Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
People don’t always know how to pray. A 4-year-old girl was asked to say grace thanks before Thanksgiving dinner. The family members bowed their heads in expectation. She began her prayer, thanking God for all her friends, naming them one by one. Then she thanked God for all her family members, one by one. Then she began to thank God for the food. She gave thanks for the turkey, the dressing, the fruit salad, the cranberry sauce, the pies, the cakes, even the Cool Whip. Then she paused, and everyone waited–and waited. After a long silence, the little girl looked up at her mother and asked, “If I thank God for the broccoli, won’t he know that I’m lying?”
Or there was little boy, who had been misbehaving and was sent to his room. After a while he emerged and informed his mother that he had thought it over and then said a prayer. “Fine,” said the pleased mother. “If you ask God to help you not misbehave, He will help you.” The little boy was confused, “Oh, I didn’t ask Him to help me not misbehave, I asked Him to help you put up with me.”
Over the past few weeks I have heard people either feeling called to pray or feeling that, in the face of life’s changing landscape, “all” they could do was pray. Prayer is one of God’s greatest gifts, and one of your most powerful resources in times of trial and hopelessness. Prayer provides hope, comfort and strength for God’s followers to push on, but many times we become dismayed and disappointed instead.
In the face of life’s challenges and struggles, Jesus offered his disciples a parable to remind them that they need not lose heart. Jesus began his parable with the depiction a judge in a certain city. To stand before a judge in the ancient world was often a hopeless venture. Judges were not honorable men. In ancient Israel, judges were either the paid magistrates appointed by the Roman government or by the puppet King Herod. They were notoriously corrupt and easily swayed by the greasing of the palm. Unless a plaintiff had influence and money to bribe his way to a verdict he had no hope of ever getting his case settled. An aging Jewish widow, without resources, and without a male relative would have no hope of extracting justice from such a judge whatsoever. She would inevitably lose heart and give up.
The aging widow, however, knew the prize for persistence. Day after day she journeyed through the dusty streets of the village. Everyone knew where she was going. With steadfast determination she headed to the office of the village magistrate, the unjust judge. The village marveled at her tenacity and grit. She simply wouldn’t lose heart. Some thought she was eccentric. Others commended her for her courage. Those nearest to her thought she was basically desperate. But whatever the reason, the widow returned time and again to the office of the unjust judge and she never lost heart. Finally, the judge, who boasted that he feared neither God nor man, began to fear an aging woman. He broke down and granted her justice. What was the secret to the widow’s unlikely, but inevitable victory? Was it wealth? The right connections? Or even the people she knew in higher places? No, the widow had only one weapon -a persistent faith.
I rather suspect that everyone gathered here today has known some occasion when you have lost heart; when you were ready to give up hope; when you were ready to resign yourself to the whims and follies of others throwing in the towel. Perhaps it was an ailing parent; the struggle with divorce; the heartache of bringing yourself out of poverty; a child who had become your prodigal son or daughter; or your own struggle with disease. How many times have you prayed and prayed for one of God’s promises to be fulfilled in your life only to hear God’s long silence? People often fall into despair and reach for easy answers. But that is seldom the best strategy for life.
Let me offer you three suggestions for deepening your own prayer life so that you may be empowered by faith as the widow rather than to lose heart.
First of all, learn to listen attentively to the Word of God. Within the community of believers there are often two kinds of listeners: Passive and aggressive. Passive listeners allow the Word of God to flow around them, but they do not engage themselves in the Word. The aggressive listener on the other hand comes seeking to hear diligently what God has to say. Now, why is this so important? Simply said, if you do not know God through scripture, if you do not know how God has acted in the past, you will not know what to expect of God in the future. Listening attentively and aggressively will allow you to see God’s almost invisible footsteps and not lose heart.
Secondly, allow yourself to be transformed by his truth. It is painful to acknowledge, but not everything you desire in life may be the will of God. The widow herself only received the justice that was due her- and that was enough. You see, we often lose heart in our prayer life, because we have chosen to follow only our own human desires and not the desires of God. We treat prayer as the language of last resort to get what we want. As the storm raged over the sea, a captain realized his ship was sinking fast. He called out, “Anyone here know how to pray?” One man stepped forward. “Aye, Captain, I know how to pray.” The captain eyed the sailor and said, “Good, you pray while the rest of us put on our life jackets – we’re one short.” This is not prayer, nor should these requests be confused with true petitions to the Lord. For such requests are not seeking the heart and mind of God.
In my first parish, the Norwegian Lutheran Church, there was a phrase from the Psalms stenciled in gold leaf above the pulpit, Blessed are they who hear God’s word and keep it. My friends, when you keep the truth of God’s Word you will recognize that it does not leave you unchanged. The truth of God’s Word challenges you to be conformed to his love, will and mercy and to turn from the desires and needs of the world.
A transformed faith allows you to see what God desires for you, even in a distance, and to trust that he will not delay long. Indeed, you will see that he provides you with what is needed, even before you ask. Yes, even when the world, your family and your home seems to be crashing down around you, you will see a God working for you and for your good.
Finally, center your life in Jesus Christ and trust that all your thoughts and prayers are in communion with him not simply in that sweet hour of prayer, but in every hour of every day. Years ago when I was teaching at a mission school in India, I became acquainted with a missionary who had spent time with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India. He wanted to experience first-hand her prayer life. I was surprised when he told me that he was disappointed the first evening, when he heard her say her bedtime prayers. It was simply, “Lord, thank you for another day.” He was expecting prayers filled with beautiful imagery, and extended litanies of the people in her care. The following day, the missionary asked her why her prayers were so brief. She replied simply, “I have been in prayer with God all day, why do I need to bother him at night.”
Yes, in the midst of the world’s poverty, pain, disease and despair, Mother Theresa had discovered a similar power and restfulness of the heart. She knew that God’s kingdom keeps coming and that there is nothing that can stop its course. God’s relentless kingdom keeps battering down all evil regardless of our prayers. We merely pray that in our holy relationship with God in Jesus Christ that we may be a part of such a kingdom, and that we may remain steadfast to God. That was of course the secret to the widow’s persistent faith. She knew that God’s holy and righteous kingdom could not be stopped.
Of all of the relationships I need, my relationship with God is the highest. It is easy to be disappointed and frustrated with the changes in this world. It is easy to become frustrated with those we love, the church and to give up on the future of communities of faith. But I am not closing up the emotional shop on my relationship with God. I will keep my heart open in the face of delay. I will try to act every day like that eccentric widow, who kept asking until she finally received, knocking on the door until it was finally unlocked, and flinging prayers into the silence until the answer finally came. I know God will be true to his promises.
My friends, open yourself speedily to God’s creative, redeeming and saving power in prayer, and you too will discover that there is nothing in this world that can crush your faith nor is there any foe that cannot be conquered. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.