fbpx
Why a Real Church Is Better Than Any Ideal

Why a Real Church Is Better Than Any Ideal

There are some books you should not just read twice. Some books need to become like good friends. Good friends get together not to “have” something new, but rather, you find their familiarity and wisdom a means of holy “being. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that kind of friend. 

In a world where it’s more in vogue to dislike the church because of her failures to measure up to who she ought to be, Bonhoeffer keeps our eyes set firmly on the only place we can belong: a real church. As someone who died for his confession of faith and saw the community of Jesus to be vibrantly different from the powers of the day, we have a lot to learn from this theological giant. Nowhere has Bonhoeffer been more precise and timeless on genuine church community than in Life Together

Bonhoeffer’s Real Church

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes what a robust Christian community looks like as they grow together in Christlikeness. These insights were refined in 1935 when Bonhoeffer chose to live a “common life in emergency-built houses,” with twenty-five vicars. Out of this experience, Bonhoeffer invites us to “consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word.” In my own pastoral vocation, I needed to see afresh through Bonhoeffer’s unapologetic, poetic framing why the church is indeed different from any other institution, and how she is made different through the presence of the Word. 

Not Ideal, But Real

In his opening chapter entitled Community, Bonhoeffer first penetrates our expectations of what life together as Christians is like and what keeps us tethered together. While the Christian lot is to live in a world antagonistic to our faith, it’s one of God’s great graces that we get to live alongside other Christians. While this is indeed a grace, it has never been easy, and Bonhoeffer will not tolerate idealism of any sort. Idealistic visions of the real church community ultimately lead to accusations that the whole community, including God at the center of that community, is a failure. 

Bonhoeffer brilliantly notices the distinction between intent and impact when idealism guides a community. We can be so in love with a dream of a certain kind of community that even though we have all the best intentions in the world, the impact is that we can become “a destroyer” of the real church community in front of us.

I frequently wrestle with idealism in my pastoral vocation. When I read the biblical vision of what the church will be one day in the book of Revelation, I hunger and thirst for the full arrival of that kind of diverse and unified communion now. I know the problem is not in desire but in timing. The real people in front of me have not arrived, and neither have I. The real church today, due to the continuing presence of sin and brokenness which God himself will finally drive out, is less diverse, less healthy, less loving, and less mature than the completed versions of ourselves. This is how it appropriately is in the journey of salvation. To miss this is to misunderstand pastoral ministry, and yet, I confess I frequently fail to love the real in my pining for the ideal. 

Not Merely Human, But Divine

Bonhoeffer then moves to explain how a true Christian community lives and has its being by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by the mere natural desires of humans for community. While all humans desire to have community, when the Spirit creates community it is not merely for others’ sake. If it is merely to meet a need of having others in your life, then this is an idolatry, which will stifle the quality of life and resilience of that community. Whereas when the Spirit creates a community it is for Christ’s sake; this end, and only this end, is where integral, radically inclusive life resides. 

Throughout Life Together, Bonhoeffer expands our categories for the mediatorial role of Christ in how we are shaped as a community. In the pietistic circles in which I grew up and am grateful for, I often heard preaching on the astounding importance of Christ’s vertical mediatorial role between God and humanity, but the mystical avenue in which Christ mediates relationships now with other followers of Jesus challenged me to “speak to Christ about a brother more than to a brother about Christ.” Until recently, I had not recognized the gift—yes, the gift—of how God limits immediate access to another human being. Bonhoeffer paints a picture of Jesus standing between us, shaping how we see, talk, relate, and love one another through him, and so Christ’s grace and patience holds us together. 

Where this appears to be especially potent is in the prominent conversation around spiritual abuse in pastoral circles. So many spiritual leaders are seeking immediate access to others and longing to control, coerce, and manipulate others through force. When I sense this urge in my own life, this has given me a better imaginative frame for submitting my desires for that person to Christ. When Christ stands between us, and we go to him more than to our sister or brother, we relinquish control. We trust the Spirit that called us together in Christ to work with each of us through Christ. 

Not Just Confessional, But Representative

Bonhoeffer does not merely highlight the mediatorial role of Christ between the members of a Christian community, he also highlights how the church community has an important representational role of Christ toward each other. This representational role is exemplified when Bonhoeffer points to the central role of confession in the church. 

Loneliness is a human problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Psychologists are continuing to notice alarming trends of depression due to the exclusion of the human community, but the loneliness experienced because of hidden sin is a kind of loneliness rarely mentioned in these studies. When the Spirit creates a community for Christ’s sake, we are called into lifegiving discomfort by confessing our sin to a sister or brother, and here the church represents Christ in a powerful way. 

Bonhoeffer provides ways to make confession concrete with steps for going to a particular person, with a particular sin, and so, we can experience clarity around our assurance and victory, but when we confess to a brother or sister, what I often overlook is how it combats our loneliness. If we confess when we’d rather not due to any number of reasons, we find that we are “never alone again, anywhere.” This is the power of the gospel.  

God Is Here

To be clear, Bonhoeffer is not promoting a mere human community. Rather it is Christ’s presence demonstrated by other followers of Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “When I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God.” Nothing can make us feel so “utterly alone” like hidden sin, which naturally causes us to hide our full selves from others or our motivations from ourselves, but it is our sisters and brothers who bear with us through Christ, listening to our confessions as Christ, who also declare forgiveness to us in the words of Christ. This is the real church founded and formed by Christ: a church fumbling along in the real world, bearing with one another and confessing to one another in Christ. This is the church we need. This is the church I need, because this is where Christ is.

Being with Bonhoeffer and the Real Church

And so, if you need a book to better understand a lost perspective of the church, if you yourself, have lost interest in the church, if you have been enticed by the ideal church such that you can no longer attend/stand/stomach/imagine a real church, Bonhoeffer’s theological vision and biblical wisdom may be a helpful mentor. Add him as a conversation partner as you enter the new year. You may find a love for the church, and so Christ, afresh. 

A Prayer for Runners

A Prayer for Runners

If you like to run, what are your routines for run prep? Stretching? Coffee? Mapping out your run? What if running could strengthen your soul as much as your body? How do you prep for that?

Okay, so maybe this isn’t the blog you were expecting from your pastor. I know this topic may feel niche, but even if you aren’t the “running type,” I invite you into an exercise to expand your perspective of the ordinary aspects of your life. Life with God is an adventure that predominantly dwells in the riches of the mundane, and there are few things that remind us of our ordinary, earthy existence like a morning run. The body is cranking sweat out of every pore. Muscles, joints, lungs, and heart are burning. The spirit seems to grow silent at the screaming of the body. 

And yet, what if this is one of the ways God meets us? What if the joy at the end of a run doesn’t merely have to be a dopamine hit, but a moment of embodied encounter with God? Would we be ready? Do we even have to be ready for it to be true? 

I wonder if some of the greatest acts of cultivating our attention toward God’s always-and-forever presence is not merely by rehearsing good ideas but rather by entering recurring prayers. What if the same way we put on the same shoes for a daily run, we prayed the same prayer, slowly allowing our souls to mold into its repetition? What would we notice about God? What would we notice in ourselves? Who would we become mile by mile?

For those who run or walk, for those who have been meaning to run or walk, for those who want to care for their bodies and souls, I wrote a prayer that opens our eyes when we open our strides. May this prayer be a resource for the Holy Spirit, leveraging your senses to better feel your run with God.  

 

A LITURGY FOR 

An early morning run

This prayer is best when coupled with the physical act of putting on running shoes, paying attention to the well-designed grip of the shoe on each foot and the tightness of the laces. 

Lord, you have crafted these toes reaching out from these feet connected to these ankles,
syncing with calves, knees and hips to run as you move all of me. Today I join the wind, a sacrament of your invisible presence gracing these quiet streets.

As I run, may I remember I was made to run
with you.
Not ahead—as if I could leave you behind
Nor behind—as if I must try to catch up.
Only breathing—with.
The syncopated in—hale, ex—hale with each mid-foot strike
a reminder of your Spirit kissing my soul,
The sunrise and her shadows a reminder that you, Lord Christ, hold it all together,
The sound of birds, the reminder that the Father’s eye is on the soaring sparrow.

May my run be an act of devoted attention,
Not an escape from your world
But a seeing service in the world.

And so,
awaken my heart
passing in front of homes exhausted by an erratic world
while aching for homeless trampled by the world
awaken my mind
listening to podcasts, books, music,
and praying prayers with the world.
awaken my hands
surrendering what I must carry to be ok
freed to wave at each day laborer for the world.

God, in this early hour, I run
with you,
and I know you are with me
closer than these well crafted shoes
each step of the way. 

Amen.

For more prayers in this vein written by others around various ordinary aspects of life, check out the amazing resource, Every Moment Holy.

What if Jesus really isn’t dead? Now what?

What if Jesus really isn’t dead? Now what?

Life Changing Moments

 

We all have moments that change not only how we show up in life but what we are even able to comprehend in life.  

Some are truly marvelous. I applied and actually got in! She said, “Yes!” We’re pregnant! I got the promotion! They found the cure!

Others are unimaginably brutal. He left me! I lost everything! I hit rock bottom! I’m getting evicted! She didn’t make it….

Whether good or bad moments, after you go through them you are never the same. 

Now imagine those first followers of Jesus. They probably were used to being surprised after three years of following him from town to town, but when they saw him beaten within an inch of his life and then crucified, everything they held dear was taken from them in a moment. After the trauma of Jesus’ death, they were running from the authorities, running from themselves, and questioning God. Why? How can this even be happening? When he said he was going, that he was going to die, I never thought….

Then in the midst of unbearable sadness, grief, and sorrow, Jesus came back to life. Jesus actually came back to them alive after dying. They couldn’t have fathomed a crucified Messiah, but even that pales in comparison to the thought that Jesus would come back to life. And yet, there he was; flesh and blood, warmth and breath, standing with scars. 

There was no mistaking it was Jesus, but what could this mean? Why death and then, maybe even more puzzling, why resurrection? How could he come back to life? And then in the midst of those thoughts there is the question of what this means for each of us. 

 

Now What? 


Together we want to explore not merely the plausibility of Jesus’ resurrection—although that is a worthwhile journey—but more, the consequences of death not having the final word. We want to explore the “Now what?” of Jesus’ resurrection for a world riddled with death and decay. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely an idea to ponder but a change in reality to embrace.

And if you are hungry for change anywhere in your life, this is a question of supreme importance. Imagine what this could mean for you! Think of those areas that feel defined by death; a relationship, financial status, an addiction, self-mortifying guilt or self-eroding anger. Jesus’ resurrection has a massive impact on history, and Jesus’ resurrection life has life-altering, imagination-expanding, hope-cultivating power for you personally.

What could Jesus’ resurrection mean for you? For me? For us?

 

Join us!


We hope you join us as our study of the Gospel of John continues to reveal the extraordinary importance of Jesus actually being alive, and what that has to do with how
you live today. This isn’t something just for your neighbor, spouse, friend, or child. This is for you, but invite them, too. Why? Because life longs to bring more life. If you’ve tasted this life, you’ll want others to experience Jesus’ life too! 

You know what’s amazing? If Jesus couldn’t stay dead after being crucified in the first century, that means the life-giving work recorded in the first century for you and me is only the beginning of what he is continuing to do today. 

What if Jesus really didn’t stay dead? Now what? 

 

Invite


If you already believe in Jesus’ resurrection, below is a video we created to promote the beginning of this new journey of study starting on Easter Sunday. Go ahead and share it. Share it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or wherever God has you. What might our resurrected Lord Jesus do through your invitations this Easter? Let’s find out!

Is humility that quiet? A common misconception.

Is humility that quiet? A common misconception.

“Humility is the quiet virtue.” – Everett Worthington

 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

 

Humility

Always out of reach

For the humble and arrogant alike

 

More standing

And less learning to master a bike

 

Rather—more walking than standing

Going somewhere,

But not just anywhere

 

And yet still not certain you’re in the right

Taking the path

Only to be surprised by heaven.

 

There are few virtues quite as celebrated and yet still mysterious as humility. Even the most morally dense know enough to not claim it, and no one knows exactly how to get it. While we are willing to describe “what” it is and can even recognize “who” has it, the “how” feels aloof. Humility is the virtue central to combating pride, the most dastardly of the vices, and yet it can feel like a jack-in-the-box that only pops up periodically in the cranked out lives of surprising people. 

A Distorted Comparison


One of the tactics seen to be safe by many is a total abasing of oneself. We can take up Paul’s sentiments and cry, “I am the worst of sinners!! I mean
the worst!” Of course, we cry it loud enough so that all can hear, making a reverse hierarchy as to who can make the worst of themselves the loudest. 

The thoughtful Christian who has seen through this distorted comparison strategy may then counter with the richness of our Imago Dei. We are beautiful because of whose image we bear, and yet we are also broken in our sins and cycles of destruction, where the Holy Spirit is continually at work to bring about our liberation. 

This retort is usually followed by the charge to “not think less of yourself, but think of yourself less.” While in the moment we aren’t sure if that comes from C.S. Lewis or Rick Warren, it smacks of enough mysticism or pietism that we hold it as truth.

Humility is not never thinking of yourself


Herein lies what I think is the most common view of humility today that also presents a significant issue rarely raised. While we are certainly not to be self-consumed, placing our needs as the central and driving goal of our lives, we can ignore our needs and subconsciously become frustrated, angry, and bitter when others don’t meet those needs. We get confused why the good life Jesus promises does not meet us in this life, and it comes partly as a result of taking an axiom too far. For humility is not
never thinking of yourself.

A framework for humility that ignores the self, unwilling to be honest about what we need under the shroud of sacrifice, can’t help but focus on the self. It’s like telling someone not to think of a pink elephant. You thought about it, didn’t you? How can you not? The question I raise is what if rather than trying to ignore it, we attended to it? 

To be clear, this is not a push for self-care. This runs deeper than mending and renewal. This is also not a push for a strong self-esteem. Rather, this is a call for creating space for God to attend to the needs that are bubbling up in your soul. They may manifest in temptations of lust or warm your face in fits of rage. They may turn our stomach in knots with anxieties. Or frankly, come with expressions of pity and, dare I say it, pride. Instead of just asking for forgiveness, which can be code for these unwanted expressions to just go away, dissect these longings in extended times of self-attending, inviting God to meet you in the quiet recesses of our desires.

We are designed to be loved, to know love, and out of the overflow of receiving love to then give love. If we don’t attend to our needs, we will never attend to others’ needs without that attending ultimately being a long detour directed back to us. You could imagine it as an extended inversion that laboriously pushed through others for your own sake. 

God Ministers through Prayer


When I look at Jesus, who interestingly enough, thought about himself a lot and even had the audacity to call himself humble (Matthew 11:30), he took significant time attending to his own needs. Often we couch this “away time” as prayer, which is how the gospel writers speak of it, but even there we misunderstand partly because we, today, believe prayer to be mostly about speaking to someone rather than receiving what we need from someone. 

This is not how prayer is exclusively presented within Scripture. The psalms are rife with examples where God ministers to longing saints in their prayers. So it should not surprise us that in prayer Jesus took time daily and even extended time receiving what he needed to hear about who he was. 

It is no accident that before Jesus began his ministry he needed to hear from God the Father, “This is my Son in whom I’m well pleased.” May we not so emphasize the deity of Jesus that we run the risk of ancient heresy in ignoring Jesus’ humanity, which came with the whole host of human needs. 

When the daily barrage of messages that said Jesus was something other than who God said he was, he didn’t just think of someone else. He thought of himself the way God did and in prayer allowed God to speak into him truthfully. In other words, he thought of himself regularly, and allowed the Father to focus his words on him regularly in ways that were true and good. 

If Jesus had this need, how much more do you and I? If Jesus did not avoid thinking of himself, how can we expect to do so? It shouldn’t surprise us that the more we downplay Jesus’ humanity the more willing we are to ignore our own. 

Humility is not altogether silent


I believe Worthington is right in that humility is
the quiet virtue. It doesn’t draw attention, but don’t take it too far. Humility is not altogether silent. It doesn’t ignore attending deeply to the needs of one’s own soul. Humility pays attention to the self, quietly (and sometimes quite passionately) asking for God to meet us in our needs, rather than demanding others fulfill them in subtle and not so subtle ways. 

So at this moment, take time to attend. Take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. How are you listening to what’s going on within you? How are you thinking about what makes up your internal world? How are you inviting God to attend to your needs to be loved, accepted, and even disciplined? Do you see this practice as crucial to humility? If not, your heart will always cry for attention.

How to Pray More with Less

How to Pray More with Less

The Power of the Tongue

Have you ever looked at your tongue? We may take note of our nose when trying on a pair of glasses, gloss our lips when chapped, and brush our teeth habitually, but none of these has quite the same power as this extraordinary interconnection of muscles kept in the cage of our mouths. 

Without any bones, the tongue’s agility and power reaches as far as life and as dark as death (Proverbs 18:21). This little member of our body can set someone’s life ablaze with a whisper, and as hard as we try to control it, it acts like a stray hound dog, skittish to the very thought of a collar (James 3). With it we bless God, curse our fellow human beings, overshare secrets, declare direction, promise undying love, and—lest we forget—pray. 

There is nothing quite as paradoxically familiar and foreign as talking with God. Interestingly, what I find more often than not is that the tongue tries to prove its power more in prayer to the all-powerful God than almost anywhere else. 

Especially for those of us who regularly exercise the tongue’s power in prayer, we can unconsciously assume—or blatantly believe—that more words in prayer means more power. If prayer was measured by the number of words used in intercession like miles are used to measure the strength of a runner, we can all too easily see the ultra marathon runner as superior to the sprinter. 

A clear sign of this is when someone has prayed for something for an extended period of time and God does not act in accordance with our request, we question whether prayer “works” or whether God heard our prayers at all. We downplay “foxhole” prayers, and the more one is religiously fluent, the more we are tempted to use longer prayers for alternative purposes (Matthew 6:5-6).

Now this is not meant to discourage periods of long intercession. Martin Luther is known for saying that he prayed an hour a day, and on busy days, he would make it a point to pray for two! Jesus was known to disappear all night to spend time in prayer and intimacy with his Father (Luke 6:12). 

 

The Power of Prayer

The question that needs to be answered is how much does God employ the power of the tongue to realize the power of prayer? How much do our clarifying thoughts and persistent speech have to do with prayer activating the Spirit’s effect on us, in us and through us? 

Jesus’ teaching on prayer which includes his example that we call the Lord’s Prayer says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)

Right here Jesus makes it clear that it is not the number of words that makes a prayer effective. Then he continues, “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” Why don’t we need a ton of words? Because like a Father who knows life better than you and knows you better than you and loves you better than you, he already knows what’s best before we ask. 

 

The Power of God

It is from this deep understanding of God’s inexhaustible love that Jesus lays out the Lord’s Prayer. Simple. Short. Sweet. 

And yet, no matter how many times that passage is taught, it seems the temptation to convince God to show up in our needs shapes the length of our prayers. Like a child hungry for dinner, we keep asking our father in as many ways as we can fathom if the food is ready as if that will hurry it along. Then over time, we can begin to believe more in the power of the tongue in our praying than the power of God no matter the length of the prayer. 

This is where the thoughtful reader of Scripture should pause and ask: what would it look like to surrender to God in prayer rather than trying to control or over direct or micromanage him in prayer? While the answer is not necessarily less prayer, it could mean more prayer with less. 

 

Surrendering to God’s Presence in Centering Prayer

A practice in prayer that has served followers of Jesus throughout history is centering prayer. Centering prayer invites simplicity of speech to be the red carpet to the magnificence of God. Centering prayer is less about looking for a result as it is an openness to the freedom of God. While there is intention with God, the means—the words we use—are sparse for the purpose of surrender. It’s not about “getting” a particular feeling, although you will feel. It is not about “receiving” a particular vision or realization, although at times there may be an encounter. It’s about letting God be God, and you being you before him. 

While this may feel squishy to some “experts” in the Christian faith, it is a good reminder that we are all rookies when it comes to the fullness of God in his glorious triune wonder. It’s a checkmate to the “heresy of Eunomius, a fourth-century Arian theologian who audaciously claimed the divine nature to be entirely knowable by the human mind.”* Centering prayer acknowledges the limitation of words to exhaustedly represent our own needs and God’s mysterious glory. It is not the only kind of prayer one is to engage, but it is a beautiful addition to one’s walk with God, which invites us “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 4:19). 

Centering prayer requires extended time but limited words. It was common practice for those ancient desert mothers and fathers of the Christian faith. It’s more like experiencing a slow sunset than it is taking a long walk. One word is usually the preference. One word that captures your intention as you merely “be” before God. For me, it is usually one word out of Scripture that I’ve been meditating on that fits the occasion. Usually thirty to sixty minutes is a helpful starting point. Whatever thoughts come before you, you surrender them to God for another time. You whisper your one word of intention (examples: God, rest, cross, holy, life, Jesus) and you wait in his divine care trusting he sees you and knows you and is ready to meet you in ways you didn’t know you needed. 

Usually when I engage in centering prayer, I set an alarm on my phone. I release myself from paying attention to anything other than God, and when the alarm goes off like a tap on the shoulder, I find myself more often than not surprised at how an hour has passed. 

On one such occasion when I came with the intention of “life” as my exhaled prayer, here is one journal entry of where I found myself at the end: 

As my phone alarm went off in an hour, not only did I feel at peace, but gratitude again was a dominant feeling. Grateful for how God has designed life. Grateful for the Author of life. Grateful to be alive. Grateful to feel grateful. A feeling/way of being that I don’t take for granted. 

Now, to be clear, I don’t always walk away grateful, but I do always feel it in my body, soul, and spirit. Sometimes I am frustrated. Sometimes I feel nothing. But even in the frustration and the nothing, God is working. If only we saw God present even in our frustrations and those “nothing” moments, we might sense more deeply in our bones we are his, and wouldn’t that be something. 

So try it. Pray more with less. Let the power of the tongue give way to the power of God. Who knows, God may even surprise you.