Thirty nine years. The halfway marker for most of us. The point in life where the mythical candle begins to burn from both ends. It's the magical mountain peak where youth comes to a screeching halt and everything that follows feels like an out-of-control free fall.
But not everyone succumbs to aging. Some dodgers are more clever than others—they finesse thirty nine years into a lifelong plateau. Jack Benny comes to mind.
And then there are others, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for whom thirty nine years was all the time he needed. After all, it was he who said, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." That call came to Bonhoeffer at a time when the entire world was at war. And without hesitation he answered.
But was Bonhoeffer's calling a popular one? It's debatable. It depends on who you ask—he was loved by the Jews, feared by the Nazis, denounced by the church, but used by God. And, regardless of your position, Bonhoeffer's impact was sizeable, memorable … and costly.
It's extraordinary that a singular voice could be heard over the heavy boot cadence as the Nazi regime imposed racial genocide. But Bonhoeffer marched to the beat of a different drummer. He was a risk taker of unusual proportion, even though non-conformity was illegal.
Some causes are just too important to ignore. Righteousness doesn't have seasons.
Using the Berlin airwaves, he broadcast a scathing radio message to the German church for catering to the Nazi icon: "There can only be one Fuehrer for Christians, and it isn't Adolf Hitler."
Mysteriously, that radio address was abruptly cut off. Suddenly, the station—as we say in the trade—went dark. It was an ominous prelude of things to come.
It's hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for Pastor Bonhoeffer during the reign of the Third Reich. Most of Germany's clergy felt obligated, if not comfortable, in supporting the Nazi State. Even with the slaughter of millions of innocents, the church leaders remained silent, fearful that by speaking out the reputation of the church might suffer.
Bonhoeffer, a converted pacifist, blistered such cowardly thinking. He suggested that his fellow pastors should give up trying to convert Hitler, and work on converting themselves.
Speaking against the ills of society has never been a popular profession.
- Just ask Lot. Sodom had little regard for the town's religious rightist.
- Just ask Jeremiah who was condemned for delivering "bad news."
- Just ask Isaiah who was rudely and permanently shut up. Tradition says he was sawn in two.
- Just ask John the Baptist who was beheaded for declaring Herod's marriage a sham.
And countless others, known and unknown, have paid dearly for calling sin "sin." Bonhoeffer was among them.
On April 8, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp deep in the Bavarian Forest, Bonhoeffer was tried and condemned, though no witnesses testified against him, nor was he allowed to present a defense. And the next morning, the 39-year-old theologian was led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged from a tree—just two weeks before Allied Forces liberated the camp.
All of our heroes of the faith have suffered in some fashion. It's part and parcel of the call to "come and die." And yet, in the divine scheme of things, this path of suffering is a portion of the narrow road we've been called to travel … sometimes alone.
Bonhoeffer, while awaiting execution, wrote, "Personal suffering has become a more useful key for understanding the world than personal happiness."
Today, at the base of that hanging tree in Flossenburg, you'll find a stone pillar bearing a memorial plaque. It simply reads: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren.
The price of the beautifully engraved plaque was $154—plus one man's completely committed life.
When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.