Spirituality of Persistence

Spirituality of Persistence

Jesus’ disciples wanted to learn how to pray. They had observed Jesus withdraw to pray many times. And I suspect they observed in Jesus a deep closeness to God, perhaps a kind of centeredness that they might have felt they lacked. I think they longed to experience the way Jesus was grounded in and filled with the Holy Spirit. And they knew that Jesus’ prayer life must have something to do with this. And so they asked him to teach them.

Their question was one of mechanics. How do we pray? What words should we use? Do we need to go away alone? Should we kneel and bow? Is there some secret to this, they might have wondered.

Jesus answers them with so much more than mechanics, but he does start there. He starts with those familiar words that have come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer we say every Sunday, along with other church communities all over the globe, in many languages. There are variations of the Lord’s Prayer, of course (and Luke’s version in this story is a bit different than the one we pray every week). But along with the sacraments of communion and baptism, this prayer is one of the great unifying acts of worship within our Christian religious tradition.

Jesus then goes on to tell this funny parable about a man whose guest shows up at midnight and he has nothing to give him to eat, so he knocks on his neighbor’s door to ask for some bread to serve his hungry guest. But the man is already in bed and doesn’t want to wake up the whole family to answer the door (though it seems likely to me that they are already awake at this point). But the guy keeps knocking and eventually his friend gives in.

I think I might start referring to this story as the parable of Sheldon Cooper. He’s who popped into my mind when reading. And then I looked back at another sermon I preached on this same text and I realized I mentioned him in that one too.

The funny part of this parable is that it seems like Jesus is basically saying – if you are persistent enough, if you are shameless enough (in fact, shameless is probably the closer translation of the Greek), if you are downright annoying enough, you’ll get what you want. Yikes! I’m not sure about that! I’m not sure that is a lesson that people need to hear!

But Jesus continues: Ask and you will receive. Search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. Who among you would give your hungry child a snake instead of a fish or a scorpion instead of an egg? None of you! If you, human and flawed as you are, are capable of giving good gifts to your children, how much more is God capable of giving good gifts to you? In fact, God will give you the best gift ever, the Holy Spirit.

This is one of those parables where Jesus is using a lesser to greater comparison. If humans (who are lesser) are able to do good things, how much more capable is God (who is greater)? The neighbor answers his friend’s need because his friend was persistent. But God answers our need because that is who God is. That is the nature of God’s character. That is the nature of God’s love.

So, if you trust in God’s goodness, and faithfulness, and grace, why wouldn’t you ask? Why wouldn’t you seek God in prayer with an open heart?

You see, in response to the disciples’ question about how to pray. Jesus also teaches them why they should pray. They want to be like Jesus; they want to know and experience that closeness to God that they observe in Jesus.

But the way they’ll experience that isn’t just by saying the right words or practicing the right mechanics of prayer. Gandhi once said, “it is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” That rings true to me. Even the Lord’s Prayer is only a vehicle for something deeper.

The disciples will get to that deeper place by persisting in their whole practice of faith. They’ll get there by sticking to this path they’ve chosen. And the first step is to persist in trusting God. Jesus has taught them and shown them the depth of God’s love and grace. Jesus has shown them what trust in God looks like. And, as we know, he’ll show them even deeper and more challenging examples of trust before this journey is over. And sure, they’ll make some mistakes and missteps before it is all over too. But, by and large, they will eventually find their way back to the path.

So persist in faith, Jesus says. Persist even when you doubt, even when you struggle, even when you don’t know why you are doing what you are doing, even when you think you might not be doing it very well. Just keep at it.

Persistence in faith, persistence in prayer, persistence in pursuing a deeper relationship with God just might help you experience a deeper connection.

This is not because God somehow demands this of us. God’s there no matter what. This is about us. This is about practicing being present, practicing openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, practicing attentiveness to God’s call on our lives in everyday situations. It’s about paying attention, staying awake, and tuning in. It’s about not letting our doubts, and fears, and struggles completely destroy us. We may become undone at times. And, in those times, it is about being open to being remade – being open to God’s resurrecting and renewing grace.

Jesus assures us that God’s answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit. Essentially, Jesus assures us that God’s answer to our prayers is God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s faithfulness. God persists in seeking a relationship with us. How might we, at this point in our lives, persist in seeking a relationship with God?

And we should notice, of course, that when Jesus assures us that God answers our prayers he is not saying that we’ll get whatever we want; that our every fleeting wish or even our deepest longings will come true.

God answers prayer. Sometimes that answer is no. Sometimes that answer is not yet. Sometimes the answer is I can’t fix that for you, but I’ll be with you as you navigate that challenge. Sometimes the answer is not revealed to us until we’ve experienced a long, unfolding process and we look back and find meaning, and growth, and new perspective. Sometimes God’s grace is found in silver linings and blessings in disguise. And I think that often God’s presence and love are found in the presence and love of our friends, family, and community who show up for us in our times of need. God answers prayer through people.

Jesus assured his disciples and us that God answers our prayer with grace and presence. Ultimately, that is profoundly good news. But that doesn’t mean it is always easy to accept this answer when we desperately want something specific like a cure to an illness or clear solution to a difficult situation in our lives or in the world.

And I think this is partly why persisting in faith, persisting in prayer, persisting in a relationship with God is somewhat countercultural. We live in a culture that wants quick fixes. And there seem to be no shortage of people promising quick fixes (retailers, tech companies, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, etc.) Sometimes these folks have real solutions to real needs; sometimes they don’t – they are all human too.

To commit to a life of faith and to persist in this path of faith, on the other hand, is to commit to a much slower, more long-term journey. Faith promises no quick fixes. When we step into this journey, it is like we are stepping into a river that has been slowly carving a path through the desert for centuries. It began flowing long before us and will continue to flow long after we are gone.

And, by the way, I think we ought to be cautious about any religious perspective that does promise a quick fix. It’s a promise that can’t be kept. That’s what is problematic about a prosperity gospel approach to Christianity. It is both too individualistic and too unrealistic. It’s not the kind of persistence in faith that I’m talking about. And I don’t think it’s the kind of persistence in faith that Jesus demonstrated.

Great damage can be done to people when they hear the message that if only you work hard enough, pray hard enough, are in right alignment with God, then all your dreams will come true. What happens to their faith, what happens to their sense of self-worth when not all of their dreams come true? Where is God when things go wrong? What about when life takes an unexpected turn, when our plans fail, when we have to pick up the pieces and carry on?

Instead, the gospel truth is that we can’t pray ourselves out of the human condition. Not even Jesus could do that. Nor did he choose to. Instead, he entered deeply into this life in all its joy and sorrow, all its beauty and its messiness. Instead, he trusted that God’s Spirit was with him throughout his journey and promised us that the same Spirit is with us too.

And though we can’t free ourselves from all challenges, we can, with God’s help, make peace with our own humanity. We can learn to accept and move through our experiences of brokenness. And what often seems to happen when we make peace with our brokenness is that it loses some of its power over us. We might just find that our brokenness doesn’t totally break us. We might find strength, and courage, and hope that we didn’t know we had.

And, to me, that is where transformation often takes hold. And transformation is not the same as a quick fix. It is often a harder won, longer-term, and not necessarily a linear process.

I’ve observed this many times, especially in people who are navigating grief or serious illness. And it never ceases to amaze me what great strength, and courage, and faith emerge in the midst of tough times. The difficult reality, of course, is that sometimes we don’t know what we can endure until we find ourselves having to endure it.

There is something deeply holy and hopeful about this call to persistence in faith. It’s a call not to persist in trying to get our way. Instead, it is a call to persist in trust of God’s grace and to persist in taking time and space to nurture our relationship with God. Ask and God will answer with love. Search and you will find God’s presence. Knock and the God who makes new ways out of no way all the time will open the door and greet you.

And we don’t have to do this alone. In fact, the prayer Jesus teaches his disciples – the prayer we have come to say as our Lord’s Prayer every Sunday is deeply communal. The act of praying it together in community is a communal experience.

In this prayer we pray for God’s Kingdom, God’s Reign of peace and justice to come upon the earth. This is not a passive prayer. This is a prayer of communal commitment to the cause of Kingdom building. Jesus got that ball rolling. And we have to keep kicking it down the field.

In this prayer we ask for our daily bread (not just for our own, but for the world’s daily bread – that all might have what they need). In this prayer we pray for our own forgiveness and for the ability to forgive others.

These are all deeply communal, relational things. Together, we open our hearts to God’s Spirit for grace and guidance. Together, we commit to the path of Jesus and the way of love, and justice seeking, and peacemaking. Together, we persist in faith.

Persistence is the willingness to stick to it. Persistence is putting one foot in front of the other and carrying on. Persistence is trusting that God is with us, that the Holy Spirit is upon us. Persistence is following in the way of Jesus even when it takes us into tough places or unfamiliar territory.

So, persist in prayer, my friends, and persist in faith.

And wherever this path of holy persistence leads you, remember that you have many travelling companions, both human and divine. And may your journey bring blessing and transformation.