Persistence in Prayer

Today’s scripture readings:
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Almost every single morning, Oby and I drop into our favorite neighborhood coffee shop, Groundswell Coffee in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, for a jolt of caffeine to help us launch into the day. Arriving, as we do, at about the same time each day, we’ve noticed we run into a lot of the same people over and over again—others who, like us, get their coffee fix every morning at Groundswell at about ten minutes past seven.

There’s someone we run into there regularly named Danelle. The first time we saw her at Groundswell a few years ago, she caught our attention because she had a Study Bible open on the table in front of her and a stack of devotional books nearby, and she was writing in a prayer journal. We figured, a couple of pastors, someone deeply engrossed in Bible study—we should probably introduce ourselves. We found out that Danelle lives in the suburbs where she and her family—at that time, anyway—attended a large evangelical church. We learned a little bit about her job here in St. Paul and about her husband and kids, and we told her about ourselves and our work as pastors. As we were about to say goodbye and get on with our day, she asked us a question that she continues to ask us every time we meet at the coffee shop: “How can I pray for you today?” I’m embarrassed as a pastor to say that that question catches me a little off-guard each time she asks it. “How can I pray for you today?”

I’ll confess that’s not a question I ask people very often—especially people I bump into out in the world, outside the walls of Gloria Dei. Of course, I pray here at church at all the appropriate times: with all the worship assistants in the vestry just before the church service begins, at the beginning of committee meetings, on Wednesday nights as we gather for dinner downstairs in the Fellowship Hall. And I’ve prayed with many of you individually when you’ve been hospitalized or when you’ve come into my office to talk about something hard that’s going on in your life. But outside of church? With civilians I bump into at the coffee shop? Not so much.

Danelle, on the other hand, she asks every time we see her, and it’s a question that, for her, is as natural as can be. You can tell that asking how she can pray for people is a basic way that she tends to her relationships, both with the people she cares about and with God. And when she says, “You’ll be in my prayers,” I know that she means it. I believe that prayer, for her, really is a way of life.

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Luke begins his telling of today’s parable by giving us a hint as to what it’s about. It begins, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The parable itself is about a widow who goes before a judge asking for justice—not just once, but over and over and over again. A widow in that culture would have lived a hopeless existence. In a society as highly patriarchal as hers, being without the support and protection of a man would have left her completely destitute. Widows were among those who were most overlooked, ignored, and forgotten. They had no influence, no agency, and no future. That’s why there are so many passages in the scriptures calling upon those in authority to care for widows and orphans. It’s that scriptural command to look after widows that makes the judge in this parable such a contemptible figure. He doesn’t fear God and he has no respect for people—least of all a poor widow who keeps screeching at his door. But she eventually wears him down and he gives in—not because he is concerned about her situation, but only to get her to shut up. That’s when Jesus steps in to interpret the parable for us. If even an unjust judge will eventually give in, how much more quickly will a loving God respond to those who cry day and night for mercy?

Now, the obvious problem with this parable is that too many of us have been among those who cry out to God day and night and never received God’s mercy. Reflecting on this passage, one pastor wrote that our churches are “full of weary or already-gave-up-on-it pray-ers…. As eye- and ear-catching as it may be, how can this parable land meaningfully when God does not fix things for all who ask persistently”? What are we supposed to do with a parable that seems so out of sync with our own experience of unanswered prayers to a seemingly indifferent God?

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and one of my favorite modern public theologians, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in late March 2020, when the COVID situation seemed most bleak. “Where is God in a pandemic?” he asked. Theologians over the centuries have proposed all sorts of answers to the question of why God allows people to suffer, but at the end of the day, none of them are very convincing or helpful. In the end, Father Martin says, the most honest answer to that question is, “We don’t know.”

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So what are we to make of this parable? Luke tells us it is a parable about “our need to pray always and not to lose heart.” I got to thinking about Danelle. I don’t know many people who pray as fervently and frequently as Danelle. She has, I’m sure—like any of us who have come before God regularly in prayer—had many prayers answered and many prayers left, seemingly, unanswered. What keeps her going on praying, and how does she keep from losing heart?

Presbyterian Pastor Kimberly Bracken Long writes that the “life of faith is not only about telling God what is on our wish list but constantly lifting up every joy and concern, every fear and doubt, every lament and plea to the One who hears and answers…. Our prayers do not constitute so many unanswered pleas; rather, they are our participation in the coming reign of God. By praying continually, and not giving up hope, we live in the surety that God has not abandoned this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.”

Maybe it’s helpful to think of prayer not as a sort of transaction where we spend a few moments telling God what we want and then God answers our prayer (or not), but to think of prayer as a relationship in which we are continually sharing the longings of our hearts, lifting up our joys, and expressing our gratitude. A life of prayer—of continual dialogue with God—reminds us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, partners with God in God’s work of love and justice and healing and mercy, agents of resurrection in a world that so often feels crushed by the powers of death. Prayer is participation in the coming reign of God, rooted in the confidence that God’s goodness will ultimately prevail. Continual, persistent prayer is what makes it possible for us to show up again and again, never giving up but demanding and expecting that justice will be done.

I’ve become convinced that prayer isn’t so much about getting something from God as it is about reorienting ourselves—learning to see the world the way God sees it, hearing how God might be making us an answer to our own prayers and giving us what we most need to take action for the sake of love. In the words of the prophet Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” In our lifetimes we will certainly pray for many things we don’t receive, but the God who hears our prayers will always be quick to provide what we need most: the assurance that we are not in this alone, the promise that life will prevail over death, and the strength we need for the living of our days. Thanks be to God.


Resources consulted:

John M. Buchanon, “Luke 18:1-8: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

Francisco J. García, “Commentary on Luke 18:1-8,” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-3/commentary-on-luke-181-8-5.

Larry Goodpaster, “Unleashing the Power of Prayer,” on Day1.org, published October 16, 2016, accessed October 14, 2022, https://day1.org/weekly-broadcast/5d9b820ef71918cdf2003f75/bishop_larry_goodpaster_unleashing_the_power_of_prayer.

Kimberly Bracken Long, “Luke 18:1-8: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

James Martin, “Where Is God In a Pandemic?”, in The New York Times, March 22, 2020, accessed October 14, 2022,https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/opinion/coronavirus-religion.html.


The featured image for this post is from Ruben Hutabarat on Unsplash.


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