I got word on Wednesday afternoon that my old friend John would most likely die that night.
His dying was not unexpected, but word of it still took my breath away. I stepped outside into the warm May sunshine to try to take it in, to put this news in its place. And then I came back to my desk to write to all of you about it.
I have known John for twenty-five years. He chaired the church council where I was first called to be pastor. And he kept track of me for all these decades since I left that place. A devoted lay leader in the larger church, our paths kept crossing. I grieve his dying as I do that of so many others who were part of shaping me when I was young to ministry.
Now admittedly, John and I did not always see eye to eye. Sometimes I would find myself sighing at his relentless persistence and his way of doing things which would differ so from my own. And yes, I say this with all gentleness, sometimes I found him a little bit annoying — although, if I’m honest, that may have been more about me than him.
But then that would be true of many people — perhaps of all those people I have known deeply and loved long and well — we don’t always see eye to eye. We do not always agree with one another on how to get things done. And yes, from time to time it seems, we will annoy, perhaps even dislike one another. It is inevitable, it seems to me. And yet, in the ‘unity’ Jesus prays for today, this is who he has put us together to be unified with. Even the people who annoy us. Perhaps especially those who annoy us.
And I have to say that this much is true as well. I’m not sure John and I would have necessarily been friends had God not somehow put us together in the same place for a time. We were that different from one another. But because God did, for all of my ministry when I would hear from or encounter John he would greet me with a huge smile and a warm welcome. Even the last time I saw him just a few weeks ago. Again, not because we were so much alike, it seems, but because God gave us to one another.
This past winter I was called upon to teach using Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. This small volume had sat on my shelf a long time, but I’m not certain I had ever had cause or reason to read it carefully before. I have to say that this time through I was especially taken with his first chapter on “Community.” If I get his point, Bonhoeffer is saying that Christian Community, as many tend to imagine it, is a ‘wish dream’ — that the harmony we often envision is not all that likely or perhaps even possible. In fact, he says, you and I have no right or reason to be disillusioned when it doesn’t meet our expectations. For it is somehow in our very experience of this community not meeting our hopes and dreams that we actually finally discover our ‘life together’ — not because we necessarily like one another or agree with one another — but because of the ways in which all of our struggle with each other enables us to see more clearly and to be all the more grateful for what Christ has done for us. Christ died for this and these and no other. With all our warts, our struggles, our hurts, and yes, sometimes our hurting one another, this is where God put us and this is who God put us with to learn from and to grow with. And it is in our differences and in our struggles that the glory of which Jesus speaks in John 17:22 most shines, it seems to me. For this glory is best known in true forgiveness. This glory is best experienced among those who can examine their own faults and recognize their need for God… which is what our struggles also do. Let me offer just one brief quote as illustration of Bonhoeffer’s point, this time pointing to what often happens when we find ourselves disillusioned:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and if we are fortunate, with ourselves. (pp. 26-27)
Imagine my surprise. I have spent my entire ministry working to resolve church conflict and Bonhoeffer appears to be saying it is not only to be expected, but it is also something we are called to be grateful for. And it is so, of course. It is in our differences, in our struggles, in our hurts that we encounter and receive God’s grace and gift most completely. It is then that I am able to see Christ in my neighbor. It is then that I am able to be loved in spite of myself. It is then I know most deeply my own need for God.
Now it is so that perhaps in Bonhoeffer’s time and place, church conflict was not as virulent as it is today. And yes, I know it is so that there have been times in my life when the world has so pummeled me that it was all I could do to slide into a pew near the back and yearn to be soothed by the familiar strains of the liturgy, all the while hoping that no one would want more ‘community’ from me than my fragile state could bear. I know that may be so of many who populate our churches on many Sunday mornings. Still, most of the time it has been important to me to look for and experience that sense of connection to others. And when I have done so, when I have allowed myself to go more deeply in relationship to those others God has put me with, sometimes I am disappointed by or yes, even hurt by the behavior of others. Perhaps this is why I found these words of Bonhoeffer hit home as well:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes the destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (p. 27)
What an important reminder it is to me to know that just because I am hurt or disappointed does not mean that this group of God’s people is not of God’s design. And when I have had the patience to live through the struggle, I have learned over and over again that over time and hard earned shared experience the connections do go deeper than anything I would have put together on my own, with my all too human tendency to surround myself with people who think and do as I think and do.
So no, I would guess that John and I would not necessarily have been friends if God had not put us together. But because God did, I experienced the kindness of another I never would have known otherwise. I was challenged and pushed in ways I did not always find helpful at the time, but which made me think more deeply about my own suppositions. I learned to look behind that which I sometimes found annoying and to see God at work in remarkable ways. And in the end I expect we both discovered something so much more than what we could ever have created on our own… the kind of unity Jesus speaks of today which does not rely on us at all but on what God does through us and sometimes in spite of us. It is God’s doing, not ours! And today as I grieve the death of an old friend, who was at first perhaps not necessarily a friend of my choosing, I give thanks for this amazing gift of God.
- Have you read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together? It certainly has lent insight to my understanding of the unity Jesus prays for now. Is it helpful to you as well?
- Do you think of unity first as something God does or something we do or some combination of the two?
- How have you experienced unity in your life, in your congregation, in your community? How has that unity been a witness to the world?