It never fails…whatever we are reading for our Wednesday Night Words class (this season, it is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together) first makes me angry or gives me a headache and only later, long after the studying stops, displays its gifts for me. I will never forget — I was angry all the time as we read and discussed Claiming Theology from the Pulpit, yet I return to that book over and over again when meeting new people or when reading the work of theologians and commentators — it has formed an essential layer of understanding for me that guides me daily in my ability to discuss my faith, and my ability to actually hear others as they discuss theirs. So far, Life Together has not yielded its gifts.
Or so I thought…until I devoted yesterday evening to reading the second half of Chapter 1, “Community”. The first half of that chapter, which we read and discussed last week, can be boiled down to a single statement: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this (Life Together, pg. 21).” For Bonhoeffer, if your community exists for any other reason than this, it is simply not a Christian community. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about when we read this. There is a lot to sort through when you read Life Together: non-inclusive language, and cultural and theological responses to the political reality of the times (the rise of National Socialism in Germany). Despite that, and despite my problems with some of his concepts that lead up to this thesis, to me this is a definition that is both incredibly stark and incredibly rich. A community that could exist with this as its primary reason for being, well, that community would not be distracted by disagreements and power struggles and, well, the humanity of its various members. And it would shine, it would shine with the light of all that the Gospel has to offer us in our humanity.
Oh yes, the humanity thing. Tends to get in the way.
So I was intrigued as I continued to read chapter 1 and encountered this statement: “Innumberable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.” A wish dream? Bonhoeffer proceeds to explain that a wish dream is, what I think in our more modern usage, we would call expectations. Or maybe, personality-based or ego-based. None of these are positive descriptions, even in modern psychological parlance. A therapist will tell you that it is your expectations that make you unhappy, not necessarily your life — your expectations that people will behave a certain way, that a community will behave a certain way, an expectation of perfect love or perfect peace or simply an expectation of anything at all. It doesn’t matter if we call it a wish-dream or an expectation…whenever we have a pre-conceived notion of someone or some-group-of-someones anticipated way of behaving or thinking, we will be disappointed. Christian community, as defined by Bonhoeffer, has no such expectations.
In the remainder of the chapter, he attempts to explain the difference between Christian community and human-formed community with a series of dichotomies: light vs. dark, truth vs. desire, agape vs. eros, service vs. pleasure. But I keep returning to an earlier statement about wish-dreams: “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. … God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth (Life Together, pg. 26-27).
I’ve been there, haven’t you? I’ve become involved in the administration side of a faith community, only to find myself asking the question — can this possibly be a church? I’ve sat through Trustees meetings, quarterly business meetings, and so on and so forth to ask myself, how can this be God’s work? I’ve served on committees and spent hours screaming about all the work that needs to be done that no one seems to care about doing. I’ve been shattered. I’ve walked away. I’ve seen whole communities ripped apart. …I’ve experienced all that, I’ve done all that, I’ve seen the humanity of those I work with and worship with and I have found myself saying — is this really the idea of Gospel community? And now, thanks to Pastor Bonhoeffer, I have language for that feeling…in those moments, we are all caught in the wish-dream of “what is church in this world?”
But I will say, I have also experienced his other definition: I have seen the most outcast of society accepted and welcomed, I have seen fellow worshippers help strangers through the darkest hour; I have seen people put aside the desires of their ego in favor of the needs of the community; I have seen people who do not agree on the ways of this world come together in faith; I have sat and listened and prayed with those who are desperate and cannot see the light. And so I know, just as Bonhoeffer states, that behind the wish-dream, if we can do the daily work of clearing its cobwebs from eyes, behind that wish dream is the real dream, that dream of community that we all hunger to embrace.
So as you get out and about on this Tuesday, with what I am sure is a busy day ahead of you, do yourself a favor: look and listen carefully. Find your wish-dream, whatever it may be, and, just for a moment, brush it aside. The light just might blind you for a moment, but soon enough your eyes will adjust…and you will never want to look away again.