I preached once again this past Sunday. The text was Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow. That parable got me thinking, “What is prayer?” You can read the verses I allude to here.
What is prayer?
Is it a wish list? A sort of Amazon.com for God? Is it a meditation exercise? Good for lowering stress and rejuvenating the mental state? Is prayer poetry — pretty words and pleasing rhythm?
Does prayer, to put it another way, mean anything?
My paternal grandmother died about 15 years or so ago. She suffered from Lou Gherig’s disease. It was incredibly painful to watch her body waste away before my eyes. It was even more painful for me, as a teenager, to watch Grandma and Grandpa become enthralled with a TV faith healer.
They began to watch his program, if you’ll pardon the expression, religiously; they even went to some of this evangelist’s crusade meetings. They were desperate for a miracle. So was I.
It made me angry to watch my grandparents reach out to this flashy TV preacher. I didn’t understand why they were putting faith in such an obvious (to me) charlatan. I wanted a miracle as bad as anyone, I just didn’t believe this particular faith healer was the place to look.
But Grandma and Grandpa weren’t looking to the televangelist for a miracle. They didn’t believe in him any more than they believed in Superman.
They did have a firm and solid faith in Jesus. And they believed that Jesus could heal Grandma if he willed.
What I didn’t realize is that Grandma and Grandpa also knew how to pray the way Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gesthemane: if it be thy will, take this cup from me — but not my will, but thine, O Lord, be done.
I began to see this clearly when we were going through Grandma’s things, shortly after the funeral. We discovered a stack of notebooks, journals, scraps of paper Grandma had used to chronicle her inner life.
She had written about her love for the family she’d raised; she’d written about nature and about the goings on in her life. But mostly, she’d written about Jesus.
As we began to read through these intimate journals, we suddenly saw Grandma in a very different light. It became clear that Grandma had lived a life that we weren’t aware of. She’d lived a life in a hidden place of quiet contemplation, the solitude of prayer. Prayer was such a part of Grandma’s life that it had blended into her daily routine. She was praying constantly, though we were unaware.
Grandma wrote of her times in prayer, of being in the presence of God. She wrote of dreams and visions. She wrote of life-changing decisions made in the throes of prayer.
Grandma’s journals told the story of a life lived between two worlds.
Jesus’ parable in this morning’s Gospel lesson is, I think, easy to misunderstand. On the face of it, Jesus seems to be saying, “God is open for business, just ask for what you need and God will get right on it for you.”
But the last sentence of the reading undercuts that sentiment with a very ominous tone: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Even though Jesus says God will see that God’s people get justice, and quickly, there seems to be some doubt in Jesus’ mind that God’s people will be faithful.
Paul, in a way, echoes this in his letter to Timothy: “For the time will come when people won’t put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
We should, as Jesus’ parable teaches, always pray and never lose heart. But, in my mind at least, the question keeps popping up: What is prayer?
The Old Testament passage appointed for today is, admittedly difficult. But, when I look at it in light of the context of the other scriptures we’ve read this morning, it seems to illuminate at least some of the answer to my question.
This wrestling match Jacob has with the angel of God is, to me, one of the most powerful physical images of what prayer is.
In prayer, we grapple with eternity, we strive to touch the gates of heaven, to understand the mind of God and to enter into communion with the Lord. And, just as Jacob limped away from his encounter with the angel of God, we leave the experience of prayer marked as people who’ve stood in the presence of Incarnate Love.
But still I ask: What is prayer?
St. John Chrysostom was a father of the Eastern church. Much of his life was devoted to prayer. In fact, he’s the author of one of the major liturgies of the Orthodox church. He’s also the author of a prayer used regularly in churches of Anglican heritage, like the United Methodist Church.
The prayer of St. Chrysostom is found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as part of the order of service for Evening Prayer. It closes with these words: “Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth and in the age to come life everlasting.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ, when the disciples asked how they should pray, gave us a prayer that includes these words: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” I’ve always gotten the sense, as I pray those words of Jesus, that there is this great drama playing out in heaven. I have this idea that the great salvation story is being written in every moment of life. There are two worlds, only a hairs-breadth apart. The will of heaven is certain, perfect and unchanging. The world in which we take our daily bread is mutable, fickle and cruel.
Prayer is the bridge between these worlds. As we pray, we enter into heaven, into the rapture of the presence of God. And we return, strengthened, empowered and ready to take our part in the drama of salvation being played in heaven and on earth. Prayer re-calibrates our will to the will of God.
Prayer enwraps and consumes us, leaving us only able to gasp, “Not my will, but thine.” As we cross that bridge between two worlds, our desires, our thoughts, our wills are redeemed and transformed. As we pray, we learn how to go about doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
What is prayer? Prayer is humanity’s groping toward the divine nature. Prayer is the longing of the human heart. Prayer is the bridge between heaven and earth.
It’s often said that we must pray with faith. The idea is there is no prayer without faith. I submit to you this morning that there is no faith without prayer. Prayer is faith.
When the disciples came to Jesus asking him how they ought to pray, they weren’t seeking a way to petition God, they were looking for a way to interact with God. They wanted deeper intimacy with God — to partake of the divine nature.
As we, like the disciples, seek to enter into communion with God, prayer forms the center of our life. As we commune in the presence of God, we find our faith strengthened, our belief ratified. Prayer forms my faith; prayer illuminates my doubt; prayer helps my unbelief. Prayer keeps me from giving up.
God will grant us justice, and quickly. But will the Son of Man find faith on earth?
Itching ears are quick to hear the wrong message in today’s Gospel lesson. I want to read the words of Jesus and understand them to mean “God will always give me what I want.” But that’s not what Jesus says. He promises us justice. And we have to read and hear this promise with spiritual understanding.
I’d hate to be misunderstood this morning as saying that we ought not to petition God. I believe in miracles. I believe in a God who is mighty to save; I serve the creator of all that is and moves and has its being. I believe in a God so powerful his very name shakes the foundation of the world.
I believe in miracles, let there be no mistake. But we miss the point if we only believe prayer is answered with a miracle. Prayer is answered in the act of prayer itself. When we cross that bridge, when we enter the heavenly country, we find the strength, solace and refreshment we need. We’re recharged, if you will, and prepared to once again enter into the day to day business of bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven.
A life ruled by prayer is a life God can use.
And that’s why Jesus asks: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Paul’s letter to Timothy paints a picture of a life not ruled by prayer — a life that has lost its center. Prayer, on the other hand, centers my life on God’s will, rather than the pursuit of my own selfish satisfaction.
A person who’s life isn’t ruled by prayer can’t be bothered with sound doctrine, but, instead, chases the quick high of a feel-good message. Paul says this pursuit leads away from truth into a world of myth and fantasy. Ultimately, a life not ruled by prayer is full of discontent, because, you see, itching ears can never be satisfied. But prayer creates an environment of faith, free from temptation.
Prayer is the heartbeat of a Christian’s life, pumping faith, hope and love throughout our entire being. Prayer keeps us from chasing fantasies and living in a world of dreams. Prayer focusses our life on the Gospel; prayer is what puts the Gospel into action.
The Church’s history is a history of prayer. We can point to countless men and women throughout twenty-one centuries of Christianity that exemplify what prayer is. Paul writes of being caught up into heaven, John the apostle was known for his prayer life — the entirety of the Book of
Revelation is a prayer journal of sorts. John records the sights and sounds of heaven, his experience in a time of prayer.
Beyond the apostles, there are examples of holy men and women throughout history who, in prayer, experienced the essence of heaven: St. Theresa of Avilla, St. Francis of Assisi, Susanna Wesley, my Grandmother, you, and me. Not all have seen visions, true. And perhaps we don’t even understand this idea of being caught up into heaven. But we’ve all experienced those moments of deep and intimate prayer, in the many forms it takes.
I remember being a child, praying myself to sleep in the words I knew to say — Lord bless my family, bless my puppy Rusty, give me a good night’s sleep and our Father who art in heaven.
Mothers pray in deep contemplation as they rock a newborn baby. What will this child grow to become? What does God have in store for this new life? Am I ready to guide this child to do God’s will? Fathers pray for strength and wisdom. Will I do what is right for my family? Am I a model of Christian love? As a parish we pray for guidance; we pray that God will use us in this community to bring God’s will to bear in Blount County, as it is in heaven. As the Church universal we pray in confidence, professing the name of Jesus Christ, the grace of God and the good news of the salvation of the world.
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
I believe that he will. Because the Church of God is a prayerful people. We are a people living between two worlds, steadfastly proclaiming that God’s kingdom will come, and his will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.