Faith Stands by God

bonhoefferIn CH4, the Church of Scotland hymnal, is a hymn by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read it on Good Friday, sat in the parish church. I must have come across it before, since it’s in Letters and Papers from Prison, but it was the first time I’d seen this particular translation. As I read it there, on that day and in that place, I found it not only striking, but also deeply moving.

We turn to God when we are sorely pressed;
we pray for help, and ask for peace and bread;
we seek release from illness, guilt, and death:
all people do, in faith or unbelief.

We turn to God when he is sorely pressed,
and find him poor, scorned, without roof and bread,
bowed under weight of weakness, sin, and death:
faith stands by God in his dark hour of grief.

God turns to us when we are sorely pressed,
and feeds our souls and bodies with his bread;
for one and all Christ gives himself in death:
through his forgiveness sin will find relief.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) Letters and Papers in Prison, 1953, SCM Press, translated Compilers.

Bonhoeffer for Reformation Day

Dietrich Bonhoeffer“Faith – this means, naturally, that no person or church can live from the greatness of their own actions. They instead live solely from the great act that God himself does and has done. And (this is what is crucial) the great acts of God remain unseen and hidden in the world. Things in the church are simply not the way they are in the world and in the history of nations, where it is ultimately a question of being able to point to great deeds.

The church that tried to do that would have already long since fallen to the laws and powers of this world. The church of success has truly not been the church of faith for a long time. The act that God did in this world, and from which all the world has since lived, is the cross on Golgotha. Such are God’s “successes,” and the successes of the church and the individual are like that when they are acts of faith. That faith abides means that it remains true, that human beings must live from what is invisible, that they live not from their own visible work but from the invisible act of God…

And so it is with the Reformation church. It never lives from its deeds or from its acts of love. It instead lives from what it does not see and yet believes.”

‘The Acts of God, Hidden in the World’, I Want to Live these Days with You, 315 (DBW 13.400)

If a few people really believed this…

On Easter Sunday, as on most days at the moment, I finished the day reading something from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sometimes, Bonhoeffer is dynamite! Christians often speak about ‘dying well’. They often quote someone (I can’t remember who) who apparently said about Christians: ‘our people die well.’ Or something.
It seems unimportant after reading Bonhoeffer’s critique that Christians wrongly think more about the problem of dying than about the problem of death. He writes, ‘How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death’ (I Want to Live these Days with You, 111). I’d tend to agree. He points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates overcame dying, whereas Christ overcame death. Then come these words, which struck me and quickened my pulse, coming as they did a day after I’d posted my last blog post.

Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means. Ibid.

Bonhoeffer speculates that a time will come when the ‘resolving and liberating’ word of resurrection will be heard in the midst of so much confusion. In this Easter season, my prayer is that the time has arrived for the word of resurrection to be heard afresh in the Church.

Joy to the World

‘“Joy to the world!” Anyone for whom this sound is foreign, or who hears in it nothing but weak enthusiasm, has not yet really heard the gospel.
For the sake of humankind, Jesus Christ became a human being in a stable in Bethlehem: Rejoice, O Christendom! For sinners, Jesus Christ became a companion of tax collectors and prostitutes: Rejoice, O Christendom! For the condemned, Jesus Christ was condemned to the cross on Golgotha: Rejoice, O Christendom! For all of us, Jesus Christ was resurrected to life: Rejoice, O Christendom!…
All over the world today people are asking: Where is the path to joy? The church of Christ answers loudly: Jesus is our joy! Joy to the world!’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, 67

Non-religious Christianity

Bonhoeffer2Several days ago, I read one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters written from Tegel Prison, Berlin. The whole letter is striking to read, and it contains the following, which I’ve been returning to and turning over in my mind ever since.

Is there any concern in the Old Testament about saving one’s soul at all? Is not righteousness and the kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and is not Romans 3.14ff., too, the culmination of the view that in God alone is righteousness, and not in an individualistic doctrine of salvation? It is not with the next world that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved and set subject to laws and atoned for and made new. What is above the world is, in the Gospel, intended to exist for this world—I mean that not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the Bible sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Letters to a Friend, May 5th 1944 (emphasis original).

The context is Bonhoeffer’s search for a way of proclaiming Christianity in a ‘non-religious’ sense. The same letter contains the remarkable assertion that Bultmann’s demythologising of the New Testament ‘did not go far enough’. However, Bonhoeffer is not aligning himself to liberalism, but aiming to think theologically in seeking to interpret and proclaim both God and miracles in a ‘non-religious’ sense. A religious approach, according to Bonhoeffer, focusses on the metaphysical (by which I take him to mean the ‘other-worldly’ or ‘spiritual’) and the individualistic. Bonhoeffer characterises ‘religion’ according to these two features, and ‘[n]either,’ he writes, ‘is relevant to the Bible message or to the man of today (my emphasis).’ Bonhoeffer’s concern is clearly about speaking the truth of Christianity into a society where the Christian religion has lost its ground, its footing. But he sees this as an opportunity to return to the truth of Scripture, since the Christian religion which is declining is not actually biblically-aligned, not actually focussed on the concerns of God’s revelation. Bonhoeffer describes a war-torn society as one where ‘individualistic concern for personal salvation has almost completely left us all’. People believe that there are more important things than bothering about that. It sounds monstrous to acknowledge that, he concedes, but it is an attitude that is perhaps even biblical. That is the context for the quote above.

I struggle to understand Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’. I don’t think of it as an attack on the Church per se. Bonhoeffer writes in the same letter of the place of religion being taken by the Church (that is, he writes ‘as the Bible teaches it should be’). I need to read more on Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionlessness’, but it strikes me that somewhere near its heart is a desire to free Christianity from conceptual frameworks that have more to do with religious culture and tradition than with the revelation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer wants to bring Christ from the religious ghetto of the Church (where the Church has become this)  into all the world, into all of life, into all of culture. As a Reformed Christian, that chimes with my own outlook. It is true that we are, as Christians, erroneously in thrall to the idea of some other-worldly world as our hope. However, what is above the world does indeed, in the Gospel, exist for this world. If we can understand and proclaim that then, as Bonhoeffer writes in his letter of April 30th 1944, ‘Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, indeed and in truth the Lord of the world.’

Christmas Eve: Joy Amongst the Ruins

BonhoefferLast Sunday night I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the opening of the service. A couple of weeks before we’d been thinking about what it means for us, as Christians, to be Living Between Two Worlds. We have begun to enjoy our inheritance through Jesus Christ, but we still live in this fallen world, confronted by and embroiled in all of its sin, pain, injustice and suffering.

We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival. One comes with joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love. Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work. Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime.

Despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1930), From God Is In the Manger (pp. 54-55)

These words were cast into stark relief by what happened in George Square on Monday. There are so many people who have received bad news in the last few days, for whom Christmas will be no festival of joy. It is important for us as Christians that we don’t bury our heads in the sand, even at times like Christmas. We worship amongst the ruins of this fading world, awaiting its renewal, rejoicing in God, giving thanks for Jesus, yet all the time opening ourselves as Jesus did to its need. Despite it all, Christmas comes. Despite it all, Jesus Christ has come. And so we rejoice, we await the coming new creation, and we enjoy the gifts of God. We embrace the tension of Living Between Two Worlds.

Living on the Next to Last Word

Dietrich BonhoefferIn the early hours this morning, unable to sleep, I picked up Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. What I read didn’t help me sleep! It was one of those moments when you read something that seems to connect at so many levels with your own recent meditations.

It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world. It is only when one submits to the law and one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of God hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love them and forgive them. I don’t think it is Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly… You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last. We live on the next to last word, and  believe on the last, don’t we? Lutherans (so-called) and pietists would be shocked at such an idea, but it is true all the same. Letters to a Friend, Advent II

There is so much to reflect on here, being at once a word about Christian hope, truth and experience, and a word about hermeneutics – how to read and understand the Bible. Bonhoeffer’s words speak into evangelicalism’s tendency towards Christomonism. He points to the God who has spoken words before the last word: words of creation, of blessing, of promise, of judgement, of hope. The last word can only be understood in the light of these words. It is an irony of today’s church that a zeal to see the Messiah everywhere in the Bible leads to a certain blindness to who the Messiah truly is.

I was particularly struck by these words: ‘It is only when one loves life and the earth so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world’! That statement is to me like a banner high in the wind! A love like that arises from a true vision of, and love for, Jesus the Messiah! Bonhoeffer is correct that the pietist does not understand this. And that is why so many Christians baulk at the idea of loving life and loving the earth in this way. Bonhoeffer’s words express the true hope of God’s word, and are a call to the grand vision of Reformed Christianity.

Do Not Be Afraid

unknownLife continually throws up situations that make us anxious. We all know this. Yet, we don’t often share that basic human reality. Often, we are anxious about the future, about its hidden paths and unknown challenges. When Jesus addresses anxiety, this is the facet of life he focusses on: what will I eat? What will I drink? What will I wear? (For those into grammar, the verbs are subjunctives in the Greek, indicating the real possibility of not eating, drinking, wearing). But Jesus is clear: do not be anxious.

Isaiah 43:1-5 is a passage that also speaks comfort, this time in the face of danger.

Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you.

This passage, addressed to the People of God, raises so many questions. Many of the People of God have been drowned and burned, with many of these being martyrs. And yet, the Word itself still brings powerful comfort: Do Not Be Afraid…I will be With You. Over the past weeks, I keep returning to this: Do Not Be Afraid. Most recently in Haggai 2:5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes (in Life Together):

Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.

We live in the face of an unknown future; in the face of our insecurity; in the face of the dangers of the world; in the face of our enemies…this is The Way the World Is. It is our common human experience. Anxiety and fear seem entirely appropriate! And yet, into This World there comes this jarring word: Do Not Be Afraid. Walter Brueggemann captures this in his prayer ‘Salvation Oracles’, which begins by speaking the names of the threats we face: terror, cancer, loneliness, shame, death – ‘the list goes on’…

And in the midst of threat of every kind / you appear among us in your full power,

in your deep fidelity, / in your amazing compassion, / You speak among us the one word that could matter:

“Do not fear.”

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance.

On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true. / So give us good days by your rule,

free enough to rejoice, / open enough to change, / trusting enough to move out of new obedience,

grace enough to be forgiven and then forgive.

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People, 83

Words for the New Year

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Here are words for the New Year, as we face an uncertain world and our own uncertain hearts. Our faith in God turns another 365 days into an opportunity for service for His glory in Jesus Christ, no matter what we will face in the world in 2013.

“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all times of distress, but he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account and that it is no harder for God to deal with them, than with our supposedly good deeds. I believe that God is no timeless fate, but that He waits for and answers sincere prayers and responsible actions.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (After Ten Years, A Reckoning at New Year 1943).