What holds life together when everything is coming loose?

March 15th, 2016
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1939

Rely on the Cantus Firmus

Watching the daily news, we would have good reason to identify with one of the angels in the Broadway play, “Green Pastures,” who sees the mess people have made of the world and tells God, “Everything nailed down is coming loose!”

So, what holds your life together when everything seems to be coming apart around you?

In one of his letters from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer drew on his musical training to encourage his family to “rely on the cantus firmus.”

I wanted to tell you to have a good, clear cantus firmus; that is the only way to a full and perfect sound, when the counterpoint has firm support and cannot come adrift or get out of tune, while remaining a distinct whole.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, May 20, 1944, p. 151)

The dictionary defines cantus firmus as “a fixed melody to which other voices are added.” To understand what Bonhoeffer meant, you need to experience it here. The “fixed melody” provides firm support so that the music doesn’t “come adrift or get out of tune.”

When he was stripped of everything else, Bonhoeffer found the cantus firmus in obedience to God in Jesus Christ.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God. (p. 4)

On the way to the Cross

Preparing for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I’ve been drawn back again to Bonhoeffer’s classic, The Cost of Discipleship in which he defined what makes a Christian different or unique.

In every case it is the love which was fulfilled in the cross of Christ…The cross is the differential of the Christian religion, the power which enables the Christian to transcend the world and to win the victory. (p. 170)

Like Bonhoeffer writing from his Nazi prison cell, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison. He defined the cantus firmus of the gospel by copying a hymn or creed from the worship of the early church.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

Isaac Watts expressed it in one of the greatest of all the English hymns. (You can hear/see it here.)

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

As we begin the journey that leads to the cross, may we find in it the cantus firmus that provides firm support and keeps our lives from coming adrift or going out of tune.

Jim Harnish is the author of A Disciple's Heart and Earn. Save. Give. He blogs at at JimHarnish.org.

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