Prayer: Making the Familiar Strange
Tuesday, September 13, 2016 at 8:00AM
Ben Simpson in Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, The Lord's Prayer, Theology, prayer

In The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas argues “that a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” Writing theological sentences that accomplish this aim is good but difficult work. Hauerwas writes, “I have the sense that few of us have thought about the conditions necessary to write a theological sentence that has the potential to make readers stop and rethink what they thought they think.”

I recently completed Karl Barth’s brilliant lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, and I was struck by how his writings fit the criteria offered by Hauerwas. The familiar became strange, I stopped, and I rethought what I think. I concluded that Barth’s writing on prayer was compelling not only because it was theological, but because all too often the sentences became prayer. Barth moves seamlessly from addressing “we” and “us” to “Thee” and “Thou.” In doing so, I found my prayer joining with Barth’s prayer; his petition became my own.

In Barth’s introductory remarks he offers several observations. His exploration of prayer will draw from the Reformers: Luther, Calvin, and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Barth writes, “The Reformation appears to us as a great whole: a labor of research, thinking, preaching, polemic, and organization.” However, “it was more than all that.”

Barth continues by claiming that the Reformation “was an act of continuous prayer, an invocation.” He adds that the Reformation was also “an act of human beings, of certain persons, and at the same time a response on the part of God.” The Reformation consisted in great action (research, thinking, preaching, etc.), but the fundamental action undergirding it all was the act of prayer.

Barth warns that the weaknesses of any age may be the result of those failing to heed words like those of Luther, who wrote, “For we know that our defense lies in prayer alone. We are too weak to resist the Devil and his vassals...For what has carried off these great victories over the undertakings of our enemies which the Devil has used to put us in subjection, if not the prayers of certain pious people who rose up as a rampart to protect us?” With that one well chosen quotation, Barth convicts and challenges. Who, in our time, is our rampart? Who stands in the gap? Is it I? And who among us, outwardly seeking a gospel movement, is inwardly a true person of prayer?

For those who feel “familiar” with prayer, Barth makes the familiar strange. He reminds us that prayer is a “problem,” for “How is it possible for me to have an encounter with God?” To pray, Barth says, “is a grace, an offer of God.” It is also an “altogether simple act by which we accept and use the divine offer; an act in which we obey this command of the majestic grace that identifies itself with the will of God.” Barth clearly reminds us that prayer is possible because of Jesus Christ, who has made us his brothers and sisters within the family of God.

Barth writes:

God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and that very man Jesus Christ has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Jesus Christ. It is as if God himself has pledged to answer our request because all our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays.

What follows is an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus invites us to pray. Prayer is not only a command, it is an invitation. Jesus has instructed us, and also accompanies us in the praying of this prayer. Barth writes, “Jesus Christ invites, permits, commands us to join him, especially in his intercession with the Father.”

Barth examines the Invocation, the Six Petitions, and the Doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. At every turn he makes the familiar strange. He makes the reader rethink what they thought in praying the Lord’s Prayer. His sentences do the work.

In the invocation, “Our Father,” Barth reminds us that we may address God as such because of Jesus Christ. Barth writes “We are his children, he is our Father, by virtue of this new birth realized at Christmas, on Good Friday, at Easter, and fulfilled at the moment of our baptism.” We petition our Father “who art in heaven.” Barth reminds us that God “is in heaven, on his throne,” and it is through him that we have freedom, which includes the freedom to enter God’s presence.

When we pray for the hallowing of God’s name, for the kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, we seek to align ourselves with God’s action as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The world belongs to God, the cause of redemption is his, and the fulfillment of his purposes is the result of his initiative. We cannot accomplish this on our own. This is why we pray. Barth writes, “We pray so that we might receive the power to show this great joy and this great peace of which we so often speak. May this joy and this peace be noticeable. We pray in order that the Christian arrogance and ignorance and unbelief with which we daily dishonor thee may be a bit arrested, a little suppressed.”

Our prayer for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation are admissions of dependence on God, as well as expressions of simple trust in God’s provision. Barth observes that in the Old and New Testaments “‘the word ‘bread’ is also the temporal sign of God’s eternal grace.” Barth goes further, saying “each meal, whether it be modest or sumptuous is something sacred, for it is the promise of an eternal banquet, of an everlasting feast.” To  ask for bread is to remind ourselves, again and again, that we are dependent creatures.

Beyond our need for bread is our need for forgiveness. While we may be unsure of where our next meal may come from, our forgiveness is a certain, established fact. Barth writes, “What God’s forgiveness is must be clearly understood. Here it is not a question of an uncertain hope, of an ideal to be sought or imagined...Forgiveness is already given, and this is the reality in which we live.”

We are forgiven because of what God has accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, the one who has reconciled us to God, atoned for our sin, and secured our hope. Barth writes, “In thy Son thou hast exchanged roles between thyself, the holy and just God, and us, perfidious and unjust human beings...Thou has obeyed and suffered for us; thou hast abolished our faults, the faults of all humankind. And thou hast done it once and for all.”

Our petition for forgiveness leads us to forgive those who sin against us. We do so as those empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we ask for God’s help in resisting temptation. In the cross of Christ, the Devil has been defeated and his powers have been broken. Barth reminds us that we do not overcome the Devil through our own “moral and religious excursions,” but by the power of God. Because of this, glory be to God! Barth writes, “Thou hast loved us; thou still lovest us. And thy love is efficacious. It delivers once and for all.”

Barth, by making the familiar strange, brings us into an encounter with the one commanding us to pray. For those so moved, those wishing to respond to God’s gracious action by the practice of prayer, new possibilities emerge, and not only for the individual but also for the church. And we may enter these new possibilities, not because we are determined, but because God has graciously sought and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. Prayer, thus, is the response of a glad heart joined to God. It is not a duty, but a delight. It is not only a privilege, but a service of the saints.

We worship a God who hears, yet God is greater than our petitions. As Barth reminds us, “The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.” Because of this we remain confident. We anticipate God’s redemptive future. We celebrate God’s salvation secured for us in Christ.

And presently, we pray, “Our Father…”

Article originally appeared on Benjamin A. Simpson (http://benjaminasimpson.com/).
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