Month: October 2019

Pray, do right, wait

In 2006, the Public Broadcasting System presented Bonhoeffer, a film by Martin Doblmeier, which included Bonhoeffer’s timeline. A brief summary of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler is available here.

Most of Bonhoeffer’s prison correspondence was with Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), who had married Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate (1925-2019). Bonhoeffer offered his reflections on the baptism of their son, Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, which occurred while Bonhoeffer was in prison:

“By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly. … the world will be changed and renewed by (the word of God). It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language … proclaiming God’s peace … and the coming of (God’s) kingdom. …there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time. May you be one of them….” (p. 140).

Even in humanity’s darkest hours, Bonhoeffer believed the church would find its voice and the world would be renewed, liberated and redeemed through a new language that may be “quite non-religious.”  

Bonhoeffer’s question

Two 20th Century wars involving several Christian nations raised basic faith questions, such as, “Why?” In response, Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976) wrote The Will of God in 1944. The brilliant German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) had questions about the faith of Christians who supported Hitler.

Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis and was imprisoned for two years prior to his execution on April 9, 1945. From prison: “What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. … We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”

According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, there has been a sharp rise in the U.S. of “nones,” those who don’t identify with any religion. They now comprise more than one-fourth of the population. Perhaps Bonhoeffer can provide insight about why many “nones” have left the church as well as how to engage them.

The “nones” I know, including some in my family, find the church largely irrelevant, with some of the loudest religious voices on the “wrong side” of issues that are important to them. Their criticism of religion today reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s criticism. Tomorrow, we’ll consider Bonhoeffer’s courage and the “alternative vision” of the church for which he gave his life.

Grace transcends religion

I began the week searching for a narrative of grace big enough to include everyone and everything. From Horatio Spafford’s It Is Well with My Soul: “My (our) sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My (our) sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I (we) bear it no more….” Grace, represented by the cross, covers it all.

Will Campbell lived a grace that transcends race. Elijah Cummings and Mark Meadows demonstrated a grace that transcends politics. From his World War II Nazi prison cell, German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) pointed to a grace that transcends religion.

Bonhoeffer’s correspondence was published as Prisoner For God: Letters and Papers from Prison (free pdf download here). You can download here a free 16-page pdf excerpt about Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” Tragically, the Nazi hangmen excluded Bonhoeffer from later conversations about this increasingly relevant concept.

In Ian Lovett’s October 17th Wall Street Journal article, Religion Is on the Decline as More Adults Check “None,” the first word seemed odd. But it reinforces Bonhoeffer’s point: “Religiosity in the U.S. is in sharp decline, according to a study released by the Pew Research Center….”

Tomorrow, we’ll use this article to continue Bonhoeffer’s conversation about faith, religion and religiosity.

Cokesbury and FaithLife Blog

Elijah and Mark

I wrote yesterday’s post on Wednesday evening. I learned on Thursday morning that my younger brother Elijah Cummings (1951-2019) had died during the night. Cummings had integrity. His positions were clear. He debated with vigor. He respected his opponents in a style that was consistent with yesterday’s post, “America in One Room.”

One story says it best. Cummings and Mark Meadows were very different politically, but they were friends and they respected each other. Though they disagreed on policy they had each other’s back. They operated well in the same room. We need more of this. It’s as simple as that.  

In February, Rashida Tliab accused fellow committee member Meadows of a “racist act.” Chairperson Cummings stopped the proceedings (the testimony of Michael Cohen), saying “We’re going to straighten this out.” He defended Meadows, whom he described as one of his closest friends in Congress. Upon Cummings death, Meadows tweeted: “There was no stronger advocate and no better friend than Elijah Cummings. I am heartbroken for his wonderful family and staff—please pray for them. I will miss him dearly.”

You can view a one-minute excerpt from Cummings’ first speech in Congress, which includes an anonymous poem quoted by Benjamin Mays and Parren Mitchell:

I only have a minute,

sixty seconds in it,

forced upon me.

I did not choose it.

But I know I must use it,

give account if I abuse it,

suffer if I lose it.

Only a tiny minute,

but eternity is in it.

Room for grace

Grace is my best, and perhaps only, hope to not be shaped by the destructive tribalism of our time. I need an all-inclusive narrative of grace that’s applicable to everyone and everything. This grace must be strong enough to reconcile me with those for whom I have the greatest animosity.

Let’s focus on political polarization. Every issue seems to be framed by a partisan narrative that leaves little room for mutual respect, true listening or openness to compromise. Respectful debate has been replaced with demonizing dismissiveness. Is there room for grace in this environment?

My narrative of grace includes non-religious expressions, such as “America in One Room,” a project of Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy. Fourteen Stanford sophomores helped facilitate a September gathering in Dallas of 500 diverse registered voters from across the U.S. You can read about this transformative event at Stanford’s website and in this report by CNN.

Grace gives me faith to look for signs of hope like this Stanford project.

What has been done?

My memory of Will D. Campbell (1924-2013), includes a sermon, “What Must We Do About What Has Been Done?” Will echoed the Hebrews 9:11-12 metaphor of Jesus as “a high priest” in the Jewish Temple tradition, with a key distinction. Rather than entering the Holy Place annually on the Day of Atonement, the letter to the Hebrews asserts that Jesus’ sacrifice was “once for all…thus obtaining eternal redemption.”

Will’s message in the first half of the sermon was simple: “once for all.” The cross is enough. There’s nothing any of us, or all of us together, can do to make it more efficacious. The cross represents what has been done for us. The halfway point of the sermon was marked by a long pause, and then he said…

“Now if what has been done on the cross stirs within your heart any gratitude, if you feel compelled that you must do something about what has been done, let me offer some suggestions.” Will quietly mentioned various ways we as individuals or as a faith community can work for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Will was ordained in a rural Mississippi Baptist church, went to Tulane University, then Yale Divinity School. His reconciliation work led him to frame a painful and deeply profound narrative of grace. He wrote 15+ books, co-founded the Katallagete magazine and was the author (or subject) of countless articles. Like an eccentric Forrest Gump, he seemed to be everywhere during a critical era of history. He (and his hat) inspired cartoonist Doug Marlette’s character Will B. Dunn.


As I frame a narrative for living, I’m fully aware that my view of reality is partial, incomplete and flawed. Without diminishing my personal responsibility and accountability, I recognize that countless others have helped frame this narrative. As Pierre Teilhard (1881-1955) said, my small opus collaborates with a much larger Opus (The Divine Milieu, pp. 60-61).

The big picture is grace. My deepest affirmation is that life is a gift. My most basic response to this gift is gratitude. Grace predates every creed and unites me with every other grateful heart in the universe. I experience this grace most clearly through the biblical story, or narrative, about Jesus and through what I sense is the spirit of Christ in others.

The good news is that we are loved, we are reconciled. It was done for us, before we were born, before anyone was born, “in the beginning” (John 1.1). This narrative was exquisitely framed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5.19: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

Will Campbell (1924-2013) framed this narrative in a sermon, “What must we do about what has been done?” I’ll say more about that tomorrow.

Three words

In Sunday School yesterday with my aunt, the teacher asked, “Can you describe your faith in three words?” I thought (from yesterday’s post), “She’s asking how I frame the narrative.” I considered “faith, hope, love” from 1 Cor 13.13 and “God is love” from 1 John 4.16.  My mind went to the refrain that God’s “steadfast love endures forever” in Psalm 136 and to the biblical affirmation that occurs in Exodus 34.6 et al, that God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” I chose “abounding, steadfast love.”

The Hebrew word that’s translated “steadfast love” is hesed, which is a foundation for the New Testament word grace. I want to frame the narrative around life’s “mother lode,” which for me is God’s love that I see in creation (kudos for this week’s “harvest moon”) and in acts of peace and reconciliation.

I want a frame of reference that’s big, inclusive and timeless—an antidote for my narrow-minded, judgmental cliquishness. Grace—the mystery of unmerited favor—is my soul tonic. A generous dose of grace helps me start the day and it helps me make it through the day.

Framing the Narrative

Randall Ringer is a Strategic Adviser with MBLM (pronounced “emblem”), an agency that creates greater intimacy between people, brands and technology. He wrote an article in 2009 about “Framing the Narrative.” I hear this term with increasing frequency, usually in the realm of politics.

Ringer wrote: “Successful branding is about framing the narrative. It is about telling a coherent set of stories within that framework. And it is about understanding the power of symbols and metaphors in attracting the right kind of attention.”

To paraphrase Ringer: Faithful living is about framing a narrative of grace for one’s life and being shaped by a coherent set of stories within that framework. It’s about understanding the power of symbols and metaphors to heal relationships.

I’m framing a narrative for living my life. I invite you to do the same. Our narratives will be shaped by our unique perspectives and experiences and perhaps by some common themes, stories, symbols and metaphors.


Franciscan priest Louie Vitale is a peacemaker. Love Is What Matters is a 2015 collection of his writings about peace. It includes a story that happened shortly before the death of Francis of Assisi (1182-1226).

Assisi and Perugia often were at war with each other. During a flareup, the mayor of Assisi supported another war against Perugia. Pope Honorius III instructed Bishop Guido of Assisi to excommunicate the mayor. The town was caught up in a power struggle between the bishop and the mayor.

In response, Francis added a verse about peace to his Canticle of Creation:

Blessed are those who endure in peace

for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Francis sent a brother to invite the mayor to go with him to the bishop’s house, and another brother to prepare the bishop. The brothers sang the new verse for the bishop and the mayor. The two men embraced. Historian Arnaldo Fortini credited this intervention with bringing peace to the region: “In this moment, a centuries-old struggle for power ended.”

(For more, see this daily meditation, by Richard Rohr.)

Louie Vitale arrested peacefully