Thursday Review: Bonhoeffer on Life Together

A review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, Fortress, 2005. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

I first read Life Together about twenty years ago when it had a formative impact on me. And it was a delight to re-read it in this new edition which is part of the excellent and, I suspect, definitive Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series. Life Together is pure gold from start to finish and this edition really does it justice (see my previous review of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series).

Life Together was written in the run up to the Second World War as the Confessing Church confronted Nazism. The community to whom it was first addressed is the seminary of the Confessing Church which Bonhoeffer led and which he styled as a community sharing life together (despite, as the introduction points out, some initial resistance). The ideas in Bonhoeffer’s earlier theological works are embodied in practical guidance to a real community with the result that Life Together represents accessible, embodied theology.

Being written for a specific community means that at times description and prescription overlap and not all of it will be directly applicable to your context. But Life Together is a classic of Christian spirituality and a theologically rich guide to making real community work. In future blog posts I’ll post some selected quotes, but I could have chosen many more.

In this edition it is published along with Bonhoeffer’s short work Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible. Again this was a big influence on me when I first read it some years ago. Bonhoeffer commends the Psalm as a key resource of Christian spirituality. But what I found especially helpful was his exposition of the Psalms as the prayerbook of Jesus. When we find it hard to pray the Psalms (the imprecatory Psalms and the declarations of innocence), we should think of them as the prayers of Jesus which we pray in him.
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Community as identity

The church is not a building you enter. Nor is it a meeting your attend. It is not what you do on a Sunday. To be a Christian is to be part of God’s people and to express that in your life through belonging to a local Christian community.

Our belonging

We belong to one another (Romans 12:5). If a car belongs to me then I am responsible for it and I decide how it should be used. If a person belongs to me them I am responsible for them and I am involved in their decisions.

Our home
Peter says Christians are ‘foreigners’ = ‘without home’ in the world (1 Peter 2:11). But we are being built into an alternative ‘home’ (2:5).

Our family

Families eat together, play together, cry together, laugh together, raise child together provide for one another. Families argue and fight, but they do not stop being families and they don’t join other families because they have different tastes in music or reading. With family you can take off your shoes and put your feet on the sofa. They provide identity and a place of belonging.

Family is one of the most common New Testament images for the church. So try re-reading the paragraph above, substituting the word ‘church’ for ‘family’…

Our community

The New Testament word for community is used to describe sharing lives (1 Thessalonians 2:8), sharing property (Acts 4:32), sharing in the gospel (Philippians 1:5; Philemon 6) and sharing in Christ’s suffering and glory (2 Corinthians 1:6-7; 1 Peter 4:13). Helping poor Christians is an act of ‘community’ (Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 9:13). Christians are people who share their lives with one another.

Our joy

How would you answer this question? ‘For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ when he comes?’ Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, ‘Is it not you?’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19)

Implication #1: ‘We’ not ‘I’
We need to say not ‘I am planning to …’ or ‘this is my ministry’, but ‘we are planning to …’ and ‘this is our ministry’. We need to say not ‘you need to … or ‘the church doesn’t meet my needs’, but ‘we need to …’ and ‘why don’t we do this’.

Jonathan Dodson on three conversions, ‘fight clubs’ and missional leadership

Here’s the video of Jonathan Dodson’s session at Lead09 arguing we need three conversions – to Jesus as Lord, to the church and to mission plus the audio of his breakout sessions on leading missional communities and ‘fight clubs’.

Leading Missional Communities

Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centred Leadership

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The Thursday Review: You Are The Treasure That I Seek

Those who you who follow my blog will have spotted that I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading and therefore also reviewing on the blog over the summer. From now on I want to aim for a review each week – ‘the Thursday review’. Warning: this aspiration comes with no promises of regularity or persistence!

A review of Greg Dutcher, You Are the Treasure That I Seek (But There’s a Lot of Cool Stuff out There, Lord), Discovery House, 2009. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

You Are The Treasure That I Seek is a good little book on idolatry. It starts by pointing out that idols are ‘not just for pygmies’ before looking at sin and salvation. It rightly and helpfully defines sin (via Romans 1) in terms of idolatry, showing that idolatry is our underlining sin and that it involves a poor exchange in which we opt for substitute the living God with created things. The chapter on salvation shows how Christ addresses our exchange with an exchange of his own: exchanging his righteousness and accepting our condemnation.

The book then moves on to reflect on the nature of idolatry. They are affairs of the hearts – not just the statues of animist religions. They are also deceitful – often taking the form of divine blessings which then replace God in our affections. The cure? God uses suffering to wean us off idols. We need God to open our blind eyes to the idolatry in our hearts. We need to flee the first signs of idolatry in our lives. And finally the ultimate cure is a bigger vision of Christ and his glory – a vision that eclipses the enticements of idolatry.

If you’re familiar with the work of Tim Keller, John Piper, Paul Tripp and indeed You Can Change then you won’t find much new. The merit of You Are The Treasure is its brevity. You can read it in an hour. So it may be a good book to give to people who are not natural readers. Appendix Two, styled as ‘a first-aid kit for recovering idolatries, is a great collection of Bible passages and quotes – the book is worth it just for these.

The main weakness of the book is a failure consistently to distinguish between surface idols and deep idols.
An iPhone may be an idol, but I’m not sure that really helps people. Is an iPhone always an idol? When does it become an idol? Are we really going to go in for sermons denouncing Apple? But then we throw in some caveats and say an iPhone can sometimes be an idol, will the iPhone idolaters every take much notice?

In a forthcoming book from IVP entitled Idol Hearts, Julian Hardyman makes a helpful distinction between surface idols and deep idols. There may be a sense in which an iPhone functions as an idol for me, but really this is a symptom of a deeper idolatry – an idolatry, perhaps, of personal significance combined with the lie that consumer goods give meaning and identity.

The failure consistently to go a step beyond the surface idols is evidence in the case studies in Appendix One. In the first example a couple envy another couple’s house, but realise that other people are poorer, Christ was poor and that serving God is better than a fancy house. Great. But a good pastor might go a level deeper. What does a fancy house offer? Meaning, identity, worth? There is a need to recognize the self-worship behind our presenting obsessions.

One other smaller quibble: the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin in Luke 15 are cited as illustrations of the human search for treasure. But in fact they are parables that illustrate God’s searching after lost sinners.

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How our understanding of character has shifted

I had a conversation last week in which I realised how much the way we understand ‘character’ has shifted in our culture and how at odds it now is with a biblical understanding.

In a biblical worldview character is the habit of acting and reacting in a godly way. It is the product of walking with God over a period of time and repeatedly responding in godly ways. It is often the product of suffering.’We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4)

In our culture, by contrast, character has come to be virtually synonymous with personality. My character is the combination of idiosyncrasies that mark me out as different from other people. We used to say ‘He is a man of good character’ meaning he is a man of integrity and generosity. Now we say ‘He is a character’ meaning he is an eccentric, a bit different.

The contrast becomes even more stark when we realize that modern character is achieved through self-expression and expressed in self-fulfilment while biblical character is achieved through self-denial and expressed in self-sacrifice.

Review: Se x God

Rob Bell, Se x God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Se xuality and Spirituality, Zondervan, 2007 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

[My blog software filters out inappropriate words so I’ve misspelt or split words throughout this review.]

This book is everything the two books I reviewed yesterday are not. My main complaint then was that they presented an ethic without a bigger vision for se xuality and the glory of God. This is what Rob Bell does in Se x God. I have a few complaints (more of them later), but the result is fine treatment of the subject.

As the subtitle suggests, this book begins from the premise that se xuality is connected to spirituality. It means that the book can be viewed as an exploration of sexuality from the perspective of the gospel or as a presentation of the gospel through the window of se xuality.

The book moves broadly speaking from creation to fall to redemption to consummation.

So we start with human beings made in God’s image. ‘When I respect the image of God in others, I protect the image of God in me.’ (28) Or, stated negatively, when I treat people as se x objects, I dehumanize myself.

As a result of the fall, we are profoundly disconnected from God, from others, from creation. Se x is an attempt to re-connect. ‘Our se xuality is all the ways we go about trying to reconnect,’ says Bell (40) This allows him to assert that ‘some of the most se xual people I know are celibate’ because ‘they have chosen to give themselves to lots of people, to serve and give and connect their lives with beautiful worthy causes.’ (43) ‘You can be having se x with many, and yet be you’re alone. And the more se x you have, the more alone you are. And it’s possible to be sleeping alone, and celibate, and to be very se xual. Connected with many.’ (44)

Bell may be on to something here, but this argument requires more demonstration that Bell gives it. He bases it on some doubtful reasoning, arguing that the Latin word for se x (secare) means ‘to sever, to amputate, or to disconnect from the whole’. So se x is overcoming this disconnection. But the origin words do not determine their meaning – meaning is based on usage and can be remarkably fluid.

Bell argues we are not animals (driven by animal instin cts), but nor are we angels (without sexuality). He has a great way of connecting culture to Scripture so that the Bible speak to the reality of our lives. He highlights, for example the animal language we use to talk about relationships: ‘party animal’, ‘we attacked each other’, ‘she’s a tiger’, ‘basic instin ct’ (52). The Greeks, too, said we were just a collection of physical needs. Their adage was, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food’ – cited by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:13. So when a man was ‘hungry’, they argued, he could go to a prostit ute just as he might go to the larder when he was hungry. But in contrast the Bible says our bodies are a temple for God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). We are challenged to live for a purpose that is higher than basic urges. ‘The criticism of the “se x is for marriage” view is usually presented as the voice of realism. Are people capable of restraint? But it’s not realism. It’s the voice of despair. It’s the voice that asks, “Aren’t we all really just animals?”’ (54)

Chapter four continues Bell’s reflections on the fall with a focus on the way lust works:

‘L ust promises what it can’t deliver.’ (72)

‘L ust comes from a deep lack of satisfaction with life … L ust often starts with a thought somewhere in our head or hearts: “If I had that/him/her/it, then I’d be …”’ (73)

‘But when l ust has us in its grip, one of the first things to suffer is our appreciation for whatever it is we’re fixated on. The Scriptures call this “having lost all sensitivity.” [Ephesians 4:19]’ (76)

‘When our l usts get the best of us, they trap us. Whether it’s food, se x, shopping, whatever, what was supposed to fill the hole within us didn’t. It betrayed us. It owns us. And it always leaves us wanting more. And so we’re emptier, lonelier, hungrier, more depressed.’ (76-77)

‘L ust always wants more. Which is why l ust, over time, will always lead to despair. Which will always lead to anger … Sometimes it isn’t expressed on the outside because it turns inwards. That’s depression. When it goes outward, it will often affect what a person indulges in – darker and darker expressions of unfulfilled desire mixed with contempt. Is that how someone ends up at leather and whi ps?’ (78)

‘L ust promises what it can’t deliver.’ (78)

As Bell moves on to redemption, he parallels the risks and heartaches of love with the heartache of God at the infidelity of his people.

As with some of his other works, it is sad to see Bell hold back from a full exploration of the meaning of the cross when there was an opportunity for one, even a need for one. It is not that what he says is wrong; there is just a big hole in the middle of the book. He says, for example: ‘The cross is God’s way of saying, “I know what it’s like” … Our healing begins when we participate in the suffering of God.’ (106) This, let me suggest, might be a comfort to wronged or betrayed lovers, but it is not a comfort to those who contribute to relational breakdown. There is no promise here of freedom from guilt as Christ takes the penalty of our sin.

Bell then has a chapter entitled ‘Worth Dying For’ with the refrain ‘You are worth dying for’. (Does he hear the echo with L’Oréal’s slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it’?) The essential argument of the chapter is sound: people often give themselves se xually inappropriate ways because they feel the need for affirmation or to prove themselves. The gospel response to this is to recognise our status as children of God. ‘You don’t need a man by your side to validate you as a woman. You already are loved and valued.’ (123) But the refrain is all wrong. We are not worth dying for. Christ died for us out of sheer grace. The irony is that in this very chapter Bell recognises this: ‘Agape doesn’t love somebody because they’re worthy,’ he says (120). Weird!

The final two chapters present a vision for marriage and a vision for singleness. Marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with his people. Singleness is a pointer to the day when marriage will give way to the reality to which it is a temporary pointer. Singleness is a reminder that marriage is not ultimate: that ultimate fulfilment lies in knowing God.

‘We find s ex so powerful because it provides people with glimpses into the world we all desperately desire but can’t seem to create on our own. Which raises a few questions. If marriage has a purpose, to bring hope to the world, what happens when the world doesn’t need hope? … If sex is about connection, what happens when everybody is connected with everybody else? … Maybe that’s why the Scriptures are so ambivalent about whether a person is married. About whether a person is having s ex. Maybe Jesus knew what is coming and knew that whatever we experience here is pale compared with what awaits everyone.’ (167-168)

Coming soon

More of Rob Bell with a review of two Nooma videos, both featuring Bell on good form: Tomato (Nooma 22) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US and Corner (Nooma 23) purchase from Amazon UK .

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Struggling with fatigue and busyness

busyness.JPGThe latest edition of LICC’s magazine EG is available to download from their website. It includes the results of a survey of UK Christians. Asked what issues have affected your personal spiritual life, the top two responses were fatigue (55%) and time pressures (also 55%).

Reading the Bible, prayer, guidance, witnessing, conflict, ethical issues all came after those two top issues. It reinforces the reason why I wrote The Busy Christians’s Guide to Busyness AmazonUK . In The Busy Christian I said:

Our Christian lives can be full of good intentions to do more for God, but time and again those good intentions are sapped by the pace of our lives. Sermons, conferences, talks, books all urge us to spend more time praying, studying the Bible, sharing the gospel, building community, caring for the needy, campaigning for justice – and on it goes. But most Christians feel their lives are already over-full. Some Christians, because of ill-health or unemployment, struggle with the opposite problem. They wish they had more to do. But everywhere you look in the church today there are busy Christians …  There are many challenges facing the church today. But alongside all of them is this problem of time and busyness. Whatever new ideas we come up with for church or mission, we need to find the time to do them! In his book, The Tyranny of Time, Robert Banks (1983) says: ‘Our attitude to time is not an extra commitment or idea. It is the medium in which everything else is done. It affects everything.’ There’s so much we want to do; so many issues; so many opportunities. But so little time. We could argue about what the most crucial concerns are facing Christians today. But unless we sort out a Christian view of busyness, we might not find time to debate them, let alone do anything.

In the same survey people were asked which context they found most challenging. The top response was the workplace (43%) followed by their neighbourhood (34%).

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Trusting in trials with the Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet

Here are my notes from Garry Williams’ seminar at New Word Alive on the Puritan poem, Anne Bradstreet. There is a chapter on Anne Bradstreet in the homage to Puritan writings, The Devoted Life (IVP) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

Anne Bradstreet was born as Anne Dudley in 1612 so she came of age when Charles 1 was attempting to move England away from Protestantism to more Roman Catholic approach. In her poetry, Anne protests against this:

Lets bring Baals vestments forth to make a fire,

Their Mystires, Surplices, and all their Tires,

Copes, Rotchets, Crossiers, and such empty trash;

And let their Names consume, but let the flash

Light Christedome, and all the world to see

We hate Romes whore, with all her trumpery.

Anne had a privileged and educated up-bringing, marrying Simon Bradstreet, the son of a non-conformist minister and a graduate of the Puritan Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1630 she sailed to America with her husband and parents. Several people died during the crossing and two hundred of the thousand people in the area that Anne settled died of starvation in the first winter (‘the starving time’ it was called). It was world of promise and freedom with the hope of new beginning for Puritans, but it was also a precarious world.

The Puritans had a conception of an ordered society in which everyone had their roles. They had the opportunity completely to restructure society. They were the radicals of their day. But they did not overturn all social patterns and norms. Anne shares this outlook as her epitaph to her mother reveals.

Here lies

A worthy matron of unspotted life,

A loving mother and obedient wife,

A friendly neighbor, pitiful to poor,

Whom oft she fed, and clothed with her store;

To servants wisely aweful, but yet kind,

And as they did, so they reward did find:

A true instructor of her family,

The which she ordered with dexterity,

The public meetings ever did frequent,

And in her closet constant hours she spent;

Religious in all her words and ways,

Preparing still for death, till end of days:

Of all her children, children lived to see,

Then dying, left a blessed memory.

Anne is known for pushing the boundaries. Writing poetry was considered a male occupation and some of her poems were published under a male pseudonym. Yet she extols the virtues of a loving and submissive wife. The Puritans pushed the social boundaries, but did so within the boundaries of Scripture. This meant the Puritans had a clear sense of identity in contrast to our confused times. People today are constantly redefining themselves. Without any boundaries from God’s word we are adrift.

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Feel the truth

We read from Ephesians 2 at our prayer meeting this morning. I was struck again by the language Paul uses.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead … So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. (4-5, 7)

Paul doesn’t simply say: God is rich in mercy and he loved us. He says: ‘God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much …’ So rich. So much. Paul doesn’t just know the truth. He feels the truth.

And that’s what I want in my life and that’s what I want for our community. I want us to feel the truth. I want tears, excitement, wonder, awe. I want us to exclaim: ‘incredible’! Oh, the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us.’

Then I read this from Rhys Llwyd’s blog.

One rather elderly brother at Monday night’s meeting, David Hughes from Cross-hands, told me that he knew my great-Grandmother! David Hughes must have been in his 90s. He used to work with my Great-Uncle Alun, my Grandfathers brother, down the mines. He had a very special story about my great-Grandmother, Ester. Ester lost her husband, my great-Grandfather, at a young age to an accident at the coal mine. David Hughes told me that people had huge respect and admiration for Ester as she bought up three children on her own; she was a very Godly woman. David Hughes remembered Ester for her public praying at Church – he remembers her down on her knees, literally, in tears talking with her Saviour. This was very very powerful testimony as David Hughes recalled.

‘Down on her knees, literally, in tears talking with her Saviour.’

The joy of duty

This from John Piper:

But the hard truth is that most Christians don’t pray very much. They pray at meals-unless they’re still stuck in the adolescent stage of calling good habits legalism. They whisper prayers before tough meetings. They say something brief as they crawl into bed. But very few set aside set times to pray alone-and fewer still think it is worth it to meet with others to pray. And we wonder why our faith is weak. And our hope is feeble. And our passion for Christ is small.

And meanwhile the devil is whispering all over this room: “The pastor is getting legalistic now. He’s starting to use guilt now. He’s getting out the law now.” To which I say, “To hell with the devil and all of his destructive lies. Be free!” Is it true that intentional, regular, disciplined, earnest, Christ-dependent, God-glorifying, joyful prayer is a duty? . . . Is it a discipline?

You can call it that.

* It’s a duty the way it’s the duty of a scuba diver to put on his air tank before he goes underwater.
* It’s a duty the way pilots listen to air traffic controllers.
* It’s a duty the way soldiers in combat clean their rifles and load their guns.
* It’s a duty the way hungry people eat food.
* It’s a duty the way thirsty people drink water.
* It’s a duty the way a deaf man puts in his hearing aid.
* It’s a duty the way a diabetic takes his insulin.
* It’s a duty the way Pooh Bear looks for honey.
* It’s a duty the way pirates look for gold.

I hate the devil, and the way he is killing some of you by persuading you it is legalistic to be as regular in your prayers as you are in your eating and sleeping and Internet use. Do you not see what a sucker he his making out of you? He is laughing up his sleeve at how easy it is to deceive Christians about the importance of prayer.

God has given us means of grace. If we do not use them to their fullest advantage, our complaints against him will not stick. If we don’t eat, we starve. If we don’t drink, we get dehydrated. If we don’t exercise a muscle, it atrophies. If we don’t breathe, we suffocate. And just as there are physical means of life, there spiritual are means of grace. Resist the lies of the devil in 2009, and get a bigger breakthrough in prayer than you’ve ever had.


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