Thursday, December 23, 2010

Quotes from Bonhoeffer Biography

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyA few months ago Dennis Rainey turned me on to a new Biography about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was one of the more refreshing and inspiring books I read this year. For those who don’t know much about Bonhoeffer: he was a German theologian and pastor who joined the resistance movement in Germany during WWII, which eventually lead to his capture and execution for the role he played in plotting an assassination attempt on Hitler. He was a man of courage, grit, resolve, integrity, and a man of deep thought and action (in fact, ‘thought’ only made sense to him when married to ‘action.’)

I thought you might enjoy reading some of the quotes from the biography about him over the holidays. There are some real zingers here, and quite a mixture of topics – some are theological, some on leadership, some on action and truth. So if the list below seems too long, skim for the topics of your interest. Some of the quotes are directly from Bonhoeffer; some are by others about him. It should be clear as you begin to read. Italics (except for isolated words of emphasis) are comments/clarification by me. Read a few in the mornings this week - especially the one “On Christ” as you prepare to worship on Christmas.

If you’re looking for a good book to put on your reading list for 2011, I HIGHLY recommend it! (you can read a good review of the book here).

The Cost of DiscipleshipI enjoyed the book so much that I began reading a few pages from his classic The Cost of Discipleship every morning (the book has been on my shelf since college - and oh, how I wish I would have read it when I bought it!) I’ve found his story and writing so encouraging and inspiring, I’ve since acquired two more of his works: Act and Being - his second dissertation, written at 24 years old (thank you Jimmy B.!), and his ‘crown jewel,’ Ethics, both of which are part of Fortress Press’ 16-volume re-publishing of Bonhoeffer’s works. It’s pretty humbling to know that he wrote enough to fill up 16 volumes, all before he was executed by the Nazis at 39 years old (for his role in a plot to kill Hitler).


On their family interaction: “He could not stand empty talk.  He senses unfailingly whether the other person meant what he said … In the Bonhoeffer family one learnt to think before asking a question or making a remark.”
On preaching: “I have long thought that sermons had a center that, if you hit it, would move anyone or confront them with a decision. I no longer believe that. First of all, a sermon can never grasp the center, but can only itself be grasped by it, by Christ. And then Christ becomes flesh as much in the word of the pietists as in that of the clerics or of the religious socialists, and these empirical connections actually pose difficulties for preaching that are absolute, not merely relative.”
On Christ: “One admires Christ according to aesthetic categories as an aesthetic genius, calls him the greatest ethicist; one admires his going to his death as a heroic sacrifice for his ideas. Only one thing one doesn’t do: one doesn’t take him seriously. That is, one doesn’t bring the centre of his or her own life into contact with the claim of Christ to speak the revelation of God and to be that revelation. One maintains a distance between himself or herself and the word of Christ, and allow no serious encounter to take place. I can doubtless live with or without Jesus as a religious genius, as an ethicist, as a gentleman - just as, after all, I can also live without Plato and Kant… Should, however there be something in Christ that claims my life entirely with the full seriousness that her God himself speaks and if the word of God once became present only in Christ, then Christ  has not only relative but absolute, urgent significance for me… Understanding Christ means taking Christ seriously. Understanding this claim means taking seriously his absolute claim on our commitment. And it is now of importance for us to clarify the seriousness of this matter and to extricate Christ from the secularization process in which he has been incorporated since the Enlightenment.”
On Leadership: “A true leader must know the limitations of his authority…If he understand his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol - then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acing in a criminal way not only toward those he lead, but also towards himself. The true Leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognition of the real authority of orders and offices… he must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads… he serves the order of the state, of the community, and his service can be of incomparable value. But only so long as he keeps strictly in his place… [H]e has to lead the individual into his own maturity…”
On Standing up for what is right: This is a famous quote by Niemöller, who helped start the Confessing Church in Germany.
                First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -
                Because I was not a Socialist.
                Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -
                Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
                Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -
                Because I was not a Jew.
                Then they came for me -
                And there was no one left to speak for me.

On the importance of taking action: Written while he was in the USA - planning to return to Germany

“To procrastinate and prevaricate simply because you’re afraid of erring, when others—I mean our brethren in Germany—must make infinitely more difficult decisions every day, seems to me almost to run counter to love.  To delay or fail to make decisions may be more sinful than to make wrong decision out of faith and love… [I]n this particular case it really is now or never.  “Too late” means “never.”…

“Should [we] fail to realize this,… then the ecumenical movement is no longer the church, but a useless association in which fine speeches are made. “If you do not believe, you will not be established”; to believe, however, means to decide… We must shake off our fear of this world - the cause of Christ is at stake, and are we to be found sleeping?... Christ is looking down at us and asking whether there is anyone left who confesses faith in him.

On the Sermon on the Mount: “I would only achieve true inner clarity and honesty by really starting to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. “

On Pastoral Work: “Theological work and real pastoral fellowship can only grow in a life which is governed by gathering round the Word morning and evening and by fixed times of prayer.”

On his Humility: “He never wanted his classes… to become a cult of personality, centered on him. He was interested only in persuading via reason.” Bonhoeffer helped start a college to train pastors in Germany and donated his entire theological Library to the cause.

More On Preaching: “Bethge [best friend] remembered some of Bonhoeffers advice: ‘Write your sermon in daylight; do now write it all at once; ‘in Christ’ there is no room for conditional clauses; the first minutes on the pulpit are the most favorable, so do not waste them with generalities but confront the congregation straight off with the core of the matter; extemporaneous preaching can be done by anyone who really know the Bible.”

On the Tyranny of finances: “Bonhoeffer knew that something of this unwillingness to speak out with boldness [by pastors in the state church against the state church] had to do with money. The state provided financial security for the pastors of Germany, and even pastors in the Confessing church would jeopardize their incomes only to a certain point.”

On optimism: “Bonhoeffer was an eternal optimist because he believed what God said through the Scriptures. He knew that whatever befell him or the faithful brethren would open new opportunities in which God would operate, in which his provision would become clear.”

On principles: “Christians cannot be governed by mere principles. Principles could carry one only so far. At some point every person must hear from God, must know what God was calling him to do, apart from others.”

On action: he believed he “Wasn’t free to do as he pleased. Bonhoeffer never arrived at decisions easily, but once he saw things clearly, he moved forward.”

On the foolishness of the cross: “In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things the figure of Him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger and is at best the object of pity. The world will allow itself to be subdued only by success. It is not ideas or opinions which decide, but deeds. Success alone justifies wrongs done… With a frankness and off-handedness which no other earthly power could permit itself, history appeals in its own cause to the dictum that the end justifies the means… The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”

On Truth: God’s standard of truth entailed more than merely “not lying.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you.” Jesus took the Old Testament laws to a deeper level of meaning and obedience, from the “letter of the law” to the “Spirit of the Law.” Following the letter of the law was the dead “religion” of which Barth, among others, had written. It was man’s attempt to deceive God into thinking one was being obedient, which was a far greater deception. God always required something deeper than religious legalism.

On prayer: “For him prayer was the display of the strongest possible activity.”

On guilt - “Bonhoeffer knew that to live in fear of incurring ‘guilt’ was itself sinful. God wanted his beloved children to operate out of freedom and joy to do what was right and good, not out of fear of making a mistake. To live in fear and guilt was to be ‘religious’ in the pejorative sense that Bonhoeffer so often talked and preached about. He knew that to act freely could mean inadvertently doing wrong and incurring guilt. In fact, he felt that living this way meant that it was impossible to avoid incurring guilt, but if one wished to live responsibly and fully, one would be willing to do so.”

On Love in Marriage: “It’s not your love that sustains marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” Letter from prison for the wedding of his sister Renate, and his best friend Eberhard Bethge.

On his courage: “Bonhoeffer was not ‘naturally’ strong and courageous. His equanimity was the result of self-discipline, of deliberately turning to God.”

On suffering: “If we survive during these coming weeks or months, we shall be able to see quite clearly that all has turned out for the best. The idea that we could have avoided many of life’ difficulties if we had taken things more cautiously is too foolish to be entertained for a moment. As I look back on your past I am so convince that what has happened hitherto has been right, that I feel that what is happening now is right too. To renounce a full life and its real joys in order to avoid pain is neither Christian nor human.”

On being good: “those who wish even to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand - from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?’”… so there are no ethics apart from doing God’s will “All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.”

On principles (again): “Principles are only tools in the hands of God; they will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful.”

On Discipline (Poem):
                If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things
To govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions
And longing may lead you away from the path you should follow.
Chaste be your mind an d your body, and both in subjection,
Obediently steadfastly seeking the aim set before them;
Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.

On integrity - “A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”

On Service: “I think what really matters is that the right kind of work renders one unselfish, and that a person whose heart is filled with personal interests and concerns develops a desire for such unselfishness in the service of others.

On Suffering (poem):
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
All that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
To life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
That which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

On Perseverance: “He never tired of repeating that the only fight which is lost is that which we give up.”

His last words: (reported by a fellow prisoner) “…he drew me aside - ‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life.’”

On taking Action: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” - Reminds me of two quotes I’ve often heard from Dennis Rainey: “The middle of the road is a great place to get run over” and “No decision is still a decision.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Background Story Behind "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."

FamilyLife publishes a weekly article called The Marriage Memo. The memo for this week was especially interesting, giving the background behind the the hymn "I Head the Bells on Christmas Day" (taken from a poem by Longfellow).

Might be fun to share this with your family tonight and to have a conversation.
You can sign up to receive the Marriage Memo via email here.

The Bells of Hope
by Dave Boehi

Christmas was not a happy time for him.

His country was embroiled in a war he hated. His own son had returned home with severe wounds.

He also grieved deeply for his beloved wife, who had died after a freak accident in their home two years before. On the first Christmas after losing her, he wrote, "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays." Six months later he wrote, "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace."

Indeed, the very idea of "peace on earth"--proclaimed by the angels upon Christ's birth and echoed by the church bells he heard on Christmas Day--seemed like a terrible joke.

And so on Christmas Day in 1863, with the American Civil War still raging, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called "Christmas Bells."

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Today we know these words from the song that was inspired by Longfellow's poem: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Two of Longfellow's verses, referring to the Civil War, do not appear in the song:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Longfellow's next verse, which does appear in the song, may be the saddest words I've seen in a Christmas carol. They reflect the misery of a man who felt no hope:

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!"

Fortunately the poem does not end there. For somehow the Christmas bells that morning reminded  Longfellow of a deeper truth:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men!"

When life goes wrong

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is one of my favorite carols because it is so honest and yet, in the end, so full of hope.

We all face times when life goes wrong and we feel despair. The despair after the death of a loved one, or the despair that accompanies a life-threatening disease. The despair of a marriage relationship that has drifted into isolation. The despair of a child who rejects everything you believe. The despair of a problem at work that you can't solve, or a career that feels like it's going nowhere. The despair of feeling powerless to break free of a secret sin.

Longfellow's dark cloud began to lift when he chose to focus on the fact that God is alive, that He is sovereign and has a greater plan than we can understand. We will never see the type of "peace on earth" that so many long for, because the heart of man remains unchanged. But we can experience peace in our hearts when we put our faith and trust in the God who created the universe. I think that's the kind of peace Longfellow finally experienced.

It's the same truth that the biblical character Job understood after losing everything he had. In the end he realized he needed to put his trust totally in God. "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted," he told God. "... Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 42:2-3).

Choosing to trust God

Over the years I've interviewed a number of married couples who had experienced the type of hardships that doom many relationships--financial difficulties, death of a child, debilitating disease, and more. They all faced a crisis of faith, when they had to come to terms with the fact that life was not going as they had envisioned. They only experienced healing and peace when they acknowledged their trust in the God who created them and had a plan for their lives.

One husband, overwhelmed with the reality of raising a child with special needs and the pressure it was putting on his marriage, said, "I remember praying in the midst of my tears, Lord, I have nothing to believe in if I can't believe You are good and You are sovereign. I'm not sure I feel that, but if it's not true, then what's life about? I am going to choose to believe that you would not allow anything but good to come into my life."

On that December morning in 1863, Longfellow recognized these same truths, that "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep." Christmas reminds us that God demonstrated His goodness and sovereignty by sending His son to live on earth and pay the penalty for our sin so that we could experience true peace with God. As Romans 5:8 tells us, "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
God reached down to a world of despair and gave it hope.

Then ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

[A contemporary rendition of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" was recorded by the group Casting Crowns. Click here to watch it on YouTube.]

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