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By Matthew D. Hamilton

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spiritual disciplines

Dietrich Bonhoeffer largely derives his fame from his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi regime. Under immense stress, Bonhoeffer’s religious convictions prompted him to fight for the true good of the German people against genocidal tyranny. Understandably so, less attention has been paid to his theology and his understanding of private Christian faith. However, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrate a vital nuance to personal, spiritual practices that ought to inform our private faith today.

Before his involvement in the assassination plot, Dietrich Bonhoeffer retreated to relative obscurity and operated an underground seminary in the German town of Finkenwalde. Here, removed from the political activities of his day, Bonhoeffer gives us the best glimpse of his expectations for personal spirituality.

Practicing spiritual disciplines

To prepare his seminarians for ministry, Bonhoeffer mandated disciplines very familiar to us.

Bonhoeffer required his students to read Scripture privately, writing, “We are not permitted to neglect this daily encounter with Scripture.” Bonhoeffer intentionally uses the word “encounter” here as he disallowed that this time would be an academic or pastoral pursuit: The ministers-to-be were not allowed to search for sermon material or use a Greek New Testament; rather, Scripture study was meditative, or prayerful, and enabled the Finkenwalde seminarians “to encounter Christ in his own word.” Thus, the “goal [of Scriptural meditation] is Christ’s community, Christ’s help and Christ’s guidance.”

Bonhoeffer also insisted that his seminarians fasted. Arguing that it reminded them of their “estrangement” from the world, he regarded this practice as nonnegotiable. Just as prayerful Scripture reading ultimately looks to encounter God, Bonhoeffer does not see fasting as an end in itself but rather a response to faith in Christ, a means of orienting one’s life to God.

However, Bonhoeffer appears to speak out of both sides of his mouth, paradoxically railing against retreat from the world. In Ethics, he writes firmly, “For the Christian there is nowhere to retreat from the world, neither externally nor into the inner life.” In After Ten Years, he develops this criticism a little further:

In flight from public discussion and examination, this or that person may well attain the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But he must close his eyes and mouth to the injustice around him. He can remain undefiled by the consequences of responsible action only by deceiving himself… He will either perish from that restlessness or turn into a hypocritical, self-righteous, small-minded human being.

Developing a moral backbone

How then are we to make sense of Bonhoeffer’s actions and commands?

While condemning withdrawal from the world, Bonhoeffer appears to do the very thing he hates, retreating to Finkenwalde and exhorting his students toward inward-focused, privatistic practices

In her essay “Bonhoeffer’s Understanding of Church, State and Civil Society,” Victoria J. Barnett, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust, notes Bonhoeffer’s awareness of this exact contradiction: “The Finkenwalde experiment opened up the risk inherent in any kind of internal exile, which is that it becomes a flight into a privatized kind of discipleship.” Barnett thus indicates that while the Finkenwalde period may appear apolitical, Bonhoeffer understood this apparent contradiction.

However, his other writings—as well as more insight from Barnett—provide a fascinating dimension to Bonhoeffer’s personal spirituality which resolves this tension. Rather than seeing spiritual disciplines as a retreat from the world, Bonhoeffer understands spirituality as the necessary foundation for Christian political action.

Retreating to Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer was not neglecting or refusing the world. Rather, Barnett’s essay highlights how he here sought “the creation of moral backbone and the establishment of the discipline his students would need if they were to stay on the right path” under the attractive Nazi regime.

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“The Psalter is the great school of prayer.”

Image result for the psalter bonhoeffer

“Furthermore, [the unchristian environment] is the place where we find out whether the Christian’s meditation has led him into the unreal, from which he awakens in terror when he returns to the workaday world, or whether it has led him into a real contact with God, from which he emerges strengthened and purified. Has it transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Life Together 

Image result for Life Together 1954

First Thoughts: Biblical meditation (part 1)

By Adam Bradley

As I continue to share with you some of the things God spoke to me about whilst on sabbatical, I want to focus this week on the important but often neglected tool (or, in old money, discipline) that is meditation.

It’s amazing how, as I write the word meditation, my mind drifts swiftly to images of people with crossed legs, chanting some repetitive religious mantra. Why is it that, as Christians, we so quickly lose sight of the central place that biblical mediation has played in the lives of our forefathers (and mothers) for the last two thousand years? Take for example Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was executed by the Nazis. When asked why he meditated he replied, ‘Because I am a Christian’. In addition to the witness of so many in the church over the last 2,000 years, we find the practice of mediation used by those faithfully following the Lord again and again in scripture – at least 55 times in the Old Testament alone! Find examples in Genesis 24:63, Psalm 63:6 and Psalm 119:148.

So what is biblical mediation?

Richard Foster describes biblical meditation as ‘very simply, … the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word‘. How does it differ from just reading the Bible?

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I am praying and writing in my journal and meditating on Hebrews 3:13…

“But exhort one one another every day, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

 Oh yeah, in the background on TV is the World Series! My team, the Red Sox are playing the Cardinals.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer stressed the value of meditating on God’s Word when he was the Director of the underground seminary at Finkenwalde. Students were required to meditate 30 minutes per day on a passage selected by Bonhoeffer.

Today, I have focused on Lamentations 3:26…

“It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (ESV).

With the pressures of ministry, I found peace when I waited quietly (No phone, no Facebook, no TV, etc.) on the Lord through prayer and meditation.

How is your meditation coming? I still have a long ways to go!


Leap-of-Faith-Face-FearA Soul Shepherding Devotional
“Inviting God’s touch in your soul”
By Bill Gaultiere © 2013

What do you do when you’re afraid? What helps you to face your fears and endure pain? Recently I faced fear and pain when I went through a colonoscopy without sedation or anesthesia.

The nurses kept trying to talk me into letting them give me medicine. The doctor said the pain level would be close to the pain of labor in child birth and that only one person in five hundred goes without medication. I persisted with my request and finally they said I could do it “natural” if I signed a waiver.

Why would I do this? Why willingly suffer pain and fear when you don’t have to? Avoiding the sedation and anesthesia side effects of feeling lousy and loopy for hours afterward wasn’t my motivation. Neither was it about staying awake and alert during the procedure. For me it was a spiritual exercise.

A Leap of Faith?

“We live by faith, not by sight,” the Bible says (2 Corinthians 5:7, NIV). It’s easy to say this, but do we actually do it? Do we venture out into the unknown that scares us with confidence that God will actually be with us to sustain us? Here was an opportunity for me to trust that the risen Christ truly was with me in Spirit to comfort me and give me strength.

This was not a “leap of faith.” Many think it’s a virtue to leap blindly, even impulsively, into the dark, expecting God to catch us before we fall. That’s a romantic notion, but it leads to lots of bruises! Or to playing things safe because you don’t have any real faith to leap with.

True faith is confidence in God which is based on knowledge of God and his loving care. it’s our knowledge of spiritual reality that enables us to extend beyond that knowledge into the unknown. That’s why the writer to Hebrews says, “Now faith is the substance of what we hope for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Substance. Evidence. Faith is tied toknowledge of spiritual reality. (See our Bible Study on “Knowing Christ Today.”)

The Power of Scripture Meditation

It wouldn’t be wise for me or anyone to endure a colonoscopy “natural” without having come to know another resource to count on in times of distress. I knew I didn’t need drugs but could be transported to an alternate reality through Scripture Meditation. I was not seeking an empty Nirvanah, but the unseen spiritual reality of God’s Kingdom. I was not detaching into nothingness, but into a personal connection with Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

It’s important to understand that to attach to the Lord we need to detach from controlling things. And there’s a lot I wanted to control about the colonoscopy! I didn’t want to experience pain for thirty minutes. I didn’t want to face feelings of fear. I didn’t want to submit to such an embarrassing, intrusive procedure. I let go of all that to trust the Word of God.

I used a “Watch and Pray” (Matthew 26:41) discipline of imagining myself undergoing the trial of the colonoscopy and as I anticipated this I drew nourishment from Psalm 91, which I had memorized years ago. I was at peace. I carried this right into my colonoscopy, sometimes breathing the words in and out, and I found that I was indeed transported beyond the medical clinic and into the heavenly realms.

As I laid on my side in my hospital bed I became like a little chick, cuddling in the soft feathers of El Shaddai, hiding under his wing. “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1, NIV). I was at rest. So much so that by God’s grace I didn’t just “grin and bear it” to get through the pain, which was considerable at times, but I remained peaceful. God even helped me to be cheerful and to offer words of appreciation to the doctor and nurses during the colonoscopy!

For the rest of the post…

To be silent does not mean to be inactive; rather it means to breathe in the will of God, to listen attentively and be ready to obey.

~Dietrich BonhoefferMeditating on the Word

Jon Walker in his book, In Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work:  Life Together, quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the danger of spending many hours in with non-believers…

Every day brings to the Christian many hours in which he will be alone in an unchristian environment. These are times of testing. These are the times of testing. This is the test of true meditation and true Christian community. 

Walker writes that The Big Idea is…

After meditating before God in the morning, we will be tested throughout the day. Bonhoeffer says this will reveal whether or not our time with God “lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in our heart that it holds and fortifies us, moving us “to active love, to obedience, to good works.”

Walker added…

When we head into the day, we quickly see if our time spent with God in the morning or slips away. Are we walking in the reality of God’s grace or are we living in in a fantasy where we live as if we are independent from God? 

…Jesus is…Jesus consistently spent time with God in the morning and it strengthened him when he faced temptation.

…To be like Jesus…By faithfully meeting God each morning, we can enter the day confident that God is at work in and around us!

(Jon WalkerIn Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work: Life Together, Chapter 20)

Let us take the time each day to meditate on God’s Holy Word!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed in the power of piritual discipline of scripture meditation. Jon Walker writes…

Bonhoeffer says we need to set aside every morning for Scripture meditation, prayer, and intercession. In private meditation, Bonhoeffer says we read God’s Word as God’s Word for us, not asking what the text has to say to other people, but waiting for God’s Word to us.

Meditation is not some mystical experience that we should fear; rather, it is simply thinking seriously about God’s Word.

…When we meditate, we’re not just idly waiting; we’re waiting in faith, knowing God will keep his promise to speak to us through the Word. Bonhoeffer says this is the why we should begin our meditation by asking God to reveal his Word to us..

God may direct us to meditate on one sentence or one word.

…To be like Jesus…We meditate so that Jesus, from his glorious, unlimited resources will empower us with inner strength through his Spirit. And so our roots grow down into God’s love, keeping us strong. And so we have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high and how deep his love is. 

(Quoted in Jon WalkerIn Visible Fellowship: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer’s Classic Work: Life Together, Chapter 17)

August 2019
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