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Martyrdom of the common man

Friday, March 23, 2007

Psalm 34:17-21
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all; he protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.

Evil will slay the wicked; the foes of the righteous will be condemned.

In 1937, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer finished The Cost of Discipleship, written as Hitler consolidated his power and began extending oppression of Jews and dissidents. The Nazi phenomenon was still largely limited to Germany. Bonhoeffer was 31 years old and leader of the German Lutheran "Confessing Church."

Bonhoeffer believed in non-violent resistance but nonetheless became involved in several plots to assassinate Adolph Hitler. He was arrested in 1943 and executed in 1945, days before the surrender of Germany to Allied forces. He never married, never had children, suffered emotionally and physically, and watched his family disappear and die, one by one by one.

The verses in Psalm 34 describe the righteous man and God's commitment to him. Bonhoeffer knew this promise as well as he knew his own skin. But he understood that God's "deliverance" might not look how he expected it to look:

We have forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. The psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. ... The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.

Bonhoeffer believed this was an experience shared by Christians; the Church was defined as the assembly of those who died with Christ. And to have died with Christ was to be identified with shame and suffering. It was to be the scapegoat that was thrust out into the wild. And it was also the assembly of those who found new life in Christ.

A church of men and women who face this life and death, who know God from the bottom, is a church full of joy. Father Richard Rohr in his book about Job writes, "True joy is not authentic unless achieved through pain - not under it, not to the right or left or over, but through it. That's the only authentic Christian joy."

Not every day, of course, do I have to suffer. That heresy is called "Jansenism," among other things. And I don't need a whip to flagellate myself. As Jesus said, "Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matthew 6:34). But I can face squarely what comes, and accept it. God is with me every moment. His rescue is not just imminent, it is already happening.

The overwhelmingly present tense of Psalm 34 reminds me of God's faithfulness. He alone is worthy of trust.

Let us go together, Lord to discover you, and find within ourselves the safe place where we can go to meet you. You have shown us sanctuary. There is nothing to fear. Thank you.

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