As a child I would sometimes dust the house to get money for the swimming pool. The worst part was dusting off all the carvings my Dad had started and not finished. Dust stuck to the bare wood. I especially remember a roughed out carving of St. Francis in Tennessee cedar. Dad never finished the saint; he often joked that the making of a saint was never done. My garage still holds several boxes of his unfinished carvings.
Teckla’s mom did ceramics. After Ella died, we had to figure out what to do with all the green-ware— fragile ceramics that not been finished or fired. She lived a long and full life, but death still seemed abrupt and life unfinished. Although I have always felt the fragmentary and broken nature of our lives, I never thought deeply about this until reading Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory.
When arrested and imprisoned, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already seen many of his students arrested and executed by the Gestapo. Although amazingly productive in the months before his own execution, Bonhoeffer came face to face with the incompleteness of his Christian life. He had witnessed the promising careers and dreams of his students crushed and broken by the Nazi persecution of the Confessing Church. He now faced his own execution and the reality of how much would remain undone. Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, “Precisely that which is fragmentary may point to a higher fulfillment which can no longer be achieved by human effort.” Charles Marsh eloquently comments, “With that deliverance in mind, he opened himself to the inevitable incompleteness of things, accepting even the upheavals and intrusions with disarming gratefulness.”
It is not just in the turmoil and crisis of persecution that our lives in Christ are incomplete and broken-off. Many genuine Christians experience a life of fragments. In the summer before my father died of cancer, we sat around the kitchen table talking about holiness and revival. Dad, who had pastored a half dozen small churches, said he wished he had at least once been part of a real revival—a genuine move of the Holy Spirit that swept people into a relationship with Christ.
He died without seeing revival. He also has a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren he has never met. None of the churches he pastored were easy or marked with extraordinary growth despite his gifts as a preacher and pastor. Some places were full of pain and disappointment. So much was incomplete.
I too have given myself to the vision of a church restored to New Testament power and purity, but thus far have not seen much. And even beyond the church, we all have visions for our own lives and the lives of our children, but often here too the story is one of missed opportunities, thwarted plans, and brokenness. Even those who appear to have a long and fruitful life will, if pressed, pull out their list of dreams unrealized, prayers unanswered, and projects unfinished.
It is important to embrace the incompleteness and brokenness of our lives. If we can’t open ourselves to “the inevitable incompleteness of things,” we grow angry and bitter. We seek someone responsible for thwarting our vision. Perhaps we blame the lukewarm church or the corruption of our culture. Often we simply blame ourselves for a lack of faith, courage, or spirituality. We sink into resignation and despair. Too easily we become sad or mean.
The faith Bonhoeffer had is that heaven completed all that in this life is unfinished and broken. Marsh says, “Bonhoeffer turned to the small and sometimes broken things—not with resignation but with compassion.” Faith that heaven completes earth frees us to sow seed with wild joy and do it without anger at the unproductive soil. In prison he faced his broken dreams and outlined books that would never be written. It is here that Bonhoeffer wrote most eloquently about joy (hilaritas).
This joy in the face of the brokenness of our lives is no small thing. We should not underestimate the evil that comes from a refusal to accept the partial-ness of all goodness in this world. Even on the global scale, the demand for absolute equality or justice has sometimes led to absolute tyranny. There is a reason that most utopias require a dictator. Bonhoeffer saw how Nazi Germany’s quest for its dream justified incredible cruelty and unthinkable evil.
On the personal level, the refusal to accept the incompleteness of relationships is deadly. In marriage the quest for absolute intimacy and unity can be destructive. We can easily seek in one another the kind of completion that comes only from God. When a spouse doesn’t really “complete us”, we are easily deceived into thinking someone else will. Or we stew in unhappiness and resentment. Acceptance of life’s incompleteness should make us tender with our spouses as fellow followers of Jesus, the one who will complete us when we see Him face to face.
Instead of resulting in spiritual lethargy and apathy, Bonhoeffer’s acceptance of his incompleteness, produced joy. He saw that only God can bring closure to the ragged ends of our lives. In the days before his execution Bonhoeffer encouraged fellow prisoners by scribbling notes that exhorted them to “Spread Hilaritas.”