Verbundenheit

When I was in college, I was good friends with two German students (Angela and Hans) who introduced me to a concept that shapes my understanding of church to this day.  The German word is “verbundenheit” and while the simplest translation is “solidarity,” in has a much deeper, textured, and significant meaning.  More than simple agreement or unity, it connotes interdependency and synergy — together we are greater and stronger than the sum of our parts.  The metaphor they used to describe verbundenheit was this:  “imagine threads woven into string, string woven into chords, chords woven together into braids, braids woven together into mats.  Now, try to distinguish an individual thread from its place in the mat.  While still individual, the thread is substantially more in relationship to the whole than it can ever be on its own.”  And not only are we woven together, but there is a place for every thread, every string, every chord — and thought it might make for lumpy, uneven mats, inclusion is better than exclusion.  The vision is compelling — and one of the best definitions of the kingdom/kin-dom of God I can imagine.  It is a vision worth pursuing.

But what would be more exciting and inspiring would be the awakening and realization that this is the vision that is pursuing us!  This is what Advent is trying to tell us — one more time.  God wants us to be united — one with God, one with Christ, one with each other, one is blessed community with the whole world.  As I read and reflect on the words of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55 – My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.  From this day all generations will call me blessed:  the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.  He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.  He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit.  He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.  He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children for ever.) I see a God seeking restoration, reconciliation, renewal, justice and equity.  While the proud might be scattered and the rich sent away empty, there is a place for ALL for honor and respect God — and the simplest, the lowliest, the least acceptable can and will be woven into the fabulous fabric of God’s people.  If there is a place for Mary, there is a place for us.  God is greater than all our limitations and shortcomings.  The grace and mercy of God is actually greater than our inadequacy and sin.  Imagine that.  Too often, we are willing to believe that evil is more powerful than good — that there are stains too deep to be cleansed by God’s goodness.  What a lack of faith.  We do not love a God who looks for reasons to condemn and despise us, but a God that wants to use us for good.  Our God is a master weaver desiring to gather us together and blend us into a tapestry of love and light, hope and joy.  Shame on us when we resist God’s grace extended to others; when we say in our hearts that we do not care to be a part of any tapestry that would have THAT person as a thread!

God looks with favor on the lowly and blesses us – and the primary way God blesses us is with the gift of one another.  Our modern Western culture had selfishly and hatefully made salvation a personal matter — as long as I am okay with my buddy Jesus, the rest of the world can go to hell.  The idea that our faith is a corporate and communal affair at is heart is anathema to the individualistic, selfish and self-centered values in our culture.  But a fairly basic reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures clear shows that our faith is OUR faith — there really is no “blessed assurance, Jesus is MINE” — Jesus is ours.  We are God’s people, not God’s persons.  When we focus on the “I” we lose the “WE” and in turn, we lose our God.  We may think we are doing fine all by our lonesome with Jesus as our “personal Lord and Savior,” but this is a sad delusion.  Yes, I know the fundamentalist movement of the 20th century tried to make individual salvation the point — and they were sadly effective in their efforts — but this was nothing more than displacing Christian values with worldly, cultural values.  Our faith is only realized and authentic in dual relationship with God AND neighbor.

Mary’s song shifts very quickly from the personal to the global, from the singular to the plural, in its description of what God has done.  Most of Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s instruction are delivered in the plural — “you” is rarely aimed at the individual, but to the whole assembled body.  And body is such a powerful metaphor for Paul.  Verbundenheit — an interdependency of many parts comprising a whole greater than the sum of the parts.  Paul got it.  We’re the ones who are struggling to catch up.  We need each other.  We are not — cannot be — complete without each other.  We will never be the church as long as we merely congregate — we must coalesce into a community, a communion, a body.  From such a body solidarity, unity, oneness and strength can come.  Together, individual parts mesh and merge to become something new and wonderful, bound together by God’s wondrous touch, secured by the Christ whom we share in common, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  We ARE a miracle of God… but only together.

What a powerful witness and example we could be to the world if we could only live verbundenheit.  We could show the world that there is no reason to live in strife or judgement.  We could witness to God’s power to transcend our limitations.  We could actually act as if we believe what we say we do.  We could allow love to guide us, kindness to define us, mercy to be our gift and grace to the world.  We could offer hope to the hopeless, grace to the despairing, peace to those who live in abject fear, and gentleness to those physically and emotionally violated.  We could actually offer a pathway to joy, helping people to know that our faith isn’t about who we choose to keep out, but who God allows to come in.

Verbundenheit is not traditionally a “Christmas” word, but it should be — for there is no higher vision to which we might aspire than to receive the gift of God’s Son, and to join together in solidarity and interdependence to become the body of Christ for the world.

9 replies

  1. I enjoyed the imagery of Verbundenheit. I have preached the importance of being both united and absolutely in love with God’s church many times. In the sailing day ropes were made by twisting small yarns into ever heavier lines, ropes and cables. The yarn fibers meshed together so that the whole was dramatically stronger than the individual yarns. As members of the body we must be like that. We must be united in our thoughts, actions and purpose.

  2. One of my frustrations with the way we practice church (and not exclusively church) is in the separation of the governed and governing. The Holy Spirit is present in each of us. Joining those parts of the Spirit into the Body is what makes church. There is no time more important for that joining than when the community is trying to discern God’s will. Yet, few members show up at our local church annual meetings. I was taught that every voice was important; that everyone had an obligation to contribute. Passive concurrence was not an option. “Why should I show up? The decisions are already made.”

    There is much, much more to say. I leave it to the forum.

    • But are church leaders truly listening and responsive. In my local church it does not feel like it. I have recently voiced that the message I am receiving from church leaders is that I am nothing more than a head count ande money in the plate. I was astounded lately when a concept I had “took wings” and a paragraph I wrote on financial giving received written approval. Another member understood my surprise that someone “liked my thoughts”. That is not what I experienced sitting on a committee where I have felt comploetely ignored and pushed aside while others manipulated the outcome. I very much believe in Verbundenheit. But for it to take place, hospitality has to go beyond physically welcoming a person and giving them a physical spot. It has to also acknowledge that they are on their own personal walk with their own set of baggage and shorcomings.

  3. Verbundenheit sounds a lot like the ubuntu theology that grew out of the South African Church’s struggle against apartheid. Any idea where Verbundenheit comes from in the life of the German church? The Confessing Church Movement perhaps?

    • The parallels are striking, and I thank you for noting them. Verbundenheit was a central theme and foundation of the German Quakers in the late 19th and early (to mid-) 20th century. It may have roots before that, but this is where I am familiar with it. I am sharing this reflection from 35 year old memories, so I am probably butchering and misrepresenting it to begin with…

      • Ahh, to have memories that are 35 years old that you actually still sort of remember. I’ll have to track down the vestiges of those German Quakers. Thanks for the reply and thanks for this blog- it’s one of my few go to places for commentary that digs below the surface. Thanks again for your faithfulness in writing it. God’s blessings to you during this holy season.

  4. Hello, I was reading through your blog and I noticed the image you are using on this piece. I was wondering if you could tell me where you found it, or if i could use it for something I am working on. Thank you so much for the insightful content and an incredible image.

    • For what it is worth, you have my permission. I pulled this off a public domain image site, and I am not even sure where I found it originally. I love the image, too, and if anyone knows where it came from, I would be more than happy to ascribe full credit.

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