Soul Feast – Prayer (Psalm 27, Luke 18:1-8)

Today we continue our series, based on Soul Feast by Marjorie Thompson, exploring the practices or disciplines that for centuries Christians have practiced to strengthen their spiritual life – in other words how God relates to us and how we relate to God.

And today we are looking at prayer, and I must confess – and I know I’m not alone – that I struggle with prayer: wondering at times how to pray for people, wondering if God does respond to prayer, wondering if prayer is sometimes a feeble option – “All I can do for you is pray…” – and struggling with finding time for prayer in a life that easily fills with other activities and distractions.

But I know I need to pray.

In one of the exercises in Marjorie Thompson’s chapter on prayer she talks about visualising Jesus standing before us and asking, “Belinda, what do you want me to do for you?” It’s a question that lays bare our deepest desires: like this widow in Jesus’ parable who desperately seeks justice; like the psalmist crying, “Hear me, O Lord, …be gracious to me and answer me!”; like the moment in my Pastor’s Note, from Nara Park on Tuesday, of suddenly, palpably wanting God’s “will to be done on earth as it is in heaven”, and knowing, as I said the words, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…” that we cannot do this alone. We need God. We need to meet with God. We need to pray, so God can work in us, shape us and reshape us into God’s people.

The parable of the importunate widow (if you’re wondering what importunate means, it means to be persistent, especially to the point of annoyance!) who begs the judge for justice is a curious story about prayer. It almost reads as though Jesus is describing God as an unjust judge. A judge – or a God – who must be begged and begged and begged and who only reluctantly and out of self-interest does what is right. New Testament scholar, William Loader, describes Jesus’ technique here as “playfully shocking in the way it is prepared to liken God to the judge”, but it also parallels some of our deep-seated fears of how God responds to us  – or how we may have felt when God has not answered the desperate prayers of our hearts.

As someone who believed very deeply in the place of prayer, the writer C.S. Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”

We do not know what happens when we pray for others. And I like how Thompson deals with this in chapter, simply by making a list of different views, all derived from the Bible, and encouraging us to think through which best fit our understanding, and inviting us to consider that we might hold several of these views in tension:

  1. By our requests and reasoning with God, we change God’s attitude and intended action in the world (Gen 18:22-33, Exod 32:11-14).
  2. By engaging in prayer, we find ourselves changed, marked by our encounter with the living God (Gen 32:24-30).
  3. In prayer we voice our desires and needs and fears but are ultimately dependant on God’s sovereign will and action (Job 7:11-20, 13:3, 19:7, 42:1-6).
  4. In prayer we align our love and will with the love and will of Christ Jesus and leave the results to him (John 15:1-11, Rom 8:26-27, Heb 4:14-16).
  5. In prayer we discover the Holy Spirit already praying in us and try to attune and entrust ourselves to that presence ad inward prayer (Ps 139, Rom 8:26-27).
  6. When we pray, we are cooperating with God in willing and working life and goodness for others, yet we are vulnerable with God to the limits imposed by evil – limits accepted in the freedom that love creates (Mark 14:32-36).

What we do know about prayer, and what Jesus declares in this passage, is that we pray to a good and just and gracious God. A God who hears us. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen people who cry to him day and night,” says Jesus, and that we are called to keep praying. Day and night – we are to persist in prayer. We are to be importunate prayers.

Because God is not identified with the judge in this parable, but God is identified with the widow. God is with the one who cries out for justice. Throughout scripture, God is on the side of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the foreigner. And we are called to persist in prayer and to persist in prayer for them – not just because it is right and ultimately, the parable says, because justice will prevail – but because doing so means we are in communion with the vulnerable and with the God who is on the side of the vulnerable.

Ella is going to speak in a moment and say a little more about her understanding of the communion we experience with God and amongst ourselves in prayer – sometimes called the communion of saints – but on a scrap of paper in my Bible I have a quote from Desmond Tutu who says, “What I have found is that getting up a little earlier and trying to have an hour of quiet in the presence of God, mulling over some scripture (would we call this lectio divina?), supports me…even when I exercise…I use that time for intercession…for me the most important of all is that I am not alone – I am not alone. A solitary nun in California once told me that she prayed for me at two o’clock in the morning. In a scientific, materialistic, secular society this would be described as nonsense. For me it brings a kind of confidence that things will be all right.”

Last week I mentioned that I had emailed the Chris Chamberlain, the senior pastor of the Oxford Terrace church in Christchurch, to tell him that we were grieved with them, that we would remember them in prayer and keep praying for them. And on Tuesday I received this response from Chris:

Thank you for your message, Belinda. As you can imagine it’s been a bit manic and quite tense here over the last few days. It is very heartening to have messages like your one. As it happens, we prayed for you as well a week or so ago when Jenny Boshier told us about your anniversary.

We are in communion with them. They are in communion with us. We are together in communion with our God who loves us and hears us and will bring justice on our earth.

And so, we must persist – be importunate – in prayer. We must persist in speaking – and in listening to God – in prayer. We must persist in crying out for others in prayer. For in prayer we are gathered in communion with others – we are not alone – and with our God – we are not alone.

As I did last week, I’ve invited one of our congregation to come and share some of her story of prayer. Thanks, Ella!

Good morning, my name is Ella Whateley. I have been coming to this church for 4 years this Easter. I regularly go along to the prayer meeting at 8.30 on a Wednesday morning. Belinda has asked me to talk to you about my prayer life, perhaps because she knows that I have an early morning practise of reading the Bible and praying. I know I benefit enormously from this practise. I am more peaceful and grounded as a result of it.

Raised in a small family in England, one of my earliest memories as a child is of praying. But unlike the lovely Bev who spoke last week I was an anomaly in my family. There were no believers or church-goers at all in it, and I did not even go to a church school, and yet I somehow knew about God, I talked to Him regularly. He was my best friend. It was not until I was an adult that I found out that I had significant committed Christians in my family history whom I think must have prayed for me in the past.

At 14 I was invited to a Pentecostal church by a school friend. There I was told about Jesus’ great love for me, about his death and resurrection and I gave my life to Him and received adult baptism to seal the deal. At a Pentecostal youth camp, that I attended at this time, we prayed to be anointed with the Holy Spirit and so began my lifelong habit of speaking in tongues. My understanding is that this gift is for every believer who asks for it. I pray in tongues quietly all time, driving in traffic, walking the dog, in Coles shopping etc. This form of prayer has been a great comfort to me – especially when I have felt far away from God – because this gift has never left me. It is gentle and edifying and yes, not rational and a bit of a mystery… but it is a great blessing and allows me to ‘pray without ceasing’.

In my twenties, after finishing my design degree in Bath, I went to live in London. At this time, I was trying really hard to be a good evangelical Christian, and failing. I simply did not fit the mould. I became very depressed and felt that God had abandoned me. I was both distressed and angry with Him for not helping me out of a black hole. So, I left the evangelical branch of the church and sat in the back of a non-charismatic, conservative Anglican church where it eventually felt safe enough to tell the minister that I wasn’t sure that God existed at all. The vicar said, ‘just keep coming’, and so I did and gradually the depression lifted. Looking back now, I think God was right beside me, but it was just too dark for me to see him…; from this period onwards, I would go to an Anglican church fairly regularly, but I kept God more at arm’s length and my prayers were more ritualised.

In my late 30s I began to feel a deep heart-wrenching yearning for God again. I missed the intimacy with Him that I had had. And so, began a period when I would seek Him by getting up every night, in the middle of the night, to pray. Sometimes for 5 minutes, and sometime for much longer. It was partly that as a mother, this time was quiet and private, and it was partly that I had been told that this time was a sort of thin time where communing with God was somehow easier.

During these times, I would sing and praise Him, I would thank Him for His good gifts, I would confess my sins to Him, I would talk to Him about my deepest and most private concerns and I would petition Him for the people and the issues that burdened my heart; and I would try to listen to Him.

I had many wonderful supernatural experiences at this time, but I will share just one of them with you because I hope it will encourage you and explain why I often ask you to sing the responses during prayers.

One particular middle of the night I was happily singing praises to God on the floor of my apartment in Bondi. I came to the end of my little song and stopped, and for a moment I heard a heavenly choir singing, and I realised that the choir had been singing along with me. It was as though the heavenly conductor had not realised that I had stopped and for a split second I got an audible glimpse of heaven.

When we sing to God, I think the company of heaven is singing with us, in agreement with us. But we lead the way. When I ask you to sing our prayer responses to God, I love listening to you, you sound beautiful and I can sort of feel God smiling.

One of the nuns at Jamberoo abbey, where I go on retreat sometimes, told me that she likes to think as her community prays in the chapel facing the window looking out to the fields beyond, that the nuns who are buried in the cemetery beneath the window, are helping to bear up their prayers before God. This is another wonderful image of the extent of the company of heaven and the communion of saints working with us and for us…

In my 40s, my marriage broke down and I had 3 difficult years of litigation. But it is true, it is in the times of pain that we get very close to God. As I was working in my studio, I would regularly listen to the teaching CDs of Joyce Meyer, an American preacher. Sometimes she is hard to listen to; but she is a Christian of integrity and her heart is right with God. Through her teachings I came to understand that the biblical promises were for me, they were my heritage as a servant of God:

For example, as Paul wrote in Corinthians, ‘We have the mind of Christ…’, that means I ‘have the mind of Christ’, I hold the thoughts and purposes of His heart.’

During this time, I experienced for myself the power of the Word of God. It is indeed ‘sharper than a two-edged sword’, ‘it is alive and active’ and ‘will accomplish that which the Lord pleases and purposes’. I learnt the value of repeating the Word of God as prayer by putting it in the first person. I would wake very early and speak out loud swathes of the book of Isaiah and make them my own prayers; and I would feel my anxiety levels fall, my hope return, and slowly I would be steeped in the peace of God. This practise of using the Word of God as prayer, is something that I use all the time in intercession for people. My favourite is Psalm 91. But if a person has a particular problem, I will use a verse that speaks to that problem.

I have been on the prayer roster as a regular intercessor in all the Anglican churches I have attended since my 30s. And my last encouragement today concerns God always hearing us and His perfect timing. I was once told rather baldly, God answers prayers with, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.

One Saturday night, I was sitting in the television room with my boys who were watching the kid’s movie called Millions. I was multi-tasking, writing the intercessory prayers for church on my laptop. It is the Anglican tradition to remember the anniversaries of the lives and deaths of significant people in the church, not least the protestant martyrs. As I got to the end of the supplied prayer information sheet. I declared out loud. “Oh, they have forgotten to give me the dates for the Martyrs of Uganda.” And the television immediately replied, ‘The Martyrs of Uganda: 1885 to 1887 and 1977.’

As you can imagine I nearly fell off my chair.

If I am tempted to get discouraged with God’s timing, I remember this experience. God hears our prayers, all of them, big and small. He is right beside us. His timing may not always feel like it, but it is perfect.

May the Lord bless you.

Ella has suggested we have a prayer book – a book that people can write prayer requests in at any time – any request – as a resource for worship and the Wednesday morning prayer group. (This will be at the back – near our guest book – this morning.) And there are also sheets on the back table with a range of different prayer ideas from Soul Feast as well as a sheet of very practical suggestions for prayer.

But as Marjorie Thompson says, “As with most things, we learn best by doing it.” Or Thomas Merton, “If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying… You start where you are and you deepen what you already have.”