Never lose heart

Sometimes a preacher really has to work to figure out how to connect the Bible to today’s world. Sometimes the Gospel feels so culturally different, the times of Jesus feel so long ago. Sometimes we struggle to see the relevance of Scripture to our lives today. Then, every once and awhile, our calendar of readings assigns a text like the one we just heard.

“I have no fear of God, and no respect for anyone…”

In my life I have never seen a political campaign season so palpably affect a society. After last week’s debate I know people who found themselves feeling exhausted, frustrated. This week many of us felt a state of depression about the state of our national conversation.

There are a lot of echoes between the widow and the judge and our presidential candidates. I’ll let you have fun finding your own echoes. Feel free to email, or tweet at me, tell me the parallels you can find. I’m not going to dwell in the details today.

The Gospel introduces Jesus story this way: “Jesus told his disciples…about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” I think the two are connected. I think faith is for times like these. I think prayer is for times like these. I confess, I still consider myself a novice at prayer. I know, I look the part, but I still have a lot to learn.

A few weeks ago at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, I picked up a memoir by Scott Cairns, a literature professor at Missou entitled “Short Trip to the Edge.” The book recounts the first of his many travels to a place called “The Holy Mountain.” Mt. Athos is in Greece, it is an entire State of the Country filled with nothing but Orthodox monasteries. The mountainous isthmus is ruled by a collection of monastic foundations. The Greek government really just provides light and power, the monks take care of the rest.

Cairns converted to Orthodox Christianity later in life. In the book, he describes the path of Christianity much the way our parable does today, as an attempt to learn to “pray always.” If you meet an orthodox monk, you might notice him carrying around a knotted loop of rope. He might be silently passing the knots through his fingers while repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Others say shortened versions: “Jesus have mercy” or even simply saying: “Jesus.”

An aside I know some of you have prayed a version that prayer. When I was learning to drive, my father often referred to the handles above the window of the passenger seat of the car as “Jesus handles.” He would often grab them as I braked hard and say, “Jesus!”

Returning to the Holy Mountain though, the simplicity of the prayer, the repetition, the tactile feeling of the rope in your hands, helps the prayer to be constant. Cairns tells his readers he wants to learn to pray constantly. He’s gladdened when he discovers himself falling asleep and waking up saying the words of the Jesus prayer. There is a desire to be a literalist about the Gospel’s words, to learn to “pray always.”

As I said, I’m a novice at prayer. I’m not sure I’ll ever fall asleep and wake up saying the Jesus prayer. But one of my seminary professors inspired me to continue to try to take prayer seriously. Mark Dyer taught systematic theology at Virginia Seminary when I was a student. Before he came to the seminary he was the Episcopal Bishop of Bethlehem Pennsylvania. He once got a laugh out of the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem by telling him that he was the bishop of Bethlehem. Church humor.

Before Mark was an Episcopal Bishop, he was a Roman Catholic benedictine monk. He always took prayer seriously. As a monk, Mark went to church six times a day to chant the office. Along with his brothers he sang psalms and bits of scripture day in and day out. Even after he left the monastery, Mark had a discipline of daily prayer. Even when he wasn’t in the seminary chapel, Mark would read from his prayer book in his study. He’d say the daily morning and evening prayers. When I was a young priest in Washington DC, Bishop Dyer was my first presenter when my young adults group started a program we called “Theology on Tap.” He spoke on the topic: “Monks and Beer.”

Mark told some funny stories about monks making beer, and monks drinking beer, but he found a way to present a life of prayer as an ordinary life. He told one more recent story. Mark talked candidly about a recent health scare. In the last years of his life Mark had heart problems, and at one point he needed an emergency bypass. He recounted finding himself on a hospital gurney, being rolled backwards away from the ER and towards the operating room. As the anesthesia began to take hold, without really thinking about it, Mark said he was surprised to find himself silently chanting some of the prayers from the monastery. He said that’s when he realized how much a life of prayer had shaped his soul. Mark died just two years ago, and is missed by many.

A couple of weeks ago I was back at Virginia Seminary for the annual convocation, and I was asked by Mark’s widow, Dr. Amy Dyer, to join a group that was telling stories about Mark around the lunch table. The story I just told you was what I shared with the group. I’m a novice at prayer, but I’ve had some really great teachers.

The seminary is in Alexandria Virginia, inside the Washington DC Beltway. While I was there, I also had the chance to visit the brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. As an American, you have to go. If you have the opportunity, take it. The museum begins underground, telling the progression from slavery to freedom. Down in the basement there are fragments of a slave ship. You see a child’s shackles. As you move up, you begin to see glimmers of hope. There’s Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal. There’s posters for rallies, and copies of Dr. King’s speeches. As you make your way back to the ground floor there is a wall sized photo of President Obama taking the Oath of Office.

Above ground there are more exhibits, and one in particular captured my attention. The exhibit focuses on black schools, black colleges, black social organizations, and black churches. The title of this exhibit is simple: “Making a way out of no way.” Making a way out of no way. There are exhibits about African American midwives, about black fraternities and sororities. Artifacts, photos, and videos tell the story of how faced with exclusion from institution, faced with systemic racism, faced with day to day bigotry, black communities came together, educated one another, and built social capital.

The church features prominently. Back when I lived in Washington I spent quite a lot of time in Smithsonian museums. Never have I seen so much religion in one of the National museums. It did my heart proud. “Making a Way Out of No Way”, and the historical sections below make it clear: the Black Community in this country learned to survive, learned to thrive, through prayer. How did they make a way where there was no way? They prayed, constantly, ceaselessly. They prayed with their voices and with their feet. And through that prayer and that persistence, they found a way. And where there wasn’t a way to be found, the black community made a way.

That’s the story of the widow. I heard a preacher once call this widow a saint. “Santa Persista” he called her. She is persistent. Faced with a tyrant. Faced with a man who is so self-involved, so unjust, that he does not fear God, does not respect anyone, she finds a way. That judge might have been caught up in his own image of himself. That judge might have been so focused on himself that he couldn’t hear her pleas, but she wasn’t going to let him off the hook. She persisted. She didn’t lose heart.

Hear the Good News: be persistent. Faced with injustice, faced with depression about the state of our world, be persistent. Keep knocking. Keep asking for justice. Keep looking for hope. Even when the leaders seem callous, uncaring, self-involved, keep praying and keep demanding justice. The Bible isn’t only relevant to ancient culture. Faith is for times like ours. As much as they were for his disciples, Jesus words are words for us today. God will grant justice. God does hear prayer. Pray, pray without ceasing. If you are busy praying, you will never lose heart.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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