22 Pentecost—24-C-Track 2
October 16, 2016
Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8
He has everything a man could want, but he is in the middle of a crisis that is shaking him to his core. His brother, whom years ago he cheated and wounded, is coming to confront and possibly to kill him. So he sends a member of his staff ahead of the meeting to give his brother a peace offering, hoping that will dampen his brother’s rage. Then, as evening approaches he withdraws from his family and sits alone on the bank of a stream.
His name is Jacob: this could be his last night on earth. He sits in the darkness alone and afraid.
Hopefully we have a better relationship with our siblings, but I suspect most of us of a certain age, know what it is to sit in the dark, alone and afraid. The common wisdom is this is where prayer begins—in the middle of a lonely night. We are told there are no atheists in foxholes. But I’m not sure that’s quite right: I know how easy it is to get so caught up in our fear, that we become so preoccupied and agitated that our anxious thoughts never leave the self long enough to wander to God. We become trapped in a neural feedback loop that spirals down into more fear and isolation without any awareness of God.
This is why Jesus tells us in this parable of the persistent widow that we need to learn to be persistent in our practice of prayer long before we are at the end of our rope. So how do we learn persistence in praying before the crisis hits?
Growing up in Atlanta before the Braves came to us from Milwaukee, I was a Yankees fan and especially a fan of Bill “Moose” Skowron, who played first base. I got a Moose Skowron first baseman’s mitt so I could play first base just like my hero. I’d try to catch and bat just like him. With all this imitation you’d think I would have been a great Little League first baseman—but I wasn’t.
And you know why! Because we don’t get to be a great player by imitating the things our hero does on the field, on the court, or on the ice. What counts is imitating our hero in the way he or she spends hours training every day. If we don’t spend the same hours getting fit and the same effort in practicing, we will have no chance at all. (See Dallas Willard and John Ortberg in the book/CD “Living in Christ’s Presence” who make this familiar point using other stars.)
And who should we imitate in learning how to pray? Of course we start with Jesus, our Master. The gospels tell us that he spent long nights alone in prayer and other times he’d wake early and go off by himself. In the Sermon on the Mount he tells us that when “we pray we should go into a room by ourselves, shut the door, and pray to our Father who is there in the secret place.” (Matthew 6:6) On his last night on earth Jesus withdraws from the disciples about a stone’s throw and pours out his broken heart to the Father.
Finding that inner silence and stillness is the starting point of all real prayer. That’s why back in the day we were taught when we entered church on Sunday morning to kneel down and find that sense of stillness and inner silence before joining the community in worship. It doesn’t matter whether you are an extroverted talker and like to babel to God or an introvert who likes to read silent prayers printed in the Book of Common Prayer, we all need to spend time in that secret place.
When we are not present to ourselves in silence and stillness, then we are not able to recognize the presence of the God who is always there, waiting for us.
I met a man Thursday night who says sitting in a pew and just being quiet doesn’t work for him because his hyperactivity kicks in and his mind goes wild. But he says, give his hands something to do with prayer beads and his mind something to say, a mantra like the Hail Mary or the Jesus Prayer, and his mind settles right down and he enters that place of inner stillness and peace where Christ is.
So we are encouraged to find what works for us, and then to practice this way of being silent and still for a few minutes every day. But a voice says, “Well that’s great for people with a lot of time on their hands but I’ve got a family and a job and a long commute.”
But the truth is we make time for what we value.
We find time to watch the Sox or the Pats or shows on home improvement—we make time to get our coffee and read the news on our phones. We make time for what we value.
I just heard about a young hard-charging advertising executive who was new to faith and wanted to learn how to pray but he just didn’t have any time. So he started getting up 15 to 20 minutes early and spending that extra time in a rocking chair with a cup of coffee and a Bible. He reads a passage and thinks about it, reflects on what it means to his life, and then prays that he might be more aware of God during his busy day. Sitting in that chair for a few minutes every day became a habit. His wife says it transformed her husband. Years later when the man was in the hospital dying of cancer he said one of the things he missed the most was that chair.
So Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, the most influential big church over the last 30 years, tells this man’s story and then asks his congregation: Where’s your chair? 9 minute video: See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CTCUNtxtP-I
Hybels said during the summers early in his ministry he and his wife and kids would rent a one bedroom cottage south of Chicago. He said that with the kids it was too small for prayer, so he’d go to local Burger King and spend 30 minutes in the first booth on the right. That booth became his chair.
Years ago I was in Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta over the Thanksgiving holiday and in that crowded upscale place I noticed a man sitting on a bench by himself with his hands folded in his lap and his eyes closed. As I watched him I realized he wasn’t sleeping. He was praying. That bench was his chair.
Hybels tells of a carpenter whose chair is sitting in his truck at the job site.
Where’s your chair?
This is the persistent practice Jesus commends to us today. Not so God will like us more, because Jesus says we are already God’s chosen ones, chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world—see Ephesians 1.
We persist in our practice because that’s what Jesus tells us to do if we too would know the Triune God who is Present.
Shortly after cheating his brother Esau out of his father Isaac’s blessing, the young Jacob has a dream that there is a staircase going from heaven to earth and the angels of God are going up and down those stairs right where he is sleeping. Jacob receives God’s blessing in that place. Now as the old Jacob sits in the dark God shows up again, as a man who he wrestles with all night. Again Jacob receives God’s blessing, and a new name—Israel, which means the one who strives with God. But he also receives a dislocated hip, so he goes to meet his brother with a new limp but he also has a new name, a new identity, his true identity in God.
Because Triune God is here, sitting in our chair will both bless us and change us.
Where’s your chair?