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Rev. Joey N. Welsh: A life, a centenary, and some real sacrifice

Another Angle, the occasional musings of a Kentucky pastor. a life, a centenary, and some real sacrifice to recall for Lent. First published 12 March 2006, in the Hart County News-Herald
The next earlier Another AngleRev. Joey N. Welsh: Anne Frank, a Legacy in Words

By Rev. Joey N. Welsh

Throughout more than a millennium of Christian history, the idea of "giving up" something for Lent has been a widespread practice of personal discipline and sacrificial devotion, intended to recall Jesus' 40 day fast in the wilderness, as well has his ultimate act of self-giving on the cross. Centuries ago the system of self-denial for Lent (especially giving up meat) was quite formal and compulsory, strictly regulated by church authorities.

A few hundred years ago in many European communities even the wealthiest carnivore Christians would not have gone near a piece of meat during Lent for fear that the local priest would find out. (The poor, lowly serfs seldom had much meat anyway, so their temptation was less intense.)

For some people now the concept of personal sacrifice is more trivial than profound. I have known friends who have given up chewing gum, their favorite soft drink, or their preferred candy for Lent, thinking that it was a major personal forfeiture. I have gone that way myself; in several years I gave up all meat for the 40 days, though sometimes I found myself focusing more on self-pity than on the spiritual significance of my experience. I don't normally think of fast food grease and cholesterol as being real food, but on many Easter Sundays I would pick up a McDonald's Sausage McMuffin on the way to the Mammoth Cave Easter Sunrise Service and savor every morsel, grateful for the end of my 40 days of "denial."

Eventually though, I saw that whatever I gave up for Lent was a mere shadow of real sacrifice. I realized that I live in a world populated by billions of people who would dearly love to have enough in life to begin with, enough to have the luxury of choosing anything inconsequential to give up for a while. In a world where so many members of the human family don't have the bare minimum needed for a healthy life, how can I view any item I give up for 40 days as real sacrifice?

Since I comprehended that truth, I have observed Lent by doing intentional deeds of kindness whenever I've had the opportunity. At the same time, I know that Lent isn't all about me, and I also take the time to remember people whose personal sacrifice has been both authentic and meaningful. One such person is the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The centenary of his birth was in early February, but I thought it would be better to wait a few weeks until Lent to note his birthday.

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) lived to be only 39, but he lived a significant life of true sacrifice. A brilliant thinker and teacher, he came to New York City and Union Theological Seminary early in his career. A keen observer of American religion, he was disturbed that so many Americans -- including some professors at the seminary -- could not articulate their faith clearly. He worshipped in a lot of congregations, and he was stirred by the spirited services he attended at the African-American Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

For Bonhoeffer, the comfy cushions on the pews of so many U. S. churches came to symbolize the complacency of American church-goers in the face of suffering in the world. He thought that those cushions revealed a modern church that valued comfort more than disciplined commitment to the demands of the gospel. (Something tells me that Bonhoeffer might think similar things of churches in our own time, nearly 61 years after his death.)

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, rather like Daniel going into the lions' den. With the rise of Nazism his loyalty to his faith made him a dangerous figure in the eyes of the government. He was one of the brave dissenters who refused to replace allegiance to God with allegiance to the German state. He participated in the writing of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, a statement of faith that attacked idolatry of the Nazi powers.

One of his sermons criticizing German governmental policy was interrupted in the middle of its radio broadcast. He was banned from further broadcasts and from teaching. A gentle man, he eventually decided that nothing less than total opposition to Hitler would suffice. He participated in the unsuccessful 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler. He and others were imprisoned after the plot failed, and Bonhoeffer was among a group of men executed on April 9, 1945. They were hanged after being forced to parade naked to the gallows. That was about a week after Easter had come, bringing Lent 1945 to an end, shortly before Hitler took his own life and Germany surrendered to the Allies.

Bonhoeffer's martyrdom makes any Lenten sacrifice I could ever make seem very pale indeed. He left behind significant writings on faith and sacrifice, including The Cost of Discipleship, Life Together, and Letters and Papers from Prison. But, in his centennial year [2006], the most significant thing he leaves to us is the reality of his life, witness, and personal sacrifice. He was a good and faithful person who reminds us of true sacrifice and self-denial in this Lenten season of disciplined abstinence. We should be grateful and humbled as we remember him at his centenary.


This story was posted on 2011-03-06 18:05:58
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