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The Integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Please, Read Anything But Metaxas!

Chatting with buddies at the bar or coffee shop helps us think more clearly, and that’s sorely missing right now

By gathering in community spaces and chatting with friends and strangers, we really are solving the world’s problems.

Humans don’t just desire complex forms of human contact, from the intimate contact of love to the more distant contact of political order. We cannot do without it.

When Southern Methodist University announced in March that it would close campus after spring break because of the global pandemic, I was teaching a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s who was eventually put to death in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities. As we continued to abide by the shelter-in-place orders, my students and I, forced to meet exclusively online, commented several times about how poignant it was to read Bonhoeffer together during this time. By the last quarter of the term we were reading Bonhoeffer’s prison writings, many of which are weighty meditations on the challenges of forced loneliness. Bonhoeffer’s writings, from his early works to these later ones from prison, emphasize how important sociality is for human beings.

It’s stunning that, surrounded by the terror and murder of the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer spent so much of his time writing not about murder and war, but about these basic forms of social life. As Bonhoeffer saw it, even before the mass murder began, the Nazis posed an existential threat to human flourishing because of their attempt to flatten out human relationships. From the beginning of the regime, Hitler insisted that everything must be Nazified — church, family life and even bowling leagues. There were no distinct places with their own integrity, goals and practices. There was only Nazi space.

Bonhoeffer was concerned about the loss of these spaces because he thought they do more than simply connect us with others. Rather, these spaces actually help us think. It’s easy to conceive of thinking as a human activity best accomplished in isolation. But on Bonhoeffer’s telling, it is by inhabiting these social spheres that we learn to think well.

For instance, if I ask myself whether my responsibility as a father means that I should pick my son up early from school in order to spend more time with him, I also have to ask if in so doing I would be failing to fulfill my responsibilities at work. This sort of very ordinary moral question, and the ordinary form of moral reflection that accompanies it, depends on the difference in space between work and home. Without that kind of difference, our ability to think is diminished.

Bonhoeffer combined a long tradition of Christian theology with the more recent insights of sociology when he argued that humans need multiple different kinds of social relationships — or spaces — in order to flourish. Humans want good home lives and work lives, and we depend on good political order to make those possible, but we also need other places where we gather and converse with friends and strangers alike. These are what sociologists sometimes call “third places.”

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“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.”

When I ask newcomers what brings them to our church, the most common reply is, “I’m looking for community.”

I often wince hearing that phrase, fearing they won’t stay for long. It’s not that desiring community is a bad thing. The problem is the assumption that community is found, like stumbling upon a hidden treasure.

One cannot “find” community, because it isn’t something to be discovered. Community is never found, only built.

Why Do We Look?

Facebook, Instagram, and similar technologies are marketed as tools to help us connect with others—yet in the process these technologies are reshaping our notions of connection and community. It’s a sad irony that, in the social-media age, more and more people report feeling lonely even as we’re more “connected” than ever before. What gives?

The internet has redefined community in terms of choice. For most of history, community has been a given—something bound to your physical location and comprising your neighbors and classmates and church down the street. You were literally stuck in a community, which forced you to forge relationships with the people you had.

Those days are gone. You can now form a community with anyone, anywhere. You can find a Facebook group for virtually any hobby or interest; you can interact with faraway people’s daily lives via Instagram stories from the comfort of your bed; you can now even attend “church” in the palm of your hand.

We now treat community like a stop at Chipotle. You can curate your community, just like your burrito, down to your exact preference. In turn, our nation and churches have become more polarized and tribal than ever before.

Age of Bailing

Turning community into a consumer commodity has also led to what The New York Times columnist David Brooks has dubbed “The Golden Age of Bailing.” If community is “found,” it is just as easily left. “Technology makes it all so easy,” Brooks observes. “You just pull out your phone, and bailing on a rendezvous is as easy as canceling an Uber driver.”

This trend is also present in our churches. “Church hopping” is a common term within American church vernacular. I know of a pastor who was guest speaking at another church’s retreat and was surprised to see in the audience someone who had just gone through the membership class at his own church. I’ve seen in my pastoral ministry how quickly people bail—at the first disappointment or disagreement. And when I follow up with the pastor of the next church they tried, it’s no surprise to learn they also bailed there.

Build, Don’t Shop

When we try to “find” a church community, we only treat the church as a consumer. We look for the perfect fit and bail at the first sign of discomfort. We avoid the depth needed to truly transform and sustain our souls. We need to stop thinking like shoppers and more like builders.

How do we go about building, rather than looking for, a community?

1. Don’t be an architect.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community.”

Many of us choose to be architects rather than builders of our communities, dreaming up an ideal church rather than committing to a real church. Yet the more we clutch our own blueprints rather than embrace the people God has placed in front of us, the more grief we will bring to ourselves and to them. Brett McCracken puts it this way: “However challenging it may be to embrace, God’s idea of church is far more glorious than any dream church we could conjure.”

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by Don Follis

June 14, 2020

With a shelter-in-place order in effect the last 12 weeks, I got a jump on some of the books that would have been pushed to my summer reading list. Here are a few that have jumped to the fore.

When everything shut down in March, I went straight for John Kelly’s “The Great Mortality — an intimate history of the Black Death, the most devastating plague of all time.” The horrific spread of this flea-born bacterial disease jumped from rodents to humans, showing no respect for anyone and nearly wiping out Europe. In great detail, Kelly traces how, beginning in 1347, the epidemic raced across Europe, killing 25 million people by 1355.

If you’ve had enough coronavirus talk, and Kelly’s punch to the gut doesn’t grab you, try Tommy Caldwell’s “The Push — a climber’s search for the path.” Caldwell is a legendary rock climber who tells his New York Time’s bestselling story with humility and tenderness. Admitting his vulnerability and fear make Caldwell’s moments of triumph even more intriguing. Caldwell is prominent in “Free Solo,” the Oscar-winning National Geographic documentary of Alex Honnold’s ascent of Yosemite’s famous 3,000-foot vertical El Capitan, using no ropes. I watched it twice. Both times, it took my breath away, as each time I thought Honnold would fall to his death. Both Caldwell’s “The Push” and the documentary “Free Solo” make this a must-read, must-see duo.

In late March Brant Hansen’s new book was released. A radio personality and podcaster, Hansen’s “The Truth About Us” explores how everyone, let’s be honest, is self-righteous. Hansen is a small-town boy from central Illinois who is funny, smart and theologically savvy. The book explores this question: “What good could possibly come from admitting that most of us are far more self-righteous than righteous?”

Incidentally, since the book was released in late March, it has garnered 130 5-star reviews on Amazon. One of Hansen’s earlier books I liked, “Unoffendable — how just one change can make all of life better,” has reaped more than 1,000 5-star reviews, a rare accomplishment in the world of Amazon book reviews.

Every Tuesday for the last 10 weeks, I have taken a class through Zoom on how to better tell and write your own story. Amazingly, almost 1,000 students across the globe join writer Leslie Leyland Fields as she lectures on her new book, “Your Story Matters — Finding, writing and living the Truth of Your Life.” For years, I have read books on how to be a better writer. This book captivates me like few others have. Fields believes anyone can write their story in a gripping way. She repeatedly says, “No one knows your story like you do, and no one can write your story as well as you can.”

More than 15 years ago, I read a book by Sarah Sumner called “Men and Women in the Church,” which I loved. Sumner helped me solidify what I had come to believe, that in fact all roles of leadership open to men in the Bible also are available to women, including pastoring a church.

In May, I read Sumner’s “Angry Like Jesus — Using his example to spark your moral courage.” Sumner explores the stories of Jesus’ anger in the New Testament, concluding that godly anger can stir the church to wake up and be more truthful. Arguing that godly anger is the cure for arrogance and senseless violence, Sumner believes we must allow our anger to be refined and made useful in the hands of God. Given the frustration with the coronavirus and the anger at the senseless killing of George Floyd, this book might just be the companion you need this summer.

I have just finished two books featuring two pastors, Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both principal figures in Germany during World War II. Skidmore College history professor Matthew Hockenos wrote “Then They Came for Me — Martin Niemoller, the Pastor who defied the Nazis.” Niemoller was a controversial Lutheran pastor and theologian who initially supported Hitler but ultimately opposed Hitler’s “Aryan Paragraph” (saying all Jews should be banned from every area of public life in Germany).

Niemoller paid for his opposition. He was arrested and imprisoned from 1937-45. After the war, Niemoller was a key figure in helping rebuild trust in German churches.

Finally, a fascinating new book released this spring investigates the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer through the eyes of an American tour guide at Bonhoeffer’s childhood home in Berlin. Laura Fabrycky, who lived in Berlin from 2016-19, has written: “Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus — Exploring the World and Wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.”

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who opposed Hitler more than Niemoller did, even participating in a failed assassination attempt.

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Pastor Keith Anderson Zion Lutheran Church

 

“Letters and Papers From Prison” is a collection of letters to and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was in Tegel prison in Berlin, Germany. He was arrested on April 5, 1943, because of his involvement in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was executed April 9, 1945, just three weeks before Hitler ended his own life.

On July 21, 1944, he wrote a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge. In that letter, he said, “In the last few years I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.”

This statement came from someone who carefully observed the world in which he lived. He saw a “Christianity” that was too cautious to speak the truth in the midst of a crumbling and dangerous society.

He ponders the silence of the disciples on the night in which Christ was betrayed. How could no one stand up against the hatred of the world? How could no one have courage in the face of death? I believe self-preservation is part of the “this-worldliness” of our lives. We want this life, even if it is sometimes angry and out of control.

Bonhoeffer then says that when we can let go of our own suffering and “stay awake with Christ in Gethsemane,” then, we know more of the other-worldliness (my phrase) of heaven and eternal life with Christ. He said, “And I think this is faith; this is metanoia (repentance.)” That is the turn around when we know that it might be possible that protecting the powers of this world is a point where we let go of the power of Christ. That should pain us all who claim the name of Christ in this world.

A statement he made near the end of this letter really becomes a prayer. “May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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July 2020
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