By mtaylor | Monday, October 17, 2016 | 9:48 AM
October 16, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.
A long time ago in a church far, far away, I was a member of a prayer group that met weekly. We were serious about praying. We kept a notebook. I will call it our prayer journal. We kept a record of the things for which we prayed and eventually we made an entry in our journal as to what we thought were the results. That is, what finally happened to the person or event for which we prayed. I vividly remember a period of time when we felt like God was particularly listening to our prayers. Now, I know this is going to sound dangerously close to heresy if not blasphemy, but I am going to say it, because this is what was happening in that prayer group. We believed that God was answering our prayers. The prayer journal was proof. The people we prayed for were getting well. And we were praying for more, and bigger things than just miraculous healing. I remember one of the specific events for which we prayed. A hurricane was predicted to strike the northeastern coast of the US. It was a strong hurricane. The prediction of devastating damage had already led to evacuations along the coast. We prayed fervently for the hurricane to turn and go back out to sea and not cause any damage or loss of life. The hurricane went out to sea. We were so thoughtful that we even anticipated the possibility that the hurricane could make landfall somewhere else and we took care of that eventuality. We directed the hurricane out to sea. OOPs. Do you see what was happening? We were starting to believe that our prayers were so powerful that we were directing events. Maybe our prayers were so powerful that we were directing God. Two fascinating things happened to the prayer group soon after the hurricane experience. We stopped keeping the prayer journal and the group began to dissolve. The group did not decide to disband. It was a gradual process of one person not coming anymore then another and another, until finally the last three people decided it was time to stop. We never talked about why we stopped so I am left to speculate. I believe we stopped because we scared ourselves. We were scared by the power of prayer and by our arrogance.
What do we learn from this parable of the widow and the unjust judge? The first thing we learn is that this judge is not a God character. This story is more like a learning from negative example than attempting to paint a picture of how God responds to our prayers. Luke tells a story that takes us to the extreme opposite end of God’s behavior. The story allows the question to hang in the air, “Will not God grant justice?” And we add to that question our questions. How long will it be until God does grant justice? How does God decide which prayers to answer? How long must I pray before God hears my prayer?
From this story we could conclude that God waits to see who will pray the longest and that person wins the prayer contest and receives a miracle as the prize. Or what if God is waiting to see which denomination prays longer. Maybe it is a cosmic contest between Methodists and Presbyterians. Imagine the fun Madison Avenue could have with a campaign like this. If the Left Behind series of stories generated excitement about faith and going to church, imagine what an international prayer competition could do. Enough irony. You know that is not what this story is really about. This widow is a model of the person who does not loose heart. Her pleading to the judge is her prayer. She continues with her pleading because she knows that her request is just. We continue to pray because we know that God is just. We also pray because it is an exercise of faith. We pray because we need to pray.
This story raises more questions for me than it answers. Why does one friend recover from cancer and another does not? Why does one person skip a doomed airplane flight and the rest of the ticket-holders board as planned? Why is one person rescued from a collapsed building and others are not?
I have already said that the judge in the story is not God. Then is the widow God? What if the character of the persistent widow is the one we are supposed to identify as God? What are the characteristics of this God character? She is persistent. She is a threat to wear out the resistance of the judge. Maybe we are the judge. The widow seeks justice. I wonder if the widow is not more like God than the judge.
There is something about prayer; praying persistently and praying without ceasing that goes against our culture of immediate gratification. When we can take an antibiotic to cure our infection and begin to feel better in a matter of hours; waiting on God’s less pharmaceutically based forms of healing are not as satisfying. Why wait for years to be made whole by God when we can take a pill and feel better instantly?
Many of you know or have heard the famous preacher Fred Craddock. He has also struggled with this question of the efficacy of prayer. He describes our experience as “hurling petitions against the long silence” of God and that a part of “the human experience is one of delay” and of hurry-up and wait. But perhaps the most significant part of our experience of waiting on prayer comes during those long days and nights of prayer; our dark night of the soul; when we realize that while we wait, we are “being hammered ... into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes.”
I do not know the mind of God, so please do not hear what I am saying as the answer to the questions of how, why and what concerning prayer. I know my experience of watching and waiting with faithful people who pray. I have heard those anguished cries from the faithful who question if God really hears our prayers or scarier still, does God really care? I believe that God does hear and that God does care.
A long time ago, but not as long ago as when I was in that prayer group, I became fascinated with research done on the efficacy of prayer. What amazed me was that the research was published in medical journals. In July 1988 Randolph Byrd, MD, published in the Southern Medical Journal, an article entitled “Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population.” Those patients who were prayed for by a group outside of the hospital, who did not know the patients, were rated better than those not in the group. That does not mean that no one was praying for the control group, but the intercessory group was selective and their results were better. There is a research group in the Northwest called Spendrift. They devote all of their energies to scientific research on the efficacy of prayer. Some of you have previously heard me speak of this group’s research. Their test subjects are not people. They have groups of people praying for non-human subjects like alfalfa sprouts that are soaked in salt water. They have also tested which type of prayer works best. We hear a variety of advice from TV evangelists about how best to pray. You can take your pick. Or “pay your money and take your choice.” The research indicates that instead of the very specific prayers directing God how to perform a miracle, the better way is to pray, “Thy will be done.”
Another preacher friend of mine and probably of many of you is Barbara Brown Taylor. In one of her books she describes the way most of us practice our prayer life as the way we brush our teeth: “once in the morning and once at night, as part of our spiritual hygiene program.” But then, when talking with her granddaughter, Madeline, about prayer; Madeline has asked if prayer really works. Barbara’s answer is one of those things I wish I had been creative enough to say. Barbara says, “Of course it works. It keeps our hearts chasing after God’s heart. It is how we bother God, and it is how God bothers us back.”
If I have learned anything about prayer it is this: for our prayers to be truly effective they must be two-way communication. Our listening is every bit as important as our speaking.
O God, we say it so much that it has become a cliché – hear our prayers. Today we can be so confident to pray – open our ears and our hearts to hear you. Allow us to feel your presence and be stirred by your leading. Let us hear your word for us. Amen.