Canon Missioner - Revd Canon Jay Colwill
On a weekend with momentous events and momentous consequences, it is good to be considering the subject of persistence in prayer
Whether it is climate change protests, Brexit debates, or any other matter personal to you or your relationships, the question of how we bring these to God in prayer is a live one. [It’s also appropriate today that we have prayer ministry available after the Eucharist at the 11am service.] I was travelling to Sutton deanery synod on Tuesday evening and having missed my train connection, I got into a back cab at Wimbledon station. When Joanne, my taxi driver saw my dog-collar, she begin a very thoughtful conversation with me on her understanding of God, why there is suffering and what about unanswered prayer? I talked to the best of my ability and with her permission, we prayed together at the end of the journey. I admitted to her, as I do to you now, that I feel very under-qualified to speak about persistence in prayer. Even though I might be described as a professional in pray-er, like many of you, and my clergy colleagues, from time time, I struggle with prayer.
If, in the words of our epistle: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” How does this parable equip us in “our need to pray always and not to lose heart.” How do we pray about climate change and not lose heart? How do we pray about Brexit and not lose heart? Or about a loved one with a chronic and debilitating condition, or childlessness, unemployment, poverty, racism? How?
The first thing that I try to remember when I pray is this. Prayer is just having a conversation with the person who loves you the most. When I was reminded of that, it began to transform my view of prayer. I can talk to God, in words, or without words, because God is the person who loves me the most. Jo, the taxi driver seemed to be encouraged when I told her that the Bible is full of angry prayers by people who believe in God but aren’t seeing answers to their prayers when they want them. That encourages me too! God loves me enough that I can persistently come to him with my burdens and concerns for others, as well as my prideful complaints which I would only share with Him, Because He loves me. Jesus tells this memorable parable to flip our views of God on their head. I imagine hearers in Jesus’ day sometimes thought of God as an angry judge. That’s why Jesus told this parable! And the same is true today. How we know that God is not an angry judge is what we know about Jesus. If you want to know what God is like, find out what Jesus is like. That was my advice to Jo, and you. We pray to the Father through the Son, because Jesus provides us with this access. He describes and embodies the nature of God. A God who loves us more than anyone else.
The second reason to persist in prayer is that prayer changes things.
What can we learn from the widow as she prays?
This widow is not respected by the judge, yet she is fearless, because she is desperate. A wife was dependent on her husband, and when he died, she went to live with her father’s household if he was alive, or to an adult son if she had one. Women on their own were not allowed to talk to strangers. Whenever the occasion arose for them to go out in public, accompanied, they were required to wear two veils. So, the plight of a widow could be dire. She had no protection, and in order to advocate for herself as the persistent widow in Luke’s parable did, she would have had to be seriously breaking the social norms of the time. And everybody listening would have known that when Luke talked about a widow, he was talking about someone who was utterly desperate, vulnerable, and weak. Like Frances McDormand in the film, Three Billboards outside of Ebbing Missouri, she has no other recourse than to shout it from the rooftops. The passage says that the widow will ‘wear me out’, but the word actually comes from the realm of boxing and means ‘to beat’, perhaps in the sense of ‘giving a black eye’.
I don’t know about you, but when I am desperate, I pray differently. When God is my only hope and I have no plan B, I reach out to God in prayer in a different way. The widow does that. She is the personification of the vulnerable, yet strong, the active, yet submissive, The hopeless, yet hope-filled. I pray that I could pray more like that more.
God hears and answers prayers like these, because God is sovereign.
Rudolf Bultmann, the German theologian speculated: “If God’s activity is free, He can do this or that. I can ask him to do one, instead of the other.” Methodist theologian Walter Wink goes further and says: “intercession changes the world and changes what is possible to God... an aperture opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in even one person changes what God can do in the world.” Through prayer, I have seen God transform the lives of individuals I know and love. Prayer has been a channel for miraculous healing, inner peace, freedom from addiction, and I believe, political change. So, in my moments of doubt and frustration, when I do lose heart, I do what the psalmist does. I go back to the times when God has done it before and ask God can do it again. In the words of our Genesis reading, I wrestle with God about it. I try to come back from a place of doubt into a place of faith, founded on a faith that if God can raise the dead, and still the storm, I can put my faith and trust in Him. This God welcomes me to co-create with Him in prayer.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: It’s a long quote but captures what I want to say so well…
God allows the wills of men and women to co-operate in the execution of His will. “God,” said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.” …my prayers have not advised or changed God’s mind
— His over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures.
Lewis concludes: For God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye.”
So, Jesus says this at the end of the parable: 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Answer: yes He will! So, we can pray in faith!
Thirdly persistent prayer changes me.
Having loved ones in my family with chronic health conditions has (if I’m honest) tested my faith in the power of prayer. I have prayed for total healing and recovery, but only seen periods of remission. I have cried out “How long O LORD, how long!” Yet, our life of prayer can sustain us even in the worst of times, and keep us close to God. Speaking of prayer: Barbara Brown Taylor writes,”You are going to trust the process," "regardless of what comes of it, because the process itself gives you life. The process of prayer keeps you engaged with what matters most to you.. 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” In ‘bothering God’ in prayer, he reshapes me and my priorities- sometimes, much to my resistance. My views of healing and wholeness change. My views of joy and sadness evolve. My heart for the down-trodden and the vulnerable enlarges. Prayer, persistent prayer changes me. As the LORD is my helper, I need to work at it.
May we learn from the persistent widow in her fight for justice against the powerful judge.
May we be faithful in bothering God, so that He can bother us back.
May we remember that prayer is having a conversation with the person who loves you the most.
And finally, may we remember that that Jesus himself, persisting in prayer, even when vulnerable and broken, believed in faith that light would over come darkness, and life overcome death. And it did.
Can I encourage you to receive prayer, anointing and a listening ear after you have received the Eucharist? To strengthen you in your spiritual journey as you pray for yourself and others.
In the words of the writer to the Hebrews: Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Amen.