A Prayer for Christmas (and for our time) from Karl Barth

streamThe Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who many (among them me) consider the greatest Christian theologian of the Twentieth Century, never stopped being a pastor among the people. In his years as Professor in Basel, he frequently preached to the prisoners at the local prison. Those sermons and prayers are available in a fine little collection called “Deliverance to the Captives.”

Here is a prayer from Christmas, 1958, which to me, has a sad but profound resonance with our own time:

We remember before thee all darkness and suffering of our time; the manifold errors and misunderstandings whereby we human beings afflict one another; the harsh reality which so many must face without the benefit of comfort; the great dangers that hang over the world which does not know how to counter them. We remember the sick and the mentally ill, the needy, the refugees, the oppressed and the exploited, the children who have no good parents or no parents at all. We remember all those who are called on to help as much as men can help, the officials of our country and of all other countries, the judges and civil servants, the teachers and educators, the writers of books and newspapers, the doctors and nurses in the hospitals, the preachers of thy word in the various churches and congregations nearby and afar. We remember them all when we implore thee to let the light of Christmas shine brightly . . . so that they and we ourselves may be helped. We ask all this in the name of the Savior in whom thou hast already hearkened to our supplications and wilt do so again and again. Amen. (p. 143)

(Photo: R.L.Floyd, 2016)

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Can we know enough about God from observing the creation? Ruminations on a General Revelation

DriftwoodI was preparing this morning to lead Romans using the new small group study book that Mike Bennett and I wrote for the UCC’s “Listen Up!” Bible Study Series.

I came across that vexing section of Romans 1, no not that one, this one: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1: 19-20).

These verses have often been employed to put forth one or another versions of the idea of General Revelation, so I paid attention when a short while later, while I was wasting time on Twitter, I came upon a thoughtful blog post by J. Scott Jackson entitled Got General Revelation? Well, Isn’t that Special! Continue reading

Preparing for Christmas with a prayer from Karl Barth

Finish

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent my pastor picked this prayer from Karl Barth as part of the prayers of the people for this morning. Barth wrote it in the middle of the last century, but it struck me as eerily contemporary. It helped me sort out some of what I need to do to prepare for Christmas, and so in that spirit, I share it with you:

Lord, our God and Father, give to many, to all, and to us as well, that we may celebrate Christmas like this: that in complete thankfulness, utter humility and then complete joy and confidence we may come to the One whom you have sent, and in whom you yourself have come to us. Clean out the many things in us that now that the hour has come have become impossible for us, can no longer belong to us, may, must, and will fall away from us, by virtue of your Son, our Lord and Savior, entering into our midst and creating order.

Have mercy on all of those who either do not yet or do not fully know you and your kingdom, who perhaps once knew everything and have either forgotten, misunderstood or even denied it! Have mercy on all of humankind, who today are once again especially plagued, threatened and haunted by so much foolishness. Enlighten the thoughts of those in both the East and the West, the South and the North who are in power and who, as appears to be the case, are today in complete confusion and despair. Give the rulers and representatives of the people, the judges, teachers, and bureaucrats, give even the media in our homeland the insight and sobriety that are necessary for their responsible work. Place the right, necessary and helpful words on the lips of those who have to preach during this Christmas Season, and open then also the ears and hearts of those who hear them. Comfort and encourage those who are sick, both in body and spirit, in hospitals, as well as prisoners, and those who are distressed, abandoned or despairing. Help them with what alone can truly help them and all of us: the clarity of your Word and the quiet work of your Holy Spirit.

We thank you that we are permitted to know that we do not pray and will never pray to you in vain. We thank you that you have let your light rise, that it shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it. We thank you that you are our God and that we may be called your people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, 2015)

The Towers we build? or God our Strong Tower? A Sermon on Psalm 46

strong towerGod is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear . . .  (Psalm 46)

 In ancient Israel strong fortifications offered security against the inevitable sweep of vast armies attacking from the North.  For hundreds of years Israel knew a succession of invaders:  Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans.  Years or even decades of peace could not erase the memories of long generations who knew what it meant to suffer at the hands of an invading army, or the fear that attends such memories.

Around 700 B.C. King Hezekiah of Judah created an alliance among his fortified cities with the help of Phoenician, Philistine and South Syrians states to stand up to the Assyrian King Sennacherib.  In preparation for the inevitable response Hezekiah beefed up his fortifications and even drilled a tunnel for the stream of Siloam to bring water to Jerusalem in case of a siege.

When Sennacherib did finally come in 701 the coastal cities fell quickly to his powerful army and he was soon able to bring the full power of his wrath to bear on Jerusalem.  This was during the time of the Prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem and you can read about this episode in the first part of the Book of Isaiah and also in the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Book of Kings.

At the worst hour Jerusalem was completely surrounded by the enemy and the people were full of fear. Their official spokesman, standing on the wall talking to the Assyrian emissaries, begged them to speak in Aramaic rather than in the Hebrew that could be understood so as not to demoralize the doomed people within the walls.  It was dawning on many of them that their strong towers had failed to provide the security that had been promised.

But when morning dawned the Assyrian army was gone, vanished, leaving only thousands of their dead at the camp.  How they died remains a mystery.  Somehow, by the grace of God, Jerusalem had been saved just as Isaiah had prophesied.  “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” (Psalm 46:5)

This event has traditionally been thought to be the original setting for Psalm 46, although it is always tricky to try to reconstruct a genuine historical setting from a psalm, “as if one could write the history of England on the basis of the Methodist hymn book!” (Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture,Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979, 509.)

Whatever its original setting this psalm speaks to our perennial human inclination to rely on strong towers of our own making rather than on God, who is “our  refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” No one builds a tower without counting the cost, said Jesus, but, O, the cost of these towers we build, from the tower of Babel to the tower of Siloam that fell and killed eighteen men. (Genesis 11:4–5; Luke 14:28; Luke 13:4)  So Hezekiah was neither the first nor the last to attempt to secure himself from harm by fortifying his defenses, as booming gun sales will confirm in our day.

That his provisions failed Israel but that God’s did not, may or may not have been the occasion for Psalm 46, but such an event is typical of Israel’s experience of the living God who provides the only real security they ever knew.  Many Psalms reflect this faith.  Gerhard Van Rad called his work on the Psalms Israel’s Answer to indicate that the Psalter is the community of faith’s response to it’s ongoing relationship to the living God.

The setting of the Psalm is a world turned upside down:

“Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

This is not just trouble, this is TROUBLE!  The language is the language of cosmic upheaval.  The waters above and the waters below that God pushed back on the third day of creation threaten to flood back in. “Water,” writes Karl Barth,

has a part in all the force of the human world which is hostile to Israel and therefore opposes the interests and glory of Israel’s God, but which is nevertheless ruled and guided and used by Him.”. . . [The existence of the waters of the upper as well as the lower cosmos] “demonstrates that the will of God will be fulfilled in a history which takes place in the sphere of His creation, and that what God does with the waters is no more and no less than a preliminary indication, indeed an anticipation of this history in its character as a divine triumph.” (Church Dogmatics,3.1, 149)

The roaring and foaming waters are more than a storm, they are chaos, a sign of all that threatens God’s order.

Likewise the mountains that shake in the heart of the sea are not just any mountains but the mountains which hold up the world, the foundations which are being shaken.  This mythologized cosmic TROUBLE is of a kind with all the trouble that “flesh is heir to”:  the test reports come back positive; an earthquake or riot shakes your neighborhood; you lose your job, or your spouse, or your faith, or your self–respect; Sennacherib and all his army waits outside your gates.

Trouble is often the beginning of faith in God who is our refuge and strength, for only when we have the “props of self–assertion” (Barth) knocked out from under us are we ready for the Word of God.  The therefore  that comes before “we will not fear” refers to God our refuge and strength.  Our lack of fear is conditional; it is trust in God alone, rather than some easy calm of our own devising.  Hear Calvin on this, in his commentary on Psalm 46:

It is an easy matter to manifest the appearance of great confidence, so long as we are not placed in imminent danger: but if, in the midst of a general crash of the whole world, our minds continue undisturbed and free of trouble, this is an evident proof that we attribute to the power of God the honor which belongs to him.  When the sacred poet says, “We will not fear”, he is not to be understood as meaning that the minds of the godly are exempt from all solicitude or fear, as if they were destitute of feeling, for there is a great difference between insensibility and the confidence of faith. John Calvin, “Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Volume 2”, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 5, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1979, 196.

This confidence of God is captured in Martin Luther’s marvelous hymn based on Psalm 46: “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” which was then put into English by Thomas Carlyle as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and, better known in America, as “A Mighty Fortress is our God” by Frederick Hedge.  In any version of the hymn God the fortress stands in contrast to all strongholds built with hands.

We see in the Psalm another contrast, that between the roaring, tumultuous waters of chaos and the “river whose streams make glad the city of God.”  Where before God restrains the water, here God sends the water for a life–giving purpose.  Like Ezekiel 47:1-12, where a river is described that encircles the temple and gets deeper and deeper, bringing forth trees “whose leaves do not fade nor fruits fail” till finally it reaches the Dead Sea and desalinates it, here in Psalm 46 is a river of life.  These passages “speak of a river of life which first blesses the earthly sanctuary chosen and established by God, and then the whole face of the earth, fructifying it, quenching its thirst, healing its wounds, refreshing and renewing all creation.  This is what has become of the universally destructive chaos–element of water in the second creation saga.  This is what it now attests and signifies.  It is no longer the water averted and restrained but the water summoned forth by God.  It is no longer now the suppressed enemy of man but his most intimate friend.  It is no longer his destruction but his salvation.  It is not a principle of death, but of life.” (Barth, CD 3.1,280)

This river of life is now no longer geographically localized in Jerusalem, just as God’s dwelling place gets unfixed from the earthly Zion.  The statements in the Psalms about the dwelling place or throne of God are made of the place which can not be found on any map.

So where can God, who is our refuge and strength, be found?  In the Old Testament there is, of course, always a dwelling place that can be found on a map, but the freedom of God prohibits a simple equation of God with any place.  This is the point of Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4:20), when she notes that the Jews worship in Jerusalem and the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim.   Jesus’s declaration to her that God is to be worshipped “in Spirit and in truth” and that he himself is the expected Messiah who will “tell us all things” shows us where God has now chosen to reside:

“The opposite of Jerusalem and Gerizim and all temples made with hands—and we can apply it and say the opposite of Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and Canterbury—is not the universe at large, which is the superficial interpretation of Liberalism, but Jesus.” (Barth, CD, 2.1, 481)

What Israel once looked for in Zion is now found in Jesus Christ, the one Word of God. The God who speaks this Word in the flesh of Jesus is the One who calls back the waters of chaos and calls forth the waters of life; who conquers the forces of evil, the sources of trouble (“one little word shall fell him”, Luther says of the devil”) who “makes wars to cease to the end of the earth”

John the Divine’s vision of the river of life describes it as flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb.  “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.” (Revelation  22:1,2a)

Although the heavenly city can not be strictly identified with any earthly city, those who pray daily, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”  do well to practice its life–giving imperatives in every earthly city, even the contemporary cities of wrath where the enemy lies not without the walls but within.  The one who piles up the weapons for burning (Psalm 46:9) reminds us to “Be still, and know that I an God!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

Commentator J. Clinton McCann, Jr. suggests that “Be still, and know that I am God!” is not a good translation. “Contemporary readers almost inevitably hear it as a call to meditation or relaxation, when it should be heard in light of verse 9 as something like ‘Stop!’ or ‘Throw down your weapons!’ In other words, depend on your God instead of yourselves.”

Depend on God, our refuge and strength, a fortress never failing. A strong tower, God causes the towers built by our hands to fall, as in this Easter poem by Arnold Kenseth:

On Easter the great tower of me falls.

I had built it well; my mind had planned it

After being schooled; my will had special wit

To dig me deep foundations, solid walls,

Blocks of moral toughness, windows to see

The enemy, the friend; large rooms, I thought

For light; and storey upon storey me

I raised, and famously my fame I sought.

So driven to prove the world with my estate.

I had not heard Christ on Good Friday die,

His body crooked, broke, and all friends fled.

I had not wept his cause in my carouse.

But now bold bells scatter against the sky,

And Christ is shattering my death, my pride;

As walls, blocks, windows, rooms, my silly penthouse

Spill into the dust I am, my narrow fate.

At last set free from virtue, knowledge, strife,

I mourn, then praise my God, and enter life.

“Easter” by Arnold Kenseth

The Ritual Year, Amherst Writers and Artists Press, 1993

I preached this on April 8, 1994 at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts 01201.

Ruminations on the Perplexing Task of Ministry: Arnold Kenseth’s “Ordination”

I have been ordained now nearly thirty-six years, and although I can rattle off a pretty coherent explanation of the meaning of ordination my own has never entirely lost a sense of mystery and wonder about it.

My daughter is presently in her final year of divinity school and about to present her ordination paper this week, and I think it was reading hers that got me ruminating on my own.

Being a minister of the church is a living conundrum, as Karl Barth describes it so well in his section on “the Task of Ministry”: “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (The Word of God and the Word of Man, p. 186).

Where prose fails to capture this paradox poetry frequently does better.  I have often turned to the poetry of my friend Arnold Kenseth, who died in 2003, especially the collection of poems he entitled “Reflections of an Unprofitable Servant.” Here’s one of my favorites:

Ordination

I was anointed. A fire. Yes, I tell you.
An adazzle. His rare thump numbed me, awed
Me down to size and up to Him. Prayed, pawed
By the laying on of hands, myself anew
And aloft; I became lion to roar Him,
Eagle to lift Him, donkey to bear Him. I,
In that sunburst, languaged with seraphim,
Promised myself to be (Ha!) His emissary.

I did not, friends, manage much. True, I found
Fluency, but not roar. I have been sparrow;
And though jackass as most, I could not be least
Even for Him.  He was scarlet and vast
And radiant and restful. He sang such sound
I heard the earth unloose itself from sorrow.

(Arnold Kenseth, Seasons and Sceneries, Windhover Press, 2002)