Bonhoeffer and Psalms
**Note: This post is a devotional written for a congregational newsletter. I’m putting it here as a repository. So if this kind of writing isn’t particularly your thing, hang around, I’ll be back as the reprobate soon.
Then my head will be exalted
above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord;
be merciful to me and answer me.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Prayerbook of the Bible
In 1940 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an 84-page meditation on the Psalms called Prayerbook of the Bible, in which he explains the importance of the Psalms for Christian prayer. I can’t think of Psalms now without thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote concerning them, “Along these lines the Holy Scriptures tell us that the first thought and the first word of the day belong to God.” Actually, I’ve revised it a bit and say it as a prayer: “Lord, the first word and the last word of the day belong to You.” Saying this helps me re-focus—sometimes find focus because sometimes, left to my own devices, my thoughts go immediately every day to myself, my life, my plans, my trouble, my happiness. When the first and last thoughts of the day belong to God, my life—my day—is given context and perspective. This little phrase is a comforting guidepost for me. It really should have been all along, but it was not—until I met Bonhoeffer.
Maybe you have heard of him. If not, you can access documentaries and a movie about his life on YouTube or Netflix. Documentary fanatic that I am, I was browsing them in Netflix one Sunday afternoon and came upon one about him by accident. I would like to say that I discovered this fellow through theological study, but no. I had run out of historical documentaries about Nazi Germany to watch. I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer ever since. His life is an example of how an ordinary human is capable of extraordinary acts in the face of oppression. That sounds trite as I write it, like a bumper sticker, so let me give you a brief biographical sketch. His life adds depth to his writing for me, just as his writing gives deeper meaning to his life, and between the two, I realize that we can be called upon at any time and place to do that which is right. I do not know how I would meet that challenge.
If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had lived in any other place and time, he would have still been known as a brilliant theologian. His book Discipleshipexplains who Christians are; Life Together explains how we live. He was born in 1907 to a life of privilege. His father was a professor, and his mother came from an old and respected family. By the time he was 23 years old, he had written TWO dissertations In 1931 at the age of 25 he was a professor at the University of Berlin. Wow. He wanted very badly travel to India and study with Gandhi, but he never did. In 1932 Hitler happened instead. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer had taught and preached and turned a blind eye to the Nazis, he would likely have lived, married, had children, traveled, written great theological works, and died like old professors do. That is not what happened. Instead he took a stand that Christ, not the Fuhrer, was the head of the Church. It was his call of disciplieship.
He came to the U.S. twice. The first time was in 1930 on a teaching fellowship to Union Theological Seminary in NYC, where he first met African American Christians. He began teaching Sunday School at Harlem’s famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, and was moved by the “rapturous passion and vision” of the Black church. It is here that he found connections between religion and social justice and developed a love for Black spirituals—both of which he carried back with him to Germany. He shared both with the young seminarians he taught from 1935-1937. I am glad Bonhoeffer has a U.S. connection.
He returned here in June 1939 again at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary, as Hitler began invading Europe. But he soon regretted his decision, as he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.
From 1940 to 1943 he worked as part of the German resistance, helping Jewish people obtain papers to escape. He even knew about the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler (My quaker friends cringe a little at this part). He was arrested in 1943 because of conflict between the SS and the Military Intelligence organization for which he worked. When the Nazis discovered his connections with the assassination conspirators—who had also worked where Bonhoeffer worked—he was hanged on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American troops liberated the camp where he was imprisoned.
Bonhoeffer continued his writing—and his ministry—from prison, living and talking Christ to prison guards. His friend, student, and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, recounted the words of the prison doctor who attended his execution, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Where did he get this strength? Bonhoeffer knew that God heard his prayers because he prayed the Psalms regularly.
From prison he had written his parents, “Before I go to sleep I repeat to myself the verses that I have learned during the day, and at 6 a.m. I like to read psalms and hymns, think of you all, and know that you are thinking of me.” The Psalms were central to his theology—and to his daily life. He began Prayerbook of the Bible with the disciples asking Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Then he goes on, “At the request of the disciples, Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer… It is a great grace that God tells us how we can pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” He sums up a very important point about the Psalms: Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips (Ps 22:2, Ps 31:6). Bonhoeffer considered Psalms significant because in them we have an example of how God wishes us to approach God in prayer, praise, and professions of faith and trust. This significance is confirmed by Jesus—as His model to the disciples and in his final words on the Cross. I can’t help thinking they were among Bonhoeffer’s final words too.
Try this: read our verses above while thinking about the young preacher’s life, and his death, and his utter conviction that the Psalms are God’s words and when we pray them, we pray them with Jesus.