Pesky prayers


I preach using the Lectionary, for the most part. But the most irritating thing about it is that some Sundays, there’s absolutely nothing that moves me in the selections. The words feel dry and brittle as old bones. What do you do when this happens? Do you stay with the lectionary, and hope that it moves you in the process of preparation? Do you venture off? Do you use the lectionary at all?

Then there are other Sundays, when I could preach a thousand sermons on each reading. This is a good Sunday. The words of these passages have moved me in the past, and they continue to inform me. We have teeth set on edge, itching ears, and words as sweet as honey. It’s all so rich with meaning that it was hard to settle on a lesson, but the Post needs the title and the plastic letters have to go on the signboard, so I finally chose my old friend, the widow.

I love this woman, this persistent widow who keeps knocking on the door of the judge day and night. I imagine that she’s old enough to realize what she deserves, needy enough to be persistent, and wise enough to know just how to get what she requires.

I love this woman, because she has settled into me many, many times when I pray. After all, I have a tendency to over-think things, even as I talk to God. At one point in my life, I picked up some rules from here and there, that I tried to adhere to:

Never pray for my own gain, that would be selfish.

Never pray for the outcome of a situation, that would be putting my will before God’s.

Never pray for anything too small. God’s only interested in the big picture, not in the miniscule.

Never pray for the mundane. God’s not interested in my roof. That may be in the big picture for me, but not for a divine being who’s worried about the people of Sudan, the Middle East crisis, the war in Iraq, and environmental degradation. I began to prioritize for God: starving children, yes. Carol’s roof, no.

My prayers had to fit into a theological framework that valued the largeness of God and the great needs of humanity and the earth, but didn’t really have much to do with my own life. God, after all, was not a genie in a bottle. God was not my personal secretary, or my go-for guy.

But when things got really difficult, I couldn’t keep to the rules. I just wasn’t able to sort the value of my prayers out any longer. I just needed help. Even me, the one who lived in war-free, fully-fed affluence, I needed to be rescued. My prayers were coming from my gut, repeatedly. They stepped right by that intricate, logical framework I had constructed. They became so loud and persistent that the harsh judge within myself had give up. The widow was in charge.

That widow–she was that old woman who knew need, and was not afraid to make a pest out of herself. The woman who went to the cruel judge’s house to knock on the door, to question the logical, unjust order that he set up. The woman who would have certainly gotten a restraining order slapped on her, if she were here today. The woman who stepped out from the imagination of Jesus himself, just so that she could teach us a thing or two about how to pray.

I love this woman.

photo’s by sonnoelefante

9 thoughts on “Pesky prayers

  1. I’m Episcopalian, we preach on the lectionary, period. I’ve found the weeks when the lectionary speaks the leas to me are the weeks when it has the most to say, when I am resisting hearing something, or seeing something. That’s when I need to spend the most time with the texts, really dig into them and see what it is that’s making me feel so “eh” about them. Usually something breaks through and I discover a new favorite scripture…


  2. Prayer is sometimes our eternal arguement with God. I am with you on thinking that I must limit my prayers. I think that this was literally beat into me during my fundamentalist background. I suspect that God can take whatever I bring and in the end is glad to hear from me. Sometimes God needs us so that God can repent.

    Ahh the Revised Common Lectionary, that two edged sword. Some of these texts are delimited at curious places. Then if you are looking for some books of the Bible to preach on in the three year cycle, good luck. I guess the Song of Songs or most of Lamentations really aren’t very applicable to postmodern people. As you said, then there are those Sundays when all there are in front of me are pregnant passages.


  3. Yep, I’m looking forward to a dive into those itching ears this week! I preached about the persistent widow during the summer –when the text was Luke 11 — about the neighbor asking for a loaf of bread. Love that persistence in prayer theme. Obviously very key to Luke.

  4. Tandaina,

    Of course, the Reformation had a lot to do with veering off from the Lectionary, but for some reason, I still preach from it 99% of the time. Maybe because I’ve also found what you say is true, “something breaks through” when I stick with it (a beautiful way to put it…).

    But, Bri, you’re right as well. There’s so much that’s left out. And I’m feeling it more now that I’m beginning my fourth trip through the cycle. It makes me wish that it was a six-year cycle instead of a three. You know, they could keep the gospels on a three, but fill in the other stuff to make it six.

    Ruth, I’d love to hear what you’re going to do with that passage.

  5. I just remembered — for persistence in prayer I used a great video off of YouTube — it was U2 “Still Haven’t Found” with images of people praying.
    BTW I quoted you last Sunday, talked about Dobson some. My title was “Family Doesn’t Matter” it was fun and quite provocative. This week, “Itchy Ears” I think I’m going to address some of the “unsound doctrine” that is so appealing — maybe historical? But that takes time. Docetism, e.g. How about Oprah? Anyway, sermon yakking here.

  6. I must say right off the bat that the first person I pray for is me. Let’s face it. Who do I think about more than me? No one. I like to think I am a good husband and father, and many times my prayers for me are in relation to my family. But I’ll be honest. I lead with me.

    Though I’ve stumbled on to this formula, I have to say that it works. If I jump right to war, AIDS, or injustice, those prayers are always interrupted by thoughts about our broken refrigerator, my old car, the bike I am building. By leading with me, I find that even my plea’s become somewhat of a confession. It’s as though I hear God responding with, “A broken cell phone? Really? That’s what you’re bringing me?”

    I believe God wants to know everything on our minds. When I start with me, I get things off my chest, out of the way, and am ready to move on.

    It seems to follow the order for worship. Confession, assurance, prayers for the people.


  7. In an adult ed course I took once (EFM), our mentor suggested that the widow was actually God. I liked that! God does just keep asking us and asking us to come into relationship, no matter how many times we turn away. Incidentally, I break every one of your prayer rules. I pray for outcomes, I pray for small stuff (sorry God doesn’t care about *your* roof, but she most certainly cares about mine!), I pray for my own gain (like about the grant proposal I’ve got out just now). The Holy Spirit will sort it all out for me, and God just wants me to stay in relationship, isn’t too concerned about all the details, actually. She knows that over time, as I am formed and transformed, I’ll get better at praying. When a text doesn’t move me at all (I’m also Episcopalian, and so pray from the lectionary — not RCL till Advent 1), I turn to commentaries, dictionaries, parallel translations, concordances, until something stirs. And if it doesn’t, I write something that feels pretty uninspired — and invariably it ends up saying just what needs to be said for someone.

  8. God’s the widow? Hhmmm…interesting. I can see that. God’s certainly persistent. I remember hearing stories of how people ended up in seminary. It was always amazing how many times God knocked and pleaded. And knocked again. And then pleaded.

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