Today in the Church Calendar is the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran Pastor who was executed by the Nazis on this day in 1945. Bonhoeffer was a prophetic voice in a dark time, and continues to inspire those who are called to call the church to repent and believe, to forsake the false comfort of nostalgic patterns to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us.
I am thinking, how do we commemorate a life? I believe we best commemorate a life not by enfolding it within those very nostalgic patterns, but by identifying something in that life that we choose to imitate. And by imitate I do not mean slavishly attempt to copy – we are called to grow into ourselves, not into someone else’s calling – but to ask, what would that look like for me?
Recently, Jo and I, along with our good friend Mark Carey, have been reflecting on what we experienced, and he observed, in Sheffield when Mike Breen was Rector at St Thomas.’ Mike lived by the apostle Paul’s pattern, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Mike called people to join his team, and he and Sally invested their lives in us. We were regular guests in their home. I was part of a group of people who Mike met with on a weekly basis – and Jo was part of a similar group Sally called together – and week by week they would share with us what God was showing them. Week by week, we were brought to Jesus; and we saw the difference that Jesus made in our lives, we watched transformation take place in the lives of others.
In time, we were challenged to go and do likewise, to invite people into our lives, to bring them to Jesus. Not that we were completely Christ-like by any means – and neither were Mike and sally – but because this was Christ’s model, investing in a certain group of people, making disciples who in turn would make disciples.
Since we have left Sheffield, we have not experienced anywhere else what we experienced there. In college placements and curacies we have experienced vicars who chair business meetings, but not that sharing of life, not that bringing their team to Jesus. Our observation is that it isn’t even on the radar: not for church leaders, and not the expectation of church members.
What has this to do with imitation? Well, we are convinced that we are called to imitate what we saw in Mike and Sally, as they imitated what they saw in Jesus. We are convinced that we are called to call people into life-on-life relationship, and in that context to bring them to Jesus, over and over again; and to challenge them to do likewise. We are convinced that this is how it should be. But, I am not Mike; and Jo is not Sally; and we are not in Sheffield.
Mike is an apostle. He is larger-than-life. He is someone to whom people are easily drawn, to whom people gather. Mike and Sally are both big-hearted people, and in Sheffield they were able to throw their home open to lots of young adults who were asking questions about life, and looking for something other than just the bubble that student life can be.
I am a prophet, intense, introvert. My tutor at college summed it up well when he wrote that the more he got to know me, the more he appreciated me, the more he recognised of real value in me: but it wasn’t (and is never going to be) something up-front and out there. In some ways, people have to work quite hard to get to know me. And in part, that is something I have to work to bridge; but in part that is simply me. So it takes time for people to be drawn to us – and for the time being we are in a season of moving every two years!
The way an apostle will lead a team will be different from the way a prophet leads a team; will be different from the way an evangelist or a pastor or a teacher leads a team. But teams do not simply exist by bringing people together: they are built, and they are built through a process (we call it the Square). At different times, at different stages in the process of building a team of disciples, we are required to lead them in different ways. At least some of the time, we will be operating outside – perhaps well outside – of our comfort zone (and these are the times when we are stretched most, when we go deeper into Jesus). I may not be an apostle, but if I am to call people to follow me as I follow Jesus – if I am to model a particular culture, to instil particular values we might cohere around so that as we move forward we don’t pull apart – then I must allow the Holy Spirit to draw me into an apostolic phase. Just as an apostle will need to allow the Holy Spirit to draw them into a pastoral and/or teaching phase when the going gets hard and those who have gathered are questioning their decision; just as we are, perhaps (thanks, Mark, for these suggestions), led into an evangelistic phase as we send our disciples out to find their own People of Peace; and, perhaps, a prophetic phase as we release them to pioneer the territory God has called them to chart so that new communities of faith can be established.
While I am not called to copy Mike, I did get to observe him for years. There are things I can learn from him – some things that are transferable and some things that are translatable – that can help me to operate in apostolic phases, even if they are never going to come naturally to me.
While I am not called to copy Bonhoeffer, I am invited to commemorate his life: exploring with God what I might learn from him and how I might apply those things in my own life.