Holy Saturday: “Watchful and thankful”


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Colossians 4:2

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.NIV

Watchful and thankful

The translation in the New Revised Standard Version talks about “keeping alert” which too easily suggests the problem is that we might nod off to sleep – which, in turn, suggests that prayer is a task to perform rather than a living and breathing relationship seeking for God’s work and will to be done in us and the world.

I think what our author has in mind is living and praying with our eyes open to the work of God in us and in the world. And if our eyes are open to the grace of God that is happening in and around us, then we will also be thankful.

It is too easy to forget to watch. And when our eyes are not open, we miss the opportunities not only to witness God’s grace, but to share in it. We miss the chance to rejoice with those who rejoice and we are not available to weep with those who weep. We miss the opportunity to do grace, to show compassion, to being healing. We miss the chance to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

If the women were not watching, they would not have seen the empty tomb or the risen Christ in their midst. And if we are not watchful and thankful, we miss the true joy and wonder and power of prayer.


Good Friday: “Into your hands”


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Psalm 31:5

Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

“Into your hands”

Perhaps no words define Jesus more than these: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Luke records them as Jesus’ dying words. John writes that Jesus gave up his spirit,” though the Greek suggests not so much that Jesus breathed his last, but that he “handed over his Spirit,” which is an entirely different thing – especially since the risen Jesus will breathe his Spirit upon his followers. Matthew and Mark record the cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” but in quoting those words Jesus is calling to mind the whole of Psalm 22 which, though a lament, is also a great expression of submission and trust.

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

In the garden, Jesus prays for this cup to pass him by “but,” he says, not my will but yours be done (so also in Matthew and Mark). And this truth of Jesus is bluntly stated in John where Jesus says: I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” And again:My food is to do the will of him who sent me.”

Jesus entrusts himself perfectly and completely to God. From his first act following his baptism, when he is driven out into the wilderness to face the devil, through to his final breath, Jesus trusts himself fully to God. We come on Good Friday to witness this. And in the witnessing to pray that all the world may be touched and transformed by his faithfulness.

And when we look carefully at the prayer Jesus taught us, we see that it, too, breathes this Spirit of perfect trust, seeking God’s will and God’s reign in our lives.

“Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

Day 40: Joyful in hope


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Maundy Thursday

Romans 12:12

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (NIV)

Joyful in hope

It may seem odd to begin the Paschal Triduum, the three day observance from Maundy Thursday through Good Friday into the first light of Easter, with an injunction to be joyful – but as sobering as these days are, they are filled with wondrous light. Here is a God who comes to dwell among us. Here is the divine reality at the heart of the universe that wraps himself in a towel and washes the stink off his followers’ feet. Here is the heart of the cosmos that shares bread and wine with us. Here is the heartbeat of all existence that surrenders itself into the hands of evil men. This is a story of monumental love. This is a story of unbreakable fidelity. This is a witness to a divine reality that will not turn away from this troubled world, but will raise it from death to life – will raise us from whatever bondage into the fullness of the existence for which we were formed.

Joy and hope run deep in this story. And whatever sorrows afflict us as we witness human cruelty, God is not leaving the world where the bodies of children lie drowned on the seashore or limp in their father’s arms. God is not leaving the world where hunger emaciates while others feast. God is not leaving the world where the humanity of others is dismissed or denied. To use the old fashioned religious word, God is not leaving us in our sins.

So we are patient in affliction. We are faithful in prayer. Our hearts turn to this God who embraces a troubled world in joyful hope. Christ is betrayed but risen. Christ is spat upon but exalted. Christ is pierced but alive in our midst. And wherever kindness is shown to the least of these, Christ is present, the grave emptied and sin banished.

Day 39: Not just words


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Psalm 19:14

Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer.

Not just words

There was a generation of pastors who began their sermons with a spoken prayer and this verse. It feels archaic, now, but the truth of it abides. The words from the pulpit ought to be holy. They ought to be pleasing to God, faithful to God’s own Spirit and grace. Our parish has taken down our large old pulpit that stood several steps higher than the assembly. We have a single reading desk, now, using the lectern that once stood on the opposite side of the chancel from that pulpit. It is theologically correct to have only one place for the reading of the scriptures, instead of the practice of reading the first and second lessons from a lectern and the Gospel from a pulpit, for it is all word of God; it is all inspired of the Spirit; it is all a vessel of God’s encounter with his rebellious sons and daughters.

But something of the sacred task can be lost without a pulpit. Preaching can drift towards entertainment or opinion or advice. “Three steps to a richer prayer life,” rather than an encounter through the text with the transcendent reality whose open hands bear the mark of nails even as they hold out to us the bread of life.

And what is true of preaching can also be true of our prayer. The Lord’s Prayer can be uttered in a rote and meaningless manner or with every word full of yearning, confidence and hope that God’s name might be holy and God’s will be done on earth and in me.

As we come now to walk together through these unique and wondrous days from Maundy Thursday to Easter morning, it is important to let the words of this psalm be upon our lips:

Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O Lord,
my rock and my redeemer.

Day 38: Storm swept


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Psalm 32:6

Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.

Storm swept

I wonder what image came to mind as the poet wrote this phrase, “the rush of mighty waters.” Has he been in one of the wadis of the Judean desert when a flash flood swept down the canyon? Has he been caught in one of the cascades of the Jordan when it drops down from Mt. Hermon? Is he thinking of the overwhelming emotions of fear and anxiety when a child lies sick? Has he wrestled with a desperate shame? Is there some allusion here to the primal waters of chaos to which God brought grace and order by his Word? I wish I knew.

What is clear from the psalm is that the internal war that comes with the refusal to see and acknowledge one’s sins is a deeply troubling one. Denial drags us down into chaos as we struggle against realities that demand to be named if we are ever to be free. When fault is denied, when blame is put on others, when protestations of innocence are too loud, the ties that connect us to others are rent. We lose the communion upon which life depends. We are swept up in a storm of guilt and anger that is aptly compared to floodwaters threatening to swallow us.

But those who are rooted in the faithfulness of God are able to pray the prayers that need to be uttered, are able to speak the words that must be said, are able to name the truth that must be named – and with that confession, find safe haven. It’ s not a simple peace, the conscience still winces and blushes, but the floodwaters do not overwhelm. We do not drown. We do not perish.

We draw near to Good Friday, to that moment when we must stand with a human race that slaughters the innocent. We draw near to that telling mirror that reminds us how easy it is for us to choose Barabbas, the man of action, the man of the sword, over the man of peace. We draw near. It is not an easy confession. But those who know the faithfulness of God are able to make it. Those who are familiar with the landscape of prayer find their way, ultimately, to the place where the body lay and see that the tomb is empty and grace rules over all.

Day 37: Love and Justice


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Jeremiah 9:24

“Let those who boast boast in this,
that they understand and know me,
that I am the LORD;
I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
for in these things I delight, says the LORD.”

Love and Justice

Prayer can never depart far from the character of God without ceasing to be prayer. Prayer that is not about steadfast love, justice and righteousness is not prayer but magical thinking. It is children who believe that catching parents in a good mood is the secret to getting their desires fulfilled. It is children who believe that buttering up parents by good behavior or gracious words is the key to obtaining favors. It is children who believe that making a scene can serve to win their wishes. It is want and demand and greed and self, not prayer.

We are most successful in our requests as children when we understand who are parents are and what they value – and ask for things in keeping with those values. Mom would never buy me a BB gun, not matter how much I wheedled and nagged, but she would buy me a guitar. And she would have bought me piano lessons had I asked; she valued music.

What does God value? Those are the things to seek. If God is a God who delights in love, justice and righteousness, these should be our prayer. Compassion, generosity, truth, courage, hope, mercy, patience, endurance, sacrifice – these are the things we should ask for God to quicken in us. These are the things we should ask for God to quicken in the world – for these are the things we find in God, and these are things we are taught to seek in the prayer Jesus gave us.

Day 36: Perfect love


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Psalm 62:5-7

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

Perfect Love

This Sunday is a strange mix of celebration and sadness. The liturgy begins with the festive celebration with palms but ends with the story of Christ’s passion. We gather with the sweetness of Hot Cross Buns and go home in silence.

The parade turns into a walk of shame. How could we have done that? How could we have crucified the one who came to us with all the gifts of heaven?

We are like the poet of this psalm, lying on his bed thinking about all these things. The poet, however, is “satisfied as with a rich feast.” He lies down at night filled with contentment and quiet joy. He feels the wings of the seraphs around him. He is held in the arms of God.

And, in truth, we should feel that, too, on Palm Sunday. Though the story contains sorrow upon sorrow at a humanity that pounds the nails, it is also a story of perfect love. Transcendent love. Holy love. Perfect faithfulness. Wondrous mystery. Here is the face of God who meets a murderously rebellious humanity with mercy.

There is joy there, in the shadow of the cross – joy that marvels in the night on the wonder of heaven’s perfect love.

And we – we have been satisfied with a rich feast; we have shared the bread of the kingdom.

Week 6: Passion Week


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My little brother was brilliant at racing through the table grace at dinner time: “Comelordjesusbeourguestandletourdailybreadbeblessedamen.” He could recite it in well under two seconds.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are not muttering routine words. This is not a magic formula or a simple identity badge. At dinner, we are inviting Christ to sit at the table with us. At bedtime, “Now I lay me down to sleep” entrusts me to the caring arms of God. And the Lord’s Prayer plants me deeply in the center of this remarkable faith that Christ Jesus has brought to us the dawning of God’s reign, the first light of the new creation, and the assurance that the full light of day awaits. It asks for God’s will and work be done in me and in the world around us. It asks God to grant what is needful and keep us from what is harmful. It breathes the Spirit of the one who healed and forgave and welcomed outcasts and sinners. It breathes the Spirit of the one who laid down his life and was raised. It shines with the light of God’s perfect grace. It is right for us to say this prayer with trust and awe and gratitude. It is right for us to say, at the end, “Amen. Let it be so.”

The Prayer for Week 6, Passion Week:

To you, O God, all voices rise,
and you hear the cries of the whole human community.
Send forth your Spirit into every heart
that we may walk the path of life. Amen

[Conclusion:] “Amen.”

What does this mean?

Amen means Yes, it shall be so. We say Amen because we are certain that such petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by him. For he himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us.

The Small Catechism by Martin Luther in Contemporary English, Augsburg Publishing, ©1960,1968

Day 35: See me


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Psalm 139:24

See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

See me

When we are children, we like the gaze of our parents as they cheer us from the sidelines or smile benevolently as we master the playground. But there are times we don’t want their watchful eyes. Maybe it is only because we are trying something we haven’t yet mastered. When my daughter. Anna, was learning to read, she wouldn’t read for us, but she would put the dog on the leash and take her into the bathroom, sit on the leash and read to the dog. She needed to know all the words before she would read aloud to us. (I know it makes us sound like critical parents, but it truly was just her nature.)

The poet invites God’s examining gaze. The poet invites God to search his heart. To look for anything that was contrary to the heart of God. To search out any ‘uncleanness’ of body or spirit. It is a pretty daring prayer. Most of us wouldn’t want God to look too closely.

But the poet knows that the purpose of God is not condemnation. God’s purpose is to free what is bound and make whole what is broken. “Perfect love casts out fear,” writes the author of 1 John, and God is perfect love. Jesus can free Zacchaeus without ever saying a word about his thievery. And Jesus can free the woman caught in adultery without ever naming her a sinner.

This daring prayer – the Lord’s Prayer as a whole and this petition about temptation in particular – is for God to see me truly, that he might lead me in the path of life that endures forever.

Day 34: Blessed


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Psalm 119:1

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.


The word ‘happy’ is sometimes translated ‘blessed’. It could also mean ‘how honorable’. It refers to much more than simple happiness, but to that contentment and goodness that comes in those moments when we are at peace with ourselves and the world around us. I remember an episcopal priest in the troubled days of the late 60’s and early 70’s who spoke about the changing liturgy in their new prayer book. “It used to be,” he said, “that for one hour every week I knew exactly where I was suppose to be and what I was supposed to say.” But with the new prayer book, he lost even that.

This notion of being where I belong and doing what I am supposed to be doing – there is a deep goodness in it. Even a ‘happiness’. It is honorable, because all the obligations to God and neighbor are observed. It is content because all those obligations are kept. No one whispers doubts and disparagements in the community. No one feels the need to take you down a peg. No one resents your place. It’s why it’s hard to surrender the translation ‘blessed’.

The poet knows that such blessedness is rooted in God’s Torah – the stories, instructions, commands, songs and prayers that comprise the scriptures, the text through which God guides and sustains life. We would also say that such blessedness is rooted in Christ, because Christ is the embodiment of God’s word. When we pray that we would not be led into temptation, we are praying that God will keep us here, in the realm of the Spirit, in the peace of Christ, in the joy of the kingdom, in the light of the empty tomb.