July 24, 2016
"Marco." "Polo." If you ever find yourself in a swimming pool with my kids and me, you'll probably hear us saying those two words, that name, over and over again.
"Marco." "Polo." For those of you who may not be familiar with this particular pool game, Marco Polo is like a water-logged hide and seek. Only the person who is "It" has to keep his or her eyes closed. The way It finds the others is by calling out, "Marco." The other players respond by saying, "Polo." Then It follows -- or tries to follow -- the sound their voices till he or she can catch one of them.
Marco Polo is the epitome of a simple game. I don't know when it came into being, but I've been playing it since I was a kid. I taught it to my kids as soon as they were old enough. We still play it when we go swimming. We played it just last week.
It is simple, but I've instituted a few rules over the years. The other players, the Polo players, have to make sure that It, or the Marco player, doesn't get hurt. Don't let It walk into the side of the pool or ram into someone else. When the kids were much younger and we would play this at the public swimming pool, I would always tell them, "Don't let mommy tag a person we don't know." There is nothing more awkward than grabbing a child you think is yours, only to open your eyes and discover it's not. There are other implied rules; when It says "Marco," the other players must respond "Polo," no matter how close It may be. You can't get out of the pool in order to get away from It. And It can't surreptitiously open her eyes to sneak a peek on the location of the other players.
Other than those few rules, when you play Marco Polo, you know that at some point you're going to be wandering blindly around the water, hands outstretched, trying to follow the different voices responding to yours. At some point "Polo" will be cried so close to you that you'll take a splashing leap and try to grab onto some part of that person; a hand, an arm. Even touching their toe is a win. "Marco." "Polo."
I probably shouldn't admit this, but sometimes when I pray I feel like I'm "It" in a game of Marco Polo with God. I sit down to pray but I'm blind. I can't see anything around me. I'm groping in the darkness, calling out, "God?" I think I hear God reply, "Amy." God must know how to throw his voice, because I splash toward one side only to discover that God is on the opposite one. I keep calling, and I keep tentatively moving forward, hoping to touch even a toe. Yet when I do think I hear God answering, I can't get to that voice fast enough before it's gone.
Yet hearing God's response, even if I can't quite follow it, still qualifies as good when it comes to praying. Because lately it seems that the times when my prayers feel most like a game of Marco Polo, it is because I'm calling out "God," but getting no response at all. God seems to have gone under the water or left the pool entirely. Yet there I am, still calling, still stumbling through the water, blind and searching, and God feels nowhere to be found.
In light of this metaphor, it would seem that God has a remarkable sense of humor and timing. Because this passage from Luke is probably the last thing I wanted to read or preach today. One commentator wrote that when the disciples said to Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray," there is an implication that the congregation is asking the same of the preacher.
"Teach us to pray."
It would be simple enough to approach this passage by comparing it not only to our version of the Lord's Prayer has evolved, but also in comparison with Matthew's version of this prayer. Or we could talk about the different kinds of prayers. Just peruse our bulletin and you'll see several. There is a prayer invoking God's presence with us. A prayer confessing what we have and what we haven't. There is a prayer for the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts and eyes and ears to God's Word. We pray to dedicate. We pray to petition. We pray for intercession and for thanksgiving.
However, I think that what makes Luke's telling both unique and challenging is not the form of the prayer, but the parables that follow. Jesus did not just give the disciples words to recite and a prayer template to memorize. He told them a story that at first appears to be about what it takes to make prayers heard and answered.
A person has an unexpected guest late at night, but he doesn't have enough food in the house. So the person goes to a friend, knocks on the door, and asks for three loaves of bread. But this friend's response isn't all that friendly.
"Don't bother me! The door is locked. We're all in bed. I can't be bothered to get up and get you anything."
But Jesus said that if the first friend was persistent, his friend would get up and give him what he needs -- not out of friendship, but just to get the guy off his back.
Then Jesus said, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."
Then he continued with the analogy of a child asking a parent for a fish and getting a snake, or wanting an egg and getting a scorpion. Even we who are evil give good gifts to our kids. Won't God, the heavenly parent, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?
What? That's often been my initial response to this particular parable. What? Is Jesus saying that in order to get our prayers answered, we have to annoy God until God finally gives in? The Greek word translated as "persistent," would be better translated as "shameless." Does this mean that Jesus instructed the disciples to be shameless in their prayers? Was this analogy that Jesus used a description of the character of God? Or was Jesus actually describing the character of humans? If we're persistent and shameless enough, even the worst example of a human might finally answer our need. How much more so will God, who is the opposite of that, answer our prayers if we just shamelessly persist in praying?
But that begs another, harder question. How many of us have prayed and prayed and prayed, persistently, shamelessly, asking God for help, for healing, for life, and the opposite has happened? Does that mean that our prayers are not persistent and shameless enough? Are we praying wrong? We ask, and we get a painful answer. We search, but we still feel lost. We knock, and the door never opens.
The explanations that are given in those circumstances don't help. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is, "no." That may absolutely be true, but when a parent has prayed for a child to live and that child dies, it's hard to find any comfort in the "no" of God. Or we're told or we tell others, "God must have had another plan," or "we're just not meant to understand God's will." Again, this may be true, but there is no solace in it. So for some, praying becomes an exercise in futility. Foolishness. Empty words poured out to empty space. God has left the pool, but I'm still calling out, "Marco."
Yet maybe there is something else being said in this parable. Maybe Jesus was trying to teach his disciples -- and us -- another lesson about prayer and God. If we see prayer as a cosmic grocery list of our needs, hopes and wants, then when our list isn't met, when all the items aren't checked off, we feel abandoned by God; let down by God. But maybe the real nature, perhaps the real purpose of prayer, is not just to tell God what we need, but to be in constant, persistent relationship with God. After all, how do you build relationship with someone? Do you just go to that person and say, "This is what I want"? Or, do you spend time with that person, talking, listening, sitting in silence, even arguing, in order to strengthen and build that bond between the two of you?
I think it's the latter. It's not that there isn't a place for prayers of petition. That is a large part of our prayers of the people. But when we offer up our joys and concerns, are we merely praying that God will give us what we desire, or are we finding strength and comfort, courage and hope, in our relationship with God and each other -- no matter what the outcome might be?
As I said earlier, the timing of this passage must mean God has a sense of humor, because I am struggling to pray these days. I am struggling to believe that God hears and responds to my prayers -- to any of our prayers. I say that because there seems to be no end to the pain and suffering of the world. The mass shooting in Munich, the terror attack in Nice, the shootings of civilians and the shootings of police. The anger and vitriol in our politics, and the decided lack of civility in our discourse, publicly or otherwise.
I am just world-weary, and I feel as though lately I live in a haze of grief and despair. Praying has been hard, to say the least. Yesterday morning, I woke up, trying to work on my sermon, but feeling lost as to what to say or write. I checked into social media. A friend posted an essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an author, a post-trauma specialist and a psycho-analyst. The title of the essay is "We Were Made for These Times," and her first sentence is "My friends, do not lose heart." She goes on to to write a beautiful, powerful response to the suffering, hatred and fear that seems to be a looming cloud over us these days.
One quote from the essay is, "There will will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate."
I've read the essay and that quote many times now, but I have also stared intently at the picture that goes with the essay. It is of a person's hands, both dirty and grimy, nails shorn with dirt and oil around them. Both hands are wrapped in ace bandages that are as dirty as the hands themselves. The hands look as though they are in prayer. Most of the time when we see pictures of hands in prayer, they are more like a Precious Moments statue. Perfect little hands, folded perfectly. But these hands in this picture are real. They are bruised and battered. They have worked and suffered. But they still pray.
Maybe that is the persistence that Jesus taught. Maybe that is the shamelessness. Maybe praying is not about getting or not getting, finding the right way versus the wrong way. Maybe praying is about working and working and working to be in relationship with God; no matter how hard it is sometimes, no matter how tired we are, how fragile our faith. So ask. Search. Knock. Persist shamelessly in prayer, because it keeps us in relationship with our God who persistently and shamelessly loves us.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"