“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
I tell you, it’s hard not to lose heart when I read through the Post-It Notes that the HHOPE ministry volunteers place in my office box each Saturday after one of their distributions. The Post-It Notes contain the prayer requests, in their own handwriting with a ball-point pen, of the HHOPE guests, those people who are receiving food from our own church narthex. From its beginning, that ministry has sought to listen to and pray for the specific prayers of the people it helps, not just hand out food. On one of their tables is a stack of Post-It Notes and those who have prayer requests write their concern down and hand it to the volunteers, who then include those prayer requests when they hold hands and circle for prayer at the end of each distribution. Afterwards, one of the HHOPE volunteers then traditionally deposits them in my box, and I have to say it is moving to come into the office on Sunday and read through prayers of these people in our community, although, I have to say after reading them for almost three or four years now, I’m still seeing the same desperate appeals.
That’s where it’s hard not to lose heart. Some of the requests are vague and general, but some are very specific, and it makes me wonder: when will relief come for the woman who prays for her child with special needs? When will resolution come for the person who conscientiously scribbles down her request month after month for settling a dispute with a landlord? The persistent, relentless faith of these individuals is inspiring, even as I, their eavesdropper, wonder if I would ever have the nerve to enlist my own prayers so fervently.
The heart for trying, the heart for believing: Jesus knows his disciples run the risk of losing just that—of getting discouraged with the tasks of faith and witness. They are about to be sent out into a world that will not readily receive them where they will often feel vulnerable and unwelcome. They are about to be sent out as ambassadors of a kingdom that is often not visible. It won’t have borders or boundaries or strong castles to defend it. It will occur right in among them in a moments of love and forgiveness, where the cruel ways of the world are momentarily turned back and God’s grace reigns. That is the particular kingdom they offer their lives for, they seek and strive for, and the cruel ways of the world will often roll right over them.
Jesus knows they will feel a lot like the ancient Israelites did as they made their way up to the holy city of Jerusalem for pilgrimages, having to pass through the hills and mountains of the surrounding countryside. Those hills and mountains were the territory of the pagan enemies who off and on threatened them with war. Those foreign peoples would build their shrines to unknown earth gods on the peaks of those distant hills and the Israelites would sing and wonder aloud as they trekked to the Temple of the one Lord, coming up out of the shadowy valleys where it is always easy to lose heart, “I lift my eyes up to these mountains which loom over me, threatening my journey…from where will my help come? And the Israelite faithful would answer themselves, “My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth, the maker of even those looming mountains.”
|"Pilgrimage to Jerusalem" (Roberts & Hauge)|
Yes, Jesus knows they could lose heart and so he gives them a remedy, a bulwark as they traverse their valley: pray always. It will be taking a ball-point pen and ripping off yet another Post-It Note and placing it in the hands of caring people who will pray with you. It will be repeating, in various and creative ways, sometimes even only to themselves, that the LORD is more powerful than the mountains that tower over us from time to time.
And to give them an example of what he means Jesus tells them a parable of a people engaged in a kind of dialogue, except for it is a very one-sided dialogue. It is the unjust judge versus a widow. It is the person who occupies a privileged place within the community, tasked with using his voice to create new realities for people versus the person who has no place at all, and who has no voice, since that’s the Hebrew root word for “widow”: silenced.
The judge, we find out, is a downright shameless character, concerned neither with how his behavior affects those around him nor how his decrees ignore or damage the community. The widow is seeking some sort of justice. Perhaps it’s a landlord issue, too. Whatever the case, it must be related to be the one small shred of legal standing she has. She persistently calls on him, stands outside his office every single day. She is on first-name basis with his receptionist, and when the people in the office see her coming each day they start to roll her eyes, shuffling their papers to look busy. Over and over she does things to get his attention, but he won’t listen, sends her straight to voice mail.
Finally the judge caves, but not because he cares about her, but because he’s worried that she may end up making him look bad. He says he’s concerned she’ll “wear him out,” which is a Greek boxing term which, directly translated, means, “give me a black eye.” The judge only listens to her because of what it might mean for him if he doesn’t. That is, he’s never really willing to be engaged in what she’s going through. He stays outside of it, even as he grants her request.
Don’t worry, says Jesus, once he finishes with the story, you’ve got a God who comes to this dialogue of prayer as a partner. You’ve got a Father in heaven who cares, who doesn’t stay outside of it, who wants to be involved somehow. You’ve got a God who ultimately will get a black eye—and in fact, far more than that in order to grant justice and bring about his kingdom.
It is tempting to think of prayer as something like writing Christmas wish lists to God. We think that since God is listening and has all the power of the universe at hand, we can just lob our requests out there into the air and see what happens. And I know even as I say this that I’ve spoken with people who have lost their faith in God because they’ve prayed and prayed and what they felt they wanted didn’t come true. So I speak with great caution here, but we can forget that prayer is a dialogue, even a whole-body affair at times. We can forget that the models we have of people who engage with God are like this widow, who does far more than just go through the motions. She gets up and tries again, maybe shifting her tactics slightly, rephrasing the request. They are models like Jacob by the Jabbok, who, tormented by his past and fearing his future, grapples with his Creator mysteriously almost as an equal and is forever changed as a result of it. He comes away very different than he started.
In his novel, Jayber Crow, author and poet and farmer Wendell Berry wonders at one point, “Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world…Prayer is like lying awake at night, afraid, with your head under the cover, hearing only the beating of your own heart. It is like a bird that has blundered down the flue and is caught indoors and flutters at the windowpanes. It is like standing a long time on a cold day, knocking at the door.”
We don’t always know where our praying will take us, but one question Jesus’ parable asks of us is where are we ultimately looking for vindication? The mountains around us, the temples of those gods who stand aloof, like the capricious ones who supposedly affect the outcome of football games? Or perhaps within our fickle selves? Do we only look there for the answers? Techniques offered by self-help programs and achieving inner peace may work for some things, but at the end of the day issues that have to do with justice, that have to do with the needs of the widows in our midst, of establishing that real reign of peace and joy of Christ will come only from God, of standing sometimes a long time and knocking at the door. At the end of the day, being an ambassador and witness to that kingdom will come only from looking to Christ.
It is looking to the model of all model, the example of all examples, who once prays so hard we are told his sweat turns to blood. He is the one who reminds us more than anything else that God engages us in our striving and in our losing heart to the point that he comes down to lose heart with us, who prays, on the cross, “Where have you been, Lord? Can you even hear me?”
Ultimately, you see, prayer should change us, too, and not because we give up or grow frustrated but because, in engaging the One on the cross, we come to see how God can still be at work even when the tides of injustice roll right over us. We come to see the world outside ourselves, the places where God is showing up to establish justice. We receive what God knows we really need: Suffering that gives way to growing. Dying that gives way to living. A Lord that preserves us from all evil and keeps our life, who watches over our going out and coming in from this time forth forevermore.
A funny little story about the going out and coming in, about praying always and not losing heart and being changed: Each night before bed we pray the same stock prayer with our daughters. We’ve done it for years. It was the same one I prayed as a child. It goes, “Now I lay me down to sleep/ I pray the Lord my soul to keep./ In the morning when I wake,/ I pray the path of love to take.”
Not too long ago we listened closely one evening as one daughter was praying along with us And, interestingly enough, we discovered she had changed the words ever-so-slightly and made it her own. “In the morning when I wake,” went her fervent plea, “I pray the path I love to take.” And, let me tell you, if you know our daughters—our beautiful, strong-willed, independent-minded daughters—you know God has been listening. And answering!
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.