29th Sunday of the Year Exodus 17:8–13; 2 Timothy 3:14–4:2; Luke 18:1–8
The faded note Prayer has power; but to tap that power, we must persevere at it and not look for overnight results. Some years ago Guideposts magazine printed a remarkable story. It was about a young high school teacher named Mary. She wanted so much to succeed as a teacher. But a student named Bill was turning her into a nervous wreck and turning her class into a three-ring circus. One morning, before school began, Mary was sitting at her classroom desk writing something in shorthand. Suddenly Bill appeared at the door. “What are you writing?’’ he asked as he approached her desk. “I’m writing a prayer to God,’’ she said. “Can God read shorthand?’’ he joked. “He can do anything,’’ said Mary, “even answer this prayer.’’ Then she tucked the prayer inside her Bible and turned to write on the chalkboard. As she did, Bill slipped the prayer from her Bible into his typing book. Twenty years later Bill was going through a box of his belongings that his mother had stored in her attic. He came across his old typing book. Picking it up, he began to thumb through it. Lo and behold, he found the shorthand prayer. It was yellow and faded with age. Bill stared at the jottings on the paper and wondered what they said. He took the prayer and put it in his wallet. When he got to his office, he gave the prayer to his secretary to decipher. She read it and blushed. “It’s rather personal,’’ she said. “I’ll type it out and put it on your desk when I leave tonight.’’ That night Bill read the prayer. It said: “Dear God, don’t let me fail this job. I can’t handle my class with Bill upsetting it. Touch his heart. He’s someone who can become either very good or very evil.’’ The final sentence hit Bill like a hammer. Only hours before, he was contemplating making a decision that would commit him to a life of evil. He took the note and put it back into his wallet. During the next week Bill took the prayer out several times to read it. To make a long story short, that prayer caused Bill to change his mind about doing what he was contemplating. Weeks later Bill located his old teacher and told her how her prayer had changed his life. That story brings us to the two points about prayer that we find in today’s Scripture readings. First, prayer has enormous power. Second, to experience the power of prayer, we must persevere in praying. Let’s look briefly at each of these points. First, prayer has enormous power. It can influence the outcome of events, and it can change the lives of people. Commenting on this enormous power, Nobel prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel says: “Prayer is the most powerful form of energy one can generate. The influence of prayer on the human mind and body is as evident to us as secreting glands. Prayer is a force as real as gravity.’’ The second point is this: To experience the power of prayer, we must persevere in praying. For example, today’s first reading shows Moses persevering in his prayer. It is interesting to note that when he grew tired, he persevered in prayer because he got help from his friends. Some time ago a high school student told his teacher that he was able to persevere in daily prayer because he got help from his mother. They agreed to get up each morning at the same time and pray privately for 15 minutes in their rooms. Then, after eating breakfast together, she went to work and he went to school. The boy said it helped him greatly to know that while he was praying in his room, his mother was also praying in her room. Besides persevering in our daily period of prayer, as Moses did, we must also persevere from day to day and from week to week, as the widow in Jesus’ parable did. To do this, it helps to have a regular time to pray, as the boy and his mother did. Commenting on a regular time for praying, Ralph Martin says in his book Hungry for God: “A real estate man I know gets up early in the morning to pray; an aerospace engineer prays and reads Scripture on his lunch break; a production manager of a computing firm prays after his children are in bed at night.’’ Martin goes on to say that the demands of modern life are such that unless we schedule a regular time to pray, we probably won’t pray at all. Here we should keep in mind that when something becomes important to us, we schedule it right into our daily life. We don’t leave it to chance. For example, if we want to deepen a friendship with someone, we schedule times and places to meet with that person. We don’t leave these things to chance. The same is true if we want to deepen our friendship with God. We schedule times and places to meet him in prayer. We don’t leave these things to chance. And so, if we are to experience the power of prayer, we must persevere not only during the period of prayer, as Moses did, but also from day to day and week to week, as the widow in Jesus’ parable did. One final point should be noted about prayer. Besides persevering in prayer, we should not look for immediate results. This is clear from the opening story. God responds to prayer in his own time and in his own way. And sometimes God’s time may be years later, and sometimes God’s way may be far different from what we expected. In conclusion, then, prayer has enormous power. But to tap that power, we must persevere in praying. And, finally, we must not expect immediate results from our prayer. These will come in God’s own way and in God’s own good time. Let us close with a reflection on prayer: I pray because I am a Christian; and to do what a Christian must do, I need help. I pray because there is confusion in my life; and to do what is right, I need light. I pray because I must make decisions; but the choices are not always clear, so I need guidance. I pray because I have doubts; and to keep growing in my faith, I need help. I pray because most of what I have has been given to me, so I ought to give thanks. I pray because Jesus prayed to his Father; and if he considered it important, so should I.
29th Sunday of the Year Exodus 17:8–13; 2 Timothy 3:14–4:2; Luke 18:1–8 Persevere! Persevere! Perseverance is one of the most powerful forces at our command. Winning the Tour de France in the sport of cycling is like winning the World Series in baseball. It’s like winning the Super Bowl in football. It’s like winning the Academy Award in acting. The Tour de France is a bicycle race in France that lasts about a month. The more than 2,000-mile-long course twists and turns over mountainous roads. Only the world’s best cyclists compete. In July 1986, 26-year-old Greg LeMond became the only American ever to win this grueling competition. His victory was amazing. He was wined, dined, and eulogized in America. Greg was on top of the sports world. Then tragedy struck. In April 1987, Greg was accidentally shot at close range while hunting with his brother-in-law. Thirty shotgun pellets broke two ribs; put holes in his back, legs, arms, and hands; and pierced his liver, lungs, and heart lining. Miraculously, Greg survived. A painful stint in the hospital followed. After persevering through it, he returned home. Now another painful stint began. Greg persevered through long hours of therapy and recuperation. What happened next caught the sports world by surprise. Greg began workouts on the bicycle. Sportswriters couldn’t believe that he was serious about racing again. But LeMond was serious. Dead serious! The grind of retraining was long and hard. But once again Greg persevered through it. Almost a year to the day after the accident, Greg entered the Nissan International race in Ireland. His battle to keep up with the other riders was so pathetic that it was almost embarrassing to watch him. But Greg wouldn’t give up racing. He persevered in following his dream. And with each succeeding race, he grew stronger and stronger. Then came the 1989 Tour de France. Greg entered the race. His goal was to finish somewhere among the top 30 contestants. But few people gave him much of a chance to realize this goal. As the race got under way, sportswriters and fans were amazed to see Greg up with the leaders. But they figured he would fade. Greg hung tough throughout the entire grueling race. Then came the unforgettable last day of the race. The cyclists had entered the city of Paris for the final leg of the race. Tens of thousands of fans lined the streets to watch the finish. Greg was in second place, nearly a full minute behind the leader. One sportswriter said, “LeMond rode like an arrow winging its way to the target.’’ He narrowed the gap second by second. As the riders approached the finish line, Greg caught the leader, passed him, and won the Tour de France in the closest finish of its 76-year history. Sportswriter Phil Hirsch spoke for the entire sports world when he said, “There may be no superlatives adequate to assess the magnitude of what American cyclist Greg LeMond did.’’ If we wanted a story to illustrate the point that Jesus is making in his parable in today’s gospel, we could do no better than to select the story of Greg LeMond. The kind of perseverance Greg showed is the kind of perseverance Jesus exhorted his followers to have as they worked and prayed for the spread of God’s kingdom on earth. Greg is living proof of the old adage that says, “There is no power so mighty in the world as perseverance.’’ And if Greg could harness this force to win an earthly prize, how much more should we strive to harness it for a heavenly prize. This brings us to a very practical point: How do we go about harnessing the mighty power contained in perseverance? More specifically, how do we go about persevering in our following of Jesus? The answer is contained in Jesus’ own words. He said, “If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me.” Luke 9:23 That statement contains the answer to how we should go about persevering in our following of Jesus. First of all, we must forget ourselves. We must take the focus off ourselves and put it on our goal. Second, besides forgetting ourselves, we must take up our cross every day. In other words, we must learn to do what recovering alcoholics learn to do. We must learn to take every day as it comes: one day at a time. Jesus says, “If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself [and] take up your cross every day.” An example will illustrate the importance of taking every day one day at a time. A little girl had broken her leg badly and was in traction in a hospital. She said to the doctor, “How long do I have to remain like this?’’ The doctor smiled and replied, “Thank goodness! Only one day at a time.’’ Finally, besides forgetting ourselves, and taking up our cross daily, we must follow Jesus. This means that we must walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus consists not so much in never falling, but in rising again each time we fall. Again, an example will illustrate the importance of this point. Somebody asked a little boy, “How did you learn to ice-skate so well?’’ The little boy replied, “I just kept getting up when I fell and trying again.’’ And so the key to persevering in following Jesus is to do what Jesus said we should do. “If you want to come with me,” Jesus said, “you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me.” This is what Greg LeMond did to achieve an earthly reward. This is what we must do to achieve our heavenly reward.
29th Sunday of the Year Exodus 17:8–13, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:2, Luke 18:1–8 Pray with perseverance Prayer is a question of faith, not feeling. Jesus told his disciples . . . [to] pray and never become discouraged. Luke 18:1 Not long ago a mother called the pastor of a parish. She had just made a mother-daughter retreat and was all excited about it. In the course of the conversation, she said to her pastor, “How I’d love to have my daughter’s deep, intense faith— the kind of deep faith that I once had when I was her age.” The pastor replied that she did, indeed, have a deep faith. It’s just that, perhaps, she doesn’t have the deep feeling of faith she once had. In other words, her faith was maturing and growing in a new direction. Keith Miller makes this same important observation in his book The Taste of New Wine. He tells how he became depressed when he couldn’t feel God’s presence during his prayer. Then one day he suddenly saw how wrong it was to want to feel God’s presence in prayer. If that is why he was praying, then he was turning prayer into just another form of sophisticated self-indulgence. He writes: I realized that so much of my life I had been a spiritual sensualist, always wanting to feel God’s presence in my prayers and being depressed when I didn’t. . . . So I tried praying . . . whether I felt spiritual or not and found for the first time in my life that we can live on raw faith. Moreover, I found that often the very act of praying this way brings later a closer sense of God’s presence. Keith not only discovered the error of always wanting to feel God’s presence in prayer; he learned something equally important. He learned the great spiritual truth that the “grace of prayer” often comes outside the time of prayer. In other words, we may feel that nothing is going on during our prayer. In reality, something very important and beautiful is going on. We are planting the seeds that will take time to germinate, grow, and bear their fruit— later, outside the time of prayer. And that brings us to each one of us in this church. No doubt there are times when we also wish we had the kind of intense faith of the high school daughter in the opening story. We may even have given up praying, because we felt it was no longer doing us any good. Today’s Gospel, therefore, has a special meaning for us. It tells us to persevere in prayer, as the widow in Jesus’ parable did. And the reason we need to persevere is the very reason we have been talking about. God is deepening our faith, taking it beyond the feeling level to the faith level. Therefore, the worst thing we could do is to fail to persevere in prayer, because that would abort the process that God has begun and is carrying on within us. That leads us to the story that I would like to close with. It sums up what we have been saying. A group of Chicago businessmen had been meditating for three years and meeting once a week to support one another and to share the fruit of their prayer. One morning one of the men said to the others: “I’ve got to share something important with all of you. When we began three years ago, I figured that in a year or so, I’d become a kind of expert or guru in meditation. Just the opposite has happened. I’m worse now than when I started.” There was a kind of awkward silence. Then another said: “Bob, I’m really glad you said that; I’m much the same way. I find it a lot harder to meditate now than when I first started. At times I feel really dry and empty. If it weren’t for this group, I’d probably not have persevered.” At this point, another man, Joe Cramblit, said: “I grew up in Wisconsin. Let me tell you about the corn planting season there. I think it says something about our prayer status. “After planting corn, the first thing we always did was to pray for rain—lots of rain. The rain came down; the corn came up. It was such a beautiful sight that you just wanted to go out in the field and dance. “Then we did something strange— I mean really, really strange! We prayed for a period of stress and dryness. We did this to force the roots of the corn—especially the taproot— to grow downward in search for water. “If the corn got too much rain, the roots of the corn grew out horizontally and the taproot wasn’t forced to go down in search of water. “If this happened, the crop would be inferior, because the cornstalk wouldn’t know where to find water when the dry season set in. “Now here’s my point. God does something similar with us in our prayer life. At first, God makes meditation an exciting experience for us. Then God gives us a period of dryness. Its purpose is to force our taproot down through the feeling level to the faith level. Unless this happens, we will not bear much fruit.” Not one man in that group that morning ever forgot that explanation. One of them spoke for all when he said, “I’ve been a Catholic for 50 years and no one has ever explained that important spiritual truth about the spiritual life to me.” Let’s conclude our reflection on God’s word with a prayer: Lord, we thank you for the inspiring stories of the mother of the high school daughter, of Keith Miller, and of the businessman’s insight into how our spiritual life develops, grows, and matures. Help us open our hearts to the grace of the Holy Spirit that we may persevere in prayer, mature spiritually, and bear fruit, as they did.