May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I continue to find encouragement in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” A Lutheran pastor and theologian who led an underground seminary in Germany during the Nazi period, Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. “Letters and Papers from Prison,” a book compiled by his good friend, Eberhard Bethge, is a collection of the letters and papers that he wrote and received during his two year imprisonment. It is now considered one of the great spiritual classics of the twentieth century. As I re-read this classic (and discuss it with my daughter, who is a seminary student), I am sharing some of my reflections on the way. The first three reflections can be found here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 1, here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 2, and here: Letters and Papers from Prison – Part 3. Here is my fourth and final reflection, on Part 4.
The fourth and final part of this book is given the title, “After the Failure: July 1944 – February 1945.” The letters and papers written in this section are clearly written at a critical time for Bonhoeffer and his colleagues. I will let John W. de Gruchy, the editor of this book, set the stage:
On July 20, 1944, the plot on Hitler’s life failed. This was a critical turning point not only for the resistance but also for Bonhoeffer. Even though the Gestapo did not yet know that he was involved, they were determined to root out all conspirators on the orders of Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s hopes of release faded.
In the first of the letters written after this failed plot on Hitler’s life, written to Bethge on July 21, Bonhoeffer writes the words at the beginning of this blog post, “May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.” The context in which these words were written makes them even more poignant and inspiring.
Throughout these letters, Bonhoeffer has found and shared inspiration from the Daily Texts of the Moravian Church, which offer a verse from the Old Testament each day, called the “Watchword for the Day,” and a verse from the New Testament called the “Doctrinal Text,” which often responds to the theme of the Old Testament watchword. In anticipation of Bethge’s birthday, Bonhoeffer peaked ahead and found this New Testament verse on that day:
For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God.2 Corinthians 1:20
Here is what Bonhoeffer writes about this verse. It is a lengthier quote, but I think worth sharing, because it summarizes so much of what Bonhoeffer has been saying throughout this book:
A week from today is your birthday. I looked at the Daily Texts again and meditated for a while on them. I think everything depends on the words “in Him.” Everything we may with some good reason expect or beg of God is to be found in Jesus Christ. What we imagine a God could and should do – the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with all that. We must immerse ourselves again and again, for a long time and quite calmly, in Jesus’s life, his sayings, actions, suffering, and dying in order to recognize what God promises and fulfills. What is certain is that we may always live aware that God is near and present with us and that this life is an utterly new life for us; that there is nothing that is impossible for us anymore because there is nothing that is impossible for God; that no earthly power can touch us without God’s will, and that danger and urgent need can only drive us closer to God. What is certain is that we have no claim on anything but may ask for everything; what is certain is that in suffering lies hidden the source of our joy, in dying the source of our life; what is certain is that in all this we stand within a community that carries us. To all this, God has said Yes and Amen in Jesus. This Yes and Amen is the solid ground upon which we stand. Again and again in these turbulent times, we lose sight of why life is really worth living. We think that our own life has meaning because this or that other person exists. In truth, however, it is like this: If the earth was deemed worthy to bear the human being Jesus Christ, if a human being like Jesus lived, then and only then does our life as human beings have meaning.
Isn’t that a powerful description of what it means to live our lives “in Him”? I think so, and there is much in these words to come back to and ponder again and again.
The way this book will end, and the way that Bonhoeffer’s life will end, begin to be more and more clear, both to us and to Bonhoeffer and his friends and family, as we near its fateful end. This, to me, makes thoughts like this one so poignant:
You must never doubt that I am thankfully and cheerfully going along the path on which I am being led. My past life is filled to the brim with God’s goodness, and the forgiving love of the Crucified One covers my guilt.
The last of Bonhoeffer’s poems in this book is one that Bonhoeffer wrote as 1944 slipped into 1945, and still we see Bonhoeffer’s undying faith in the “Powers of Good.” I have shared this poem here: So Wondrously Protected. Here is its final stanza:
By powers of good so wondrously protected, we wait with confidence, befall what may. God is with us at night and in the morning and oh, most certainly on each new day.
Finally, while this is not in “Letters and Papers from Prison,” it is worth sharing here Bonhoeffer’s reported last words, this from history.com:
On April 9, 1945, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged at Flossenburg, only days before the American liberation of the POW camp. The last words of the brilliant and courageous 39-year-old opponent of Nazism were “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
There is no reason to doubt these words, or that Bonhoeffer went to his death believing them, because we see this same steadfast faith throughout his letters and papers from prison, and throughout his life. Bonhoeffer died at the young age of 39, but his words and his life continue to inspire me and so many others. How very thankful I am to have spent such meaningful time with these faith-filled letters and papers from prison.
All quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” can be found in the Reader’s Edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” published by Fortress Press.