Lent and the Psalms

In many churches psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, according to a regular pattern. These churches have preserved for themselves a priceless treasure, for only with daily use does one become immersed in that divine prayerbook. With only occasional reading these prayers are too overwhelming for us in thought and power, so that we again and again turn to lighter fare. […] Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Prayerbook of the Bible

This year for Lent I'm spending some focused time in the book of Psalms. This collection of poetic, prayerful hymns has been central to Jewish and Christian spiritual devotion for thousands of years. They inform modern praise songs and ancient hymns, and the language we use when we pray to God and when we theologize about God. Both the New Testament in general and Jesus in particular quote the psalms more than any other book. Written centuries before Jesus wandered the dusty paths of Palestine, it is impossible to imagine what Christianity would be like without these 150 Hebrew poems and the depth of reflection, and the wisdom and the spiritual and human and divine insight that they contain. 

But in many of our churches they are underused and under appreciated, misunderstood and neglected. Which leads me to wonder: what are we missing? I want to encourage you to join me in reading a psalm a day for the remainder of Lent this year. I'll post the whole reading plan here in a printable format; you can find the readings for just the remainder of the season below. I should have shared this much earlier, but it is never too late to jump in. Imagine the depth and power you might experience if you just prayerfully read one psalm a day between now and Easter!

Lent Devotionals 2018 Psalms.jpeg

In spite of it all, Christmas comes anyways

On the Sunday before Christmas in 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at a German church in Cuba while on holiday there. Here's an excerpt from his sermon, as quoted in the biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen:

It is probably correct to say that each of us who has looked around a bit in the world perhaps finds it particularly strange to be celebrating Christmas this year. Before our eyes stand hordes of unemployed persons, millions of children throughout the world who are hungry and miserable, people starving in China, the oppressed in India and other unfortunate countries, and in everyone’s eyes we see despair and perplexity. And despite all this, Christmas is coming. Whether we want to or not, whether we are in the mood for it or not, we must hear once again: Christ, the Saviour, is born … (DBWE 10, 589)

Take away China; insert North Korea or any number of other places. Take away India; insert Syria, Mali, or any number of other places. Or maybe even just set aside starvation and oppression and look at the overwhelming violence in our world. The violence of unmanned American drones, the violence of Israelis and Palestinians, the violence of the pursuit of nuclear weapons by those who don't have them, the violence of flexing those nuclear arms by those who already do have them, or the violence of a young man with a gun against a handful of adults and twenty bright-eyed elementary school students. Just as easily as Brother Dietrich did in 1930, we can claim that it is awfully strange to be celebrating Christmas this year.

In the presence of so much hunger and pain, fear and isolation, resentment and revenge, there is plenty of cause for cognitive dissonance this season. And yet here is Christmas nonetheless: a light, a stable, a baby. Joy. Peace. Hope. Love. God coming to earth in all the power and glory of helplessness and poverty. Here it is, ready or not. So no matter what you do or how you feel, allow yourself to be confronted today and this whole season with the material fact of Christmas, the fact that unto us is born this day a Savior who will be for all people.

So for all the broken and weary, all the hungry and afraid, all the angry and hurting, and especially all the people who are under the impression they aren't invited: may we all come and seek his peace against our world's turmoil. Amen.

Suffering is overcome by suffering

Bonhoeffer on Matt 26:39ff:

Jesus prays to the Father that the cup pass from him, and the Father hears the son's prayer. The cup of suffering will pass from Jesus, but only by his drinking it. When Jesus kneels in Gethsemane the second time, he knows that the cup will pass by his accepting the suffering. Only by bearing the suffering will he overcome and conquer it. His cross is the triumph over suffering.

Suffering is distance from God. That is why someone who is in communion with God cannot suffer. Jesus affirmed this Old Testament testimony. That is why he takes the suffering of the whole world onto himself and overcomes it. He bears the whole distance from God. Drinking the cup is what makes it pass from him. In order to overcome the suffering of the world Jesus must drink it to the dregs. Indeed, suffering remains distance from God, but in community with the suffering of Jesus Christ, suffering is overcome by suffering. Communion with God is granted precisely in suffering.

Suffering must be borne in order for it to pass. Either the world must bear it and be crused by it, or it falls on Christ and is overcome in him. That is how Christ suffers as vicarious representative for the world. Only his suffering brings salvation. But the church-community itself knows now that the world's suffering seeks a bearer. So in following Christ, this suffering falls upon it, and it bears the suffering while being borne by Christ. The community of Jesus Christ vicariously represents the world before God by following Christ under the cross.

[...] Bearing constitutes being a Christian. Just as Christ maintains his communion with the Father by bearing according to the Father's will, so the disciples' bearing constitutes their community with Christ [...] Jesus called all who are laden with various sufferings and burdens to throw off their yokes and to take his yoke upon themselves. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light. His yoke and his burden is the cross. Bearing the cross does not bring misery and despair. Rather, it provides refreshment and peace for our souls; it is our greatest joy.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 83-84)

Theology means struggle.

“Theology means struggle. It may begin as Bonhoeffer said in silence, but when the silence is broken, a battle begins. This seems regrettable; in matters of great moment, the human heart yearns ceaselessly for secure truth, and it is easy for us to believe that unchallenged beliefs are self-evident truths. A little reflection, however, will show that this is not so; in fact we very often have believed without doubt or contradiction what turn out to be mere falsehoods. (It is small enough comfort to know that other people do the same.) Thus when we set out upon Christian theology or ethics we must be reconciled to the fact that here as elsewhere hard truth is not available without hard struggles.” -James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (2nd ed.), 17.