As we move into the advent season, I’m looking out the window of my room, located in southern Germany, across the Bodensee lake to the shores of Switzerland, only a few short miles away. I’m reading, “The Shame and the Sacrifice” while here in Germany, which is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, the German pastor who had the chance to remain in America as WWII was beginning, but elected instead to return to his homeland in order to walk with his own people through what he anticipated would be a dark and difficult time.
There’s a profound sense in which Bonhoeffer’s return to Germany becomes a powerful and rich example of the very thing we celebrate at this time year: “God with us.” Bonhoeffer’s shepherding instincts led him back into the fires from which he could have so easily excluded himself. It would be wrong to say that the decision was easy for Dietrich, but once it was made, there was no looking back. He entered fully into the life of the German people, identifying increasingly with the resistance movement inside Germany, and shepherding people towards fidelity to Christ in the midst of everything collapsing all around him, including the church. These identifications with truth and life, with mercy and justice, would ultimately cost him his life.
As I sit here on the shores of this lake, I ponder the reality that, at the very time millions were trying to get out – Dietrich was going back in. It’s this kind of identification with people in their suffering that makes Jesus visible among us, and it’s this that is rare in these days, when Christianity has become a commodity often, more than a community. Our privatized, customized, and invidualized paths give us all great freedom, but at what cost? I fear that we swim for the shores of comfort and privacy too often, when what’s needed is identification with one another in community, sharing, rejoicing, and suffering together.
How can we who are charged with leadership both exemplify and nurture this spirit of incarnation, of being ‘with’ one another?