DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Beginning of Life

Written by: on February 17, 2021

On April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken by two men to be led to his execution. He had been asked to perform a final service on Quasimodo Sunday – the Sunday following Easter. One of his fellow prisoners, Payne Best, describes the scene:

“He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said:

‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘Come with us’ – for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.

We bade him good bye – and he drew me aside – ‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life.’”[1]

These final words of Bonhoeffer are considered some of his most famous. They are the words of someone who was faithful to his calling up until the very end. They are the words of someone who lived as he preached. They are the words of someone who was confident in his relationship with God – knowing that there was hope of life after death.

For Bonhoeffer, death only found meaning in light of faith. In a sermon he preached in London many years before, he said, “Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”[2] Ever the curious and thoughtful one, in the same sermon he even posed the question: “How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?”[3]

At his execution, the camp doctor at Flossenbürg wrote, “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”[4] This was a man who truly believed what he preached. He followed his own directive, that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

What does it mean to face struggle and hardship with dignity and to be faithful to one’s calling? From Bonhoeffer’s last moments, there are several takeaways:

  1. Hardship and suffering is not the end. In leadership, there are always going to be struggles and hardships along the way. While death may not be the lived reality we face in our day to day leadership, there are people who will try and “kill” or undermine our leadership. A major aspect of the Christian narrative is the belief that there is hope in the resurrection.
  2. To experience death is to experience life. The moment our leadership faces death in one area can mean life in another. Christ calls us to die to ourselves so that we may find life. What new beginnings are around the corner when an opportunity ends?
  3. Dignity is found in submission to God. Bonhoeffer was able to face his last moments because of the foundation he had built on his identity in God. It was a lifelong journey of immersion, of questioning, of reflection, of teaching, of failure, and of victory. It was that submission to God that allowed him to face his end with not just dignity, but also humility.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2010), 528.

 [2] Ibid., 531.

 [3] Ibid.

 [4] Ibid., 532.

About the Author

mm

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

10 responses to “The Beginning of Life”

  1. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Maybe it’s through my teaching my kids about the pioneers and their challenging lives, but it seems (not a new observation by any means) that our culture’s obsession with comfort will rarely give rise to this kind of helpful wisdom that you offer via Bonhoeffer.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Definitely. It’s like what Haidt wrote in the Coddling of the American Mind and what Taleb wrote in Antifragile. We’re inundated by a culture of fragility that stops us from being able to embrace suffering as it comes.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    In my part of the country, this week has been another face-to-face encounter with the reality of our ultimate powerlessness. (This time quite literally as the power grids in my state struggled to keep up with demand.) I’ve seen many examples of what happens when we’re anxious, frustrated, and/or scared when things happen that are beyond our control. Bonhoeffer faced his death with the same assurance as his Lord. We marvel at his faith, and elevate it to the level of superhuman, but in fact, he’s an example of the kind of contentment available to anyone. In many ways, I believe how we “weather the storms” says more about our lives and our faith than anything we say when all is well. I’m not sure how to effectively preach that to people in my context who have completely lost their $h** this week, but your post gives me a great place to start.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Part of me wonders if we actually want that contentment. That sort of contentment only comes with submission and we tend to not be so great at that haha. Or we like to submit to the wrong things.

      I agree though that how we weather the storms says more about our faith than how we weather the sunny days. Even reflecting on the beginning of the pandemic, fear was the driving force for many.

  3. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Dude. You jumped to the end (or new beginning) so quickly. We’ve got a couple of weeks left to write about Bonhoeffer and I don’t think the rest of the cohort knows that Bonhoeffer actually dies. 😉

    ~~

    You do so well in this piece to articulate Bonhoeffer’s submission to his understanding of God and to God’s purposes. That line about misunderstanding the shuddering of the dying as fear of death rather than anticipation of the new beginning rocked me in the reading and then again in your reflections.

    ~~

    Darcy, I’m eager to hear your reflections on this piece.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      Dang it, you’re right 😛 I should’ve put a ***SPOILER ALERT*** at the beginning 😉

      I remember being moved to tears when I read those lines from his sermon as well. Reading his works, I’m always amazed not just at how articulate he is, but how there always seems to be this gentleness to his words. We may think of death as a curse, but Bonhoeffer actually makes it seem like a gift.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Dylan,

    Awesome post. (Yes, I knew Bonhoeffer died) Lots to think about in this one. I don’t think death is easy for anyone. I do believe that for those who embrace the process with dignity and faith it is possible to walk that path without fear. Bonhoeffer’s example shows the power of resolve found in a deep abiding faith in Christ.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I remember the first time I read Brother Yun’s The Heavenly Man and The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken, what struck me was how Christians who had been persecuted in China and throughout the Soviet Union learned to face the possibility of death with confidence because of their immense faith in Jesus. The power of being part of a “resurrection faith” as Ripken puts it gives us hope that death isn’t the end.

  5. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    It seems Bonhoffer realized the redemptive power of death itself, and how, through Christ’s death, death itself had been redeemed. It was no longer something to be feared (though his circumstances definitely were scary), but rather something to be embraced and faced head-on, just as Christ did. I wonder what our churches, communities, etc., would look like more Christ followers lived such wisdom? How do we not only learn to die well, but also die wise, trusting in the promises of the One we profess to love?

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    What else did he have to hold onto than Jesus?

    What else did Jesus have to hold onto than His Father and promise?

    In consideration of the garden of Genthsemane scene and based on what you’ve learned of Bonhoeffer, who do you think was ‘more ready’?

    Suffering and death, these can be quite traumatising, and we are promised that we will not have to bear more than what we are capable of. God knows the extents of our stretch, perhaps a tad more than we believe we are capable of bearing?

    The story is so beautiful, and it is such a bummer. Could it be that Bonhoeffer is more alive to us for the story he remained committed to, than he would have been with a full life span and books and books?

    Makes me more curious of the look of the real thing and real deal Jesus following. Are the best leaders, the ones who follow with ‘nearest to’ precision?

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