From our earliest history, from the time when humans started to believe that death was not the end of life, that there were powers in the universe that controlled or influenced both our terrestrial and heavenly lives, we have had the desire to connect with this Source. In the earliest times, these were seen as divinities or gods. We prayed for rich harvests, for fertility in regard to our animals and ourselves, and for stability most of all. If the gods of nature were appeased, we had every expectation that we would survive to see another season.
Over the past 10 millenia we’ve come to realize that life is about much more than mere “survival.” There are many dimensions to human life and having a right relationship with God is among those dimensions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, (what we used to call the “Old Testament”) we find again and again the stories of people who have a close relationship with our God. These relationships with God were never easy or problem-free, but they were always vibrant, and open to new perspectives. In the book of Psalms and elsewhere, we find prayers of praise and of despair, prayers which accuse God, on the one hand, and prayers which express complete trust on the other. We find prayers that ask for things and prayers that are simply an expression of love and dedication: the whole gamut of human experience is expressed there.
People brought all of their humanness to God because they believed somehow it all mattered to God. We still cling to that belief that God hears us, and so we go to God with problems and challenges, and also to render thanks and praise. That is the core of our faith, regardless of what denomination of faith tradition we find ourselves in. We hope to foster that faith, to allow it to deepen over time, even though we also know that there are ways we can lose faith.
Jesus knew what we in the pos-modern era know only too well: we can lose faith when we lose touch with our heart center. We can lose hope for tomorrow, we can allow disappointment and discouragement to fester, bringing bitterness. Again and again, Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead for them. He know that while he was with them, everything would be fine. With Jesus in clear control of leadership, it was easy to sing “Hosanna!” and talk expectantly about the coming Reign of God. His crucifixion put an end to all that, we are told by the tradition, and his followers went underground, filled with fear and despair. This is what makes the Pentecost story so inspiring, because it wasn’t until that point that these fearful, despairing women and men decided to move forward, beyond the barriers of fear, into the light of freedom. It no longer mattered that the Roman Empire was still clinging to power in the homeland: the Reign of God had triumphed and there was no going back.
The words of Jesus came back to them in those early years and sustained them through difficult times. They remembered to pray and not lose heart. They cared for their small, base communities, and in times of oppression and death, they maintained their attitude of gratitude. They rejoiced and didn’t lose heart. They continued to trust Jesus’ reassurances that His God was showering them with justice even then, that God was listening, that God was vindicating their cause. If a human judge could be nagged into rendering justice, how much more could a loving God be counted on to do even more??
Prayer is sometimes an issue with people. Some don’t like the word, some don’t engage very often in the practice. Some claim to believe in a Higher Power, but don’t perceive a need to connect with it on a personal level. Others argue that prayer doesn’t change anything: people still get sick and die; there are children with cancer; wars continue to erupt all over the globe. Even among regular churchgoers, prayer can have a low priority.
When I was a young parent with babies, I would pray briefly for them at bedtime, asking that God protect them from the big, bad world and also my lack of parenting skills. As they grew older and went off to school, my prayers for them became longer and more detailed: “Please keep them safe, away from alcohol and drugs; help them to find their vocation; keep them away from people of violence; make them eager to learn and make good decisions—and still, most of all, protect them from my incompetent parenting!” I was determined to keep God apprised of my concern for my boys, and that I needed God to protect them from the larger world. Eventually, weary with the long laundry lists of petitions, I came to a point when I could just say in as much trust as I could muster, “OK, God, you already know what’s going on here. Protect us all always”, or words to that effect. Curiously, I came to pray that little prayer less and less, assuming that God already had everything in His hands and that I didn’t need to worry.
Meanwhile, my vocation to the diaconate and priesthood was on the fast-track. I was busier than ever before in my life and I not only worked a full-time and a part-time job, but I also served the small parish with weekly prayer services, oversaw the music program, trained cantors and readers, and generally became the pastor’s righthand man. I did not realize until my son, Chris, died, that I had lost something – I had lost a deep connection with God because I had more or less stopped listening to him—something that only true conversation can give. God had gradually become the God of the Deists for me—a potent universal force with whom I had no direct relationship.
It’s the same in the realm of human relationships. Wives who stop talking to their husbands, assuming that he already knows what they need and want would find themselves eventually cut off from the person they love most. Friends who are taken for granted and not called or contacted ever inevitably become former friends. The result is the same in both scenarios: the relationship withers, unspoken expectations go unrealized; frustration builds; communication ceases.
The widow in Luke’s Gospel is not a person who is shy about saying what she needs: “Grant me justice against my enemy! Help me!” She repeats it several times, so as to become a bit of a nuisance. She is persistent in her communication. And the point of the parable isn’t that God is like the judge, it’s that we are supposed to become like the woman. We’re supposed to be persistent in faith and prayer. We’re supposed to continue being open to communication with Our God. We’re supposed to carry hope with us, regardless of life’s challenges.
German scholar Gerhard Ebeling says: “Prayer is the turn to the future”. Prayer is not just about making a laundry list to God with our wish list. Prayer, offered from the heart, allows us to leave the past behind and to look forward to whatever good God is bringing us in the future.
I have to confess that I never really understood these words until I had a conversation with God out loud, not just in my mind. I was carrying the weight of loss and grieving the loss of my son, and I just stopped folding laundry in the basement and starting telling God the whole story: what I was carrying and how I didn’t think I could carry it much longer; about the hurt and loneliness I’d carried for most of my life; about the serious doubts I was having about becoming ordained the following weekend. The more I talked, the more conscious I became of another Presence in the basement with me, and the less overwhelmed I felt. I began by expecting an immediate change in my circumstances, expecting that God would bring Chris back to life so I wouldn’t have to go on without him. By the end of my tirade, I knew I wasn’t going to get a quick fix, but I knew that whatever lay ahead, I would someday be able to move beyond the darkness I had experienced to that point. It would be years before I able to speak publicly about the loss of my son, and even as the words left my mouth that day and the listening congregation cried, I felt peace welling up inside and I knew that I was not finished, that God’s work in me was not finished, and that I had lived to see another day where I could choose to be an even more honest version of myself.
Jesus told a parable about the need of his followers to pray. This is how today’s Gospel starts. We need prayer. We might not be aware of it. We might chuckle at the thought of it. We might neglect it. But prayer is one of the most powerful venues we have for touching God and being touched in return. As I have learned, even a diatribe offered in the dark of a basement can result in a crystal-clear awareness that we are not alone. Emmanuel, “God with us”, is always near.