Monday, September 10, 2018

Life Together

Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for years. It was only because it made a required reading list that I managed to get to it. I’m so glad that I did. Bonhoeffer’s book is widely acknowledged as one of the classic texts on the Christian in community and the various aspects to consider. For those that are unaware, Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed towards the end of WWII by the Nazis. For those interested to find out more, Metaxas’ biography is a great read.

In five short chapters, Bonhoeffer expounds on the Christian in community and how we should consider our life together under the Word.

In Chapter 1 he considers how “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer”, with the reminder that “it is not simply taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living amongst other Christians”, warning that this gift is “easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have it every day”. I first grasped this three years ago when holidaying in Dubai with a friend who was a cross-cultural worker in Central Asia. It was a priority to be there for two weeks of church so she could have as much time with the community of believers as possible. Observing her joy at worshipping with other believers (having little opportunity in her usual location) reminded me that it is “grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren”. It gave me fresh eyes to appreciate the fellowship and communal worship that I experience weekly. He expounds the goal of Christian community to be that they “meet another as bringers of the message of salvation”, and that we are be thankful for the community that we have, seeing it as a group who are slowly being sanctified, rather than complain about their failings. This chapter is marvellously encouraging as well as challenging, and if you were only going to read some of this book, I think the first half of this chapter would be the part to prioritise.

Chapter 2: The Day with Others considers how we could structure our day in community around the word of God and prayer. He encourages the day to be grounded in worship together, and strongly urges morning devotion:
“For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work… Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs”.
He gives instruction for reading the Psalms, reading the bible in order, singing songs and praying together, as well as ways to prioritise the word and prayer throughout the day and into the evening. This chapter helped me to reconsider how family is an aspect of Christian community and this is the area where many of us attempt daily worship. Bonhoeffer raises such a high bar here that it would be easy to remain overwhelmed and feel it’s too hard to try. However, the encouragement to continue to see family worship as a priority is still something I need to be reminded of, and to also continue to see God’s grace when we fail.

Chapter 3: The Day Alone provides the necessary counter to community, for the Christian must also be able to be alone: “The person who comes into community because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear.” We come before Christ alone, humble and aware of our need, we must continue to be with Christ alone. He encourages three practices for the Christian on their own: Scripture meditation, prayer and intercession for others. This chapter echoed my own experience of silence, which I appreciate and value for the ability it gives to meditate on God’s word and write responsive prayers. Time with God in the morning means I enter the day grounded in him, rather than running into it in my own strength. I have the freedom to start the day this way (with children old enough to manage themselves and a husband who graciously enables it), yet increasingly I’m convicted it is a God-given responsibility to take that opportunity so that I can serve my family better as the day unfolds.

People could read these chapters and think, “oh no, here are more laws to follow to be faithful Christian” and despair at them. However, a much more helpful mindset would be to approach them as wise advice from a godly man, and think about how the principles apply in your own life and situation. There is much of value to take from these chapters, if we are willing to read them humbly and with hearts open to be challenged and changed.

Chapter 4: Ministry addresses the very real issue of comparison in community. Everyone either looks up or down at those around them, and so the community is put in danger from discord and jealousy. Bonhoeffer addresses several ways that members of the Christian community must actively counter this: holding our tongues, aiming for meekness, listening, helping, bearing burdens and speaking the Word of God to one another. Personally, I found the comments regarding meekness very challenging, for my tendency is towards pride and self-sufficiency. The exhortation that I, like Paul, should regard myself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim 1:15) was confronting. His reasoning was that I should regard myself as worst because while I would be willing to forgive any other Christian their failings, I should be fully aware, cognisant and saddened by my own, for I can give no excuse. This requires real repentance of any attitude of superiority towards others, asking God to convince me that I am the worst of sinners, and to be able to move towards people with more meekness and humility. This also would include a desire to understand the failings of others and to encourage them towards Christlikeness, as we travel that path together.

Chapter 5: Confession and Communion makes the striking warning about community: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners.” A community that is willing to confess together appropriately, willing to name sin, acknowledges each person’s need for grace, and to bring into the light what is tempting to hide in the darkness. It cuts at our self righteousness and pride and ensures we are under standing under the grace of God. “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person. As long as I am by myself in the confession of my sins everything remains in the dark, but in the presence of a brother the sin has to be brought into the light.” I was challenged to see that more willing confession of sin with other believers would be a helpful way forward, and something I am exploring with a small group of ministry wives.

I have very much appreciated the time spent in this short yet very valuable book. Highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to think further about what true community in the body of Christ could look like.

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