About a month ago, I said what I think was my final “goodbye” to Margie. Margie lives in Blooming Prairie. I’ve never actually met Margie in-person, but I have spoken to her on the phone, a lot. Margie works for the United States Census Bureau.
During the 2020 national census, the Buegler household was one of 100,000 homes chosen at random, nationally, for what they called “supplemental data collection.”
So Margie entered our lives.
For the first six months, Margie called me faithfully, every two weeks, asking questions about our life, our employment, our income, our housing, etc…etc…. “Have you had any change in employment status? In income? In your son’s student status?” She’d ask. Each time she called, it was about 15 minutes’ worth of questions.
If I wasn’t able to answer the phone, she’d call back… every day…until we could talk.
After six months, the calls were reduced to monthly. Six months later, they became every 3 months. Then just twice a year.
Margie and I were on a first name basis. I came to recognize her Blooming Prairie number, and I’d answer “Hey Margie! How are you doing?” I think at first, she was a bit taken aback by this…which was my goal. I learned that census workers take their jobs very seriously…and they should. It’s important work. At first, Margie was very stoic…very serious on the phone. So, I made it my goal that every time we’d speak, I’d try to make this Census Bureau worker laugh, even just a little. Now, I don’t want to brag…but I kind of nailed it.
Last month Margie told me that she thought that this would probably be her last call. I told her I was sorry to hear that and that I felt like I should send her a card. She laughed.
I told her that I admired her persistence, and her willingness to stick to it, even when I wasn’t always answering my phone, or when I was kind of being goofy. I could hear her smile, and she said, “that’s what I do.” Touche.
Persistence. Persistence is a quality that we don’t think enough about. And it is the quality that Jesus seems to lift up in our Gospel reading today.
Jesus tells a parable about a woman who would not give up. As Jesus describes her, she is a widow, who is desperate for justice against an oppressor. But the judge she is talking to is not being helpful. She gets no relief from whatever is causing her trouble. So, day after day, she goes back to this man…this judge…who Jesus says “neither honors God, nor has respect for people.” Basically, the judge is kind of a grump.
Day after day, the judge refuses to help. But day after day, she persists. She keeps coming back. She is tireless in bothering the judge until he gets sick of her. “I will grant her justice,” he says, “so that she may not wear me out.”
As Jesus introduces this parable, he says that it is about “the need to pray always and not lose heart. And the story…this “Parable of the persistent widow and the grumpy judge,” it raises some interesting, and maybe even troubling questions about prayer. Is Jesus saying that we are supposed to harass God until we wear God down? Is that what prayers is? Is it bothering a hardhearted God until God caves? If God answers my prayer, is it only because God is sick to death of hearing my voice and wants me to stop?
No, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Because at the end of the parable, Jesus explains that unlike the heartless judge in the story, God “will quickly grant justice” to those who cry out.
But that explanation is also kind of a problem, right? Because often it doesn’t feel like it works that way. It seems like too often, God does delay, and our prayers…our prayers for healing…for justice…for protection…for peace…. they seem to go unanswered. Sometimes it feels like God either isn’t hearing…or is ignoring…our prayers, doesn’t it? I mean, I’ve sat by countless bedsides of those who are critically ill, and have prayed for healing, and it hasn’t happened.
But I don’t think Jesus intends this parable as a “how to” lesson in prayer. Rather, I think he’s helping his disciples, then and now, to understand what prayer does…especially persistent prayer.
There are two things we should pay attention to:
First, I think Jesus is teaching that prayer is about the heart of the person who is praying. It’s not like when we pray for something, God doesn’t already know. Not at all. When we pray for healing for Grandma, it’s not like God says “Wow, thanks! I didn’t know that! I’ll get right on it!” No, God already knows. So why do we pray? Now, I can only speak from experience, but I know that when I persist in prayer, really persist, with a full heart, over a long period of time, something happens within me. My sense of who I am, to whom I belong, and what matters in life, these things mature and solidify. My heart grows stronger. My faith grows stronger. It becomes less fragile and more focused.
And sometimes…and this is the part that has surprised me…sometimes when I pray for something, my prayers may be answered not how I want…but rather, how I need. Sometimes, the answer to prayer God gives is better, deeper, more meaningful than I’d hoped. And my imagination is opened up to how God may be working. Persistent prayer is about the heart of the person praying.
And at the same time, persistent prayer is about the person or thing being prayed for.
22 years ago, I had a good friend, also an ELCA pastor, who was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of lung cancer. Tom died in the year 2000. While he was in treatment for his cancer, I went to sit with him while he received one of his chemotherapy treatments at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.
We sat, we told stories, we laughed, we prayed…all while the chemicals flowed from the IV bag into his arm.
Tom told me an interesting story. At Methodist hospital, one of the chaplains who provides spiritual care for patients and their families, was this little, elderly, Catholic nun. And every morning…every single morning, this nun would visit the chemotherapy lab before patients would come in, and she would go into the room where the IV bags were stored, and every day…every single day…she would pray over the IV bags. She would place her hand on each bag and pray for the person who would receive it. And she would pray that the medicine would do its work. And she would pray for healing. And then she would take a small amount of oil, and she would anoint each bag with the sign of the cross. And then, just as quietly as she came in, she would leave.
We don’t know the effect, or the impact of her actions. We don’t know if it helped. Certainly, a lot of people still lost their lives to the cancer.
But Tom knew the story. And the other patients knew the story. And Tom would have been the first to tell you, that this nun’s faith, and her persistence made a difference to him. Was Tom healed? No. Was Tom, and Tom’s family, and the other patients and their families, and all of us friends, comforted by this? Absolutely. This nun’s persistence made a difference in all of us. 22 years later, I’m still telling the story.
The widow in Jesus’ parable? Her only power in this story is the power to show up. It is the power of sheer grit. But the story suggest that this power is not to be taken lightly…which is to say that prayer cannot be taken lightly.
We can’t always know what gets shaken, or transformed, or upended, or redeemed simply because we show up again and again, deep in prayer.
Ultimately, prayer is a great mystery. We cannot know why some prayers are answered quickly and why others are not. We cannot understand why our pleas for justice, or healing, or peace, or whatever it might be, sometimes hit a wall of God’s silence, and remains there for weeks, months, years, or lifetimes. We don’t know. And yet, as people of faith, like that widow…like that nun…we persist. We keep coming back to God.
We live in kind of a superficial “thoughts and prayers” world. People experience hurricanes, or violence, or illness or disaster and we send our “thoughts and prayers.” And we should. Thoughts and prayers are good.
But today, Jesus shows us that prayer can be so much more. Like the persistent widow who doesn’t give up, and like our ever-present God who hears the cries of the weary, authentic prayer is faith in action. It is a constant believing and working for a more just and humane world that reflects God’s abundance of mercy, grace and justice.
Persistent prayer: this is what God wants. Because when we persist, when we show up, we engage with the holy, day after day; we enter this deeper relationship with God. We learn and understand more and more about how God works in the world in and our lives.
God’s love for you is persistent. It never fades…never goes away…never ends. And because of this love, God wants you to approach and to ask, and to ask, and to ask again. God wants us to persist.
Friends, persist in prayer. Ask again and again, day after day. You can never talk too much to God…you can never ask too much and too often. Because when we pray…when we ask…we become aware of the closeness, the intimacy of God…and while we may not always receive what we want… we always receive what we need.
Thanks be to God!