One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in recent years has been the number of people I hear from now who are feeling a call to serve Spirit. Often they don’t understand this urge, this inchoate itch they feel compelled to scratch, nor even are most of them certain that it really is an itch at all. Are they imagining things? Do other people ever feel this way? I haven’t much mentioned this development here because the ways people have been describing their histories and their calls to serve have been so varied, and because even a year or two ago there were just occasional requests for advice about how best to begin. It is only in recent months that I realize that these requests are coming more often! As I write this, I have before me a wonderful plea from someone very young who tells me that it is my work that has inspired her to seek to spend her life serving God… and hers is the second such email I have received this morning. It is dawning on me now that these messages are not random, even despite the fact that all these people’s backstories are so different. This is not random. And it likely is telling us that something profoundly important is happening at the level of human hearts.
If you also are feeling called as apparently so many others are being called now to do God’s work in today’s immensely troubled world, I would like to introduce to you a modern saint whose words can guide your path much better than mine ever could! Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who radically opposed the Nazi movement, worked to help Jews escape extermination, and was martyred at Flossenburg, a Nazi death-camp, at the age of thirty-nine. His was such an epic life lived in radical submission not to any religion, but rather to the living God, that if he had been born a Catholic, he would long since have been declared a saint. He died just a year before I was born, so he was better remembered when I was young than he is remembered now; but I am coming to realize that Dr. Bonhoeffer’s ideas have shaped me so profoundly that reading his words again feels like coming home.
The only way to genuinely follow Jesus is to step outside all conventional religions and meet God in the words that Jesus actually spoke to us long ago. You and I have been working at doing this together over the past year. And I realize now that Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely has been my inspiration! Many German clergymen welcomed the rise of Adolf Hitler. For Dr. Bonhoeffer, though, the antisemitism of Nazism was such anathema that he opposed Hitler almost from the beginning. He soon therefore also opposed the complacent theological ideas that made supporting Hitler even possible for Christians; and his became a radical new theology that required that Christians must stand resolutely righteous in a world gone wrong.
I can give you just a flavor of Dr. Bonhoeffer’s wisdom here. Much of his most brilliant writing was done from prison and smuggled out as letters that he may not have imagined might ever be published. But like Martin Luther King, Jr., who also was martyred at the age of thirty-nine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man shaped by his times and by the radical teachings of Jesus into a greatness that transcends time. And like Dr. King, Dr. Bonhoeffer is one of the few who are best fit to teach and lead us as we seek to better serve the Lord today. Let’s spend a few moments sitting at his feet as he shares with us the kind of wisdom that comes only from a life deeply grounded in Jesus and lived in radical service to God in the face of human evil.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
“We live by responding to the word of God… since this word is addressed to our entire life, the response, too, can only be an entire one; it must be given with our entire life as it is realized in all our several actions.”
“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge… We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
“I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in life and goodness… God is the beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.”
“It was the error of Israel to put the Law in God’s place, to make the law their God and their God a law.”
“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility… this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”
“‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted’… By ‘mourning’ Jesus, of course, means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate, and its fortune.”
Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all… The disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love. It is this that opens the disciple’s eyes, and enables him to see his enemy as a brother.”
“The extraordinary never merges into the personal. That was the fatal mistake of the false Protestant ethic which diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness, which in short, perverted the better righteousness into mere civility.”
“When we judge other people we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside. But love has neither time nor opportunity for this. If we love, we can never observe the other person with detachment, for he is always and at every moment a living claim to our love and service.”
“Love for the sinner is ominously close to love of the sin. But the love of Christ for the sinner in itself is the condemnation of sin.”
“If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts. But if we are on the look-out for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves.”
“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others… not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
“We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?”
“It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short, from the perspective of the suffering.”
“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”
“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young man full of promise who was called by the Lord as many people are now being called, to live the deepest Gospel truths in radical service to God. He submitted with grace to a death that came for him just as the fullness of his life was beginning! To read the best of his private words is to commune with the likes of Dr. King, with kindred non-Christians like Mahatma Gandhi, and in particular with the Lord Himself. We are being called now to use the Gospel teachings as these modern saints are leading us to use them, by putting them into practice in this world gone wrong so we might together become the heart and conscience of a better world yet to be born. Next week we will begin to look at how you and I might build upon their pioneering work. Now is when it begins….