Saturday, October 16, 2010

Could Prayer Unite Us?

Today I have been reading some prayers written by a theologian who has been the subject of many a controversy. As I've read these offerings of his heart to God, I have been moved by their spirit and their theological majesty.

I don't always agree with Karl Barth, though I recognize him as one of the greatest thinkers of all time. I also have great admiration and respect for some of those theologians who have questioned and differed with him. Sometimes I've agreed more with Barth's opponents than with Barth. Sometimes vice-versa. But what I have not always appreciated is the mean spirit I've witnessed in attacks on Barth by otherwise respectable scholars. And what really saddens me are those times when I too have allowed myself to become mean-spirited in similar theological debates with others.

Sometimes the tumult of words that both sides pour out are riddled with misunderstandings of each other's positions. Sometimes they are infected with sentiments on the brink of hatefulness. And it really is appalling, when you step back to look at it, to see what respectable leaders and we ourselves are capable of when it comes to spreading misunderstanding and ill will toward others.

And so I wonder, as I sit here reading and even praying these marvelous prayers by Barth: How might the church be different if her factions would simply pray more together? How differently would we feel about
 each other if we could hear each other's hearts being poured out passionately with love for our common Savior and Lord? How much more watchful would we be of each other's wellbeing, and for fairness toward each other, if we were sincerely praying for and with each other? If we could hear each other's most private conversations with God, the intimate lover of our souls?

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I wrote my final thesis project on a theologian named Cornelius Van Til. And although I was focusing on his relationship to the apologist Francis Schaeffer, I came across an interesting letter in Van Til's files that Barth had written about Van Til, who had written fat, nasty diatribes against Barth's theology. In the letter Barth complained that he has not understood anything Van Til has written against him and he did not think Van Til had understood a single word that Barth had written. Barth compared this to a whale and an elephant trying to communicate and concluded that he could only hope for better things in the future aeon.

I have always thought about that image of the elephant and the whale whenever great minds have attacked each other. And so as I sit here, reading Barth's prayers, I wonder how it might look for the elephant and whale to pray together?

What if we could hear each other's hearts accurately above the words we so often choose poorly? Would it clarify what we think we understand? Would it change how we treat each other? Might others not start to see and marvel, saying, “Look at how they love one another”? Would people start to see us, and would we start to see each other, as his disciples by our love for one another?

I suspect this to be so, not only for the divided Bride of Christ, but also for every troubled marriage, divided friendship, strained family relationship, and all those who carry relational pain of any kind. In other words, perhaps we need to seek out those we'd least want to pray with right now, and offer them our hands in prayer.

Perhaps this prayer could be our starting point:

O Sovereign God! You have humbled yourself in order to exalt us. You became poor so that we might become rich. You came to us so that we can come to you. You took upon yourself our humanity in order to raise us up to eternal life. All this comes through grace, free and unmerited; all this through your beloved Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

We are gathered here for prayer in the knowledge of this mystery and this wonder. We come to praise you, to proclaim and hear your word. We know that we have no strength to do so unless you make us free to lift our hearts and thoughts to you. Be present now in our midst, we pray. Through your Holy Spirit open for us the way to come to you, that we may see with our own eyes your light which has come into the world, and then in the living of our lives become your witnesses. Amen. – Karl Barth, Prayer, p. 67, © 2002 WJK Press

Let us pray!

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