At a school RE lesson with our teacher Mr Dyson, we boys were looking at the subject of prayer. Mr Dyson, a humble modest quietly spoken teacher who was constantly being given the run-around ‘something rotten’, asked his class for examples of where prayer had pulled someone through. An enterprising cocky boy put up his hand and regaled the class: “Please sir, my uncle was a missionary in Africa and he was always praying. One day he was canoeing up a river to a far-off village when his canoe was overturned by crocodiles. One crocodile bit off my uncle’s left leg; then another bit off his right leg. Then a third crocodile bit off my uncle’s arms. But still my uncle prayed out loud. Finally, my uncle was left as a talking torso as his friends dragged him to the riverbank. Yet still he prayed.”
The boy’s friends were by now sat with shoulders shaking with silent laughter as poor Mr Dyson, so we thought, was wound up proper yet again by these merciless boys. However, in a rare move, Mr Dyson stopped staring out the window and turned to the boy concerned with steel in his expression: “Bromfield, my dear boy, you hardly expect me to believe that, do you? All the prayer in Africa will not save you from the two-hour detention you are about to receive, for which may the Good Lord make you truly thankful. And young man”, he continued with a coup de grace and a gentle smile, “I will always pray for you.”
Well, you know I am sure that the saintly self-effacing Mr Dyson certainly did pray for me, I felt that he did pray for me quietly and regularly, and after putting it off for years I returned to my school to tell him this unlikely boy for whom he prayed patiently was now a vicar, only to find out he had died just a year or two previously. Never put things off.
But prayer, certainly persistent faithful prayer, in the face of the most discouraging of events, can change the bleakest of outlooks and can change people, even jumped up, rather objectionable boys.
Thank goodness for that! In today’s Gospel story we hear of the widow who won’t give up followed by the humble tax collector who each realise that proper prayer does not depend on posing, posturing or ‘holier than thou’ pontification: but on the quiet inner stirrings of a heart that knows how much it needs the caress of a loving God. So listen to your heart, pray, don’t lose heart. Easy isn’t it!
Well: actually no. And many of us know that it is never easy to pray and we might be actually rather doubtful that our prayers have ever been answered. So what can we learn that helps us in praying today? Perhaps it’s like this.
When you really want something, if you’re young, you keep asking your mum and dad. Do you just ask them once and think they’ve heard you? No, you ask them again and again, so that they will get so tired of you asking that just may be, they’ll give in and give you what you want. And besides keeping on asking, as we see with the widow who won’t leave the judge alone, the really good news which she and the taxpayer show us is that we keep prayer requests simple and short. Keep it simple! And keep it short – i.e. about half a dozen words! As children, our earnest prayer of asking might go something like this: ‘Please; pleeeeeease!’ And what Father could ignore such a plea?
In fact, a few verses after our widow we hear the taxpayer’s simple and equally short prayer which has become one of the most famous prayers that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called The Jesus Prayer and in the Russian Orthodox church, it is second nature. It is in fact, a prayer that says: ‘please’. It goes like this: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
Once more: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ It’s the first truly portable prayer because it is easy to say, easy to remember. It would be repeated for example by pilgrims who would recite the prayer as they walked between shrines in Russia thousands of times: in step with their walking, in step with their very breathing as each half of the prayer is said with inhaling and exhaling, breathing in and breathing out. Breathe in: ‘Lord Jesus Christ’; breathe out: ‘have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Try it.
So what Jesus wants us to remember is that whenever you or I are really asking him for his help, he will take notice and listen to us, stick up for us and help us, always giving us what we need, even if that’s not always quite what we want. As people who pray, maybe we worry too much about the answer, instead of just getting on and doing the praying. God is committed through His Son to the answering department and is there preparing that answer. We must believe that, we must surrender to that, and that is surrender in a positive expectant way, not a giving up sort of way.
To conclude, do you remember those strange air compartments in department stores (they still have them in IKEA, even Waitrose) where you place a message in a canister and it would be whooshed up a long pneumatic tube to a room where the request would be granted and returned? It’s that kind of idea. When we’ve passed God the message, and I really do think He probably likes prayers simple and short but delivered from the heart region, it’s not ours to meddle, we merely wait like the widow – and see.
What we receive back will be bathed in the love, direction and goodness of a loving Saviour whose wishes for us are never anything but goodness, mercy and forgiveness so that we might grow into the people God wishes us to be. Amen.