In the second chapter of Life Together (see previous post), Dietrich Bonhoeffer looks at “the day with others”. Most of the chapter is concerned with praying with our fellow Christians: as Bonhoeffer writes, “common life under the Word begins with common worship at the beginning of the day”.
The nature of this common worship will vary depending on the type of fellowship (e.g. families with children, fellowships of ministers), but the basic ingredients should always be the same: “the word of Scripture, the hymns of the Church, and the prayer of fellowship”:
1. Scripture (1): the psalms
Bonhoeffer urges the singing and praying of psalms as part of our life together. In the psalms the church joins its prayers to those of Christ himself, whose prayer the Psalter is. (More of this in my next post.)
2. Scripture (2): reading the Scriptures
Bonhoeffer advises that the reading of Scriptures in the fellowship should consist of extended, consecutive readings rather than isolated texts. It is as a whole that the Scriptures are “God’s revealing Word”:
Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfilment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping, will the full witness of Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived.
Hence Bonhoeffer recommends that a family fellowship “should surely be able to read and listen to a chapter of the Old Testament and at least half a chapter of the New Testament every morning and evening”.
3. Singing the new song
The psalms and the scripture readings should be followed by “the singing together of a hymn, this being the voice of the Church, praising, thanking and praying”. Why do Christians sing together?
The reason is quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for them to speak and pray the same Word at the same time; in other words, because they can unite in the Word.
Music is “completely the servant of the Word”, which leads Bonhoeffer to argue that “the singing of the congregation … is essentially singing in unison”. “Destroyers of unison singing” must be “rigorously eliminated”: whether that’s those calling attention to their musical abilities by improvising harmonies, or those “who because of some mood will not join in the singing and thus disturb the fellowship”.
4. Saying our prayers together
Having “heard God’s Word” and “been permitted to join in the hymn of the Church”, now “we are to pray to God as a fellowship”. This “must really be our word, our prayer for this day, for our work, for our fellowship, for the particular needs and sins that oppress us in common, for the persons who are committed to our care”.
Bonhoeffer’s advice is that this prayer should be “said always by the same person”, but in their own words rather than using set forms:
The use of formal prayers can, under certain circumstances, be a help even for a small family group. But often a ritual becomes only an evasion of real prayer. The wealth of churchly forms and thought may easily lead us away from our own prayer; the prayers then become beautiful and profound, but not genuine.
The “situation in public worship is different from that of daily family worship”; within the family or small community, “the poorest mumbling utterance can be better than the best-formulated prayer.”
I found this chapter challenging. It made me acutely conscious of how weak/non-existent our own collective family devotional life is, and also of how weak my own personal prayers have become. Use of the daily office has been a great help in the first three stages described by Bonhoeffer – praying the psalms, reading the Scriptures, singing the hymn of the church – but has led me to underplay the fourth aspect, that of praying in my own words. Not completely, by any means, but enough for this chapter to make me rethink how I go about my personal prayers.
Similarly, I hope Bonhoeffer’s challenge will also inspire me to new attempts to foster more shared devotional time with E as a couple and with the boys as a family – though my work patterns (among other things) make this difficult to implement to the extent described by Bonhoeffer.