Life Together: The day alone

This is the third in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The day with others, Ministry, Confession & Communion).

After having looked at a day in community, Bonhoeffer turns to the individual and highlights two truths of the Christian faith:

1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community”

2) “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

The first statement recognises that God calls us as individuals, and it us alone who must respond to the call of Jesus and it us alone who will give account to God when we die. So far, so very protestant.

The second statement recognises that while we were called alone, we weren’t called to be alone. We were called into community so that in life, we would not be alone. So a healthy community has people who can be alone and people who can be together.

He then proceeds to extol the virtues of solitude and silence, just as there are times for singing and sharing there are times for thinking and listening.

“The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue. The stillness of the temple is the sign of the holy presence of God in his Word.” (p.59)

Silence, then to Bonhoeffer, is the posture of listening. We’re not speaking because the Word still is, the Word is taking up residence in our hearts and we must listen. It is the discipline of staying longer than may at first be comfortable. In silence are our words sifted, strained and refined.

“But silence before the Word leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time. Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.” (p.60)

Silence and solitude carry their own pitfalls, of course, but it remains true that it is a spiritual discipline to be sought after for three main purposes: Scripture meditation, prayer and intercession.

In common worship, Bonhoeffer advocated the reading of regular sections of Scripture; in personal meditation he counsels deep focus on a short verse or word, to go into ‘the unfathomable depths of a particular sentence and word’ and should be open to coming back to the same word, day after day if need be.

“In our meditation we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life, that it is not only God’s Word for the Church, but also God’s word for us individually. We expose ourselves to the specific word until it addresses us personally.” (p.62)

Bonhoeffer singles out preachers for particular mention aware of the unique pressures they face:

“We do not ask what this text has to say to other people. For the preacher this means that he will not ask how he is going to preach or teach this text, but what it is saying quite directly to him.” (p.62)

We are challenged not to expect ‘fresh revelation’ every time, to be be prepared for  ‘spiritual dryness, apathy and aversion’ but not to be diverted or disappointed. We should not fall into the trap of thinking it is our divine right to have nothing but ‘elevating and fruitful experiences as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite below our dignity.’ Our call is to seek God, not happiness and that God is in the desert as much as He is in the oasis.

From meditation on scripture we move to personal prayer for ‘the clarification of our day, for preservation from sin, for growth in sanctification, for faithfulness and strength in our work’.

The age-old problem of wandering thoughts is calmly dealt with, with the sage advice to simply turn wherever our minds have led us to the next object of prayer and in so doing return again to prayer. Distraction is not something to blindly resist, but in a spiritual judo move, use your enemy’s strength against him.

From personal prayer we move to intercession and here there is one hard-edged diamond after another. Consider the following:

“A Christian fellowship lives & exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” (p.65)

How does this happen?

“Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away and we see him in all his destitution and need.” (p.66)

Bonhoeffer sees the responsibility for intercession on all members of a fellowship but especially on its leaders.

“For the pastor it is an indispensable duty and his whole ministry will depend on it. Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?” (p.66-7)

This balance of aloneness with God and fellowship with others in the presence of God is rooted in the fact that we are a body. You are as much a member of the body of Christ when you are on your own as when you are with others. You do not start being a member when you join a meeting or stop being one when you go home. We are members of the body of Christ. It is who we are all the time. So the whole is strengthened by our time alone, just as the whole is strengthened by time together. A healthy fellowship relies on both.

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