The heartbreak of discipleship


The heartbreak of discipleship

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:17).

Saturday marked the 66th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. After these many years, it feels as though we are all still catching up to his brilliant theology, his Christian witness, and his deep understanding of discipleship.

It seems appropriate to reflect upon what Bonhoeffer called the "cost of discipleship" and to ask what it means for us now.

In my experience as a parish pastor I’ve come to understand that each of us calculates the cost of discipleship differently. We each give it a different name.

For me, its name is heartbreak.

Discipleship is following Jesus, and, as the Gospels show us, Jesus relentlessly confronted the world’s brokenness.

He plunged himself and his disciples into all kinds of heartbreaking circumstances: the death of a child, debilitating disease, oppression and exclusion. He surrounded himself with people who longed for release, healing and restoration.

We see this powerfully in John 11 when Jesus comes to Bethany following the death of his friend Lazarus.

As he enters the town, he is surrounded by heartbreak: that of Lazarus’ neighbors and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus is heartbroken too. Seeing and hearing these people, "greatly disturbed and deeply moved," Jesus weeps.

We know these tears. We have cried them too.

For loved ones. For friends. For parishioners. For the lost. For the poor. For Japan.

We know the heartbreak that washed over Jesus outside of Lazarus’ tomb.

Bonhoeffer knew it too. We hear it echoed this excerpt from his poem, "Who Am I?":

…restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectation of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making…

As disciples of Jesus, we are continually called to places we would rather not go, into circumstances that are painful and heartbreaking.

We go because this is where Jesus goes. We go because this is where Jesus is -- still and always -- amid the wreckage, the rubble and the world’s pain.

For several months last year I journeyed with a mother and daughter through the valley of the shadow of death.

The mother, 90 years old, suffered from several health problems, which sent her bouncing between hospitals and home, rehabs and nursing homes, and finally led her to hospice.

Her daughter sat by her bed every day. Every day, while her heart was breaking, she advocated, she tended, she loved and cared for her mother -- all the way to the end.

In this daughter, I witnessed both the cost and the grace of discipleship: the cost of having one’s heart broken open by the suffering of this world -- and the grace of finding, in that breaking, the fullness of love -- God’s as well as her own for her mother.

The great challenge of discipleship is to keep our broken hearts open -- to not let the heartbreak get the best of us, consume us, shut us down, or make us cynical. And this is so, so hard -- allowing ourselves to experience heartbreak again and again.

But a broken heart loves much better than a closed one.
A broken heart knows things about love, mercy and compassion.
A broken heart may be broken, but it continues to beat.
A broken heart knows its need for God.
A broken heart may be the only thing we have to give, but it is enough.


Keith Anderson is the pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Woburn, Mass.

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