an inspired life – reading and living bonhoeffer

I’m drawn to biographies of inspiring men and women.  This summer, I enjoyed Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.  Bonhoeffer, of course, was imprisoned for his participation in a conspiracy against Hitler, ultimately paying the ultimate price of his life.  Several things gripped me about his story, however.

First, Bonhoeffer lived a bold, risky, and public faith.  He got it, and got it when he was still very young.  He and his family saw through Hitler’s narcissism and racism, and many family members (including his inspiring grandmother!) stood against the growing tyranny.  Bonhoeffer took on ecclesial authorities, friends, and mentors…often at great cost.

Second, Bonhoeffer started seminaries.  At first, this does not sound radical.  But, in a generation when pastoral education had become stale and irrelevant, Bonhoeffer went off the grid.  He started schools to educate a new generation of pastors, valuing the importance of life in community, prayer, theological integrity, and cultural engagement.  This was short-lived vision, as he was found out, but the lasting impact is seen in a good number of influential friends and students made during these days.

Third, Bonhoeffer was a scholar-practitioner.  In other words, Bonhoeffer was a leading thinker and a leading doer.  At different points, he sacrificed the privilege of being either/or.  He turned down prestigious teaching positions.  And he left prestigious pastorates.  This is because he saw no dichotomy between the two.  His clear thinking about the implications of Christian faith led him to an irreversible lifestyle of costly discipleship – eventually costing him his life.

It’s easy to think about Bonhoeffer in idealistic ways, as if he were a saint without fault, or a disciple who took the road-less-traveled at every turn.  Metaxas shows a very human Bonhoeffer, a man we can all relate to.  He documents Bonhoeffer’s edgy and angry personality, which often erupted in sharp letters.  He shows Bonhoeffer’s pride and self-pity.  He shows an uncertain and confused man, wondering which path God would have him take.  He shows a man falling in love amidst a world in conflict.  And he tells of a man who seems to be vacationing and playing as much as he is risking and studying.  In other words, he shows us a saint for our own time, an imperfect life, but a life to which we can aspire.

Biographies have an amazing capacity to inspire.  The best biographies tell the whole truth, which tell our truths.  The great novelist Frederick Buechner says in his memoir that our stories tell something of our own humanness, our capacity to achieve great things and make horrible mistakes.  Every good story has its peaks and valleys.  Mine does.  I’m sure yours does too.

Every good storyteller will tell this story.  And Metaxas tells it well.  Bonhoeffer inspires, in part because he risks in ways in which I long to risk, and in part because he’s your average Joe – laughing, loving, playing, working, loving, and looking to live a meaningful life in the meantime.

His “meantime,” of course, was at the height of Nazi Germany.

Yet, does our “meantime” hold any less risk or promise?

Mother Jesus

from today’s Daily Office, a canticle of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1109)

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you:
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children;
Often you weep over our sins and our pride:
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds:
in sickness you nurse us,
and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life:
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.
Despair turns to hope through your sweet goodness:
through your gentleness we find comfort in fear.
Your warmth gives life to the dead:
your touch makes sinners righteous.
Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us:
in your love and tenderness remake us.
In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness:
for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

+ + + + +

Why post this?  Because exclusively paternal images of God don’t do the Bible justice.  And they rob us of the motherly comfort and care God wants to offer us, particularly when we are a mess, or feel unlovable.  One of my favorite images in the Bible is of an extravagantly loving Father running toward his screwed up, addict of a son.  It’s in Luke 15, and it’s one of the most moving and motherly images of God in the entire Bible.  If you want to learn more about God as a loving and compassionate Mother in Luke 15, read Kenneth Bailey’s fantastic book.

early christians were bold. and the world took notice.

I was speaking at a retreat this weekend when I mentioned that Christians back in the first centuries of the church rescued newborn little girls from large piles of trash.

“Why did you have to say that?” someone said afterwards.

“Because it happened.”

“But that’s just sad,” she said, as we stood there in silence.

The early followers of Christ were bold.  But, for the most part it was not a boldness that felt like the “in-your-face” Christian zealotry of today.  It was simple.  Humble.

And the world took notice.

40 at 40: Is our culture today really worse than it used to be?

Many Christians like to reminisce about more noble times long ago.  They say things like:

“Our country was founded on Christians values.”

“Our culture is becoming worldly and evil.”

“The young people of today are so selfish and corrupt.”

Just the other day someone said to me, “I wonder what San Francisco was like before the sexual revolution.  It’s such a beautiful city.  Too bad it’s been so contaminated by people of low character.”


It’s seems to me that the Bible is chock full of screwed up people.  Some of the great heroes of the faith include King David – an adulterer and conspirator to murder, King Solomon – a man who makes Tiger Woods look like “Pa” on Little House of the Prairie, Rahab – the prostitute, Tamar – the seductress, Peter – the power-happy betrayer, Paul – the murderer…and those are merely the biblical characters.  A brief look at the history of Christianity turns up an even more sordid array of questionable characters.

To the person who longs for a San Francisco prior to the Sexual Revolution, he will need to deal with the truth-twisting that comes with a narrative that ennobles the men who came in the late 1840’s searching for that great “American dream” of a new life.  Those same men, who we venerate as heroes and pioneers, left their families in search of the dream of wealth, but also found the need to fulfill their sexual dreams, too.  They ultimately paved the way for rampant prostitution and sexual exploitation of young Asian women, in particular.  Sometimes, we glorify the past and venerate the great heroes, but do we really believe they were any different than David and Solomon?

I heard a television personality bash President Obama the other day as a man who dares to call into question the great and noble history of our American nation.  Does it really help when we say, “How dare you question our country’s noble Christian history?”

Have we forgotten about original sin?  Are we really naïve enough to believe that sin suddenly escalated in the late 60’s and 70’s, and now finds its headquarters in Hollywood and San Francisco?

It’s time to go back and learn our history.  It’s time to read our Bibles.  And, perhaps more importantly, it’s time to look in the mirror.

40 at 40: We are multiple

Do you notice how we are prone to say “A part of me feels this way, and a part of me feels that way”?

Do you have times when you feel at harmony with God, the world and yourself – something contemplative have called a “unitive” experience?  And do you have other times where you feel as if you’re divided within, stumbling over yourself, acting in discord with yourself?

Have you ever done something stupid and said, “I’m not sure who did that.  It wasn’t me.”

Postmodern psychology has speculated on the idea that we are multiple, manifesting in different selves for every occasion.  I’m more persuaded that we are one and many, unity and multiplicity, particle and wave – in the image of our Trinitarian God.  In fact, I think it makes a lot of sense out of the confusion, disunity, and disharmony we feel within (and experience in our communities).

If you are curious and want to read more, check out these older blog posts:

40 at 40: We live in the future

My friend Dave says “we live in the future.” He should know. He helps create it.  And I’m most proud of his wise reflection about it.

I believe Dave.

I did an entire Ph.D. in Psychology virtually. If I needed a book, it was in my snail mailbox the next day, or in my email within minutes as an e-book. I had access to every journal and article I needed via the John Hopkins University database. I didn’t step foot in a library once. And I completed the degree in 3 years all because I didn’t need to go anywhere. It all came to me.

A professor in seminary back in the mid-90’s told us that there would be a day very soon when we, the pastors, would no longer be the experts. He told us that people would sit in our congregations armed with information never before available. This new phenomenon called the internet, he argued, would land in the hands of ordinary people (much like the Bible landed in the hands of ordinary people courtesy of Martin Luther)…and it would be in their hands even as they sat in the pews. They’d look up those big Greek and Hebrew words we were using, and perhaps even question our use of them because of their instant access to online dictionaries, lexicons, and more.

It made no sense at the time.  But the future is now, Dave says.

Christians living in the past will likely react how many reacted when Luther galvanized the use of the printing press for the Gospel.  Change never comes without a fight.  But, the reality is that traditional ways of learning and living are dying.  The newspapers cannot give us information fast enough.  Seminaries cannot train pastors quick enough.  And phones…well, who wants a phone that merely allows you to hear another person when you can see them.  Intimacy, after all, is conveyed powerfully through eye contact.

But what technology cannot bestow to us is wisdom.  Wise practice is what changes people and civilizations.  And even wise practice is elusive.  Luther didn’t know that putting the Bible in the hands of the people might create deep division and biblical malpractice unlike anything the church had seen previously.  Wisdom, it seems, is not something instantly delivered.

The church, if it chooses, can live in the future.  Here’s a question for you and me to answer:  What will distinguish wise practice from malpractice?  Maybe I’ll see if Dave has some ideas…

Don’t send missionaries. Invite them!

“We are forced to do something that the Western churches have never had to do since the days of their own birth – to discover the form and substance of a missionary church in terms that are valid in a world that has rejected the power and influence of the Western nations.  Missions will no longer work along the stream of expanding Western power.  They have to learn to go against the stream.” Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret

It’s hard to believe that it was twenty years ago when I was sitting in Prof. Mike Goheen’s living room studying the works of Rene Padilla, David Bosch, and Lesslie Newbigin.  We were studying in Sioux Center, Ia., where mowing your lawn on a Sunday might land you in jail.  And Prof. Goheen (who would go on to complete a dissertation on Newbigin) would say, “If Newbigin were here, he’d tell us that this town needs a missionary encounter!”

Returning from India to the West, Newbigin saw with new eyes the profound secularization of so-called “Christian” culture.  If you’ve ever been to the Third World and returned to the United States, you may know the feeling.  Suddenly, it becomes a bit unbearable to hear “God Bless the USA!” playing on the radio as you shop for a pair of $100 jeans, which replace the pair you bought just a week prior that were ruined when you spilled your Double Tall Sugar-Free Vanilla Soy Latte on them.  You get the picture.  Newbigin did too.  And he believed that missionaries needed to be sent to the West, a culture blinded by power and prosperity.

All this contemporary talk of a “Christian nation” would likely aggravate Newbigin, who believed profoundly that Christians more interested in preserving power looked like the Temple High-Priest than the Suffering Servant.  Newbigin once wrote, “The real triumphs of the gospel have not been won when the church is strong in a worldly sense; they have been won when the church is faithful in the midst of weakness, contempt, and rejection.”  While we’re busy figuring out how to save ‘pagan’ civilizations elsewhere, Newbigin believed that the people who needed the Gospel most were…

…you and me.  With our Big Mac’s, Big Churches, and Big Military.  Ouch.  I’m convicted.

This “big idea” has had a profound impact on me over the years – Don’t send missionaries – invite them.  Invite them from places where they have nothing else to depend on but Jesus, and ask them how to live and love and serve.  Invite them to teach you…the one who is supposed to have all of the knowledge and power that the world knows (in an iPhone!).  Invite them to tell you about Jesus, and how he shows up among them.  Just invite them.

I’m curious…how does “big idea” sit with you?

40 at 40: Books I wish I would have written, but others have written (much!) better

Have you ever come upon a book that reads like something you wish you would have penned?  There is something incredible about that great moment of resonating in a deep way with an author.  And then, as you read, it dawns on you how glad you are that God is in charge, and that the book was written by someone else (as it becomes extraordinarily obvious that a book of this quality and depth required an author who was much more wise!).  Just a few of those for me include:

Eric Johnson’s Foundations of Soul Careperhaps the best introduction, to date, of the complicated relationship between psychology and theology through the years.

James KA Smith’s Desiring the Kingdomthe first in the series of Smith’s “cultural liturgies” series, with a view of human beings as homo liturgicus, creatures who are not merely shaped by ideas but by desire.

Robert Webber’s The Divine Embrace – the late Bob Webber’s wonderful journey through the narrative of Christian spirituality throughout the centuries, which (as Webber does so well) identifies the extremes and paves a beautiful middle way.

M. Craig Barnes The Pastor as Minor Poeta short book that casts a vision for a pastoral life of poetic depth and imagination, challenging ministers to see the subtexts in the complicated lives of parishioners (as well as their own lives).

Iain Matthew’s The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the CrossI’ve been hooked on the writings of the 16th century Carmelite mystic John of the Cross since studying abroad in the 90’s.  Matthew’s work treats St. John topically, and puts words to the spiritual valleys and mountains we all experience.  A work of psychology and spirituality.

Happy reading.

40 at 40: Confidence trumps certainty

I would not be working in San Francisco to help start the Newbigin House of Studies if I was not a fan of the great British missionary-theologian Lesslie Newbigin.  I was first introduced to his works in college, and I’ve been hooked since.  I’ll likely talk more about him later, but one big idea has captivated me – Confidence trumps certainty.

Confidence emerges from trust.  Certainty emerges from insecurity.  Confidence breeds humility.  Certainty breeds arrogance.  Confidence manifests in a concern for the doubter, the weak, and the fragile.  Certainty manifests in violence and fractured relationships.

I want to be a confident Christian, not a cocky Christian.  Anne Rice just ‘quit’ Christianity (whatever that means) because she was tired of a Christianity steeped in certainty.  But, confident Christianity isn’t weak-kneed and cynically doubtful, either.  Newbigin says, “…if the biblical story is true, the kind of certainty proper to a human being will be one which rests on the fidelity of God, not upon the competence of the human knower. It will be a kind of certainty which is inseparable from gratitude and trust.”  At 40, I am thankful for God’s fidelity, which trumps my feeble attempts to build a Tower of Babel into the heavens…

More from Newbigin:

In seeking a kind of supracultural and indubitable certainty, these [fundamentalist] Christians have fallen into the trap set by Descartes. They are seeking a kind of certainty that does not acknowledge the certainty of faith as the only kind of certainty available. The only one who has a context-independent standpoint is God. . . . To convert the Bible into a compendium of indubitably certain facts is to impose upon it a character alien to itself, a character that is the typical product of minds shaped by the Enlightenment”. page 99-100

“The confidence proper to a Christian is not the confidence of one who claims possession of a demonstrable and indutitable knowledge. It is the one who has heard and answered the call that comes from the God through him and for whom all things were made: “Follow Me”.

Read Newbigin’s Proper Confidence here

40 at 40: I am both the apple of God’s eye, and a rotten apple

I found a quote by an obscure Rabbi Bunim about a year ago.  He wrote this:

Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. One that says ‘I am a speck of dust.’ The other ‘The world was created for me.’

It’s a paradox that keeps me grounded in reality.  Dignity and depravity.  I’m royalty in God’s eyes, but a royal screw-up.  I’ve been made to inherit the Kingdom, and (simultaneously) I’m building my own Kingdom.

And so, I live in this dual reality.  And you do too.  Growing older allows me to embrace more and more how deeply I’m loved as God’s unique image and beloved son.  And growing older allows a radical honesty – that though I’ve reached a major signpost along the road, I’ve got a long, long way to go.