Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer: April 9.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: April 9, 2014     bonhoeffer3


Both ML King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the age of 39; Bonhoeffer in 1945 in a Nazi prison, the war in Europe would be over within weeks. Martin died in 1968, 23 years later. These two men of God were and are still some of the most influential theologians of our time.

You see some of the key issues after WWII were who is God, Who is the God that allows the suffering of human beings?  Where was God in the Concentration Camps and where was God in Hiroshima (one of the Christian communities in Japan) and Nagasaki? And where God is as men and women and children are beaten and lynched and refused service and equal access because of their race.

These questions were about healing: The healing of our broken hearts and the healing of the nations.

Bonhoeffer was a respected theologian who had been on a teaching tour prior to 1939 in the United States. He had a promised teaching position, I think, at Union Theological School, and seeing the evil in his homeland, from a prominent German family, his father an honored psychiatrist, Bonhoeffer returned to his homeland. It was here that he started the Resistance Church, wrote his famous book referenced later by King in a 1957 sermon (quoted later) called the Beloved Community. And also his seminal book The Cost of Discipleship and his Ethics.


In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested because of his connection with a group who plotted and attempted an assassination of Hitler. For the next two years he lingered in prison and then on April 8th he was called from a celebration of the Eucharist and the next day hung, stripped of his clothing, on a wire.

Bonhoeffer became the theologian of resistance to evil and also the theologian who helped so many of us to come to terms with murderous insanity of the 20th century. The first was a call to resist evil at whatever cost. Bonhoeffer was erudite about the subject of evil and familiar with it from vast experience by the time he wrote his Letters and Papers from Prison, a work that was collected and published after his death.

The second break though for some of us at the time of our education in the 60”s was his theology of the suffering God, One who suffers with the whole creation. A God who not only gives us consolation in our desolation, but a God who needs to be consoled as He or She weeps over the cruelty of humanity towards one another. One paragraph from his Letters and Papers from Prison says,

“Jesus asks in the Garden, “could you not watch with me for an hour?’ That is the exact opposite of what the religious man or woman expects from God. Humans are challenged to suffer with God at the hands of a godless world.

He or she must plunge into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it. He must live a worldly life and participate in the suffering of God… It’s not religious act which makes a Christian what He or she is, but the participation with God in the sufferings of the world.”

The truth of this struck me one night as I awoke from sleep and thought how often I asked God for something, for consolation, for a suffering person in my family or congregation, and just then I looked and it was as if the God in Jesus was next to me and I took Him in my arms and let him weep for the world.  Yes, I know it’s weird, but there it was.

Elie Weisel reports an experience from this time. As a youth he was imprisoned in Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. They had strung up three people to serve as an example to what would happen if any dared infringe the rules of the Nazi overseers. One of the three was a youth and he was lighter than the rest. And because of that his neck didn’t break and his young body struggled on the wire. One of the men in the crowd murmured, “Where is God now?” The young Elie Weisel reflected to himself, “There, on the wire twisting and suffering with the boy. That is where God is.”

Here is a poem Bonhoeffer wrote from prison. I admire him as much for his vulnerability as for the power of his mind and his total commitment to be a human Christian in the midst of a world that has turned from the good.  The poem which is called, Who Am I, captures the spiritual place of many contemporary women and men, I think, very well.

Who am I? They often tell me

I stepped from my cell’s confinement

Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

Like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me

I used to speak to my warders

Freely and friendly and clearly,

As though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me

I bore the days of misfortune

Equably, smilingly, proudly,

Like one accustomed to win.


Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I myself know of myself?

Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

Struggling for breath, as though hands were

compressing my throat,

Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

Tossing in expectation of great events,

Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?


Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, Thou knowest, 0 God, I am Thine!

The Day Martin was Killed: April 4, 1968

I lived in Roxbury above the sanctuary of St John’s and St James Church. Roxbury is one of Boston’s African-American neighborhoods. Henry, a Heroin addict, shared the upstairs with me.  A few days before, Henry sweat and shivered through withdrawal. I did what I could and then called an ambulance.

In the basement Allan Rohan Crite, the African American artist ran off his Sunday Bulletins. He engraved with a stylus on a wax plate and sent them through the A B Dick Mimeograph. It was incredible to watch the delicate man appear to make Angels fly off the page and a Black Jesus crucified under the El (trains) as commuters averted their eyes and passed by.Crite_Were_you_There.jpg_12-20-09_E6_6DG0D13

On April 3rd, the day before, our group had helped organized a massive demonstration against the war and a draft card burning. About thirty of us turned in our cards. They were sent to Bobby Kennedy, the attorney general at the time. My act was largely symbolic as I was exempt from the draft because my father had been killed in WWII. For me it was an act of resistance and to the mounting death toll in Vietnam.

On Thursday morning I made my way to the Subway that took me downtown and to the Arlington Street Church. We were to plan for the Sanctuary of two young enlistees who refused to return to active duty. Dates had been set and I returned to our office where we put together the newspaper. News arrived  that evening that Martin had been assassinated. We hastily planned a meeting the next morning and I returned home to Roxbury in the dark. The city was quiet and in mourning.

I had heard Dr. King only a few months before deliver a sermon he entitled simply: “Why I am Against the War in Vietnam”. Martin was working his sermon when I entered the sacristy to be introduced to  great and diminutive Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Heschel was revered by many of us seminarians for his work The Prophets, his stand with Martin in the South and his dedication to the life of prayer. To be in the presence of such eminence was powerful. I extended my hand and stuttered, “r-r-r Rabbi Heschel I am honored to meet you.” Martin did not look up from the text of his sermon. I was relieved. I would have been struck silent.

The meeting the next day was crowded. Three hundred of us were crammed into Arlington Street Church. Homer was one of the only Blacks in the room. Agitated and nearly in tears he left the room. I followed and returned to Roxbury. The Boston Police had amassed around Dudley Street Station in preparation for school letting out and to stop any attempts at a riot like the one that had burned down many of the businesses along Blue Hill Avenue less than two years before. I told the wise elders at the church that I wanted to go down to Dudley Street and monitor the police. They said, “No. You should not go out. It’s not that the Blacks are going to hurt you.” They said, “It is more dangerous for us in our own community; it’s the unpredictability of the police.” In my naiveté, I thought that as the grandson and great grandson of Boston cops, I had some imagined authority to be there as a monitor. There were no riots in Boston that day.

It wasn’t lost on us that Martin was moving still in another direction when he was shot;, organizing Municipal garbage handlers. We had just had the ground shaken from under our feet. The leader of one of the most powerful, influential and critical movements in the history of the land had been killed. We were learning that every effort to change the nation could be interrupted by an assassin’s bullet. We now had to learn to organize. Organizations could have many leaders and they could change. You couldn’t kill an organization by killing one leader. That is the direction many of us would take in the coming years, including the young College graduate, Barack Obama in Chicago twenty or so years later.

Martin in a sermon in 1957 in Montgomery Alabama at the height of the bus boycott made  a plea to Love One’s enemies: He refutes the idea that the love of one’s enemies is too idealistic and impractical.

“…we have followed the so-called practical way for too long now, and it has led

inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the refuge

of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of

our nation and the salvation of (hu)mankind, we must follow another way. This

does not mean to abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process

relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall

love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community”

 What had begun as a day of hope and resistance to the War in Vietnam ended in the dark night in the heart of the Black community in the city of my youth.  It became a time of evaluation of where we had been and where we needed to go. The killers had their practical way, now we would have to find another road, a road we have yet to take as a nation and a people. And yet there are many of us who have tried and bled on the way to some kind of truce.

We would try love with its twists and turns, its imperfections and failures. With Martin, we would try love.       .

Lent 5, “She’s Going To Be OK ” John 11:1-45

(You can connect to the readings for the Sundays of the year by typing RCL and the date or go to

I inherited my mother’s lateness. She, projecting her own propensity for tardiness, frequently told me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral.” “I hope so.” I joked.

I got better over the years, realizing that it is manipulative, passive- aggressive and just bad form and I didn’t have any of the excuses or hat-tricks that Jesus could conjure up. I can see how the sisters of Lazarus were truly angry that he had not come sooner.  John does not seek to show the pastoral side of Jesus. His focus is His power over death, to show how He was the Son of God.

Whether or not Jesus could raise a man from the grave after four days may or may not be possible. We know that sometimes people have stopped breathing and the heartbeat is too faint to register and they have been thought dead, but the point for John is that Jesus could do it. He had that kind of power. We may argue about the physical possibilities, and yet for those of us who have lived the life have seen evidence of the truth of His power many times. We have witnessed much of it through the hands and hearts of skilled healers of all kinds.  I’d be interested in hearing your stories. Here’s one of mine.

It was early, six or seven in the morning, when I received a call from a parishioner that their five-year old daughter was having a severe asthma attack and had been rushed to the Emergency room.  They were afraid they were going to lose her. It was my birthday.

“Not on my birthday,” I thought, “Lord, you’re not going to let her die on my birthday!!” I was adamant.

I arrived to the distressed parents in the waiting room of the Emergency Department.

“They can’t get her to breathe on her own,” the mother said.

“I’ll see if they’ll let me in to be with her.” I said.

The child lay on the litter. Her skin had turned ashen. She was hooked up to a respirator and I V’s dripped saline and other solutions. As I remember her heart still pumped. The Doctors and nurses looked worried and weary. I went to her body and blessed her, anointed her for healing or for burial, which one I didn’t know, and whispered in her ear, “Mom and Dad and I love you,” and I left the room shaken.

The parents and I found a room, lit by a wining florescent purple light. All three of us knelt and we prayed as hard and fervently as we had ever probably prayed. And as usual, but this time with a feeling of re-assurance the same conclusion came. First were the words of Jesus in the garden, you know, the night before he was crucified,  because we were with him in that moment,

“Not my will, but your will be done.” It’s remarkable how often those words come in these times of crisis.

And the second understanding we all had almost simultaneously was that she was breathing again.

“She’s going to be okay,” I said.

Jane and Chris, the parents, both nodded and said, “I know.”

“Thanks,” I said to myself, “for not letting her die on my birthday.” Of course it had nothing to do with me. I was just available when they called me in. But I swear on a “stack of Bibles” in various languages and translations, that the Holy Spirit visited us in that hospital waiting room as we prayed. It was one of those moments that they call faith as the “assurance of things not seen.”

Within a half-hour the doctor came in and told us we could visit her.

“She’s not out of the woods” he said, “but she’s doing well enough to transfer her to the Hospital at Yale.”

We went into the room and the child was sitting up, her color had returned.  She was moved to Yale-New Haven Hospital and I had asked her what she would like to have as a treat when she was allowed to eat?

“A burger and fries and a chocolate shake,” she told me with a big smile.

That night on the way to celebrate my birthday, I walked into the room with the requested feast. She fully recovered and is now twenty two, and healthy and still a child of the light. And she hasn’t had an asthma attack since that day.

To See with the Third Eye, the Eye of the Heart: 4th Lent

Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary: Search RCL for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, John 9:1-41

Miss Grant told our sixth grade class, “There are none so blind as those who will not see”. I don’t think she unpacked the quote for us or where it originated, but it is a fair paraphrase of Jesus in John’s gospel. For the last four weeks in John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts issues of spiritual and emotional blindness, of suffering and disabilities and their root causes and the spiritual blindness of the religious authorities. John also picks a bone with the synagogue that has refused membership to those who believed Jesus was the Christ. While Jesus may not have always been gentle with the religious authorities, I doubt he harbored any lasting resentment toward them. Let’s forget John’s hurt at the exclusion of the early Christians from the synagogue. The Jews were going through their own identity crises. There are  Pharisees and disciples, the blind men and women and their parents, and a bit of Jesus is in all of us. The story is as much about our own spiritual blindness as it is about the man born blind.

In Jesus time, either the man was blind because he was a sinner or his parents or some ancestor was. Jesus refutes that argument and says “The man was born blind to show the works of God.” A child who is born blind does not know he or she is blind. To be blind is normal. The blind child navigates the environment as does any infant, but with touch and hearing taste and smell and vibrational movement of the air, whatever works. You have to be told you are blind. Interestingly to me, Jesus usually asks if one wants to be healed. Jesus simply goes and makes a putty of dirt and spit and anoints the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam. (Look it up. Interesting) The cure of the man’s blindness is really a subtext to the story which is really about the blindness of the others who refuse to accept what has happened and the remarkable power of the healer. The blind man is very wise, very simple and wise.  Speaking to his interrogators, he says about Jesus, “I don’t know who He is or where He came from. All I know is that I was blind and now I see.”  How can I get my eyes to open? How may I see with the eyes of the heart?

Maybe Miss Grant’s quote held one of the secrets to inner sight, to wisdom; “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Will, the will to see, yearn and desire to see with the eyes of the heart. Eastern religions have a place for the third eye. It is in the forehead between and above the eyes. It is that third eye that is looking at the divine and though which the divine sees. In Christian tradition the third eye is to “have the mind of Christ.” And it is more a heart looking, a looking out at the world and the other and ourselves with mercy and love, with a sense of our responsibility to walk with integrity and justice, a heart of forgiveness, humility and joy. Joy is often one of the results of this heart seeing. It is a by product of that looking when the blindness is lifted that joy comes and dwells with us. That vision consoles as we look with they eyes of the heart at the great losses of our lives, and what peace and joy may come as we live with gratitude for it all. If we had not loved we would have no grief.

It’s like a weight watchers diet, you have to will it, keep to a discipline, yuck, and go to meetings and weigh yourself in to keep track of your progress. One of the joys of seeing with the eyes of the heart is that sometimes, maybe more than sometimes, maybe daily, these visions of life and hope and beauty and love come. All that you need to do is open to them, open the eyes, take off the scales and see with love.

Herbert O’Driscoll when he was at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC, told us that we can see Jesus as a template, a transparent image who we place between ourselves and the people and situations we meet. I used the image one Sunday and then Martha came up to me after the service. “I have to be in a situation I dread tomorrow. I recently began to work with a re-constructive surgeon. Tomorrow I have to meet a man who tried to kill himself with a gun and destroyed part of his face. I am afraid to look at him, but I’m going to try what you suggested.”  “Wow, let me know what happens.” I said.

The next Sunday she came to me and said, “It worked! I imagined the face of Jesus and I placed it on the man who came into the office. I saw his hurt, his disfiguration, and his humanity. I found I was looking at him with eyes of love.”

After a while this way of seeing becomes a practice and a way of looking at life and people and situations as if they were all being held in the arms of God, protected and cherished.  You will discover that “I am looking with the eyes of love.”

To see with such eyes is also to see with discernment.  Martha saw the dis-figuration which he caused to himself, his sorrow and his humanity which I imagine included his desperation at his isolation from the world. If ever a man needed to be seen with they eyes of God, he did.

In Vermont where I now live a woman was attacked by her husband with acid. Her face and parts of her body were severely disfigured. She came to church to talk with us one day. It was hard for me to look on her scarred face neck and hands. I looked and I not only saw the evil that caused her such extreme and ongoing suffering, but also her courage and determination to tell her story and to bring the living reality of the abused into the stark morning light. Since then she has had some reconstructive surgery, perhaps at the same practice where Martha worked in Boston.  She will not return to her former physical beauty, but more of her body will work. She continues to spread her message. I hear her on the radio and I think she was the presence and work of God that morning in the church in Randolph, Vermont, a reminder of how important it is to see with the eyes of the heart and sometimes how intensely painful and difficult it can be. And yet sometimes that opening comes.

We call her Grace.


Thirst. 3rd Lent

John 4: 5-42

We were twice routed around Nablus where Jacob’s Well is believed to be located.  A suicide bomber would blow up an outdoor market in the city within weeks of our visit.

The well evidently still contains water three thousand or so years after it was dug by Jacob. The water is known as “living water” because it is fed by underground springs. Water in that part of the world is precious and in danger. Access to clean water in many parts of the world has reached crisis proportions. In India, a primary source of spring runoff for the Ganges, Indus and Yamuna Rivers, the ice sheets in the Himalayas are melting away.  A well in any of these places with “living water” is not only prized but sacred.

"Give me a drink". from Textweek with thanks

“Give me a drink”. from Textweek with thanks

The encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is probably not an actual dialogue between the two main characters. It is John looking back and remembering the transformative power of Jesus as he interacts with people on his journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem. The story is a meditation on the meaning of what it means to thirst, on Living Water that does not fail, on the relationship of Jesus with women, on the nature of the religious community without the temple and on the ability for Jesus the Son of God to see us.

The one other time Jesus asks for a drink of water is when he is on the cross. For what or who does the woman, who represents all those who need to be seen and valued, thirst?  I have always loved the banter between these two bright and funny adults.  Jesus was thirsty. “Give me a drink.” The woman responds, “What are you a Jew doing talking to a woman?” “If you knew who I am you would know that I could give you living water”. “How will you get this water? You have no pail, no cup.”

What is the living water Jesus gives or for what or who do we thirst? It is to see God in the water; To see water not only as a commodity, but as a gift of the divine. The water we have on the earth today is the same water that has existed from the beginning. There is no more or less.  It has materialized in different forms, ice, sea water, fresh springs, lakes, rain, snow, rivers, bogs, and it is all a gift of life, the spirit of God hovered over the creation over the waters at the very beginning. Like the air we breathe we are made of water and the spirit. Water infused with Spirit. We might as well say in the burial office, “water to water, spirit to spirit” because our bodies are composed mostly of water.

The woman at the well has known this thirst. She has lost four husbands; she now lives with a man who is not her husband. She is under the puritanical eye of her culture, judged and unseen. She is a remarkable survivor, yes, and one with a thirst for more.  She thirsts for the One who is to come to make all water Living Water, all air the breath and spirit of God, all relationships the container for the holy and our eyes to see with the eyes of God. The water we drink is from the deep well of the Holy, the thin place where we are close to the divine.

That water, the pure living water, for which we thirst, is in danger. It has been our brokenness and our divorce from the sacred well that has harmed the water of life and life on our planet. Can we, will we with the help of God begin to turn around?  Can we begin to see with the eyes of the heart?

When Mary Oliver’s partner of many years died, she wrote a series of poems entitled Thirst. Her reflections are the thirst to see and perceive with such eyes.


Another morning I wake with thirst

for the goodness I do not have. I walk

to the pond and all the way God has

given us such beautiful lessons. O Lord,

I was never a quick scholar but sulked

and hunched over my books past the

hour and the bell; grant me, in your

mercy, a little more time. Love for the

earth and love for you are having such a

long conversation in my heart. Who

knows what will finally happen or

where I will be sent, yet already I have

given a great many things away, expect-

ing to be told to pack nothing, except the

prayers which with this thirst, I am

slowly learning.

Nicodemus: John 3:1-17, 2nd Lent, 2014

“St Augustine is walking along the beach when he sees a little boy digging a hole in the sand and running back and forth from the ocean to fill the hole with water. Curious, Augustine asks the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ The little boy replies, ‘I’m putting the ocean in this hole.’ Augustine says, ‘ Little boy you can’t do that the ocean is too big to put in that little hole.’ The boy who is really an angel responds, ‘And so Augustine is your mind too small to contain the vastness of God.’”

The Gospel of John, as I remember Herbert O’Driscoll once told us at the College of Preachers, is John remembering as he looked back at the meaning of the life of the Christ. John is the mystic and poet who writes sixty or seventy years after the death of Jesus. It is somewhat like the older man I am, as all of us look back at what Jesus’s message and life means to us and our communities.

Each day is a reminder to be born again

Each day is a reminder to be born again

John  uses Jesus and Nicodemus as a teaching opportunity for the emergent and struggling early church. Nicodemus represents the seeker who wants simple answers. He asks Jesus ” How am I born again? Do I enter back into my mother’s womb?” We looking back may understand Jesus response: “You have to be born again with water and the Holy Spirit”. Many may have no idea what Jesus is talking about at the time John writes. John’s church was at work to establish Baptism as the rite of initiation into the Christian community. As such Baptism was and is the river into which one dips or plunges to receive the Holy Spirit. And yet Jesus (and John) may have had something more in mind: Maybe Nicodemus’ idea of God was too circumscribed, narrow and acculturated. Being born again has something to do, John says, with  unfurling the sails to catch the wind of the spirit and inhale the breath of God. Although Jesus can be powerfully present to those who choose to be in relationship with Him, to be born again is more than to have the warm feel of Jesus’ nearness. The dangers of this approach if you take it too far is the risk placing God in a box, tie God up in a nice package name it Jesus and stop looking, become closed and smug and self-satisfied. Jesus did not come to be another box for God. He came as a door opened to the world and time through which we can pass with new eyes and a new heart. (This image also is a gift from O’Driscoll) Jesus works for us who are already believers as this prime door opener. Don’t you think that Jesus would find joy in any who would access the door to the Eternal? If people can find any door to the eternal are they not among the blessed? That’s what I want for every one, to find that way to the spirit, the door to a wider compassion, to justice, to a loving and merciful heart and mind. For John and me that way is the face of Jesus. We show as much of that face as we can as an offering and a bridge to the holy. We try to keep the door unlocked and open. We are in the same boat as John, looking back and remembering how to open to God with John’s images and metaphors coming to us in our prayers: “Be born again. Become flame. Listen to the wind. Be washed and cleansed from your broken places. Drink living water. Be still and know that I am God. Be light.               Life.            Truth.                          Peace. Be.” “Have mercy.” While a part of me is like Nicodemus who wants simple answers to eternal questions , I need the language of John whose images and words of Jesus visit my prayers and remind me that “the mind is too small to contain the vastness of God.” And each day is a reminder to be born again. I send you a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which is in the preface to Mary Oliver’s wonderful collection of poems entitled Thirst. “Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will you can become all flame.’”