Editor's Note: Debbie Allen is an Mdiv student at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School in Rochester, NY. She recently participated with Pastor Tim Phillips in a Wednesday evening program about Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Little did I know, when I came to Seattle to help my daughter and her husband with their newly born twins, that I would be drawn into the life of an American Baptist church on the west coast. I live in Ithaca, New York, where the last gasps of winter often occur in April and you can buy a T-shirt that reads, “Ithaca is cold.” In Ithaca, an American Baptist church is central to my life. I am also a seminary student at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School with only 3 more courses to go before receiving a master of divinity degree. Given my commitment to assist with the care of twins and a 3-year-old as well the need to complete the requirements for an independent study course, involvement in the life of a church did not seem possible.
It wasn’t long after arriving here that I began to feel the absence of my church family back home and a growing desire for a spiritual community in the Seattle area. Within a week, I found myself searching the internet for ABC churches and, after trying one other church, came to SFBC. I immediately experienced a resonance with the people I met, with the focus of adult learning, and especially with the experience of worship on that first Sunday of February. Even the bulletin cover struck a chord in me. It was just last October that I traveled to the Holy Land and looked up in awe at the angelic beings in blue and gold on the curved ceiling of the Church of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. As I listened to the music that Sunday, participated in the liturgy, absorbed the words of the sermon, and took communion, I had an uncanny sense of belonging and an awareness of God leading me to this place at this time.
The sermon really got my attention. I was astonished to hear Tim talk about the way in which the image of “strange glory” connected the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as described in Charles Marsh’s biography Strange Glory, with the transfiguration. Marsh’s biography was one of the texts used in a course on Bonhoeffer that I took a year ago. I treasured this course and recalled the sensitivity and intelligence with which Marsh wrote about Bonhoeffer. I also remembered how difficult, yet rewarding, it was to read Bonhoeffer’s theology. In the midst of wading through concepts that were grounded in the unfamiliar territory of Lutheran theology, I came across words that absolutely took my breath away. My final paper for that course focused on the theme of “freedom,” a subject close to the heart of many Baptists.
After the service, I felt compelled to talk to Tim about the connection I had to his sermon and to express my appreciation for the way in which he brought Bonhoeffer and the transfiguration to life. His gracious reception and interest in continuing the conversation deepened my sense of SFBC as a welcoming community where faith can be explored in meaningful ways. Several days later, I took a leap of faith and sent him my paper on freedom in Bonhoeffer’s theology. Once again, I discovered that the Spirit was at work as new possibilities for sharing revealed themselves.
In his poem “The Way It is,” William Stafford wrote, There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/ things that change. But it doesn’t change…/ You don’t ever let go of the thread. The thread that guides me is the transformative and healing love of Christ. I understand Baptist freedoms as an expression of that love. Bonhoeffer challenges me to see these freedoms as responsibilities that orient us toward others. His description of freedom as a relationship between people rather than as an individual possession or quality makes me more attuned to the places in my life where needs become apparent and a response is required. Sometimes I am the person in need who can only be free by allowing myself to receive the love of others. Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Stages on the Road to Freedom,” makes it clear that freedom does not come without discipline, action, suffering, and ultimately, death. It’s a curious thing that the very aspects of life that seem most limiting are the path to freedom.