Wednesday, March 19, 2008

"Watch and Pray" - A Holy Week Meditation

"Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matt 26:41)

'Watch and pray' is a theme I have adopted for holy week this year. I like the NASB rendition of Matthew 26:41. Keep watching and praying vividly expresses the Greek verbs. They are command verbs addressed to the hearers, something to be followed like a soldier to a commanding officer's instructions. In the Greek, while both verbs, 'watch' and 'pray' are in the present tense and in the imperative moods, their voice differs.

Watch is in the active voice. It means that the subject is the one to perform the action. Jesus's disciples were commanded to watch. Pray is in the middle voice. There is no English equivalent for this middle voice. There are two things involved. Not only is the action expected to be performed, it is also performed on the person himself. An example may help. it is like a man on the top of the mountain, shouting and anticipating an echo in return. This listening to the echo keeps one in a discerning mode, to hear the prompting of the Spirit of God. Eugene Peterson translates "Watch and Pray" clearly in this
Stay alert; be in prayer so you don't wander into temptation without even knowing you're in danger.
Hence, not only watch and pray are to be treated as one action, it keeps an eye on the external as well as the internal. Sometimes we tend to think that watching is looking out for the external forces of evil. That is too narrow an interpretation. When we watch, we maintain a careful look at what is happening outside as well as inside. Likewise, when we pray, we keep a ready heart not only to intercede for one another but to watch out for temptations that lurks in our hearts. True watchfulness and prayers is always mindful of any temptation that spring up.

Unfortunately in the gospel narrative, the disciples failed miserably. Knowing that his execution is near, Jesus prayed and watch for his own temptations to flee from the troubles ahead. He asked if it is possible to avoid the cup. He asked that no matter what, God's will be done. Imagine after realizing that there is no way out for him, when he returned to his disciples, three times, they were found sleeping. It is like a tornado approaching the house, and yet the people are still relaxing and sleeping, oblivious to the coming disaster.

When we watch and pray, we must be aware that unrighteous thoughts may emerge. Once a heart is stilled, thoughts of evil may appear and tempt us toward bad deeds. By watching and praying, we see reality in all its fulness. We recognize that life is not what it seems.
  • We see clearly that our stress to meet office deadlines is nothing compared to the strain of family members seeing a loved one dying in hospital.
  • We see that we are unrighteous in ourselves, and will be ashamed. When we pray for others, we are also humbled to recognize the need of others to pray for us too.
  • We see that the problems we face in the rich West or our affluent society are nothing compared to the poverty and immense illness happening in the other 90% of the world.
Are we sleeping disciples in a spiritual sense? Do we realize how depraved we are in our hearts? That if we were to be stripped one day to our barest essential, we will be thankful for the bread crumbs we see on the table. About possessions, when a person's multimillion dollar shares plummets to the status of junk bonds, will he then be able to see any meaning in life? About relationships, when a person's loved ones disappear in the time of need, will she then start to wonder where her real and true friends are? Maybe, spending more time building relationships are better than earning more money. About our future, when are we going to do what we have always wanted to do, knowing that life is unpredictable and we do not know when we will die? Certainly it will be a pity when anyone exchanges his most capable years of his life in order to do the least desirable work. What a pity when a person's best asset (of youth) in life is spent on the least desirable goals. All too frequent I have heard people saying: "I wish I could have done this when I am younger." What good will it be to have all the money in the world when one cannot use it? Or to have all the time in the world, but without knowing what to do with it. One of my favourite illustrations about the paradox of life goes like this.
  • When we are young kids, while we have all the time and energy in the world, we have no money.
  • When we become adults, we have no time, except earning money with great energy.
  • When we become old, we have more time, more money, but no more energy like before.
Being watchful and prayerful in our youths, keeps us focused on fleeing from the temptations of youth, especially any greed over money. We avoid stealing or covetousness as we watch our hearts carefully. As adults, we watch and pray to learn to see the limits of our efforts. We can then realize that no matter how much time we put into our work, there is always work that continues to pile up. Nothing can ever be fully done. When we become old, as we watch and pray, we pray that our recollections of life is not one of regret but one of thankfulness. We may have moments of regret but we ought to realize too, that time to see God is fast approaching. Hence, I am strongly in favour of inter-generational church members to be in any church congregation. We need to learn and to be reminded of the many phases of a person's life.

My prayer for you my readers, that at any point of our life, God will be there with you. That whatever temptations you sense arising out of your hearts, God will strengthen you, to overcome them with you. God will help give you a sense of hope, that as we remember Jesus's death on the cross, we will not give up hope. We will continue to keep faith. We will live out faith and hope in the bond of love. May the story below, encourage all of us to maintain a posture of "Watch and Pray." It is not easy to determine ourselves to follow and obey Christ. Jesus himself admitted the tough struggles. However, because he is able to overcome, we have this confidence that with his help, we too can overcome. Until that victorious moment arrives, we need to continue this stance of watching and praying not only for holy week, but for all the weeks God has created and ordained for our good enjoyment."
"I think that If a man does not guard his heart well, he will forget and neglect everything he has heard, and thus the enemy, finding room in him, will overthrow him. It is like a lamp filled with oil and lit; if you forget to replenish the oil, gradually it goes out and eventually darkness will prevail. It is still worse if a rat happens to get near the lamp and tries to eat the wick; it cannot do so before the oil is exhausted, but when it sees the lamp not only without light, but also without heat, it tries to pull out the wick and it brings the lamp down. If it is earthenware it breaks, but if it is brass, the master of the house will fill it up with oil again. In the same way, through the soul's negligence, the Holy Spirit gradually withdraws until his warmth is completely extinguished. Finally the enemy devours the ardour of the soul and wickedness spoils the body, too. But if a man is sound in his attachment to God, and has only been led away through negligence, God in his mercy, sends his fear to him and the remembrance of punishment and so prepares him to be vigilant and to guard himself with more prudence in the future, until his visitation." (Abba Orsisius) from [Benedicta Ward, ed. Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 161-162.]


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