Remembering Liz

TarraWarra Vineyard in the Yarra Valley, one of Liz’s favourite spots

I had just finished a wonderful meal celebrating my wife’s birthday when my phone started ringing.  It was my brother John.  My sister Liz, who lives in Australia, had just suffered a stroke and was in an induced coma.  She wasn’t expected to last the night.  We were devastated.  There was no warning, nor any symptoms.  Liz’s family gathered around her bed for their last goodbyes.  At 1:00 pm the next day, Liz slipped from this world into the next.

I knew this was going to be very hard for the family.  Liz’s children adored her.  They would need all the support they could get.  I booked a flight and two days later, got on a plane for Melbourne.

And how glad I was that I did.  Over the course of time that I was there, I had opportunity to spend precious time with Liz’s children that I will never forget (I’m convince the Maori culture gets it right here;  the Westernized idea of an hour and half funeral and then everyone goes home just doesn’t cut it).  We talked about Liz’s life, her amazing abilities, her wonderful sensitivity and self-effacing nature, and her deep love for her family.

During one meal, my niece Sarah turned to me and said, “Can I ask you a personal question?”, to which I answered, “Sure, go ahead.” “Did you ever consider Liz to be a real sister?”  I took a deep breath.  I knew we were heading into some deep waters.  Before I go further however, I will need to explain some of our family’s past.

My dad married twice.  In his first marriage, he had three children – Liz, John and Michael.  The marriage didn’t last (due to mental instability of his wife) and for a number of years the children were shunted between their house in Foxton and our family farm in Takapau and then into an orphanage in a nearby town.  My dad couldn’t cope raising them on his own (he was a dairy farmer) and nor could their mother.

After a number of lonely years my dad met up my mother and proposed to her (for the second time in fact, she turned him down the first time because she wanted to travel to Europe. Now she had returned).  My mother accepted; they were married, and she moved into the family farm.  Six more children were born over the next 10 years.  I was the youngest.  Meanwhile Liz, John and Michael grew into adult life, became trained in their respective jobs, got married and had their own children.  We saw them from time to time of course, but I never was as close to them as I was my five sisters (mostly due to my young age and the fact they lived elsewhere).

I assured my niece that I really did consider Liz to be my sister and would have liked to have been closer to her.  My niece didn’t stop there however.  She then said, “I’m wondering whether my mum, along with her brothers, always felt a little left out.  You were part of the happy family they never got.” I took another deep breath.  She obviously didn’t know our family – otherwise she would not have made this statement.  And I sense right then and there I had a moral obligation to put things right.

So, I told my niece something of what it was like growing up in this “happy family.”  Soon after having children, my mother went school teaching.  That was what she was trained for and it was what she loved.  But it was also at the expense of our family’s welfare.  As a young child, I hardly remember seeing her.  She would leave early in the day (the school was a 45 minute drive from our farm) and come home late.  I have memories of her sitting at the kitchen table at night marking tests and exam papers while we watched TV by the fire.  Somewhere along the line my dad started drinking.  And I mean a lot.  My mother would arrive home and find him out cold in the cowshed with the cows standing there un-milked.  She would yell at him and beat him.  This happened on numerous occasions.  Then Michael (Liz’s brother from dad’s first marriage), who was a pilot, was killed in a top-dressing accident.  My dad was very close to Michael and I don’t think he ever recovered.  His drinking got worse and so did my mother’s exasperation (understandable, under the circumstances).

There’s more.  My mother was a very strong and domineering woman.  She had a way of dressing us down like her school students.  Mum would say “jump” and we would say “how high?” on the way up.  She told us later that she had a very severe father who would sometime beat her.  These things have a way of severely affecting people when they are young.  Unfortunately, it gets put on rewind when they get older.  We would often bear the brunt of our mother’s wrath.  Today it would be called emotional and psychological abuse.  Back then we just thought this was normal.  I thought that’s how everyone is brought up.  It was anything but normal, and we all had to do some unravelling and processing later in life.  A lot of that mess got sorted for me when I became a Christian.  I left it all at the cross.  It wasn’t so easy for my sisters.

I don’t want to speak disparagingly of my parents.  They did their best and we still have some wonderful memories growing up.  And they sacrificed many of their own comforts so that we were well provided for.  But we were definitely not the picture-perfect family.  We had issues; some of which are still being unraveled today.  I felt I needed to share some of this with my niece.  It would not be right that she would leave that night with the idea her mum got the raw end of the deal and we got the better end.

All of this reinforces in my mind the importance of talking things out with family members.  Liz went through most of her adult life wondering whether we accepted her as one of us.  I would have loved the opportunity to talk to her about that.

I write these things not to air my dirty laundry but because I know this kind of things happens in other families.  Mine is not the only one – I’m convinced of that.  Perhaps there’s some history in your own family (every family has history – good and bad).  Are there things that should be sorted out?  Are there things that have been buried and need uncovering?  Do you have a strong personality?  I know that I do (inherited no doubt from my mother), and I need to be careful with it.  I see a lot of damage in my line of work (pastoral ministry), that is done by people who exert an overbearing force on others around them.  Are there ways that you might have a controlling influence on those around you – your kids, your spouse, or other family members?  If you are not sure, why not ask them?  Better now than at your funeral.

I’m going to be talking to my kids some more.  They are all adults now, but I want to make sure things are right, in all areas.  My wife and I were not perfect parents, and we made a lot of mistakes, some of which may have caused some damage.  I’d rather know about it now than for them to be talking about it after I’m gone.

Family matters.  People matter.  Relationships matter.  And no matter how deep the hurt, they can be restored and healed.  That’s why Jesus came.  God is the restorer of the broken.

We just need to be open to it.

Liz, brother John and her son Michael in New Zealand.

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A birthday poem for my wife


From opposite sides of the world we met
Two strangers on a road
Neither taking a second glance at the other
Until the day our paths unexpectantly crossed
Then everything changed.

Mischievously planned by the closest of friends
In good faith (it must be added) and submersed in prayer
HE was in it, from the beginning
The timing impeccable, his fingerprints untraceable
Our lives would never be the same.

I saw you, standing there
Listening intently, conversing wisely
With those who sought your counsel and care
“What is this?” I asked myself, “here’s something I never saw before”
Women such as these, I know, are rare.

I was betwixt, my heart and head in a mix
My life was surrendered to another
“For you, my Master, I have given my life
This cannot possibly be in the plan – can it?
“Never more so,” was his answer.

Love of my life
You have befriended me, loved me and served me
You have counselled me, cared for me and taught me
To act wisely and care deeply
He has beautifully used you to shape and perfect me.

Everyday with you brings joy
Talking together, walking together
Resting together, waking together
Our lives are so intertwined
I hardly can imagine life without you.

For all the years that have been
As well as those to come
Times of sorrow and sadness as well as joy and gladness
I give thanks to my God for you.
Happy birthday, my love.

I met Francelle during my first year of Seminary training.  We were asked to head up a new bible study for our Young Adults ministry.  It started purely as a working relationship (set up by our Pastor and his wife) and then changed as God drew us closer and closer together.  The third verse describes the night that I was watching Francelle from the other side of the room, conversing with some young women.  That was the moment I was first drawn to her, and have continued to be drawn, ever since. 

Five Unforgettable Days


When I boarded the plane in Nelson on Saturday heading to a Student Life conference, I did so with mixed feelings.  There was a sense of excitement about what God was going to do in the lives of those I would be ministering to.  But there was also a sense of anxiety: How would I be received? Would the content of my messages be suitable for my hearers?  Would I be able to connect with them?  By the second day those fears had faded.  By the third day they had disappeared altogether.  On the final day, I didn’t want to leave.

The conference was in Queenstown (I know, suffering for the Lord – right?).  I’ve never been to Queenstown in the winter and I have to say, it’s worth it.  The views are breath-taking.  The camp was positioned right on the lake front with 360⁰ views of mountains, towering above us on all sides.  Each morning I would walk out of the dining room on to the balcony of the camp building and gaze at the awesome scene in front of me.

Those mountains – formidable, beautiful, immovable, and majestic, just like the One who made them.  Wonder turned to worship as I gazed at them.  I was reminded how insignificant and small I was, compared with the great I AM.  It was good tonic for the soul before stepping before a crowd who will be attentive to my every word.  Preachers are always prone to growing big heads.  The mountains helped to put things in perspective.

Let me tell you a little about Student Life.  Student life (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) operates on six of our university campuses – Auckland, Waikato, Palmerston North, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago.  Their mission is “to turn lost students into Christ-centred labourers.”  From what I saw over those five days, they are right on target.

There were around 80 students attending, all at different stages of their study and their Christian journey.  Each year that a student attends a conference, they are part of a training track where they are equipped to share their faith, grow in their relationship with God, disciple new believes and then in their final year of study, learn how to live and speak for Jesus in the workplace.

Once my job was done (speaking at the morning session), I jumped into one of these tracks to see what they do.  I was suitably impressed.  By the time a student has finished university, they are fully equipped to make disciples and have likely been on at least one or two summer missions.  They learn that life is not about making lots of money and being successful in their careers.  It’s about serving Christ and reaching the lost.  If we could replicate this kind of equipping in the lives of those who attend our local churches, it would turn the world upside down.

I was also impressed with the caliber of the staff.  After finishing their degree and completing their training, a student can apply to be a staff member.  They raise their own financial support and work on campus full-time.  I know the pressures of full-time ministry.  I’m a pastor.  But I don’t have to raise my own financial support.  And I don’t lose a third of my congregation every year.  Nor do I wear myself out silly, staying up to all hours of the night talking with students who don’t understand the meaning or need for sleep.  I  take my hat off to these leaders.  Their reward is in heaven.

Enjoyed some quality time with Drey, the leader of Student Life in Otago. Drey became a Christian during his first year at Uni through a student outreach.

They do experience however, a measure of reward here on the earth.  It comes in the form of life – new spiritual life.  And if you are a follower of Jesus, you know that nothing is more thrilling and more exhilarating than seeing people come to faith.  There were a number of students attending this conference who were not Christians.  They were part of what they call the “explorers track.” While the others were in training sessions, they were learning all about the Christian faith.  On the second day, one of them gave her life to Christ.  On my last day, while waiting for my flight at the airport, I received a phone call from one of the staff members: three more students had just committed their lives to Christ.

I don’t get to see this sort of thing in my church.  Conversions are (sadly) few and require an immense amount of patience and hard work.  I’m not saying the leaders at Student Life don’t work hard.  They do.  It’s just that the people they are working with are young men and women in their prime who are making life-altering decisions.  You couldn’t catch them at a better time.  Four young individuals, who were previously bound for eternal separation with God, have now become children of God.  Heaven rejoices.  And so do I.

I’ll never forget these five days.  I’ve never bonded with a group so quickly in such a brief period of time.  I feel as if part of me was left there and I have taken part of them back home with me.  Thanks Enoch and the leadership team for inviting me.  May God continue to use your ministry to bring more people into his heavenly kingdom and may many more young men and women be equipped for serving the Saviour and seeking the lost.

Dissonance


Last Sunday at Grace was a difficult day for me.  Later I learned that I was not alone.  It was a difficult morning for a number of people on the worship team.  Things just didn’t sync.  There were sounds made as well as words spoken that didn’t harmonize.

There’s a word for this kind of phenomenon.  It’s called dissonance.

Dissonance is when you have musical chords that contain acoustic frequencies that interfere with one another and set our nerves on edge.  The result is a kind of jarring.  Listeners with a musical ear will pick it up.  Those who don’t might not.

Driving away from church on Sunday I sensed a deep unrest within.  There was something about the morning that wasn’t right.  There was a spiritual dissonance.  Even before the service started our team was unsettled.  Our Service Leader tried leading us into an extended time of prayer.  Suddenly, one of the fold-back speakers exploded (at least that what it sounded like).  Everyone jumped, setting us more on edge.  Prayers were short and lacked heart.  There were long periods of silence.  One or two people shuffled their feet.

Dissonance.

And I had a part in it.  I was speaking on the glorious reality of being united “in Christ.”  There were two places in that message where I went off script.  Once when I was encouraging our people to look at their bibles while I was reading the text.  I spoke too roughly and harshly.  My tone was out.  I was exhorting them to do something good, but not in the right way.

Dissonance.

In the second occasion, I was drawing their attention to the words of a great hymn by Charles Wesley.  Many of the great hymns of the past are filled with profound spiritual truth about the gospel – unlike much of our modern worship music.  This fact has always been an irritation for me and this irritation was vocalized, rather vividly, right there on the spot.  I had a mini-rant about the superficiality of modern worship songs.  It was unscripted, a little too forceful and it didn’t fit with the rest of the message.  Unsurprisingly, it irked one or two of our musicians.  One took offense and wrote to me about it the next day.

I had no doubt that Satan had a hand in this.  He has an aversion to harmony, particularly among God’s people.  He uses all the tricks he can think of to bring about discord, disagreement, dissension and disturbance.  He stirs up feelings of unease and agitation over every little thing (and big thing).  He’ll use feedback speakers and human speakers.  He’ll use kids crying and tea cups dropping.  He’ll use anything he can to cause disruption of what God intends to do in and through his people, which is to bring them into a closer and fuller and richer relationship with himself and each other.

What I found interesting, in the days following, was that an equal number of people were greatly encouraged by the morning and sensed that God spoke to them from his Word in a powerful and real way.  Those of us in ministry can be heartened by that.  Despite the enemy’s tactics; despite his meddling and interfering causing distraction, disruption and discord, God’s Spirit is at work bringing about beauty, unity and coherence.

So, we might say, heaven’s harmony overcomes the devil’s dissonance.  The Spirit of God wins out over the spirits of the evil one.  Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

There is still a lesson here for me (as well as for all of us).  I need to be on guard.  I need to stay alert, spiritually speaking.  I am prone to pride and self-promotion.  I am passionate about the truth, but that same passion can easily manifest itself in the flesh.  I must guard my heart.  I must also listen carefully to my critics – there will always be some element of truth in what they say.

Finally, I must remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens (Ephesians 6:12).  Therefore, I must take up the armour of God, fasten my belt and take a stand.

Here’s hoping this Sunday I will be better prepared.  And so might you.

Speaking out against Assisted Suicide

If you live in New Zealand, you will be well aware of another push to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide, led by David Seymour, leader of the ACT Party.  The NZ Parliament has just voted the “End of Life Choice Bill” through its 1st Reading and it is now being considered by the Justice Select Committee.  A similar bill went before the Select Committee two years ago and the majority of New Zealanders opposed it, so that it never made any ground (see my post “Please New Zealand, don’t support assisted suicide” in January 2016, along with my submission against the bill).

Well here it is again, with a new twist.  This new bill involves a law change.  If passed, it would allow assisted suicide or euthanasia by deadly drugs for virtually any New Zealander 18 years or older, who has a disability, a longstanding or ageing-related condition, a mental illness, or even severe depression.

Family First recently published a very helpful and informative leaflet on the issue, which helped clarify a lot of things that were on my mind.

“Safe euthanasia is a myth. Euthanasia will remove the ‘choice’ of many vulnerable people, and fails the public safety test. Most disturbingly, promotion of assisted suicide is a message that will be heard not just by those with a terminal illness but also by anyone tempted to think he or she can no longer cope with their suffering – whatever the nature of that suffering. This is the real risk to young and to vulnerable people, the disabled and elderly people if NZ follows the path of promoting – and allowing – assisted suicide” — Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

To me it seems rather odd, and somewhat hypercritical for many of our country’s leaders and politicians to be making such a big issue about suicide (which is truly out of hand) and then, in the same breath, support assisted suicide for the weak and vulnerable.  Cannot people see this?

It is helpful in all of this, to have a clear understanding of what assisted suicide is and what it is not.  Have a look at this short video by Euthanasia-Free NZ – you’ll find it very helpful:

There are some clear warnings from other countries where a similar bill has been passed:

  • OREGAN:  In 2016, 48.9% of those who died under the Death with Dignity Act cited “burden on family, friends/caregivers” as a reason for accessing assisted suicide.
  • THE NETHERLANDS:  At least 23% of euthanasia deaths are not reported each year, despite reporting being required by law. In 2012, mobile euthanasia clinics began providing euthanasia to patients whose doctors had refused; by 2014, there were 39 of these clinics, again without recourse to Parliament for a change in the law.
  • BELGIUM:  In the region of Flanders, roughly 30% of all euthanasia deaths are non-voluntary; that’s roughly 1.8% of all deaths in the region.
  • CANADA:  Between June 2016 and June 2017, 1,982 people died under Canada’s Medical Aid in Dying (MAID) Law– 1,977 were euthanized, and 5 people committed assisted suicide.

Some may argue those stats are one-sided; there must be positives to this law change.  But even if these are one-sided, and given say – 10% margin of error, they are still very concerning.  Besides, I still personally struggle to see what “positive effects” such a law change may bring about.

As a Pastor, who has ministered to the elderly and dying for the past 24 years, I strongly oppose this law change.  As a family member, who has sat at my dying parent’s bedside, I oppose this bill.  As a citizen, who foresees massive problems where this could go in our nation, I oppose this bill.   And as a God-fearer, who will one day face his Creator and give an answer for how I stood (or did not stand) for truth and the sanctity of human life, I oppose this bill.

Here is the submission that I made to the Select Committee:

To the Justice Select Committee,

I am writing to oppose the End of Life Choice Bill.

Firstly, I oppose this bill for legal reasons. The bill, if passed, would require a major change to the Crimes Act – namely, that some people should be allowed to intentionally end the lives of other people. The ultimate choice and control will be with the system and its agents, not with the person who dies.

Secondly, I oppose this bill for social reasons. As a pastor, I devote a considerable amount of time caring for the elderly. Many of them struggle to get through each day as their health deteriorates; others suffer with debilitating disease. It pains me to see them in this condition. Yet I also see the love, care and support shown by family members, health professionals as well as people in my church and community. Such loving service is what makes communities truly human. It is right and good. What message are we sending to our children when, for the sake of convenience, the lives of the weak and suffering are simply terminated? I believe such a law would have a profound negative influence on our society.

Thirdly, I oppose this bill for ethical reasons. This bill, if passed, would violate one of the most important principles of our Judeo-Christian heritage (which was foundational to the forming of New Zealand society); namely, the sanctity of human life. EVERY life in this nation of our has inherent worth, able or disabled, healthy or sick.

Lastly, I oppose this bill for personal reasons. Several years ago, I sat at the beside of my dying mother, who was suffering terribly in the last stages of cancer. Her death was not sudden, but long and drawn out. The care given by the medical team at the hospice was exceptional. They monitored her pain levels constantly so that she was not in any discomfort. The drain on myself and my five siblings however, was noticeable. It meant time away from our jobs and family, loss of income and considerable emotional anguish. During this time, none of us were in a fit state to make rational decisions – particularly a decision on whether a person should live or die. We were simply coping. My concern, if such a bill was passed, is that individuals in a similar situation may act emotionally or reactively to end a loved one’s life, or the one suffering may feel pressured or coerced to request a premature death.

Some of the most precious time spent with my mother was during those final days. Hurts were healed, relationships were restored, and loving words were uttered. I believe every human being is put here on this earth by their Creator for a purpose. That purpose is not fully complete until their allotted days are over. We do not have the right, nor the wisdom or foresight, to aid in the ending on another individual’s life, whether they request it or not.

Respectfully yours,

Peter Somervell

Some helpful and informative websites:

You can make your own online submission here.

 

Living with Margin

margin-heroOne of my favourite things to do while on summer holiday (aside from lying on the beach and eating ice-cream) is reading.  I typically take an assortment of books with me and believe it or not, manage to get through most of them.  I went to pick up the pile I had gathered from my office when a book on my shelf caught my eye.  Remembering Spurgeon’s words about the merits of re-reading good books, I grabbed it, added it to my pile and walked out.

And I’m glad I did.

The full title is “Margin – Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives.”  It’s author, Richard Swenson is a medical doctor as well as a committed Christian.  You don’t have to be a Christian to get something out of this book.  In fact, you could be anti-Christian and get a lot out of this book.  Much of it is about common sense – sense that our Grandparents and Great-grandparents survived on and we, for the most part, have forgotten.

Swenson wrote this book because day after day he sees patients whose lives are literally falling to pieces.  He writes, “Some people come in for broken legs; others, broken hearts. Some have irritable colons; others, irritable spouses.  Some have bleeding ulcers; others, bleeding emotions.  And compounding these wounds, many patients show signs of a new disease: marginless living.”

So, what is “marginless living”?

“Marginless,” writes Swenson, “is being thirty minutes late to the doctor’s office because you were twenty minutes late getting out the hairdresser’s because you were ten minutes late dropping the children off at school because the car ran out of gas two blocks from the gas station – and you forgot your purse.” (p.13)

Sound familiar?

My grandparents didn’t go around complaining about how “stressed” they were (nor for that matter, did my parents).  As Swenson points out, no one talked about stress until the 1950’s.  Now almost EVERYONE is stressed.  But why?

The problem, Dr. Swenson argues, is PROGRESS.  Progress is moving ahead at a speed that we are no longer able to keep up with.  If we don’t create sufficient margin in our lives, this progress creates more and more problems.  The problems then create more stress in our lives and in trying to deal with this added stress, we add more and more activities which results in overloading.

Overloading occurs when the expectation placed upon us (or the ones we place upon ourselves) exceeds that which we are able to bear.  This can occur physically, mentally, emotionally, financially or spiritually.  Camels can bear great loads.  But if another straw is placed on an already overloaded camel, it’s back is broken.  Its back is not broken by the straw, but by the overload (hence the common phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back”).

We all have our limits – physical limits, emotional limits, mental limits, financial limits.  When these limits are pushed beyond what we can bear, the result is overload.

WP_20180125_003The perscription says Swenson, is margin.  Margin is the amount allowed beyond what is needed.  Margin gives freedom and allows for rest.  Margin is the breath we have at the top of the stairs, the money we have at the end of the month, and the sanity we have at the end of a working week.  When we are overloaded, we have no margin (or we have negative margin).  If, however we are careful to avoid overloading, margin reappears.

Re-reading this was refreshing as well as enlightening.  Because this is exactly what I need in the coming year.

All well and good, you say, but is this notion of his biblical?  Is it prescribed for us in Scripture?  Yes.  It just comes under a different name: availability.  Swenson points out that the modern assumption for the Christian life is “all that is good and all that God wants us to accomplish is possible only in a booked-up, highly efficient, often exhausted way of life.”  But is this true?  Swenson argues no.  Instead God calls us to walk the second mile, carry other’s burdens, and witness to the truth of God at any opportunity.  And in order to do that we need margin in our lives, so we can be available.

“God expects us to be available for the needs of others.  And without margin, each of us would have great difficulty guaranteeing availability.  Instead, when God calls, He gets the busy signal.” (p.99)

Ouch.

What it all comes down to is a call to reorient ourselves to what really matters in life.  And what really matters are relationships.  When we look at the great progress western civilization has made in the past five decades, it is all in the area of the physical – better technology, communication, transportation etc.  But there has been little or no progress in emotional, spiritual and social wellness.  And it’s in these areas that we are all feel the most pain.

“God has shown us the road to health, the path to blessing – it is the way of relationships,” Swenson writes.  “Somehow we just keep taking our expensive automobiles to our posh offices to make another hundred thousand dollars, while all the time our relationships vaporize before our eye and our loneliness deepens.” (p.239)

How very true.

But we do not need to despair.  There is hope.  Relationships can be restored – we just need to create margin for them.  We just need a little more space, a little more breath at the top of the stairs and sanity left at the end of the week.

“If stress crushed your spirit by poisoning you with despair, then either conquer stress or walk away – but don’t stop relating.  If that malignant, universal enemy of relationship health, marginless living, leaves you panting for air and desperate for space, then go and take margin back.  Hack it out of your cultural landscape.  And guard it for the sake of your God, yourself, your family and your friends.  Health cannot be too far behind.”

Wise words.  I recommend you get the book.

Putting a spoke in the wheel

When the Church has a Responsibility to Challenge the State

My summer reading began with Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  It is a masterpiece by Eric Metaxas and won many book awards.  Now I see why.   Most know something about the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance to Hitler and the Nazi regime and final execution, only weeks before the Allied invasion.  But few know of his incredible courage and passion for truth and justice in the face of monstrous evil.  If he was alive today, I believe this man would not allow the church of the West to remain in the sleepy state that is currently in, but would be calling it to repentance and moral action.

Which brings me to a particular part of the book that I would like to draw your attention to.  It concerns the responsibility of the church to the challenge the state, when it is not acting as the state should be.  In Romans chapter 13 verse 1 Paul says,

“Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)

The governing authority at this time, was the Third Reich, which had just come into power.  They were implementing policy after policy restricting civil liberties and granting to themselves greater and greater power.  One policy that was particularly disturbing was called “The Aryan Paragraph” which stated that Government employees must be of “Aryan” stock, anyone of Jewish descent would lose his job.  If the German church (essentially a state church), went along then all pastors with Jewish blood would be excluded from ministry.  Many were confused as to how to respond.  Bonhoeffer instinctively knew something had to be done and that needed to be thought through very carefully.  The result was his essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

Bonhoeffer argued that the church does play a vital role for the state.  What is that role?  The church he said, must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order and not to lawlessness and disorder.”  In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state – both in terms of creating an atmosphere of law and order and not creating an atmosphere of excessive law and order.  If the state is responsible for encouraging excessive law and order (as the Nazi’s were doing), then the church has a responsibility to correct that, because that is a condition which will limit freedom of speech, civil liberties and particularly – gospel proclamation.

Bonhoeffer then outlined (and this is where it gets interesting) three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state.

1. The first, was for the church to question the state regarding its actions – to help the state be what God ordained it to be.

2. The second way (and here is where he gets bold), was “to aid the victims of state action.”  Bonhoeffer stated, “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if the do not belong to the Christian community.”  He was referring of course, to the Jews.  He then quoted Galatians 6:10: “Do good to all men.”

3. The third way the church can act toward the state he said, “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It is sometimes not enough to simply help those crushed by the evil actions of the state; at some point the church must take direct action against the state to prevent it perpetrating evil.

In the spring in 1933, Bonhoeffer made himself very clear: he was declaring that it was the duty to stand up for the Jews.  This was long before the Jews began to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years.  As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, the writing was on the wall.  Metaxas then writes,

“Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone.  But for him they were inescapable.  In time, he would do all three.” (p.155)

I personally found all this to be very provoking.  I had always taken the view that Christians should submit to the government in an almost passive manner and any protest must only be done by petitions and letters.  Well after reading Bonhoeffer’s response, I’m thinking differently.

To be sure, we don’t have a Nazi State here in quiet, little New Zealand.  But we are seeing some changes in policy coming down the pipe that are alarming and in my estimation, coming very close to points number 2 and 3.  I’m speaking of euthanasia and the deadly effect that could have on our aging and mentally ill as well as physically challenged.  If life could be snuffed out quickly with the help of a relative or physician, many people could become helpless victims.  Human life – life made in the image and likeness of God, will no longer be seen as precious in our society, but something to be eradicated when it interferes with the progress and improvement of society.

Will the time come when Christians in our small nation will have to take a stand?  Will they be bold and courageous enough, as Bonhoeffer was, to take on the state?  Will I?  Would I put my life on the line for the cause of truth and the protection of the helpless?

I very much hope that I will.

FOOTNOTE: Many in Bonhoeffer’s day believed Hitler was a Christian. He was anything but. Hitler was a master pragmatist; he made statements in public that made him sound like he was pro-church or pro-Christian, solely for political gain. In private, he made a tirade of comments against Christianity and Christians. According Hitler, Christianity preached “meekness and flabbiness,” and was not useful to the National Socialist ideology, which preached “ruthlessness and strength” (Metaxas, p.166).  In a meeting between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, Heydrich said, “Just you wait. You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.”  His words were chillingly accurate.