Prayer: Strength and Struggle
A few weeks ago I got a text late on a Friday night from a friend. She said – Sorry to bother you with this but my sister is asking me how to pray for healing when all evidence says that healing is not going to happen. Her friends from church are telling her to pray harder. Any idea for what I can say?
That is a perineal and hard question. Do we believe that the outcome of a situation dependent upon the effort we put into our prayers? But wouldn’t that mean that prayer is a way in which God judges us? Assessing what we deserve – if we are worthy? What exactly does praying harder mean – is it this (focused face)?
Both the story from Genesis and the parable from Luke describe hard prayer – prayer of struggle and dogged insistence. So are they step-by-step instructions for the faithful to get what we want out of our prayers?
First place to start with the question is to name something that is as close to faith fact that we have – we are saved by grace. God’s relationship to us doesn’t hinge on our efforts – we’re God’s creation, God’s children, God’s beloved – and through Christ that grace was poured out once and for all.
However just as God has a relationship with us of God’s making – we have a relationship with God of our making. And as with any important relationship in our lives we have a choice, maybe some would say a responsibility to cultivate it. And prayer – and there are so many kinds – is one way we do that. Prayer is how we open the eyes of our hearts – see the possibilities in the world around us – Prayer replenishes our strength and hope for the future. Prayer is what moves our feet to paths of justice, working to make real God’s dream a reality for all people.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Prayer is the channel of that power.
In this first story we happen upon Jacob who is at yet another point of struggle in his life. We read that Jacob struggled with his brother in the womb (25:22). And then they struggled children because he believed he deserved his brother’s birthright and father’s blessing (25 and 27). After 20 years of living well – he struggles with his neighbor over whether or not he belongs – which is why he leaves.
So having sent all his possessions – people and things – to go ahead of him – we find him here – alone. That wonderful time of night let’s say between 2am-4am that I’ll bet most if not all of us are familiar with. When all the stuff in here (head) and here (heart) is spinning around and around in a loop of mental anguish. Wrestling with the question – what should I do?
God’s wrestling with Jacob is a sign of God’s presence. And despite the dislocated hip – (because of it?) – Jacob comes away strengthened. Of course God could beat him up and “win” – but God holds back divine power, allowing Jacob to hold on– until he gets what he wants. And it isn’t an answer – it’s blessing – a way of being assured that something good will come of what is hard right now. And his name – and his limp will be an ongoing reminder that God is with him. That's what God provides. And Jacob goes on in his journey to meet God again and again. Never receiving easy answers or living an easy life – but always knowing God is with him.
Have you heard someone share a story – have you experienced yourself – it was the hardest struggle of my life – but I wouldn’t change it if I had to do it again – because of the blessing that came from that struggle?
So that story tells us something about the struggle of prayer in our lives – encouraging us to remember that God is in that struggle with us. Jesus’ parable tells us something else.
Parables aren’t like the story of Jacob - historical narrative. There is nothing literal about them – and they are intended to upset us in away – because they don’t describe our world – they describe the world God intends for us.
In the bible study I’m leading right now – we talked about how parables point to the reality that is the kingdom of God – and as we described what that reality is – we shared words that are positive – loving, forgiving, feeling goodness, freedom – and all those things are true of course – but parables also describe a kingdom where the last are first – where those who aren’t deserving get the greatest rewards – where seeds are scattered on the ground in ways that seem foolish and wasteful – and yet it is the inefficient extravagance that leads to the most incredible harvest.
And this parable is like that. This parable isn’t about our relationship with God – as much as it’s about our relationship to justice – a paramount characteristic of God’s kingdom: blessed are the poor, blessed are the hungry, blessed are those who thirst for righteousness. The widow – who would be the lowest of the low in terms of social status and respect – refuses to accept that position – insisting she is worthy.
She is the Rosa Parks who sits at the back of the bus. She is Ghandi and all who walked with him in nonviolent protest called the Salt March – which lasted 24 days – and launched India’s Civil Disobedience Movement. And inspired the likes of Martin Luther King.
Jesus shares this parable when his disciples ask him – when is the kingdom coming? The parable answers the question by suggesting when all of you hear the cry of those who want to be heard. And recognize your power in making this world a better place.
We hear this unrelenting cry – here in Baltimore – and many other cities – insisting that we wrestle with issues we want to get over or ignore or scapegoat. The unjust judge in this parable gives in – not because he’s had a change of heart and is all of a sudden a good guy – but like a 24 day march – righteousness wears him down. Justice as the saying goes – will prevail.
A mentor of mine says – the human experience is one of delay…and do our prayers shape, mold, hammer us into the vessels that will be able to hold God’s answers? We don’t know. All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, getting angry, frustrated – and waiting. He had been to a gathering of civil rights leaders and an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation:
"Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is." (Crossmarks, Craddock)
Is prayer a struggle? Yes. Even Jesus lived that truth. On the night before he died struggled in prayer in that garden saying – not my will, but yours God. God’s will is for God’s dream to be a reality – in here (point) and out here – where wholeness doesn’t always mean the healing of our bodies – where freedom sometimes means letting go – and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
May all of us pray hard – and open ourselves to being shaped and molded by the blessings of God that will come of it. Amen.