Advent Theme: Absence
I am still reading Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I began reading it in 2005. I am, perhaps, a quarter finished with it. In my view, this is the most significant theological work of the 20thcentury. According to him, these are the things Bonhoeffer wrote after he truly understood the cost of discipleship. None of us truly comprehend that cost until we realize that we are paying it.
Very early in Letters is this passage:
…God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get along very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the god before whom we are standing. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which God can be with us and help us. Matthew 8:17 (he took up our infirmities, and bore the burden of our sins) makes it crystal clear that it is not by his omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by his weakness and suffering.
This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a deus ex machina. The Bible, however, directs us to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. To this extent we may say that the process we have described by which the world came of age was an abandonment of the false conception of God, and a clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by his weakness…
After I read this for the first time, I closed the book and didn’t open it again for five months. I could not stop thinking about this phrase, “Before God and with God we live without God.” What did it mean for one of the most faithful people I can think of- one whose heart for serving others did not let him stay safe but to throw himself into the mess of trying to overthrow Hitler- what does it mean that he believes in an active and compassionate God who does not give us an adequate framework for living?
This is what comes to mind when I read Revelation 14. I think of all the people who have told me that their religious practice is “private”. What they believe or how they imitate Christ is an interior practice, not meant for discussion, reflection, or for display in public. It is true, however, that everything we do reveals to the people around us what we believe. To follow Jesus, to truly be a disciple, to show that one’s heart is at rest in the one true God means paying attention to the details. It means spiritually reflecting on one’s habits, purchases, hobbies, time spent, time wasted, words said, words unsaid, generosity shown, generosity withheld. What we do and what we leave undone is what makes the mark on us- revealing to all who will see it where our loyalties lie.
Which brings me back to Bonhoeffer’s cryptic writing. There are parts of the Bible that are just mysterious. They are neither road map nor pointillist painting. They are written for a people that we are not. The Spirit is present in these words, but She may not be speaking a language we understand. Before God and with God, we admit that we do not always comprehend the words of God and then we go on. Frankly, my dear, we have enough to work on with what we do understand.
Potential Takeaway: Throughout history, faithful people have had to make difficult decisions and felt as though God was silent as they struggled. They were never alone. It is a painful part of being human that we are not always as fully connected with our Creator as we could or should be. It is not a matter of letting go and letting God, but rather trusting that God is present, is acting, and will make all things new. Our consolation in this is that when we feel this way, we are not the first to do so, nor the last.
Holy God, in the beginning, the Spirit brought creation and order out of chaos. Your creation has never known a time when You were absent, when your love was not intimately present. Strengthen me to trust you ever more deeply and yet to live out my faith more boldly and bravely- showing your truth to all whom I encounter. Amen.