CoD Part 8, Carefree Simplicity

As 2007 rapidly draws to a close, the web and other media outlets are abuzz with a flurry of predictions about 2008. From $5/gallon gasoline to the American presidential race to war in the Middle East, it seems everyone has something to say about the year that hasn’t even yet begun. Regardless of what you read, however, the predictions (no matter how seemingly far-fetched) often breed more anxiety than comfort…even for those whose hope rests on Christ. The situation is perfect for my last post on Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship (at least for a while). This time, let us take a quick look at his chapter on the last few verses of Matthew 6 titled, “The Simplicity of the Carefree Life.”

Bonhoeffer begins with his typically engrossing prose and writes:

The life of discipleship can only be maintained so long as nothing is allowed to come between Christ and ourselves-neither the law, nor personal piety, nor even the word. The disciple always looks only to his master, never to Christ and the law, Christ and religion, Christ and the world.

So far, so good. It doesn’t take long though until we reach this bombshell, which drops from the sky onto our spoiled American selves like a twenty megaton nuclear blast:

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It’s snowing?!  OK, so it’s not really snowing in Houston…but this ‘blog snow’ is about as close as we’ll get here, and it will last about as long!

Advent Prayer, Christmas Eve

This deviates from the historic liturgies from which I have drawn my advent prayers this season, but it is one that is dear to my heart because of my vocation and its historical value:

Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world
in spite of human failure.
Give us the faith to trust Your goodness
in spite of our ignorance and weakness.
Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray
with understanding hearts.
And show us what each one of us can do to set forward
the coming of the day of universal peace.
– Frank Borman, Apollo 8, 1968

An Advent Prayer, Week 4

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen. (from The Book of Common Prayer, 1928 ed.)


I just want to pick up my pen and write,
Not to take notes, doodle, or draw;
Not to write an earth-shattering tome or speech to change the world;
Not to parse verbs, diagram sentences, or translate Greek.

I just want to write…

To feel the weight of the pen in my hand,
To see the ink flow from nib to paper,
To marvel at this ancient, gravity-fed machine,
To watch pen caress paper in the dance that is writing.

Smoothly, gently-ink flowing as a river of blue,
Across and down the page as I write;
Elegant normalcy, beautiful unremarkability,
Sublime typicality…pen and ink.

Poetry-Some Children See Him

This morning on the way to work I was listening to James Taylor at Christmas and was taken aback by the words to a song I have heard countless times but never really listened to. While song lyrics aren’t often read as poetry (at least by the masses), these lyrics are indeed poetry in the truest sense:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of golden hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, oh . . . they love Him, too

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

As I read these words two thoughts come to mind. Negatively, we tend to make God in our own ‘image and likeness’ instead of remembering that we are made in his. Positively, though Christ took on humanity as an ethnic Jew some 2000 years ago, he is the God of all nations, tribes, tongues…and colors.

CoD Part 7, Hidden Righteousness

In Cost of Discipleship, while moving from his exposition of Matthew 5 to Matthew 6, Bonhoeffer raises an interesting paradox that our devotional or homiletical reading of Scripture in little chunks often overlooks.  In chapter five, Jesus goes on and on about the visible nature of the Christian life:

  • Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven…(v.16)
  • If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…(v.38)
  • Do not refuse the one who would borrow from you…(v.42)

In chapter six, however, Jesus begins with what seems to be a great contradiction.  “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven” (v.1).  Taken at face value, these teachings are seemingly irreconcilable, and yet they are spoken almost in the same breath, (which a continuous reading of the Sermon on the Mount readily shows).  How can this be?  What is Bonhoeffer’s answer to his question?  In short, “We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness.”  Surely this answer will take some flushing out…

To reword his answer, the Christian life and good works must necessarily be visible, but they must not be visible for the sake of their visibility.  “There are of course proper grounds for insisting on the visible nature of Christian discipleship,” Bonhoeffer says, “but the visibility is never an end in itself; and if it becomes so we have lost sight of our primary aim, which is to follow Jesus.”  More simply, if we do our good works childishly in order to win ‘gold stars’ or accolades in the eyes of others or ourselves, we have missed the point.

Bonhoeffer’s explanation of these chapters becomes even more clear (and more pointed) when he asks the question, “From whom are we to hide the visibility of our discipleship?”  He answers:

Certainly not from other men, for we are told to let them see our light.  No.  We are to hide it from ourselves.  Our task is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or of what we are doing.  We must be unaware of our own righteousness, and see it only in so far as we look unto Jesus; then it will seem not extraordinary, but quite ordinary and natural.  Thus we hide the visible from ourselves in obedience to the word of Jesus.

In giving this seemingly difficult teaching at the beginning of Matthew 6, the resolution of which Bonhoeffer shows is really quite simple, our Savior has again struck to the core of human sin and pride.

We are to hide our good works from our own selves, because failing to do so unfailingly generates pride and puffs us up.  Jesus knows all too well that if we perform good works with conscious focus on the works themselves, our inclination…no, our inevitable desire…is to rest on the laurels of our accomplishments and turn our focus inward to self instead of keeping our gaze on Christ and the cross.  Turning our focus towards ourselves is a tragic first step towards self-righteousness (at best) and an un-Christian theology of salvation by works (at worst).  The solution, of course, is to keep our eyes on Christ.  “Genuine love is always self-forgetful in the true sense of the word.  But if we are to have it, our old man must die with all his virtues and qualities, and this can only be done where the disciple forgets self and clings solely to Christ…Love, in the sense of spontaneous, unreflective action, spells the death of the old man.”

Lord Jesus, grant us the grace and strength to keep our eyes firmly fixed on you, our Captain, and keep them from turning inward to ourselves.  Amen.