Thursday, August 13, 2015

Survivor's Guide to Seminary: Post #22 (Thoughts on Life Together: Your Seminary Cohort as Community - Part 2)

Your seminary cohort is comprised of those folks who join and begin their training at the same time you do, those who will potentially becomes some of your closest friends during your time in seminary and perhaps even beyond your seminary years. We're continuing our meditation of life together with them...

Reflection 2: Community

"At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it." (p. 48)

In chapter two of Life Together, Bonhoeffer reflects on the day spent with others in community. Though I want to be careful here not to substitute your seminary community for the Church (though your seminary community must at least compose a part of the Church), I think Bonhoeffer’s reflections about the ways in which prayer and worship shape the rhythm of the “family fellowship” is instructive for you. In fact, Bonhoeffer understood this as well. He clearly recognized the difference between the life of the congregation and the life of the seminary; nonetheless, there is a significant overlap between these two spheres, particularly in terms of worship and prayer.

Meaning, you and your cohort share something deeper than just the intellectual pursuit of the seminary classroom, you are (or can be) a worshiping community. The question is – will you participate in the life of your cohort in this way or neglect it? Perhaps Bonhoeffer can be an inspiration for you to dig deeper and think of your seminary colleagues as a worshiping community. Chapter two walks through the Christian’s day and offers insight into how life in light of the resurrection might look. The beginning of the day “does not belong to the individual, it belongs to the Church of the triune God, to the Christian family, to the brotherhood.” The following is a running reflection on the contents of “Chapter Two: The Day With Others” (Bonhoeffer’s words are in italics).

"What do we today, who no longer have any fear or awe of night, know of the great joy that our forefathers and the early Christians felt at the return of the light?" (p. 41)

"Common life under the Word begins with common worship at the beginning of the day. The family community gathers for praise and thanks, reading of the Scriptures, and prayer." (p. 42)

The beginning of your day belongs to the Triune God. It belongs to the Church. It belongs to the Christian family. Morning is a time for worship, whether together with your colleagues or own your own. Why? Because it is the time for worship and thanksgiving to the God Who has overcome evil and has redeemed you. Thus, as Bonhoeffer notes, you should not begin your day with mind set upon the burdens ahead. That might come in the gathering morning, but it is not a time for that now. It is a time for praise. “Common devotions” in the morning (and even if pursued individually) include readings in scripture, hymns of the church, and prayer.

Reading the Psalms:

Bonhoeffer has a special word about use of the Psalter in devotions. What might it look like if you started a psalm reading devotional group with your seminary mates? How cool would that be?

Bonhoeffer says the psalter is the great school of prayer. In it we learn what prayer means and what we should be praying. Will you have a class on how to pray in seminary? Likely not, but you could have one through the effort of gathering a group for praying through the psalter. Through the imprecatory psalms, we learn how to handle the prayer of suffering and passion. And the psalms teach us to pray as a fellowship.

"Holy Scripture does not consist of individual passages; it is a unit and is intended to be used as such." (p. 51)

Reading the Scriptures:

Bonhoeffer reiterates what Paul commands, “Give attendance to reading” (1 Tim. 4:13). Rather than a brief reflection on a verse, perhaps ripped out of context, devote yourself to longer readings of the text. In terms of longer reading, he notes that a Christian fellowship should be able to at least read and listen to one chapter of the Old Testament and half a chapter of the New Testament every morning.

"Consecutive reading of Biblical books forces everyone who wants to hear put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men" (p. 53).

A community devotional group should consider the reading process called lectio continua, the consecutive reading through of scripture (Genesis through Revelation). The continual dive into the world of scripture brings us out of our own smaller reality into the much grander and epic reality of God’s revelation to the world. Don’t underestimate how helpful this might be for you as you battle through your degree. The stresses of seminary might seem overwhelming, unless you reprogram yourself daily with the truth of scripture.

If you do happen to have a psalter reading group or a common devotional group reading through scripture together, Bonhoeffer says it is best to have various members undertake the consecutive readings in turn.

"The prayers of the psalms and the reading of Scriptures should be followed by the singing together of a hymn, this being the voice of the Church, praising, thanking, and praying. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalter enjoins us again and again. It is the Christ-hymn, new every morning, that the family fellowship strikes up at the beginning of the day…” (p. 57)

The Church was born in song. Evidence for this assertion is mustered from the earliest liturgical tradition of the Church; from her Scripture; as well as the Christian worship tradition’s birth within the culture of Second Temple Judaism—and the consequent use of the Psalter hymnody for times of public and private devotion.

Thus, Bonhoeffer asserts, song is to be a part of Christian fellowship. From the very beginning, music meant to help awaken meaning and induce an attitude for the Christian community was used in worship and times of personal adoration to honor God. Though no musical form can fully capture the essence of who God is, the Church’s commentators—from the Apostolic Fathers to modern liturgists—have bequeathed the understanding of a general musical gestalt that seems to best capture those elements comprising the Church’s “new song.”

In the most obvious element, the musical form should be directed at God, because he is the primary audience (Is. 43:7). This is true of both public and private worship (Mt. 26:30, 1 Cor. 14:15, 26; Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Befitting this element, there are two primary themes expressed in Christian song: the dependency and need for God and the exultation in God’s greatness and his marvelous deeds.

These primary themes (‘sorrow and joy’) exist in harmony, and help to balance one another—preventing a facile quality in Christian worship. Connected to this reflection upon God’s mighty works, the next element of the Church’s “new song” is a focus upon Christ as the great salvific foundation of Christian redemption. Christ is both the ground and the content of the Christian song. Song is a way of preaching Christ.

“New song” referred variously to the Christian life, but especially to Christ as the Word of God. Christian song is meant to keep the mind of the worshipper directed outwards, upon Christ and upon the concrete acts and deeds of God. It is in this spirit that the early church likely chose Paul’s Philippian prose (2:5-11) as an early Christological hymn. Because God has rescued his people, the church rejoices in song (e.g. Ex. 15:1-2; Lk. 1:68-75). Song is an expression of eucharistía—the Church’s thanksgiving. This thanksgiving should be offered in the context of self-sacrifice and the worship of the ‘whole’ person’ (1 Cor. 14:15; Heb. 13:15).

Worship as a ‘full-body’ experience is in danger of extinction. The two most tangible expressions of physicality in the Christian life—fasting and pilgrimage—are nearly absent in the modern church.

Song gives the church a way to recapture what has been lost in these other ‘whole-body’ expressions of worship, because for nearly every Christian tradition, singing is an integral mainstay of the liturgy.

This is why the songs of the church should contain elements that allow her to express both joy and sorrow in song. Consider two portions of the same psalm, particularly the spiritual juxtaposition of ‘rejoicing’ and ‘lamentation,’ and why one without the other would leave the spiritual sacrifice the psalmist offers seemingly incomplete:

Christian songs should be inspired by the ‘whole-body’ content of the Psalter and replicate this effect as much as possible in our modern hymnody. Christian hymns should inspire unity in the church and reinforce the communal dimension of the people (Rom. 15:6). In particular, unity should be inspired by particular elements or content within the songs themselves.

For example, the confessional elements of the song can serve as a liturgical rallying point for expressing what a Christian community believes or it may provide a way to express the countercultural distinctiveness of the community within wider pagan or secular culture.

Particular radical distinctiveness may be expressed when the Christian hymns or psalms are used as a form of nonviolent resistance. The content is the most important element of the song—delight in eloquence and music should never be an end in itself. In other words, my lack of comment upon musical form in this essay is itself an expression of the idea that what is being expressed rhetorically towards God is more important than whether the words are accompanied in a particular instrumental fashion or vocalized a cappella. When the song is marked by a joyful response to the works of God, stimulated by the Word and the Spirit; it is sung to God and to each other, with the saints and the angels and all creation.

Are you feeling inspired yet to begin your day with song? How about if you had a devotional group at seminary that sang together the “new song” as Bonhoeffer mentions? Don’t you want to worship now in song?

"God’s Word, the voice of the Church, and our prayers belong together. So we must now speak of common prayer" (p. 61).


Bonhoeffer now turns his attention to prayer. Those reading this section in American churches might be struck by what seems to be Bonhoeffer’s rather monastic reflection on the rhythms of prayer. If you are uncomfortable in this, please don’t be. Consider this an important reflection on how one might follow the apostolic teaching to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

The important reminders in this section are this: remember that you pray as an individual among your brothers and sister and prayer is very appropriately shared in community. If you choose to meet with a prayer group while at school (perhaps during your lunch hour or after chapel), let it be because there is a common desire among you to have such a group, ensuring that there will be common participation. And, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, “let nothing be done by force; let everything be done in freedom and in love” (66).

The Fellowship of the Table:

Bonhoeffer turns next to the communion service and our fellowship with our cohort at table.

Not until the fellowship has been nourished and strengthened with the bread of eternal life does it come together to receive from God earthly bread for this temporal life” (66).

Though you might not follow this practice in your context (daily communion), Bonhoeffer’s reminders in this section are very helpful. One important reminder is that any table fellowship that you have with your cohort in seminary will be blessed by the presence of Jesus Christ. And by “table fellowship” Bonhoeffer one of three things: daily fellowship at table, the table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and the final table fellowship promised in the Kingdom of God.

So what does Bonhoeffer mean when he speaks of the presence of Christ in these meals? First, he means that because Christ’s presence is in some way present in our table fellowship, that we need to acknowledge Him as the giver of all gifts, the Lord and Creator of our world. Also, it means that our fellowship, your cohort, etc. must acknowledge that all earthly gifts are given to us only for Christ’s sake, because He is the true bread of life. Finally, it means that when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,” that He really will and He is present to us. It is in that way, whether your daily table fellowship is a meal shared with family at home or with your cohort in the lunch room at seminary, that Christians are bound to our Lord at table in fellowship with Him and one another.

Not only that, but our table fellowship is a regular reminder of sabbath, that our work and toil can be conscionably interrupted and we can rest as we fellowship at table. God Himself modeled this for us in the Sabbath. The fellowship of the table should have a festive quality.

The table fellowship also implies obligation. We share our bread and in that way are recommended of Sabbath economics – that we pray for our daily bread, not our own. This table fellowship reminds us that we are pilgrims. We still pray for our earthly bread. But when we share this bread with one another, we should remind ourselves that we will one day eat the imperishable bread (Luke 14:15).

The Day’s Work:

After the first morning hour the Christian’s day until evening belongs to work…” (69).

Bonhoeffer’s reflections upon the work day are helpful for the seminary student. It is helpful to remember that once the morning’s devotions are done, it is time for the work. There will be plenty for you during your days in seminary. Bonhoeffer’s larger point in this little section is that you should get used to dividing your days between devotions (“prayer”) and work. They are both entitled to their time.

Helpfully, our work can be considered something a bit holy – a kind of vocation where we are called out of ourselves into something that we give the world. In this way, our work (assuming it is not driving vain ambitions, etc.) is a means of being liberated from just ourselves. Our work, like prayer, also orders our day. Our days acquire an order and a discipline because we devote ourselves to our work.

In the middle of our days, we should turn from our work and gather in fellowship at table as we accept God’s invitation to come and eat. This table fellowship is a brief respite from our work. Once it is finishing we rejoin our efforts towards work and we labor until our day comes to an end.

At the end of the day, the fellowship (cohort, your family, your friends) gather again at the evening table for the last devotion. As Bonhoeffer notes, “it is an excellent thing if the evening devotion can be held at the actual end of the day…” (73). Why? “When night falls, the true light of God’s Word shines brighter for the Church” (73).