What the German theologian is still teaching me on the 70th anniversary of his death.

Leading like Bonhoeffer

One evening, after his young students at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde had finished their supper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went alone to the kitchen to wash the dishes.

He began the work alone, then requested the help of his pupils. But the seminarians did not budge, leaving Bonhoeffer alone scrubbing silverware. When no one offered to serve alongside him, he locked the door. When the students realized what he had done, they felt badly and finally offered to help. The door, however, remained locked and Bonhoeffer finished the work alone. His lesson was simple: service and leadership go together, and true service does not stem from lazy pity.

Each of the students at Finkenwalde had a number of these experiences when, because of his intense desire to teach them, Bonhoeffer would do or command something unusual in order to underscore the radical nature of life within the kingdom of God. To make disciples of Jesus in this upside-down kingdom required hyperbole and dramatic expression. And on one occasion, it meant locking the door while washing the dishes.

Thinking and doing

My introduction to Bonhoeffer came through his small book entitled, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. My wife had taken it off her stepmom’s bookshelf when we were in high school and dating. Near the end of that little book, Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, wrote “A Biographical Sketch” of the pastor and theologian. In this section, Bethge describes his friend’s time as a leader of the secret, underground seminary.

‘[At Finkenwalde] he shared with them his personal belongings—material as well as spiritual—his time, and his plans. He was magnanimous … many students were at first startled by his strength and power of his thought but soon discovered that no one was able to listen to them so well and so completely, in order to be able to advise them and to make demands on them which none previously had been able to make with success. Here in the seminary everything was done in a fresh way.”

This short passage piqued my interested in Bonhoeffer, leading me to read Life Together and his Letters and Papers from Prison.

For the rest of the post…

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April 2015
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