[Why this post]
I’m not sure if it’s because I’m missing my seminary family since we’re all on break or it’s the un-summer-like weather we’re having in Seattle that is making me so contemplative. Or maybe it’s the recent move that has stirred in me the urge to purge and sort and organize more than just the stuff I’m unpacking in these boxes at home. Whatever it is, I’m finding myself reflecting on the past year I’ve spent at Seattle Pacific Seminary, now that I’ll be entering my second year and a new cohort of students will begin in August.
Back in March, I started reading Dwight Friesen’s Thy Kingdom Connected. In his preface, he tells a story about a pastor who after five years of ministry, decided to call it quits. All the idealism that she and her husband shared while in seminary was now squashed. Sweltered. As she looked through her binder of writing from seminary, she came across an essay on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and wondered what happened.
I of course wondered if this would be me in a few years. Granted, I’m still not sure what ministry will look like for me out of seminary, but I do wonder how long this euphoria will last. [I actually think it will last for quite some time]. How long before I [or others] get tired of the “all shall be well” motif.
These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about community and what is required of us as participants in a [Christian] community. It’s beautiful and it’s messy. How do you relate to someone who doesn’t feel like being loved? How do you still offer hospitality to someone that just gets on your nerves? How do you call people out when they’re not telling the truth? How do you admit that you haven’t been the best community member?
We use the word ‘community’ a lot these days. We are a part of various online and in-real-life communities by affinity or geographic location, but I don’t think we really get what true community could look and feel like. It’s not just checking on the neighbor’s mail while they’re on vacation or asking if someone could watch your kids while you work an extra hour–though those are certainly markers of caring neighbors. Does your community push you to be your best? Do they call you out when you’re being rude? Do they extend grace when you’ve used more than your share of passes?
[What Life Together Looks Like]
I went back to my own responses to Life Together to remind myself about the ways Bonhoeffer understood this thing called community.
Here are my takeaways:
Christian brother/sisterhood isn’t an ideal, but a reality created by God in which we are invited to participate (30).
There is a mandate to include all in community. Our churches and communities are not meant to be pristine and perfect places for holy people to gather. They are meant to be cross sections from all of humanity, including the weak and seemingly insignificant, for excluding those on the fringe of society excludes Christ (38).
At a time where so much of our attention is consumed by technology, by work, by so many other things that could use our attention—we have developed attention deficit disorder in regard to spiritual matters and the tending of our souls. We barely have time to grab a cup of coffee before we run out the door, much less spend a quiet moment in thanksgiving and in communion with God. If God is with us and in us, how can we prevent ourselves from being in fellowship with God? We fail to acknowledge that it is God who is present at the beginning and close of the day. Old Testament people rose early to wait for God’s call. Are we too busy? Is it too noisy for us to hear God? Do we even have time to hear it and would we know it was God if we did?
Bonhoeffer talks about silence being nothing more than waiting for God’s word and blessing. In our Western culture where one’s verbal assertiveness establishes power and knowledge, we feel the need to talk incessantly, even when communing with God and especially with one another. What we—what I need to practice—is being comfortable with silence, for as Bonhoeffer says, how can I be faithful in great things if I cannot learn to be faithful in daily practices (87). Ouch. That’s me. I wonder—I’m almost certain—that if I can manage to be obedient in my daily practices, it will reflect on the the macro stuff.
What I’ve learned in this age of digital and social media is that people want to be heard. This concept is nothing new—in fact, Bonhoeffer’s section on the ministry of listening resonated well with this. Because we are traditionally not an oral society [compared to non-western cultures], we here in the U.S. don’t give much importance to listening and the service that it provides to others. We think that we have to speak if we know something. We listen with only half of our attention, sometimes coming into the conversation with assumptions and preconceived notions of the person or what they may have to share—or worse yet, we are already formulating our responses before the other person is even done talking. We’re thinking of what to say rather than lending our whole selves so the other person might be heard. I’m learning. If God is seen in the faces of and in relationships with our brothers and sisters, then the ways in which we listen to others reflect our relationship with God.
Bonhoeffer’s last section on confession and communion is an important one, and very Wesleyan in his understanding of fellowship and accountability. As a Filipina, I come from a culture that is very private. If you have sh*t you’re going through, you don’t let it leave the family. In fact, sometimes you don’t even tell your family. It’s not an assumption to say that many non-western cultures display some aspect of this in the ways in which they communicate with others in and outside of their communities. But Bonhoeffer notes that confession of sin—openness and accountability with and for one another—is absolutely necessary. We are all sinners and we are all living with sin. To withhold that admission from our brothers and sisters creates a pious fellowship wherein we live in hypocrisy (110). Confession of our sins is a part of our preparation to receive Communion, wherein we are complete in our life together with Christ and with our sisters and brothers. Culturally, so much is shared over food. In the preparation and in dining together—there is something sacred about gathering over a meal. So it is with our Christian community that we are invited by Christ to dine with one another—a taste of a much grander banquet that awaits us.
1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1954)