Luke 11:5-13 and Colossians 2:6-12
Reflection by Anne Stewart
I wonder if prayer isn’t one of the most misunderstood things, both for those inside the church and for those outside of it. From the inside there is debate and judgement around how we pray, where we pray and what we pray for. Some would say that for prayer to be authentically Spirit-led, it must be spontaneous. Others would argue that prayer, particularly in corporate worship when the prayer is on behalf of others, should be prepared and the words worked on with care. Then from the outside, we can be seen as a bunch of nutters who talk to an imaginary friend in the belief that life will be better with this friend alongside. When bad things still happen to those who pray it just proves the imaginary status of our friend and also perhaps, the ‘nutter’ status of those who pray.
It seems that the disciples also were concerned with the question of how to pray. The text we heard this morning from Luke’s gospel was preceded by one of the disciples asking Jesus how to pray. They had watched Jesus pray on so many occasions, that they wanted to know how they too should be praying. 11:2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And then he went on to explain what he meant by telling the story about someone asking for help in the middle of the night and being turned down, and persisting until he got the help he needed. “Ask and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Persist in this, he suggests. For many people, of course, prayer is not just a verbal thing. Prayer is a posture, a way of being – both before God but also within us and within our communities. Prayer is listening, prayer is waiting, persist in this, he suggests.
I wonder what the call to persist conjures up for you. Maybe it’s a reminder of children when they were younger, persistent in their requests for something they really wanted, perhaps a new bike, or a dog, or new shoes like their friends. You know, the way that their request found its way into every conversation you ever had with them. I imagine you can all recall the persistence of a child who wants to show you every shell on the beach, or every worm in the garden. They may be simply measuring the length of your patience but they don’t give up easily do they. I guess the measure is how long it takes you to get to, ‘that’s enough now’? I recall persistence being regarded as nagging when I grew up and any sign of it ensuring that I would never get the thing I felt I needed so badly. So persistence for me, did not pay off. It seemed to only harden my parents resolve. I think I might be ready now for a good old theological debate with them over that bit of parenting – lucky for them, I got to that a bit too late!
On Friday night another memory about persistence also came to mind when the group with birthdays in June met to share a meal. Something someone said reminded both Martin and I of a story about our son Josh. Martin opened his mouth to tell the story and I quickly helped him shut it, as it struck me that it might be a good story to share today. Josh was a very keen, (obsessive it might be said), skateboarder. He and his friends used to film one another doing crazy tricks. The person operating the camera was required to skate alongside the skater holding the camera down low and very steady as they performed a line of different skate tricks. No trick is accepted as legit by other skaters unless it is filmed and shared, but not edited! You had to get the whole sequence straight in one bit of filming. There was one time when Josh was doing the filming and his friend had this long and involved line he was wanting to get filmed to prove he had done it. Well these things don’t always just happen perfectly on the first attempt. In this case it took 135 takes before the thing was finally nailed. When you see the level of strength, concentration and attention to detail required, Martin and I doubt that either of us could hold it together to film 5 attempts, let alone 135. We were amazed at Josh’s persistence and dedication – and quietly we wished that Josh had applied these same skills to the same degree to his schoolwork! However we both agreed that these were great skills to see and that they would be very transferrable to other areas of his life – one day.
I am interested in Jesus’ advice to persist. Don’t we find this difficult, both to do and to receive. We don’t want to nag or be nagged at. We don’t want to bother others or be bothered by them. I think that we tend to be the most persistent with those we are the closest to in life. I know I bug Martin about things that I wouldn’t bother other people with.
Children would never ask a stranger to buy them a bike – at least you would hope they wouldn’t! We don’t like to bother those we are less familiar with. It is not the Kiwi way is it, to be pushy and to bother others with our requests. We knock on a door and if it doesn’t open almost immediately we go away, and maybe try again later. We don’t want to intrude or be a nuisance. Yet we find this call to persist in prayer often in Scripture. From the book of Romans: be constant in prayer. From Ephesians, pray at all times. From Colossians: be steadfast in prayer. From Thessalonians: pray constantly. We hear it from the parable in Luke 18. Pray always and do not lose heart. We are to cry night and day like a whining widow pleading her case. We hear it in the Gospel lesson for today from Luke 11: the neighbour, knocking, knocking, knocking, knocking, knocking, so persistent, and so pushy. This is how we are to pray, says Jesus; persistently and consistently. Jesus who prayed first thing in the morning to thank God for the night; at noon to thank God for the day. Jesus who prayed at night before he fall asleep to thank God for the day and to ask him to keep him through the night, and at every meal. Jesus who prayed in the disaster times of his life such as at the temptation by the devil in the wilderness or in the garden of Gethsemane or on the cross itself and in the midst of all of its pain. Jesus who also prayed at the blessed times of life such as the wedding Cana or in his miracles and healings. During good times and bad times and at all times, Jesus was a man of devout prayer.
So what holds us back from the persistence in prayer that we are called to? Well I would suggest the first thing that we would reach for here would be that we are busy. And most of us are. You might have heard one of us mention the story Bono (the lead singer from the band U2) tell of a conversation he had once with one of his heroes, Bishop Tutu. Bishop Tutu told him that he spends, I think it was 3 hours a day in prayer. Bono asked, how do you do all you do with that kind of time commitment to prayer? Tutu responded, ‘I couldn’t do what I do without that time in prayer!’ Of course we all pray differently, many of us are on the move as we pray, others need quiet and to be in a particular space. Or maybe we hold back because we have decided that prayer doesn’t do much. Perhaps we struggle to see it as little more than a nice chat with ourselves. Or we think that God is oblivious to our prayers and nothing we say can change the mind of God. Sometimes prayer can be a call to act – a friend in ministry told me recently about a parishioner of hers who was despairing because they had been praying for a neighbour to find a faith for years and years and nothing had happened. My friend’s response to God’s apparent silence was – well have you tried talking to your neighbour! Or maybe we think that prayer should protect us from danger and disaster. Therefore when danger or disaster comes our way we assume that prayer doesn’t work – or that we didn’t pray hard enough. Or maybe we have drifted from the close walk with God that prayer needs. To have any close relationship, you need to talk often and deeply. You can’t have a close relationship with anyone without persistent intimate conversation. That is just the way it is with marriage, family, friendship, and God.
So how do Jesus instructions about praying persistently speak to us about how to do and be church in our context? We know that the disciples observed Jesus in prayer, a lot! And there is the belief that Jesus also continues to pray, for us, a lot. I am less than convinced that Jesus prays for us about things like finding car parks, or having the weather we want for a specific reason. I think that Jesus’ prayers for us are more about praying us toward new life, individually, but also as a church. A church is a gathering of people called together in community, a community that waits expectantly for God to speak into its life. A community who listens together, discerns together and acts together to live out this faith that God has placed in our hearts. We, in turn, pray for those with us and those around us. What does it mean, I wonder, for the wider community to have this faith community in their midst who pray for them? Who names them and holds them before God, seeking the best for them? We do! I wonder what sort of community we would find ourselves in if we didn’t do this. The wider community may not know, or even want this to happen but isn’t our well-being all wrapped up in their well-being? Why wouldn’t we pray for them? I wonder too what sort of community we would be if we weren’t praying for the wider community; for the peace and well-being of the city?
I wonder what you might be wanting to share with God, this day. In a moment we will listen to a song written and sung by Rev Malcolm Gordon called, Children of a thousand prayers. As it plays you might like to take this time to consider something that is in your heart or on your mind at present that you would like to share with God.