Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Conversations with Bonheoffer

It is my sense that there are but few events in life that truly matter.

It is my further sense that these few events that do matter are events that, unasked and unbidden, transform us. They move us from where we were to a place so different that from that new place the option of retreat or return is denied. Where we were, we can be no more. And, from where we are, we can only go on.

Years ago, when my wife was still in the early years of her graduate training at Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology where she trained to become a clinical psychologist,I, as spouse, was permitted to audit classes for a fee so nominal one would consider it free. This I decided to do one summer, and, as the poet Robert Frost would say, "that made all the difference."

The class I attended was offered by Ray Anderson, Professor of Psychology as well as Professor of Theology, much in the keeping, I like to think, of William James of Harvard University,philosopher,psychologist,theologian.

Professor Anderson was man mature in his years mentally, physically, spiritually, and a man who prayed so beautifully that in and of itself his act of prayer presented at the start of each morning's session, five days a week since it was summer school, would have made the course a transforming life event had the day simply ended after his opening prayer. Indeed, a student asked and offered to record and transcribe Professor Anderson's prayers so that they could be recorded, published, and archived for those not privileged to hear that which was so freely offered to God in our presence. I fear that this did not occur, though I am sure his prayers still echo in heaven this day.

Never before and never sense have I been so moved by another's prayers, although there is another, Professor Hollenbecker, also theologian, who comes quite close, but that is another story.

The subject of study that summer was to be "The Life and Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.... German Theologian." Though at first I read Bonhoeffer, in time, the passage of which I became unaware, I ceased to read his words, and he, he, began to speak in a voice that seemed, as implausible as it is, audible to my ears. We entered into a dialog, I for the most part silent, the listener, and he the one with thoughts worth uttering. Though it be another story, I had never met such a man before, nor have I since. He could be pedantically tedious, for he is, after all a German theologian, but then, as in Life Together he would turn away from thought, and speak of Christ in the world and of the significance of community in Christ. It was at theses times I knew, our meeting was an event transforming.

I know, of course, he could not speak, for I was gazing upon his written word, but still I know equally well that I head him speak and felt myself transformed.

In the course of the summer I filled notebook after notebook capturing lecture and reading and bit by bit built my Bonhoeffer library searching used bookstores to find whatever was there for me to hear. And so I was transformed by a man so brilliant few could challenge his intellect and so intellectually honest that he permitted himself to be transformed by his own writings becoming the head of the underground Lutheran Church in Germany during the reign of Adolph Hitler, and even though censored by Hitler, and even though offered refuge in England as well as America, chose to remain in Germany, ultimately being arrested, imprisoned, and executed by the Nazis less than a month before the War in Europe came to a close in1945.

There are so many stories that find their beginning in that class I took that summer, but I stray, for even though I moved deeper into my love of Bonhoeffer, years passed and events in life occurred, transforming events, knowingly unknowingly moving me again, again, again. Where I was, I was no more, and where I stood .......... sand where stone once had been.

And so.......... earlier this week, unintentionally, in the cluttered clutter of my cluttered desk,I came across a book, a special book, given to me by a student in times ago who had permitted me to mentor him at the university where also I teach. We had spent three years together, meeting once a week, choosing a different book of our liking, usually a different one each week, simply to engage in a dialog as to how and why the book moved us this way or that. This we did, often in the company of another student of equivalent grace, and less often with an ajoining third, at an hour so early that as we finished, there was still time to grab a quick cup of coffee before meeting my 8:00a.m. class.

As time requires, we parted, he to continue with the deepening of his education in his young life, and I to simply carry on. But he, upon leaving, somehow gleaning from our time together, the significance I grant to Bonhoeffer in my life, gifted me "A Year With Dietrich Bonhoeffer" edited by Carla Bonhill. This I received, with thanks, but set aside for from where I was I heard his voice no more.

I left the gift untouched.I felt little of that which I had felt so many years ago in that summer that could pass but once. His voice had become silent and the conversations from the page had retreated to written form and become but words again.

I have been reading Yancy on prayer and whether it really matters and how is it that God seems to spend so much time not answering presented pleas. And, I had arrived, after some time, at the point where I would pray, "Lord may Thy blessings pass over me to those with greater need." And perhaps I did this because then when God would leave my prayers unanswered it would be because I had requested that he do so... and so I was able to make Him listen. But as weeks passed, my prayer began to make sense and I think at times I actually realized how many are they with greater need. And although I know an omnipotent God has more than enough resource to meet my trivial needs as well as those of commanding need, I also know that He does not in any way that I can understand and so, I came to believe in the merit of my prayer
asking that what blessings are still to be distributed, that they pass over me. And, in time to this I added, "Lord, may Thy mercies wash over me. Treat me not with your justice, but with your grace." And so I came to this point: I am in need, not of God's further blessings, but of his continuing provision of mercy and grace.

Desks, even my desk, must at times be cleaned. And so I embarked on that task. And so it is that I chanced upon the book gifted me. It had hidden quite near, unseen all this time. How often I must have passed near it perhaps even with a grazing touch... the book of silenced words. I opened it. I stared at the pages. I turned to the date of the day's mediation and looked again. It felt a stranger in my hands so long had it been. I read. Words, just words. Still I continued. Time passes. Unaware, unbeknownst to me, line yielded to line. The written word faded from the page. And then, then, a familiar voice from summers long ago spoke again to me as though we had never been apart. Dietrich was home.

I do not know how long he will stay, or why he will have to go. I do know that I have missed him so.