I typically read the first paragraphs of most Christian non-fiction with qualms I am only now admitting I have. “I’m a little fragile,” I say to the book, “Can I trust you not to mislead or condemn or discourage me?” (This is more than a little ironic when you consider that I write Christian non-fiction for a living.) It’s not that I’m unteachable. I daily open the Word and welcome its nigh-unto-impossible instructions, but the writer of biblical words is a trustworthy God who is full of mercy and grace. Human writers are just so… so human. So when I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (Gemeinsames Leben) the other day, it was a small act of daring. It seemed like a book I had to read. Because, as we all know, community is a big deal these days. And I agree that it should be. But I find it more elusive every year. Dangerous, even, because straining toward a common goal is always unpredictable among a group of people who may or may not have much else but the goal in common.
Community is one of those things it looks like everyone has but you. My friends who read this probably have the idea that I myself am so busy living in community I don’t have time for them. The truth is, time is perhaps the deadliest in an arsenal full of weapons against community. In our city, depending on the time of day and the weather, it can take an hour to get anywhere. Most of us have jobs, kids, neighbors, friends, and, to be honest, TV shows we like to watch, books we want to read, trails we want to run or gyms we want to visit somewhat regularly. We have services to attend, groceries to buy, and gas to pump. Lawns to mow in the summer and gutters to clean in spring. We might even need a nap every now and then. There is not enough time in one day for it all.
And what about the people who are not part of our faith communities? Don’t we owe them some of the precious commodity of our time? The lost, the poor, the widow, the alien, the orphan. What about them? Are they enemies of community? Well, yes, if by community we mean gathering for solace and support with other believers. (Now you understand that by “enemy” I don’t necessarily mean evil.)
Time and space and priorities and life itself make community difficult, but we still need to figure out how to do it. So I opened Living Together poised to take it like a grown woman, to hear Bonhoeffer’s wisdom and heed his advice even if it seemed hard. I would not flinch.
Chapter One opens with the ideal:
“How good and how pleasant for brothers to dwell together in unity.” (Psalms 133:1)
We used to have a ceramic plate with this verse painted on it. A friend made it for us to commemorate the birth of our second son. I put it in an easel on the dresser in his room, all propped up and pretty just like my belief that our two sons would epitomize the message painted in baby blue on the plate. I have no idea where it is now. It disappeared, just like my sentimental delusions about having perfect children. Gone. The plate did not shatter during a fight between those same boys or their brothers, although that could have happened. I didn’t stick it in a drawer in a fit of despair. Our boys’ bedrooms simply outgrew it. It was a baby gift, after all. So I wondered: If this is all Bonhoeffer has to say about community, I’m not sure I can stomach it. Sure, it’s good and pleasant when we are all in the same room, and even better on the same page, but what about those times when we’re not?
Thankfully, Dietrich quickly moved on to Zechariah 10:9 and Deuteronomy 28:25, verses which, rather than paint a picture of perfect (unattainable) community, define all of Christendom as a “scattered people.” I was instantly set at ease. Here was an adjective I understood. There is an ideal—unity—and there is a reality—scattered. We experience community in the tension between these two.
Bonhoeffer wrote Gemeinsames Leben while teaching illegally at a clandestine seminary in Finkenwalde, Germany. When he wrote, “It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing,” he spoke of his own future. Less than a decade later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at a Gestapo concentration camp.
Perhaps we should consider community, first, as an undeserved gift, like grace. Something more tenuous than tangible in terms of our own ability to capture and preserve it. Then, only when we are filled with gratitude for the “physical presence of other Christians,” can we really learn to live together in community. I fear we analyze our own communities and find them lacking far more than we burst into fits of gratitude for the miracle of having them at all.
I think I trust Dietrich, and I’m going to finish his book. He affirmed the truth that “Christian brotherhood is a divine reality,” and he understood what it was like to be a “scattered seed according to God’s will.” That means he would have understood us. I know this is a stretch. The reasons we find community elusive have nothing to do with an oppressive government or the threat of imprisonment or even death, but our reasons, like Dietrich’s, do have to do with the fact that we are each but a breath, that our lives are as unsubstantial as grass. None of us is hardy enough to do community without some guidance. I’m only on Chapter Two, but I am going to let Dietrich Bonhoeffer tell me about what it means when we scattered seeds, who most days feel like we live “alone in far countries,” gather to do gemeinsames leben.