For almost five years now, I have worked under the direction of Rev. Dr. Bryan Burton. He introduced me to the rich theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and this is where the Prayerbook Project began for me. I asked Bryan to write a post for this blog on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Psalms and am happy to include it here.
“For years I’ve read the Psalter daily; there is no other book I know and love so well as this one. I can no longer read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the music of Heinrich Schutz. Knowing them in this way belongs to the greatest enrichments of my life.”
So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer [DB] to his parents from his Nazi prison cell at Tegel on May 15, 1943. Throughout his life DB not only read the Psalms, but was spiritually formed by them as he became one of the greatest witnesses and martyrs for Jesus Christ the church has ever known. I have come to firmly believe that it was this simple yet rigorous discipline of daily reading the Psalms was monumental in DB’s spiritual formation and the development of his courageous spirit. The fact that he wrote a short yet profound book entitled The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible during the same period of time as Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship gives even greater credence to such a view…the late 1930’s; the height of Nazism and Adolf Hitler; the rise of an idolatrous German church wedded to the Nazi politic…as DB led the renegade seminary for the Confessing Church which provided an alternative and prophetic voice within Germany. Think about it…a Christian community that shared its whole life together, that was fully committed to radical Christian discipleship based upon The Sermon on the Mount and that was daily shaped and formed by the reading and singing of the Psalms.
“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”
So wrote DB in The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible. What DB found so amazing was that in the Psalms we have both the Word of God and the prayers and songs of human beings. Later he writes that “the Psalter is the prayer of Christ for his church in which he stands in for us and prays in our behalf…In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s own prayer [and] as such is the great school of prayer.” DB continues by explaining it this way… “In the first place, we learn here what it means to pray on the basis of the word of God, to pray on the basis of promises…In the second place, we learn by praying the Psalter what we should pray for just as surely as the range of the prayers of the Psalms goes far beyond the experience of any individual, we still pray the whole prayer of Christ in faith, the prayer of the one who was the truly human being and who alone has taken into his life the full range of the experiences of this prayer…In the third place, praying the psalms teaches us to pray as a community…the deeper we penetrate into the Psalms and the more often we ourselves have prayed them, the simpler and richer our own prayer will become.”
As the 100th Anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birth approaches, I implore the Christian Church and every Christian, of every creed and denomination, to recover the reading and singing of the Psalms for our day. We need to be and become a people who are formed by the Psalms to be courageous in our witness to Jesus Christ in our own day. We need to be and become a Christian community that lives all of life together, committed to a radical life of Christian discipleship, formed by the deep and turbulent waters of the Psalms. With Bonhoeffer, I believe with their recovery will come unsuspected power to every Christian and to the Church. I cry with the Psalmist “How long O Lord, How long?” (Psalm 6)
Bryan Burton is the Senior Pastor at John Knox Presbyterian Church and Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, WA.