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When a book titled Life Together landed on my desk years ago, I was skeptical. The subtitle promised "a discussion of Christian fellowship."
Wary of Christian culture and often preferring to remain on the fringes of group life, I saw fellowship as a means of shutting oneself off in stagnant, self-affirming circles. I was weary of feel-good religion; I was also bothered by the charade of unity carried on in pluralistic crowds. But the book was given to me, and the giver was insistent that its author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a man I had to meet.
Life Together was written in the thick of a mounting Nazi regime, during Bonhoeffer's unique experience with 25 vicars in an underground seminary.
It took me only a few pages to realize that he was speaking with weighted words on a topic I had unfairly deemed "fluffy" and suspicious. Almost immediately I was convicted of the skepticism that kept me on the outskirts of Christian community, clutching an impaired image of the Christianity I professed. "Christianity," Bonhoeffer announced in the first few pages, "means community through Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ."
In the community of believers we are encouraged and admonished, uplifted and stretched (some of the reasons I suspect many of us try to avoid it).
As the priests called out to the crowds in the book of Nehemiah, we are called to attention, called to remember together the one who unites us: "Stand up and praise the LORD your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting" (9:5). In community we are repeatedly shown that Christ has called us to die to ourselves and live in him.
Bonhoeffer reminds the cynical not to overlook the opportunity of Christian fellowship. "It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone." Being in the presence of other believers is indeed a hopeful gift. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus repeatedly cried out to his disciples that they stay awake and keep watch with him. While in prison, the apostle Paul called for Timothy, his "true child in the faith", to come visit.
Our fellowship is important not in and of itself, but in and of the God we profess. We don't want to avoid being a part of a believing community, but neither do we want to make it an end instead of a means. Christ's call to the disciples was a call to community even as it was a call to a common vision to reach the world with the reality of God's love. Before going to the Cross, he asked the Father, "that they may be one even as we are one… so that the world may know that you sent me." Surrounded by an unbelieving world, our collective praise is a compelling testimony of his presence to a world He longs to reach.
Notably, even as Bonhoeffer recognized the privilege of living with fellow Christians, he chose to live in the midst of enemies also. Given the opportunity to move outside of Nazi Germany, he declined.
As God's people we remain scattered throughout the nations, but held together in Jesus Christ. Even as God places people around us that we can learn from and grow with, the reach of a believing community goes beyond physical presence. Hearing a song written by Fernando Ortega recently, "Take heart, my friend, the Lord is able," I was stirred by the words God knew I needed to hear, and moved to praise Him. We are united in Christ, members of a community beyond our imagination because of the one to whom we collectively bow. We can be encouraged by the believer beside us or the person we don't know, and heartened at the thought of the one who knows us both. A thousand voices tuned to the same instrument are automatically in tune with each other. Take heart, He is among us as we sing.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name," said Christ, "there am I among them" (Matthew 18:20). Jill Carattini
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He made known to us the mystery of His will according to His good pleasure, which He purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment - to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. --Ephesians 1:9-10
Where is the peace and joy, where is the demolition of my wrong desires, where is the increase of wealth and security, where is the fulfilled promises of Christianity?"
I must admit that this has been a too often heard question not easily answered. Talking with my colleague, Stuart McAllister, he told me this is probably the most common question he hears today across Europe. Disillusionment is a growing theme in our churches. In fact, disillusionment has led many to leave the church. It was G.K. Chesterton who said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried." (1) However, many come to Christianity, thinking they have found the ideal treasures that it offers, and have walked away.
May I suggest that the question is improperly phrased. This isn't so much a problem with Christianity, but often a problem of a misconception of what Christ promises. This often comes at the fault of the listener. But often, too, the messenger is not guiltless.
Michael Shermer is an example of one who has tasted and walked away. He is publisher of Skeptic Magazine and was recently seen on the PBS special "The Question of God." The day after the broadcast, he participated in an online discussion where he was asked of his "faith background." He answered, "I became an evangelical born-again Christian in 1971 and became an agnostic in 1977. I attended Pepperdine University to major in theology, but switched to psychology and there discovered science. By the time I graduated from a graduate program in experimental psychology I had abandoned religion." (2)
Personally, I believe Dr. Shermer has a misunderstanding of the philosophy of science which skews his view. But regardless of his view, Dr. Shermer still came to Christianity and found it undesirable after a short six years.
Why is this the case? I do not know Dr. Shermer's personal life, but I have heard testimonies of many who have taken a similar pathway. It is usually marked with pain that may wear many faces: pain suffered by personal tragedy, felt through the death of a loved one, experienced through the abuses of others, or held in the angst of unanswered intellectual questions. Whatever faces pain may wear, the justification for leaving Christ's pathway is taken.
As believers, we want to be sure that we have the message of Christ clearly understood. He was no alien to pain, nor did he promise that his followers would be free from it. He knew that freedom was found in him—and him alone—but only after one follows him shouldering a cross. He knew that moral character was available to all, but only applied to those who allow the heart to be probed by the Holy Spirit. He knew that suffering was inevitable, but that those who possess his life will live beyond the grave—and will be given strength and grace in this life to overcome.
I can imagine Paul having a conversation with a skeptic who had left the church.
Paul: Why are you leaving?
Skeptic: Because the promises I heard were not delivered to me.
Paul: What promises are those?
Skeptic: That I would have peace and comfort. But I don't. I lost my father, I'm sorting through financial ruin, and I'm struggling with the same sin I had before I came to Christ.
Paul: It sounds like you are in the right place to grow.
Skeptic: What do you mean?
Paul: Losing a father is never easy. Nor is losing a whole family, which is what I faced in following Christ. Christ never said it would be easy, but he did say he would be with us all the way. As to your financial ruin, I can relate. I traveled many places, practically penniless, and had to learn the hard lesson of contentment. Believe me, I know it's a hard lesson. It isn't learned overnight, but Christ promises to provide our essentials until our earthly timetable is up. Stick to your obedience and walk in wisdom. But the sin issue takes even harder work. Your will and mine need constant upkeep and discipline. The Holy Spirit will help us, but we must cooperate. Take the sins in your life, one at a time, and figure out a strategy to begin changing your beliefs and shaping your desires in those areas. It works in time, but we mustn't make excuses.
Skeptic: And what if it doesn't work?
Paul: I've seen it work. And, besides, what do you have to lose? Your father cannot return, your financial troubles will still with you, and in your character struggles, you will be powerless without Christ. It sounds better to me to suffer with one who has suffered for us, than to suffer alone. Besides, he does much more than merely meet us in suffering. But you must journey a little longer to walk into those answers.
You see, the problem with Christianity is not a problem at all. We, as messengers, must be responsible not to project upon Christ a mindless faith filled with promises of certain success, physical well-being, or perpetual happy feelings that he never intended. That kind of message often makes immediate converts, but it also makes inevitable casualties. Christianity isn't a club to join, but a life to walk in. Real life. His life. And as we are promised through the apostle Paul, "Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Romans 8:34b-35, 37). Dale Fincher
(1) G.K. Chesterton, "What's Wrong with the World?", (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1910. Reprinted, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 37.
(2) "PBS: The Question of God" discussion transcript, September 16, 2004.
English author Samuel Johnson once wrote, "There lurks, perhaps, in every human heart, a desire of distinction, which inclines every man to hope, and then to believe, that nature has given himself something peculiar to himself."
I was startled by the clairvoyance of the editorialist who connected these sentiments with America's escalating fascination with book writing. His comments put flesh on the motive often hidden behind the guise of individuality. "The search for personal significance," he writes, "was once nicely taken care of by the drama that religion supplied. This drama, which lived in every human breast, no matter what one's social class, was that of salvation: would one achieve heaven or not? Now that it is gone from so many lives, in place of salvation we have the search for significance, a much trickier business."(1)
Though he does not necessarily articulate a sense of loss in regards to the replacement of one pursuit for the other, his thought process is helpful. As Christianity has been eclipsed in the West as a provider of significance, humankind is left searching for other sources. From the increased interest in book writing, to spirituality, to extreme sports, it is a quest clearly observed. Nonetheless, the quest to find significance apart from God is hardly a modern phenomenon. The desire to make a name for oneself is as old as the hills upon which we have built our grand towers and conquered great cities. The drive to define significance on our own is as ancient as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. The aspiration is nothing new; book writing is just one more outlet.
But what is interesting, in terms of understanding human history and behavior, is that we should have this longing for significance in the first place. If we are merely products of an indifferent materialist universe, why are we not at home with our own insignificance? Why should we seek transcendent meaning at all? Unless, indeed, there is something about us that is not temporal, nor insignificant.
As Christians looking for windows of opportunity to offer an answer for the hope that is within us, we do well to remember that the cry of the heart for personal significance is a cry we have owned and responded to ourselves. When we answered the call of the Lord to "come and follow," we found in the person of Christ an answer to the cry we were incapable of answering personally. Recognizing this cry as inherent in the neighbor next door and the atheist in the next office is imperative in understanding the need for a clear and coherent apologetic. Hearts are crying out for the very message we long to offer.
The desire for significance is expressed in many ways. But such expressions provide an opportunity to listen to the true searching behind the searcher and in so doing attempt to remove the obstacles that block him or her from seeing the Cross of Christ. The cry of significance also provides a window by which the truth claims of Christianity can be clarified.
When Jesus proclaimed, "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" he was stating something essential for the one searching for significance. Knowing who we are and what we need is the starting point of what we will become. The quest for personal significance commonly among us today reverses this, telling us that we must first become something in order to meet our own needs and make a name for ourselves.
The song of the Christian apologist, 1 Peter 3:15-16, instructs us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. Peter adds to this command, "But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander." When we meet the heart of our neighbors and the human desire for significance with gentleness and respect, many will admit their vulnerability. Is my search for significance really panning out? Will writing a book or climbing the corporate ladder really hush the cry within me? Our task as heralds of the hope of Christ is to gently proclaim the radical message of laying down our life in order to find it.
Christ is the one in whom our lives find their greatest significance because he is the only one who accepts who we are and offers us what we need. Attempts to define life's meaning apart from God will always be empty, for significance, like life, is not manmade.
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