Here is another in my series of Poems, Psalms, Prayers, and Promises. The poem offered here is by one of my heroes of the faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote this poem while in prison. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who led an underground seminary in Germany during the Nazi period and was executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler.

This poem, “Christians and Heathens,” is a thought-provoking one that reminds us of what connects us all, believers and non-believers, but also of one of the ways in which Christians are called to be different. Sin is something that connects all human beings, regardless of our faith, for “there is no distinction” – all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But sin is also what divides us – from God, from one another, and even from our selves. In this poem, Bonhoeffer reminds us that God goes to all people in their need, but that as Christians we are called to stand by God in God’s own pain. When we stand with the poor, the forgotten, the neglected and the downcast, we stand by God. In a letter from prison, Bonhoeffer explains that in this poem he is making the point that we as Christians are “called upon to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world … It is not a religious act that makes someone a Christian, but rather sharing in God’s suffering in the worldly life. That is repentance, not thinking first of one’s own needs, questions, sins, and fears but allowing oneself to be pulled into walking the path that Jesus walks.” (This letter and the poem below can be found HERE.) We all fall short of this call to share in God’s suffering in the world, for we all sin, so I have placed a penitential psalm alongside Bonhoeffer’s challenging poem.

Opening Prayer

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. In you, O God, I place my trust. Help me now to quiet myself and listen, that the thoughts and prayers of my heart might be pleasing to you. Amen

Psalm 32:1-7

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, 
  whose sin is covered. 
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, 
  and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 
While I kept silence, 
  my body wasted away
  through my groaning all day long. 
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; 
  my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. 
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, 
  and I did not hide my iniquity; 
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” 
  and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; 
  at a time of distress,
  the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. 
You are a hiding place for me; 
  you preserve me from trouble; 
  you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Scripture Readings

Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. – Joel 2:13

The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:11-13

Devotional Poem: “Christians and Heathens” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

People go to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, pray for blessing and bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
So do they all, all of them, Christians and heathens.
 
People go to God when God’s in need,
find God poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.
 
God goes to all people in their need,
fills body and soul with God’s own bread,
goes for Christians and heathens to Calvary’s death
and forgives them both.

Closing Prayer

O God, you go to all people in need, and you call us to stand by you in your own need and pain. I fear that there is much in the world today that pains you, Lord – the sin and division in our world, the suffering and injustice, the despair and lack of hope. Help me not to ignore the suffering in your world, but to face it with you. Help me to stand by you in your own pain. Help me to stand by the poor, the forgotten, the neglected, the downcast, and all who despair today. And when I despair, Lord – for that happens, too – be my hiding place, where I can be renewed in your love and forgiveness. Through Christ our Lord. Amen

St. Matthias Church, Berlin, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ordained in 1931.

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