the journey of lent in a bonhoeffer mood...

On the third day of Lent I find I continue to be in a Bonhoeffer mood.

If you participate in Face Book you likely have seen both the call to "fast from all things Trump" for these 40 days and nights, as well as the retort that "only the privileged have the luxury to shut out the painful" in pursuit of the Lord. My take on Bonhoeffer is that he would be allied with the later. In Letters and Papers from Prison he wrote:  "To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some form of asceticism... but rather to be fully human. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world." 

This clearly shaped the perspective of Pope Francis who suggesst that all who desire to fast this Lent consider not the mere absence of food:  "Do you want to fast this Lent?"

Then fast from hurting words and say kind ones. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.

Fast from worries and have trust in God. Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be prayerful.

Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

Bonhoeffer practiced a dialectical interpretation of discipline and asceticism.  He taught - and lived - a way of being faithful that was grounded in following Jesus. Christ is the clearest expression and experience of God we can know so to follow is to do as Jesus did. That means that disciples are always made, not born through God's grace and human discipline. It takes a life time of practice to trust and follow Jesus as the man for others in the real world. Simultaneously, our discipline can never be explored in private nor become an end unto itself. Two quotes from The Cost of Discipleship speak to the tension of trusting God while cultivating spiritual practices in community. 

+ The first reminds us that disciples must practice spiritual discipline: If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

+ The second suggests that we too often confuse personal discipline with the sacrifice of Jesus and substitute our piety for Christ's compassion and solidarity: There is always a danger that in our asceticism we shall be tempted to imitate the sufferings of Christ. This is a pious but godless ambition, for beneath it there always lurks the notion that it is possible for us to step into Christ's shoes and suffer as he did and kill the old Adam. We are then presuming to undertake that bitter work of eternal redemption which Christ himself wrought for us. The motive of asceticism was more limited--to equip us for better service and deeper humiliation.

Or as he later put it in Letters and Papers from Prison:
We have to learn that personal suffering is a more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.”  Yes, we must learn to read Scripture and pray. Without a doubt, this must take place in community, too. But mastering a spiritual practice is never a Christian's goal. Rather, they are tools for living in a broken world on behalf of the wounded and marginalized. The call is not to a cloister, but to the Cross:

When a man really gives up trying to make something out of him-self-a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman, a righteous or unrighteous man…when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God…then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?

In this dialectic there is balance guided by the Spirit. There is also consequence for each disciple in relationship to the suffering Christ in the world. If we are fully engaged in solidarity with the pain of the world, we come face to face with our own inadequacy. Our powerlessness is where we learn to trust God - and even experience God's grace is humbling ways. As a servant baptized into the foolishness of the Cross, Bonhoeffer prayed:

Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death. Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.

No triumphalism here; no pious, other worldly mumbo jumbo either: just a humble cry for presence in the midst of solidarity and suffering. We cannot take away our own sin. We can only stand with our neighbors in love and mercy, throwing our lives against the wheels of oppression as Jesus did before us, trusting that in this God's word becomes flesh in our day. Lent is not the time to excuse our privilege, but rather to abandon it more fully. 

(NOTE:  Bonhoeffer wrote in another era, well before any serious consideration of inclusive language took place. I have, therefore, mostly shared quotes as they were written in the 1930s and 40s without embracing their exclusivity. I know this is painful for many of us and pray that even when his limitations hurt, you might practice simultaneous translation along with me to get to his core. Thank you.) 


Popular Posts