Listening to Bonhoeffer on Listening to Others

life“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either’ they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Christian Community

LifeTogetherRe-reading Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have been re-staggered by his sheer realism of Kingdom perspective.  Bonhoeffer is no religious hack mass producing religious visions of a utopian ideal – an ideal that only serves to wear thin before wearing out the Christian community.

“Innumerable times a whole Christian Community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image.”

Of course, he admits there are those who come in among the community with a definite image of what it should look like and what it should be, and lo and behold, they often have the plans to enable the community to get there!

“But God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams.  A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community.  By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture.  For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth.”

The point is quite wonderful.  The genuine Christian community is one that sees, identifies, experiences all the garbage that goes with its own manufactured dreams and visions; its own “great disillusionments.”  The community that clings to man-made visions (even if they are wrapped up in religious language and presented with biblical texts), fails to recognise this inherent idolatry.  Such a community, or church, may look and sound like a religious gathering, may even be great at social action, and evangelism, but the die is cast:  “Sooner or later it is bound to collapse.”

“Every human idealised image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself, become destroyers of that Christian community even though their intentions may be ever so honest, ernest, and sacrificial.”

n-BONHOEFFER-large570This is liberating news, it is good news.  The Church is not to succumb to man-made idolatries, nor is she to succumb to fads and gimmicks, visions and utopias that smooth out the necessity and urgency of being the Community of the Christian Church.  God will not be mocked!

“The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”

Dreamy visions are an idolatrous plague on the Church, especially in the management controlled, targets obsessed West, because they become a means of assessment and measurement.  That is why we often count success in numbers attending, or by the state of the bank balance.  We are conditioned this way, and so we take it into church, devise plans and strategies, and so lose the heart beat of the Christian community.  Bonhoeffer reminds us, the Christian community is not measured by trendy techniques ripped from a secular world, but by the continuing, nurturing, profoundly simple act of thankfulness.

We cannot engineer the Kingdom of God among us.  Pity the fool who tries.  But what we can do is grow into the community by practise and communion.  We are all bent on a self-centred, self-serving, self-focused love.  It is precisely why we need saving.  But when we bring this into the community, unchecked by the Word of God, we masquerade as angels of light among our brothers and sisters, when in Kingdom reality, we are shadowy fools neither under-standing nor standing-under the Word of Christ.

“Christian community is not an ideal we have to realise, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate….In other words, a life together under the Word will stay healthy only when it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis (Association of Piety), but instead, understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, universal, Christian Church, sharing through its deeds and suffering in the hardships and struggles and promise of the whole church.”


“We hold fast in faith to God’s greatest gift, that God has acted for us all and wants to act for us all.  This makes us joyful and happy, but it also makes us ready to forego all such experiences if at times God does not grant them.  We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”


Congregational Inconsistency

Pastoral expectations, idealisms, fantasy’s and fictions are often held by both pastor and congregation.  Pastors have very high hopes (in God) for the church and often live with having these high hopes unrealised, unmet and often dashed upon the rocks of their own inflated ego.  Congregations on the other hand, have very high hopes (in the pastor) to make their imagined version of the church a reality.

It was Bonhoeffer who reminds us that God will not permit us to live in a dream world.  When the pastor’s plans flounder, he or she will often lash out, and blame this, that or them!  When the congregation’s collective plan fails, they may just get a new pastor, as one gets a new car.  A new product for a consumer who is tired of the old and hopeful for the new.  Sometimes the pastor’s own denominational institution not only allows this to happen but too readily encourages it.

In a previous post, we are reminded of Eugene Peterson’s charge, that a pastor’s role is to say the word “God” accurately.  In all the mundane routine of life; in the flickering inconsistency of those saints who make up church congregations, the boredom and lukewarmness that constitutes much of contemporary Church life, the pastor is there, present, to say “God.”  Peterson goes on, “We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray.”

He continues, “We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God.  We are there to say “God” personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in proclamations and prayers.  We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating.  We have no other task.  We are not needed to add to what is there.  We are required only to say the name:  Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

IMG_2695All men and women hunger for God.  The hunger is masked and misrepresented in many ways, but it is always there.  Everyone is on the verge of crying out “My Lord and my God!”  but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accomodations with mediocrity.  Then something happens – a word, an event, a dream – and there is a push toward an awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Desire, a defiant Hope, a courageousness Faithfulness.  But awareness, as such, is not enough.  Untended, it trickles into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering.  Or, worse, it hardens into patriotic hubris or pharisaical snobbery.  The pastor is there to nudge the awareness past subjectivities and ideologies into the open and say “God.”

We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger.  But it is so easy to get distracted.  There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say.  So much emotion.  So many tasks.  So much, we think, “opportunity.”  But our [pastoral] assignment is to the “one thing needful,” the invisible, quiet centre – God”  (Under the Unpredictable Plant, p.87)

If pastors within churches can’t, don’t, won’t say the word “God” accurately, who will?  Yet if our denominations will fortify pastors in this regard, if churches will grow less consumeristic by becoming more Christ-like, maybe we will see more of the treasure that has been entrusted to us.  Jesus did say the wheat and the weeds grow together and Paul wrote to the inconsistent Corinthians that there are bound to be factions, indeed there must be, in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised (1 Cor 11:19).

So not only do we have the absurdity of churchy impostors, religious fakers, nomistic finger-pointers, argumentative factionists and spiritual consumers, we also have, among those who are genuine (to use Paul’s phrase), those who do love the Lord, those who do want to grow – inconsistency on a biblical scale – and pastors must not be afraid to keep on being pastors in the middle of it all.  Sometimes and often these categories overlap, in fact, they more than overlap, they mingle and weave.  The congregation is inconsistent, it was never promised to be anything but.  This is normal.  What is not normal is the weirdness of the pastoral role:  Preaching and praying.  And what is amazing is that all are loved, deeply loved by the “God” we have been called to name!


(The picture was taken by me a couple of years a go.  This bundle or congregation of drift wood easily resembles the Church.  One of the bits of battered and broken wood is the pastor.  God is doing all the gathering, all the while whispering to the pastor, “Keep telling all the other bits of odd and broken wood my Name, don’t stop, keep doing what I’ve called you to do.  I will keep gathering.”)

Met with Mercy


I was met with mercy.  And so sings the entire Christian  community with every new day.  “I was met with mercy” – when my heart was hardened against God, when I was following my own path of sin, when I loved my sin more than I loved God, when my sin had led me into sorrow and misery, when I had gone astray and couldn’t find the way back – it was then that I was struck by God’s Word, and I heard:  God loves me.  It was then that Jesus found me; he was with me – he, and he alone – he comforted me and forgave all my sins, imputing none of my evil to me.  “I was met with mercy.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ’s Love and Our Enemies – A Sermon, 23rd January 1938

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