Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together. Trans. John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper and Row, 1954.
“The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together (1939), so instead of reading this alone, I have been reading the book together with friends. This is deservedly a Christian classic, and it has much to recommend it, but it is also somewhat doctrinaire. Reading it together with others transforms the book from an overbearing treatise by a dead German into a provocative and generative discussion starter. Bonhoeffer originally wrote the book after living as part of an intentional community with 25 vicars at Finkenwalde, and it seems appropriate to be reading it together with other Christians instead of alone.
One cannot read this with just any group of friends. Bonhoeffer noted that “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ,” and when we gather together to read and discuss it is Christ who stands between us, forming the basis of our relationships and mediating our conversation. We grew up in very different church backgrounds – fundamentalist and liberal churches, traditional and charismatic – but at the end of the day what brings us together is much more important than what separates us. And our differences let us read the text from unique perspectives. Whereas I get excited about the idea that we can “help a Christian brother and set him straight in his difficulty and doubt” by quoting the Bible to him, someone else who has lived in Christian communities that are always quoting Bible verses at each other is less excited by the idea. Whereas I revel in existentialist Christianities such as Bonhoeffer’s, that encourage us to give the very best that is within us, others have found this approach excessively legalistic. Setting up impossible goals and then feeling guilty when we fail is not what the gospel is all about, my friends remind me, and together we return to a God who receives us as we are, through His unending mercy and love.
Reading together is also liberating because we discover that we are not alone in finding the Christian walk hard. “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work,” Bonhoeffer wrote, and he recommended that “common devotions in the morning should include Scripture reading, song, and prayer.” This man very clearly never had children, as those of us who are reading his book do. We wondered whether it is even possible to have personal devotions when you have to take care of kids every waking hour of the day. And we decided that regardless of whether or not it is possible, most of us need quiet times – somewhere, somehow – to preserve our sanity. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “where a family lives close together in a constricted space and the individual does not have the quietness he needs, regular times of quiet are absolutely necessary.” Some get it from listening to Pray-As-You-Go while they drive to work, and others arrange time for their spouses to be responsible for the kids so that they can have ten minutes in prayer. What could have been an opportunity for the Devil to discourage me had I been reading alone turns into a brainstorming session and a sharing of practical approaches to common problems.
Bonhoeffer wrote that “the first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them,” and he promised that out of this would flow the blessing of bearing each others’ burdens. We tell each other about the challenges we face in our everyday lives, and then intercede for each other in prayer. In such a group we listen not only as friends, but as Christians who feel responsible for each other before Christ. Sore ankles, car accidents, sick relatives, and job searches are not just interesting news or opportunities to tell stories – though they can certainly be that – they are also times when we know that someone cares enough to listen carefully and to pray earnestly for our daily bread. The pressures of life can cause us to sin, and Bonhoeffer noted that “the more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him.” He argued that Christians should confess their sins to each other, and we agreed that this was a good idea but we didn’t get around to it for various reasons. But confessing our struggles helped us in similar ways to confessing sin: “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.” Bringing God’s power, justice, and mercy into the picture casts our lives and actions in a whole new light, making the insurmountable possible and our daily challenges doable once again.