Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 49

“Even extemporaneous prayer will be determined by a certain internal order. It is not the chaotic outburst of a human heart, but the prayer of an internally ordered community…At first there may be some monotony in the daily repetition of the same petitions that are entrusted to us as a community, but later freedom from an all too individualistic form of prayer will surely be found. If it is possible to add to the number of daily recurring petitions, a weekly order might be tried…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 44.

Bonhoeffer does not tell us enough about what he is thinking to understand the specific good models or excesses that are in his mind as he writes the above. Later in this passage on page 44 he uses the term, “the arbitrariness of subjectivity” as he counsels the benefit of “relating prayer to one of the Scripture readings”. It is difficult to separate “subjectivity” from “extemporaneous” and one wonders if it is even safe to do so lest we fall into an unintended rigidity and legalism and authoritarian mindset. Perhaps this is Bonhoeffer’s corrective to having either witnessed or heard about “the chaotic outburst of a human heart”?  

Our salvation in Jesus Christ is holistic; our minds and hearts are made new and renewed in the likeness of Jesus Christ. If “subjective”  primarily relates to affections and “objective” primarily relates to thoughts, we ought to recognize that the marriage and unity of both are found in the shalom we have in Jesus Christ, we are made whole men and women in Him – people with increasingly whole hearts and whole minds and healthy souls in His new creation. The Fall shattered us internally, Christ restores our souls.

My observation about “chaotic outbursts” is that while it may not be fruitful to have them as a matter of course, that there are times when they express both the agony of the human heart and the agony of the Spirit of God as He cries out on behalf of humanity. Sometimes what appears to be indecorous behavior is just what is needed to break the hardness of hearts and to strip away facades of religiosity. It is easy to be a Pharisee in communal prayer when we know that others are listening. There are historic examples of “chaotic outbursts” breaking the dam of religiosity and being manifestations of the Holy Spirit bringing people to repentance and renewal in Jesus Christ. Two examples I have in mind are Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Murray – neither of these men did anything to encourage these outbursts, nor (as far as I know) to propagate them, nor to use them as a standard for spiritual maturity.

What does Bonhoeffer mean by “internal order” and “internally ordered community”? Does he mean that each community has an order similar to the spiritual orders of Franciscans or Jesuits? Does he mean that what we do and how we pray is to be ordered and formed by Scripture? Is this internal order implicit or explicit? Is it a culture peculiar to each local community?

What should be the norm in communal prayer? Patience, longsuffering, consideration, honesty, submission to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, bearing the burdens of others, freedom to express the yearnings of our souls and the joys of our hearts and the perplexities of our minds as children of God, as brothers and sisters gathered before their Father and Lord Jesus.

Communal prayer cannot be tidy prayer for tidy prayer is prayer more concerned with its form and how it looks to others than it is with spiritual realities. In tidy prayer children are to be seen and not heard, I am not speaking of children in chronological age, I am speaking of those young in Jesus Christ. To be sure there is a Scriptural internal order to prayer and fellowship, such as we see in 1 Corinthians Chapter 14 – assuming we still believe 1 Corinthians Chapter 14.

The prayer life of a community, of those in life together, should not be static, indeed, in Christ it cannot be static – anymore than the prayer life of an individual Christian ought to be static. Internal orders, whether explicit or implicit, carry with them the danger of becoming more form than substance – a corrective and protection to this is allowing the myriad forms of Scriptural petition and worship and communion to mold us as God’s people – communal prayer is a pilgrimage, we pitch our tents in many places on our journey.

We all face the temptation of allowing excesses we’ve seen to dictate our thinking; let’s not look at the excesses for our guidance, but rather to God’s Word.

We’ll continue to explore communal prayer in the next post. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Golden Children

“Pope Leo X had a young boy painted gold, from head to toe, implying the return of a golden age under the rule of the Medici. The boy died shortly afterwards, poisoned by the gold paint on his skin but the papal celebrations went on for days.” (Excerpted from PBS.org/empires/medici).

Jeremiah 32:35 “They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.”

It’s hard to read the above without a feeling of revulsion; but do we see what we are doing to our children today? Those who are not sacrificed in the womb are sacrificed upon the altar of success, of popularity, of prosperity, of sexual promiscuity, and are now sacrificed on the altar of the explicit desecration of the image of God…but the celebrations go on. We have painted our children with the gold of this world and it is killing them, it is destroying their souls…but our party goes on.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 48

“The extemporaneous prayer at the close of daily worship normally will be said of the head of the house. But in any case it is best that it always be said by the same person.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 42.

Bonhoeffer envisions those sharing life together gathering at the end of the day for prayer led by the “head of the house.” When he uses this term he is not thinking, in this context, of the head of a natural family but rather of the head of a communal family – perhaps of the head of a clandestine seminary or clandestine church.

I think that it is appropriate for the head of a natural family to lead prayers, but I wonder about having the same person always leading prayers within a fellowship – I’m not sure that this is healthy, nor do I think it is healthy, within the setting of a fellowship, for one person to be viewed as the “head of the house”; I think this is particularly true in nontraditional settings – which is likely the setting that Bonhoeffer envisions.

My above concern is rooted in two areas; the first is a desire to see the Body of Christ function as a body, as His Body, and only Jesus Christ can be the head of His Body. The more people who participate in leadership the better because it facilitates spiritual growth and encourages others – only Jesus Christ should be the center of our life together, not anyone else…no matter how deeply that person may love and care for the People of God.

My second concern, especially in non-traditional settings, is that it is too easy for one person to exert control over others and for others to uncritically acquiesce in the agenda of a leader – there is more easily a lack of accountability in non-traditional settings than in traditional – or at least I like to think so. Even as I write this I am reminded of many examples of a lack of accountability in traditional settings and of dictatorial behavior of leaders and groups of leaders in traditional settings – so pardon me for thinking out loud. In any event, when one person is viewed as the “head of the house” in other than a natural-family context the door is open for abuse – what may begin as well-meaning leadership may be transformed into religious dictatorship. I write from experience.

Bonhoeffer points out that those in life together must pray for each other and also that whoever is going to lead community prayer must “share in the daily life of the community and must know the cares and needs, the joys and thanksgivings, the requests and hopes of the others,” (pages 43 – 44). Here is a challenge for all of us: Are we sharing life together so that we know these things about one another? If we don’t spend time with one another how can we know these things? If our leaders don’t spend time with others how can they know these things? If leadership only spends time with those in leadership how can leadership know the people?

Those leading in community prayer are “not to confuse their own hearts with the heart of the community,” (page 44). Life together means life with one another to the point that our hearts are joined in Christ as one – as Paul writes, “they are knit together in love.” But we can only know the heart of the community as we know the hearts in the community. How can we express the heart of the community in prayer? This is a function of the priesthood of all believers; it is something not only for spoken communal prayer, it is also something for our prayer closets – in our individual communion with God we are called to express not only ourselves but our community, those with whom we share life together.

Am I, today, able to pray the heart of the community?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 47

“God’s Word, the voice of the church, and our prayer belong together. So we must now speak of prayer together…There is no part of daily worship together that causes us such serious difficulties and trouble as does common prayer, for here we ourselves are supposed to speak…this prayer must really be our word, our prayer – for this day, for our work, for our community, for the particular needs and sins that commonly oppress us, for the persons who are committed to our care.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 42.

“As good and useful as our scruples may be about keeping our prayer pure and biblical, they must nevertheless not stifle the free prayer itself that is so necessary, for it has been endowed with great promise by Jesus Christ,” (page 43).

Bonhoeffer begins his reflections on prayer by focusing on communal prayer (assuming I understand him on this point). He then moves on to prayer offered by one person on behalf of the congregation, then he addresses “set prayers”, and then “special communities” of prayer (groups within congregations).

He links his comment about “serious difficulties” with “here we ourselves are supposed to speak,” emphasizing that the prayer must be “ours”. For some it is not a problem to speak our own words in our own way, expressing our own thoughts and feelings; but for many others this is difficult. The difficulty may lay in shyness, in uncertainty about what to say and how to say it, in thinking that prayers must use certain words and be spoken certain ways; it may also lay in not trusting those around us with our thoughts and feelings – we may fear being judged and critiqued.

Bonhoeffer’s warning that we must not stifle free prayer encourages us to nurture an atmosphere of acceptance in prayer in life together – after all, our brothers and sisters are speaking to God and (hopefully) not to us. When he writes that such prayer “has been endowed with great promise by Jesus Christ,” I think of passages such as Matthew 7:7 – 11, were Jesus teaches that we are to ask and seek and knock and concludes with, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” We are children speaking to our Father and we are not to judge the words of our siblings as they speak to our Father – we each have our own way of speaking to Him and He speaks to others within His relationship to them, not within His relationship to me. Yes, we share a communal relationship with our Father and He speaks to us as His family, but He also speaks to us as individual sons and daughters. I must give others relational room to pray – I am not the mediator between God and man, only Jesus Christ is our mediator. We can trust our Father to care for our siblings; after all, we do not know the hearts of others.

On the other end of the spectrum of difficulties and problems in communal prayer we have those who pray preachy prayers and gossipy prayers – prayers in which the audience is not God but man. Perhaps the best we can do here is to instruct communities in prayer and to model it…and above all to be patient and longsuffering. We are not the focus of prayer, we are not the conductors of the orchestra, our Father is well able to accomplish His will within His family. Of course, for the sake of the community we must be ready to gently counsel those who use communal prayer as a speaking platform; our own attitudes and prayers will do more to foster prayer in our life together than anything else. Let us encourage others to find their voice in prayer and let us give them plenty of room to express themselves and grow.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 46

“It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together. It is not I who sing, but the church. However, as a member of the church, I may share in its song. Thus all true singing together must serve to widen our spiritual horizon. It must enable us to recognize our small community as a member of the great Christian church on earth and must help us willingly and joyfully to take our place in the song of the church with our singing, be it feeble or good.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 42.

With the above Bonhoeffer concludes his thoughts on singing in Life Together. As he pointed out elsewhere in this section, when we sing we not only sing in fellowship with “the great Christian church on earth” but we also sing with the church in heaven – our voices are joined to both heaven and earth and the two are melded.

“…be it feeble or good.” A reminder that singing is not performing, neither as individuals nor as groups – singing is worship and witness, praise and testimony, service to God, and service to man as we testify to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When voices are connected to hearts singing is beautiful, whether the voices in the natural are feeble or good. A piece of preaching advice works well with singing, “Be yourself and forget about yourself.” All too often singing is interrupted with apologies from musicians or singers and started and restarted until the focus is not on God but on the singing, the singer, the musician. When we gather we gather to worship God – we need to get on with it – we can perfect our music and playing in heaven.

If we make singing a part of our individual lives we will tend to sing when we are with one another; if we sing when we are with one another singing will tend to be a part of our individual lives. Just as we have become a mute people in the Word of God, we have become mute in singing – we are listeners more than we are speakers of the Word and singers of song. Why should we not have singing as a part of our small groups? Naturally if we are meeting in a restaurant’s general dining room it may not be appropriate just as loud prayer or preaching may not be appropriate to our Gospel witness – but otherwise why do most groups today not sing? We have lost our voice as singing has been handed over to the accomplished, the polished, and as we have become self-conscious rather than God-conscious. When we gather in groups, whether large or small, we can join our voices to the voices of those gifted in singing, and they can join their voices with ours, and we can mutually join our voices with the church in the heavens and on earth. There is no beauty quite like that transcendent beauty.

Bonhoeffer is writing Life Together to guide the church through horrific times, he writes to provide foundational essentials and protections; he has limited time and limited space – he must include those elements of church life that are absolutely critical for life together – in this context he focuses on singing – he considers it essential. God has given us the Psalms, the largest book in the Bible; in the Bible we see singing on earth and in the heavens. What place does singing have in our lives? What place does it have in our congregations and small groups? What place does it have in our life together?

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 45

“A community of Christians living together will therefore try hard to master as rich a store of hymns as possible that can be sung without music and from memory.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 41.

I’m including the above in our reflections because of both “without music” and “from memory”. Hymns and other songs ought to be both old friends and sacred places; they are places into which we enter in koinonia with the Trinity as we experience life together. They are also words and images that have ripened from being acquaintances into old and intimate and seasoned friends.  Hymns grow with us, or better they grow into us; and we grow into them. Hymns are our companions on pilgrimage, we sing them on the flatlands, in the valleys, and as we ascend and summit hills and mountains. Sometimes it is a lone audible voice that sings, sometimes it is those joined in life together; whether one voice or many all voices are joined to those in the heavens singing the Song of the Lamb.

Christocentric and Trinitarian content is vital to singing, for we sing around the Throne of God giving eternal praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When our lyrics are “the servant of the Word” they become faithful encouragers on pilgrimage, speaking to us as we speak to God and as we speak to one another. Songs with Biblical content stand both the test of time and of circumstances; lyrics grounded in God’s Word beckon our hearts and minds to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Lyrical praise and testimony both ascend to and descend from the heavens and are sung in the pit of despair and at the pinnacle of fulfillment; these lyrics instruct us, chasten us, encourage us, humble us, and above all give God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ all glory and honor. They are lyrics that instruct us in the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the songs of our pilgrimage and the Song of eternity.

While we may have different capacities for memory, hymns that become our friends are more likely to be embedded in our memory than those hymns that we sing only to sing. When we read aloud we are more prone to remember than if we read silently; when we sing we are more likely to remember what we sing than what we read because we have the dynamic of saying words aloud (singing) to melody – the melody reinforces what is said aloud. Second only to the Bible, a hymnal is the book which Christians ought to know and cherish. If we underline our Bibles and make notes in them, we ought to do so in our hymnals.

We don’t need music to sing. Music is beautiful and it is wonderful when we have it, but we don’t need it to sing. It is not practical to expect that we will always have music to accompany singing, but it is practical to sing for we are called to sing. When we think we must have music to sing we excuse ourselves from worship in song. If we feel self-conscious without music, let us remind ourselves that we sing to worship and to testify. As in reading aloud, the more we sing the better we will sing, and the more we sing in unison the better we will sing in unison. The most poorly technically sung song that is sung in worship with hearts focused on the Trinity is beautiful in the ears of heaven – the Spirit of God is well able to transpose such singing so that it reverberates with beauty in the heavens.

Singing hymns and psalms and other spiritual songs is to be a way of life in life together, we are to take joy in singing in the knowledge that our Lord Jesus takes joy in our singing – perhaps one reason He desires us to sing is so that He may accompany us.

“Yahweh your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you in His love, He will rejoice over you with singing,” (Zephaniah 3:17).