Luke 18.1 And will not God grant justice to his Chosen Ones who cry to him day and night?

Sunday, October 20, 2013 - 9:30am

Not long ago I was listening to a children’s hymn, which went:

Prayer is like a telephone, for us to talk to Jesus.

Prayer is like a telephone, for us to talk to God.’

And I found myself thinking ‘Is it? Is it really like a telephone?’ I couldn’t quite bring myself to agree with the words. Somehow it didn’t match my experience. In some way, if you’ll forgive the pun, it didn’t quite ring true.


Of course it isn’t really fair to deconstruct a children’s song, because they are necessarily simplistic. It isn’t meant to be a detailed analysis of the spiritual life. All it is really trying to say is that we communicate with God through prayer- and that is fair enough. Prayer is, and should be a natural and everyday activity as simple and straightforward as picking up the ‘phone.  But it set me thinking about what would be a better way of addressing the subject. What analogy would work better?


One picture that came to mind is a swimming pool, or better still the wide open sea. Spread out before us the sea is vast and deep. At once familiar and unknown. When we begin to pray we might paddle along the shoreline, or write a message in a bottle, and throw it far out for somebody to find and read. But as we grow in confidence, we might wade out deeper into the mystery of God, feeling His presence moving all around us. Feeling his weight buoying us up; diving down into his Depths, but never reaching the bottom. Here prayer is an immersion into the immense and mysterious otherness of the divine.


Another way to look at prayer might be a ragged old much-loved jumper belonging to somebody that we love. We might, when they are away, pick it up from time to time and feel ourselves closer to them. We might notice the holes and stretches they have made. We might catch their scent, and call to mind everything that makes them special to us. In this sense our prayer is a habit of intimacy- a tender communion with one who loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves.


Likewise we could see prayer as a kind of mirror, reflecting us back into ourselves. The life of prayer is often described as an inward journey- a pilgrimage into the strange and hidden recesses of our selves. As we face up to the reality of our humanity, we come to see the imprint of God- his hand at work in our lives, and his image in our human nature.


I suppose the difficulty of ‘Prayer is like a Telephone’ is that it seems to reduce God to something he is not. In Christ we do meet God as one of us, as a friend whom we might chat to, or share confidences with like any other. But this relationship opens the door to a great and towering mystery. Christ is the incarnate God. In and through him we meet the God of Abraham and Isaac, infinite and unknowable- the God who is a consuming fire.


In the parable at the heart of today’s gospel, Jesus compares God to an unrighteous judge, who, though he couldn’t care less about the poor widow, the most vulnerable and unprotected member of Jewish society, nevertheless gives in because she badgers him ceaselessly. But this, we must remember, is a negative comparison. The judge stands for everything that God is not. Where he is unrighteous, God is righteousness itself, where he does not care, God has all eternity to listen to our humblest prayer; where he gives in to the persistence of the widow, how much more likely, asks Christ, is the God who loves her beyond imagining to answer her prayer?


As Luke makes clear, this is a parable about how we must pray and not lose heart- and sometimes this is a danger. It is very easy to feel that our relationship with God is a struggle. There will be times when prayer seems to feel dry and hollow- when we feel that we have come up against a brick wall, and that God seems not to hear or understand what we need. At times like this it can be hard to persist in prayer if we feel that nobody is picking up the phone. But maybe that is not what is happening. Perhaps we are straining too hard to gain purchase on a God who is bigger than we suppose. Perhaps what sounds to our ears like static is instead the rolling waves of a vast ocean.


Sometimes we just do not know what God is up to. The enigmatic story of Jacob and the Angel resonates quite powerfully with this thought- that an encounter with God might feel like wrestling in the dark. That we might come away wounded. Yet out of this turmoil, we will be changed. That the sun will rise on someone with a new name, a new destiny.


As followers of Christ, our vocation is prayer. Jesus calls us to pray without ceasing, pray and not lose heart. It seems appropriate to end with a prayer:


Almighty and everlasting God,

Who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,

and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve,

pour down upon us the abundance of Thy mercy,

forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,

and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask.

Though our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son,

Who liveth and reigneth with Thee,

in the unity of the Holy Ghost,

one God, world without end.