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The Big Question

What is the real power of prayer?

By Nancy Steeves

I am a passionate believer in the practice of prayer, although I no longer believe in a God who can answer. I pray for the sake of my heart. My understanding of prayer is shaped, in part, by the parable of the wronged widow who became a chronic litigant (Luke 18:1-8).

She keeps clogging up the docket of a heartless judge. As luck would have it, he’s as resistant as she is persistent. He has a patronage appointment from the emperor, and he isn’t about to jeopardize this plum job by allowing himself to be moved by the plight of poor peasants. He doesn’t give a damn about these people or their god. He couldn’t care less about doing the right thing. But somehow, the widow gets to him.

According to author Barbara Brown Taylor, our English translation misses the humour in this story. The judge uses a boxing term to describe the widow’s persistence. “I will grant her justice so that she will not wear me out with continued blows under the eye.” Although he isn’t motivated by mercy or moved with compassion, he will vindicate her cause on the basis of his vanity. He just doesn’t want to have to explain why he has a black eye! In the end, he does the right thing for the wrong reason, granting her petition literally to save face.

Luke’s Gospel tells this story in order to encourage a community of disheartened first-century Jewish Christians “to pray always and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Unfortunately, Luke’s inability to live with the inherent ambiguity of parables leads him to turn this story into an illustration. And his logic tells him, if the persistent widow can get justice from the crooked judge, how much more likely are we to get it from a just and merciful God? But surely the divine isn’t represented in this story by a heartless judge.

Are we really to believe that the divine is a stingy Grinch with a fragile ego, needing to be cajoled, praised, manipulated, thanked or persuaded into doing the right thing?

Isn’t the sacred the persisting and pervading presence of justice, mercy and compassion in which we live and move and have our being?

Doesn’t our experience and the revelation of all our senses suggest to us that the divine is, in fact, more like the poor widow, persisting with creation and its creatures as the relentless energy that nudges us to act toward what is just, merciful and compassionate?

If we locate the sacred in the story, in our lives and in our world, then prayer is not about moving something or someone to give what is needed, right what is wrong, fix what is broken or heal what is hurt. Prayer is a spiritual practice that opens us to the persisting presence of the sacred in every leaf, every cloud, every being, every breath, every moment. We pray not to petition some supernatural, person-like being to act. We pray because we are spiritual beings seeking to live more nearly as we pray.

The power of prayer lies in its potential to change us. We pray in order to not lose heart. We pray for the sake of our hearts. We pray as the mystics of every enduring religious tradition have taught us: to pray is to pay attention. This attention deepens our intention to live in ways that have the potential to answer the prayers we pray.

Imagine what could happen if we were to pray for the sake of our hearts. Imagine if we were to pray as naturally as we breathe. Imagine if we began to live in awe and intimacy with the natural world, with each other, with ourselves, with our enemies and within the sacred. How could our hearts not be in the right place? How could we ever lose heart?

Rev. Nancy Steeves is in ministry with Southminster-Steinhauer United in Edmonton.

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