Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#1] [Final Post in Series!]

Theology has teeth.

This is what I’ve learned throughout seminary. Here’s why.

Having graduating seminary, I have continued reading books within the world of theology. But I have also ventured into new territory. Recently I finished Annie Dillard’s classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before that, I devoured Eric Metaxas’s eponymous 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer.

My college chaplain, Ron Kopiko, always said that we say what we believe but we do what we value. If one is interested in finding someone who genuinely did what they valued, look no further than the unassuming Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Born early in the 20th century, he grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and men just as a then-obscure Austrian man grew in hate and anger and favor not with God but with a few nationalistic henchmen. As Adolph Hitler carefully assumed control in a debt-laden and politically compromised Germany, Bonhoeffer pursued his vocation in pastoral ministry and professorship.

Before it dawned on most of the elites in Germany, Bonhoeffer sensed Hitler had the worst of intentions. Wooing over the clergy in Germany who were willing to pay a high tax for a very fragile peace, Hitler did his best to spiritually legitimate his actions by subverting Christian beliefs. Attempting to obscure the reality that Jesus himself was Jewish, the Hitler-subservient Reich Church of Germany tossed out essentially the entire Old Testament. It simply didn’t fit with their current goals of destroying lives and calling on the German people to denigrate and destroy the Jewish people. Jewish theology, to them, had no place in their version of “Christian” practice.

True, many leaders in the church bowed to Hitler’s increasingly uncompromising demands. But there were many brave clergy who said no to Hitler. Risking income, status in the community, and their lives, Bonhoeffer carefully coordinated a resistance plan to Hitler’s grab for spiritual power. He leveraged his influence in various international church councils while petitioning his fellow German believers to practice a bolder faith. Bonhoeffer helped sift out the true disciples, the true Christians whose faith meant coordinate action.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer realized Hitler was politically unstoppable. The way he had managed to leverage nationalistic fervor through propaganda made any kind of resistance futile. Begrudgingly and with great fear for his soul, he became a part of a plan to assassinate Hitler. This was for the sake of the Jews, the disabled, the homosexuals, and all other people groups Hitler sought to exterminate, but it was to him a duty to God.

Bonhoeffer’s beliefs were strong enough that he risked everything–even his standing before God, the way he saw it–to live out his discipleship after Jesus.

There are few people who, like Bonhoeffer, have taken Jesus literally when he said, “take up your cross and follow me[1].” He was imprisoned for several years and eventually hanged on April 9th, 1945. Bonhoeffer’s no to Hitler meant a yes to the call of Jesus Christ.

May we, as Christians living in the 21st century, search for ways to take up our own crosses. Theology is not abstract or distant or irrelevant; at its core, our theology informs how we act in the world. And whether or not we talk about theological things, we say what we believe then do what we value.

Bonhoeffer valued Jesus.

That’s the start. Then comes the taking-up-our-cross part.


[1]Bible, New Testament, Matthew 16:24.

How the Christian Church Responds to the Adam Lanza Tragedy in Newtown

During this Advent season 2012, most of the Midwest is overcast and gray. Michigan is no exception. I was aware of this as I shuffled past Kindergartners on my way out of school at C.A. Frost Environmental Academy here in Grand Rapids. Looking forward to Science Fridays with Ira Flatow, I turned on the radio in my hatchback. Recalling a text message my girlfriend had sent me earlier during my lunch break, the shock was lessened.

The shock remained, pulsing through the minds of everyone I have been in contact with for the past several days. 26 persons, 20 of whom were young children, gone in an armed maelstrom. In presidential fashion, Obama announced, “God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on and make our country worthy of their memory.”

These words initially strike us as encouraging and thoughtful. I would like to deeper their meaning and do my best to speak to the situation theologically. The key question lies in discovering the response of the church, and subsequently of the faithful Christian, to the tragedy. Obama’s words help prime questioning hearts within people everywhere.

A family pauses at the vigil to remember and grieve.
A family pauses at the vigil to remember and grieve.

Entering this quandary begins in framing how the church responds to tragedy. The church, and Israel, has always been defined by the community it consists of; Israel was identified by their communal decisions under God. The church is defined by Israel’s hope, the Messiah or Jesus, and our Christian hope is our identity. The New Testament intricately describes how the community of believers collaborates to embody the message of Jesus’s kingdom come [Acts 2:42-47]. All the while, we, the community of believers, anticipate the fullness of creation made new [Revelation 21].

Back to Obama’s words: “God has called them all home.” This statement implicitly presupposes a God who caused these deaths. A theodicy is not necessary here, but to be clear, God mourns these losses. The young man, Adam, was free to exact his own will on others, sadly, and we grieve the losses. So does God. Jesus, the Son of God, suffered with us [Isaiah 53, Gospels]. God is greatly grieved for loss of life and the wickedness that causes it [Genesis 6:5-6]. He knows the length of our days, but clearly he does not seek to shorten them.

Back to the response of the church. This past Sunday, at Grace Episcopal, the church in which I have served for going on four years, we lit a candle and prayed for the families and individuals in Newtown. We lifted up our concerns and cares before the God who comforts and heals. We did it first as a community of faith, collectively pleading for God to reach into lives. We did it also as families and individuals with varying opinions and emotions. We long for God to make all things new, and do our best to keep praying the prayer Jesus taught us, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

We desire things on earth to be as they are in heaven, but we simply do not understand the evils made explicit in the Newtown tragedy. Nor can we comprehend the systemic evils that beset the planet we share. We do what the church does best: we pray, encourage, grieve, listen, and repeat the cycle. For the children, the parents, the families, the extended families, for Adam and his mother who is also gone. May the grieving families in Newtown know that the church, the common people of faith in God throughout the nation and world, is praying. And may they know that the God of the universe is also grieving, but also making all things new in the end.

The names of the departed are below. May we continue in prayer.

The names and ages of the children are as follow:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N. Wyatt, 6

And the names, ages, and job titles of the adults are as follow:

Rachel Davino, 29, Teacher
Dawn Hochsprung, 47, Principal
Anne Marie Murphy, 52, Teacher
Lauren Rousseau, 30, Teacher

Credit for the list of people and the picture goes to International Business Times. Their article, from December 15th 2012, is here.