Follow Me – Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Pray: Pray Persistently and Humbly”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
April 23, 2023
We continue our series on prayer this morning. Today’s theme is “Pray Persistently and Humbly”. While these engaging parables in our text for today may hold deeper riches, nevertheless, I cannot argue with their basic encouragement of praying with persistence and humility. When we turn our full attention to God, we do so humbly, because God is God, and we are not. God is the God of the spacious seas and broad skies, the high mountains and the endless prairies, this tiny earth and this little solar system, and God is the God of all the universes and the millions of planets and stars in the great beyond.
So yes, we human creatures of the earth approach God with humility. I have a friend at Philips Tower who sometimes wonders out loud… with all the people in the world praying, how can God possibly hear me? How can God possibly care about my little individual prayers? Surely there is too much noise, too many people all at once, she says, many of whom have far deeper concerns than me. Does God hear my prayers at all?
Hear the Word of God from Luke 18:1-14
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.
In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying,
“Grant me justice against my opponent.”
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, (Bjorn) “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’
And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.
And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?
Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.
And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus,
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”
But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, (RG) “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
At the end of wedding rehearsals here in the sanctuary, I work with the wedding coordinator to get all of the wedding party and their families to come and sit down in the front pews for a few minutes. At times, this can be like herding cats, as you can imagine.. After we have covered what time to arrive the next day and who will have the wedding rings and the license and that sort of thing,
I talk about the importance of marriage.
I talk about how weddings are so important that we act them out with great fanfare.
Because weddings are so important, because the world turns just a bit when a couple gets married, we wear special clothing, we enjoy beautiful and reverent music, we walk a certain way, we stand up straight. The women carry flowers and the men often wear boutonnieres. Then, after talking about significance of the event, I ask the wedding parties, the moms and dads, the grandparents, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen, to pray for the couple who is getting married. I ask them, before they put their head on their pillow that night, after the rehearsal dinner, to say a prayer for the couple. And to do so the next night after the wedding, and then every night they can remember going forward.
I promise them that their relationship will be different with that couple if they are praying for them daily. I tell them that that couple will be stronger in their marriage because of their prayers. I tell them that they will be different because they are praying for their friends and loved ones.
I believe in prayer. I believe that God hears our prayers.
I believe that prayer changes us.
I do not know how or if prayer changes God.
I do not know whether God’s mind is changed in some way.
I do not know whether what might or might not happen is different because we prayed.
At times, it has certainly seemed like God heard and responded to our prayers.
But I do know that prayer changes me.
And I believe that since God cares about us, that God also cares about our prayers.
The question often comes, how then, do we pray?
Last week, we talked about praying in silence – prayers of listening and communing with God. And we talked about praying in the manner that Jesus taught us, with the Lord’s prayer. Today’s first parable addresses the need not to lose heart in prayer even when, as Frederick Buechner wrote, prayer feels like one is just “whistling in the dark”.
Frederick Buechner‘s father died by suicide when the author was only 16 years old. He had reason to question prayer, to question God, to question everything. Buechner wrote about his deep sense of abandonment, not only from his father, but from God as well. But Buechner re-entered the conversation with God.
He kept reaching out, kept reaching up. And Buechner’s honest books on Christian spirituality have inspired countless souls.
We talked about Mother Theresa last week. Mother Theresa confessed to many years of spiritual dryness. After receiving a call in prayer to go and work with the poor, she wrote about the difficulties of feeling the absence of God in the midst of dire poverty. She wrote to a priest: “Tell me, father, why there is so much pain and darkness in my soul?
Sometimes I find myself saying I can’t bear it any longer, yet with the same breath, I say I am sorry, do with me what you wish.”
Humility, honesty, persistence in prayer – Mother Theresa kept turning to God, kept seeking God’s presence in prayer, even when her spirit felt dry and unfulfilled.
Contemporary Christian musical artist, Lauren Daigle, has become well-known for her heartfelt, searching, honest prayers. Jody and Ed Sauls’ son plays in her band that travels the country filling large venues. Her sung prayers are touch the souls of many young and old alike.
One of my favorites from Lauren Daigle is “Hold On To Me”.
Hold onto me when it’s too dark to see you.
Hold onto me when I am sure I have reached the end.
Hold onto me when I forget I need you.
When I let go, hold me again.
It is OK to confess the feeling of God’s absence; many of the psalms do so. It is Ok to ask the hard questions: What do our prayers actually accomplish?
What do we pray for when a friend’s child has been diagnosed with cancer? How does a young couple pray when they have been trying for years to have a baby? For what should you pray when you see yet another mass shooting on the news?
Or this week, when there have been at least three reckless shootings of innocent persons who mistakenly approached the wrong door or wrong car or pulled in the wrong driveway? How do we pray about that?
How do we pray for a friend or loved one with clinical depression? If you are the one struggling with clinical depression, how do you pray when you don’t even feel like you can get out of bed in the morning?
Or look to Ukraine or Sudan…We have all prayed for peace in the world countless times. Should we just keep on praying the same prayer? Do our prayers make a difference? Or how about prayers for global warming and climate change? Are we praying about that? Are we doing our little part? Is it all too overwhelming?
Consider this question:
If you were the widow in the story, what would you be praying for? What have you prayed for countless times, yet not received any obvious response? What need or desire have you brought before God countless times, yet that need or desire has not been addressed?
Jesus’ parables encourage us to wonder about the nature of God. God is not like the unrighteous judge, Jesus teaches. But we know that God is not like Santa Claus either.
The God we discover in Holy Scripture is not some sweet granddaddy up in the sky; neither is God like a watch-maker, who creates the earth, moon, and stars, sets them all in motion, and then just sits back and watches from a distance.
When you pray, how do you address God?
Do you address God in confidence, like the Pharisee, and end up focusing more on your concerns and interests and biases that on what God may be concerned about? Or do you approach God with humility, like the tax collector, who has become fully aware of his sin?
When you ask of God, what do you find yourself asking about most often? What concerns weigh so heavily on your heart and mind that you have to place them before God, because you know that you cannot bear the weight of them alone?
Are you currently waiting on an answer to a prayer that you have offered? Is there something you have continually asked God to do or to make clear? Have you received any answers recently to your prayers lately, whether the answer was a clear “yes”….or a disappointing “no”….or an uncertain “wait”?
How did you realize that answer?
It has been said many times that remembrance of God’s providence in the past can grant us confidence in the present and hope for the future. If we can remember times that God answered our prayers in past years, then we may be more confident to pray without ceasing in the current year, and to look forward in anticipation to what God will do in the future. The psalms repeat this pattern often, looking back to God’s great deliverance in the Exodus, for example, to remind the one praying that God does hear, that God does care, that God, in time, will eventually respond to our pleas for help.
When we think about concerns like a loved one’s health or even global warming, we might consider the spiritual path of “walking prayers”? Are you familiar with walking prayers? This is not a spoken prayer that we offer while we are walking. This is a prayer that we live, a prayer that has not words but legs, a prayer that get things done related to our deep concerns.
Sometimes, our most effective prayers are prayers of action, when we do something for ourselves or for others as a result of our prayers. A walking prayer is something we go and do instead of sitting and talking to God about.
The unrighteous judgment neither feared God nor had respect for people, and yet he granted the woman’s request because she kept bothering him. He said I’ll grant her justice because she’s going to wear me out by continually coming. If the unrighteous judge responds to the persistent woman, how much more will a loving Father respond to his children?
Jesus ends that parable by asking: When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth? Will Jesus find us like the woman who knew that God was concerned about justice, and knew that God cared about her, and knew that there is a door of prayer, and whether or not that door seems open, that she was called to knock on it until she received some response. Will the Son of Man find such faith in us?
Before I close, I want to offer two forms of prayer.
Both of these prayers bring together both humility and persistence.
The first form is the biblical pattern for prayers of lament.
A large percentage of the psalms are psalms of lament, like Psalm 13, for example.
Prayers of lament offer an invocation, a complaint, a plea for help, and then turn to an affirmation, and end with a word of praise I invite you to offer a prayer of lament now using the pattern on the monitor:
God of ______________________________________________
I am angry, sad, frustrated, upset about _____________________
I want you to __________________________________________
I know you are ________________________________________
Thank you for _________________________________________
It does not take long to get real with your prayers when you are offering a prayer of lament.
I encourage you, if you do not already do so, to choose a particular place to pray and a particular time of day to pray.
Pray throughout your day, whenever you feel led to do so, but it is helpful to set aside some time, whether 5 minutes or 50 minutes, to engage in intentional prayer time – with both spoken words and a listening heart.
Finally, for those who find themselves in a difficult place or perhaps just need a simple place to start, notice the “breath prayer” in your bulletin and on the monitor. A breath prayer is offered just as it sounds, with our breathing in and our breathing out. Many have found breath prayers helpful when walking or jogging or doing some other repetitive activity.
There are many possible breath prayers, often formed with words from scripture. The one printed in your bulletin is patterned after the tax collector’s prayer in Luke.
We pray the prayer as follows: Jesus Christ (breathe in)…Son of God (breathe out)…. have mercy on me (breathe in)…a sinner (breathe out)…
I believe in prayer. I believe God hears and cares about our prayers. And I know prayer changes us.
Rev. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church