Monday, March 18, 2013

Bonhoeffer on Facing Death and Living Life

For all he said of death and heaven, Bonhoeffer found that "being there for others" is the ultimate transcendence

Later today, at the written request of a friend my age who succumbed to ovarian cancer after a five-year struggle, I will read words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at her memorial service. I consider this an honor and privilege. Kathy read Bonhoeffer's biography last year and was struck by the shining witness of his life...and death.

The passage she chose for me to read is about death and life, hell and heaven.  It is an excerpt from a sermon Bonhoeffer preached in 1933, twelve years before his death by hanging in a Nazi prison at the end of World War II. What he said of life, death, hell and heaven at that time--prior to the full emergence of Hitler, the agonies of war, the holocaust of millions of Jews and his own part in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler--are insightful and prophetic. His perspective and words would be tested in the cauldron of suffering, loss and his own execution.

Experiences of life and time teach us--and the experiences of Bonhoeffer from 1933 to 1945 certainly instructed, changed, developed and matured the young theologian caught in the crossfire of gut-wrenching internal and international struggles. 

Wanting to get a sense of how Bonhoeffer's perspective changed with time, this morning I read his letters and notes from the middle of 1944 up to his last correspondence in 1945. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Letters & Papers from Prison reflects the last, fullest, maturest perspectives we have of this profound Christian.

This morning, two brief passages strike me as quite memorable and useful. In them, he does not speak of boldness in the face of death or the glories heaven--though it is certain he continued to believe unswervingly in both. But, in the face of an almost-certain death, Bonhoeffer speaks of living fully in this world as a responsible neighbor.

This is from a letter, written on July 21, 1944, to his brother-in-law Eberhard Bethge:

"I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world--watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia [conversion, repentance]; that is how one becomes a man and a Christian..."

And this is from notes for Chapter 2 of a book--never finished--that he outlined in August, 1944:

“Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that 'Jesus is there only for others.' His 'being there for others' is the experience of transcendence. It is only this 'being there for others,' maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Faith is participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, resurrection). Our relation to God is not a 'religious' relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable--that is not authentic transcendence--but our relation to God is a new life in 'existence for others,' through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbor who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form...”

Whatever the future holds, we cannot know. But faith invites us to live fully this-worldly as we possibly can in responsible care for neighbors near and far. Let us learn, more and more, as Jesus Christ, to live eternity in being there for others. 

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 

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