Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic.
Do not defend God's word, but testify to it.
Trust to the Word.
It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity.
In this quote Bonhoeffer was talking about preaching. He said it to his ordinands at the “illegal” seminary he was leading during the war. Over the years he had become convinced of the importance of knowing the Word of God, not a particularly popular topic, especially in that moment of German-based theology. He had studied under the modern critical-thinking theologians and had great respect for them, but he was also a friend and follower of Karl Barth who did not feel the same way. The Bible, the Word of God, needs no defending. It is always relevant.
Perhaps in less demanding times than Bonhoeffer lived in there is the luxury of digging into the Word in different ways, parsing the nuances. But Bonhoeffer had seen in the Black American Church a different way. There was the need to be faithful in the midst of suffering, he discovered, never dreaming in his worst moments that this idea would become so essential in his beloved homeland. To the African American experience of the early 1930s he owed a debt of deepest faith. They taught him the forever relevance of the Bible, even when it may not always seem that way.
I have to be honest about how I look at the Bible. It is, of course, the product of its time. As I read passages about the subservient role of women in the church I know I am hearing only one side of a story- the side that did the final editing. As I read some of Jesus’ words there is a clear disconnect with other teachings of his. It is easy to twist and turn the meaning of words to fit what you need. I remember being at a youth conference where the preacher excitedly made a quote from the Book of Job. I scratched my head since that quote did not fit the book as I remembered it. So I looked it up. It was from the Book of Job, but they were words from one of the false comforters trying to explain to Job why he was suffering. It sounded good when preached, but they were words that God discounted a few chapters later.
Even today in this time of division and uncertainty. Even today when some “preachers” seem to say that if you disagree with the president you are following the Devil. You are Satanic. Even today in a world that has such different views of history, creation, government, people than in the time of the Biblical authors. How then can we find the relevance?
1. Be honest about yourself.
Don’t think more highly than you ought to think. Your opinion of yourself will seriously impact my view of what I see in the Word. I may ignore the passages that challenge me- and emphasize how they challenge someone else. But we do think better of ourselves. Research has shown that we often think of ourselves in the top 20% or higher- even when all the evidence says we’re not.How can I become open to letting my own behavior be the first place I challenge and look to change?
2. Be prayerful!
Bonhoeffer did not see how anyone could preach without having the discipline of prayer. It was inconceivable to him!How can I be more prayerful and prayerfully mindful this Lent?
Bonhoeffer was not a “Fundamentalist” nor was he a “Liberal.” It is wrong to put opinions from the last 70 years into his thoughts. He was faithful! He knew what the Bible was all about, and that was not necessarily rules and regulations. It was about being in communion with God and others. That starts in and with prayer.
3. Be open to other points of view than your own.
In spite of what some churches, preachers, and others may think, they do not have all the answers. No one does. A quote I’ve heard many times says If I can understand and explain God, than I’m not talking about God. Or, put another way, such a God that I can understand is not worth worshiping. There may be truth found in different opinions, something important to learn, but not everything can be true at all times. That can be confusing, sure. But in a prayerful life, we can learn discernment.How can I find ways to listen, explore, and seek for insights, even in those with whom I may disagree?
4. Be willing to stand on your convictions.
Being wishy-washy will get us nowhere. Yes, there are broader truths and understandings than I may be willing to admit. Yes, I may even be wrong sometimes in my opinions. But when it is necessary, I must be willing to stand by what I believe.How (and when) have I been afraid to speak my convictions?
5. Be obedient to God’s word.
When I discover all these things above (and others that I will add to this over these weeks), I then must be obedient. This understanding of The Word is not just (or even) an intellectual exercise. It is a discovery of what I am called to do and how I am called to live in my life. Most of the time this can be quite easy. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where that is possible. Bonhoeffer, in the end was not. The fear of many in this time- and it was a fear of others for the past eight years (see # 3 above!)- is that this could change. I need to learn the discipline of obedience now, when it is safer, so it will be a habit if it changes.Where is my obedience lacking or less than it can be?
In the end, putting this all together with the world I am living in that has spurred this spiritual journey, I can perhaps look to Bonhoeffer’s mentor for a piece of advice I have heard for over 45 years:
Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing to God, my Creator!
But interpret newspapers from your Bible.