Running the Race with Perseverance: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church

Overview: By now your class is getting a sense of the diversity of saints and the various details of their lives which draw our attention.

As we close out our unit on the Saints, keep the following in mind:

  1. The lives of the saints point us to Jesus Christ. They show us how members of the Church led lives of holiness in various times and places. Bonhoeffer is one example of such a saint. So as you begin and read through what we have for this week, keep at the front of your mind the question: What does Bonhoeffer’s life say about who God is?
  2. We will be taking a break from Church School next week for the celebration of All Saints, but everything that have done thus far has prepared us for the liturgy of All Saints by reminding us to listen closely for stories of faithfulness and giving us a sense of, the great Cloud of Witnesses surrounding us (Hebrews 12:1).

Bonhoeffer is altogether different Saint from the ones we have worked on thus far. Born on February 4 1906, His life was much more recent than the others we have covered. He wrote a great deal in a time when his writings were well distributed and much has been written about him by those who knew him personally; because of all of this, we know a lot about him. Bonhoeffer is also unique in that, with a few exceptions, he doesn’t have strong traditions or legends that have developed around his life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1939, Photographer unknown

Much of what we know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes from his own letters and writings and the writing of a nearest friend, Eberhard Bethge (who was the first to pen Bonhoeffer’s biography). This latter figure probably did report several stories that are more the stuff of legend, including a popular story of his death, which I will not repeat here. For whatever reason, Bonhoeffer is one of those figures almost everyone likes to claim and appropriate–Evangelical, Mainline, “Spiritual, but not religious” folks, etc.–on the one hand, this shows the broad reach of his witness. On the other, it can entangle his writings and the stories of his life in ideologies that he may have found foreign. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Pastor and scholar, so he must always be remembered in these contexts. He was also very young (39) when he died and was still working out much of what he might have thought. We will never know what he may have ultimately written. What we do know, is that he was so resolved in his belief in Christ, that Christ and cross were all that ultimately mattered.

A timeline of Bonhoeffer’s life may be found here. Older classes might like to see the timeline on an iPad. Younger classes might enjoy hearing about one or two of your favorite highlights from his life.

Respond to the story:

  1. Learn a Gospel Song: In 1930, at the age of 24, Bonhoeffer studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York under the famous American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. During this time, Bonhoeffer attended Abyssinian Baptist Church, a black Baptist Church in Harlem. His time in Harlem shaped his ministry and call, and played a role in his return to Nazi-controlled Germany.
    He loved African American Spirituals and later played them every morning at the illegal seminary, Finkenwalde.
    For your class, play several Spirituals and Gospel songs on YouTube (some great options are Go Down, Moses; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot; Standin’ in the Need of Prayer). As a class, learn a Spiritual that Bonhoeffer might have learned and sung at Abyssinian Baptist (and one that we often sing at Lent).
    One suggestion is “Were You There” (lyrics below). Christ crucified was the image at the center of Bonhoeffer’s theological reflection. You may also want to introduce your class to the hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing, which can be found in our pews and which includes many African American Spirituals (please let me know if you would like me to put a couple aside for your class).

from « American Negro Spirituals»
by J. W. Johnson, J. R. Johnson, 1926

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble,
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…
Were you there when they pierced him in the side…
Were you there when the sun refused to shine…
Were you there when they laid him i the tomb…

2. Beatitudes Activity: Perhaps Bonhoeffer’s most famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, is a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount, a section of Scripture which includes the Beatitudes.
Invite children to think about how we use the words “bless,” and “blessing.”  What does it mean to receive a blessing?  What do we mean when we ask God to bless someone or something?  When a priest offers a blessing, why does she make the sign of the cross?
“Blessing” carries a connotation of being made holy; to be close to God, and also, to be happy.  How are those things related?

3. Bonhoeffer “German” Quiz: Develop a short yes/no quiz using the details of Bonhoeffer’s life, but with a German twist. Rather than respond yes and no, encourage your students to respond yah! and nein! For younger classes, have each child make yes and no signs first, then use the signs to answer the question.

4. Confession in Worship & in Bonhoeffer:  Bonhoeffer’s Christian community, in resistance to the state-sanctioned German Evangelical Church was called the Confessing Church and came into being by way of the Barmen Declaration (background, text). The Confessing Church rightly proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord. A confession can be both a statement of belief (such as the creeds) or a disclosure of wrong and request for forgiveness. The Confessing Church embodied both of these kinds of confession – they were confessing the lordship of the crucified Christ (and not the Fuhrer) and a request that God forgive Christians in Germany for the wrong they’re committing against the Jews and others in their territory.

In Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, Bonhoeffer writes of the practice of confession: “In confession the break-through of the community takes place. Sin demands to have a man by himself [sic]. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him […]. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.” When we confess in the congregation, we acknowledge and bring our own sin to light.

Read the Prayer of Confession from the Book of Common Prayer together. Students may already have the prayer memorized from our saying it together in the weekly liturgy. If they do not, try to memorize a part of it: the first five lines, lines six through eight, or lines nine through the end.

Ask the students why we kneel when we say the prayer of confession. What can our bodily posture teach us about what we’re doing? When else do we kneel during the liturgy? What does the prayer of confession have to do with the crucified Christ?

For younger classes, you may also use the symbol of the candle in art (For example, make a candle with paper and paint and write part of the prayer of confession on it.)

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

5. Finkenwalde: The underground seminary that Bonhoeffer organized and taught was at Finkenwalde. It was established to train pastors who were faithful to God’s call in resisting German Christianity.

To teach the name of the seminary so that the children remember it, sing this song, to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”

Finkenwalde (2x)
The Confessing Church (2x)
And Bonhoeffer taught them underground,
and taught the pastors training there.

Finkenwalde (2x) 

6. Collects in the Book of Common Prayer: Work on an art project that uses one of the collects below.You may write the prayer out and then color over it in watercolors (red is the color for saints and white for martyrs). Or, create an image using the words of the prayer (like this).

Collect for a Martyr

Almighty God, who gave your servant Dietrich boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for a Saint

Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good example of your servant Dietrich, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with him attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

End with your Feast and a Prayer. Try the selection from canticle 21 below as we conclude our time working on the Saints.

[…] The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide. […]


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