After uniting the Confessing Church and identifying the incompatibility of Nazism and Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned his attention back to India. Now was his chance to study pacifism under Mahatma Gandhi; something he had longed to do ever since hearing of Gandhi’s movement. Bonhoeffer wrote to Gandhi and asked to be his live-in guest. In his letter, which recently resurfaced, Bonhoeffer said, “I do not believe in short interviews. I do think one should live with one another to know each other.”
Bonhoeffer would forego his desire to live and learn from Gandhi due to the mounting pressure of the Nazis. Instead, he accepted a call to run an underground seminary in the coastal town of Finkenwalde. Here he would instead live with 25 seminarians preparing for their pastoral duties, a communal experience he would later document in his book, Life Together.
Bonhoeffer’s simple little book makes clear how privileged many of us are to enjoy the Communion of the Saints here on earth.
He reflects on his days in Finkenwalde at the beginning of the book, saying, “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.” What a painful reminder we have received of that lately! At a time when we are forbidden from entering the places we call, “Church,” and we’re forced to stay inside our houses and avoid contact with people, Bonhoeffer’s simple little book makes clear how privileged many of us are to enjoy the Communion of the Saints here on earth.
Bonhoeffer’s Life Together has much to say to the Christian trapped in a period of quarantine. Perhaps you are wondering what will become of your community after this crisis is over, or you have suddenly found yourself isolated and alone for over 40 days now. Maybe you are wounded from the virus or even mourning the death of someone who has been taken by it. In each case, Bonhoeffer has a word of hope that I hope you find comforting in this strange time.
The Gift of Christian Community
Bonhoeffer begins by reminding us that not all Christians get to regularly enjoy fellowship with other Christians. “The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely,” he says, “and the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone.” If nothing else, this temporary separation we’re experiencing from the body of Christ may help us better understand that. We are right to miss it. This fellowship is as he says, “the roses and lilies,” of the Christian life. Not only is it a beautiful picture of God’s grace on us, but “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer."
What makes Christian community so good?
It is not the programming, the strength of our churches core values, or even the well-organized structure of our community and accountability groups. “Christian Community” is not an ideal we are striving for, seeking to accomplish when we finally get it set up correctly. “God hates visionary dreaming,” warns Bonhoeffer. Why? When we attempt to fashion a community out of our own dreams and desires, we take what is good and turn it into a set of little ‘l’ laws for others to squeeze into and follow. It is not the man or the man’s actions that determine his qualification for the brotherhood. “Our community with one another,” Bonhoeffer says, “consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us.”
Christian community is not an ideal then, but a divine reality - and that is good news for us, especially right now. Bonhoeffer encourages us to think of this as we live the Christian life. Just as we don’t benefit from constantly feeling our spiritual pulse, so too we don’t benefit from constantly taking the temperature of the community. “What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God,” Bonhoeffer says.
Christian community is not an ideal then, but a divine reality.
So as we continue to sit in front of our computers with spotty wifi connections watching a Facebook Live feed of our pastors speak to us from their dining room table, and as we hear how discordant our acapella voices really sound (perhaps, for the first time?) without music to drown them out, take heart. The words of assurance and forgiveness delivered through your speaker are working far better than your own. “The Christ in his own heart,” Bonhoeffer reminds us of ourselves, “is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.”
The Gift of Solitude & Isolation
It can be startling to discover you are all alone. For those of us that are single and live alone, this crisis has meant extra time with me, myself, and I. Bonhoeffer tells us, “Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God.” This is a sobering reminder, to be sure. But being alone isn’t inherently bad, especially as the day begins. Christ would regularly withdraw from crowds and his own disciples to be alone (Luke 5:16).
In solitude we often find silence. “Silence,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the simple stillness of the individual under the word of God.” In moments of solitude we can find clarification and concentration. Silence gives opportunity for conversation with God and before the word, “leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the word of God at the right time,” says Bonhoeffer.
Perhaps you’re experiencing the opposite of me within a family under quarantine: The seeming impossibility of solitude and silence. Bonhoeffer, in an eerily relevant way, says,“Where a family lives close together in a constricted space and the individual does not have the quietness he needs, regular times of quiet are absolutely necessary.” My guess is that even in the busyness of a family unit, there is at least one moment throughout the day where things fall silent.
In either case, Bonhoeffer gives a series of helpful tips on how we might embrace this silence. One, in particular, is to choose a brief text to meditate on. This text he says, which may or may not change for a week at a time, “is not only God’s word for the Church, but also God’s word for us individually.” If you are a preacher of God’s word, this reflection means that you may take a break from asking what this text has to say to other people. You are free instead to reflect on what it is saying directly to you.
Words to Pray During a Pandemic
This is a dreadful experience that has left many of us wounded, scared, and even mourning the death of the ones we love. It’s jarring and exhausting to watch and even think about. Perhaps more than anything, we are left speechless.
Yet God has given us words for our misery and suffering. Indeed, they are the very words of Christ that we too can speak. In the Psalms, which Bonhoeffer calls the “vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church,” we find Psalms of Lament that Christ in his suffering, separation, and death knows well. Every psalm, as Chad Bird has said before, finds its origin on his lips. From there it moves into our ears and hearts, and out of our mouths.
As we experience this pandemic and its lasting effects, we can use these psalms as our guide in prayer. We can find comfort in knowing that God has not abandoned us but, instead, has suffered for us and emerged victorious as the firstfruits of our resurrection.