Around 6 years ago I was given an opportunity to step into a temporary role as Youth Pastor to a small town Church in Saskatchewan (due to a maternity leave). During the 10 months that I spent with this Church I had the opportunity to make many great memories, including a commitment to a 3 and a half hour commute and the privilege of meeting and serving an incredible group of students. But one of the more interesting moments of this brief tenure arrived when the Pastor informed me he had decided to go on a sabbatical. This meant that I was now taking up the role of small “p” pastor to the Church as a whole in his absence.
Of course a part of this position was doing the sermons on Sunday mornings.
Going into this job also came at a time of serious transition for my wife and I, which included a period of loss (in the family and in my previous place of employment), the news of our infertility, and the prospect of doing the whole long distance relationship thing for ten months. For me personally, this job turned all of this into an opportunity to reflect on my profession and to rediscover my passion.
And it was in middle of all this that I ended up making the decision to devote my sermons to the subject of prayer, a subject that I find I return to often in times of transition. For the series I narrowed in on the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11 (The Lord’s Prayer), and what I discovered in my personal study was that, more than any other Gospel, Luke finds Jesus consistently on His knees and giving himself to prayer in everything that He faced and everything that He did.
This also happened to be the year that the first big-screen Thor movie was released as a part of the growing MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for those who are unfamiliar). What was really interesting, and timely, about my experience with this film was that it ended up offering me a rather powerful parallel between the “god out of water” story of Thor, and the god in flesh story that we find in Luke’s Gospel. And the more I thought about the film, the more it managed to impact the way that I saw prayer working both in scripture and in world around me, including in my own life.
CAUGHT BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH
What immediately impressed me after seeing the film was the way in which the story melded together the two worlds- Asgard and Earth, as a singular, connected reality. The film seamlessly moves back and forth between both worlds, creating an intriguing contrast between the two environments. In the film, earth lives under the great shadow of the unseen realm of Asgard, and the journey of one of the film’s central characters, Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman), is learning how to see the unseen world from the context of her own reality. In the context of the film, Jane has this unsettled passion to seek after the unknown, a passion that is fuelled by the idea that there is something greater out there than that which she is currently able to see and recognize. And what she discovers is a truth that is able to give greater meaning to the role she plays in her earthly environment. Unbeknownst to her, a battle has in fact been raging between the powers of good and evil in the realm of Asgard, a battle in which life as they know it hangs in the balance. Making the choice to recognize and accept the reality of this battle ultimately changes her perspective on who she is and her role in the universe.
Looking at it as a parallel, what I discovered in the Lord’s Prayer was a similar contrast between two aspects of God’s Kingdom and character. The prayer itself is divided into two sections, the first section that deals with the more expansive nature of God’s holiness and otherworldliness (if you will), and another that recognizes this holiness as something that is being expressed and lived out in our everyday context in the world. The prayer begins by shifting our perspective outwards towards the unseen nature of a “spiritual” reality, and then asks us to consider the reality of this same spirit in our everyday lives.
It is a prayer that broadens our view of the world by revealing to us to the intersection where God and our earthly condition meet. Here we find a picture of God’s Kingdom (the unseen reality) being made visible on earth (as it is in Heaven), opening up our perspective on just how big God is. By doing this, praying becomes the activity that helps us to see more clearly both who God is in the first half of the prayer, and who we are in the context of God’s expressive concern for His creation in the second half.
In the film, the two worlds, the unseen and the seen, act as a striking contrast when set against and aside one another. And as they are brought together, these interconnected realities offer us a breathtaking perspective on just how big our world actually is.
In both cases, prayer, or an image of prayer, acts a window between these two worlds, holding them in balance as they express the faith required to live out of a conviction in what we do not fully understand (shaping our hope) in the midst of our current reality (informing our perspective).
PRAYER AS CONVERSATION AND HUMILITY
What was interesting for me to learn about the prayer in Luke 11 is how the language in Luke represents the subject of prayer by setting it within a particular phrasing. He writes it using a phrasing that can be uttered in a single “breathe”. This stands in contrast to Matthew’s longer version that ends up far more wordy. Most commentaries that I read seemed to agree that this phrasing was an intentional literary device that Luke appears to use in order to emphasize a certain truth about prayer. For Luke, prayer is not just about words. It is something that is lived and breathed, the flows out of our conversation with the God who sees us, who is watching over and caring for us.
We find a similar picture being imagined through Jane’s incredible persistence in seeking after this truth, even when it appears the window to the other realm, and the possibility of faith is closed for good. Her character pursues this relationship with the “god” that came into her life and turned it upside down, the god who ultimately changes her life and her perspective forever. There is a powerful scene in the film when we see Thor standing at the top of Asgard and looking down on the world below. Here we see his longing, his desire, is to dwell with the one he leaves behind, and although he specifically can’t see her in this moment, the scene leaves us with a powerful sense that she is still seen by him, still watched over and cared for.
The Lord’s Prayer follows (in greater context) on the heels of a declaration by Jesus that God “hides faith from the wise and gives it to the children”. And now, as Jesus pauses to teach his disciples how to pray, The Gospel of Luke offers a clear distinction between the complicated, multisyllabic answer the disciples might have expected (one that gives attention to the lengthy diatribe of the rabbinic tradition of the law and the educated religious leaders) and the sort of prayer He is calling us towards. It is a prayer that can be spoken in a single breath, in a single word.It is a prayer that offers us words when we have no words left to speak or to explain. It is a prayer that speaks beyond the complicated notions and questions of our circumstance, and asks us to approach God as a child and to related to God as a child.
In the Lord’s Prayer, all of us are seen as God’s children, set in the same light and given the same ability to pray and to pray well. In this prayer, learning to give ourselves to the idea that this world is much bigger than we can see in the moment, learning to trust in God’s care and concern for his children, requires an equal act of humility no matter where we find ourselves in our lives, no matter where our questions seem to be leading us on our individual journey.
ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN
In the film, Thor begins to adopt the customs of earth which are seemingly set (initially) in contrast as a lesser form of life than that which we find in the realms of the gods. But, as the film moves forward, we see that Thor embraces his earthly setting as though it was his own. He looks to love and teach and form his experience of this world from out of the world in which he comes.
For Thor, he doesn’t see earth as lesser than Asgard. In fact, what we see is the image of a god who returns to Asgard in order to give greater worth to the earth (and its people) itself. This reminded me of the truth that Jesus continues to pray for each of us by name as He longs for the restoration of a created order that is still incomplete and broken. In Luke’s Gospel, both earth and Heaven all belongs to Him, and in the restoration of all things it is Heaven coming down to earth that shapes the ultimate vision of what is to come (rather than us escaping earth for the sake of Heaven). In this, Heaven and Earth, the unseen and the seen inform one another, become the greater expression of one another, and prayer becomes the bridging these two worlds as a singular reality.
PRAYER AND THE LANGUAGE OF FAMILY
In the Gospel of Luke, we find him giving attention to the word “abba” in a different way than has been used before in other Gospel and (Jewish) narratives. Jewish tradition would have used the word father, but mostly as it attributes in a more national sense to the people of Israel. Luke uses the Greek word “pater”, which is a (likely intentional) more intimate use of the same word. It is a term that begs a relationship that moves beyond the limits of our earthly divisions. It is a word that becomes a lens through which we are called to view Jesus’ earthly ministry. He has come to bring His (God’s) kingdom on earth on His terms, terms that are intimately tied to a concern for the whole of the created order.
In the Roman world, familial language was incredibly important. To refer to family that was not of “blood” in such intimate terms such as “pater” was, in literal and sometimes not so literal terms, against the law. Slavery was common in these days, as was a continued social and economic divide some things never change). To be tied to a family by blood was to be given both status and the family inheritance, and so to align oneself with these privileges meant “adopting” a very defined position in the family with the “father” assuming his position as the head of the hierarchal system and the family living on through the father’s name. It was possible for someone “not of blood” to be adopted into the family under Roman law, but only by assuming all of the privileges of a “blood” relation. In legal terms, to be adopted was to have these social distinctions erased and to inherit the family born privileges and all of the responsibility these privileges carry.
In a powerful way, the prayer in Luke applies the term “pater” to Jesus by declaring that, in Jesus we have now been adopted into God’s family as if by blood. In the family of God there is no distinction between slave and son/daughter, no hierarchal system which excludes one at the expense of another.
Paul of course was intently interested in fleshing out this same vision of adoption and slavery and family, and so it should not be surprising that Luke and Paul were friends. For Paul, to see God’s Kingdom being established on earth is to see all the limitations of social distinctions between slave and free, male and female, erased. And it would seem that for Luke, as a gentile convert and possibly a slave himself, this powerful realization reaches into his own story as well. What is also absolutely astonishing to me is that, this same inheritance that reinterprets Luke’s social status is not simply a heaven based goal or reality. It is something God is doing in the here and now, in the midst of our world, something that we are being called to see and to grab hold of and to become a part of in the here and the now.
The intimate sense of the word “father”, and the familial language it belongs to, is equally demonstrated in the development of the god-human relationship in Thor. Further, and maybe even more so, it is demonstrated in the relationship between Thor and his brother. Thor is originally presented as the firstborn, which in the context of Luke can be seen as the symbol of the Jewish law and the means through which the covenant and God’s blessing is passed down through the construct of the Jewish family by the “father” of the family. But what we discover along the way is that Thor is in fact an only son. His brother was actually adopted from the darker realm as a part of the King’s effort to pursue the peace of all nations and to extend the far reaching hand of Asgard’s rule for the sake of the greater good of all realms.
The theme of adoption in the film reveals the true heart of the King, and alludes to a greater plan and a greater purpose which the King’s adopted son struggles to see and accept for himself. The truth of his adoption causes him to feel lesser than Thor (a blood born son), simply a piece of the puzzle when it comes to the King’s personal project of establishing peace between worlds. He knows he is a part of the family on (the figurative) paper, but never truly experiences it as real in his life.
The truth though is that the King sees him through no other light than that of a legitimate son. For the King, there is no difference between him and Thor. And it is through the eventual sacrifice of Thor, who gives his life for his brother and the world that he embraces and sees as good, that forced his brother to face the struggle to accept who he actually is in the eyes of his father. The invitation that follows at the very end of the film for his brother to truly embrace who he is, is ultimately rejected, but what is revealed is that the real reason he rejects it has a lot to do with his struggle to understand forgiveness.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PRAYER AND FORGIVENESS
This same invitation is offered to each of us in the Lord’s prayer, an invitation to see our own participation in the Kingdom of God as adopted children of the King from the light of who God is and who He says we are. Here we also find that forgiveness plays a pivotal role in bridging the two parts of the prayer, of looking outwards to God’s holiness and inwards towards God’s care of us.
“Father forgives us as we also forgive others.”
All through scripture forgiveness and prayer appear to be intimately tied. I once heard it said that we are only truly able to realize forgiveness in our own lives when we learn how to forgive others. When we fail to forgive, no matter how large or small, it enslaves us to the same selfish desires which that ends up dividing the two worlds in Thor (between god and man) and in the Roman/Jewish world.
In Thor, the hammer is sent to earth along with this “god out of water” identification in order to signify that power is found in the one who is able to exhibit the true virtues of love, forgiveness and service who will wield it’s power. The scene where Thor leaves the celebration meal to mourn the loss of his relationship with those on earth and his brother (whose inability to forgive continues to hold him hostage) is a powerful reminder of the heart of Jesus for His children, the one who demonstrated these very virtues on our behalf.
And ultimately, where we find some of the greatest symbolism of this reconciliation is by returning to the picture of Thor’s sacrifice. It is in this moment, where he gives his life for another, that true victory comes. The vivid scene of his death reigniting the hammer demonstrates a few important things when it comes to the story. First, it exercises the same conviction that we find in Luke that Jesus’ entire ministry was intended to help us see the father and to open us up to the father’s desire to be in relationship with us. In the film, the incredibly moving moment of a single tear falling from the king’s face indicates that it is the love and concern of a father for his children that is most important when it comes to his greater plan and vision for the world. This is what ignites the hammer.
Father, “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come”.
And ultimately it is in the image of Thor giving his life as the king’s only son that we find the father’s heart for the people being revealed. This is what it means to begin to see the unseen. This is what it means to learn how to trust in the way the unseen reality informs what is seen, breathes life into what is seen.
And this gift of faith, this gift of life, moves the character Thor forwards into a relationship with the Kingdom of Asgard and the Kingdom of earth, with the promise of a window that will live between the two worlds. This same gift moves us forward in relationship with God and one another through prayer. We are bound together in a relationship in the shared blood of Christ. We are given the promise of a new kingdom in the here and now through the sacrifice of the one to which the metaphorical hammer truly belongs.
Given all of this, it is only fitting that where the film ends is with a picture of Jane joyfully giving her life to pursuing this relationship with the unseen world with renewed vigour. As Thor ascends to the other realm with the promise that he will return, she is given a connecting point between her and the otherworld. In this sense, continuing to give herself to this relationship, to this new reality, becomes her daily act of prayer. And what I find significant is that the this fits very well with the way in which Luke defines prayer as an act of “persistence”, the same persistence that Jane embodies by connecting with god in the midst of her own circumstance.
So no matter where I find myself, no matter where life takes me, prayer remains a vital part how I navigate my story. The simple reminder of this film, the conviction I found in this Gospel, is that prayer is the means by which I connect my earthly reality with the truth that there is a God who is carrying me, walking beside me, loving me and pursuing me every step of the way.