The Day Together
Greenville College Chapel Address
Brian T. Hartley
September 28, 2009
This morning, change is all around us. Yesterday, for instance, felt like summer, but when we got up this morning we were reminded that it was really fall. I’ve just returned from a conference in Indianapolis where the entrance to and exit from the airport has been completely rerouted. Just last year, business around the hotel where we met was humming along. But within just a year’s time, things have significantly slowed and we all noticed many of the businesses along High School Road have shut down or boarded up. In the short period of one year, the world economy has significantly shifted.
In such times, our tendency is to look around for some way of getting our bearings—of reaffirming our essential identity. Such was also the case for Jesus’ disciples in the wake of his death, resurrection, and ascension. They suddenly found themselves facing a very different world and without the guidance of the one they had called, “Master.” It was in such a maelstrom that the early church was born, a church in which, according to the book of the Acts of the Apostles, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (2:42). This morning we want to briefly explore one aspect of what this vision of the church has to teach us about our “life together” (Bonhoeffer’s title).
Several years ago, thanks to the granting of a sabbatical by my colleagues and the administration, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester as a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota, associated with St. John’s University and Abbey, a Benedictine community attached to the Liturgical Press and something of a think-tank for Christian theologians looking to build bridges through the practice of common liturgical traditions. Praying with the monks there, while spending afternoons hiking in the woods on their thousand-plus acre nature preserve, proved to be a powerful stimulus to my own thinking, writing, and understanding. Finding a rhythm to my prayer life and making a vow to pray with and for the church and the world has since become an important part of my own spiritual development. Front and center to that growth has been learning from others, both now and in the past, who have emphasized the importance of starting the day with communal liturgically-based prayer.
In his little volume, The Rhythm of God's Grace, Anabaptist theologian, Arthur Paul Boers, points out the problems of a form of prayer that is always ad hoc, self-directed, disconnected, and subjective. I know that I need the discipline that comes from praying daily in a fixed fashion which provides spaces for me to hear and be engaged by the larger community. I find more freedom in framing my own prayers when I am guided by the words of the saints, hammered out over time. Boers concludes: "Such fixed-hour prayer helps us pay attention to God and God's realities, 'the deepest thing we know.'" It embraces the whole of one's life. It offers consistent disciplines on a daily basis," (5).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his second chapter of Life Together, entitled, “The Day with Others,” speaks of the value of these elements of common devotion and of the necessity of beginning and ending the day in such a way. “Morning does not belong to the individual,” he proclaims, “it belongs to the Church of the triune God. . . the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work. . . . Therefore, at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs,” (41, 43). The pattern for this, of course, is found in the Scriptures themselves where those who sought most closely after God are always to be found rising early to commune with the Lord. And, according to the gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus himself became the primary paradigm for such activity. Paul Bradshaw points out that this Jewish practice had clearly established itself in the pattern of morning and evening prayer which emerged in the fourth century. As the church came together first thing in the morning, intercession on behalf of both the church and the world was the central orientation (Daily Prayer in the Early Church, 150-154).
That life of prayer for the church has always included learning to pay attention to the Psalter—the community of faith’s first great hymn book. As Bonhoeffer says, “From ancient times in the Church a special significance has been attached to the common use of psalms. In many churches to this day the Psalter constitutes the beginning of every service of common worship,” (44). Why is this? It is because the psalms occupy that liminal space between God’s Word and the prayer of men and women; praying them helps to guide us in the great school of prayer. They do this both by giving us the appropriate content for prayer, as well as the classical patterns for praying. They give us permission to be fully human before God—something we recognize in Jesus, himself, who cries out from the cross the words of the 22nd psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Typically, after the prayer of the psalms, there follows a hymn and we move directly into the reading of Scripture. Early on, the church sought to bring together both Old and New Testaments as a means of reflection and teaching. Responding to the challenge of Marcion and other early Christian heretics, the church adopted the tradition of the synagogue where both Torah and Haftorah readings were meant to fit together and mutually illuminate one another. By setting the New Testament alongside the Old, by juxtaposing them, our fathers and mothers in the faith were saying something about how they viewed these texts as being mutually dependent on one another.
Sometimes, though, Bonhoeffer maintains, we may complain that these readings are too long or that we cannot understand them. To this, he suggests that we remember that the Bible is always bigger than we are, that it will always challenge us to rise up to it, rather than our maintaining that we cut it up into bite-size pieces. The Scriptures, Bonhoeffer reminds us, are a corpus—a living body—so that by reading them through using the lectio continua, or consecutive reading method, or by following the lectionary, we are being woven into the larger narrative of the people of God. “Consecutive reading of Biblical books,” he says, “forces everyone who wants to hear to put himself, or to allow himself to be found, where God has acted once and for all for the salvation of men,” (53).
Learning the Scriptures simply takes time and effort. I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of the Hebrew word at this point, where he speaks of the necessity of “masticating,” of chewing over, the words before us. One who refuses to do so, he claims, can make no claim to the title of “evangelical Christian,” (55). The truth is that, when all other words fail, the Scriptures remain are one true resource. When I teach my course on worship, I always remind students of the power of God’s word in the funeral liturgy. When we are wounded and vulnerable because of the death of a loved one, we long for the tried and true—the comfort food of the Body of Christ. We turn, naturally, to such passages as Psalm 23 or John 14, because we know that therein lies a common voice, a perpetual question.
The prayers of the Psalter and the reading of the Scriptures are normally followed by the singing together of a hymn, something Bonhoeffer calls, “the voice of the Church, praising, thanking, and praying.” All of our singing is done together as wayfarers, people who are on a journey. In response to the question of why Christians sing when they are together, Bonhoeffer responds: “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 here they can unite in the Word. . . The fact that we do not speak it but sing it only expresses the fact that our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, that the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words,” (59).
Congregational singing, though, is not the same thing as musical performance. Bonhoeffer is quick to call for rigorous elimination of vanity and bad taste, especially castigating “the bass or the alto who must call everybody’s attention to his astonishing range,” or the solo voice “that goes swaggering, swelling, blaring, and tremulant,” (60). Congregational music is meant to supplement, not dominate, the worship setting. The seminary chapel where I take my students on retreat demonstrates this not only theoretically, but architecturally, as well. The musicians who accompany in worship have their places off to the side—not center stage. Or, as in many Jewish synagogues, the music leadership comes from behind the congregation. These are all clear ways of demonstrating that singing is meant to widen our spiritual horizon, not focus it on a few performers who are front-and-center.
All of these elements—being guided by the prayers of the church, reading from the Psalter, hearing the Scriptures, and singing the hymns of the church together—lead us to the fellowship of the Table. The Scriptures, Bonhoeffer reminds us, “speak of three kinds of table fellowship: daily fellowship at table, the table fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and the final table fellowship in the Kingdom of God,” (66). That is why the Table of our Lord is oftentimes situated in the central position in the chancel of the congregation: it teaches us that everything that comes to us comes from God the Father, through Jesus the Son, and is made known in the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit. It also reminds us, as Bonhoeffer claims, that table fellowship has both a festive quality and implies obligation. This particular time of year has traditionally been thought of throughout the West as a time of thanksgiving as the fields and fruits of harvest are brought in. Anyone who has tasted the glories of an apple pie from fresh fruit here in southern Illinois can attest to the joy that it brings! But, as we sit at table together, we are reminded that this is not my food, but our food, our daily bread. “The fellowship of the table,” Bonhoeffer says, “teaches Christians that here they still eat the perishable bread of the earthly pilgrimage. But if they share this bread with one another, they shall also one day receive the imperishable bread together in the Father’s house,” (69).
The world in which we live makes tremendous counter-claims. We are encouraged to indulge ourselves in hedonistic behavior and to spend our way to happiness. We eat fast-food individually, separate from the community. We say a quick prayer on our own, separate from the community. We listen to our IPOD’s pre-programmed to music self-selected, separate from the community. We surf the Internet in an isolated cubicle, separate from the community. Whether we like it or not, the culture is telling us that we are primarily individuals, independent consumer spending-units, whose goal is to, according to the market mantra, “have it your way.”
In contrast, as Christians, we have been called to sing an entirely different tune to a different God. Like Christ’s disciples, we are beckoned away from doing our work only unto self into a community of the faithful who learn to pray together, listen to one another, and to become the people of God in service to the world. Doing this requires enormous effort in the midst of the toxicity of a self-indulgent, me-oriented, capitalistic American culture. Learning to speak the language of Zion oftentimes seems quaint, at best, and dangerous, at worst.
This month of September, a time when the verdancy of summer gives way to the slow dying of the light, is always tinged with some sadness for me. I have inscribed in my calendar the anniversary of the death of three of my four grandparents—all of whom died in this month which begins the slow slide into autumn. Yesterday marked the fourth anniversary of the death of my maternal grandmother—the last to go. The world that she and my grandfather sought to tame was harsh and difficult—one wracked by the vagaries of economic depression, agrarian failure, and childhood maladies. She and my grandfather learned to work with their hands and to toil long and hard for their meager fare. They served congregation after congregation, dodging mice in the basement as grandpa labored at building a sanctuary above; boiling dandelions and scraping the bottom of the barrel for grains of corn meal in order to feed themselves, their children, and their charges. They did the best they could, handing on the traditions of the faith and both my parents and those in my generation have had to rewrite a somewhat different understanding of the old, old story in words more appropriate for the brave new world in which we find ourselves.
As a child, I can still remember my grandmother’s parents kneeling together next to their bed on the cold wooden floor praying our names aloud as the winter wind whistled through the cheap clapboard frame house which stood defiantly against another Iowa snowstorm. A faithful child to this pious couple of German descent, grandma was raised to read her Bible faithfully, to labor in the Lord’s service diligently, and to pray as if her life, and those of her children depended on it. On the last day on which I saw her alive, she had been reduced to a shadow of her former self. She sat hunched over in a wheelchair, an afghan draping her withering legs for protection as she stared somewhat incoherently ahead. She seemed mostly lost and unresponsive, resorting most often to guttural grunts and groans. I looked deep into her eyes, hoping to somehow detect a faint flicker of recognition.
After a few minutes, the one-way conversation died out and I wasn’t sure what else to say—other than to pray with her, as I always did. But in the background, the piano was playing and a few of the residents were singing along. The nursing home administrator had told our family that this was my grandmother’s favorite activity, the one time when her tongue would be loosened and she would seem to become herself again. And so, I looked right at her and began to sing: “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to whom belong; they are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.” And, sure enough, the hint of a smile began to cross her lips and, like a child, she joined right in.
These are the words of the Christian community, along with so much else that make up our common liturgical heritage—from the Gloria Patri, to the Prayer of Confession, to the words of the Psalter. These eternal truths make their ways into our minds and onto our hearts, conforming us to another reality than the cultural construct which surrounds us. They make up the liturgy of Zion and, when all else has faded in our memories, they remain with us. They have been said and sung by countless generations before us and they will continue to exist long after we are gone. This is how the people of God begin their day, with others—both the living and the dead—and we are invited to join in.