Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers. Translated by David Carl Stassen (London/Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 63 pp.+xii, $10.36.
Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers…But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other…but also in that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ (p. 1).
So begins the first of fifty prayers by Karl Barth in this delightful little collection by Westminster John Knox. With the exception of a few unprinted prayers, those here are taken from Karl Barth, Predigten 1954-1967, third edition (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2003) which reissued them from two earlier volumes long out of print, Fürchte dich nicht and Dem Defangenen Befreiung. Although I did not cross check all of them, at least one of the Pentecost prayers was previously translated and published with twelve others in Prayer:50th Anniversary Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2002).
From his 1962 forward to Fürchte dich nicht, Barth describes his longstanding dislike for liturgy and all manner of worship formalities. The formalism and distance in language between the liturgy and the modern worshipper both chaffed and prompted him to begin replacing the prayers of the liturgy with those of his own crafting. Praying with the congregation extemporaneously, he confessed, was “a risk” he would never dare, so he brought together various biblical passages from the Psalms. In time, he began fashioning those prayers himself and it is from that context that these were collected. In his words, their publication was an entrance “into the society of true liturgy only through a back door.”
Barth envisioned worship leaders or congregations using these prayers for planning services or for personal reflection, and considering their thematic organization here around the seasons of the liturgical year they could effectively serve that purpose.
Beyond that, however, new readers of Barth and those more intimately acquainted with the unique delight of losing oneself in his impassioned (and sometimes circuitous) thought will cherish the opportunity to pray with him through these pages. And in praying with him, the reader can’t help but glimpse the contours of his theology.
A few of my favorites:
Do not allow us to harden ourselves to [your faithfulness]! Continually awaken us from the sleep of indifference and the bad dreams of our pious and impious passions and desires! Do not tire of continually guiding us back onto your path! (p. 10)
Lord our God, when we are afraid, do not permit us to doubt! When we are disappointed, let us not become bitter! When we have fallen, do not leave us lying down! When we have come to the end of our understanding and our powers, do not leave us to die! No, let us then feel your nearness and your love, that you have promised to those whose hearts are humble and broken, and who fear your Word (p. 11-12)
None of us is a great Christian; rather, we are all very small Christians. But your grace is sufficient for us. Awaken us to the small joy and thankfulness that we are capable of, the timid faith that we bring, the incomplete obedience that we cannot refuse – to the hope in the greatness, wholeness, and completeness that you have prepared for us in the death of our Lord, Jesus Christ and that you have promised to us in his resurrection from the dead (p. 30)