“Was ist los?” On Bonhoeffer and the Church in 2018

And I heard him murmur… “Was ist los?— What’s Up?”

Language is a wonderful thing!  Not all that long ago when you met up with a friend they would say something like “hi, how are you doing?”  And it’s our nature to take the short cut and again ask, ‘how you doin?’ or “what’s up?” or now in a text message or fb private message, ‘sup?’  We all know that “sup?’ = “hi, how are you doing?”  So, if you bump into a friend from Germany and your hear “los?” that really means “GruB gott, wie geht es heute?”  which means, “Hi, how are you today?”  It’s that moment you know you are paying attention with the stuff going on around you.  It’s good to do that.  Many people do.  Every day.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer did.   It cost him his life!

NOTE: this blog entry is a follow-up to a message preached at New Life Lutheran Church in Pearland, TX on Sunday July 15 as part of a series of messages titled, “Stewarding Saints– how ordinary people demonstrate extraordinary faith!

Over 20 years ago, I was speaking with Dr. John Moline, then president at Texas Lutheran University.   Somehow the conversation led itself from college life and church life to a brief acknowledgment of  the importance of ‘self-definition’ and ‘self-differentiation’ in our own lives.  “It’s really the hard work of living,” I said. To which he replied, “Yes, but it’ the most important work, don’t you think?”

Those of you who have been part of New Life over these last 13 years have heard me use this word before…SELF-DIFFERENTIATION.  It is the tendency to recognize your own personal  uniqueness in a group. To pay attention to and find out how I am different from others while living or working in a group… that’s called self-differentiation.  Some said simply… “In self-differentiation we look for ways we are different from the group.”  It’s actually an affirmation that we are all created in God’s own image and each of us has some good things to share for the sake of the whole!

I’m not asking you to write this down… but to listen carefully to some of the ways we do this… and forgive me for my descriptions of how this goes…

Self-differentiation is described in many ways in the following points:

  1. Growing in the ability to see where and how I fit into my family, the position I hold and the power that is and is not given to that position. NOTE: AS AN OLDEST CHILD, I FIT INTO MY FAMILY WITH 3 YOUNGER SISTERS AND A YOUNGER BROTHER AND DIFFERENTLY IN MY OWN FAMILY WHERE I AM BOTH HUSBAND & DAD!
  2. Growing in the ability to be fully responsible for my own life while being committed to growing closer to those I love.
  3. Intentionally developing, at the same time, autonomy and intimacy. In developing autonomy I set myself towards achieving my dreams and ambitions. In developing intimacy, I allow those close to me to see and know me as I really am.  NOTE: THIS IS BOTH RISKY AND NECESSARY AND OVER THE DECADES PAY DIVIDENDS!
  4. Being willing to say clearly who I am and who I want to be while others are trying to tell me who I am and who I should be.  NOTE: I LIKE HOW FORMER BISHOP PAUL BLOM USED TO CAUTION PEOPLE NOT TO “SHOULD ON” OTHERS.  REPEAT THAT SLOWLY.  DON’T “SHOULD ON” OTHERS.
  5. Staying in touch with others while, and even though, there is tension and disagreement.  NOTE: THIS REMINDS ME OF THE QUOTE THAT SAYS, “FAMILY IS THE PLACE WHO HAS TO TAKE YOU BACK WHEN THERE’S NO WHERE ELSE TO GO!”  THIS IS SO IMPORTANT!
  6. Being able to declare clearly what I need and requesting help from others without imposing my needs upon them.
  7.  Being able to understand what needs I can and cannot meet in my own life and in the lives of others.
  8. Understanding that I am called to be distinct (separate) from others, without being distant from others.  NOTE: THIS IS SO CONNECTED TO # 5.
  9. Understanding that I am responsible to others but not responsible for others .  NOTE: PAY ATTENTION TO THE ‘PREPOSITIONS’ HERE.  BEING RESPONSIBLE “TO” SOMEONE IS NOT THE SAME AS BEING RESPONSIBLE “FOR” SOMEONE!
  10. Growing in the ability to live from the sane, thinking and creative person I am, who can perceive possibilities and chase dreams and ambitions without hurting people in the process.  NOTE: THE OLDER ONE GETS, THE BETTER ONE SHOULD BE AT THIS.  FORGIVE ME IN I JUST “SHOULD ON” YOU!
  11. Growing in the ability to detect where controlling emotions and highly reactive behavior have directed my life, then, opting for better and more purposeful growth born of creative thinking.
  12. Deciding never to use another person for my own ends and to be honest with myself about this when I see myself falling into such patterns.
  13. Seeing my life as a whole, a complete unit, and not as compartmentalized, unrelated segments.  NOTE: EVERY TIME I MENTION “WHEN I WAS YOUNGER” IS CONNECTED TO HOW I AM NOW…BOTH FOR THE GOOD OF IT AND NOT!
  14. Making no heroes; taking no victims.  NOTE: THIS CAN ONLY BE DONE WHEN THE FOCUS IS ON THE SELF VS. THE OTHER!
  15. Giving up the search for the arrival of a Knight in Shining Armour who will save me from the beautiful struggles and possibilities presented in everyday living. NOTE: I CALL THIS THE “LOTTO EFFECT’.  THE DATA IS CLEAR… MOST WHO HAVE HIT IT BIG WITH A LOTTERY WIN ARE WITHIN 24 MONTHS BROKE, MISERABLE OR BOTH!
  16. Moving beyond “instant” to process when it comes to love, miracles, the future, healing and all the important and beautiful things in life. NOTE: “INSTANT” IS USUALLY ONLY GOOD WHEN IT COMES TO COFFEE AND EVEN THEN WAITING FOR A FRESH BREWED CUP IS ALWAYS WORTH IT!
  17. Enjoying the water (rather than praying for it to be wine), learning to swim (rather than trying to walk on water).

                                                                    -adapted from numerous internet blogs

So, now that your heads are spinning and you can’t wait to get home to think about this… (and remember… this is my written promise to “send it out” this week…and I just did!) )Today I want to share just a few thoughts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer… who Eric Metaxas labeled a pastor, a martyr, a prophet and a spy! And let me share with you a very little but important bit of his life…

In our day we’d say he was born of upper middle class status.  He didn’t want for much!  “From the time I was 13 years old, it was clear to me that I would study theology,”  Bonhoeffer wrote.  His family thought he would become a musician.   See, even an upper middle class family can “should on” their children.  It’s not new!

And he did study theology.  He was a great theologian.  He left Germany to study further with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary in NYC just prior to the Nazis invading Poland and Czechoslovakia. His love of music took him to the clubs of NYC.  He loved the music and was also drawn to the preaching and music of the black churches there.  It was also during this time where Pr. Bonhoeffer found himself faced with some self-definition of his own.  While encouraged to remain in America he knew that he must return to his native Germany.   It was 1939.  War was imminent and he was heard saying… 

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America.  I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”        

Was is los, church?  How are you doing?  When we peer into the mirror of our own congregation, are we able to hold a similar posture?  How easy it is for any of us to ‘stay away’ from the difficulties churches have in 2018 and yet, we see that Pr. Bonhoeffer provides a model for what to do when we feel like much of what is going on around us is out of our control.  He did what he could control and thus returned to Germany.


         “When Christ calls a person, he bids that person come and die.”

Bonhoeffer knew this truth all too well, and that is exactly how his life went, resulting in an early end of life and martyrdom. touting the dangers of “cheap grace”.

“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living & incarnate.”

So, “was ist los, church?  How are we doing?  Does any of this sound familiar?  If so, is there anything we want to do about it?  Or as he also said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”. He knew full well that to be a true follower of Christ would always be costly, and could not come on the cheap. It seems that is a lesson that so few believers today in the very comfortable West have learned.

So, Bonhoeffer went home but he did not align himself with so many clergy (Lutheran and Catholic) who favored Hitler’s Nazi ways and became a key player and was active in the resistance… He said, 

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

He was involved in at least 2 attempts on Hitler’s life.  He was asked by his co-conspirators if God would hold them guilty of breaking the commandment to “not kill.”  Pr. Bonhoeffer did not budge.  God would hold them accountable yet in the midst of trying to save 10s of 1000s of lives they would need to trust the grace of God available only in the sacrifice of Jesus.

He helped train pastors in the ‘underground’ seminary of the Confessing Church.  He fell in love with Maria von Wedemeyer, but their marriage was interrupted by his arrest and that never unfolded.  Again, an ordinary man who did extraordinary things.

He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945, 23 days before the Nazis’ surrender. His view of Christianity’s role in the secular world has become very influential.

Bonhoeffer wrote the prayer below while incarcerated in a Nazi prison, uncertain of what his future would hold.

“O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray And to concentrate my thoughts on you: I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me… Restore me to liberty, and enable me to live now, that I may answer before you and before me. Lord, whatever this day may bring, Your name be praised.”

A powerful mantra for Christ’s church in 2018. “Was ist los, church?”  How are we doing?”  Will you take some time today and this week to consider how you self-define?  How you present yourself to the cosmos as a follower of Jesus?  Do you need a wake-up call?  Even a gentle nudge of the Holy Spirit may be what you need?  This is just one of 5 individuals you will hear me speak about this summer.  Come next Sunday.  Be blessed.  Be a blessing to others.  Bonhoeffer was and laid down his life for a his friends!  Amen.


A Bonhoeffer Timeline


Dietrich and his twin sister Sabine are born on February 4. Six years later the Bonhoeffers move to Berlin where Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer begins teaching neurology and psychiatry. Dietrich enjoys a comfortable, privileged childhood there.


The young Bonhoeffer begins theological studies at Tubingen University. Within four years he successfully defends his brilliant and ground-breaking doctoral thesis, Sanctorum Communio ( Communion of Saints), a significantly new way of looking at the nature of the Christian church.


Bonhoeffer sails to New York and begins a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary. There he meets, among others,  Frank Fisher, a Black fellow seminarian who introduces him to Abyssinian Baptist Church and the African American church experience. Bonhoeffer hears Adam Clayton Powell preach the Gospel of Social Justice there and he forms a life-long love for Black Gospel music.


Bonhoeffer returns to Germany.


Hitler is installed as Chancellor. Two days later, Bonhoeffer delivers a radio address on leadership attacking Hitler. He is cut off the air. In November, Bonhoeffer is ordained at St. Matthias Church, Berlin.


By April the Aryan Civil Service legislation bans Jews from public employment. Ludwig Müller is appointed Hitler’s representative for the Protestant churches and installed as Reich Bishop of the first-ever national church of Germany. The Pope, Pius XI, signs the Concordat, an agreement with the Third Reich not to interfere, in exchange for assurances that Catholic church will not be attacked.


The Confessing Church is organized at Barmen, Germany, and the Barmen Declaration is adopted, insisting that Christ, not the Fuhrer, is the head of the church. Bonhoeffer leaves for England to head a church for Germans.

On August 2, German President Paul von Hindenburg dies. Hitler proclaimed as both Chancellor and President.


Bonhoeffer returns from England to direct the seminary for the Confessing Church in Finkenwalde, Germany. By December, Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest.

In September, the Nuremberg Laws are passed, canceling citizenship for German Jews.


In July, the Confessing Church leader and WWI hero Martin Niemöller is arrested. In August, Bonhoeffer’s authorization to teach at Berlin University is withdrawn.

The August Olympic Games in Berlin begin. Hitler is quoted as saying of 4-time gold medal champion Jesse Owens “The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes win their medals for them.” He refuses to shake Owen’s hand.


In September the seminary at Finkenwalde is closed by the Gestapo. By November, 27  pastors and former Finkenwalde students are arrested. Also in November, Bonhoeffer publishes The Cost of Discipleship.

Pope Pius XI issues “With Burning Anxiety,” protesting Hitler’s infractions of their earlier agreement, the Concordat of 1933.


In February Bonhoeffer makes his initial contact with members of the German Resistance. In September he writes Life Together. Bonhoeffer’s sister Sabine, her Jewish husband Gerhard Leibholz and two daughters escape to England by way of Switzerland.

On March 12 Austria is annexed by Germany. In April all German pastors are ordered to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler in recognition of his 50th birthday. On November 9 a nation-wide, organized riot called Kristallnacht takes place, bringing the destruction of nearly 300 synagogues across Germany, the looting of 7,500 Jewish-owned shops, and the arrest of 30,000 Jewish men.


In June Bonhoeffer returns to the United States for second time. He realizes almost immediately that this was a mistake and he returns to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic.

On January 1 all Jewish-owned businesses are liquidated by order of Hermann Göring. In March German troops invade Czechoslovakia. On September 1 Germany invades Poland. Great Britain and France declare war on Germany.


Bonhoeffer is forbidden to speak in public and is required to report regularly to the police. He spends September and October working on Ethics.

On April 9 German troops invade Denmark and Norway. In May German troops invade Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. By August the Battle of Britain begins; German Luftwaffe bombs London.


Bonhoeffer is forbidden to print or to publish. He makes two trips to Switzerland on behalf of the Resistance.

In April German troops invade Yugoslavia and Greece. In June they invade the Soviet Union. By September a decree requires all German Jews to wear a yellow star stitched to their clothing. In October the first deportations of Jews from Berlin begin and the first gas chambers are installed at Auschwitz, Poland. On December 7 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor and the United States joins the war effort.


In April Bonhoeffer visits Norway and Sweden. In May he meets in Sweden with the British Bishop Bell, a member of Parliament, on behalf of the Resistance.


In January Bonhoeffer proposes and becomes engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. On April 5 he is arrested and incarcerated at Tegel Prison, Berlin. Beginning in July Bonhoeffer is intensively interrogated in prison. In December Bonhoeffer writes his Christmas essay, “After Ten Years.”

In January the Casablanca talks begin between US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. On May 19 Joseph Goebbels, the German minister of propaganda, declares that Germany is now Judenfrei (free of Jews). From November 28 to December 1 Joseph Stalin of the USSR, Roosevelt and Churchill meet at Teheran.


In October the Gestapo arrests Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and Rüdiger Schleicher, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law. Bonhoeffer is moved from Tegel prison to the Gestapo prison at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Berlin. In December 19 Bonhoeffer writes his last letter to Maria von Wedemeyer.

In January Allied military forces land at Anzio, Italy. In Hungary 437,000 Jews are shipped to Auschwitz. In June Allied military forces land on Normandy coast, France (D-Day). On July 20 Klaus von Stauffenberg attempts to assassinate Hitler at Rastenburg, East Prussia.


On April 3 Bonhoeffer is moved from Buchenwald to Regensburg. Five days later his is moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp during the night. The next day, April 9, Bonhoeffer is executed at Flossenbürg together with other key figures of the resistance. On April 23 Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher are killed in Berlin.

February 4-7. An Allied conference is held at Yalta from February 4th to 7th to discuss post-war settlements. On March 7 American forces cross Rhine River at Remagen. On April 12 President Franklin Roosevelt dies; Harry Truman is sworn in as president. On April 30 Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his Berlin bunker. By May 2 Berlin falls. On May 7 the German forces make an unconditional surrender.

On August 6 through 9 United States drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. By August 15 hostilities end in the Pacific.  On November 20 major war criminal trials begin in Nuremberg.

Thanks for reading to the end… I’m still trying to murmur for the good,



About briangigee

Loves life; lives love! Bud and Doris' eldest son. Descendant of 'refiners' and 'reformers.' Husband to Margo. Father of 5. Grandfather to 4. Brother, uncle, friend and colleague. Working parish pastor. Became a naturalized Texan in February 2013.
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