Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Besonnenheit

I read a lot of Bonhoeffer, a lot of Bonhoeffer. I cannot get enough and I am inspired and saddened at the same time how relevant his writings are today. Have we learned nothing at all?

Bonhoeffer quoted Luther's translation of 2 Timothy 1:7 in one of his writings and it lifted a weight off my shoulders. It was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear. So I picked up my English Bible, my work Bible, heavily underlined, cross-referenced and annotated. I looked up 2 Timothy, expecting this verse to be highlighted at the very least... and all the weight was right back where it had been, squarely on my shoulders. The words were not marked in any way, clearly they had not spoken to me before and they were not speaking to me then. How can one version of Scripture be so entirely different from another, at least the way I read it? How can it evoke such polar-opposite reactions in me?

Allow me to take you on a short excursion through translations of the Bible. And allow me to point out the importance to research and dig deep when you read Scripture.

ESV says, "... for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control."

Power? Self-control? I don't want power. Power on a human level inflates and corrupts. And self-control? Self-anything is not what I am after... if I have learned nothing at all as a believer in Christ, I have learned that self-anything is not a good idea, ever.

So I looked up other translations from NIV to King James and this is what I found:

Power is often replaced by strength and self-control becomes self-discipline, sound mind, sound judgement.

Only love is love, it never changes, no other words are ever used. At least love everyone can agree on, no wiggle-room there.

Strength I like better than power. Strength is neutral without any negative connotation. I like a "strong Christian," I am weary of a "powerful Christian"... there is a huge difference for me.

All the self-focus, all the intellect-focus of control, discipline, sound mind, sound judgement still bothers me. It just doesn't fit with the heart-focus Christ teaches. Where is the humility? Where is the surrender when I strive for self-control and a sound mind?

Martin Luther translated 2 Timothy 1:7 with Kraft (strength), Liebe (love) and Besonnenheit (the English language has no direct translation, the dictionary describes it as calm, quiet, deliberate, level-headed).

The core of the word Besonnenheit is the word Sinn - and Sinn translates to sense. Sense as in five senses not as in intellect and smarts. Besonnenheit focuses inward, it indicates calm, stillness, serenity, control instead of knee-jerk reaction (I guess that is where the translation of self-control comes from). Besonnenheit is felt and thought, it reflects the heart and the mind. Its verb sich besinnen means to remember or to recall. God promises me a spirit that remembers who He is and what He has done for me regardless of my circumstances, a spirit that will not let my focus shift or allow my being to reflect anything but Christ.

No wonder Luther's translation lifted my heart. Besonnenheit is exactly what I need. It is my ticket to spiritual sanity because it is so hard for me to be in the world and not react. I don't want self-control, I want God-control over my emotions, actions and speech. And that God-control I access by being calm, being still, being intentional, by remembering and believing... by focusing inward which leads to focusing upward. That is where I find the strength and love this verse promises.

Besonnenheit is a character trait. You would describe a person as calm, kind, even-tempered and besonnen. It is not a form of meditation that one engages in during the quiet hours of the morning. Which goes back to my thoughts on "be still and know that I am God". That also is a character trait, a state of being not an activity of inactivity. Being still, knowing who God is and trusting Him, being besonnen - that is what I am, it is not what I am to do every so often.

I am not there yet. Not even close. Only yesterday I described myself as "spiritually bi-polar". I am all over the place from frustration to outrage to resignation to acceptance to faith and back to frustration. It is exhausting. But God promises me the spirit of Kraft, Liebe und Besonnenheit.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer displayed all three even in the most dire circumstances. So did Paul.

With God's help, so will I.


Sunday, June 3, 2018

All Things

I am quoting from C.S. Lewis' writings on dying and grief. He is writing to a colleague grieving the death of his wife, and he is writing as the husband of a dying woman. Personal pain makes compassion for others easier.

"TO SIR HENRY WILLINK, whose wife had just died: On bereavement and grieving.

3 December 1959

Dear Master,

People talk as if grief were just a feeling—as if it weren’t the continually renewed shock of setting out again and again on familiar roads and being brought up short by the grim frontier post that now blocks them. I, to be sure, believe there is something beyond it: but the moment one tries to use that as a consolation (that is not its function) the belief crumbles. It is quite useless knocking at the door of Heaven for earthly comfort: it’s not the sort of comfort they supply there." (Emphasis added)

In other words: do not shy away from speaking about grief to somebody in pain, feel with and for them, but do not offer your belief in eternity as comfort. It simply is not working, even for a person of faith. Earthly comfort is needed here and now. Earthly comfort is tangible, it is real, it is showing up and doing the work even if doing the work means nothing other than holding a person and wiping away their tears. Heavenly comfort comes later. Heavenly comfort is God's business.

I come up against the frontier road blocks of death that Lewis talks about almost daily. So much so lately that I am about to give up. My heart is broken and along with it my spirit, my courage and my devotion.

Paul says, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13)
I read it, people quote it, and all I can say is "well then clearly I ain't Paul!" And if you detect a hint of attitude, go right ahead. I can't do all things because I don't feel Him strengthening me. And while I fully understand that that is not Christ's fault but my own, that simply is not helping. When I am drowning, the realization that I cannot swim is accurate but not helpful in the least bit!

Discouragement, disillusionment, frustration, heartache, even failure can all be part of obedience and admitting that does not diminish my faith, neither does the realization that I cannot do all things, even with Christ strengthening me. And I think that very realization is why Christians are so quick to hand out God's comfort. Earthly comfort is so much harder to give.

It is the earthly comfort that is draining me of my strength. When quoting Scripture about God's love and promise of eternity is not an option for comfort (and according to C.S. Lewis, it never is), earthly comfort is all that is left. And I believe that that is exactly how God wants it. He put me in this world for a reason. It is not all about heaven, God's kingdom on earth is what I am supposed to be building here and now, blistery and bloody hands are part of the deal. Death is part of the deal.

I had big plans for this summer. I was going to push my faith and my service to the next level. Yet here we are, the beginning of June, and I have hit a wall in every sense of the word.

Intellectually I have thrown in the towel and I am back to quoting Socrates: "All I know is that I don't know anything." Enough with theological scholars, enough with high-brow discussions and studies of  questions I simply cannot answer. All I am walking away with is that even the seemingly easy parts of Scripture are not that easy and "because the Bible says so" is a phrase I have learned to distrust.

Emotionally I am barely limping along helping a patient who five years of hospice work did nothing to prepare me for.

Spiritually I am drifting away from God, my prayers are down to "help me!", I cannot reign in my thoughts for more than a minute and my Bible is collecting dust in a corner somewhere.

Physically I am a mess, eating mountains of noodles with cream sauce (my German coping mechanism), gaining weight at an alarming rate.

But do you want to hear the craziest thing of all? I am ok with all of it (except maybe the weight gain, those extra pounds will have to go and fast). I am ok with feeling a failure and a fraud because deep down I know that in God's eyes I am neither. I am human. And stumbling is a sure-tell sign that I am pushing myself enough. Not stumbling usually means that I am not. In my case, not stumbling is a sign of laziness not brilliance.

So no, I cannot do all things through Christ. I have limits and I have reached them all. But that healthy dose of humility will make me grow more than countless hours of Bible study and theological research. And "help me!" is God's favorite prayer.









Sunday, May 20, 2018

Conversion by Default, not by Design

We just finished our study of the Book of Acts and I am yet again amazed how a group of Christians can study the Bible and walk away with completely different interpretations. And let me just say that this is not because Scripture means one thing to me and another thing to you, or Scripture meant one thing to me last year but something different this year. This is the common and so, so wrong take on Scripture being the "living Word of God". Living does not mean changing, evolving, or catering to personal tastes. Living means life-giving, supernatural, eternally and unchangeably true and relevant.

So if we walk away with different takes on Scripture, it is not because Scripture is fluid and flexible, it is because we bring out own notions, understanding, interpretations, likes and dislikes to the table. And my guess is, we get it most of it wrong one way or another.

When it came to sharing our thoughts on the Book of Acts, a large majority of stories told where along the lines of "I have learned to be like Paul and share my faith. So I have talked to this person or that, I have told them about the love of Christ and I have shared my testimony."

I have not looked at the teaching of Luke in the Book of Acts in that light. To me, Acts is about Christ, through the Holy Spirit, building His church. Paul's method of converting non-believers or believers of a different faith was straightforward, always the same, and mentioned in no more than one line each time he entered a town: he preached. And then, with a handful of believers, he built a church. The book of Acts and all of Paul's writings for the rest of his life were not about how to convert people to Christianity but how to build, teach, correct, encourage and protect Christ's church. His only prayer was for the church to grow. Paul is all about conversion by default, not by design - and that is a subtle but crucial difference!

I don't see potential converts in people around me, I try to see people who deserve to be loved the way Christ loves me... through His church.  And so the lesson of Acts the way I see it is not a call to witness my heart out, it is a call to support my bible-teaching church and help my church plant more bible-teaching churches. Again, that is not at all the same thing!

Not to beat a dead horse, but do you see the difference?

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing my faith, as long as I have the church backing me up. When I share my faith with a cap driver on my way to the airport, what is the last thing I say to him before running to catch my flight? "Go find a church!" And then I pray that he finds a solid, bible-teaching, truly Christ-centered church.

My church and I are called to convert by default. If I individually or as a part of my church am not pointing towards Christ, then I have no voice, no words, no truth. The Book of Acts makes that abundantly clear. Acts is the story of how the church grew because people were drawn to it, it is the story of the Holy Spirit transforming lives. It is not a call to convert others by convincing them, it is a call to appeal to them simply by being... by being Christ's love.

One incredible side-effect of this shift, again by default not by design: it takes care of the often (and often rightly) criticized arrogance of us Christians. I don't believe Jesus meant to make us so obnoxiously "right" when He said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (Johne 14:6) Let's not forget that He also said, "... just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34) "One another" in this context means believers within the church, His disciples. Love first, new believers as a natural, unavoidable, God-given consequence. Conversion by default not by design.

If my horse wasn't dead before, it is now. But tell me, do you see the difference?

Not until this study of Acts have I appreciated the importance of a truly bible-focused church, my  church down the street. I prefer serving God on my own - which I why I spend 20 hours a week working for hospice and not 5 minutes working for my church. That needs to change. The Book of Acts says so... the way I see it.




Monday, May 7, 2018

Noise

My English is not bad. I still have a trace of an accent and I am missing a word or two, but overall my English is not bad. My German is still better and I don't think that will ever change. German is my first language, my mother tongue. It is part of me the way English never will be. For me to understand and converse in English effortlessly, conditions have to be just right. I can't be too tired, I can't be distracted, I can't be upset or excited, and I have to be able to focus with all my senses. Noise gets in the way because I can't hear, telephone conversations are hard because I can't see the person speaking. Telephone conversations with noise in the background are nearly impossible.

Noise is part of life, especially in modern times. We have to consciously carve out times of silence for ourselves and I could write ten blogposts on the importance of God's command to be still and focus on Him alone.

But this blogpost is not about life, it is about dying. Because the noise gets louder and more distracting the closer to death we get. It engulfs everybody, the dying and the living around them. Fear is noise. Anger is noise. Frustration, pain, regret, disaccord, misunderstandings are all noise. Stubbornness and arrogance are noise. So are mental confusion and exhaustion.

In the world of hospice care, I have learned that as death cranks up the volume, my words are no longer heard. Especially if faith in Christ is not common ground to stand on. The believer has a distinct advantage here; the noise may get louder but his heart is in tune with something more powerful. The word of God is already in him, noise can't get in the way. That is why a prayer whispered in the ear is heard loud and clear by a believer, and it does bring peace and quiet. That same prayer has no effect on a non-believer because, in simple terms, he cannot hear it. Something else has to take the place of words. And that something, in my experience, can only be physical touch. I have been told many a time to be quiet by a patient, I have not once been told to let go of his hand. There comes a time where sharing my faith becomes silent. Actions speak louder than words, they say. I find that not only to be true, in hospice care it is essential. Cutting through the noise takes creativity and endless patience, it takes persistence and love, so much love. Because when God's words remain unheard, only His love can take their place.

Of course one does not have to be dying for noise to interfere. There are plenty of people who are alive and kicking and they still can't hear. Just look at the list of what turns up the volume: arrogance, stubbornness, frustration, anger, disaccord, misunderstandings... none of these are reserved for the dying. In fact, the living can be even harder to reach. And so the same rule applies: when God's words will not be heard, only His love can take their place.

Just to complete the picture, noise can be every bit as disruptive to a believer in his prime. Even a Christ-loving heart in the fulness of life can get distracted and confused if the noise gets too much. Arrogance, frustration, misunderstandings can creep in spiritually, so to speak, and my quest to know God better can open the doors to too many sources and too many theologies. For me, loving Christ is exactly the same as speaking English: I need to focus on Him alone and I need to shut out the many voices around me. And if that doesn't work, my same old rule applies: when God's words cannot be grasped, only His love can take their place.

What it comes down to is this: as human beings we'd like to have all the answers and we'd like to be in control. And we'd like our understanding of God the Almighty to be simple, complete, and straightforward. But the fact is, it is all a mess. Living is a mess, dying is a mess, our understanding of God is a mess. Too much noise all around.

When I am trying to reach somebody who simply will not or cannot hear, I strive to be Christ's love to them. And when the noise is getting too loud for me to hear,  I strive to feel His love for me.


Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Look

It is Thursday of Easter week. The day the unfathomable started to unfold. The day that set events into motion that have changed the world.

I am trying to picture the events of Easter in my mind. I am trying to figure out who I would have been in this story. Judas, who sold out his Lord? Or John, who kept falling asleep when he should have been praying? Or one of the mob, so easily manipulated and misled? And then there is Peter, who denied Jesus three times despite his emotional declaration that he never, ever would. Or Mary, whose heart could hardly bear the pain?

There is one particular side-note in Luke's account that touches me every year: Peter follows Jesus as the soldiers lead Him away after His arrest. On the way he is recognized as a follower of Christ and denies it three times. "And then the Lord turned around and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how He has said to him, 'Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.' And he went out and wept bitterly." (Luke 22: 61, 62)

I can't even imagine what that look must have felt like. It clearly wasn't a look of "don't worry about it, I knew this was coming, it's all good" - Peter wouldn't have wept bitterly if Christ's look had been one of love and understanding. Disappointment and hurt are more likely what Jesus' look revealed. And why is it so hard for me to accept that I can disappoint and hurt Christ? I am far too quick to claim forgiveness but not quite so keen to feel the remorse and shame that comes before.

The fact that I will always sin, and the fact that Jesus knows it, does not diminish the constraint it puts on my relationship with Him. How many times today has Christ already turned around to give me the look of "oh for crying out loud, not again!" It is that look I am trying to avoid. It is the meaning of "sin no more".

Easter is the time to shake off the dust and revive my faith. It is the time to actually feel the weight of Christ's death and accept the fact that it is in part my sin that made it necessary. Easter is an emotional roller coaster. Let's not skip to the happy end when all is well. Before the hope and relief of His resurrection come the horror and heartache of His death. One step at a time.

Today and tomorrow I will remind myself of the price He paid for me. Maybe then, come Sunday, my heart will be in the right place to appropriately love and thank Him. And for the rest of the year, I will strive to give Him reason to smile when He looks at me. Not because I am perfect but because I am heartbroken that I cannot be. "A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17). A contrite heart made Peter walk away and weep bitterly. A forgiven heart made him declare his love for Christ after the resurrection (John 21:15-19). And his willing heart, a heart right with God, was finally ready to obey Christ's command "Feed my sheep".

And that, in a nutshell, is Easter: remorse, forgiveness, a changed life. In that order and as a package deal. One step at a time, over and over again.






Saturday, March 24, 2018

Who Are You, Lord?

I have a question for you.  And don't answer too quickly, I know all the shooting-from-the-hip responses. Think long and hard about this, it goes to the heart of faith.

If all I know is that Jesus is the one true God who loves me, and if I love Him and others around me the way He tells me to, am I still a Christian?

If I never set foot in a church and if I don't own a Bible but I feel Christ in and around me, am I  still a Christian?

If I don't speak the Christian lingo but in my heart I understand Christ's message without words such as salvation, sanctification, justification or second coming (the list is endless, we Christians have literally created a language for ourselves, like a code for insiders only), am I still a Christian?


Making these questions more personal, this is what I have been asking myself:

Am I making myself so frantically busy for Christ simply because I cannot or will not worship Christ with a still and surrendered heart and mind?

Is Bible study worship? Is hospice work worship? Is church ministry worship? I wonder. Intellectual study and scholarly debate are so much easier than giving up self for faith. And running from one patient or one meeting to the next is so much easier than not moving, not planning, not thinking at all.

Surrender, speechless love, that is where worship starts. What if all my holy busywork is nothing but a cover-up for my refusal to truly know God?


When Christ blinded Saul on his way to Damascus, Saul asked two questions (Acts 22:6-11):

1. Who are you, Lord?
2. What shall I do, Lord?

Note the order. "Who are you" comes before "what shall I do". And also note that once you truly and fully understand who Christ is, you will never be the same again. Saul, merciless and fierce persecutor of Christians became Paul, author of a large part of the New Testament and the most important church planter in all of Christianity.

So let me re-phrase my question: Is it possible to know Christ without a Bible or a church, without instruction or fellowship?

The answer, to me, is 'yes'. In fact, it is not only possible, it is crucial to find Christ this way.

Unless I know the Lord, unless I accept who He is, everything I do and say becomes busywork and noise. It becomes a screen to hide behind because, let's be honest, standing before Christ "as is" can be scary and humiliating. Hiding from God has become human nature with Adam and Eve. But Christ is telling me to hide behind Him instead. "Know Me! I am the one God who loves you enough to die for you! Just know Me, love Me, believe in Me, follow Me... call it what you want, just stay close and focus on Me! Let Me make you whole."

The Old Testament tell us that God is a jealous God. He will not accept my partial worship, He wants all of me. As it turns out, I am a jealous Christian. I will not dilute my worship... I want all of Christ and Christ alone. Even Scripture, the church and all my good intentions can be a distraction if I am not careful.

Ten years of recording and sharing my thoughts on faith and I am just now beginning to understand. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't closer to the Truth back when I first found Christ, when my faith was all heart, when all I knew was "I once was blind but now I see" (John 9).










Friday, March 9, 2018

Peace of the Soul

We call it 'peace of mind' in English. In German we call it 'Seelenfrieden' - peace of the soul.

Oddly enough, for me this peace of the soul comes from a restless heart. The minute I stand still, the peace of my soul dissipates. You would think it was the opposite, but not for me. My faith pushes me to action, that is just the way it is. But I  have learned over the past few months that love for Christ and action in faith need to be carefully balanced. Focus can get out of whack quickly even if the motivation is right.

There is a huge, fundamental, life and faith changing difference between living faith with Christ, and living faith for Christ or because of Christ (as discussed in the book With by Skye Jethani).

It is a question of my focus - on God, not self. It is a question of my motivation - on love, not obligation or fear. And, above all, it is a question of Christ's focus and motivation - on relationship, not religion.

When Christ tells me to go and sin no more, He isn't telling me to try harder. He is telling me to come closer. When He tells me to obey, He isn't telling me to work more. He is telling me to come closer.
And when He tells me to love and worship Him, He isn't telling me to pray longer or sing louder. He is telling me to come closer.

That's what Paul means when he tells us to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Without ceasing only works if you are talking about a state of being. There is no activity under the sun that I can do without ceasing. But I can be without ceasing. I can be with Christ until the end of time. 

The same is true for the "peace of God that surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7). This is not an event or a mental exercise. It, too, is a state of being.

To truly be with God does not need words or deeds. It is being, not doing, not feeling, not expressing, just being. All activity and reason come later - much, much later.

This is a huge turn-around for me, as you can imagine. It does not mean that I stop doing the work. But it does mean that I approach it differently. I need to go with Christ, not in His name, not for His glory, not in obedience. All of that will follow if and when I go with Him. If I go without Him, my action becomes self-centered halo-polishing not convincing anybody, least of all God.

One final thought: my excitement of a life with Christ is not meant to convey the image of an equal partnership. Christ is with me as my Lord, nothing less. The minute I lose sight of His sovereignty, I start pulling away and I head straight back into the self-centered halo-polishing. In other words, this takes work. Being with Christ means submitting to Him and that does not come naturally, but it can be learned. Better yet, it can be cherished.















Featured Post

I Wish I Had

"I wish I had" are the saddest words in any language. They speak of regret and they speak of finality. Done and over with, nothin...