WHILE BONHOEFFER’S CONTEXT OF PERSECUTION IS FAR REMOVED FROM OUR CONTEXT OF SOCIAL DISTANCING AND SELF-ISOLATION, OUR INABILITY TO GATHER PROVIDES US WITH A FRESH LENS TO CONSIDER HIS WORDS.

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

As COVID-19 has prevented us from gathering together for worship, I was reminded of Bonhoeffer’s meditations on the value of fellowship.

Bonhoeffer’s classic on Christian community was written during a time when the Confessing Church had been scattered under the Nazi regime. As religious freedom evaporated in Germany, Bonhoeffer trained pastors at an illegal seminary in Finkenwalde. Life Together records many of his thoughts from his time of fellowship there.

While Bonhoeffer’s context of persecution is far removed from our context of social distancing and self-isolation, our inability to gather provides us with a fresh lens to consider his words. 

With that in mind, I invite you to read the excerpts from Life Together below, and I encourage you to read this book in its entirety during these unusual days apart. From these excerpts, following are four precepts. 

1. Every gathering of the local church is a gift of God’s grace.

Bonhoefer writes:

So between the death of Christ and the Last Day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament.

Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude . . . to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday’ (Ps. 424). (pp19-20)

Whenever we gather together as a church, we receive a gift from our gracious God. Every gathering of the saints provides a taste of the greater reality of heaven, and we look forward to the day when all the saints will be together with our Lord forever.

Consider Hebrews 12:22-24:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Gathering together with our family of faith is a blessing that becomes all the more apparent when the gift is taken away. Let us prize the grace we have been given in our fellowship, and look forward to the day when we can know it again.

2. The scattered look forward with faith.

When we must worship alone, we remember that our union with Christ and our fellowship with the Spirit is not dependent upon our geography. We look to the heavenly fellowship of Hebrews 12:22-24, and know by faith that we worship God with the saints of all the ages.

Those who are unable to enjoy the gift of gathering with brothers and sisters should take heart, for as God gives trials to scattered saints, he refines and reassures his people of their inheritance (1 Pet 1:1-9).

Bonhoeffer writes about those who must worship alone:

But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them as an actual experience they seize upon more fervently in faith. Thus the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist, celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations ‘in the Spirit on the Lord’s day’ (Rev. 1.10). He sees the seven candlesticks, his congregations, the seven stars, the angels of the congregations, and in the midst and above it all the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, in all the splendour of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortifies him by his Word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection. (p20)

Throughout history, the church’s weekly rhythm has been one of gathering and scattering. We gather on the Lord’s Day to celebrate our risen Lord, and we are scattered throughout the week, carrying the gospel to our workplaces and neighborhoods. We regather the following Lord’s Day, and continue this rhythm of life.

This rhythm of gathering and scattering serves as a parable. As we are scattered during the week, we are reminded that we are in exile. As we are regathered, we are reminded of the future day when all the saints will be gathered to worship the Lord forever.

For as long as the church experiences this prolonged season of being scattered, we must trust the wisdom and will of our Sovereign Lord, and seek all the more to take refuge in his Word. If persecution and suffering does not remove one from the love of God (Rom 8:31-39), neither will social distancing and stay-at-home orders in these days of COVID-19.

3. We experience the love and presence of God through one another in Christ.

Do you feel grief or loneliness in this season? It is right to feel a sense of loss. Two-dimensional fellowship through technology is a gift, as was Paul’s ability to send and receive letters from prison. However, it is innately unsatisfying as we were created to be physically present with one another.

Bonhoeffer elaborates on this as he describes the blessing of physical presence with other believers:

The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But if there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians! (p20)

God’s grace calls us to assemble together to sit under the preaching of the Word, to recognize brothers and sisters through baptism, to confess Christ together at the Lord’s Table, to lift up our voices and sing, and to give and receive ministry within our church family as we are built up to become more like Jesus.

As we assemble together as the body of Christ on the Lord’s Day, we encounter Christ in his Word and in his people. We know the love of Christ through one another as we serve as his hands and feet. Our gatherings are an incredible gift for us to treasure. It is right for us to desire to be face-to-face with each other. Consider the apostles’ great desire to be present with the church (1 Thess 2:18; 3:17, 2 John 12, 3 John 14).

In these days of waiting, many of us will feel the weight of loneliness and the emotions and temptations that accompany feelings of isolation. Let the brokenness of this world lead us to prayer. May we be faithful to pray for one another. May we not be distant with our words, but let us use the communication tools we have to encourage one another.

4. Let us praise God for this grace.

In today’s age of individualism, far too many professing Christians see the gathering of the church as an optional activity, and many others are content with “internet church.” Even for those who are faithful to gather, the weekly blessing of assembling together is easily taken for granted.

For the rest of the post…


For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Civic Duty Began at Home

How a tour through his private living quarters helps us better understand his public responsibilities—and ours.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Civic Duty Began at Home
Keys to Bonhoeffer's Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Laura Fabrycky and her husband and three children moved to Berlin in 2016. From there, she watched the American presidential election in dismay. “Something seemed to have snapped in our hyperpolarized and tribal politics that could not be easily put back together,” she writes in the introduction to Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus: Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And though her book is unlikely to repair our factious political scene, it may serve to unite and inspire Christians struggling to find a faithful stance within it.

Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus is not primarily a biography, although it’s rich with biographical information. Fabrycky knows her stuff. For three years she served as a volunteer tour guide in the Bonhoeffer house, immersing herself in study, interviews, and explorations of the ethics and events surrounding the rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

As Fabrycky leads us through the rooms of Bonhoeffer’s large house, she presents stories from her family’s own attempts to make sense of a foreign land. In one chapter, she moves seamlessly from a survey of Germany’s history and the evolution of the concept of citizenship to her family’s visit to Colonial Williamsburg, where two actors hold a lively debate on religious freedom. She takes us to her daughter’s harsh, mandatory bike-safety training to examine her own instinct to yield to authoritarianism. We see her struggling to love a cranky neighbor who disapproves of her gardening skills.

In all of this, she reminds us of the fuller definition of politics: “civic housekeeping,” by which she means “the hard, often boring work of living a common life” and the practice of neighbor-love “expressed in pothole filling and road paving, trash collecting, and pollution solving, compromise and deliberation, justice and restoration.” Even in times of societal disorder, we cannot avoid our housekeeping responsibilities.

For the rest of the review…

Bonhoeffer would have seen this pandemic as an opportunity to reorder our priorities, says Will van der Hart

I was reading a segment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together in the garden this week. He says, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans…”

Bonhoeffer’s own life was interrupted by the second world war and then cut desperately short in Flossenbürg concentration camp.

I realize that I have been feeling as much anxiety about the interruption of my plans as I have been about getting physically sick. My life up to this point has been so diarised, every moment has been allocated to work, family, or charity. I even have a stock email about bookings needing to be made six months or more ahead of time! I have been so busy doing what my schedule dictates that I have not considered the divine interruptions God has been offering me.

When I am feeling unsettled, I often return to the most familiar stories of scripture. Like an old friend, their wisdom is comfortable and obvious. I was settling into Luke 10; The Good Samaritan and noticed that the characters in the story were all “going down the same road” (v31): In the same way, we are often living with automatic assumptions and priorities, particularly around success and failure. We plan our lives accordingly.

Catastrophe struck in the form of robbers (but it could have been a pandemic), who left the man “half-dead”. Then a priest and a Levite walked past the broken body of the beaten man. I guess that they epitomize so much of what is being shaken collectively and individually right now: It wasn’t their problem; he was a diversion that they weren’t willing to take.

Bonhoeffer’s point is not that we simply “hear the divine interruptions” but that we “allow ourselves to be interrupted”. While sitting in the garden I was surprised by the volume of the birdsong and wondered if it was unusual. Then I realized that this is probably the first time in a few years that I have been still enough to hear it: God is always speaking, but we aren’t often listening.

I am wondering now if I am finally willing to hear, but it isn’t comfortable! Like many anxiety sufferers, I have become addicted to activity and scheduling in order to distract myself from my worries. My busyness is a product of culture, ambition, and illness, not something that is easily broken on a whim. Yet I feel that it must break, not just for the sake of my living attentively, but so that I might live more compassionately.

The Samaritan had every cultural and social excuse not to attend to the wounded man. Yet, he allowed himself to be interrupted. No doubt he had a schedule and worthy plans, but he expended his resources of time and compassion in response to God’s directing.

This interruption to life is an opportunity to reorder our priorities so that we might be more able and willing to hear.

For the rest of the post…

So how are you doing, really?

It’s a question I ask friends, leaders, family and myself more and more.

Last week, once again, we learned about a mega-church pastor who appears to have taken his own life. Although I didn’t know Darrin Patrick personally, my heart aches for him, his wife and children and the many friends who knew him well that I also know.

I can’t imagine the pain that those who knew Darrin well are going through, and my prayers and heart go up for them and out to them.

And as you probably know, tragically, we’ve seen a number of suicides of well-known and well-loved pastors, many of them really young, in the last few years.

I saw many people who knew Darrin talk about having just spoken with him recently, texting and emailing days before he died.

It often seems that leaders don’t show immediate signals about how deep their struggle really is.

I’m familiar with the dark struggle of leadership.

The struggle, obviously, doesn’t always end in suicide, but it does often end in discouragement, defeat and even quitting leadership because of the pressure.

So in this post, I’ll take you into some of my own struggles and share 5 things that I realize today that I didn’t always know about leadership. These insights have helped me sort through what I’m feeling and experiencing and helped me discern where the next path might be.

Whether you’re struggling with suicide, or if you’re just feeling isolated, unheard or misunderstood in leadership, I hope this post helps.

If you have the most remote question in your mind about your will to live, or if you are suicidal, please stop reading this post and call 911 or, in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line (in Canada call 1.833.456.4566.)

Although I don’t regularly struggle with depression (I did suffer a deep bout of it in 2006), and I’m not a counselor, I do know the daily struggle of leadership. I can empathize with how dark it feels sometimes.

And that’s our common connection point. Almost any leader knows the deep struggle of leadership. You don’t have to be in it long to know how dark or difficult it can get.

I hope this post feels like hope and help to you.

MY OWN SUICIDAL SEASON

Although I write about leadership all the time, it’s difficult for me to write about leadership and suicide, in part because it’s a desperately complex subject, and in part because I don’t even like to admit I was there a number of years ago myself.

The way I got to my suicidal season was through burnout. And the worst part of my burnout in the summer of 2006 was a season when I thought that ending it was the most logical and least painful way out.

Let me say it again before we dive into more words and my attempt at some insights: maybe you think the only way through your pain is to end it. It’s not.

In my last book, I have an entire section on burnout and how to overcome it, but I only gave five paragraphs to my battle with suicidal thoughts.

Honestly, I was just too terrified/embarrassed/ashamed to write more.

The fact that I entertained thoughts about ending my life still comes as a surprise to many people who follow me online, and to some of my friends and people who know me personally. It’s just so hard to talk about.

But it happened.

I tell the whole burnout story in my book  Didn’t See It Coming, and here’s an excerpt from the book about my own personal suicidal season:

My situation grew even darker than all that. Over a decade later, I still can’t believe I’m going to write this next section. Part of me doesn’t even want to admit this portion of the story is true. But it is, and I know this is an aspect of the experience far too many people can identify with.
By late summer, I began to think the best way to get through this burnout was to not go through it. Because hope had died for me in those months, I began to wonder whether that should be my preferred option as well.

For the first time in my life, I began to seriously think that suicide was the best option. If I had lost hope, was no good to anyone, couldn’t perform what I was expected to do, and was causing all kinds of pain to others (a conclusion that wasn’t coming from a place of objectivity), then perhaps the best solution was to be no more.

By God’s grace, I’ve never owned any weapons. If I did, I shudder to think about what I might have done to myself in a weak moment. I’m not terribly coordinated or technically skilled, so I figured a kitchen knife would probably result in me doing things horribly wrong. In my mind, my preferred path was to take my speeding car into a concrete bridge support and end things that way.

I don’t know how close I came to doing it. I’m far from an expert at determining how serious a threat like that is. Although I never undid my seat belt and never sped up far past the limit as a bridge approached, I do know the thought of ending it that way became a false friend to me, a strange and perverse source of comfort. And, in a twisted way, maybe a way of getting back at a God and a life I felt were letting me down.

As I look back now, over a decade later, on how I felt at that time, it seems like it was someone else who struggled with those thoughts. It’s amazing how an episode like this can play with your mind, but that’s exactly what burnout does: it messes with your thinking.

Its arena is your thought life, and burnout can be a merciless, savage beast. I’m so grateful I didn’t listen to those voices, but I share this in case you might be hearing something similar.

Do the people you love a favor: Don’t listen. Don’t give in. Don’t give up. The negative voices are lying. That’s not who you are, and that is definitely not the solution, even though some days it can feel like it is.

Looking back on that now, there’s still so much shame and stigma mixed with gratitude that I didn’t listen to the voices in my head that were telling me the only way out was out.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am I didn’t listen.

For the rest of the post…

Isaiah Colton ThompsonIsaiah Colton Thompson, religious studies and history major

Isaiah Colton Thompson, a senior with a double major in religious studies and history at Cal State Fullerton, discovered his primary subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a most unusual way … courtesy of a trashcan and an engaging professor. (Bonhoeffer was a German evangelical pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. His influential writings focused on Christianity’s role in a secular society.)

“I was meeting with one of my professors, Bradley Starr, to discuss my broad research interests,” he recalled. “When I mentioned Bonhoeffer, his eyes lit up. He literally reached into his trashcan and handed me a magazine that was advertising a recently published work on Bonhoeffer. I ordered the book, found an area of interest and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Thompson was looking forward to visiting Washington, D.C., this spring as his senior thesis on Bonhoeffer and the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary had been selected for display at the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual “Posters on the Hill” event, which takes place in the nation’s capital. It was abruptly canceled in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A virtual poster session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 21 at 9 a.m. on Twitter. For more information , visit the Council on Undergraduate Research.

“I was surprised and incredibly pleased that my poster was selected,” Thompson said. “Sixty projects were selected, from across the nation, out of 400 applications. The point of the event is to demonstrate the research being performed in universities across the country and encourage further funding for these programs.”

Thompson’s project was the only one selected from the state of California for this honor.

At CSUF, there are many programs that benefit from federal funding, including the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar and the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, all programs that Thompson is involved in.

“Programs of these kinds are incredibly important as they support low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students who want to complete their degrees in higher education,” he said. “Participating in this event not only would have allowed me to promote my research … but would have enabled me to endorse the very programs that encouraged my research.”

The Problem of Discrimination in Nazi Germany

Thompson was particularly interested in “the lessons from Finkenwalde Seminary.” The focus of the seminary was the problem of racism in Nazi Germany.

“During the 1930s, Hitler called on Nazi-supporting Christians to bring Germany’s churches under the ideals of the Nazi state,” Thompson explained. “This included race. The seminary at Finkenwalde resisted those ideas and taught a counter-narrative to combat targeted discrimination. Bonhoeffer directed the seminary and taught many of the classes.”

Many, including Nazi-supporting Christians, held the people, the land and the leader of Germany in high esteem. They believed Germany was called to a special path of victory and triumph. In pursuit of this path, certain groups of people were targeted because they did not fit “the ideal” that Germans had in mind. Bonhoeffer, however, saw the flaw and addressed it directly in lectures from Finkenwalde.

The Power of Resistance

“Ultimately, the research reveals the power of resistance,” Thompson said. “And it looks at the influence of nationalism on race. Because the Nazis held the ideals of the state in such high regard, they justified sacrificing human beings for those ideals. It also focuses on a deeper issue — the power of ideas.

“Because of my research, I often wonder about the everyday influences that impact my thinking. Where do these ideas come from? Who produces them? Bonhoeffer and the students at Finkenwalde remained cognizant of the ideology of their leaders … and strongly resisted this world view.”

Lessons for Today

Thompson believes that some of the lessons of Bonhoeffer resonate today.

For the rest of the post…

This timely response to a global pandemic was penned almost 500 years ago.

Sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther wrote almost 500 years ago about responding to pandemics. When Luther was confronted by questions about how to respond to The Black Death Plague, he responded in words that should serve to inform our approach to the pandemic crisis our nation and the world is now facing today.

In a letter to Rev. Dr. John Hess, found in Luther’s Works, Volume 43 p. 132, as “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague,” Luther writes:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

For the rest of the post…

On the Sunday after Easter in 1945, a hastily assembled tribunal sentenced him to death. Hours later, in the predawn twilight, soldiers waited at his cell while he finished his prayers and removed his prison clothes. Then they led him to the gallows where he gave his life to the risen Lord.

Allied forces were rapidly approaching Berlin, and the Nazi’s were all but defeated. Only three weeks later, Hitler would kill himself and thus end the war. Regardless, the Fuehrer would have his revenge for Bonhoeffer’s part in the failed Valkyrie assassination attempt.

Some say that this fact disqualifies Bonhoeffer from the title of martyr. Pastors should not intrude into the political realm, they say. Most especially, they should not take up the sword. But those who say this misjudge both the nature of politics and the details of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Other notable German theologians, like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, abandoned Germany for the safety of Switzerland and America, respectively. Bonhoeffer’s friends advised this, too, and arranged his passage to America. But when Germany made the first moves of war, he knew he could not abandon the German people to the Nazi regime.

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act,” said Bonhoeffer. Those who left their posts in Germany to criticize the Nazi regime from afar, gave up their birthright as German citizens. Bonhoeffer did not know what awaited him in Germany, only that he must be within its borders to live out his God-given vocation.

The speech and action that he had in mind was to train Lutheran pastors. However, that door was closed to him when he was conscripted into the Nazi army as an intelligence officer. Unable to escape this calling, his choice was narrowed by God. He could discharge his office faithful to God, or faithful to the Fuehrer.

Thousands of German officers were grappling with the same choice. Day in and day out, ordinary Germans who had been conscripted into the service of a madman were given hideous orders and forced to choose between God and man. Some disobeyed them and died. Others committed the atrocities under the cover of “duty” and “obedience to authority.” These, latter, bore the consequences of their actions as life-long scars on the conscience.

Bonhoeffer reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” This led to the choice of his life.

Generals and government ministers who understood their responsibility to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of a madman approached Bonhoeffer. They asked him to use his position to query the Allied forces secretly. The German officials wanted him to ask the Allies if they would spare the German people if the officials could remove Hitler from power to end his illegal war.

Simply by asking Bonhoeffer this question, they had placed him on the horns of a dilemma, and they had trusted their lives into his hands. His duty as a Nazi officer was to report this traitorous question to his superior officer. But what was his duty as a human being under God?

What would you do?

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Royal Opera House

Royal Opera House, London… empty (Photo: Arup)

“Music… in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Deprived of ‘live’ music in the time of coronavirus, performers, audiences and even critics seek ways to keep that fountain of joy alive. We may not be able to visit our opera houses and concert halls to hear our favorite artists perform live but now is the chance to catch up with all of that recorded music that we have never got round to listening to.

Not only is it a good time to show our support for artists by purchasing recordings (either in hard format or as downloads), but many organizations have rallied round and begun offering free online material through streaming or on regular channels such as YouTube. In fact, even without live performances, there is so much out there that the choice of what to listen to can be overwhelming.

In in the spirit of Bonhoeffer’s dictum, along with our own desire to be a guide to our readers, musicOMH’s classical team will be offering you a series of insights, commentary, and suggestions for listening, including:

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