I have very limited experience as an actor with some small parts in a few plays. For every production though, I’ve been equally impressed and depressed by how much rehearsal time was required in order to get the play ready for public viewing. Knowing what to say, how to say it, when to say it, where to go, when to go, how to go and how to come back all has to be practiced again and again and again in order to get it right. Practice, practice, practice.
Sometimes, doing something repeatedly is the only way to get it right. Take the women in this parable Jesus tells. She is seeking justice, but the cards seemed stacked against her. She is a woman; and she is a widow; and thus, she is pretty much as powerless as one could be in those days. The situation is even worse than that because the judge has no real interest in justice. He is corrupt and powerful. The judge doesn’t need to listen to the widow. The judge doesn’t want to listen to the widow. But the woman keeps coming back to see him. Again and again, she comes to the judge to push her case. Relentlessly, she comes, doing what she could and then doing it again and again and again, hoping, even hoping against hope, that she might attain justice.
Finally, the unjust judge grants her request. Maybe he is just tired of her, or maybe he is swayed by her persistence. We don’t know, but we do know that eventually, he decides in her favor.
Jesus tells this story to teach us about prayer. If this judge, as corrupt and as ruthless as he is, still grants justice to the relentless woman, how much more will God, who is gracious and kind, respond to the needs of those who come in prayer?
That doesn’t mean that praying to God requires any less persistence than this widow demonstrates in her petitions to the unjust judge. Prayer requires great persistence. Let’s face it, sometimes praying is like talking to a wall that is simply silent and unmovable. Even when we raise our voices in prayer, lots of times, even most times, nothing seemingly comes back. There’s a mysteriousness to God, who is always beyond us and before us. We can’t control God; we can’t make God do anything. All we can do is pray and pray and pray.
Jesus assures us here that the one to whom we pray is gracious and merciful, loving and faithful. Trusting that truth, we can stay at it; we can keep praying and praying and praying, with faith that our lives are in God’s hands and with hope in God’s coming reign when all will be well and all will be whole. Our unceasing prayer for others, for the world, for ourselves is how we anticipate and participate in the promises of God.
Prayer is not easy. It’s about asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting. Over and over and over again. Asking. Seeking. Knocking. Waiting. There’s no secret recipe. No magic formula. Just persistence and focus and commitment and discipline. Again and again and again.
We just have to stay with it. Not only in regard to prayer, but in regard to the whole of the life of faith. Worship, study, service, giving — we just keep practicing those things again and again. Sometimes, progress only happens by doing something over and over and over.
The more we worship, the more we begin to grasp the height and the depth and the breadth of God. The more we study, the more we understand God’s faithfulness. The more we serve, the more we resemble the model of our faith, Jesus Christ, who served God and served others with great abandon. The more we give, the more we comprehend that self-giving love is at the very heart of God’s life.
These are the marks of faith: prayer, worship, study, service, giving. These are the things to practice with persistence. These are the things to do again and again and again. When the church is at its best, pointed in the right direction, it gives us an opportunity to grow in prayer and grow in worship and grow in study and grow in service and grow in giving. We grow in these things by practice, practice, practice.
Years ago, I left my car in an unoccupied family home in Maine. The prevailing wisdom in those parts then was that if you were going to leave your car unattended for a long period of time, then you should have Dick Howard come by and take out the battery so that he could keep it charged up until you returned.
That’s what I did and when I returned to Maine after several months abroad, I called Dick Howard to put the battery back in the car. He came by one afternoon and installed the battery, with a bit of adjusting and tinkering and tightening. Then he said to me, “All set. Give it a try.” I turned the key. Nothing happened. “Try again,” he said. Nothing happened. He frowned a deeply furrowed frown and looked over everything that he had done. “I don’t know why it’s not working,” he said. “I don’t know why it’s not working. It should work. It will work. Try again. Try again.”
Finally, the engine in my old car turned over, and slowly the garage was filled with the sound, the sweet sound, of something coming back to life. Dick Howard smiled a bit and winked. “Sometimes you just have to keep trying,” he yelled out as the roar of the engine continued to grow.
Sometimes you just have to keep trying.
Questions for reflection
- How do you respond to the characters in this parable — the widow and the judge?
- Jesus tells this parable so his followers would not “lose heart.” How does the story encourage you? How does it challenge you?
- Do you have an example of praying for something over an extended period? What happened to you over that time? What did you learn about prayer through this experience?