On my bookshelf in a small clear plastic box I keep a piece of concrete that my daughter, Katie, brought back from her visit to Germany. She spent 2011-2012 as a Rotary Exchange Student in Odense, Denmark, and at the end of her tour she joined other exchange students from around the world for a quick tour across Europe. Her special gift to me was a piece of the Berlin Wall. I think one of her friends grabbed it from a pile and snuck it in his pocket. Or something like that. A piece of the Berlin Wall is a big deal for someone who grew up during the Cold War. The Wall was the symbol of tyranny and political slavery and injustice. Through the seventies I remember hearing news stories about the possible reunification of Germany, but it never sounded like a good deal for anyone. The assumption was that the combined country would look and feel more like the communist East than the democratic West. Democracy as a system took a beating during those years and it was inconceivable that communist governments would decrease in number.
From today’s perspective the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union seems inevitable and unavoidable, but no one thought that during the seventies except Ronald Reagan. He forecasted that Communism would someday collapse under its own weight, but few publically agreed with him. At every turn the USA and Jimmy Carter were outfoxed by the USSR and Leonid Brezhnev. Democracies seemed to have outlived their usefulness and were on a worldwide decline.
So the peaceful revolution that changed so many governments in the late 1980s was a huge surprise. Even more shocking was that so many began in church prayer meetings that spilled out into the streets.
This past Sunday morning I read a newspaper story about a man who served in the East German army, Lieutenant Colonel Harold Jaeger. He was in charge of the Berlin Wall border crossing at Bornholmer Street, which on the night of November 9, 1989, was being crowded by about 10,000 people in the streets. They were responding to a vague and premature promise made by an East German government official that the gates would be opened. Colonel Jaeger asked his commanding officers what he should do about all the people who were becoming unruly and shouting, “Open the gate.” His chain of command ignored his questions and told him to solve his own problems.
He said, “At 11:30 PM I ordered my guards to set aside all the controls, raise the barriers and allow all East Berliners to travel through.”
Before the night was over, more than 20,000 people had crossed over. Many of them hugged and kissed the border guards and handed them flowers.
I remember watching the images on television and it was unbelievable. Once the gates opened, they stayed open. The world changed for Berliners that night. It took a while to realize it, but the world changed for all of us, too.
In my writing and teaching I use the phrase “Change the world” often, maybe too much. But I believe individuals acting in courage can literally change the world. Lieutenant Colonel Jaeger didn’t mean to make a permanent political statement that we could read about 25 years later, he was simply trying to prevent thousands of people from getting hurt. He solved the immediate problem in front of him by choosing peace and kindness instead of force and anger, and your life and my life are better today because of him.
As so, is it possible for you and me to do the same thing? I believe it is. But I don’t believe world-changing actions happen when that is the goal. Rather, I believe our greatest opportunities to create permanent change comes when we live our lives in the mercy and grace of God, choosing peace and kindness, making daily decisions that pull us further up and further in to our relationship with God.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32