Friday, May 8, 2015

Karl Barth on National Day of Prayer

Now that National Day of Prayer 2015 has passed, it is only fitting to post a few insights on prayer from the greatest theologian (of the twenty-first century).  After all, while we may be tempted to exercise this day as opportunity to leverage nationalistic zeal or further the cause of a particular political camp, Barth reminds us: 
“…the Church will always and in all circumstances be interested primarily in human beings and not in some abstract cause or other, whether it be anonymous capital or the State as such…or the honor of the nation or the progress of civilization or culture or the idea, however conceived, of the historical development of the human race.” (Christian Community and Civil Community 171)
When we pray, we invoke the name of God alone. Not a nation. Not a party line. Not a flag. True, we give thanks on this day for the country in which we live, even lifting in prayer the names and offices of all those who serve within positions of influence and power.  But we also clasp our hands in prayer on this day- and everyday- on behalf of all of humanity and all those subjected to the disorders of this world. Our prayers of intercession are never to be limited to those who live within our national borders. 

That said, here are a few favorite statements by Karl Barth on prayer:* 

“One can be God’s witness only by becoming so ever anew. This is just what happens in prayer” (Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 87).

“Even in common prayer...will be simply a sighing and stammering, both in its beginning and in its end"
(Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 89)

"When prayer becomes a museum piece in the private treasury of the Church it ceases to be prayer” (Church Dogmatics III.4, p. 115)

“Prayer means that we address ourselves to God…Prayer cannot therefore in any way estrange us from other people; it can only unite us since it involves a matter that concerns us all” (Prayer 11). 

“Let us approach the subject from the given fact that God answers.  God is not deaf, but listens; more than that, he acts.  God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not.  Prayer exerts an influence upon God’s action, even upon his existence.  This is what the word ‘answer’ means.” (Prayer 13)

“Our prayers are weak and poor.  Nevertheless, what matters is not that our prayers be forceful, but that God listens to them.  That is why we pray” (Prayer 13). 

“To be a Christian and to pray are one and the same thing; it is a matter that cannot be left to our caprice. It is a need, a kind of breathing necessary to life” (Prayer 15). 

“One cannot say, ‘Thy kingdom come!’ without hope for our time, for today, for tomorrow. The great Future, with a  capital F, is also a future with a small f. (Prayer 39). 

“The children of God are not anxious about work.  They work because they pray” (Prayer 50). 

“That Christians call upon God, that they do everything they do in this calling upon God, is what is expected of them as those who are obligated and committed to Jesus Christ.  It is the command they must keep if their action is to be obedience” (The Christian Life 50). 

Christians pray to God that he will cause his righteousness to appear and dwell on a new earth under a new heaven. Meanwhile they act in accordance with their prayer as people who are responsible for the rule of human righteousness, that is, for the preservation and renewal, the deepening and extending, of the divinely ordained human safeguards of human rights, human freedom, and human peace on earth” (The Christian Life 205)

“Invocation of God in and with [the Lord’s] prayer, obedient human action in this vertical direction, implies (as the same obedient human action) the horizontal of a corresponding human, and therefore provisional, attitude and mode of conduct…Thus to pray the prayer does not excuse [Christians] from provisionally rebelling and battling the disorder in their own human thoughts and words and works” (The Christian Life 212-213). 

“The heart of the Christian ethos is that those who are free and summoned to pray ‘Thy kingdom come’ are also freed and summoned to use their freedom to obey the common that is given therewith and to live for their part with a view to the coming kingdom” (The Christian Life 263). 

“And this means that theological work must really and truly take place in the form of a liturgical act, as invocation of God, and as prayer” (Evangelical Theology 164).

“Prayer without study would be empty.  Study without prayer would be blind” (Evangelical Theology 15). 

*As much as I love Barth’s works, Dr. Daniel Migliore is correct to note Barths lack of engagement with lament in his writings on prayer (see “Freedom to Pray” in Karl Barth’s, Prayer).  However, I wonder if lament was somewhat assumed when Barth suggested prayers as the beginning of a revolt against the disorder of the world.  In other words, was Barth constantly lamenting the chaos that sought to claim sovereignty over God’s creation?  Would this not serve as reason to aid in such confessions as the Declaration at Barmen?

**The mug above would make a great gift :)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Charm City, Where Is Your Charm? A Prayer for the People of Baltimore

Christ of cross and empty tomb, we pray for the city of Baltimore. We pray for people who have grown tired and angry after generations of despair and marginalization. We pray for those whose voices have long been silenced and those who have felt their only remaining option is to respond with the same sort of aggression that is taking the lives of their brothers and fathers, mothers and daughters, sisters and close friends. 

We pray for the echoes of saints gone before, whose voices remind us that violence begets more violence. In the same breath, their prophetic witness underscore riots as the response of people unheard. God who listens, help us to hear. Help us to heal. Help us. 

We pray for the families whose loved ones have lost their lives through the abuse of power and pervasive profiling. We pray we honor their pleas for change, justice, and reconciliation- movements fueled not by the same violence that claimed their beloved but through honest discourse and peaceful demonstration.

We pray for those charged to protect, who more often than not do their duty despite the danger. We pray for those who abuse their authority, distort their call, and neglect their obligation. Soften their hearts and confront their conscience.

We pray for local residents and businesses, whose communities are on fire, small business inventories looted, and homes vandalized.

We pray for schools forced to close.
We pray for teachers and educators in the classrooms that will reopen.
We pray for children of Baltimore
who watch
who listen
who learn from the activity of those around them.
We pray for a brighter future and safer neighborhoods, where they can play and laugh freely. 
We pray children find mentors able to lead them to be peacemakers and culture shapers in ways generations before have failed them

We pray for faith communities and churches to be at the forefront of transformation and compassion, reconciliation and hope. May pastoral leadership ease racist and divisive rhetoric that only slows progress. May new language of unity and understanding, solidarity and equality be proclaimed from pulpit to pavement.

We pray for the label of “thug" to be erased from speech rooted only in prejudice.

We pray for government officials whose humanity is no different than those who leave streets in ruins. We pray for the difficult decisions they are forced to make at a moments notice.
We pray their leadership will not be corrupted by political agendas or party affiliations.
We pray for the governor and mayor to work together for the benefit of those who elected them.

We pray for rioters, whose actions are misguided and mission near-sited.
We pray for elders and teachers, parents and mentors to embrace those whose behavior
breeds chaos versus change. May they dare to confront with caution and wisdom. 
May they remind disturbers, while their rage may be warranted, their response has a dead end.
We pray for protesters who march and cry out in peaceful demonstrations, that their witness gains more coverage and traction than public disturbance.

We pray for the media that covers the stories and unfolding events; may truth trump profit margins and marketing strategies.

Spirit who breathes new life, we pray for resurrection possibilities from Ferguson to New York,
Atlanta to Cleveland, L.A. to Baltimore. We pray for charm city to reclaim its charm. 
We pray for a better and brighter tomorrow despite a dark and despairing yesterday and today. Lord, have mercy. Lord, hear our prayer. 


Note: Say what you want about sports, they often elicit prophetic voices in the midst of society's greatest and most challenging moments.  The response of executives from within the Baltimore Orioles has once again affirmed this truth:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Why Didn’t Jesus Have Any Girl Friends? What My Daughter and Mary Magdalene Taught Me About Empowerment, Representation, and a Search for Belonging

A few months back, my daughter and I were reading a story about Jesus and the 12 disciples.  As my bright and inquisitive little girl listened, her eyes were fixed upon the related illustration of Twelve men gathered around their Teacher.

That’s when she asked, “Daddy, who are these guys?"

I responded, “They are Jesus’ friends. The Bible calls them disciples."

“Where are the girls?” she quickly replied back. “Why doesn’t Jesus have any friends who are girls?"

After a brief pause in awe and wonder, I began to explain how Jesus actually did have of friends who were girls. We even read, both previously and in the days that followed, stories that celebrated women in the Bible.

I will never forget this late-night and formative chat. Hidden within my daughter’s bold yet innocent question was a desire for validation, recognition, and empowerment.  She wanted to be able to identify with the characters in the story and be assured that Jesus’ crew was not some sort of exclusive boys club. She wanted to know girls had a place in Jesus' circle of friends, too.  

If we are honest, her questions are also our questions: Do I belong? Do we have a place within Jesus’ circle of friends?

One of the great calls of the Christian church is to empower and equip diverse leadership.  We are to proclaim to our congregations and the world, “You belong. You are welcome. You can have a seat at the table.” We are to affirm the unencumbered YES of God in Jesus Christ.

Which means, when people walk into our congregations and look at the faces of those who preach in our pulpits, lead in liturgy, sing in worship, and serve in governance, they should be assured of representation and validation to the best of our ability. 

Recently, CNN has aired a series based on the book, Finding Jesus.  The episodes explore the historical Jesus, Biblical stories, and other related and often controversial moments in Christian history.  When Finding Jesus engaged the resurrection, the contributors highlighted Mary Magdalene in a way I had never previously considered:
"Mary Magdalene is the first one to whom the risen Christ appears. So she is of immense importance to Christianity. For that hour or two, Mary Magdalene is the only one who knew about the resurrection; and so Mary Magdalene was the church.” (Father James Martin)
Mary Magdalene was the church.  This courageous and compassionate, yet often overlooked, friend of Jesus was the first preacher, teacher, and recipient of the good news of life beyond the grave. While the boys back home were stuck in despair, God chose Mary to be the one to first find hope and new life. I think my daughter would be more than satisfied (or at least will be when she is old enough to comprehend the significance).

Yet, for generations, this hour was the only hour in which her witness was credible and permissible. In other words, it didn’t take long for the church to return to paternalistic and homogenous patterns of leadership by silencing, or at least deeming less valid, the likes of Mary Magdalene. Tragically, in far too many places, this is still the case.

But if it were not for Mary Magdalene and the witness of one of Jesus’ most trusted confidants and companions, there may not be a church today.  If God’s people had not trusted the voice of the woman from the margins, who had personally experienced the resurrected Christ, the Twelve would have remained in their doubt and despair.

And so would we. 

As I continue to wrestle with Eastertide, both the curiosities of my daughter and the power of Mary Magdalene have raised a few questions of my own. 

Who in our midst have encountered the resurrected Christ yet have not been given proper voice and place in our congregations and communities? 

Who among us have found validation in the risen Savior only to meet resistance and exclusion within our places of worship? 

Who are today's Mary Magdalenes?

My prayer is that there would not be a single person whom, when they walk into our churches and faithful ministries, does not find representation and affirmation that they indeed belong. After all, who knows what Mary Magdalenes of today can teach us about resurrection in the midst of pervasive and debilitating despair?

May we all venture to listen... 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Holy Week According to the Pharisees

“The Pharisees then said to one another, ‘You see, you can do nothing.  Look, the world has gone after him!’” (John 12:19)

The shouts of “Hosanna” that reverberated throughout the streets and off the city walls of Jerusalem caused Jesus’ adversaries to sense defeat. In the minds of the teachers of the law, this grassroots Messianic movement no longer claimed merely the allegiance of a handful of Jewish peasants; rather, the message and mission had captured the imaginations of the world.  According to the Pharisees, the Way of Jesus had gone global- or at least Gentile- and they had no choice but to throw their hands up in surrender. 

That is, until Friday. Apparently the pep rally of Palm Sunday didn’t stifle the energies and strategies for too long.  

Still, that’s not what bothers me about this text.  I am not even as unsettled by the pressing realities that only a few days later the same hallowed Jerusalem walls reverberated a different word- “crucify!” After all, the fickleness of humanity is fairly constant.

What bother’s me about the Palm Sunday text is that I don’t know if Jesus’ sparring partners would utter the same words in 2015. I am not sure they would claim, “Look, the world has gone after him!” Instead, for me, Holy Week elicits new forms of lament that linger at least until Sunday morning. You could say I am tempted to embrace a reversal of the Pharisaical fatalism:

You see, we can do nothing. Our efforts are in vain. Try as we may, the world remains broken. Lions devour lambs. Drones and threats of terror are preferred over pruning hooks and plowshares. Political and religious rhetoric push people farther apart instead of pull friends and foes together.  Reconciliation across racial, economic, geographic, denominational and ideological communities appear more improbable than generations before. Children become collateral in both neighborhoods of privilege and villages drenched in oppression. Hosanna?!  Look, the world has gone after power and dominion no matter what the cost. Will deliverance ever come?   

Nevertheless, cynicism will not become my central discipline during this sacred seven-day journey. This Holy Week, I will instead sit with a revised echo of the Pharisees as my eager and hope-full prayer for the world (and our churches) to indeed go after this Jesus. In the presence of so much unrest throughout our local and global communities, I will dare to open my eyes and look to see evidence that we are not and will not be overcome by darkness.  I will hold on hope for the possibility- nah, probability- that just maybe we can and many are doing something as those who pursue the One who promised not to condemn the world but to save and make it right again. 

I will pray expectantly, not only for the church, but also for the world caught in between beauty and despair.  I will pray for a world whose Lord is the Christ and promised future is reconciliation. I will pray for the world to go after the dreams of God and the rhythms of love and redemption. I will pray for the church and churches to take the lead and (continue to) do the same. 

I will believe in the resurrection even when Twitter feeds, news outlets, and unending stories of injustice near and far tempt me to abandon the greatest of all Christian hopes. 

I will trust the story of Easter as affirmation that even when the world fails to go after Jesus as Lord, Jesus indeed goes and has gone after the world which he loves. 

After all, this kind of belief and trust in Life’s great triumph over death and all its friends is the only advantage we have on our pilgrimage from streets draped with palms to a tomb we pray will be empty so enough. 

“The only advantage ‘we’ have over the world around us is that we know that He is our Lord and theirs too, and that we may use the access to God which He has opened up for both us and them. ‘We’ may believe in the midst of the others while they do not yet believe. ‘We’ thus do so visionally in their place.  In this way ‘we’ hold a position they have not yet occupied or even have abandoned. ‘We’ do it for our Lord, the Lord known by us, and therefore for them whose Lord He is also although they do not yet know Him.  Hence, ‘we’ also pray in anticipation with them and for them as we pray with and for one another and for ourselves.” 
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.4, pp. 102-103.