October 16, 2022

“Do Not Lose Heart!”

 

Luke 18:1-8

 

 As parents, we are told by our peers never to give in when a child repeatedly asks for something. People may say, “If you do that, you are just rewarding whining, bad behavior.” As a young child, I used to ask for something, ending with the word, “please?” If the answer was “no,” my first thought was to ask again, adding the letter “e” exponentially until my request sounded like “pleeease?”  If the answer was still “no,” and I REALLY wanted something, I would ask a third time, with a few more “E’s” added in for emphasis – “pleeeeeeease?”  Occasionally my mom would cave in and say “ok,” I think just to get me to stop whining. When my own children used this tactic against me while they were young, I must come clean. There were a couple (only a couple) of times when I caved to pressure and said after their repeated, persistent pleas, “Oh all right already! You can invite your friend over for a sleepover, or can have another piece of dessert, or can eat candy all day long! (not really with that last one)...!”

 

We all do this, even if it is not with children. We all have situations where it is just easier to give in and give the person what they want so that we can have some peace and quiet. On the flip side, we no doubt have been the people at times who have whined and manipulated and cajoled to get our own way. When we find that it works especially well with one person or a group of people, we may continue to do it, being rewarded by persistent whiny requests.

 

The parable of the Persistent Widow is often misinterpreted as an illustration of how to get our own way with God - by wearing God down with requests. Since Luke often puts God in his parables as one of the main characters, if we’re not careful, we will try to force God into the role of a reluctant, grumbling, unjust judge or caving parent. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to prayer.

 

In this illustration by Jesus, we hear of a judge in some unnamed city who never thought about God and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him, telling him repeatedly that her rights were being violated.

 

Widows in Jesus’ day were often exposed to harsh treatment and exploitation. Widows had no inheritance rights and would lose all property and possessions once a husband died. This woman, who was among the weakest and least influential in first-century society, takes on one of the most powerful of that time - a judge. She keeps going back persistently to the judge, telling him that her rights are being violated. She keeps asking for justice. In time, due to what this unjust judge perceives as her incessant whining, he gives in. “If I finally give in to this woman and give her justice, she’ll stop pestering me and pounding me mentally!” So then, is God a careless judge who only gives into our repeated prayer requests to stop our incessant whining? Is that what God is like?

 

This parable speaks of God’s nature, but not in the way it may appear. In this instance, with the grumpy unjust judge, we may think this is how God is with us when we pray. Nothing could be further from the truth! Jesus is setting up a contrast here. If an unjust judge will finally begrudgingly grants a widow’s request for justice, how much more will a just, loving God grant our requests in prayer? God is never begrudging with us. We are encouraged to ask, seek and knock, and do so enthusiastically! God LOVES us. God shows us mercy! God gives us more than we could ever ask for and in return, asks for a relationship through prayer. God wants us to cry out and pray, and pray often, not because God is like some uncaring grumpy judge- on the contrary- God is the One who created us, who knows every hair upon our heads, listens to every beat of our heart, and loves us more than we can ever comprehend! This is a God of whom scripture says, “Before they call, I will answer, and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.(Isaiah 65:24)

 

As we pray continuously and persistently, we are shaped and moved by God’s spirit. St. Teresa of Avila said, “Prayer is putting yourself into the hands of God.”  Yet prayer with God can be frustrating for us at times. We have our timeline, and God has another. We can see perfectly, in our opinion, what needs to happen with a family member or in a certain situation, and God sees differently in divine wisdom we cannot comprehend. We seek healing for a sick child or parent or friend, and God answers our prayers in another way or in a way we cannot fully understand.

 

This parable is an illustration of one particular kind of praying - what we call intercessory prayer. As the widow wanted the judge to do something, intercessory prayer is a request to God for help, for God to act.

 

Scripture provides some instruction on intercessory prayer. One example comes from the Apostle Paul. Paul writes Timothy the following instructions regarding this type of prayer, saying, “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

 

Theologian Anne Lamott speaks of this kind of prayer as well. Intercessory prayer, in part, is admitting you don’t have your own life fully in control. Lamott talks about the realization of this moment and writes, "And when you're done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, 'Help.' People say 'help' without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever."

 

The idea with this particular kind of praying is to be persistent, even if you may not see immediate results, or see a lack of progress in certain places, just like the widow.

We can look to Jesus himself as an example of persistence in his own prayer life and not losing heart. Luke 6:12, Luke states that Jesus prayed all night upon a mountain. Jesus prayed consistently and persistently. And even our Lord did not always get the answer he wanted- Consider his request at Gethsemane for the cup of suffering and the cross to be taken from him. This request was not granted. (Luke 22:42) This reminds us that sometimes, God’s answer is “no.” One of the more instructive passages regarding God’s nature in prayer is from Isaiah 55:8. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

 

In times when answers to prayer seem confusing or frustrating; when God seems silent when answers take years to manifest, and when an answer is not what we wanted to hear-It is in times such as these through persistence in prayer we are being molded and shaped into a vessel that will be able to hold and understand the answer when it comes. The key is to trust that God is much more than a grumpy, unrelenting judge. God loves us, has our best interest at heart, always, and will answer in God’s time and in God’s way. An anonymous Christian once said, “When we pray, God hears more than we say, answers more than we ask, gives more than we imagine, in God’s own time and in God’s own way.”

 

I believe this kind of prayer works. I have seen miraculous healings, situations turn around suddenly, checks show up out of the blue when the need is there and has been prayed about. Again, Anne Lamott says the following about this form of prayer. “And as it turns out if one person is praying for you, buckle up. Things can happen.”

 

Prayer is, in part, about change within us and, in part, about communication with God. God wants us to pray because prayer transforms us. This then speaks of a second of many forms of prayer - contemplative prayer. Contemplative prayer is quieting your mind, slowing your heart rate, relaxing and just connecting with God. When I do this kind of prayer, it strengthens the bond between myself and my Creator. It provides a calmness, a centeredness. The best feeling I can use to describe this form of prayer is that once I have stopped my mind from babbling on and opened myself to God’s presence, there is this feeling almost of holy fog, gently coming down and surrounding me. It changes me in ways I cannot fully explain. 20th Century Christian author Hannah Hurnard in speaking of this kind of praying, writes, “It is not that prayer changes God, or awakens in God purposes of love and compassion that God has not already felt. No, it changes us, and therein lies its glory and purpose.”

 

Whatever the form of prayer, in our time of praying, we are changed, refined, molded, and shaped as we get into a deeper relationship with the One who loves us. For example, the more we communicate with our friends and family, the stronger the relationship becomes. The more we communicate with God, the more our prayers become God’s prayers for us, the more our desires become God’s desires for us, and the more our will becomes God’s will for our lives. By praying continually, we enter into a deeper relationship with our God in heaven, rather than a cordial communication with a casual acquaintance or desperate last-ditch plea to a relative stranger.

 

So often we use prayer as our last hope, and we pray once and expect a quick magical blessing to come pouring out upon us. And if you only pray when you are in trouble, you are in trouble. The less we pray, the smaller our faith. Theologian Henri Nouwen said, “Spiritual life without prayer is like the gospel without Christ.”  In less theological terms, it is like cake without the icing, popcorn without the butter, or the ocean without the waves! Something in our faith is lacking when we don’t pray.

 

Church reformer Martin Luther said, “Prayer is the most important thing in my life. If I should neglect prayer for a single day, I should lose a great deal of the fire of faith.”  Through today’s passage, may we be reminded of the need to pray daily, persistently, continuously, and confidently; to pray for others; to pray for God’s justice to be done for the oppressed or for us; to pray for peace in Ukraine and in other places in the world; to pray for a nation divided and increasingly broken into warring tribal groups; to pray for healing and help for ourselves and our loved ones- to be silent, fully present and open to God’s presence, to pray for all of these things and not lose heart!  May we find hope through persistent prayer of our deep connection with our loving God, and trust in God’s loving, faithful response. Alleluia! Amen.

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