Postmodernism is a necessary medicine for the arrogance of modernity. It provides a corrective of humility, but, like any medicine, it must be taken in moderation – or it may kill you.
A disciple once came to Abba Joseph, saying, “Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, my little fast, and my little prayer. And according as I am able I strive to cleanse my mind of all evil thoughts and my heart of all evil intents. Now, what more should I do?” Abba Joseph rose up and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He answered, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
(Abba Joseph of Panephysis was a 3rd/4th century Desert Father)
Her bridal dress was in tatters. She turned around and smiled, but it spoke only of death, her flesh barely clinging to her body. The only thought in my mind was, how could she still be alive? She looked as though she had died long ago and been rotting in the ground, and yet still she lived…
I’d been up in the night praying about a warning against the antichrist in one of John’s letters. A warning that we would be deceived if we did not preserve the truth that was within us. Yet it was my own thoughts I was touching, not those of God. I had given up seeking God and was heading back to bed, when some words entered my mind, “I’m wooing my church back”. In an instant my perspective changed. John’s warning had not been enough. It was no longer warning lest the church become deceived, but a realisation that we had been deceived already.
Ezekiel looked out upon a valley full of dry bones. It was desolate without any sign of life. Yet God was asking, can these bones live?
The church has drifted a long way from its first century roots. Yet, my dream still horrified me, because I knew the corpse was how God saw the church and I was shocked. It was a hopeless picture, just as Ezekiel’s was a hopeless picture. But just as God breathed life back into those dry bones, so he is wooing back his church back. Toronto was the start of something. In the early days we expected so much, and it is easy now to look back and wonder what it was all about. Yet God is once more breathing on dry bones. Life is coming back.
Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis. A final desperate act by Hitler, who could not bear the thought of him being released. His life and writings have been a provocation to many, myself included.
I remember the time I read his ideas on religion. He had observed that society was becoming more and more religionless, and that the church would be less and less relevant to such a society, as society would not longer be able to relate to church religion. The church could no longer survive as a religion. While liberal theologians were trying to remove the ‘myth’ from Christianity to get it back to its essential form, Bonhoeffer believed that it was the removal of religion that was required. A religionless Christianity would (he argued) speak as freshly and dynamically today as Jesus’ did in his day. Jesus message was a religionless message.
History seems to give us an example. When St Patrick first attempted to convert the Irish, he failed abysmally. It was only when he was able to shed his Christianity of its alien Roman form that anything began to happen. This pure form was ‘spliced’ onto the Celtic DNA and then spread like wild fire. Our bodies seem to act in the same way. They react to anything that is foreign, but will accept things that are pure, like gold, or grafted onto our own genetic material. The trouble is we have never known Christianity without any form of religion. We often do not even know how to distinguish between Victorian values, societal values, and the heartbeat of God. We may have known different religious forms, but we do not know God without religion.
The road back to a Christianity without religion is likely to be a hard one, and we won’t get there by theorising. We will get there by once more allowing the Gospel to devastate us. Bonhoeffer makes a similar point when he quotes Martin Luther speaking prophetically:
‘Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do. Bewilderment is my true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. My comprehension transcends yours. Thus Abraham went forth from his father… not knowing whither he went. He trusted himself to my knowledge, and cared not for his own, and thus he took the right road and came to his journey’s end. Behold, that is the way of the cross. You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were a blind man. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instructs you by my word and Spirit in the way you should go. Not the work which you choose, not the suffering you devise, but the road which is clean contrary to all that you choose or contrive or desire – that is the road you must take. To that I call you and in that you must be my disciple.’
What we have in the way of church life now is far more religion than any of us realise. God is wanting to take us beyond this. He is wanting to take us to the place where we have not only counted the cost, but have left everything behind. This is the only true discipleship and is a fearsome road.
Grief tore my soul as I stood watching him die. Finally I understood the suffering I saw when we first met, nearly two years ago. Has time really passed so quickly?
They say that just before you die, your life passes before you. I may not be dying, but my life felt at an end. It’s the smell of fish that I remember and of a childhood watching the boats come into port, a brief time of innocence, before my marriage and the hard times that followed. Then the fateful day my husband became a tax collector, a choice between starvation and rejection. Even our families disowned us – to this day.
Death. His breathing grows faint. I have known too much death. My husband took a long time to die. I felt then I was dying with him, followed by the years of loneliness. Nobody would marry a tax collector’s widow, but I did find comfort with a few. Now they call me whore. Maybe they are right, it was an exchange of sorts, just a different coin.
Death. I can see it in his face, it won’t be long now. Poor soul. How did he deserve this? Things were so different when we met. He was the talk of the town. I was helping serve food at that banquet. So many people, all at short notice. All because this prophet from Nazareth said he would come.
I smile as I remember. I doubted if he would want to come, when in he came, as large as life, with a troop of disciples in tow. Some of them looked like scared rabbits! They were clearly not used to our sort of company. Funny, but I don’t remember much, other than how hectic it all was. Such a milestone in my life, yet the details are almost gone. All I recall was turning around and seeing him standing there looking at me. I felt so ashamed that I looked away, but then he called my name. I never did ask him how he knew, it never seemed to matter. It was the way he called it that mattered: no condemnation, just acceptance. I remember looking up and how his eyes held me. A few seconds, maybe, but an eternity in time. I opened my soul to him. No fear, no doubt, but an absolute trust in the love I saw. I did not care who saw the tears, for I knew what he saw, but I also knew it did not matter. I was cleansed.
That was when I saw the suffering in his eyes. The same suffering I see today, my suffering, but not just mine, all those at the banquet, indeed, everyone he probably ever met. I was in a daze as he moved on, but was quickly drawn back into the demands of what I was doing. So many people, so much to do. But, towards the end, just before he left, he looked over to me and said, “Come, follow me.” There was no need for a decision. I just put down my tray and followed. I have never looked back. But that was then.
All is dark now. I feel cold. Even the earth seems to tremble. What have we done?