Sunday, October 17, 2010

Persistence in Prayer

21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24) – Year C (RCL)
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Sunday, October 17, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

Unlike some of Jesus’ parables, where we are left trying to figure out what he means, today’s Gospel lesson tells us up from that it is about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.” But the imagery used to illustrate the point is a little puzzling. We have a widow who is persistent and continually nags a judge to grant her justice. While the persistence of the widow makes sense in the context of prayer, the unjust judge is the puzzling part. He is obviously a bad judge. Judges were, after all, charged with executing justice on behalf of God. The fact that he has no fear of God and no respect for those petitioning him indicates that he is not doing the job he is charged with, but is likely in it for his own gain. And the only reason he finally gives in and grants the widow justice is that if she keeps bringing up the issue, people will start to see that he is not doing his job. He will be exposed for the charlatan he is and possibly lose his job and the accompanying place of status.

If the widow and her actions are intended to represent the need for persistence in our prayer life, does that mean the judge is intended to represent God? No, of course not. We know that God is concerned with justice and mercy. Our God would not behave the way the judge does in the parable. I think the unjust judge is merely a device, a barrier the widow comes up against, something requiring patience and persistence to overcome. The real point of the parable is just what the intro says: we “need to pray always and not lose heart.” The whole scene illustrates the benefits of the widow being persistent and not losing heart that she would prevail. That is how we need to approach our prayer life.

Prayer is nothing more than communicating with God. And what this parable tells us is that like in any relationship, communications is essential and ongoing. If you only communicated with your spouse or partner when it was absolutely necessary or only when you wanted something, chances are your relationship wouldn’t last very long. It probably wouldn’t have started in the first place. Now that doesn’t mean that if we don’t communicate with God, if we don’t pray regularly, God will abandon us. God is patient. He will wait for us as long as it takes. And when we do finally get around to praying, God will just be happy that we remember him and want to talk. But communications goes so much smoother, and is so much easier, when we practice, when we do it regularly with those we care about. Think back to when you first met someone, maybe a first date. Remember how awkward it can be to communicate with someone you don’t really know. But over time, as you get to know someone, as you communicate with them more and more, it becomes easier. It is no longer a chore, but a delight.

I’m always somewhat amused in movies or TV shows where the protagonist, when faced with a crisis situation and when all other options are exhausted, decides now is the time to pray. It always goes the same way: Okay God, I’m not very good at this. I don’t know if you can hear me, but if you can, I could really use your help right now . . . Well if you had been praying all along, you’d probably be good at it, or at least somewhat comfortable. God is not a crisis help line. God is someone who wants to be in relationship with us, wants us to be in relationship with him. And a key part of that is communications. By developing good prayer practices now, we become comfortable with prayer. Then when the time comes when we really feel a need for fervent prayer, we are not stumbling around trying to figure out what to do, but can approach God with confidence, laying out what is in our heart and on our mind. That’s why the persistence is important. Persistence in prayer is about regular, faithful time with the One who delights in being with us.

Regular, faithful, persistent prayer is also about something else. By being persistent, we demonstrate that we have not abandoned God. We are opening ourselves to participate in the coming kingdom, living in hope, to working however we can for what is most important to God: justice, mercy, and peace. When we do pray, a lot of our activity is spent in talking at God, rattling off a list of prayer concerns, going through a laundry list of things we want or think we need, offering advice to God on how to run the universe. And it’s important to convey our own needs and concerns to God. But it’s not solely about expressing our own stuff. Part of prayer is also opening ourselves up to listen for God, opening ourselves up to discern what he is calling us to do by way of ministry in our parishes and our communities, to discern how he is calling us to participate in the coming kingdom.

Again, prayer is communications and effective communications is a two-way street. If we are in relationship with someone, we can’t do all the talking and expect them to only listen. We need to pause occasionally and allow the other person to communicate as well. So it is with God. We need to incorporate some times of silence into our prayer life to allow God the opportunity to communicate with us. And here again, that is where persistence comes in. We need to be persistent in prayer, including times of silence to allow for God’s voice, so that we can become more comfortable with being in silence before God. We need to be persistent so that we become more comfortable and skilled at discerning how God is communicating with us. Such skills require time to develop and cannot be honed with an occasional dumping of a prayer list onto God’s lap and then walking away.

As to content of our prayers, that can get a little dicey for some of us. Many of us have prayed in earnest, or had friends or family who have prayed in earnest for a particular thing or outcome, only to have the prayers go unanswered; or rather, not answered in the way we wanted. And I’m not talking about prayers to win the lottery. Usually such experiences of unanswered prayers tend to involve issues of health and wholeness, of life and death. When this happens, we can begin to question our faith. Do I not have enough faith? Did I not do something right? Particularly when we have lessons from scripture like today’s Gospel lesson which imply that if we are just persistent enough, we will get what we want; our prayers will be answered. Well, that’s not really what today’s Gospel lesson is saying. Yes, in the story, the widow did prevail. But the story is not about getting what we pray for as much as it is about persistence and not losing heart when prayers do not seem to be answered.

Years ago, when I was a lay person at St. Francis, San Bernardino, I had a dilemma regarding prayers for healing. We had a parishioner who was very ill and was obviously not going to get better. This person was on the parish prayer list for healing and I dutifully prayed for healing. But I did not feel right about praying for the healing of someone who was going to die at any time. I finally went to Fr. David and explained my problem. He told me that even in the case of terminally ill people it’s okay to pray for healing because healing takes many forms. The person may not be healed physically, but there can be emotional or spiritual healing. Relationships can be healed. And ultimately, death is a form of healing, whereby we are made new and whole. It’s up to God to decide what form healing may take. Just as it’s up to God to determine how any prayer is answered.

When it comes to answering prayers, we don’t know why some get answered and others don’t. We do know that God gives us not what we most want or what we think we need, but what we most need. And sometimes the needs of a number of people have to be balanced. To see how prayers are answered, why they are answered the way they are, sometimes we need to dig and try to figure out what that is in amongst the situations we find ourselves in. Sometimes it may not be apparent for some time, if ever. Just like a parent who hears our pleas for a cookie before dinner or a pony for Christmas, God hears with loving patience, but knows ultimately what is best for us. Or, as The Rev. James Dillet Freeman, a twentieth century minster and poet notes, “Sometimes the answer to prayer is not that it changes life, but that it changes you” (James Dillet Freeman Quotes).

That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is ultimately about. If we are persistent in prayer, if we are faithful in our ongoing communication with the God who loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, our life will be greatly enriched. Just as in all the other areas of our lives, our prayers may not always be answered the way we would have them. But we can rest assured that God does hear our prayers. He always answers our prayers. And if we let them, the answers just might change our lives.

“James Dillet Freeman Quotes.”
httt:// (12 October 2010).

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