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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.

For the rest of the post…

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.

For the rest of the post…

“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.

For the rest of the post…

“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

I purchased this copy at the Bethel College Bookstore around 1978.

By Andrew Camp

6 Reflections on Community Inspired by Bonhoeffer

My church has recently launched a series on community called Better Together. In conjunction with the sermon series, I, in collaboration with my senior pastor, wrote a small group curriculum to complement the series. I love community, which is why I love small groups. Like many of you, I work hard on our small group system at my church to equip leaders and to help many in my church experience the fullness of community—the good, the bad and the ugly.

However, as I continue to reflect on community and work toward helping others experience community, I constantly find myself drawn back to and challenged by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic work, Life Together. In it, he writes:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.

Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness and His promise. (pp. 27-28).

I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community, that I rarely stop to seek God’s heart for the community which He has called me to shepherd.

Please do not misunderstand me: I do not believe God wants you or me to be laissez faire when it comes to community either. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Structure and guidelines are good as it relates to community; they can help foster an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable.

So how do we draw the balance. Here are some preliminary thoughts:

1. Pray for your specific community. Thank God for placing you in that specific community. Don’t repress your frustrations about your community, but in the midst of frustrations, be thankful as much as you are able.

2. Listen to God. Don’t spend so much time in prayer for your community that you miss God’s voice to you regarding your community. Remember that God has already laid the foundation.

3. Spend time listening to your people—not just your leaders, but others as well. Know where they are at and what they need to continue to grow spiritually.

4. Get to know your place. What are the specific challenges your community faces? What is good about your place that helps foster community?

by Richard Penaskovic

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

(WW) My first experience as a full-time pastor was in a village which boasted a population of 369. Everyone in our church was thrilled when a couple moved to town and joined the Baptist church. The wife was a dedicated musician and was determined that our little congregation become just like her previous church. She became very frustrated when our attempt at starting children’s choirs never took shape “the way we did it back home.” Our adult choir couldn’t pull off a cantata to her liking. Our deacons didn’t “deac” the way she expected. Our bereavement meals at funeral time weren’t organized correctly.

Doyle SagerLet me hasten to add: This lady loved the Lord deeply and was a tireless worker. She was committed to Christ and wanted to share his love with others. Her problem was that she never came to love the church she had. She only loved an idealized church in her mind.

Yes, our church had many flaws and shortcomings. We needed desperately to become more missional (even though that word wasn’t used back then). Did we need some new blood? Yes. Did we need a fresh set of eyes to see what we could not see? For sure. But we also needed to be loved just as we were.

Personally, I believe all churches (including mine) must courageously abandon outdated practices and attitudes. Congregations must change drastically in order to touch our world with God’s grace. But sometimes, amid all the pulse-taking, evaluations, strategy planning, and critiquing, we forget to love the church we have.

This does not mean we become complacent and resist change. It means we pay attention to the movement of God’s Spirit here and now, in our imperfect and disheveled condition.

The internet has made it possible for anyone to “attend church” virtually, exposing them to incredible music, relevant sermons, and effective outreach methods. Sometimes we are tempted to ask, “Why can’t my church be like that one?”

church window with heart

Image by Dagmar Räder from Pixabay

Yes, we can always learn from others. But at some point, our discontent with where we are breeds a contempt which keeps us from loving the church we have. The late Eugene Peterson said it well in Practice Resurrection: “If we don’t grasp church as Christ’s body, we will always be dissatisfied, impatient, angry, dismayed, or disgusted with what we see.”

The church I serve is blessed with very strong children and youth ministries. When high school seniors leave us for college, we occasionally hear one say, “I’m going to find a church just like this one.” Our reply is always, “No. You won’t find one like ours. You’ll find the one God has for you, one in which you will be challenged and grow in different ways. That church won’t do things the way we do them; it will do many things better.”

The Apostle Paul knew more about the church’s warts and blemishes than any other person of his time. Yet, when I read his letters to the Corinthians, Philippians, and Thessalonians, I hear him saying, “Despite the failures, impotence, and embarrassments of your church’s witness, never view your church with contempt or disgust. Love the church you have.”

During Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ministry, most of the German church was failing miserably, being co-opted by Hitler’s seductive pseudo-gospel. Bonhoeffer was frustrated by the compromise and cowardice. No one had more of a right to wash his hands of the church and walk away from orthodox faith.

But in Life Together, he wrote…

For the rest of the post…

Why the Christian Life Is a Call to Community

And Earl Roland. He was a hunched old man who loved to pray. In the absence of an acceptable singing voice, he’d mastered the art of whistling, and he whistled loud and strong through the hymns we sang in church. So to honor him we whistled “A Mighty Fortress” at his memorial service.

I remember little old women in polyester who fawned over me, and the wrinkled man in a wheelchair who had a big black Bible and said, “But God!” (Because he knew stuff the rest of us didn’t yet understand.)

But it wasn’t just the old and the weak that made a strong impression on me.Roland and Naomi were seminary students in their late 20s when I was a teen. They never missed an opportunity to encourage me. When I graduated from high school and no one else my age was left at church, they invited me to join their young married small group. Roland and Naomi wanted children, but their arms remained empty. I watched them navigate barrenness with quiet trust, and it changed me.

There were other friendships forged over food. My parents set the stage for rich and relaxed community by hosting myriad meals, even on a shoestring budget. Neighbors, newcomers to church, and out-of-town friends all gathered around our table and lit up our home. Missionaries on furlough ate pot roast and told stories from the field. Giddy newlyweds talked of love over casserole. Sharing meals with people seemed as natural as, well, eating, and left me with an incurable taste for joy.

And what I couldn’t have put into words then, but I understand to the marrow of my bones now, is that community gives life. It grows you up and anchors you down; humbles and heals; brings laughter and tears. It brings sturdy ground to our existence.

Fighting the tug away from community

Now I’m the one with a family, and we’re living in the fastest-paced generation in the history of mankind. Despite some physical limitations that naturally slow us down, our family can still find ourselves dashing here and there, squinting sideways at our calendar to see how we’ll squeeze in another birthday party or baby shower, and communicating instantaneously with dozens of people in the course of one day.

My husband and I have to regularly fight against the tug of too much. We keep asking, “How do we pursue authentic, consistent, unhurried relationships? How do we do this in a way that builds up our family and doesn’t splinter us in a dozen different directions? How can we make sure our son doesn’t miss rubbing shoulders with the Miss Mosses and Earl Rolands of this world?”

We haven’t stumbled upon any easy answers. Community looks so different for each one of us, in every new season of our lives. And as soon as we think we’ve found our groove and figured it all out, life changes. The mom with three small children, the overseas missionary, the 50-year-old caring for aging parents, the one who’s chronically sick—they’ll tell you there’s no cookie-cutter shape for community.

But one thing’s for certain: we need each other. We can’t work through our yuck, see our blindspots, grow in grace, and experience joy on an island (no matter how exotic it might be). And while God alone is more than enough for us—and he should be our first and greatest relationship—he knows we will love and understand him more when we’re living in authentic relationships with others.

So we should prioritize it: Be with others. Set food on the table, and open the front door. Tell each other our stories. Confess sin to a friend. Meet a tangible need. Laugh together. Pray together. Sit quietly with a grieving one. Seek the wisdom of older friends. Forgive each other. Say “yes” to an offer of help.

April 2020
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