Bishop Hanns Lilje was imprisoned by Hitler but I didn’t know that when I met him. For me he was a genial man who laughed often. I considered him one of my father’s many German pastor friends.
Then I read his book, The Valley of the Shadow. That book is no longer in print, but in a few pages it told about Pastor Lilje’s arrest and his time in prison. It’s the story of the quiet kind of heroism that doesn’t get much press.
The next time Bishop Lilje visited us in New York, I peppered him with questions. I was young. I wanted to know how he became a hero. I wanted to be a hero.
After enduring my interrogation for a while, Bishop Lilje sighed heavily. He leaned forward, his hands turned inward on his thighs. “When they knock on your door,” he said, “it is too late to prepare.”
Bishop Lilje’s actions when the Gestapo came for him were the result of a lifetime of preparing in private. The prayer and study that deepened his faith also created a reservoir of strength. Years of thinking about how to act when the Nazis knocked on his door prepared him for the moment when the knock finally came.
That kind of preparation is not unique to Bishop Lilje. It’s not even unique to heroes. The way we live every day, what we think about and what we imagine, prepare us for the hard times.
I’ve known several men who were prisoners of war. I’ve talked to successful people in all walks of life. Despite the incredible differences in their experiences, one thing is constant. Performance that we consider extraordinary had its roots in years of preparation.
Our actions and performance are often on view in public. But we prepare for them in private and the most effective among us prepare in a disciplined way.
What are you doing, every day, to become the person you would be proud to be?
At the end of this link is a page from the Milwaukee Sentinel from October 27, 1962, shortly before Bishop Lilje would preach in Milwaukee. It is entirely possible that the conversation I relate above happened when the Bishop visited the US on that trip.