Category Archives: Theology

Cleft of the Rock

So, here in Iraq, there are times the enemy wants to lash out in their death throws so they lob things at us. We have amazing systems to deal with such things so its not really an issue. When we know it’s coming we run for the bunkers which are placed strategically around the FOB. These bunkers sometimes are built up and reinforced like this Hesco behemoth:

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But mostly, they are like this one, a concrete tube. Sometimes they have sandbags and sometimes, like this one, just the tube. What they all have in common is the small opening you have to get through in order to get to safety. IMG_20160318_163634

There is literally a “cleft in the rock” though which is safety.

On Sunday, we sang this:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
cleanse me from its guilt and power. 

 

 

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Filed under 3rd Deployment, Chaplaincy, Theology

Mercy Vs Truth

Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Psalm 85:10

Why would mercy not be with truth? Why don’t they just hang out?

Why would it be notable that righteousness and peace kiss? Shouldn’t they just be a thing?

Perhaps mercy and truth don’t always need to be around each other.12238505_10153725943941303_3888460118035802897_o

I’m thinking about my years in ministry. When first started teaching, the 6th grade teacher made a big deal about sitting down with me to explain the roster. He pointed out all the problems I’d be having with this student and how that student would be great. He
went on for some time. Then my classes started. As I quickly learned, the truth changed. The students who struggled with him blossomed under me and some that resonated with him struggled with me.

Mercy and truth didn’t see eye to eye.

I’m thinking about my years in the prison. A chaplain who preceded me made a big deal of reading and storing all the files on each inmate. He remembered each charge and saw each inmate through the lens of their crimes. I had a hard time doing that. I stopped paying attention. I learned that all of us are capable of horrendous things and wondrous things. Good and bad are in each of us. I found that if I saw the inmate through their crimes, I was less able to extend grace to them. It was not my job to be judge and jury, that work was done. It was my role to be merciful and full of grace.

Mercy and truth didn’t see eye to eye.

Perhaps this is a mark of sin. It’s so very hard to live in the tension of mercy and truth. I want to be merciful to someone who is destitute but I also see their choices, decisions, and behaviors that precipitate their demise. I want to be compassionate towards the struggling couple but it’s difficult to see past their infantile behavior towards each other. For me, mercy and truth really fight against each other.

I want to bring righteous justice to the world but sometimes it seems like it’s not possible without the force of arms. Which, of course, means death. I want ISIL to be purged from the earth, to be punished for the evil they do, but that means war. And war means death. And death means suffering for so many.

So much tension.

Perhaps, when the world is redeemed, when we are all at our best, living out the best of the Way, this verse will be true. And so we keep on keeping on…

Mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Psalm 85:10

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Filed under Peace, Theology

Chaplains Represent… what?

There is a remarkable disconnect between the symbols of authority I wear on the uniform and the actual authority I bear as a person. A chaplain has no authority. They have no command. They have no real power. They only have representative power.

This looks like invoking the commander’s name when I need something acted upon as a staff officer. This looks like owning the rank on my chest as though it actually meant something other than a pay grade.

This looks like good, old fashioned pride often enough.

And yet, when I come into a room, it is not uncommon for Soldiers to stop with foul language or they will ask for pardon, “sorry chaplain…” Sometimes, people will shift uncomfortably in their seats waiting for me to finish whatever business I have in their space and leave; hoping, it seems, that I don’t start talking to them.

Is this because I am somehow intimidating? Heavens no! I am average in every way. I am a middle to end of the pack runner. I am always pushing the deadlines on my staff work. It is a great struggle and burden to keep up with the younger, more fit, better educated officers I work with.

So what drives the discomfort?

Representation.

I read this passage from a “Minister’s Prayer Book” this morning and it resonated with me.

                “I was a pastor ministering at a hospital. A patient said to me, “if you were a ditchdigger, you’d have a more useful calling than you do now.” That was a long time ago, but I have not forgotten it. I thought so myself many a time as I watched the nurses performing their tasks which are so needed and desired by the sick, and surgeons and doctors performing the most wonderful operations – while I stood there making miserable attempts at pastoral conversation. If I only were a ditchdigger! But a pastor? An impossible figure! Impossible before God, the world, and even myself. For there is a tremendous gap between what is required of a pastor in his (her) ministry and his (her) authority and power. Does he (she) have any power at all?…”*

I have oft felt that angst. I have oft flited about the “battlefield” on a mission or tasking with nothing more to do than visit with my Soldiers and just “be there.” Often, I have dealt with my angst by finding busy work to engage in. Becoming an expert in suicide intervention, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Leadership, morale work, budget analysis, event planning, and whatever else I could do to make myself useful to command.

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Really, I’m often just finding work to fill my day. To fill the void in my heart that seems so unfulfilled and worries that I’m of no actual use to the world I work in I create usefulness. I can own that it often came from pride.

It is noted, on the other hand, that I was raised with the maxim, “find a need and fill it.” This, combined with the embedded message of, “always look busy,” created in me a need to always have projects going. At its best, those projects were in the first vein but often, they could be easily identified as meeting the latter need.

Projects are good. Fulfilling needs and meeting goals are always healthy endeavors. For me, I’ve found that ignoring my spirit for the sake of keeping busy is injurious to my soul. They are an effort to be needed, to create some authority, please someone rather than the Someone, and by attempting to be indispensable, create power. That is inherently not good and not healthy.

It has been a challenge, growing into my ministry identity.

In a sense, I have suffered into it. 15 years into my ministry I am finally recognizing that what people need from their pastor is not programs or skill sets or leadership – they need authenticity. They need someone who knows their lane and knows their God and can represent that to them.

I love this from my morning reading:

                “The pastor’s authority is based solely upon the fact that Jesus Christ ministers to him (her) through the forgiveness of sins. What do I have to do in my ministry? I have to preach, and we say, “preaching is God’s Word.” And I know how those sermons of mine were produced. Often, it is true, with prayer and fear and trembling; but also by the dint of coffee and tobacco, sometimes in a burst of effort, very sketchily and superficially, because I have seemingly more important things to do. Strictly speaking, an impossible thing – unless Jesus Christ himself is not ashamed to accept this preaching.”* – Herman Dietzfelbinger

I know how my ministry has been produced. Through suffering both external and internal. Through the battles of the soul. Through disciplining my body and my mind, failing miserably in the intent, getting up and doing it again.

I think, and hope, that this is the sort of pastor people want and need. One who suffers as they do and yet, still embraces hope; even when it’s so hard to see. It is not about the work I do, the expertise I develop, the intellect I wield (thank God), it is about who I seek to represent. Can my people see Jesus through my stuff or does my business get in the way? Can they experience Christ in my presence, words, and actions or do they experience just another staff officer doing their jobs?

Pastoral ministry is, after all, all about who I represent.

 

* I chose intentionally to make the passage egalitarian.

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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Theology

Ashes in Prison.

Now that I am no longer at the prison, I can reflect on some strong memories I have from there. Ash Wednesday is of particular note.

There hadn’t ever been an Ash Wed service before. It was not because there was not a need, there just had not been the energy to make it happen. In the prison system, everything runs according to a very strict, rigid schedule. Deviation from the standard, “schedule of calls” throws off the day and usually is not very helpful. The downside of this kind of rigidity is that being spontaneous and creative just makes a mess of the day, is frowned upon, and often just cannot happen. The upside is an extreme amount of predictability in my workday and the fact that while it was hard to change the schedule, once the change happened, it became an embedded part of the work day very quickly. That schedule of calls was a bit like the “law of the Medes and Persians.”

In order to make an Ash Wednesday service happen, I looked at the schedule and for reasons I do not remember, it couldn’t take place in the evening so I planned it for the opposite end of the spectrum, 0730-0800.

This meant that the prisoners would come to chapel instead of work call, attend service and then return to work after. One of the interesting impacts of this which I was not planning or intending for was that myself and my inmates were getting ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of the day. There is something very spiritually significant about “bearing the cross” all day long. Going to work, lunches, visiting, and interacting with my Soldiers while wearing an ashen cross. Over and over, every year I was at the prison, I would need to explain why “my forehead was dirty” or what Ash Wed was. Inmates who chose to come to service and wear the cross had to do so very publicly.

It put “bearing the cross” in a whole new light.

Not only was it a reminder of our own frailty and humanity, it was also a testimony to the Gospel. It took some courage to bear the cross.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

The first year, I was able to coordinate a service with our Catholic Deacon that provided pastoral care to Catholic inmates. This made the service truly eccumenical and helped to emphasize that in the Family of God, we can come together to recognize our shared humanity.

The second year, the power was out, the correctional specialists had switched to 12 hour shifts and the service had been lost in all the movement. I showed up that morning and was greeted by emergency lighting and the inmates were all still in their housing areas.

(side note: in military prisons, every inmate had a job. Every day is the same. Your cell pops open at 0500, breakfast soon after and by 0730, everyone is at work. Everyone goes to work, every. single. day. Therefore, the only time anyone is able to sleep in is Saturday and Sunday. Even then, you can’t really “sleep in” as wake up and breakfast always happen at the same time. However, you can go back to bed after breakfast if there is no work call. So when work call is cancelled and you have the opportunity to sleep a bit, it makes for a very quiet prison…)

So I had it put out over the sound system that there would be Ash Wed services that morning. I really didn’t expect much participation as work call had been cancelled and most everyone was taking advantage of the time to sleep away their time and to top it off, the Deacon could not come because of the weather.

But after putting out the word, the doors to the housing areas opened and out came inmate after inmate, filing into the chapel where we, with emergency lighting and no instruments, had our service of penitence and reflection.

The final Ash Wed service was a year ago today. I had mentioned in service on Sunday at my post congregation (Memorial Chapel) that I’d be conducting the service in the prison. A couple of my church members to include the Garrison Commander asked if they could join us in worship.

That morning everything worked, the schedule of calls was on time and the church was fairly full. Looking out over my congregation, it was a picture of the Church. The powerful and powerless, the formal worshippers next to the informal, the Catholics side by side with the Protestants, the Mormons next to the Baptists, the handsome next to the homely, the brown (prison uniform) next to the green (Army uniform), the inmate and the Garrison commander, the public sinners who were tried and condemned for their crimes and the private sinners who alone knew of their brokenness – I remember sitting in the pastor’s chair a little speechless by what was before me.

I knew it was to be my last Ash Wed service in the prison and very soon I would be leaving the prison and my inmates. My voice quivered when I started but soon confidence took over and the service went on. As inmates filed up to receive their ashes, the officers and Soldiers mingled with the prisoners, all one, all equal, all aware of their humanity and frailty.

Finally it was time for me to receive my ashes. I motioned to one of my inmates and, surprised, he came forward.
“Will you put the ashes on me?” He nodded.
I said the words, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” His hands trembled a bit as the prisoner applied the ashes to the chaplain’s forehead.

We are all one. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all come from dust and no matter what power or prestige is given to us on earth, to dust we shall return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Sacred dust. Sacred Ash. Sacred Redemption.

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Filed under Chaplaincy, Theology

Ten Year Itch Part 2: Calling

When I was in college, it was always a mystery to me how other “preacher boys” (always boys of course) just knew God’s exact will for their lives. I mean they KNEW it. There was this whole ritual that included finding a verse in the Bible (the more obscure the better) that spoke to them in “just that way” and somehow pinpointed on a map the exact location, job title, and sometimes the woman who would accompany them and bear their children…. sometimes the woman knew too…

Then there was passive-aggressive breakup move (might have used it myself a time or two *rolls head in shame*) where the guy would ask out a girl because he was following God’s leading, rejoice in God’s bounty as the relationship progressed, experience a “check in their spirit” as the relationship started to be, oh I don’t know, normal and finally, once again following the leading of God, break-up with the girl. God’s will all the way.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

So what then is a call?

Maybe it would be better to ask, what is NOT a call? I knew that whatever clear guidance the other guys I went to school with were feeling, I was not getting it. I knew it wasn’t some kind of warm feeling. Turns out, that Scripture means whatever you want it to mean so that wasn’t helpful. I never had a “burning in the bosom.” All my campfire decisions were exactly that. As an adult looking back, I can see my family of origin issues in every life altering declaration of God’s leading.

For many years, I put hope in that tired axiom, “if you can do anything else in life, you probably should. If you are called to preach, you won’t be able to do anything else.” But then, I love to preach. I mean, I really enjoy preparing and delivering sermons. I get meaning the purpose from preaching. I am more myself there than about anywhere but… there are many ways I can earn a living and not preach. Typing this blog post, as an Active Duty Army Chaplain, I have not preached a sermon in 9 months.

9 months.

In 15 years of full time Christian ministry, I’ve never made my living as a preacher. Ever. I’ve been a teacher, worship leader, chaplain etc. But paid as a preacher – not so much. And I’m ok with that. I came to terms years ago with working a meaningful, fulfilling job to finance my preaching habit. Often, it seems the best ministry I’ve done has been on my time, voluntarily given.

As a young man, I declared that I was “called to preach” and I believe that I was even if I’m not sure as an adult, what that means.

What is a call?

Direction. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Opportunity.

It’s that moment in a believers life when she or he experiences the intersection of what they love and a real human need. It’s getting on board with the plan the Divine has for the world. It’s knowing that what you are about is what God is about.

I experienced it in the classroom at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, NJ. I loved being a teacher. Not every day, but most days.
I experienced it downrange, in Iraq, serving the Soldiers of 2-121 Infantry Battalion and the 603d Aviation Support Battalion.
I experienced it teaching ethics to the medical hold Soldiers of the 832d Ordinance Battalion.
I experienced it, deeply, in my Clinical Pastoral Education group.
I experienced it teaching Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to civilians who volunteered at a homeless shelter in Huntsville, AL
The day I walked into a prison, I knew I was where I needed to be. It’s existential, it’s mystical, it’s spiritual – and it was clear. I experienced it throughout my time both at the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and the United States Disciplinary Barracks.

I experience it every single time and get behind a pulpit and preach. It’s what I’m here for.

A calling is sacred. A calling is personal. It is fundamental to my journey as a Christian.

But does it change?

I’m not sure. I know I have changed. I have grown. I’ve become a different person than I was ten years ago when I started this journey.

Was I called in the Army?
I have a journal that I kept while teaching that first year at New Life. In it, close to the front, bookended by one of those “God’s leading” relationships – 9/11 happened. Jesse Gardner and I sat in a room that included kids who parents worked down at/by the Towers and watched them collapse. We gathered on that Wednesday night service the next day as traumatized Christians gathered, prayed and told their stories. At the end of the week, I wrote, “This week the Towers went down. We’re going to war. I don’t know how or when but I’m going to be a part of this.”

I tried to join the Army that fall but medical issues kept me out.

I came in several years later after completing seminary. Deployments defined the first 5 years, then a year interlude at an Advanced Individual Training unit, and then CPE, then the prison. My time in the Army has been one of constant engagement in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s been amazing.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

But was I called?
Not sure. I know I wanted an adventure. I knew I wanted an opportunity to prove my manhood. I knew I wanted to go to war. I knew I wanted to fulfill a childhood dream.

I did all that. Checked those blocks. I finally arrived at Ft. Campbell and now, I just don’t like any of it. The possibility of going to Air Assault school just pains me and the talk of war saddens me. The man who came into the Army a decade ago joined to go to war. He had no children and no real future plans. He just had a passion and needed to accomplish something.

Does calling change?
I still love preaching. I still love teaching. I still love work in which there is a clear line connecting the work I do with changed lives and the visible working of God in other’s lives. That has not changed.

You know, it occurs to me that I’ve never believed that the specific location really mattered in terms of exercising a call to ministry. Just do the work and the location/job title/congregation will take care of itself.

During my time at CPE, I developed this pattern of call, it’s not for everyone but it’s how I work with God’s call in my life:

There are human needs, there is the Divine plan to meet those needs, there are my hopes/desires/skills/gifts and they intersect. This vocation is then confirmed by others who, themselves, follow close to God’s voice. Calling/confirmation. It’s what works in my life.

I’m interested in what others have experienced in relationship to ” the call.

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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Theology, Two Pastor Family

Confusing hair metaphors

So, my daughter asked me this morning over breakfast:

“Dad, I’m wondering, if God loves you because of all of the hair on your head, how does that work if you are bald? I have a bald friend, (names him) and how does God love him if he has no hair?”

A fair question except my brain is still recovering from  my morning run so I stare at my coffee and she interprets that as needing more information.

“In Awana, it says in the Bible that God loves all of the hair on our heads..”

“Oh right. Well…” I go on to explain the verse and the idea of metaphors. Her response:

“Ok.”

Thankfully, my seminary-trained wife came in for the save. When she explained it, Sophie instantly got it. Go figure.

Oh the joys of explaining things to 6 year olds. #thanksawana

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Filed under Theology, thought of the day

O Church, how limited you can be sometimes…

The Church is in constant need of reform. Recently, a fascinating conversation took place on my facebook page about the Independent Baptist Church movement. I am a product of that movement. I went to those schools, I was trained in that hermeneutic and learned my homiletics there as well. Like most who leave an all-encompassing movement like that, I did so because of intense personal hurt. When I needed grace, I got law. When I needed love and acceptance, I got rejection and judgement.

As a chaplain and pastor now for well over a decade, I have come to realize that this phenomenon is common to all institutions in the Kingdom of God. Heck, it’s not even unique to the Kingdom! Its an institutional thing. I’ve watched it happen in the Army and in other types of organizations.

Just as predictable as the cycle is, so to is the reality that reformation will come along as those involved follow Christ. At it’s best, the Church is a community that provides encouragement and support for everyone. It’s the whole, “no difference between the Jew/Greek/Male/Female/slave/free idea. I was so angry for so long at fundamentalism. Now, I accept them for who they are. I hope they grow. I hope they experience grace. I am sad often when I experience them bound by their rigidity. It is no more fair for me to judge them for their paradigm (limited though it be) then it is for them to judge me for mine.

I’m a believer that there is room for ALL of us in the Kingdom.

That said, I do not have time or space in my life for mean people. And I’ve experienced mean people everywhere.

Christianity, at it’s best, will be about love and authenticity.

During my CPE residency, I was given this illustration. It was very helpful to me.

Imagine you needed 75 cents for a coke and you went to your dad for that 75 cents. He reaches into his pocket and produces 50 cents. He offers it to you. You get angry, 50 cents is not enough! You need 75. Your father gets angry and says, “but this is all I have, I don’t have any more!” Hurt and pain ensues. You keep demanding 75 and your father only has 50 cents. It’s all he can give. You storm off determined to find it elsewhere. Your father sighs and collapses into his chair, broken that he did not have what you needed.

Later, you realize this reality and give grace to your father. He gave you what he had.

It’s how I now feel about fundamentalism. It gave me what it had. Admittedly, it was not enough and I was so hurt in the process and I’ve seen others very hurt. I’ve also seen great good in people. They try hard. Perhaps they could do  more. But then, who am i to judge. People would not be fundamentalists if it did not fill a need (or assuage a fear) in their lives. I hope they experience some grace. At least, they will get it from me.

In the prison context that I currently minister in, I minister to unchurched and barely churched most of the time. I often get the question, “why are there so many denominations?” There are many answers to that question but last night I drew this on the board to illustrate how movements become institutions in need of reform become movements that become institutions in need of reform, become movements….

Cycle of the Church

I hope my children extend the grace I need someday when they are experiencing the limitation of my theology…

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Getting sucked into the Duck Disaster…

It wasn’t the interview. (I didn’t even know it was a thing until the memes started on my facebook feed. I don’t watch much tv and certainly not a show about rich people acting ignorant and poor when they are neither.)

It wasn’t what he said. (the man is entitled to an opinion and certainly free to share it)

It wasn’t him getting dismissed from the tv show. (the cable channel certainly have the right to retain those who represent their brand. Also, I don’t watch the show and have no attachment to it. If it was “Almost Human” on the other hand…)

It was the all the hullabaloo that started after. It was the perceived connection to religious freedom and the 1st Amendment right to free speech that got to me. It was the implication that somehow these statements about others (specifically African Americans and Homosexuals) represented Christ, Christianity and the Church.

They might represent Phil Robertson or maybe even his local church but they certainly do not represent me, my church, or my understanding of Christ.

Phil Robertson is my brother in Christ. We serve the same Lord. However, we might disagree on what exactly that looks like. And that’s ok. Frankly, the whole thing gave me opportunity to reflect on some things that are important to me. I like that about the internet and even Facebook. I did have a couple thoughts that I posted:

So… Here’s the thing. Freedom of speech is emphatically not the same thing as freedom from responsibility. The rich white guy certainly has the right to say what he wants and the rich entertainment company certainly has the right to fire him for it.
No one is losing their rights!!! They are just being held accountable.
Imagine that.

Followed by:

Also, before the band wagon really gets going, perhaps this could be considered,

– should a private company be forced to re-hire (or unfire) a person who publically disagrees with their principles and values and no longer represents what they are about?

Should churches be able to fire pastors who no longer agree with and represent their theology/principles/values???

Still a free speech issue?

Both interesting thoughts I probably would not have had apart from this silliness.

A kerfuffle like this tends to highlight just how differently Christians tend to experience and interpret their faith. Whenever this happens, we start to separate into groups, building walls, lobbing mortars at a perceived enemy.

Here’s the truth, we’re all still family. There is room in my family for Phil Robertson and Ray Boltz. Al Mohler and Gene Robinson. Mark Driscoll and Frank Schaefer.  Carlton Pearson and Ben Carson.

Our faith is big enough for all the family…. even the arguing cousins.

So, thanks GQ. Thanks Phil Robertson. May our Family be big enough for love…. and arguments…

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All Saints and the struggle of understanding Christian History

All Saints Sunday, 2013

Luke 6:20-31

It’s All Saint’s Sunday. A day when we, as a Church, remember the saints that have gone before us. Generally, it’s a day for warm memories and challenging stories. Traditionally, capital “S” saints who are revered in the Catholic Church are people who are set apart, their holiness and particular living worthy of memory. In the Protestant church, many hold that all Christians can and should be categorized as “saints” even the not so holy. Therefore, on a day like to today, we remember all our beloved who have “gone to glory” before us.

This brings us a challenging thought however – isn’t our collective past as Christians fraught with very non-holy actions? Even our saints, upon closer examination, are not exactly paragons of holiness. If we expand the definition to include everyone, we’re really in a bind!

The Chapel where I pastor is called, “Memorial Chapel.” This year will be the 136th year of active worship within it’s walls. Those walls are covered with what are essentially gravestones marking the heroic dead – many of whom are officers who died during the “Indian Wars.” Surrounded by the memory of one of America’s bloodiest periods, where sovereign peoples were put to the sword and whole people groups laid waste by good Christians who worshiped in that very church is complicated to say the least. From here, native children were placed in good Christian homes forbidden to even speak of their cultural heritage. Fort Leavenworth was the edge of civilization back then, beyond that was war.

On All Saints day, I remember that our Christian past is complicated and not always terribly Christ-like.

Then, as I am preparing for my message, my text is from Luke 6:20-31:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Not helpful.

How do I, a Chaplain in the mightiest Army the world has ever known make sense of 1. Our bloody history and 2. Jesus words in this text?

As I thought about his text I remembered another pastor, a saint, who faced similar questions. Perhaps it might be helpful to remember his struggle.

Cheap Grace

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

These words were written by a young pastor. The words were first published in 1937. The pastor the wrote them had been overseeing an illegal seminary training pastors for ministry in Nazi Germany. At the time of this publishing, the Gestapo closed the Seminary in Finkenwalde and arrested 27 pastors and former students. This was a text written for a country in battle for its soul.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine was born on February 4th, 1906. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer is just beginning to teach neurology and psychiatry. He would go on to become one of the most well-known and most respected psychiatrists in Germany.  His mother was one of the few women in her generation who obtained a university degree. It was a happy family. A family of thoughtful, educated, and scientific people. D’s brothers would go on to become scientists and were dubious at best of D’s forays into the theological life.

Dietrich’s young life was marked by a continual interest and calling into a life in the ministry. His father is proud of his son but hopeful that this religious phase would pass and he would pursue something more fitting his vast academic abilities.

This didn’t happen however, and Dietrich did indeed pursue theology. He was published at a young age. Within four years after beginning theological studies at Tubingen University, he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church. He is just 21 years old.

Like any young seminarian, he wonders what comes next. He sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. He identifies with the African American church experience in Harlem where he spends a great deal of time teaching and interacting with the congregation.  He is exposed to the “Social Justice” movement as taught through what would become known as the “Social Gospel.”  It is a profound moment for him and would inform what came next.

He is a contemporary of the theologian Karl Barth and the two wrote often. Barth said to him that Germany needed his voice. Things were getting bad there. In 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.

1933. A pivotal year for Germany. Adolf Hitler, the Austrian Corporal turned artist turned political theorist completes his rise to power and is appointed Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer now a professor of theology at the University of Berlin, delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In April, 1933 he publishes “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was the first known essay to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship; his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God; the real question, he argued, was how the church would judge and respond to the Nazi state’s actions against the Jews; his essay was completed in the days following the April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses. Some scholars believe Bonhoeffer was influenced on this issue by his close friendship at Union Seminary with his African American colleague, Frank Fisher, and his direct observation of Fisher’s experiences under racism.

In the summer of 1933, many protestants welcomed the rise of the Nazi state. A group called, the Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”) became the voice of Nazi ideology within the Evangelical Church, even advocating the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Deutsche Christians cited the state Aryan laws that barred all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, they also proposed a church “Aryan paragraph” to prevent “non-Aryans” from becoming ministers or religious teachers; the Deutsche Christen claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German church even through baptism a clear repudiation of the validity of Gospel teachings. The mainstream church was also coming under the grip of Nazism, becoming silent on the world that Germany was becoming.

In November of that year, he is ordained pastor at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.

In 1934, he and a group of brave Christians, form the “Confessing Church” in direct opposition to the established church who was about the business of assisting the State along the path leading to genocide. The Confessing Church was free of Nazi influence but not Nazi persecution. On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler is proclaimed Chancellor and President.

He moves to Finkenwalde in 1935 where he is part of the founding of the aforementioned Seminary training pastors for ministry. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. German Jews are being arrested under the Nurmburg laws.

This is the world in which he writes about “Cheap Grace.”

He sets it against “Costly Grace” – “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man’ will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.”

It is “All Saints Sunday.” A day where we remember those saints who have gone before us, stood with us, and in whose shoes we stand today. It is right that we remember them. It is right that we recall the stands that others have taken so that we can evaluate where we are, who we are, and what we represent. Our Faith is not a faith that exists in opposition to others. We have a faith that is typified in its best sense in Love.

However, if the shoe of opposition fits, are we willing to wear it?

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

Dietrich lived in that tension between the being a peacemaker and embracing war – even internal war – against a State which was doing such wrong. By 1938, he had made contact with the German Resistance. His twin sister Sabine and her Jewish husband escape together to England by way of Switzerland.

1941, Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland for the Resistance. WW2 is in full force. Over the next two years, Dietrich would continue to write, teach and preach while making several visits to Norway and in Sweden he would meet with the British – all on the behalf of the Resistance.

1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is arrested. He writes during his incarceration. He continues to minister while in prison – both to the other inmates and the guards. One guard, a Corporal, approaches Dietrich with a plan for his escape and the Soldier’s with him. The plot is laid but in the end, D stops it as he does not want other members of his family, incarcerated and not to be endangered by his actions or escape. He is transferred to Buchenwald. He is very cold in the winter of 1944. The news is that America and Russia are pushing in on Germany from all fronts. They cannot hold out forever. He leans up to the crack in his door and for hours converses with those near his cell, prisoner and guard, about the grace of God.

1945. In February an Allied conference is held at Yalta to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River. On April the 3rd of that year, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor, theologian, and author, is moved from Buchenwald to the Flossenburg concentration camp. On the 9th, he is executed with several other key leaders of the Resistance. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.

“Costly grace is the sanctuary of God; it has to be protected from the world, and not thrown to the dogs. It is therefore the living word, the Word of God, which he speaks as it pleases him. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

So which was it? Was Bonhoeffer a combatant? A German patriot fighting for the soul of his country if not it’s government? Is there a time to take up arms? Is there a time to stop turning the other cheek?

These are questions I face regularly and struggle through. I recall Jesus words, “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I do not experience them as particularly judgmental but more of a statement of fact, if you live by the sword, it is very likely that you will die by it.

We live in complicated times but no more so than any other time. Those who are commemorated on the walls of memorial chapel lived in complicated times as well. They followed God in ways that made sense to the world that they understood. Let us not forget that their immediate peers and superiors had just finished fighting a war to end Slavery and the economics that the institution upheld.

When working through our Christian history and all the victories and failings of those who have gone before, we would be remiss forget the times in which they lived. They should be understood and given grace for the world that they understood rather than be judged by the one we understand.

Where does that leave us?

Living the Gospel in the best way we know how. Living out our faith in a way that makes sense to us in the world we understand hoping that a hundred years from now, we will be judged by the world we knew.

And in all this, seeking to live in the way that Jesus taught. Loving others. Blessing those that curse us. Doing good to those who hate us. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us.

Is there a tension? Of course. But as a Chaplain who preceded me once said powerfully, “if you don’t feel the tension, then you’ve probably already given in to one side or the other already.” It is no wonder that the Apostle, in one of his last letters, written from prison, said that we were to take on the example of Jesus Christ in our lives. Living as a servant to our fellow man and, in the end, to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.”

Even so, I hope we can remain faithful. Perhaps when we, as saints “going into glory” meet Jesus he’ll say to us that we had this right and that wrong but in the end, we were faithful. I can only hope and work for that moment when he says to me, “Welcome home my good and faithful servant.”

Amen.

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WWI and Hell

One my favorite take always from my Clinical Pastoral Education experience is the recognition that the Pastor/minister/spiritual person is expected to be, as Christ, a “person of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” I often use this line now as a recognition of one the functions of a chaplain – we are familiar with the journeys of suffering (or at least ought to be) and can help those that are traveling it as the wilderness guide helps those wandering through the unknowns of grief.

I am often asked about the afterlife. Of course, I only know what everyone knows – it’s a fog – no one really knows, they can just interpret the vague references in the Bible and other sacred literature.

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope which looks into the Christian orthodox view and seeks to help others understand.

He makes this observation:

“…the First World War produced not only a great deal of sudden death but also much reflection on its meaning. Some historians have suggested that belief in hell, already under attack from theologians in the nineteenth century, was one the the major casualties of the Great War. There had been so much hell on earth that people couldn’t believe that God would create such a place hereafter as well.”

Fascinating.

What a great example of life impacting theology. As they struggled to make sense of the idea that God would further punish someone who suffered so greatly in life impacted how they then thought about the afterlife.

I wonder if levels of suffering impact a person’s conclusions about things like “eternal conscience suffering.”

It also has me wondering about how Liberation Theology had concepts of Heaven rendered as liberation from the oppressor whereas the general American paradigm sees Heaven as a place to get the opulence denied in life. Streets of gold, mansions on a hillside…

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