Can a man take fire to his bosom and not be burned?
This story is about Christians in a different place and time from ours. It is a period about which we Americans have formed some unfair opinions. Indeed, the opinions we have formed as a result of this time have allowed us to believe, for some decades, that we are basically good. God, no doubt, has permitted our depravity to compound interest to the point that many in our country-both Christians as well as unbelievers-are seeing our moral bankruptcy for what it is. Enough about that.
As you read this story, it is important not to judge the characters too harshly. I have it from good sources that these people were very zealous for the gospel, that they had a passionate desire to see their fellow citizens come to faith. Remember that they did not see the flaws in their thinking or motives. After all, as Jeremiah said, "The heart is desperately wicked and deceitful above all things." Their most fateful error, one common to all people, was to believe that matters of culture are neutral, that they can be used almost equally in service of the gospel or of the devil.
Pastor Detlev Wohlhausen was concerned about the decreasing role of the gospel in his society. He had watched a steady drop in church attendance over the past few years, most noticeably in the state churches. What was especially worrisome was the mass exodus of youth. Indeed, "Hitler Jugend" had become a religious institution supplanting the church.
On one hand, the state churches were complying with an obviously pagan and malicious government. As they did, they lost more and more of what was distinctively Christian. But Wohlhausen was a free church minister. It did not surprise him to see the state churches cave in under duress.
On the other hand, Wohlhausen had watched God-fearing pastors band together to resist the government's militant anti-Christian tendencies. He saw those pastors disappear, their congregations scattered. Some of them were Wohlhausen's free church brethren. What good did it do to be ministering to small flocks, to denounce the government, and then to have the congregations go pastorless? No, these were dire times, times demanding a fresh new approach to the gospel.
Wohlhausen asked the younger people in his congregation why they never brought visitors with them to church. They looked sheepish, shrugged their shoulders and said things like, "Well, you know," as if it were self-evident. But it wasn't self-evident to Pastor Wohlhausen, so he pressed them harder. Eventually it came out: their friends saw Christianity as a religion for weaklings; Jesus was a spineless pacifist; they found pastors to be pathetically deluded, sentimental individuals who had nothing relevant to say to the problems of being German, problems like Lebensraum (space to live), unemployment, etc.
It was clear that the Nazis had done a first-class job of marginalizing Christianity, using Christians as unwitting accomplices in the slander. Wohlhausen knew better, and it angered him. He thought of Jesus the carpenter with hardened muscles. He thought of James and John requesting permission to call fire from heaven. He thought of Jesus single-handedly driving the parasites from the temple. He thought of Paul demanding his right to have his case heard by Caesar. No, Christianity was not a religion for weaklings, but he and his fellow Christians would have to do a better job of presenting an accurate faith.
The elders of Freie Evangelische Gemeinde agreed with Pastor Wohlhausen's assessment. Yes, it would be good to make much of the fatherhood of God, to show his mighty acts and the courage of his people without drawing too much attention to its Jewish connection. This should be their focus. It was of paramount importance that young people see the relevance of the Christian God.
As the elders prayed and brain-stormed, an unexpected act of providence befell them. When the government auctioned off a large amount of buildings in the fall of 1938, Detlev Wohlhausen and his small congregation seized the opportunity to reach out with daring. There could hardly be a better location for launching the aggressive gospel.
The structure was a prominent five-story building on Roland Square right in the heart of Bremen. More street cars crossed lines there than anywhere else in the city. Until the previous year, the building had housed a shoe store and factory, Mendelssohn and Sons. But the Mendelssohns were gone, the store empty.
Meanwhile, the elders changed their name from Freie Evangelische Gemeinde/Bremen to Himmelreich Gemeinde (Kingdom of Heaven Congregation). The older name had been too dowdy to attract any attention. And, of course, "Das Reich," most specifically, "Das Dritte Reich (the Third Regime)," was on everyone's tongue. This new name they placed in huge block red letters right where the Mendelssohn and Sons sign had been.
The entryway overlooked the statue of Roland. To integrate their institution into the activity of the square, they made poured concrete statues of James and John wearing a similar dispassionate expression to that of Roland. These they placed on either side of the expanded entryway. James and John, however, were bare from the waist up, displaying long, muscular bodies. At about eye level, each held up a heavy net, lightning bolts emanating downward from their biceps.
Himmelreich Gemeinde had spent so much money on the statues that they could not afford an organ. This didn't matter…they had no intention of using organ music. No, they hired a medium-sized brass band to play a heraldic call to worship and accompany congregational singing. "A Mighty Fortress" was their favorite hymn along with several texts to Joseph Haydn's great melody, that melody which had been lifted from the Austrians to become the German national anthem. They even went so far as to set Christian lyrics to some of Richard Wagner's more popular choruses. On especially spirited Sundays (like the Sunday after the invasion of Poland) they sang "Deutschland Ueber Alles." See how God is blessing the fatherland! The Spirit of God was palpable, none of that defeatism so common in other churches.
The church also installed a loud speaker system, a phenomenon unheard of in church buildings to that point. It was purely pragmatic; they planned on reaching large crowds with the gospel.
The inside of the building was intentionally plain except for the front wall behind the pulpit. On its black background, in huge red, block letters read, "Kaempfe den guten Kampf des Glaubens; ergreife das ewige Leben!" (Fight the good fight of faith; seize the eternal life!)
Heinrich Sporli was a thirty-six year old clerk in the post office: five feet, nine inches tall, one hundred, thirty-five pounds, dark hair, brown eyes, a few residual pimples and obstreperous freckles, glasses. Whatever else he was, Heinrich was not the strapping embodiment of the Aryan myth.
Like most fatherland-loving German men, Heinrich had volunteered to join the Wehrmacht. It was a blow to his ego to be rejected. The reason they gave was his having to wear glasses. He could tell by the recruitment officer's smirk that the unspoken reason was that they suspected he was a Jew.
Heinrich was not a Jew. Rather, he was of that obscure central European tribe of Alamans. His grandparents came from Baden to Lower Saxony in order to buy inexpensive farm land. At that time, entire Lutheran villages had moved to North America when their enlightened petty despot decided that there would no longer be any difference between Lutherans and Catholics as far as state churches were concerned. So the Sporlis, not being especially religious, profited handsomely. Heinrich now wished he had his grandparents' lurching and slipping accent, passing naturally for a southern German, rather than a Jew.
The long and the short of it was that Heinrich had big felt needs. He was accelerating into middle age without having had a serious girlfriend, much less a wife, and no prospects on the horizon. Every girl wanted a man in uniform. But worst of all was this false Jewish blight on his image. He was a ripe plum when a co-worker invited him to Himmelreich Gemeinde.
Marie Ziegenhals also had needs. Born in 1915, she was the youngest of seven-the first six being boys. Most families would rejoice at a change of gender after such a string. Not the Ziegenhals family, however. You see, the Kaiser had promised personally to be the godfather of any seventh son in Germany. Marie's mother had never forgiven her. As a consequence, Marie grew up becoming a boy by sheer force of will in every way except the undeniable. Now in her late twenties and built like a draft horse, she began to yearn to love and be loved, to be someone's sweetheart and to have children at her breast. She labored under the nagging knowledge that her work at the Folke-Wulf Works, like Heinrich's at the post office, did not offer a plethora of prospective mates.
It would never have occurred to Marie to darken the door of a church. Still, she noticed with some curiosity, the red-lettered sign where she had previously bought her sturdy size forty-two's. It grabbed her by the jaw and barked, "Look at me!" each time she changed streetcars to and from work. The statues at the entrance were even more riveting.
Marie was a perfectionist, scowling most of the time on the job, not because the work was boring, but because the frames of the fuselages she was welding were so important to the fatherland. She was a good welder. So was her co-worker, Gerda Tiefenbacher. Gerda was a bit older, built like a large sausage with dish-water blonde hair. Gerda cared about the fatherland, too, understanding the significance of the fuselages. Indeed, two of her brothers were Luftwaffe pilots. But unlike Marie, she usually was content, untroubled by little stumbling blocks in her way. If a seam were not just so, Gerda patiently corrected the imperfection. She did not seem to mind staying ten or fifteen minutes after work just to solve a little problem.
Gerda was plain, in every way nondescript except that she had a calming magnetism about her, a liquid contralto chuckle which could dissolve the angst of all within ear shot. She was un-self-conscious, well-liked and trusted by all. Marie was fascinated by her.
One day as Marie and Gerda changed street cars in Roland Square, Gerda said, "That's my church over there. Would you like to come with me on Sunday?" Marie was dumb-struck. The crow's foot wrinkles around Gerda's eyes disarmed her, thawing her like a shot of schnapps. Christianity was for weaklings; Gerda was not weak in any way. Church buildings were sentimental museums; Himmelreich Gemeinde, however, bristled with activity and force. As an exercise leader for Hitler youth, Marie had difficulty justifying a visit to a church. And yet, Gerda's soft-spoken invitation was compelling.
On Palm Sunday, March 17, 1940, Gerda Tiefenbacher, Marie Ziegenhals, Heinrich Sporli, and three thousand other people were enveloped in the outstretched arms of the Sons of Thunder into a packed hall bristling with anticipation.
Marie immediately noticed that most of the people in the crowd were between twenty and forty years old. There was a healthy sprinkling of soldiers decked out in uniforms. All faced forward, waiting.
Precisely at ten o'clock, a single trumpet blasted. Pastor Wohlhausen strode mechanically to the pulpit, the hard soles of his shining riding boots thumping like a bass drum on the wooden platform. He wore a dark gray shirt and black arm bands with red crosses on them. He yelled into the microphone, "Das Himmelreich is nahe herbeigekommen (The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand)!" Instantly, all three thousand present stood up as the brass band introduced St. Theodulph's ancient hymn, "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."
Of course, the dark gray shirt and arm bands were no accident. On one hand, the elders did not want the gospel associated with the Nazis and their brown shirts. Still, the powerful potential for communication could not be ignored. For this reason, in the early development of Himmelreich Gemeinde's vision, the elders hired the consultation of Professor Doctor Eberhard von Schleppfuss, professor of psychology and communications at the university. On his advice, the Aggressive Gospel Committee conducted a door-to-door survey of twenty thousand Bremen residents.
The survey was quite simple. Each surveyor carried two dark gray poster boards. In the middle of one was a black piece of construction paper with a red cross superimposed on it. On the other was a red piece of construction paper with a black cross. The survey question: "Which looks stronger to you?" Eighty-six percent identified the red cross on the black paper. That settled the matter.
Brother Uli Zender, an elder since 1932 at Freie Evangelische Gemeinde/Bremen, had begun to protest Pastor Wohlhausen's methods. Like Wohlhausen, he dearly wanted to see people come to faith. As he watched the numbers swell from 40 in 1935 to 8,000 in 1941, his concern rose that Himmelreich Gemeinde did not demand of disciples that they take up their crosses and follow Christ. Indeed, there seemed to be growing confusion between "Das Himmelreich" and "Das Dritte Reich." Certainly, Wohlhausen's sermons were solid, biblical preaching. All of 1939 had been devoted to the mighty acts of God including the creation, the global flood, the plagues loosed on Egypt, the exploits of Samson, Gideon, Jepthah, David, and others.
Still, there were attitudes afoot which Wohlhausen's sermons seldom touched, and when they did, they seemed to make little difference. Zender could almost feel the chill in a prayer meeting when he asked for God's mercy and comfort on Christian brothers in Czechoslovakia and France, and when he requested that the Holy Spirit would work in the hearts of Jews to turn them to Christ. He suspected that, while the message of Himmelreich Gemeinde was biblical, her style reinforced everything which was wrong with German culture at the time. Zender privately voiced his complaints to Pastor Wohlhausen, who listened politely and then made no changes.
"I become all things to all men," replied Pastor Wohlhausen.
"Detlev," said Zender, "St. Paul never said, 'to the Nazi I became a Nazi.'"
That stung. Wohlhausen had no delusions about Hitler or about the Third Reich. He was one of the few people in Germany who had read Hitler's Mein Kampf from cover to cover. He could see that most of Hitler's agenda was ungodly, and he even anticipated the extent of his evil actions. It was all there in plain view on the pages of Mein Kampf. Still, Hitler's style had captured the imagination of the German people. If he could just extract the style…. Indeed, it was working. Average Sunday morning attendance for the first half of 1941 was around 6,300 spread over three services. Zender was wrong.
In September, 1941, the Germans advanced deep into Russia. Attendance at Himmelreich swelled to 8,000. In October, the advancing forces were bogged down in the mud. In November, the mud froze. On December 6, 1941, the Russians turned back the Germans just twenty-five miles outside of Moscow. Himmelreich stopped growing.
In January of 1942, Brother Zender brought his concerns to an elder meeting. Pastor Wohlhausen listened politely but with anxiety.
In June of 1942, seven hundred British bombers unloaded on the Focke-Wulf Works. A stray bomb landed on Gerda Tiefenbacher's housing block, killing her.
In August of 1942, Brother Zender disappeared. Another elder was caught stealing sacks of flour and was shot on the spot.
Sunday afternoon, September 2, 1942, the SS quietly kidnapped Pastor Wohlhausen and took him for an hour-long ride through the country. They slowed to a crawl on one small lane as they passed an unmarked grave. Nothing was said during the whole journey. Nothing needed to be said. Wohlhausen walked up the steps of his house, a changed man.
The following Tuesday, Pastor Wohlhausen paid a visit to Hadrian Zender, whose health had been poor for the past two years and was now failing since the disappearance of her husband. It was Detlev's first real pastoral visit in about two years. Administrating a huge church and preparing for multiple worship services required hiring extra clergy to visit the sick.
Besides his own mother, there was probably no one on earth who knew Detlev Wohlhausen better than Uli and Hadrian Zender. And while Detlev had his differences with Uli, he had unshakable respect for him. Uli's disappearance was an acute loss.
As a child, Hadrian had changed Detlev's diapers and sung him Bible songs. His first Bible memory was under her tutelage. Now he might have to care for her.
It was not a long visit. Hadrian Zender, while not incoherent, seemed to drift between this world and the next. Together with her husband, she had always looked far ahead "to a heavenly city." She did, however, pay close attention as Detlev recounted his Sunday afternoon excursion with the SS. He omitted no detail and the significance was not lost on her.
When Detlev finished, Hadrian went to the bookshelf and removed a copy of "The Theological Declaration of Barmen." "Here," she said. "Uli would want you to have this." Detlev leafed through it, finding only one passage circled. He mumbled:
…let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God, in order that God's people be of one mind upon earth and that we in faith experience what he himself has said: "I will never leave you, nor forsake you." Therefore, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
When he looked up, Hadrian was smiling but not breathing.
Uli Zender had been right after all, but changing style at Himmelreich Gemeinde was easier said than done. In the first place, the entire building had been designed around the trappings of a specific worship service. The results were dramatic when Pastor Wohlhausen appeared in a black robe rather than his usual dark gray shirt. Some stopped coming, and the contention was palpable. Then there was the Sunday when all the usual activities were set aside for a full hour of intercessory prayer. That, too, loosed noxious clouds of discontent. Some Sundays, the power went out during the service, cutting off all communication from the pulpit. When Pastor Wohlhausen registered a complaint with the local electrical authorities, they merely responded that there was a shortage of power; electricity needed to be conserved for the manufacturing of airplanes and submarines. Christianity was a luxury.
On April 17, 1943, the Eighth U. S. Air Corps bombed the Focke-Wulf factory, leaving it completely inoperable. Marie Ziegenhals, now unemployed, moved in with Gerda's aunt and uncle, who had been members of the Freie Evangelische Gemeinde/Bremen since 1925. Gerda's death had been a serious blow to Marie. She was angry with God. Still, she continued to attend Himmelreich Gemeinde, caring less and less about James and John. She had little tolerance for the quarreling over Pastor Wohlhausen's black robe. She was numb.
Pastor Wohlhausen was numb, too. The SS was raiding his congregation often. Once they even executed an elder in the foyer. Not surprisingly, attendance dropped off sharply after that.
Wohlhausen felt trapped. He wanted desperately to move away, plant a new church, having learned from bitter mistakes. But these people in Bremen were his sheep. He began to look ahead toward-and to see-a heavenly city.
It was during an intense prayer as he was contemplating the heavenly Jerusalem that he did not hear the air raid sirens. On April 17, 1944, one thousand, two hundred heavy bombers struck cities along the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts, among them Bremen. Himmelreich Gemeinde took a direct hit with Pastor Detlev Wohlhausen lying prostrate in his office on the third floor.
He survived long enough to be taken to the hospital a few hours later. There were no antibiotics, especially not for a pastor. He lay delirious for days, often the butt of jokes. One nurse, however, listened to the words repeated over and over in his delirium: "…I will fear no evil for thou art with me…."
Pastor Wohlhausen survived and planted a new church after the war. He had the pleasure of joining Marie Ziegenhals and Boris Kusnezow in marriage. Boris was a Russian prisoner of war whom Gerda's aunt and uncle sheltered secretly from forced repatriation.
Heinrich Sporli stopped attending Himmelreich Gemeinde sometime in early 1943, never returning to a church again. He died of lung cancer in 1961.
Marie and Boris had two children, Bodo and Peter. To this day, these children have not come to faith, ostensibly because of the shame associated with Himmelreich Gemeinde. After the war, everything which smacked of Naziism became a stench to the succeeding generation.
Both Bodo and Peter married and each had two children. Of the four Kusnezow grandchildren, the first two are confirmed atheists active in the Green Party. The third moved to the United States, joining the Metropolitan Community Church. The youngest, the apple of Marie's eye, graduated from a small Bible school near Kassel this past spring. He accepted a pastorate at a small free church two months ago. On his first Sunday, he stepped up to the pulpit (a portable music stand) and quietly said: "Our reading for today is from the gospel of St. Matthew, chapter three, beginning in verse one: 'In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."'"