This afternoon I’m reading about the years 1933-34 in the life of Germany and, in particular, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were years of incredibly complicated struggles between Christians and Nazis. In the background I am listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Just as I’m growing frustrated with the challenge of keeping a clear view of Hitler’s devious machinations as he sought to break the back of those whom he knew to be his greatest enemies — the Christians — the choir begins singing an old Shaker hymn:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Bonhoeffer and the others who recognized Hitler as evil were struggling to find their simple center. They had to give up on “being German” as being anything of central importance to their identity and their work. In the end, of course, Hitler won and the church in Germany was in fact broken.
But there was a small core of believers, with Bonhoeffer among their leaders, who came to see that Hitler was allowing them only two options: They had to choose between serving Hitler and serving Jesus Christ. We do not remember those multitudes who chose Hitler because, having lost their grounding in faith, they were simply swept into oblivion by the Fuhrer’s evil.
But we do remember Bonhoeffer and the others. They stood for something. They lived and died for Truth and Faith and Love.
We recognize that, in the midst of the difficult struggle to take their stand on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, they received the gift, the gift of being simple and centered and grounded.
It is not as if they became such pillars of strength that they stood like bronze statues, unaffected by the storms surrounding them. No, they always struggled, always flexed, always adapted. As the hymn says,
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
They were bowed and bent, pushed and pulled, jailed and wounded and killed. But somehow they kept coming ’round right. And that is a gift of God.
As I watch the messes in our society, I pray for myself and for a great many others that we by the grace of God may be simple, centered and grounded. I have less respect than ever for the secularists who insist that humans have within themselves the potential for peace and justice. And I have less respect than ever for the religious folk who think they can contribute to society by the power of jargon and doctrine and condemnation against those with whom they differ.
Neither atheism nor secularism nor religion can accomplish anything but add to the confusion of our day. Only the grace of God, gifting us with simple, clear, strong faith, can offer us hope. Only the love we receive from God and share with one another can unite us.