Jesus, Bonhoeffer, and Me

I recently finished a short biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am not one to purchase biographies, but this one stuck out to me one afternoon as I perused through Myopic’s Religion section. I bounced around from all different religions (Satanism…?) and ended up with Bonhoeffer’s biography in hand. I took a place at a round table and dove in with an inexplicable expectation.

I finished two days later as I stepped off of the Chicago 66 bus, with the ending daylight acting as my lamp. As I continued my walk back to my apartment, I began the internal processing of what Bonhoeffer’s life just revealed to my life. From his upbringing to his last days on Earth in a concentration camp – I was greatly affected. I recall closing the book and looking out to the incoming night sky with an eyeful of tears. My heart ached in a sad, but full, way.

Earlier that day, I had received an unexpected e-mail. It was one of those e-mails that hits to the core of who you are. My first reaction to this e-mail full of healthy critique was just that – a reaction. I questioned my character, whatever leadership roles I held, and who I thought I was as a Christian. After finding my mind again, I started to understand what this e-mail served as. Besides a very large dose of humility, this particular e-mail ultimately served as a stepping stone in my formation of as a follower of Jesus. This led to why I felt that fullness from the heartache of Bonhoeffer’s life and untimely death.

What I learned from Bonhoeffer was the importance to remain open-minded and malleable in this Spirit-led life. Bonhoeffer’s spiritual life was one that began with a question-marked seed. Never having experienced church outside of his mother reading him Bible stories, he went to school for theology, because, well, why not? However unknown his path seemed, he walked into a profession with open-mindedness. As the years passed and his experiences in the church multiplied, he found Jesus.  The revelation of the character of Jesus was revealed through the readings of the Sermon on the Mount, which served as inspiration to his book “The Cost of Discipleship”.

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

While his discovery of what it meant to be a theologian and a disciple was anything but perfect, Bonhoeffer, while imprisoned in Nazi Germany, began to understand what the relationship between man and God was all about. The spiritual life was to be neither a set of rules nor condemnations, but a life spent dispensing grace and understanding the story in front of you. In Bonhoeffer’s life, this meant befriending the communist he shared jail-life with, and the Nazi soldier who would eventually try to help him escape. In all these ways of lowering the guard of the theological mind and questioning all he believed, Bonhoeffer realized he did not have it all together. And not having it all together may have been the most freeing thought of all.

“There remains an experience of incomparable value . . . to see the great events of world history from below; from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled —- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer . . . to look with new eyes on matters great and small.”

In receiving that e-mail, I realized that same thing. I certainly do not have it all together. But, if I’m honest, I can sometimes present myself that way. I felt a sudden paradigm shift within myself throughout the day. I realized that I had to take from that e-mail the parts that would transform me and remain malleable to what that looked like. In a lot of ways, reading Bonhoeffer’s biography was so timely. Had I not seen his spiritual transformation, that only came through remaining open-minded to what was to come, I believe my reaction to the e-mail may have been different.

“Those who would learn to serve must first learn to think little of themselves…Only those who live by the forgiveness of their sin in Jesus Christ will think little of themselves in the right way. They will know that their own wisdom completely came to an end when Christ forgave them.”

Today I can say that I am truly thankful for the grace-driven humility to move forward in the face of healthy critique, knowing that it is ultimately for my good in becoming who He sees fit.

“Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

I am also thankful Bonhoeffer took those words from Jesus seriously.

My friend Kaleb wrote a wonderful article on “The Virtue of Open-Mindedness” a while back. I kept reflecting back to this post in order to be reminded of how even Jesus was open-minded in the situations of his day.

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