The Moral Power of the Resurrection

By the end of the Second World War, Germany was in chaos. For a time, the parents and family of Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not know whether he had lived or died. There were conflicting reports. Eventually, however, it became known that he had been killed. So tragic was his death, and so many were his friends, that on July 27, 1945,  three months after the end of the War in Europe, a memorial service was held in London. His friend and leader in the British church, Bishop Bell, preached at the service. Here is just a piece of what he said:

He was quite clear about his convictions, and for all that he was so young and unassuming, he saw the truth and spoke it out with absolute freedom and without fear. When he came to me all unexpectedly in 1943 at Stockholm as the emissary of the Resistance to Hitler, he was, as always, absolutely open and quite untroubled about his own person, his own safety. Wherever he went and whoever he spoke with—whether young our old—he was fearless, regardless of himself, and with all, devoted his heart and soul to his parents, his friends, his country as God called it to be, to his church and to his master.

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Bell ended his sermon with the words, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer was about to be executed, the prison doctor happened to see him. Years later, he penned this description:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Bonhoeffer fearless hope extended to the gallows and the grave. Bonhoeffer had a resurrection faith, faith that whatever might happen in this world, God is in control and can be trusted to vindicate his people in this world or the next.

When the disciples experienced the resurrection, they were changed. Before Jesus died and was resurrected, the disciples often misunderstood his message and mission. After the crucifixion, they fled and went into hiding. Then, the women returned with the news of the empty tomb, and Jesus appeared to Peter, then John, then to those on the road to Emmaus, then to the Twelve as a group over a period of forty days, and finally to as many as 500 followers (See, I Corinthians 15:3-8). After this experience, the disciples were filled with courage and with hope for the future.

Scholars compare this behavior to that of other followers of charismatic leaders once they die or removed from leadership. Ordinarily, people fairly quickly return to their prior pattern of life. In many cases, the process is almost immediate. The members of the Sanhedrin thought that Jesus death would result in a scattering they had experienced before where there were Messianic claims. Our soldiers and others in Germany after World War II experience the rapidity with which Hitler and the Nazi’s had very few followers. The same dramatic decline in support was experienced after the death of Stalin. In the case of Jesus, his influence over his disciples seemed to grow, not diminish, not just immediately but for the rest of their lives, and even during periods of heavy persecution.

The resurrection makes a difference. The resurrection is both a symbol and an assurance of hope. It means that this life is not all there is. It means that our defeats and discouragements are not the end. It means that we can know that God is for us, even if the world and circumstances seem against us. It means we can have courage and hope. We can stand up for what we believe to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves, take up a cross and follow me” (Mark 8: 34, author’s paraphrase).

“When God calls a man, he bids him come and die”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship). (In what follows have been primarily guided by Eric Metaxes, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 504-534).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R0211-316,_Dietrich_Bonhoeffer_mit_SchülernThis past Wednesday was the sixty-ninth anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Easter Sunday 1945 came on April 1st. By April 1945, World War II was nearing its end. East of Berlin, the Russian Army was beginning its final thrust. To the West, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River and were barreling towards the Elbe River, which was their final strategic objective. At Buchenwald Prison, the thunder of American artillery could be heard in the distance. The war could not last much longer. If only the prisoners could hold out a little longer, they would live. Some time that day, it was announced that certain prisoners, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be leaving. Two days later, sixteen people left in a wood-fed van. Smoke filled the back of the van, nearly suffocating those on the journey. In Berlin, the diaries of Admiral Carnaris were discovered on April 4th. The diaries contained information implicating Bonhoeffer in the conspiracy of high-ranking German intelligence personnel to kill Hitler and make peace. Hitler was incensed, and set in motion the events that resulted in Bonhoeffer’s death.

On April 8th, the Sunday after Easter, Bonhoeffer led the little band of prisoners in a worship service from the Isaiah 53, As Bonhoeffer finished the service a Gestapo officer entered with the words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” These words always meant an execution. He said goodbye to his fellow travelers with a final word, “This is the end. For me, the beginning.” He was executed the next day at Flossenburg Prison. He was thirty-nine years old at the time of his death.

Years earlier, Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, he coined the phrase, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” In April 1945 that phrase came true for the young man who had returned to Germany years earlier to share the suffering of the German people and work for the overthrow of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler.

Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testimony to the unfortunate truth that the blood of martyrs nurtures the church’s life. At the time he died Bonhoeffer was a promising young theologian with a brilliant future ahead of him. World War II interrupted that brilliant future. His friends knew that he was more than a brilliant theologian. They saw a man of exceptional faith and character who had returned to Germany to share in the suffering of the German people, despite the fact that he had been taken from Germany because he was in danger as a perceived enemy of the Nazi Party. Had Bonhoeffer not returned to Germany, fought the Nazi’s party, been imprisoned, and died, he would today be remembered as a brilliant, little read, German theologian. His courage and willingness to suffer made him a martyr to the Christian faith and a person of international, intergenerational influence among Christians and others.

In The Cost of Discipleship when Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die,” he means that the cross is the place where we die to ourselves, our agendas, our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our needs, our wants, in order that the world in which we live and work may be given new life. We die to ourselves when we begin to live for others. We are crucified when we begin to sacrifice our own plans, programs, ideas, needs, etc. for the plans, programs, ideas, and needs of others.

When Bonhoeffer speaks of cross bearing, he makes an important point: God never forces us to carry a cross. Cross carrying is different from the consequences we suffer for mistakes or because of the evil others do to us. These things are not cross bearing. They are the results of the fact that we live in a fallen world. Cross bearing comes when we voluntarily put to death our personal desires and agendas in order to do the will of God. Here is how Bonhoeffer describes this moment of decision: “When the disciples are half-way along the road of discipleship, they come to another cross-roads. Once more they are left free to choose for themselves. Nothing is expected of them, nothing forced upon them. So crucial is the demand of the present hour that the disciples must be left free to make their own choice…..” (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice whether he would return to Germany where he was already seen as an enemy of the Nazi government. He had a choice as to whether he would continue to speak out against Hitler. He had a choice whether he would work for German intelligence carrying messages to the West from the German resistance. Each of those choices entailed an increasing risk of the death he eventually suffered. He chose to bear the Cross of Christ in Nazi Germany. God did not force him to do it. Nor will he force us.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Importance of Parents

“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you” (Proverbs 3:1-2, NRSV).

In the movie, “Star Wars,”  Obi Wan Kenobi, tells Luke to “trust his feelings” as he attacks a death star. Most young people didn’t question this at all. Those who, for example, flew bombers in World War II or jets during Viet Nam have no memory of trainers telling them to trust their feelings. What you were supposed to do is learn to use the targeting mechanism and do it well according to instructions. In fact, one of the most important things that pilots learn is to trust their instruments not their feelings.

Unfortunately, this line from Star Wars exemplifies a huge problem in our culture – the idea that major lifetime decisions are to be made on the basis of feelings not reason. This flies in the face of all human experience throughout most of human history, where wise people have urged humans not to follow their feelings but to develop good judgment and become wise.

Throughout most of human history people did not think that children naturally became competent adults or ladies and gentlemen without discipline, knowledge and training. In the Judeo Christian tradition, from ancient times, it was taken for granted that children would not naturally develop life skills, they would not naturally learn wisdom, and they had to be trained. To become an adult, and especially a virtuous adult, required training in the skill of the virtuous life. Today, too many people believe that children can naturally just by following their instincts, become competent to meet the challenges of life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Just this week, as a pastor, I confronted the tragedy of children growing up without a father and a mother to help them learn what it means to be an adult. Such young people are often angry and at a loss concerning what to do in difficult situations. In contemporary America, some of them end up poor, homeless, alone, struggling to achieve the happiness and fulfillment every human being desires without the help every human being needs.

Obi Wan did not give Luke the best advice. A better piece of advice would be, “Don’t trust your feelings until you have learned to discipline your feelings with experience, logic, and the advice of others who have gone before you. After a long apprenticeship in the school of life, you will be able to trust your feelings because your feelings will have been trained to instinctively lead you wisely.” Sometimes, good advice is a bit more complex than a catchy phrase.

Copyright, 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Why Am I Writing This Blog?

There is a proverb that goes: “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” or as I memorized it a lot of years ago, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov 14:12, NIV & KJV). The proverb is a warning that we can only trust our human judgment so far. Human judgements, especially where human pride, desire, or brokenness are at work, are often poor. We need to maintain a healthy humility and skepticism concerning radical ideas, thoughts, and proposals. We need only look at some of the tragic failures of 20th Century political regimes to know that this is true. To a lot of people the rantings of Hitler and the strong-arm tactics of Stalin seemed entirely reasonable. It took a few million deaths before everyone could see the truth.

imagesOur culture is based upon an unreasonable trust in human reason. The leaders of the so-called Enlightenment distrusted tradition, religion, faith, and institutions like the Church. Coming from the Middle Ages, this may not have been an entirely bad idea. Unfortunately, human pride being what it is, it was not long before the Age of Reason became the Age of Arrogance. Today, we are in the Age of Arrogance Taken to Extreme Foolishness.

Kant’s dicta, “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!” was the motto of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately it  is now often used by those who seek an unreasoning rebellion against the wisdom of the past, against legitimate authority, against the entire experience of the human race, and even against reason itself. People everywhere conform to the latest intellectual and other fads on the notion that they are thinking for themselves, when in actuality they are simply following everyone else into the age of unreason.

We do not need to retreat to the Middle Ages, but we do need to recover a respect for tradition, for traditional wisdom, for faith, and for organs of society, like the Church, which preserve a tradition through centuries. It does not take more than a glance at the daily news or a bit of thought about much of what the media proclaims to see that this is the case.

This blog is dedicated to those who are journeying through life and desire to find the Path of Life along the way.  I hope that it is helpful.

Blessings to all,

Chris

Avoid a Meaningless Life

Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV).

Ecclesiastes begins as if David’s son, Solomon, was giving us his final conclusions after a long, successful life. What did he learn? He begins with the conclusion: “Everything is meaningless, nothing matters” (Eccl 12:8). As the book goes along, we learn a bit more about what is meant by the phrase “everything is meaningless”. In the end, everything this world can offer in the way of physical success is meaningless, because this world and all of our achievements in it are doomed to pass away. What matters is love. Human relationships are what matters.

Near the middle of the book, the writer tells us that all of our efforts and achievements are to satisfy our natural desires. Unfortunately, our desires are never satisfied (Ecc 6:8). Here we have the ultimate commentary on our culture. All our work, all our scheming, all our attempts to get rich, comfortable, or satisfied by pleasure—they all fail to bring the true happiness our hearts desire, because they are all doomed to pass away.

Not so long ago a friend retired from a job after years of success. She spoke to me about the many visitors who came by her office to talk and give best wishes for the future. She ended our talk by saying, “Everything they mentioned was small and personal. Not one of them was a business achievement. People remember you for the small, personal things.” Wisdom remembers to take time for ultimately important things.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

The Lesson of Solomon’s Life

These are the proverbs of Solomon, the Son of David, the King of Israel (Proverbs 1:1).

Three wisdom books, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, bear some mark of having been written by or inspired by Solomon. The Bible describes Solomon as the wisest person who ever lived. Certainly, he was the wisest of Israel’s kings. The reason Proverbs begins as it does is to alert the reader to the fact that this is no ordinary book. It is a book of wisdom inspired, written, or collected by the wisest human being who ever lived.

Solomon’s life is both and inspiration and a warning. Solomon was a patron of the wise men of Israel while alive and remembered as a supporter of wisdom literature after his death. His personal wisdom in ruling Israel and in judging disputes was legendary. Every school boy and girl knows the story of the two women who disputed over who was the real mother of a baby and of Solomon’s order to cut the baby in half so that he could see the reaction of the true mother (I Kings 3:16-28).

On the other hand, Solomon was unwise in his choice of wives, in his selfish desire to satisfy every craving of this heart, and in excessively taxing Israel. He was not a great father–or at least he raised a foolish son. Ultimately, he was unfaithful to God who gave him his wisdom, his wealth, and his power.

His life is, therefore, both an inspiration and a warning: wisdom is important, but it is not everything. The deepest wisdom is not a wisdom of the mind, but of the heart. Only when our heart is fully centered on God can we become wise. Respect for God is not just the beginning of wisdom. It is the condition of its development, continuation, and growth.

 

Copyright 2014, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Beginning the Journey on the Path of Life

“A deep respect and awe for God is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10, GCS).

In every discipline there is a kind of “first principle,” something we have to get right at the very beginning or everything else will go wrong. In golf, for example, if you don’t hold the clubs the right way, no matter how hard you try you will not ever get your swing absolutely right. In the case of wisdom, our attitude towards God comes first. If we don’t get that right, we will never be wise.

In most translations, Proverbs 1:6 and 9:10 begin, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” The Hebrew word translated fear has multiple connotations, and “fear” is its most natural translation. Unfortunately, most people in our society do not think of “fear” as a positive emotion. We especially don’t think fear should motivate our obedience to God.

In my translation I have used the term “deep respect and awe” to describe the attitude towards God that ends in wisdom. God is infinitely more powerful that we are. God is infinitely wiser than we are. God is infinitely more loving, kind, and caring than we are. Such wisdom should cause us to respect God, obey God, love God, and put God first in our thoughts and actions. It is at this point that we are ready to receive the wisdom of God.

This Blog is designed to explore wisdom and leadership–how it is we move from one state of being in the world to a better state. The posts will deal with some aspect of wise living and wise leading. I normally do not comment on current events unless they lead to a clearer understanding of the necessity for wisdom in life, in community, and in leadership.

Copyright 2014, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

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