Week of August 6, 2014

Todd JonesMy Dear Friends,

This past spring, I was invited to join a group of our members and some men from other churches in a study of Eric Metaxas’ popular biog raphy of Dietr ich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor/theologian who was executed by the Third Reich in the waning days of World War II for his part in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer has become a much-studied, deeply admired figure among many Christians, and while Metaxas does a masterful job of telling the story of his life, he does so as a journalist rather than as a theologian. The study prompted me to read another, more academic treatment of this Christian martyr’s life, Strange Glory, by Charles Marsh, from the University of Virg inia. Marsh points out that Bonhoeffer was born into an upper-class German family, the son of a noted psychiatrist. As a child and well into his adult years, he had never had a conversation with a person of a race or color other than his own. All of this changed for Bonhoeffer when he found himself in New York City in 1930 as a student at Union Theological Seminary, studying with the likes of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr introduced Bonhoeffer to what he would call “the American dilemma.” Bonhoeffer would write of this as “the real face of America, something that is hidden behind the veil of words in the Amer ican constitution that ‘all men are created free and equal.’” Bonhoeffer was speaking of what he learned by befriending a black seminarian named Franklin Fisher.

Fisher, a pastor’s son, brought Dietrich with him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. There, Bonhoeffer discovered what he would call “the eruptive joy” of black church worship and formed fr iendships among this community that would influence him for the rest of his life. In 1930 he wrote, “It really does seem to me that there is a great movement for ming, and I do believe that the Negroes will still give the whites here considerably more than merely their folksongs.” Just as Bonhoeffer spoke prophetically, almost presciently of the emergence of what he termed a “post-Christian Europe” in the 1930s, so he also foresaw what would become the monumental Civil Rights movement in America. In 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw clearly what the future held.

I have been asking myself how this man saw what so many others missed completely. There are, of course, many possible answers. Bonhoeffer was gifted with a brilliant mind, and he was offered by his family the very finest educational opportunities. But this could be said of many others who grew up with him in Berlin. Many of them were completely blind to what the Nazis were doing in their own city. What enabled Bonhoeffer to see what so many others failed to see? An important element had to be his Christian faith. Bonhoeffer always contended that the most relevant question that a follower of Jesus must ask was this: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” He centered his faith and his life around what he would call “Christ the center.” Yet this vision of Jesus Christ was not stuck in the past, or limited to the pages of the Scriptures, though he studied them rigorously. For Bonhoeffer, the question of following Jesus was always a contemporary one. “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” In every age, disciples are called by God to ask this most crucial question of life. It sends us back to the pages of the Scripture, but it forces us to read the Bible in the light of all that is happening in the world. It is to ask with courage and a hunger for truth, “What is Jesus asking me to do?” “Who is Jesus asking me to be?”

I had a friend and mentor in a former congregation named Marshall Chapman. Marshall ran a textile firm that employed over 1,300 people. He told me once that he felt responsible not only for the company founded by his grandfather, but especially for the lives and families of his employees. He said to me once, “Every morning, when I shave, I look into the mirror and I pray, ‘Open my eyes, Lord, to see today the things that you want me to see.’” Maybe this is part of the reason why his company is one of the last family-owned textile firms in the South that is still in business. His prayer left a powerful impression on me, and it has become mine as well.

Elisha once was surrounded by a great army of enemies, in II Kings 6, and his servant was filled with fear. Elisha, the prophet of God, said, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who with them.” Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see.” The young man’s eyes were opened by God, and suddenly, round about them, he saw “the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (II Kings 6:17). May this same Lord open our eyes to see what God would have us to see!

With Love and Prayers,

Todd Jones

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