In chapter 2, “The Day with Others,” Bonhoeffer showed us what our life with others, centered around the person of Christ, should look like. In chapter 3, “The Day Alone,” Bonhoeffer explains what spiritual aloneness means for the Christ-follower.
Bonhoeffer begins the chapter with an indictment on people that look to the church to alleviate their loneliness. “The person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear.” This is strong language and I find myself challenged by it. I hate to be alone. This is no secret. I am energized being in a crowd of people. I start to go stir crazy by myself. Bonhoeffer would tell me that I desperately need ‘”the day alone.”
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Some of us go to community looking to get our needs met. Others run from community to bask in aloneness, where the self is king. There is a “together/alone” continuum that we need to find our rhythm in. Truth is found in the tension of opposites. Togetherness means nothing apart from aloneness and visa-versa. We are called to both community and solitude. “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”
Henri Nouwen calls silence and solitude (which cannot be divorced) the furnace of transformation. It is when the noise and pace of life stops that we hear the still small voice of Jesus. But we run from it. Even those that enjoy being alone rarely experience solitude. We use our aloneness as an opportunity for distraction. We read a magazine, watch 14 episodes of Lost, or mindlessly browse the internet. Be sure, this is not the solitude that Bonhoeffer speaks of. He quickly dispels the selfish aloneness as well as the mystical approach to silence. Christian solitude and meditation is not about emptying ourselves and becoming aware of some mystical reality beyond our world. “Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the word of God.” When we are bathed in the Word of God we find ourselves silent, meditating on what has been lodged into our soul. The Word doesn’t stop communicating when silence begins. The God who inspired the scripture continues to speak to us in the most intimate way. Silence and solitude are not ends but means to an end–intimacy with the father. But too many times we allow the noise of our busy lives to distract us from the voice of God who speaks in the stillness. If we step away from the commotion and retreat to a solitary place, like Jesus did so many times, there the voice of Abba Father speaks tenderly to his children. But it is also in the stillness that we see the darkness of our own heart. So we run. We don’t like facing our fears and our hurts. But it is in precisely that place where God wants to meet you. He wants you at your most vulnerable.
It is only in the context of this deep intimacy with God in solitude, silence, and meditation that the individual can truly enjoy community. Bonhoeffer concludes the chapter with a question about the purity of the Christ-follower’s aloneness. He asks, “Has it (our solitude) transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works?”
Your solitude shouldn’t lead you some existential euphoria or state of centeredness. It shouldn’t make you withdraw from the world. It should cultivate your heart to prepare you to dive head first into a community that loves each other and the world.
We stand alone together.
The Day with Others
In the first chapter Bonhoeffer clearly defines Christian community. He takes away every lofty ideal we may have and grounds us in the truth that community is only found in Christ.
In the next chapter, “The Day with Others,” Bonhoeffer gives us a practical example of what a day could look like for a community living around the truth of Jesus as Savior and King. He says, “A day is long enough to sustain one’s faith; the next day will have its own cares.” How we live our days is how we will live our lives. Bonhoeffer lived this truth with his seminarians at Finkenwalde.
He starts the chapter with the day’s beginning. He says the dawn of day is a metaphor for the resurrection of Jesus. The dark night has passed and a new day has dawned. Jesus is alive and we are awake to that truth. Bonhoeffer says that worship begins immediately upon our waking up. The silence of night is broken by the praise of God’s people. Our wakefulness should not be a time to mentally gather the day’s concerns. The dawn of day is a time for us to attune our hearts to God’s heart.
In the next section, Bonhoeffer shows us the “Secret of the Psalter.” The Psalter is simply the Psalms. We are taught that the Bible is the Word of God. However, we run into a hermeneutical dilemma when we read the Psalms. Many of these Psalms are prayers to God from an individual. How can God’s Word be our words to God? When David prays out of incredible anguish or sorrow, is that God’s word? When David prays for extreme vengeance for his foes, is this too God’s word? Too often we simply skip over these passages in favor of the easily applicable ones. We find our favorite verses or passages that give us comfort and read those. Bonhoeffer says that the Psalms are to shape our prayers as they shaped the prayers of Jesus and the Church. How then are these strange passages applicable or God’s word? Bonhoeffer says, “A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgement, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none of than Jesus Christ himself.” Bonhoeffer says that Jesus is praying the Psalter through the Church. Bonhoeffer also points out another perspective that we often miss. We assume that the prayers we see in the Psalter need only to be applicable to us. However, we are a part of the family of God and though we may not know the depth of suffering David or other writers speak of, other members of the Body may be experiencing this first hand. We, then, are to pray on their behalf with words shaped by the Psalms. The Psalms become our school of prayer. We learn to pray selflessly based on the promises found in the Word and we learn that at times Jesus is praying the Psalms through us.
In the next section Bonhoeffer talks about the reading of Scripture together. Often times we are tempted to pick and choose scripture readings that help us get through the day. This is not necessarily a bad thing. There are incredible nuggets of truth found in single verses of scripture. However, Bonhoeffer says that to truly read scripture we must read it as a whole. We are not to solely read uplifting nuggets we hand select. We are to find ourselves caught up in the entire sweep of scripture. He urges us to read every book of the Bible and to read chapters at a time. (When we read like this) “We become part of what once took place for our salvation. Forgetting and losing ourselves, we, too, pass into the promised land. With Israel we fall into doubt and unbelief and through punishment and repentance experience again God’s help and faithfulness. All this is not mere reverie but holy, Godly reality. We are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dwelt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgement and grace.” He continues, “It is not that God is a spectator and sharer of our present life, howsoever important that is; but rather that we are the reverent listeners and participants in God’s action in the sacred story, the history of the Christ on earth. And only in so far as we are there, is God with us today also.” How often to we lose sight of this reality and read only to be comforted for our daily needs?
Bonhoeffer moves on to talk about our corporate worship. He says that the “new song” is sung first in the heart. He says that worship is our corporate ability to pray the same prayer and declare the same thing together–namely that Jesus is Savior and King. He says that the music is subservient to the Word. When we make the music our aim we worship an idol. Jesus Christ, the Word, is the one whom we worship. How often do exalt the worship style over the God to whom our worship is aimed?
Bonhoeffer goes on to talk about our corporate prayer. He says that prayer is the most natural thing for a Christian community to do. He urges us to pray even when we don’t feel like it. He said in the previous chapter that God is not a God of our moods and emotions. He says that prayer can be beautiful and profound but not genuine. God is always after our heart, not our carefully rehearsed sincerity. Do we pray from a place of purity?
All of life is a matter of worship. The line of sacred and secular we have created needs to be erased. Bonhoeffer speaks to this when he talks about eating together. We are to worship the giver of the gift (food in this case) and also to realize the giver of the gift is the ultimate gift himself.
Bonhoeffer then speaks to an issue that we all could use a fresh infusion of God into–our work. We have been told that work is a necessary evil in our world that distracts us from doing spiritual stuff. I have personally heard recently, “I just wish I could quit my job so I could do stuff like read my bible and pray all day.” Bonhoeffer says that there is a reason why God worked 6 days in the making of creation and rested 1. God has made us for work. “Prayer should not be hindered by work, but neither should work be hindered by prayer.” We need a fresh dose of Colossians 3:23. Bonhoeffer says, “In work the Christian learns to allow himself to be limited by the task, and thus for him the work becomes a remedy against the indolence and sloth of the flesh.” What if God is using work to make us holy and more like himself? What would a work day look like in the reality that we are in the presence of God working for his Kingdom purposes?
Bonhoeffer says that the end of the day is a time for reflection on the days work and also an opportunity to make amends for any wrongs done during the course of the day. We are not to sleep on our anger toward a brother. Therefore the evening is the time to make things right with your brother/sister in Christ. The days ends as it began, with prayer to the God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). Bonhoeffer encourages us to echo the prayer of the ancient church, “that when our eyes are closed in sleep God may nevertheless keep our hearts awake.”
The sun rises again and a new day begins…
First of all, I want you to know that by blogging I am falling into the trap of what my college friends called the progression to “pastor bro.” They all have a running bet to see how long it will take for me to turn into a skinny-jean wearing, soul-patch sporting, “intentionally connecting,” avid blogging “pastor bro.” Well one of those is now crossed off the list now and I pray that this doesn’t mark the beginning of the end.
This summer Center City is reading through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I will be blogging about each chapter from the book each week to correspond with the weekly small group that Lauren Mowrer is heading up.
Here we go…
When we divorce the message from the messenger we reduce the message to pithy ideals and lose the true meaning of the text. This is true of Jesus. To divorce his message from his life is to miss the point. This is certainly true of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was many things. He was, first and foremost, a theologian and thinker. He was a pastor for periods of time. He was an activist. He was a professor. He was a prophet. He was part of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. And he was ultimately a martyr. His life was and is his message.
Bonhoeffer found himself in dichotomy in the academic world concerning the identity of the church. On one side, there was Karl Barth who argued that church was a spiritual reality. On the other side, liberal theologians argued the identity of the church was mainly sociological. It was Bonhoeffer’s goal to bridge those two worlds. He would not argue for or against either position. He would build a bridge to synthesize the two. Bonhoeffer would argue that the church is “Christ existing as community.” It is then both a spiritual and sociological reality.
That was his academic work on the issue. In “Life Together” we get a more popular level read on the practical nature of this issue. There are philosophical elements to the writing but all of them point to a lived reality that the church must be attuned to. “Life Together” came out of a time where many of his former students experienced life together at Finkenwalde in an illegal seminary run by Bonhoeffer. With Hitler in charge, seminaries were not welcomed. They studied, worshipped, prayed, played soccer, and ate meals together and lived out the message of this book. It is not a lofty ideal that Bonhoeffer is after. His entire life points to a reality that must be lived on earth–here and now.
In the first chapter titled “Community” several themes quickly emerge. One thing that is obvious is that Bonhoeffer isn’t into sappy ideals. He is not one to be caught up in the pleasantries associated with the idea of community.
He says “…the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” He then quotes Luther: “The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends…”
He clearly is speaking of something far beyond simply being with church people consistently. He does not downplay the benefits of the church being together though. He says, “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” He is not diminishing that. He is reframing the issue. His task in the first chapter is to dispel whatever lofty ideal we have of community. He demolishes the idea. He says that “God hates visionary dreaming.” Whenever we bring an idea of what community is we take the drivers seat. God wants no part of that. He says, “When the morning mists of dreams vanish then comes the bright day of Christian fellowship.” We have to take away whatever ideals we have of what community means.
How do we accomplish this? Bonhoeffer argues that God will not bless us with lofty things until we are sufficiently thankful for the (seemingly) small things. He says, “How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from him the little things?” He says that we are to daily find ourselves thankful for whatever God has brought our way. We must be content with where we are. There is no perfect community and every attempt at one is futile. Bonhoeffer says that imperfect people in a community of faith are living reminders of a community’s need for Christ.
Bonhoeffer goes on in the chapter to set up a comparison between Christian community and human community. He says, “The basis of the community of the Spirit is truth; the basis of human community of spirit is desire.” No matter how seemingly pure our intentions, human community will always be flawed. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Even if we give everything and sacrifice greatly, without Christ it is misguided. Human love without a centrality on Christ is always self serving, despite our fervent attempts.
Bonhoeffer says that we are first and foremost Christ followers. When we follow Christ and are brought together by the cross, the natural outflow is a community of believers that accept joyfully all of life’s complexities and beauty. That community loves the unloveable. They accept and love their enemies. They do not seek community as their highest ideal. They seek conformity to the image of Christ as their aim and out of that comes a beautiful community.
What have you ever heard about Bonhoeffer?
What ideals of community have you seen people (or yourself) try to manufacture?
How can you combat that?
How can a community show that it is not merely an exclusive club of friends?
Are there any boundaries to radical inclusivity?
Are you sufficiently thankful for where we are as a community of believers?
What does purity of heart in community look like? How do we stay away from idealistic human community (where selfish desire is king)?