Reading Notes: Prayer by Karl Barth (part three)

Barth PrayerIV. The Invocation: “Our Father who art in heaven”

Praying to God as Our Father can evoke images of our earthly fathers, which in my case is an extremely positive image. I love my dad and look up to him. He’s patient, wise, and dependable. But he’s no God. For others, thinking of their dad is painful, whether because of neglect, abuse, anger, abandonment or estrangement, thinking that God might be analogous to these kinds of fathers is blasphemous. The reality is that our earthly fathers don’t precede or define God’s own Fatherliness. The human bonds of parent and child aren’t the original of which God Our Father is the symbol. The reverse is true. “The original, the true fatherhood, the true filiality are in these ties which God has created between himself and us” (25). God’s Fatherliness is the true image (vera eikona) of which our human parentage is the symbol.

That God is in heaven doesn’t mean that God is distant. Instead it means that God comes to us as one who has granted His creatures a theater in which His presence, power, and glory don’t overwhelm, overpower, and destroy us in our brokenness.  God graciously grants us “earth” as a theater in which we can live and move and have our being, though He is never far away. God’s transcendence, God’s otherness than creation is not a barrier to our prayer. Heaven is not a great chasm that our prayers and God cannot cross. Heaven is where God dwells fully, and it was this God who dwells fully in heaven who dwelt fully on earth in Jesus Christ. Christ is our proof that when we address God in heaven that though He is other than us, He is never far from us or unable to hear and answer us.

V. The First Three Petitions: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer address God’s cause: thy name, thy kingdom, thy will. Jesus invites us to identify our cause with God’s, to stand at His side and on His side in His plans and purposes for creation. The great danger is always that we imagine that God is on our side in our plans and purposes. The truth is that we pray that we are on God’s side, which is impossible apart from God’s help. Prayer is asking God to make what is humanly impossible possible by His grace.

We pray beside God because apart from God we are quite literally nothing. I tell my confirmation students all of the time that God doesn’t need creation to be God. God-creation=God. However, the reverse is not true. Creation-God=0, zero, nada, nil, zip, nothing. Atheism is an impossibility (though of course possible psychologically speaking) because without God we wouldn’t be here to not believe in Him and not address Him in prayer. While we might deny God’s existence, God wills not to deny ours.

The petition for God to hallow His name, to make it holy, is a petition asking that God would continue to reveal Himself and His character which is His name to us. God’s name is YHWH – “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14) The name of God and the being and actions of God are inseparable. This is what makes God’s name holy, what sets it apart from every other name. God’s name is also Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and so when we pray for God to hallow His name, we are praying that God would continue to reveal Himself as He already has, as the Triune God we know in Jesus Christ.

il_340x270.376914857_r44jWe we pray for God to hallow his name we are also praying that God would empower us to hallow it as well. As Christians we’re like people driving around with a Jesus fish on the back of our car. Whether we like it or not how we act reflects upon God’s name. This is a pretty depressing prospect since life – not to mention history – is filled with Christians behaving badly. Just today I read about a youth pastor in a neighboring town sexually abusing his students and providing them with weed. He has profaned God’s name in ways that it pains me to think about. There but for the grace of God go all of us. Apart from God’s help with can do nothing but profane God’s name, especially in our piety. Because the hallowing of God’s name is an impossibility apart from God’s help Jesus commands us to pray this petition. Barth, not so subtly reminds his audience – made up largely of pastor-types – that “a bad sermon is the opposite of this hallowing” (34). Yikes! Preachers, pray this prayer!

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We then pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is at the heart of the gospel, in fact it is the gospel that Jesus himself proclaimed and enacted in his life, death, and resurrection. No kingdom, no gospel. Yet the kingdom has until recently been conspicuously absent from the Church’s theology – perhaps this was a hangover from Christendom conflating church, state, and kingdom; but we can’t be Christians without the kingdom. Thankfully, the kingdom can never be far from our lips or our hearts when we pray this prayer. But what is the kingdom of God? “The kingdom of God in the New Testament is both the life and purpose of the world according as they agree with the intentions of the Creator” (35). When we pray for the kingdom we are praying for God to make the life and purpose of this world agree with His intentions and to show us where this is already taking place. Barth uses this wonderful illustration of a table covered by a cloth. The kingdom is the table and our present existence is the cloth. The kingdom is already there because of what Jesus has accomplished, so that when we pray for its coming we are praying for God to remove the cloth, to show it to us again so that we might see the reality of things as they already are in Jesus Christ, and not as we have made them out to be with the coverings of our “personal life and that of our family, the life of the churches, the political events, all these are the covering. The reality is beneath it” (38). When we pray for the kingdom we are praying for the apocalypsis (revelation) of God’s reign in the world through Christ. The prayer for the kingdom is the prayer for God to remove the lenses through which we construct the world and see it as we imagine it and to give us eyes to see the world as it really is in Him. This is a deeply unsettling request, like – forgive the reference, I know The Matrix is now gauche – Neo taking the red pill instead of the blue (or is it the other way, around?).

When we pray for God’s will to be done, we’re praying for God to resolve the tension between the way things are: broken, sinful, and tragic – and they way that they will be when earth and heaven come together: whole, healed, and comic. Our experience in this world apart from God’s grace is deeply dissonant, we long for justice and the wicked prosper; we crave beauty in a world filled with horrendous images of unimaginable suffering and carnage; we seek truth when every day we are exposed to, perpetuate, and believe countless lies. Our existence in this world is discordant. The other night at Jr High Youth Group during the music something just sounded off. We couldn’t figure out what it was, then in the last song one of the guitar players realized he had tuned his B string to another note and it had thrown everything off. This is our experience in this present age, there is something off in the world, and harmony can’t be restored until God’s will is fully done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for God to deliver us from this predicament because we literally cannot live in the tension, it is killing us.

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