What if the essence of prayer is the waiting that prayer causes us to do? Most of us want our prayers answered quickly. We don’t want to wait, even for God.
In the Christian tradition, a familiar verse from the Bible says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” (Revelation 3:20) The verse refers to God’s initiative in making a divine connection with the church. Prayer is a connection. But what if you feel that you are standing at a locked door? What if your knuckles bleed from knocking? What if your prayers seem, for the moment, to go entirely unanswered?
I want to suggest today that being in that moment – that moment of unfulfilled waiting and wondering – is a good place to be.
I want to suggest that prayer, and the intensely human experience of waiting and hoping creates what the ancient Celtic Christians called a thin space. A place of possibility, where the heavens are just a little bit closer than we previously knew. Being in that thin space, waiting and hoping for God, is good.
There is another biblical story from my tradition that tells about a poor widow who has to beg a judge to hear her and give her justice. (Luke 18:1-8) The widow prevails, but only after she has persistently demanded that the judge help her. In a humorous flourish, the judge is heard to say, “I will help her, lest she wear me out!” (Luke 18:5)
The pursuits of faith don’t come easily, and so it is that the Bible is full of suggestions that waiting, and hoping and longing for what is good, is an essential of faith.
All of us have, at one time or another, wanted something very badly. We wanted to win an award, but it was just out of reach. We opened ourselves to love someone, and then had to wait for his/her response. We hoped to see better days. We looked beyond the moment, into tomorrow.
The important thing is that we are waiting for a good thing. The widow in the story is waiting for justice. The knocking at the door awaits connection with God.
Justice, mercy, righteousness, peace – these qualities are on the short list of ways to describe what God does, and what God is. It would not be too much to say that God is justice, peace, righteousness, mercy – in a pure, perfect form; and that the whole life of faith is properly the pursuit of those holy ideals.
But why does it have to take so long? If our prayers truly represent our desire for holy ideals, what’s the hold up?
Perhaps it takes a pastor to say this, but we live in a dangerous and broken world. Our prayers for healing and health are music to God’s ears. Our desire for comfort and safety bring God joy. But the world as it is, is not a hospitable place for what is good.
A hero of the civil rights movement, the African American Fred Shuttlesworth, saw much injustice in his day. But, more significantly, he also saw the movement begin to make progress. He began to see the truth of Martin Luther King’s soaring oratory at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott, when King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Shuttlesworth made a comment about the long arc. His comment was a little spicier than King’s. Shuttlesworth said, “Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide.” You’ve got to keep up the fight.
This can be the attitude of prayer. Because the world around us does not permit goodness easily, we must be persistent in seeking what is good. Even when faith is a struggle, we must keep up the fight. Persistence in a holy hope for peace, justice and righteousness keeps us connected to God. Peace, justice and righteousness is what God desires for us. Hoping to see God’s will done is the essence of faith.
Impatient, hopeful prayers are, at least, honest prayers. We live in a world strangely hardened against good. So it is right for us to ask, and ask again and again, for relief from anything that pulls us away from the heart-happy goodness of our faithful belonging.
We will be kind and gentle with each other. But we will also acknowledge all the ways kindness and gentleness are devalued in an unjust world. We will serve others, even when we see that the need around us is unfathomable. No matter! We must keep trying.
We’ve said it’s a thin place, where we can be close to God. We’ve called it a struggle. It is (fundamentally) a lifestyle.
The longing may be hard. Knocking on the door makes our knuckles bleed. Rattlesnakes don’t commit suicide, so let’s persist in prayer, love and service.
– Matthew Covington is senior pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Bowling Green.