From one to three pm, things get particularly quiet in the small coffee shop that I manage. The inventory has been taken, all the shop owners on Main Street have gotten their after lunch pick-me-ups, and the landlord of the building has already cleaned out the cash drawer by paying for a small black coffee with a hundred dollar bill. These undisturbed hours serve as opportunities for doing schoolwork, or sermon prep, or keeping my daily Duolingo streak in French. These past couple weeks, though, it’s been my time to grab coffee with a man that’s not only become one of my most influential teachers, but has also started to feel like a friend. That man is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German teacher, preacher, and theologian.
About a month ago, the International Bonhoeffer Society posted a letter on Twitter that Bonhoeffer wrote to Mahatma Gandhi. They’ve since removed it, as it wasn’t meant to be published yet, but the amount of reverence and respect that Bonhoeffer gave Gandhi in asking to come and learn under him astounded me. I quickly checked out a book of Bonhoeffer’s collected lectures, sermons, letters, and poetry to see if this kind of compassion, humility, and ecumenical mindset extended to the rest of his life and works.
A selection of Bonhoeffer’s lectures took me from my small corner table to a cramped classroom in his underground seminary in Finkenwalde. It was there that Bonhoeffer would teach his students the importance of silent time with God, the nature of the church and discipleship, and the importance of promoting peace as Christians. I could practically hear the grumbling of students sympathetic to the German war effort and of those not sure what to do with themselves during hours of quiet time, both of whom Bonhoeffer would subtly admonish. I could especially hear the silence fall when Bonhoeffer called on those at a youth conference to stop trying to win people to a cause, to promote a worldview, to force their theology, or to persuade the world to see the church in a better light. He upheld: “Let Christ be Christ.” Bonhoeffer was the kind unafraid to polarize students, to say the least, but those are often my favorite kind of people.
He upheld: “Let Christ be Christ.”
Moving to Bonhoeffer’s sermons, I was once again whisked away, this time to a wooden pew on a rather chilly day. There Bonhoeffer was, behind a simple pulpit, with a gentle demeanor and a voice laced with passion and zeal. While all pastors should be preaching Christ, Bonhoeffer zeroed in on the person of Jesus, the work of the Gospel, and what that truly means for how we live our lives and see others. His words pierce the heart and the mind, as I am forced to reconcile all the ways that my life does not line up with Jesus’ teachings. I wanted Bonhoeffer to sit across from me, to counsel me, to show me what a life truly devoted to God looked like. While I couldn’t ask him aloud, I could keep reading and feel his presence there with me.
While all pastors should be preaching Christ, Bonhoeffer zeroed in on the person of Jesus, the work of the Gospel, and what that truly means for how we live our lives and see others.
It was Bonhoeffer’s letters and poetry that touched me in a weeping-in-front-of- customers kind of way. I was reading this man’s mail, and it revealed a wellspring of love and hope, but also inner turmoil, especially as the Nazi Party took more and more control, and the church in Germany seemed to slip further and further away from the Christianity that Bonhoeffer espoused. It was in these moments that he truly felt like he was across the table from me. I started to play gospel music as I read, learning that he’d fallen in love with the “freedom songs” of the black church while here in America. He was relaying his inner thoughts, how he wished the downfall of his own country if it meant the advancement of Christ, how he felt hopeless of the church in Germany, and how he already felt dead in the confines of his prison cell before his execution.
While Bonhoeffer taught me much over the course of our time together, it was this sense of intimacy with him that stunned me most; he offered wisdom and stories, confided in me, sometimes tore me down, but always built me back up. Not only is Bonhoeffer an inspiring man, but, for me, alive and close.
So I plan to meet others from the past, maybe John Wesley or James Cone next, to befriend them like I have Bonhoeffer, and I would encourage any readers to do the same. Find someone you admire, or whose voice you feel you need to hear, grab some of their writings and maybe a cup of coffee, and engage with them for however long you have. Do this daily and allow their voices and ways of thinking to sink into you. Over time, you may just start to see them across the table, speaking directly through time and space