I don’t believe in prayer! This is a bold statement so what do I mean by it? I have struggled with intercessory prayer throughout my ministerial training, praying that is asking God to give me something. I have always been fine with adoration, thanking God for everything He has given me as we discussed last week . Counting my blessings, focussing on the positives of what I have. This might seem contradictory to what I am to say next but in my mind it isn’t.
But what about the Father Christmas asking for gifts if we are good? The old moody God in the skies who might throw us a morsel if we fear Her? I knew of a missionary family in Uganda who had been arriving on a plane that crashed in Italy. It was horrendous and the plane snapped in two killing almost everyone. This family were in the middle and by some miracle stepped out of the wreckage alive and virtually unharmed. Surely this was God’s protection? Well no! I was pleased that they were alive but why did He condemn all the rest of the good, probably Christian passengers to death? Or the example I have used before of Dr Dollar a British evangelist preaching the prosperity gospel in Uganda. He promised to all the poor people that if they prayed to God She would make them rich. All the money they gave Dr Dollar would be returned to them threefold. So Dr Dollar took their money and flew off in his private jet. I haven’t seen the economy of Uganda suddenly emerge from poverty. Prayer is not a magic wand, an illusion that makes things appear and disappear. A formula that if you are good enough Santa will bring you what want for Christmas.
So we have the Genesis 32 reading of Jacob wrestling with a man, an angel, God or even himself as I suggested when I preached on this early this year. Jacob when he last saw his brother Esau was arrogant and self-centred. He was manipulative and conned his brother out of his birth-rite, his inheritance, his dying father’s blessing. Now he comes more humbly, to be reconciled to his brother to ask forgiveness to make up and be a family again. He is wrestling with God, again for a blessing but may be this time one of peace and love? May be he was trying to find the best way to approach his brother, how should they be reconciled? Fighting to change his attitude to humility and dumping his ego.
The Gospel story is that of the widow and the stubborn judge in Luke 18 or should we say the nagging woman and the brow beaten judge? Widow means voiceless, unable go speak in Hebrew. She had no man to talk for her and present her case. She had no rights or property or status. The judge was being normal for his culture in ignoring her. Is the British justice system entirely equitable or is the treatment of certain groups dependent on status? Is easier as a white middle class educated man to get justice than an asylum seeker? Look at the statistics on sentencing if you are a woman or black! So is Jesus saying God only listens if you badger God to death, that only those who have the right status or pray following the correct formula will be heard? No far from it.
I think we are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind and our soul.
That prayer is passionate and holistic and involves our whole being thoughts, feelings and intuition.
We have the image of Christ knocking at our door from the outside made famous by Holman Hunt from Revelation 3. He wants to come in and eat and share with us but the handle is only on the inside. He will not force his way in. I think we can use our minds to wrestle with issues, situations, decisions. In prayer I can be debating the pros and cons with myself, playing devils advocate, disassociation: taking myself out of the situation and trying to see it impartially and identify the other’s perspective. To dream and image all the possible outcomes to challenge my assumptions. Prayers of the intellect can be used to facilitate the discernment the mind of Christ. I can ask for the strength to change my attitudes and approach
Using our heart in prayer is a second approach. We can lay our feelings before God of anger or disbelief or hopeless. We can weep and wail and rant. We can’t upset Her or say the wrong thing. WE can commend situations and people to the heart of a God who knows what suffering is and suffers with us. We can send positive energy, love warmth to those going through a rough time. We can ask that Jesus know a little harder on there door to let them know He is there. We can encapsulate them in a bubble of the Spirit protecting them. We can remember them continually in the presence of our Creator. We can ask how to help them, to fight for justice to feel the will of God.
We can use our gut-reaction to help a situation. We can have a feeling that someone is in trouble and needs our help. In other cultures they are happy to use this intuition and activity discern it. We in a scientific West are more sceptical. Prayer is a relationship with a living divine being. Faith is active, passionate, and constant. There is the analogy of swimming. If you relax you can float. If you are fearful and splash around you will sink. There is floating in the Presence of the Sprit feeling Her buoyancy. Prayer is about healing: seeing the God-given potential; focusing on the positive, restoring to wholeness. It is about justice: a hunger for peace, defending the oppressed, speaking up for the widow, the voiceless. It is a relationship being engaged with the love of God Seeking strength and wisdom. Loving God with our hearts and minds and spirits.
Kate Huey tells the story of who it was who taught her to float, to trust the buoyancy of the water to hold her up. And I wonder if it isn’t true that we adults, who keep going to our heads to figure things out, need to listen to our children to find our way back to the way of the heart. For the first forty years of her life, Kate had never floated. She had never been able to swim or even put her face under water. Kate was so afraid that I was almost immobilized by the water, but she really, really wanted to learn to swim. One summer, when her son Doug was about ten years old, she took a family holiday at the beach, and there was a pool where they were staying. Her children took to the water like little ducks. One afternoon, Doug and Kate were the only ones in the water, and she was safely in the shallow end. Doug was just a little fellow at that age, and he shivered as he hung on to the side of the pool and decided that that was the day that Mom was going to learn to swim. He had utter confidence in his own ability to teach me to do something that forty years of fear had prevented. "Mom," he said, "If you close your eyes and hold your breath and relax, the water will hold you up. Just believe me. It works." And he showed her how, of course. He floated there, right on top of the water. And so she gave it a try. And it worked. Kate floated there, held up by the buoyant water but also by the buoyant hope and confidence–and persistence–of her own unlikely little teacher who had already gone ahead of his older, more fearful parent and discovered new experiences and new possibilities.
By the time Luke was writing his Gospel a generation or so after Jesus died, people were starting to feel discouraged. They were tired of waiting for Jesus to return and finally bring all things to fulfilment, the deepest hope of their hearts. They were tired of being persecuted as a tiny little minority in a great big, powerful empire. They were anxious and suffering. Our passage from Luke is about that waiting and about not being discouraged, not losing heart. However, we’ve somehow read it more as an instruction to "nag" God with our repeated requests, so that God, like a weary and worn-down parent, will eventually give in and give us what we want.
Of course this parable is really a lesson about God, about how and who God is, not just a "nice" little story about prayer. Jesus–the greatest Teacher of all time–uses a creative teaching method of using the opposite of something–or, in this case, the opposite of someone–in order to make a point. For goodness’ sake, he says, if an unjust, disrespectful judge who’s afraid of nobody and nothing, hears the case of a poor widow just to avoid getting nagged or embarrassed by her constant pleading, well, then, how much more will God–the God of justice and compassion, the God of the ancient prophets, the God on the palm of whose hand our names are carved–how much more will that God hear the prayers of God’s own children who cry out day and night from their suffering and their need? Certainly Jesus is talking about the nature of the God to whom we pray.
Once again, Jesus uses a figure from the very edges of society to teach his followers this lesson. John Pilch tells us that the "word for ‘widow’ in Hebrew means ‘silent one’ or ‘one unable to speak.’ In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf." So this "silent one" is acting outside the normal bounds when she finds her voice and speaks up for herself. Maybe it’s because she knows that there’s a special place for her in the heart of God, as the Bible often says. Widows, orphans, and aliens are all very close to the heart of God and the focus of God’s concern. We might ask ourselves who "the widows" are in our time: the ones without a voice who speak up anyway in protest of injustice.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus speak of faith or no faith, not "more" or "less" faith, and he offered the tiny mustard seed to inspire us. And it does. So does the widow, small and powerless in a society that structured itself in such a way that women were usually just one man away from destitution. In fact, if we look at the many, many references to widows in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we get a sense of their place in the scheme of things. They are survivors, because they have no other choice. They have to work around the angles of their society, because its very structure is slanted against them. And so they do what they must to ensure not just their own survival, but also the survival of those they love. They cry out from the pages of the Bible for justice, and make no mistake about it: God hears their cry.
At the heart of a woman’s faith
As usual, Barbara Brown Taylor gets inside this story and explores the heart of this woman. Society may have told her she was a nobody without a voice, but she knew otherwise, and her persistence helped her hold on to that knowledge: "She is willing to say what wanted–out loud, day and night, over and over–whether she got it or not, because saying it was how she remembered who she was. It was how she remembered the shape of her heart." The shape of her heart: it makes us wonder about the shape of our own hearts and the health of our prayer life, doesn’t it?
Why does Luke introduce this story as being about the necessity–our need–to "pray always and not to lose heart"? And why does Jesus end his little story about the widow finally being heard, even by an "unjust" judge, not with a neat little closing statement about "hanging in there" and continuing to pray when we don’t get what we want right away, but with a question about the lack of faith among those who are waiting for the fulfilment of the promises of God?
Are we deeply engaged with our faith?
Several years ago, deep within the news coverage of the terrible events in Myanmar (Burma), a BBC reporter shared the story of Ma Thida, a writer and doctor who was held in solitary confinement for six years after she wrote against the abuses in the government there. When asked how she survived those long years of waiting and suffering, first she cited books, which were like "vitamins" to the prisoners, and then she described her spiritual life. The reporter said that, as a Buddhist, Ma Thida meditated 18-20 hours a day. Can you imagine that? The reporter cited her "deep engagement with Buddhism."
Sometimes we have to wonder how many of us Christians are "deeply engaged" with Christianity. Jesus wanted his followers to do more than pray as a habit or a requirement: "Then, as now," Taylor says, "most people prayed like they brushed their teeth–once in the morning and once at night, as part of their spiritual hygiene program." Does that ring true for you? Don’t we know, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus wants much more from us as his followers? As always, his teachings go right to the heart of the matter, to who we are. Those 18-20 hours a day of meditating must have had an effect on Ma Thida, on shaping her spirit; it must have helped her to remember who she was. Our prayer life shapes us, too, and helps us to remember who, and whose, we are. It helps to align us with the intentions of God.
How would you describe faith?
In this little story about human nature and about the nature of God, I hear Jesus teaching us–as always–about justice, about prayer, and about faith, which he talks about a lot. How often have we heard him say, "Your faith has saved you. Your faith has healed you. O, you of little faith!" It makes you wonder just what faith is exactly. For most of my life I’ve thought faith had to do with believing the right things about God. The faith of our fathers and mothers was handed down in catechisms and religion textbooks, and taught to us in classrooms. Keeping the faith was something we did by guarding a treasure of beliefs and handing them down, intact and unchanged, in a kind of lockbox, to the next generation of believers. Faith was something that you have in your head, when you believe certain, hopefully correct, statements about God.
Some years ago, however, I came to understand faith in a very different way: as trust. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg speaks of faith as much more than just believing the correct things in our head. As he says, "you can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power."
Instead, Borg speaks of faith as having to do with relationship, with giving your heart and your trust, your radical trust, to God. He draws on the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher, who says that "faith as trust is like floating on a deep ocean. Faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float." He even uses the example of teaching a child to swim and trying to get the child to relax in the water: "It’s okay, just relax. You’ll float its okay." Borg describes faith as "trusting in the buoyancy of God. Faith is trusting in the sea of being in which we live and move and have our being."
Faith and relationship and trust
Our children often seem to know something we have forgotten: that having faith is about relationship, about trusting in the goodness and reliability of someone more powerful than we are. Perhaps it has to do with being small in such a big world. Small, like a mustard seed. Small, like the widow in this story, powerless and yet determined to call the cranky, unjust judge to justice.
And that brings us back to prayer, and back to Jesus healing people and saying, "Your faith has healed you." Remember last week’s story about the ten lepers, and only one, a Samaritan, came back to say "Thank you"? Jesus said to him, "Your faith has made you well." I don’t think Jesus meant, "You have agreed with certain, correct statements of faith." No, I think Jesus was talking about relationship, about trust, about radical trust in God’s mercy and power. People in the Gospel stories "got" who Jesus was and gave themselves over in trust to God’s goodness and healing power and it transformed their lives.
Faith and healing and justice
But if faith has much to do with healing, it also has much to do with justice. It seems that people of faith, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, down through the centuries of church history and in the very life of the church today are often tempted to equate "righteousness" with our prayer life rather than with our passion for justice, our hunger for shalom, for the fullness of peace, healing, and wholeness for all of God’s children, including the widows and orphans, the stranger at the gate and the unwanted person knocking at the door. We measure our spiritual health by how often and how well we pray rather than how much we long for, and work for, justice and healing, making the world a better place for those children who trust us to be reliable and merciful and good. We should wonder about our faith, our mustard seed faith that has the potential to move mountains or uproot trees, and ask if we have indeed heard the cry of the widow and responded. We need to listen for the voice of God, calling us to true religion and true righteousness.
So this little story isn’t really about the persistent widow or the corrupt judge who gave in rather than gets "a black eye" (that’s what the word translated as "wear me out" really means!): again, it’s about God. If this corrupt judge responds to the widow’s pleas, how much more will a loving God respond to the prayers of our heart? Our prayer life sustains us even in the worst of times, and it keeps us close to God: "You are going to trust the process," Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process keeps you engaged with what matters most to you, so you do not lose heart." The reading is about God and about Jesus returning to find people who have held fast, through everything, and have persevered in trusting God. Rather than thinking it’s a matter of getting or not getting what we ask for, prayer, Taylor writes, "Keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It’s how we bother God, and it’s how God bothers us back. There’s nothing that works any better than that" (see her beautiful sermon, "Bothering God," in Home by Another Way)..
1. How does prayer shape us?
2. Is prayer a habit (or pattern) for you, or it is constant, or is it occasional?
3. Do you feel that your prayers "bother" God?
4. What helps you to remember "the shape of your heart"?
5. Who might be the "silent ones" in our own society?
For further reflection
"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them." Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
"Because you believed I was capable of behaving decently, I did." Paulo Coelho, 21st century
"Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart." Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
Wm. Paul Young, 21st century
"Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved."
Edith Hamilton, 20th century
"Love cannot live where there is no trust."
Reflection by Stephen Bentley and Kate Huey