Slo-mo prayer

Everyone’s happy for the extra time off in March. For those in school, children and teachers can enjoy some leisure and vacation time. Then, at the end of the month, comes the extra long, four-day weekend at a time when Spring and warmer weather brightens our days.

Indeed, the holy days are upon us. But it’s not really just party time. It looks like that on the surface or at the start: The singing of hosannas, palm branches waving, praising the coming of the Messiah into Jerusalem riding a … wait. A pony? Is this a joke?

Palm Sunday starts the final leg, so to speak, on our Lenten journey. And what seems on the surface like the start of a holiday (that is, to relax and enjoy some well-earned leisure and play) is in truth an invitation to go deeper and reflect not only on the good life, but to go underneath and look at our suffering and pain. In Christian language, we call it the crosses we bear.

It is time now to look at the big picture of our life without ignoring the present sometimes difficult reality. How can we do that?

This Holy Week we are invited to slow down. And take a deep breath. And be honest, with ourselves and the truth of our lives. Not to grovel in a depressive, morbid mire of self-hate. But to lift to the light everything that has been hidden, kept secret, denied, overlooked, suppressed in the shadows and dark recesses of our hearts. In the end, it can be cause of a deeper joy and freedom; at first, though, it can be distressing and anxious-filled.

The path of Jesus shows us the way through it all. Where Jesus goes and how he does it offers us a way to forgiveness, release and true happiness. But first we must bear our cross. As we slow down, we pray.

Pray. As Jesus, on the night of his arrest, commanded his sleepy disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane not once but twice: “Get up and pray, that you may not come into the time of trail” (Luke 22:40,46). Jesus not only shows us what to pray, but also how to pray.

I follow the Ottawa Senators NHL team on Instagram. And before every game they post a short video montage, lasting no more than 15 seconds or so, of the players getting ready for the big game.

What’s attractive about the video to me, is to see how they splice together several brief clips of various moves the players make on and off the ice: back-slapping a team mate, practising a slap shot, the goalie making a glove save, skating towards the puck, a pre-game ritual.

But what keeps my attention is where the editors choose to speed up and slow down a few of the segments. Strategically done in an appealing way, the montage goes back and forth between periodic slow-motion action clips and real-time moves.

The whole presentation is enhanced because the real time rapid action shots are interspersed with slow motion shots. In fact, because they slow down some of the action, I can appreciate and enjoy a particular move even more — for all the skill and intention it entails.

In other words, it’s not boring. Slowing down, from time to time, actually gives energy. Slowing down, from time to time, gives clarity, focus and meaning to the activity and the whole picture. Slowing down, from time to time, allows me to get a good look at what is actually happening in all that I do.

And that’s what we do when we pray as Jesus did. Throughout his life of ministry, Jesus moved around a lot in the region of Galilee — healing people and teaching them about God. He covered great distances by foot. He didn’t even have a home base. 

But as was his custom, even before suffering betrayal, arrest and branded a criminal to die a horrific death on the cross, Jesus slowed things down. He went to quiet places on a hillside, by himself usually, to pray.

The feeling I have every Palm Sunday is like I’m seeing a video montage of Jesus’ life, ministry, and Passion. Just short segments highlighted with the larger flow of the story. Certain shots are in real time, sometimes even sped up because we also see the cross on Palm Sunday. But then there are the segments that slow right down.

Jesus was already practised in the art of slowing down to pray, so that from the cross came two prayers that can not be rushed, denied, suppressed, hidden: There’s a prayer for forgiveness (“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” – Luke 23:34) and a prayer of relinquishment/release (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” – Luke 23:46). (1)

Whom was Jesus forgiving? The disciples who deserted him, the Roman soldiers who killed him, the ruling religious elite who condemned him to death, yes. Was he forgiving us all forever, for all our sins? This is the Gospel.

Did they “know what they were doing”? Only in part. None of us knows the full extent of our sinning or the full harm we do. God’s forgiveness covers all.

In his prayer of relinquishment, Jesus offers to his Father – Abba – what he has been offering all along: his life into the hands of God who is ever faithful. Jesus quotes Psalm 31, an evening prayer which may very well have been the bedtime prayer for Hebrew children and their parents. It is the prayer of “letting go”.

And Jesus asks his disciples to do the same. So, we can say, especially bearing our own crosses: “O God, take my sticky fingers off the controls, and place my life and life of my loved ones in better hands than mine. In your hands.”

It’s in our nature not to want to slow down. It’s in our nature to go-go-go. Slowing down, being silent and still, forgiving and letting go, is especially difficult in our day and age when we are so used to being stimulated by rapid-fire activity, lots of noise, and when we have total control.

The irony is that our lives of activity and go-go-go will have even more effect should we also intersperse that activity with regular times of slowing down to pray as Jesus did.

It has always been a tradition for Christians to pray silently, to just be, in the presence of God. We pray without having to do a whole lot. And this reminds us that God is already with us, Jesus already loves us and is already doing stuff in the world — even before we do anything. The practice of prayer has given Christians through the centuries great energy and peace for life, even more so had they not made the time for prayer.

If someone would do a video montage of your life to date — reviewing all the things you have done, places you’ve visited, people you’ve been with — would it also include shots of you being silent, still, praying by yourself and with others?

I think that would make a really cool video!

(1) – H. Stephen Shoemaker in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds “Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word” Year C, Volume 2, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2009, p.183

To be Lutheran, to be ‘both-and’

What is our vocation? Professor Mary Jane Haemig at Luther Seminary in Minneapolis/St Paul describes it this way: Our vocation was born in us when we were created by God. When we were born, we received our vocation to care for others in creation, to serve a world in need.

Basically, our common vocation as human beings is mutual support and care, which reflects our interdependence with one another and the importance of all our relationships – with creation, with ourselves, with others, and with God.

Professor Haemig goes on to say that at our Baptism, God forgives us our sins of failing to live out our vocation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are forgiven and set free to live for the sake of others. The cross of Christ not only saves us from our sins, it saves us for serving the needs of others.

Reflected here is something that characterizes the Lutheran brand of Christianity. Those of us who undertook the “Lutheran Course Two” this past month – including our new members whom we receive formally this day – discovered this “two-handed” style of thinking that is prevalent not only in Lutheran theology but in our practice of faith. For example, one of Martin Luther’s famous sayings was that we are simultaneously saints and sinners.

Not either/or, this or that, black or white. But both/and.

Rather than pit a vacation apart from vocation, then, we would affirm that vocations can still be lived out during a vacation. Martin Luther was very clear to state that all people in society were members of the ‘spiritual’ class – not only bishops, pastors, and religious people. Even the most mundane of jobs can be living out our God-given vocation. It’s not so much what we do, but how we do it.

With what attitude and attention to others around us do we approach and do our jobs? Can we be on vacation and still exercise our vocation – when we spend time with our family and nurture our friendships and build healthy relationships reflecting the love and truth of God? On the other hand, can our vocations be fun, at times – as are vacations?

Yes, and Yes!

Am I on vacation or living my vocation?

It’s a church joke that during a religious service whenever something happens that is somewhat serendipitous or unexpected it must be the Holy Spirit!

In my former parish where the church gathered in a hundred year-old building, bats were a problem; I can now laugh at memories of the most poignant moments of funerals, weddings and sermons where a bat would swoop down from the heavens …. The Holy Spirit!

Or, at an emotional high of a sermon, or during the Holy Communion, or at the dramatic climax of a bible reading – the power would go out, a lightning would flash and the clap of thunder would boom, or a gust of wind would rattle the windows and whistle through the eaves ….. The Holy Spirit!

The joke always reveals a slice of truth. When the Holy Spirit comes, we are indeed surprised, rendered speechless and startled, even. We laugh, maybe because the timing couldn’t be better.

But, on Friday when the magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck just kilometers from my home, I wasn’t laughing and I didn’t think the timing was the great.

Because it was my day-off, and I was trying to relax and enjoy a stress-free ‘vacation’, so to speak. When dishware and glasses startled rattling and the floors started heaving, I was pulled out of my dream-like state and escapist reverie into a moment of stark reality.

I was forced to face the reality of life and death. In a split second, I wondered if I should vacate the house and save my skin. And in that second I wondered if our two-story duplex would collapse over me.

When the shaking subsided, I couldn’t help but be brought out of my ‘vacation’ and into an appreciation of my ‘vocation’. I had to be grounded – excuse the pun – and re-orient myself in who I am and my purpose in life. So, I looked outside my window to see if there was any damage on our street and/or distressed neighbors in need. I remembered that, deep down, my calling in life draws me to others and serving their needs.

At this time of year, indeed, being the first long weekend of the unofficial summer season, I’m dreaming of vacations. Maybe you are, too. I look forward to a time to rest, restore, get away from it all and enjoy God’s beautiful creation.

At the same time, I realize yet again that just because we may be on a vacation, we are still living out our vocation. The word, ‘vocation’, comes from the Latin word which means “to call”. Our vocation is what God calls us to be and do. And, we cannot escape that vocation – even though we may try.