by Jana Childers
Nearer than hands and feet. That's what God is when we pray. "Speak to him for he heareth and spirit with spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet." Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The poets have a high view of prayer—some of them anyway. The mere mention of the subject seems to send them running for the card file marked "sublimity" where they pull out adjectives: sweet hours, precious moments, privileged meetings. Before you know it, we're all caught up ... the violins are swelling and we're wending our way through a rose garden, walking and talking with a certain Someone whose "voice is so sweet the birds hush their singing," as one beloved gospel song puts it. Prayer to a poet—or a gospel song writer—is like romance to Barry Manilow, an irresistible topic.
I don't know about you, but much as I love the poets and especially the gospel songwriters, as much as I want to know the presence of the "nearer than hands and feet" God —I have to say it—my prayer life is not much like a dewy walk through the rose garden. On your average day, not only does Jesus not come to the garden alone to meet me, not walk with me and talk with me, not meet me in the garden—but lots of times, I wonder if I'm even in the right zip code. My prayer life is not much like a dewy garden path. And that's why I come to today's Scripture lesson with high hopes.
After all, I believe—many of us instinctively believe—that there is something to this thing called prayer. We know about what happens in foxholes. We are glad if a person whose faith we admire says she will pray for us. We see prayer working in other peoples' lives and we believe Mother Teresa—don't we?—when she puts it to her novices so pithily: No prayer, no faith, no faith, no love, no love, no devotion, no devotion, no service. Yes, we say, we need that. For once we are right there on the front row of the classroom with the disciples, saying "Lord, teach us to do this thing!"
And Jesus says, in the translation of the New Testament scholar, Anne Wire, "Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks finds. And the one who knocks, gets in the door." The gospel according to Luke is not easy to hear today—not easy to preach—because it is not easy to believe. "Ask and it shall be given to you"?! I How could Jesus have said such a thing? How can a thinking person make sense out of that? How can that be true?
If it were true, of course, all the eight year old girls in the world would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies. If it were true, all the eight year old girls in the world and their brothers and sisters would go to bed every night with just the right blend of fats and carbohydrates and proteins in their bloodstreams. If it were true, all the children of the world would at the least—at the very least—be living in peace. How could Jesus say such a thing?
The first thing we notice when we look closely at what Jesus said to His disciples in the text in Luke 11, was that he did not say, "Ask and you will get what you ask for." What he said was something more like, "Ask and you will receive something good." The second thing we notice is that there is something lost in the translation of the Greek into English. The New Testament Greek does not say "Ask and you will receive." It says "aaaaassssk and keep on asking...seek and keep on seeking...knock and keep on knocking." The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Be persistent, Jesus is saying. Be shameless. Run right up to that door and pound on it and keep on pounding on it. Make a fool out of yourself with your asking.
Finally, the thing that is sometimes overlooked in this story is that this is primarily a story about intercessory prayer. One friend goes to another friend on behalf of someone else. This is not a story about little girls who pray to get a handsome husband when they grow up or even about older believers bringing their legitimate health concerns before God. This is primarily a story about intercessory prayer. It is this kind of shameless, persistent, intercessory prayer that Jesus guarantees.
I hope you have known a prayer warrior. I have. When she died some years ago at the age of eighty-eight, I took the plaque that had hung in her house for more than sixty years and hung it in mine. It says, "Prayer changes things." I fussed and puttered for a while over the question of just where to hang it. The front hall seemed so public. The dining room? Too preachy. The den? Well, it looked quite out of place over the big screen TV. I wondered what the people who visit my house would think. Such an old-fashioned thought. Such an unsophisticated idea—the words not even attributable to a respectable theologian. Ultimately, I hung the plaque in my old-fashioned kitchen. I do see people eyeing it sometimes as they chat to me before a dinner party. I do wonder what they think. It's not easy to believe.
But if you've known the kind of prayer warriors I have, you have to stay at the table with this asking and receiving question. Because beyond coincidence and synchronicity, beyond luck and happenstance there is something that prayer warriors know, something that changes people if not things. Answered prayer. On my grandmother's prayer list there were lots of them. The alcoholic son who finds his way home against all odds, the troubled community able to mend its fences despite the outrageous things that were said on both sides, the word of forgiveness that comes at the last possible moment. "What is the secret of answered prayer?" the disciples asked Jesus. Asking. Little by little, and here and there, and now and then, the kingdom of God is breaking in through the efforts of those who ask.
Yes, in the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known there are unanswered prayers, even prayers that stay on the list for decades. There are public failures but there not much shame. Not much shame. Not much spiritual shyness. Instead, there is a gung-ho-ness—a readiness to ask. A willingness to throw themselves headlong into a situation of need—to jump out of the porch rocker and take off across the back yard, skirts flying and apron flapping, through the fence and up the back steps to that oh-so familiar door. A willingness to beat a path, beat a shameless path to God's door...and the asking, the prayer warriors tell us, is the secret.
Last year, I set my foot on an ugly path—a path not entirely my own. I was keeping company with my friend Lucy as she followed out the last twelve months of her life. During those months I learned what I suspect many of you who have walked with cancer already know—what a privilege it can be to join your prayers with a woman of faith who is facing death. Time and time again last spring, Lucy urged me to accompany her to heaven's door as she rang its bell, rattled its gates and slammed its knockers, not on her own behalf, but in prayer for those she would leave behind. We prayed for her husband, her little girl, her mother and her father. We prayed. Some of us for lack of anything better to do. Some of us out of hearts full of faith. Some of us because we believed Lucy when she said she could feel our prayers. She was buoyed by them, she said, reminding us of what Charles Williams called the intercessory prayers of believers: "the glorious web." We did form a kind of a web with our prayers. Me praying for Lucy in Atlanta from my home in San Francisco, Ron from Indianapolis, Gene and Joan from St. Louis, Pam from Toronto and countless others.
In the last few months of her earthly life, Lucy's own prayers were filled with a deep sense of God's presence. It often came to her, she told me, wrapped in the words and music of a hymn. She came out of surgery with the words rolling up, filling her, coming through her—The Lone, Wild Bird, one time, Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, another. Toward the end, she told me, it was the gospel songs that sustained her. As they welled up through her, she gathered visitors around her bed to sing them. This web of song and prayer sustained Lucy until the morning last July when her feet were lifted off the path and she was ushered through the door. The word of Lucy's death went out quickly through the well-established grape vine and by the time the hearse came to take the body, fifty-five friends had gathered. They flanked the walk and filled the porches of the little house and they sang the body out. They sang I'll Fly Away.
In the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known there is heart break and loss—but there is not much despair. There is instead an invisible web that buoys them up and ultimately, carries them home. What did Lucy get for all her praying? Did she get remission? Did she avoid pain? Did she see an angel or was she offered a sign in the heavens? No, what Lucy got was what we all get. She got God. The God who is nearer than hands and feet. God's own presence is the answer to every prayer—the answer that surpasses anything we could ask for. Ask, Jesus says, and it shall be given you.
Editor's Note: The Rev. Dr. Jana Childers is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Speech-Communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Jana is a Presbyterian minister who served congregations in Kansas and New Jersey before joining the seminary faculty in 1985. She is a graduate of Wheaton College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She is co-editor of a series of books on women’s preaching.
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