It’s snowing again this morning. We are certainly having a gen-u-ine, proper winter this year. None of this trying-to-make-a snowman-in-1/2-an-inch-of-snow like in years past. The people who are sick of winter weather are starting to turn on the people who cheer every time another snowfall comes. I fall into the first group, by the way.
Because I was busy yesterday writing on the very important topic of movie quotes, I missed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday. Not that he is offended, but still. I try to acknowledge my heroes’ birthdays when they roll by. Bonhoeffer’s greatest contribution to my thinking came through his book Life Together. I read it at a time of crisis in our church, and it challenged my typically American view of the church as a loose association of people who all have individual relationships with God in Christ. Bonhoeffer helped me to really see what scripture says about the church – what an absolutely necessary gift and means of grace we are to each other. We Christians often talk about how the church is to be the visible presence of Christ in the world (and yes, we often fail miserably at it), but we are also the visible presence of Christ to each other, as believers. “Life Together” is both practical and passionate, and Bonhoeffer writes with the urgency of a man who knows that time may be short. The book reminds me of one of Paul’s prison epistles, now that I think of it.
Last year I finally got around to reading another book by Bonhoeffer – The Cost of Discipleship. Of course, discipleship had a terribly high cost for Bonhoeffer, who chose to return to Germany in 1939, knowing the dangers that he, as a leader of the Confessing Church and a member of the Underground, faced. When death came, just a month before Germany surrendered, Bonhoeffer went to the gallows at Flossenburg with a composure that left a lasting impression on the camp doctor.
I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.
I wish that Bonhoeffer had been able to live past 39, been able to keep writing, to marry his fiancee Maria and work for the rebuilding of his country. Such was not to be, but he left a rich legacy in his writings, and that legacy carries more weight because, like St. Paul, he lived out (and died with) his convictions.
So happy belated birthday, Dietrich. You are one of my favorite saints of the Church.