Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Meditations on the Psalms

The life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to have a deep significance upon the life and theology of many within the Church of Christ.  For Bonhoeffer, like Luther before him[1], the psalms are the great prayer book of the Church, 'From ancient times in the church a special significance has been placed on the praying of the psalms together...we now must recover the meaning of praying the psalms.'[2] It was the praying of the psalms that sustained him throughout his time in prison at the hands of the Nazi regime. In a letter to his parents he writes, 'I read the Psalms every day, as I have done for years; I know them and love them more than any other book.'[3]

This short book takes us through some of Bonhoeffer's favourite Psalms whereby he shares his theological understanding, insight, poetry and lament.  As with the honesty of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer shares the reality of his own struggles both before his capture and then leading up to his execution by the Nazi's in 1945. 

Bonhoeffer reflects on, to name a few, themes of rest and Sabbath drawing from Psalm 62, God's righteous anger from Psalm 58, the joy of the Lord in the midst of suffering from Psalm 100 and the God who helps and sustains us from Psalm 54. 

For Bonhoeffer the Psalms were not only something to be prayed individually as a means through which we were drawn closer to God, but they were also the prayer book of the Church that the church were called to pray together.  This book of meditations highlights Bonhoeffer's desire that the church needs the Psalms to understand its life and worship together, 'The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all it's strength.'[4]

Without doubt the Psalms have been of enormous benefit to me over the last three years of ministry.  Church planting from scratch is a lonely and tiring calling.  Added to that is the lack of a church community surrounding you in prayer and support.  Such a time as this calls you to a deeper life with God, yet such a life can be difficult if you do not have the disciplines in place that will sustain you.  The calling to ministry requires first that you are a person of prayer, sustained by your life with and love of God (Deut. 6:4-6).  Throughout my time church planting I have seen that my primary calling is to be a person of prayer.  When this area of my life is threatened or eroded into then I stop being faithful to the call that God has given me. The Psalms are those prayers that will sustain the minister to be faithful.

Bonhoeffer understood well the significance and need of the Psalms to the life and health of those called to ministry having experienced first hand the desert of trial and temptation.  Some people earn the right to demand greater holiness, more faithful discipleship and passion for prayer from those called into ministry, and Bonhoeffer is one such person.  Reading Bonhoeffer's meditations challenge me as a minister to do this helping me recognise who I am called to be.  The honesty and challenge of the Psalms enable the minister and consequently the church to resist notions of sentimentality and go deeper into truthful worship of the living God.  André Chouraqui declares that when we read the Psalms we become

'identified with the one...who groans and who suffers, who undergoes the assault of iniquity, and who bleeds and who is put to death, and yet never stops singing the utterly fantastic certitude which inundates him.  The soul is carried away by the incantations of the Hebraic rhythms; and slowly, very slowly, the soul of the psalmist becomes our soul; his combat becomes our combat; his pain our pain; his agony our agony-the agony of all who, throughout age after age, have committed their life to this living flame.  Slowly, very slowly, the soul becomes penetrated by, and nourished by the eternal soul of the sweet singer of Israel.  The burst of light which overwhelms him transpierces us; the light he seeks dazzles us, and transforms our darkness into ineffable joy.'[5]

[1] 'The Christian can learn to pray in the psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talk with God. The number of moods which are expressed here, joy and suffering, hope and care, make it possible for every Christian to find himself in it, and to pray with the psalms.' Luther's Works, ed. Pelikan, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament, 'Preface to the Psalter', p 254
[2] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p 53
[3] Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Psalms pp 113-114
[4] Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Psalms p 11
[5] André Choraqui, 'The Psalms' in Cistercians of Strict Observance, pp 30-31

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