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“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging, at age 39, in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. He and a small but fierce contingent of devoted Protestants actively resisted the Nazi encroachment on both church and state.
His writings have influenced subsequent generations who struggle with the role of Christian devotion in a hostile culture. “The Cost of Discipleship,” a modern classic, is widely known for Bonhoeffer’s haunting statement: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him to come and die.”
What is not as readily known is that he possessed an amorous side, loving a woman named Maria von Wedemeyer to whom he became engaged in January 1943, when Bonhoeffer was 36 years old (and von Wedemeyer 18). He would be arrested by the Gestapo three months later.
During the two short years of his engagement to von Wedemeyer, and what ended up being the last two years of his life (1943-1945), the two exchanged letters that were both amorous and wrenching. Published for the first time in 1995 as “Love Letters from Cell 92” and edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz (Abingdon), this intimate correspondence revealed a side of Bonhoeffer that is generally not known:
“Wait with me, I beg you! Let me embrace you long and tenderly, let me kiss you and love you and stroke the sorrow from your brow.”
The reader also knows the tragic ending to this tale, while the writers themselves do not. (Bonhoeffer would be executed in April 1945, only weeks before Hitler killed himself and the Germans surrendered.) A constant theme echoes throughout: “Don’t get tired and depressed, my dearest Dietrich, it won’t be much longer now.”
Maria von Wedemeyer entrusted this collection of letters to her sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck, just before her death in 1977. For years before that, von Wedemeyer would not allow the letters to be published. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s close friend and biographer, wrote in the postscript: “I had resigned myself to never seeing this correspondence.”
BONHOEFFER’S COST finds Dietrich Bonhoeffer imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel Prison during the darkest days of WWII. As the war rages around him and his faith is tested, Bonhoeffer deliberates the cost attached to acting from one’s convictions. In a blind race between the forces of good and evil, will Dietrich make it out alive?
A Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany during WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was extremely vocal in his resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including the Nazi persecution of Jewish people. Out of his resistance to the Nazi regime and their attempted control of the religious community, Bonhoeffer founded the underground Confessing Church. He was also a member of the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization at the center of the anti-Hitler resistance. In addition to his political resistance, Bonhoeffer is known for writing countless books and essays on theology and Christianity, especially The Cost of Discipleship.
Agape’s production of BONHOEFFER’S COST will be staged in the Sanctuary at Palm Valley Lutheran Church in Round Rock. The beautiful historic landmark was built in 1896. The building’s Gothic style and incredible stained glass windows are sure to enhance the production.
“We are overjoyed to bring BONHOEFFER’S COST to our audience,” says Jeff Davis, Artistic Director of Agape Theatre and Director of BONHOEFFER’S COST. “While he’s well-known amongst Lutherans, Bonhoeffer is nearly forgotten in other circles. Regardless of your religious affiliation, Bonhoeffer’s heroism is undeniable. I know his story will inspire our patrons and keep them on the edge of their seats.”
Davis is also excited about the opportunity to produce the show inside a Lutheran Church. “We are beyond blessed to be staging this extraordinary play inside an equally extraordinary venue,” says Davis. “Palm Valley Lutheran Church is a treasure to our local community. Being able to stage a show about faith inside a church is a dream come true, as is Palm Valley’s passion and excitement for this project.”
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Few people have had the transforming influence upon the spiritual lives of multitudes of people around the world as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Most of those lives, mine included, never had the opportunity to see him in person or hear his voice. History records that his courageous life was taken from him on April 9, 1945 by the Nazis in their Flossenbürg concentration camp, just two months after his thirty-ninth birthday. But a closer look at this bold professor, pastor, theologian, author, and central figure of the Confessing Church’s ecumenical movement reveals that no one took his life from him. Dietrich Bonheoffer willingly laid down his life from the moment he responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him as his disciple.
Bonhoeffer was a man on mission. He was proactively engaged in a battle against two pandemic forces. The loudest enemy was Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. After Hitler came to power in 1933, he began to inject his poison into every sector of German life. Nazism was more than a political party; it was an extreme racist philosophy. Only the Aryan race was acceptable to the Nazis and history has recorded the tragic results of their beliefs. However, the Jews and other non-Aryans were not the only target of the Nazis, they also sought to bring the German Church under its rule as well. Unfortunately, due to the eroding spiritual condition of the Lutheran Church, the gates of hell overtook them.
The quiet enemy Bonhoeffer faced was also a toxic foe. In his defining book, Discipleship (later published as The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer referred to this plague as “Cheap Grace.” Bonhoeffer describes this enemy in his own words:
“Cheap Grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great…. Cheap grace means justification of sin but not of the sinner. Because grace alone does everything, everything can stay in its old ways.… Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”1
In 1935 Bonhoeffer chose to return from pastoring two German congregations in London and head back to Germany to become the director of an “illegal” seminary in Pomerania. As Bonhoeffer poured his heart and soul into this community of twenty-five vicars, his curriculum focused on the kingdom gospel that included discipleship as essential to a believer’s life. No cheap grace allowed here. He spent five years training and modeling among these young pastors the biblical mandate of disciple making until the Gestapo permanently closed the seminary in 1940. It was during those years in Christian community that Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together and Discipleship.
For a brief period, Bonhoeffer returned to the United States in 1939. And while his friends urged him to stay and impact Germany from afar, he resolutely set his face toward his homeland and boarded one of the last ships leaving the States.
“Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
“I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community.”
However, as I continue to reflect on community and work toward helping others experience community, I constantly find myself drawn back to and challenged by the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his classic work, Life Together. In it, he writes:
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients. We thank God for what He has done for us. We thank God for giving us brethren who live by His call, by His forgiveness and His promise. (pp. 27-28).
I don’t know about you, but I am constantly tempted to get so caught up in my vision, planning and execution of community, that I rarely stop to seek God’s heart for the community which He has called me to shepherd.
Please do not misunderstand me: I do not believe God wants you or me to be laissez faire when it comes to community either. Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 14:33, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Structure and guidelines are good as it relates to community; they can help foster an environment where people feel safe to be vulnerable.
So how do we draw the balance. Here are some preliminary thoughts:
1. Pray for your specific community. Thank God for placing you in that specific community. Don’t repress your frustrations about your community, but in the midst of frustrations, be thankful as much as you are able.
2. Listen to God. Don’t spend so much time in prayer for your community that you miss God’s voice to you regarding your community. Remember that God has already laid the foundation.
3. Spend time listening to your people—not just your leaders, but others as well. Know where they are at and what they need to continue to grow spiritually.