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In recent times I have often used the illustration of a rope with its many strands to urge the contemplation of how the seemingly unrelated issues with which we wrestle can provide a unifying strength. This last week has seen me attempting to come to grips with Bonhoeffer’s approach to ethics, a challenge to participate in a meaningful way to the crisis in Zimbabwe, and the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15). I also attended a Dayspring workshop with Steve Wirth on Contemplative Dialogue, possibly a promising tool in the context of the three seemingly disparate strands of the rope I was attempting to plait! Why these particular strands?

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I am conducting a study series for two congregations based on his life and thought in relation to Hitler and the Third Reich. A grassroots approach to discipleship and ethics saw him involved in a failed plot to overthrow the regime. He was arrested, imprisoned and finally executed. During this time he continued to write. His thought and commitment is relevant to issues before us as church and nation today.
  • Zimbabwe – we have affective bonds within my congregation with the people of this nation – we are involved with the housing and education of AIDS orphans, a farming project and water bores. In the light of the escalation of officially sanctioned violence over the last week, people are asking what more they can do. The Bonhoeffer studies are heightening such questions,
  • The Parable of the Lost Son was in yesterday’s lectionary. The sermon had to somehow address the unusual “ethics” within this story. The fresh discovery that the story makes no sense at all from an ethical point of view was somewhat liberating for those of us caught on the barbed wire fence of the ethical system suggested by Bonhoeffer. We came to an understanding of another awareness central to Bonhoeffer’s thinking – that of grace. Grace that is costly to both the giver and the receiver. The critical elder brother, self-expelled into the outer darkness because he couldn’t bare the celebrations, also experienced the offer of grace. The father came out from the party to be with him in his self imposed misery, not to commiserate, but to gently entice him to the place where there was light, joy and the possibility of reconciliation with his brother. Whether the elder brother received grace is unknown. Did he eventually go into the celebrations?

What does all this look like when twined together? Not much that will give answers to the dilemmas of justice that confront contemporary living. We have to work things out the best way we can (that’s basically what Bonhoeffer was saying, pointing to love for neighbour and the modelling of Jesus as his guiding principles). What we are offered is a stance – the stance of grace.

The overwhelming message from church leaders in Zimbabwe with whom we have had contact is that of courageous grace. This is shown through forthrightness in their will to care compassionately for and encourage their people, often against breathtaking odds. They are working out of an ethic that is saturated with grace.

Maybe our most important task is to learn from them.