than ever before.

Age of Bailing

Turning community into a consumer commodity has also led to what The New York Times columnist David Brooks has dubbed “The Golden Age of Bailing.” If community is “found,” it is just as easily left. “Technology makes it all so easy,” Brooks observes. “You just pull out your phone, and bailing on a rendezvous is as easy as canceling an Uber driver.”

This trend is also present in our churches. “Church hopping” is a common term within American church vernacular. I know of a pastor who was guest speaking at another church’s retreat and was surprised to see in the audience someone who had just gone through the membership class at his own church. I’ve seen in my pastoral ministry how quickly people bail—at the first disappointment or disagreement. And when I follow up with the pastor of the next church they tried, it’s no surprise to learn they also bailed there.

Build, Don’t Shop

When we try to “find” a church community, we only treat the church as a consumer. We look for the perfect fit and bail at the first sign of discomfort. We avoid the depth needed to truly transform and sustain our souls. We need to stop thinking like shoppers and more like builders.

How do we go about building, rather than looking for, a community?

1. Don’t be an architect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Many of us choose to be architects rather than builders of our communities, dreaming up an ideal church rather than committing to a real church. Yet the more we clutch our own blueprints rather than embrace the people God has placed in front of us, the more grief we will bring to ourselves and to them. Brett McCracken puts it this way: “However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.”

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WHILE BONHOEFFER’S CONTEXT OF PERSECUTION IS FAR REMOVED FROM OUR CONTEXT OF SOCIAL DISTANCING AND SELF-ISOLATION, OUR INABILITY TO GATHER PROVIDES US WITH A FRESH LENS TO CONSIDER HIS WORDS.

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As COVID-19 has prevented us from gathering together for worship, I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s meditations on the value of fellowship.

Bonhoeffer’s classic on Christian community was written during a time when the Confessing Church had been scattered under the Nazi regime. As religious freedom evaporated in Germany, Bonhoeffer trained pastors at an illegal seminary in Finkenwalde. Life Together records many of his thoughts from his time of fellowship there.

While Bonhoeffer’s context of persecution is far removed from our context of social distancing and self-isolation, our inability to gather provides us with a fresh lens to consider his words. 

With that in mind, I invite you to read the excerpts from Life Together below, and I encourage you to read this book in its entirety during these unusual days apart. From these excerpts, following are four precepts. 

1. Every gathering of the local church is a gift of God’s grace.

Bonhoefer writes:

So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament.

Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 424). (pp19-20)

Whenever we gather together as a church, we receive a gift from our gracious God. Every gathering of the saints provides a taste of the greater reality of heaven, and we look forward to the day when all the saints will be together with our Lord forever.

Consider Hebrews 12:22-24:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Gathering together with our family of faith is a blessing that becomes all the more apparent when the gift is taken away. Let us prize the grace we have been given in our fellowship, and look forward to the day when we can know it again.

2. The scattered look forward with faith.

When we must worship alone, we remember that our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Spirit is not dependent upon our geography. We look to the heavenly fellowship of Hebrews 12:22-24, and know by faith that we worship God with the saints of all the ages.

Those who are unable to enjoy the gift of gathering with brothers and sisters should take heart, for as God gives trials to scattered saints, he refines and reassures his people of their inheritance (1 Pet 1:1-9).

Bonhoeffer writes about those who must worship alone:

But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1.10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendour of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by his Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection. (p20)

Throughout history, the church’s weekly rhythm has been one of gathering and scattering. We gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate our risen Lord, and we are scattered throughout the week, carrying the gospel to our workplaces and neighborhoods. We regather the following Lord’s Day, and continue this rhythm of life.

This rhythm of gathering and scattering serves as a parable. As we are scattered during the week, we are reminded that we are in exile. As we are regathered, we are reminded of the future day when all the saints will be gathered to worship the Lord forever.

For as long as the church experiences this prolonged season of being scattered, we must trust the wisdom and will of our Sovereign Lord, and seek all the more to take refuge in his Word. If persecution and suffering does not remove one from the love of God (Rom 8:31-39), neither will social distancing and stay-at-home orders in these days of COVID-19.

3. We experience the love and presence of God through one another in Christ.

Do you feel grief or loneliness in this season? It is right to feel a sense of loss. Two-dimensional fellowship through technology is a gift, as was Paul’s ability to send and receive letters from prison. However, it is innately unsatisfying as we were created to be physically present with one another.

Bonhoeffer elaborates on this as he describes the blessing of physical presence with other believers:

The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians! (p20)

God’s grace calls us to assemble together to sit under the preaching of the Word, to recognize brothers and sisters through baptism, to confess Christ together at the Lord’s Table, to lift up our voices and sing, and to give and receive ministry within our church family as we are built up to become more like Jesus.

As we assemble together as the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day, we encounter Christ in his Word and in his people. We know the love of Christ through one another as we serve as his hands and feet. Our gatherings are an incredible gift for us to treasure. It is right for us to desire to be face-to-face with each other. Consider the apostles’ great desire to be present with the church (1 Thess 2:18; 3:17, 2 John 12, 3 John 14).

In these days of waiting, many of us will feel the weight of loneliness and the emotions and temptations that accompany feelings of isolation. Let the brokenness of this world lead us to prayer. May we be faithful to pray for one another. May we not be distant with our words, but let us use the communication tools we have to encourage one another.

4. Let us praise God for this grace.

In today’s age of individualism, far too many professing Christians see the gathering of the church as an optional activity, and many others are content with “internet church.” Even for those who are faithful to gather, the weekly blessing of assembling together is easily taken for granted.

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Bonhoeffer would have seen this pandemic as an opportunity to reorder our priorities, says Will van der Hart

I was reading a segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together in the garden this week. He says, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans…”

Bonhoeffer’s own life was interrupted by the second world war and then cut desperately short in Flossenbürg concentration camp.

I realize that I have been feeling as much anxiety about the interruption of my plans as I have been about getting physically sick. My life up to this point has been so diarised, every moment has been allocated to work, family, or charity. I even have a stock email about bookings needing to be made six months or more ahead of time! I have been so busy doing what my schedule dictates that I have not considered the divine interruptions God has been offering me.

When I am feeling unsettled, I often return to the most familiar stories of scripture. Like an old friend, their wisdom is comfortable and obvious. I was settling into Luke 10; The Good Samaritan and noticed that the characters in the story were all “going down the same road” (v31): In the same way, we are often living with automatic assumptions and priorities, particularly around success and failure. We plan our lives accordingly.

Catastrophe struck in the form of robbers (but it could have been a pandemic), who left the man “half-dead”. Then a priest and a Levite walked past the broken body of the beaten man. I guess that they epitomize so much of what is being shaken collectively and individually right now: It wasn’t their problem; he was a diversion that they weren’t willing to take.

Bonhoeffer’s point is not that we simply “hear the divine interruptions” but that we “allow ourselves to be interrupted”. While sitting in the garden I was surprised by the volume of the birdsong and wondered if it was unusual. Then I realized that this is probably the first time in a few years that I have been still enough to hear it: God is always speaking, but we aren’t often listening.

I am wondering now if I am finally willing to hear, but it isn’t comfortable! Like many anxiety sufferers, I have become addicted to activity and scheduling in order to distract myself from my worries. My busyness is a product of culture, ambition, and illness, not something that is easily broken on a whim. Yet I feel that it must break, not just for the sake of my living attentively, but so that I might live more compassionately.

The Samaritan had every cultural and social excuse not to attend to the wounded man. Yet, he allowed himself to be interrupted. No doubt he had a schedule and worthy plans, but he expended his resources of time and compassion in response to God’s directing.

This interruption to life is an opportunity to reorder our priorities so that we might be more able and willing to hear.

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by Rev. Dr. Peter Walker, Principal, United Theological College

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed on the order of Heinrich Himmler seventy-five years ago in a Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, only days before its liberation, in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had known from the age of sixteen that he wanted to study theology. He died having fully expended himself in that calling. And in so doing, he has become an inspiration to generations of Christians. As his gravestone reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Witness to Jesus Christ.

In 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted a call from the Confessing Church, an alliance of faithful resistance to Nazism, to lead an underground seminary for its pastors. There, in Finkenwalde, he wrote Life Together in 1938. Now a devotional classic, Life Together was first of all a guide to life in Christian community – a reflection for his underground seminarians. Within it, Bonhoeffer explores the joy and struggle of community lived in and through Jesus Christ; a spiritual and even divine reality, manifest in human fellowship, and marked by Bible reading, communal singing, sharing a table, prayers, and daily work.

Yet the central chapter of this beautiful book about being together is titled ‘The Day Alone’.

Hearing the voice of God

Bonhoeffer writes, ‘Let those who cannot be alone beware of community’. The noise and activity of life together may crowd out the voice we sometimes need to hear alone, the voice we might sometimes only hear alone – the voice of God.  Yet with a balancing wisdom, Bonhoeffer follows soon after with its opposite. “The reverse is also true”, he writes. “Let those who are not in community beware of being alone”. The voice which speaks out of the silence to our inner-most self, calls us into the community of Christ’s disciples.

Bonhoeffer wanted his seminarians to understand the connection between silence and our ability to hear the still small voice of God which animates our faith; to understand “the essential relationship of silence to the Word.” And, he wanted them to understand that time together and time alone are both essential to Christ’s community. Time with others enriches our time alone, and time alone enriches our time with others. “The day together will be unfruitful without the day alone”, Bonhoeffer writes. And conversely, “After a time of quiet, we meet others in a different and a fresh way”.

“Only in this fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone, and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship. It is not as though the one preceded the other. Both begin at the same time, namely, with the call of Jesus Christ.”

COVID-19 and ‘the day alone

COVID-19 has brought a form of ‘the day alone’ upon us all. In reality, it will be much more than a day. We are beginning a time of relative solitude that will last for weeks and may hold for months.

Notwithstanding our heartbreak for those to whom this virus brings suffering, for whom we must do all we can in love, I suspect Dietrich Bonhoeffer would encourage us, as individuals and as the church, to embrace this time alone. Embrace it for meditation on the scriptures. Embrace it as an opportunity to be intentional in our listening for God. That will not be easy, and we will need to be patient. Yet we have time. What is God saying to you? What is God saying to this church?

Embrace this mandated time apart as a time for prayer.

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By Gary Thomas

Why Are Christians So Mean?

His answer was up to the task. He said that Christians are mean in proportion to when they value being “right” over being “like Christ.”

It’s not enough to simply believe correct doctrine; as God’s chosen people, we are asked to behave a certain way, particularly as it relates to others: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

The book of Romans also sets up a high standard for believers, telling us to “be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (12:10), “never be wise in your own sight” (12:16) and keep in mind that “love does no harm to its neighbor” (13:10). No harm. To anyone. So, in our relations with anyone we are to be devoted to their overall welfare, to not be overly confident in our opinion, and to never do anyone any harm. There’s no room here for any “Bible-believing” Christian to be mean.

What a different world this would be if, indeed, we were “devoted” to everyone’s welfare, if we were humble in our own opinions, and committed to not do anyone harm—no gossip, no mean-spirited denunciation, no slander. Doesn’t that sound like a nice world to live in?

The new life of believers envisioned by Paul in Colossians 3 basically prohibits three things: sexual immorality, greed and being mean. Sexual immorality is denounced in many ways and greed with one word: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed” (v. 5).

This denunciation of sexual misconduct is perhaps what the modern church is known for. But in Paul’s way of thinking, we should also be known for not being mean. Being mean is denounced as extensively and vigorously as sexual sin: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander and filthy language from your lips” (v. 8).

Put all this together, and Christians aren’t to be involved in any form of sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual immorality of any kind, but we are also to shun any aspect of being “mean”: domestic violence, emotional abuse, bosses mistreating subordinates, bullying or ridiculing gays, violent rioting, and social media trolling. Just as the #metoo movement is challenging the notion that “authority” gives someone the right to be predatory, so the Bible teaches us that “right theology” doesn’t give us the right to mistreat others even when we think we are in the “right” and they are in the wrong.

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“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”

~. Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together19

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his classic book, “Life Together”, but most of us know that not everyone in the church will be happy or on board with the direction of the church. Thom Rainer offers wise words below. ~ Bryan

By Thom S. Rainer

In any organization of size, there are likely angry people.

They are unhappy with the organization. They don’t like change. They don’t like the leader.

But here’s the catch: In most organizations, they are a distinct minority. I use the quantifier of ten percent more anecdotally than not, but I would conjecture most organizations, including churches, would have a number close to that.

In churches, I see pastors, again and again, yield to the pressures and criticisms of the ten percent. I get it. I’ve been there and done that. May I suggest some perspectives on this issue? Perspectives are not solutions, but they can help us persevere when the ten percent get really loud.

  • Ten percent can seem like a lot of people. Indeed, if your church has 200 active members, 20 loud critics can seem really loud. Brad Waggoner calls it “the power of negativity.” He says the negative person has a tenfold voice in the organization compared to the neutral and positive people.
  • Realize that the ten percent will take advantage of any forum you give them. They love to speak up in business meetings. They love to be the big voice in listening sessions and surveys. In fact, listening sessions can make the rest of the organization demoralized as the more positive members think the negative people are the norm.
  • The ten percent want you to think there are more of them. They will use phrases like, “Everyone says . . .” or “People are saying . . .” They not only can be negative; they can be downright deceitful.
  • While you want to have open communications, the ten percent will often dominate the rest of the voices in the church. Such is the reason you need to be careful about giving them the platforms and opportunities to spread their negativity.

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“Scripture makes it clear through commands, promises, and examples that the Christian life was never intended to be lived alone. Those who have received are now wired through their new spiritual DNA to live in community. We must have a band of believers to walk alongside us, all pointed in the same direction—toward the Father. Only collectively are we the body of Christ. We need each to help us become like Jesus and consistently model his life.”

~ Randy Frazee, Think, Act, Be Like Jesus128.

Think, Act, Be Like Jesus: Becoming a New Person in Christ   -     By: Randy Frazee

July 2020
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