Monthly Archives: February 2012
Forward Friday: Parable Walk
Since we’ve been touring Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies this week, let’s try one of her suggestions for this Forward Friday. If the one below doesn’t resonate with you, be sure to check out this week’s posts for other ideas.
Remember, whatever activity, meditation, or version you choose, that the important thing is not what you do but how you do it: “When receiving God’s gifts and nurture through the senses, it is essential to be deliberate, aware, focusing upon each event, receptive to each sensory experience in its uniqueness.”
Take a parable walk
Here’s an activity from Chapter 5:
Try taking a “parable walk,” in which you set out with no special agenda, asking God to show you something that will be meaningful, relevant to your problems and feelings. Whenever I take a parable walk or suggest it to members of a retreat, there is always something observed or experienced that is helpful. It is not usually something sensational. Other people may have noticed nothing, but it seems significant for your life. It might be something about a cloud, a tree, a door. It may be the way a tree is shaped, what an ant is doing, or how a bird is sounding. It might be someone’s face, the way the breeze feels, or the way a dog is barking. but here will be something God wanted you to encounter. Perhaps it will evoke a memory whose time for healing has come. It may offer guidance for an unsolved problem. It may give you the inner nurture you need. You may be comforted or become aware of a new insight. You may be enabled to laugh, to weep, to love, or to release.
Then come back and share your experience in a comment below.
16+ Ways to Pray without Saying a Word
We were given bodies for a reason, you know. God is Spirit, and we could very well have been created as formless spirits floating out in endless space. God had all creative power trembling in the vibration of the Word that spoke the world into existence, and God chose to design us with physical form. As Wuellner puts it in Prayer and Our Bodies, “We were intended to receive God’s full energizing nurture through all five senses.”
Chapter 5: Letting Our Bodies Pray
This is perhaps my favorite chapter in Wuellner’s book because of the way she describes prayer:
Prayer is easier than we thought. Prayer was always meant to be part of our everyday lives, part of our bodies, part of all our actions. It does not mean that we are to be solemn and unsmiling as we act sacramentally through our bodies. A sacrament, whether in the church or out of it, is meant to make us more fully human, not less. “The glory of God is the fully alive human being,” Iranaeus said in the second century. Yes, we are to respond to the body’s acts of worship with intentionality, awareness, deliberation, but also with pleasure and joy.
Throughout the chapter, she mentions various bodily acts that can be prayers:
- tasting food and eating slowly
- looking at color
- smelling a flower
- letting water run over our hands
- gently massaging our hands, feet, face, or neck
- taking a nature walk
- singing or playing a musical instrument
- lying on the ground outside
- participating in symbolic action with a trusted friend or group
- creating with clay, crayons, craft sets, etc.
- listening to music
Despite all the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken, I still have so much to learn about prayer, and those lessons can come from my own body. We all perform so many of the actions on this list, often without even thinking about them. Yet our every activity can be a conversation with God if we want it to be.
Chapter 10: Daily Life in Prayer with Our Bodies
All it takes to move from living to praying is the choice to be aware of the connection between our bodies and our spirituality. This awareness is all it takes to close the gap between the body and the mind, the flesh and the spirit, the human being and God. Wuellner calls this closing of the gap a unity or marriage:
If we can remember our embodiment with awe and gratitude while driving on the freeway, cooking, washing, cleaning house, making love, preaching a sermon, reading a book, or talking with a friend, then we have entered into a unity with our bodies that has become a genuine marriage.
Wuellner follows with suggestions for bodily meditation at each of the following moments in a day:
- waking and rising
- eating and drinking
- recreation, exercise, sexual activity, sports, celebration
“Remembering our embodiment with awe and gratitude…”–what a beautiful expression of body theology.
I think we’ll continue our little tour through Wuellner’s book next week with some insights on sexuality, illness and disability, community, and creation. For today, choose just one item from one of these lists and in that action or moment of the day, “remember your embodiment with awe and gratitude,” and allow your body to pray and “receive God’s full energizing nurture.” It won’t take a minute, and you can do it without uttering a single word.
Message in a Body
Our faithful bodies try ceaselessly to let us know what is really going on in our deep levels. — Wuellner, Prayer and Our Bodies
Several years back, I began to have increasing and consistent pain in my wrists and hands. At first I ignored the pain and treated myself to mini massages to try to relieve the symptoms. As the pain grew more persistent, I began to wear wrist guards and take over the counter pain medication. Eventually, the pain became so troubling that I couldn’t lift heavy objects and would catch myself unconsciously massaging the painful areas almost nonstop.
Because I couldn’t afford health insurance at the time and didn’t have a doctor in the area, I diagnosed myself (always a bright idea) with carpal tunnel syndrome and tried every home treatment I could find online. As the situation became desperate, I finally called my uncle, who is a physical therapist, for some free advice. He asked me some preliminary questions and then suggested that my symptoms were more consistent with a pinched nerve in my neck and that even though the pain was in my wrists and fingers, I should relieve the stress in my neck to help reduce the symptoms.
That same week, a friend of mine organized a prayer session for me with a group of Christians experienced in praying for physical healing. I arrived complete with wrist guards. As soon as I sat down in the chair–before I even had a chance to tell them what I wanted prayer for–one of the ladies in the group asked if she could lay her hands on me, and to my surprise, she put her hand on the back of my neck and began to pray for release of emotional burdens!
After the prayer session, I met with my counselor and spiritual director to discuss what had happened and began to uncover the fact that I have a tendency to “carry” people emotionally and even to carry other people’s burdens. My ability to be empathetic has always been an asset as I seek to be a safe space for others to share their deep heart and feel heard, loved, and accepted. But I had never realized the emotional–and evidently physical–impact my empathy had on my own health.
Because I didn’t have safe boundaries to protect myself and ensure I interacted with others in a healthy way, I continued to carry emotional burdens unnecessarily. It took ongoing, mysterious physical pain to draw my attention to my lack of self-care. In effect, I was unwilling to deal with my emotional state until my body physically forced me to.
Chapter 3: Listening to Our Bodies in Prayer
This week we’re walking through Wuellner’s Prayer and Our Bodies to discover more about the relationship between our physical and spiritual selves. In this chapter, she describes common physical symptoms like unexplained pain or fatigue and the messages they might have for our emotional or spiritual life: “That symptom is telling us, in the only way it can, that there is something about ourselves, our habits, or our surroundings that we need to know.”
Wuellner suggests that before we grab that bottle of pain pills or snatch a quick nap, we take a moment to listen and find out if that symptom is really a message about something else. “This faithful, alert listening to our bodies,” she writes, “is a holy and necessary part of our spirituality. And what incredible changes it can bring into our lives!”
Now, when I feel that mysterious twinge in my wrists or fingers, I know my body is telling me I have an emotional burden I need to lay down. I have learned to listen to my body’s warnings and trust that there is a problem I need to address, even if I am not intellectually or emotionally aware of it.
Chapter 4: New Ways of Praying for Ourselves
When a physical symptom really is a sign of a physical ailment, Wuellner encourages her readers in the next chapter to pray not just for that one symptom but for the whole person–body, mind, emotion, and will.
Certainly we should listen to the problem, look on the ingrained habit as a signal of stress and need [here she is referring to her example of a man trying to quit smoking], and send encouraging thoughts to the body as it works for health. But we need to remember that what appears to be one problem usually turns out to be a problem of the whole life, and that its consequences are born by the whole body, even though the problem itself may be manifested in one area.
Wuellner warns that sometimes prayer in this way, for the whole person, may reveal some unknown or long-forgotten issue that needs to be dealt with. She encourages her readers to approach these issues gently and lovingly and promises that “God encounters these shut doors [unknown or forgotten hurts from the past] with infinite compassion, knowing we are pathetically revealing our vulnerability. Every tense muscle, every defensive withdrawal is a beloved and wounded child who is to be embraced and restored to life and released to empowerment.”
She also suggests that, when we experience healing of these past wounds, we may discover that whatever symptom indicated a weakness has been transformed into “the source of our greatest empowered giftedness!” Might not this be part of what Jesus meant when he said he came to complete our joy and finish the good work begun in us?
In my story, I also discovered that the reason my empathy manifested as a desire to carry others’ burdens stemmed from a deep underlying belief that God was not trustworthy. Because my trust had been broken early and often, I had internalized the lie that I could not trust God with my own burdens, let alone the burdens of others.
As I began to learn to trust God fully, I have discovered a wealth of emotional strength left over to face life’s difficulties and support those around me (in a safe, healthy way, of course!). If my body hadn’t alerted me to all the energy I was using to carry things that belonged in God’s hands, I would never have discovered how trustworthy God is and how free and strong I feel when God is carrying the heavy load.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Wuellner has to say about praying with and through bodies. For today, spend some time quietly listening to your body. What messages is your body sending you? God just might be inviting you into an experience of healing and empowerment for the path ahead of you. Will you accept it?
Give Your Body a Valentine
Believe it or not, your body is aware of who you are, what you care about, and how you are doing emotionally and spiritually. Our bodies are part of who we are, and they know us better than we think they do. (If you missed it yesterday, you can read about my experience learning to listen to my body here.)
This week we’re learning together about the connection between our physical and spiritual selves through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies. These posts are not meant to be a book review but a sharing of and engaging with some of her insights as an ordained minister, adjunct professor, and trained spiritual director.
Here is some of what Wuellner has to say about the body throughout her introduction:
Our understanding and awareness of our bodily selves unfold slowly as we grow, learn, and mature within God’s embrace.
This is why the development of a holistic body theology begins with and is constantly being informed by our identity in Christ. This is also why becoming more media literate and culturally discerning is important so we can sift through the messages we receive in search of God’s truth about who we are.
When the body is mentioned in the New Testament, it is often referred to by the Greek word soma, which usually implies the whole human self: body, emotion, intelligence, will.
Because our faith is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, any form of spirituality we claim must also be incarnational, which by definition includes the wholeness of the person. This will profoundly influence our relationship to our communities and our world.
This is why I have added the word “holistic” to my discussions of body theology and have expanded the definition to include not only our physical selves (body image, sexuality) but also how we interact within the community of God (the body of Christ, community) and within our larger local and global context (the body of Christ, service).
…[A]s we grow into a new, transforming relationship with our bodily selves, we will begin spontaneously and naturally to make informed decisions about our habits, lifestyles, and relationships.
I don’t think I could write a better description of the purpose of holistic body theology. We are created to engage with ourselves, with God, and with others through our bodies, not in spite of them.
Chapter 2: Reconciling and Celebrating Our Bodies
In this chapter, Wuellner gently approaches the topic of body image and the need for inner healing. She asks, “What have our bodies done to us that we ignore, dislike, and punish them so?” and suggests that “much unhealed anger, fear, and hurt underlies our dislike and suspicion of our bodily selves. These unresolved, underlying issues affect our engagement in culture (e.g. what and how much we eat and drink, how we identify and treat illness) as well as how we relate to ourselves, one another, and God.
Our bodies were created in unity with our emotions, intelligence and will, Wuellner describes, and being out of touch with our emotions and bodies results in “fragmentation.” Wuellner encourages her readers to “pray for awareness that our disliked bodily parts are part of us and have served us faithfully. We can stop blaming our bodies for our own decisions…. Celebration of even one small part is deeply healing to the whole.”
She suggests that engaging with our bodies in prayer can provide space for us to “learn to listen to the signals of our bodies, honoring them as one of the main ways God speaks to us and by which we can learn much unencountered truth about ourselves and our communities.”
Guided Meditation with the Body
She goes on to offer a guided meditation exercise in which she encourages her readers to
1) think of a part of the body they dislike or are ashamed of and picture it being “touched lovingly” or “gently washed” by Jesus,
2) touch that part of their bodies themselves, “thank it for being a faithful friend in spite of your dislike,” and ask God for healing of the dislike or shame associated with that body part,
3) remember a time their bodies were insulted or criticized by someone else and see themselves as they were at that time (e.g. child, teenager, adult) being comforted by God, and
4) thank their bodies as they are now “for taking the special tasks and challenges of this phase of your life” and allow their bodies to be held by God “as one who is precious to God and valued by God.”
A few friends and I tried this mediation exercise in our sexuality group two or three years ago. Even though it was an uncomfortable approach for some of us at the time, I remember how the night was filled with healing, freedom, and peace as we each acknowledged some shame or emotional hurt related to our bodies and were able to deal with it individually with God in a shared, safe space.
Give Your Body a Valentine
Today, try setting aside a little time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with yourself by going through this exercise (or whatever portion or version feels safe and available to you).
Show some love for your body as it is now, fearfully and wonderfully made by a powerful, creative God who knows you, loves you, and could not possibly imagine this life without you in it!
My Body Is Rebelling
I ignore my body.
This can be attributed in part to my nature as an introvert. I spend a lot of my time alone, thinking and reading, journaling and praying. I live in my head. I process internally.
In my 28 years, I have at various times deprived my body of food, sleep, human touch, rest, and exercise. I have pressed my body into service to accommodate my intellectual pursuits. While I lived in my head, my body suffered and struggled and learned to carry on.
Now, my body is rebelling.
I’ve begun to feel like an old person with a worn-out, falling-apart body that won’t listen to me at all when I tell it to stop being silly and behave like it should. After years of being ignored, my body has gotten fed up. As I continued to ignore it, my body increased its volume until its (her?) cries have become deafening.
Here’s what my body is yelling:
- I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!
- My shoulder hurts from that car accident we had in 8th grade that you never finished doing the physical therapy exercises for!
- My back hurts from the scoliosis you never stopped to notice until it got so bad we ended up with a slipped disc and sciatica!
- I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!
- Various portions of my digestive system hurt from all the times you forget to eat or don’t put the energy into preparing a properly balanced meal!
- My wrists hurt from that pinched nerve we get in the neck every time you try to carry emotional burdens that aren’t yours to bear!
- My jaw hurts from all that teeth-grinding you do at night when you stay up worrying and over-analyzing instead of letting me rest!
- My eyes hurt in bright light from all the times you were too busy to stop and buy sunglasses to provide adequate protection!
- I’m tired from the many, many years you would not let me sleep until I felt rested!
My body is angry at me, and it is rebelling. It won’t let me get out of bed and do the things I want to do anymore. My body is finally making itself heard, and it’s yelling so loudly that I can’t help but be the one to submit this time.
Over the last few months, I have begun to learn to listen to my body. I sleep when I am tired. I eat when I am hungry, and when I can’t tell if I’m hungry or not, I try to eat anyway. I wear sunglasses pretty much all the time, even when I drive at night. I wear a mouth guard to keep myself from grinding my teeth even though it makes me look ridiculous and hard to understand when I talk. I stay in bed and rest instead of “being productive.” I do my prescribed stretches and ball exercises to help loosen up my back. I lie down or stand instead of sitting to ease the pressure on my sciatic nerve.
These may seem like little things, small changes that don’t matter much. But the change isn’t small at all. It’s huge. I have lived so much of my life in opposition to my body, or at least out of touch with it. I have lived like a docetist or gnostic–more concerned with the life of the mind than the life of the body. I have lived my life disconnected from myself, and that is not what Jesus had in mind when he came into the world to complete our joy and bring us the fullness of life. I have talked about the incarnation of Jesus, but I haven’t lived like I value my body as much as I value my mind.
So I’m making a change. I still have a long way to go, but slowly I am learning to pay attention to my body and adjust my lifestyle to fit its needs.
To give me a place to start, I’ve been reading Prayer and Our Bodies by Flora Slosson Wuellner. This week, I’ll give you a little taste of what she has to say about the connection between our spiritual selves and our physical selves.
For today, I’ll leave you with some of Paul’s words to the Corinthians:
For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2Cor 5:4)
What has your body been telling you lately? Share your answer in a comment below to join the conversation.
Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 4
Community, as Bonhoeffer describes it, requires Jesus as mediator, discipleship, and participation in the incarnation. Today, we’ll conclude with a brief look at the benefits and challenges of community as well as how Bonhoeffer’s theology relates to holistic body theology.
Challenges: pride and disillusionment
Bonhoeffer criticizes those who live apart for their pride, which separates them from living in a right relationship to God and to others. “The wish to be independent in everything is false pride,” he writes in one of his prison letters and continues, “Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves and is a part of our own lives, and any attempt to calculate what we have ‘earned’ for ourselves and what we owe to other people is certainly not Christian.”
Bonhoeffer recognizes the difficulty of this kind of intentional Christian life and takes great pains to acknowledge that sin happens. He warns against idealizing community life by glossing over sin: “In Christian brotherhood, everything depends upon its being clear right from the beginning, first, that Christian brotherhood is not an ideal, but a divine reality.” The greatest harm to a community comes through disillusionment when sin enters in (as it inevitably will) and is revealed or is kept hidden.
Shame is a deeply crippling issue universal to the human experience. Christian or not, we deal with shame because of our fallen nature. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics: “Man perceives himself in his disunion with God and with men…Shame is man’s ineffaceable recollection of his estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.” Shame requires hiding (i.e., we were ashamed because we were naked), and hiding creates an environment of isolation and loneliness within the community, exactly that which community is designed to eradicate. When sin comes out, disillusionment sets in and the community rarely survives.
Benefits: freedom from shame and loneliness
For Christians, however, there is hope: community. Bonhoeffer urges “brotherly confession and absolution” to correct this tendency toward shame. “Lying destroys community,” Bonhoeffer observes, “but truth rends false community and founds genuine fellowship.” It is this truth spoken to one another in community that keeps accountable for the sin that cannot be avoided completely.
Confession and intercession are essential for a healthy community life. Bonhoeffer encourages his readers to confess to one another when he writes, “If a Christian is in the fellowship of confession with a brother he will never be alone again, anywhere.” When we confess sin in a safe space to a safe person, that sin no longer has power to shame and isolate us from the rest of the community. “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses,” Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, ” I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” When we pray for someone, it is infinitely more difficult to remain distant from that person. Prayer brings us together, whether we are praying with or for one another, because we are looking to Christ who mediates between us all. Church, like the home, should be a safe environment to make mistakes and be encouraged.
Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together that the “fellowship of the Lord’s Supper is the superlative fulfillment of Christian fellowship.” However, the imprisoned Bonhoeffer feels the lack of community on a much more human level: “I very much miss meal-time fellowship…So may not this be an essential part of life, because it is a reality of the Kingdom of God?”
Living and acting out the spiritual disciplines within the community are certainly essential, but Bonhoeffer realizes while he is in prison that we most feel the lack of simple coming together, sharing life together; not just the Lord’s Supper but any supper. Not just confession but communication. Not just the visible church-community but daily and freely communing with fellow believers. It is the sense of togetherness that Bonhoeffer suggests as the greatest benefit of community. After all, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ among them.
Holistic Body Theology: The Body of Christ and the Body of Christ
Part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy community as the body of Christ. We are the community of God, and through Christ we interact with one another to build each other up as we seek to live fully into our identity as the image of God. Likewise, another part of holistic body theology is engaging in healthy interaction with the world, both as individuals and together with the community of God. This is the body of Christ, the activity and impact of the community of God as we participate in the incarnation of Jesus.
As we learned from our tour of Bonhoeffer’s writings this week, community and Christian fellowship are infinitely vital to the Christian life. Equally vital, however, is the role of the visible church-community in the world and the impact it should have through participation in the incarnation of Jesus.
Bonhoeffer writes, “A man’s attitude to the world does not correspond with reality if he sees in the world a good or an evil which is good or evil in itself…and if he acts in accordance with this view,” that is, idealistic interaction with the world is lacking in the reality of the call of Christ to the action of the disciples. Rather, “his attitude accords with reality only if he lives and acts in limited responsibility and thereby allows the world ever anew to disclose its essential character to him.” (This is what Richard Niebuhr would call Christ transforming culture.)
We are called to be a city on a hill, but we’re not supposed to be a gated community, inaccessible if you don’t know the secret code. Jesus entered into the context of his day, and so should we. The role of the Christian in the world is to think and act according to the ever-changing reality of events in the world. Bonhoeffer makes community life seem so apparent and logical, so clear in scripture, so necessary a part of the live of the disciple who is participating in the incarnation and acting on behalf of those who need justice.
Let’s take our cue from Bonhoeffer and follow his example into a community that has Jesus as the mediator, is made up of costly disciples, and is determined to participate both individually and communally in the incarnation as the body of Christ.
Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 3
This week, we’ve been honoring Bonhoeffer‘s birthday by taking a tour of some of his writings to discover what he teaches about community. In addition to Jesus as mediator and discipleship, let’s look at the third requirement for community.
3) Responsibility and deputyship (participation in the incarnation)
Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians should be in community because Christ exemplified it for us every day he walked on earth, especially in the way he interacted with his disciples: “In bearing with men God maintained fellowship with them.” We are God’s deputies here on earth, participating in the incarnation of Christ. If Christ is our example of community life, how much more are sacrifice and service to be the themes of our interaction with community members on a daily basis? “If you reject God’s commanding word,” Bonhoeffer warns, “you will not receive God’s gracious word. How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point?”
Repeatedly, Bonhoeffer stresses the fact that community is about dying to self. In agreeing to participate in the incarnation by becoming a disciple and taking on the responsibility of entering into the lives of others, we are freed to suffer—“The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death”—and freed to forgive—“Jesus’ call to bear the cross places all who follow him in the community of forgiveness of sins. Forgiving sins is the Christ-suffering required of his disciples…of all Christians.”
When we give up the claim to our own rights, we are freed to turn our attention and concern to the rights of others. This freedom is the deputyship Bonhoeffer charges to each Christian; it is an ethic of relationship and community, the requirement of incarnational service for others. In one of his prison letters, Bonhoeffer writes, “It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves.”
Our human nature has been designed for community life. It is a sacrifice to be in a position to love others rightly, but it is a sacrifice only because of our sinful nature, not because of our true natural inclination. Dying to the self makes us able to live the life we have been designed for, which is why Bonhoeffer can create an ethic that requires our participation in the lives of those around us.
Regardless of the environment in which we live, community living is still a responsibility and expectation of every disciple. Bonhoeffer asserts, “This principle [of deputyship] is not affected by the extent of the responsibility assumed, whether it be for a single human being, for a community or for whole groups of communities….[E]ven the solitary lives as a deputy, and indeed quite especially so, for his life is lived in deputyship for man as man, for mankind as a whole.”
Whether we’re in a position to live intentionally among other Christians, or whether we find ourselves in a position of being a solitary light to the world, we are all called to participate in the incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ in the world.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the challenges and benefits of being in community and what it means to be the body of Christ.
Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 2
Yesterday, we looked at the first requirement for community: Jesus as mediator. Today, we’ll continue our tour through Bonhoeffer‘s writings about community.
2) Individual commitment (discipleship)
When Bonhoeffer writes, “The call to discipleship here has no other content than Jesus Christ himself, being bound to him, in community with him,” he means that discipleship is entering into community with Jesus Christ, participating in the cost of his grace through the incarnation.
As we looked at yesterday, Bonhoeffer builds his understanding of discipleship and the call of each individual Christian to live according to Christ around the sub-theme of Jesus as the mediator. Jesus enters incarnationally into our lives and calls us to follow the example by entering incarnationally into the lives of our fellow Christians, with Christ as the mediator. Every assertion Bonhoeffer makes stems from this central belief in the position of Christ in our lives.
Whether we are communicating with God—“Always there must be a second person, another, a member of the fellowship, the Body of Christ, indeed, Jesus Christ himself, praying with him, in order that the prayer of the individual may be true prayer”—or whether we are worshiping among fellow Christians—“It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song”—everything we do is filtered through the incarnation of Christ.
Bonhoeffer returns again and again to this theme: “The image of Jesus Christ shapes the image of the disciples in daily community.”
As Bonhoeffer develops, in The Cost of Discipleship, his discussion of what it means to be a disciple of Christ–to answer the call to participate in the incarnation by obedience to that call–he stresses the need to come to Christ alone: “Each is called alone. Each must follow alone.” Discipleship is first and foremost individual.
Bonhoeffer warns, “If you refuse to be alone (i.e. to worship, pray, meditate, and generally seek God on an individual basis) you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.” Community life is designed to enhance and bolster the lives of Christians but not to serve as a substitute for finding all of our needs met in God alone.
However, most of us are not called into seclusion, either. Bonhoeffer believed strongly in intentional Christian community and warns in Life Together, “If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject all of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” We must deal only with Christ and through Christ, but Christ has entered incarnationally into our lives in order that we might live in right relationship to each other as well as to God. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “Man is an indivisible whole, not only as an individual in his person and work but also as a member of the community of men and creatures in which he stands.”
In fact, community and individual discipleship are closely related in Bonhoeffer’s famous argument against cheap grace: “Cheap grace is…baptism [i.e. the symbol of individual commitment] without the discipline of community….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer does not neglect to add that while it is the individual’s responsibility to live in community, it is also the responsibility of the community to impact positively the individual’s life. “The right of the individual,” Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics, “is the power which upholds the right of the community, just as, conversely, it is the community that upholds and defends the right of the individual.”
Bonhoeffer warns that Christians must be aware of the health of the surrounding community, for when “a community hinders us from coming before Christ as a single individual, anytime a community lays claim to immediacy, it must be hated for Christ’s sake.” Community is important and even essential to the Christian life, but it does not have the right to supersede the position of Christ as center and mediator for all disciples.
(Current heated debates surrounding certain celebrity pastors come to mind.)
Bonhoeffer repeats so that his readers cannot forget, “Discipleship is bound to the mediator, and wherever discipleship is rightly spoken of, there the mediator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is intended. Only the mediator, the God-human, can call to discipleship.”
Jesus calls individually; we answer individually and respond communally. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the third requirement of community: participation in the incarnation.