Some years ago I found myself in hospital for a few days having some wisdom teeth removed. This was an altogether awful experience. Although the care I received was excellent, it didn`t help that I was on an especially busy Ward. The patient on one side of me died while I was there and the person on the other side was in a great deal of distress and kept everyone awake.
Just after my operation and struggling, in the middle of the night with a considerable amount of pain I called out to the nurse to come and perhaps calm the person next to me because in my own pain I was desperate for some sleep. “We`re doing the best we can,” she said, which of course she was. So I said, “I`m sorry, I know, it just hurts”.
It`s difficult to gain any kind of perspective when you`re in pain isn’t it? And it`s perhaps even harder, when it`s someone you love who`s struggling. Temperamentally, when there`s a problem (like many men, I understand) my immediate reaction is to try and fix things. I mean we`ll do anything to take away their distress won`t we? We want to make things easier for them or support them in any way we can. But I`ve lost count of the number of times I`ve been told, “Look, I don`t want you to fix it. I just want you to listen”.
You may recall that huge storm which the BBC Weathermen completely failed to predict many years ago. Well, a few years later some research was done into how the woodland of our country, which was decimated by the storm, had recovered in the intervening years. To their astonishment the tree specialists said that the woodland which had been left to its own devices had recovered far better than the woodland which was given a huge amount of time, money and attention.
So in the same way I find it interesting to realise that sometimes, someone who is struggling might actually be better off if we allowed them to learn resilience and grow through the difficulty. Sometimes the desire to fix things interferes with something better and more significant. I`m well aware that this is perhaps easier said than done and could even be thought somewhat heartless but I want to invite us to question this instinct to fix things. And I say this because it seems to me that in the last few generations this very much is what we`ve been about.
Let me give you an example. We often say that when it comes to trying to help someone, we`re a bit shy because we don`t know what to say. In other words we automatically think something can be done to fix the situation and that usually means saying `the magic words`; the right words. And if we can`t do that then we at the very least we don`t want to make it worse- so we keep away.
Now, I think we`re beginning to learn that very often it`s not what we say but the `being there` and the listening that are the much greater help. But I`m not sure we`ve yet realised how positive this standing back can be and how important it is. You see, resisting the temptation to jump in creates some space. What I mean is that a moment is created where we stand back not just so that their own resilience can come through but where we ask what the Lord might be showing them or leading them into THROUGH their struggles.
Another example is the difficulty that some in the medical profession seem to have when it comes to death and dying. We have many reasons to thank God for their professionalism, skill and dedication which is quite rightly focussed on fixing people or as we say, making them `better`. The problem is that the more you focus on this, the more death has therefore, in the minds of some become synonymous with `failure`.
And this is a shame. Because this particular desire to fix things is blinding us to what used to be called `making a good death`. But if you don`t have the perspective of faith- that`s where you going to get stuck isn`t it?
Now, in Luke`s Gospel Jesus tells us “If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him”. And in the parable we heard this morning he`s using the same tactic. He`s saying, “If a defenceless woman can bend the ear of a corrupt judge how much more will the Heavenly Father hear you when you cry out to him”.
Here Jesus enters into the way we cry out against the injustices of the world. This defenceless woman provides a graphic picture which would have resonated within the early church, which in persecution longed for Jesus to return. And of course it rings bells today with anyone who finds themselves crying out to the heavens for some justice; anyone who wants God to come and fix it.
The point he`s making of course is that although there is so much we cannot know or see now- there will be a vindication. But he goes on to make an even stronger point. He says, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?” It`s as if he`s saying- `Yes, I know all these things that deeply concern you are important. And your Heavenly Father knows but there is something else going on here”.
So, what`s he teaching us? Well there is honesty before God. There is persistence. There is confidence that he knows what he`s about. But we`re asked to think about where we stand in the face of what we call apparently `unanswered prayer`. It`s about what you do when God doesn`t seem to reach down and fix things? When we`re perplexed and wondering what`s going on.
There are no simple answers to this. But I think it helps to be aware of how even subconsciously, the way of faith has been subsumed into, if you like, a `therapeutic` view of the world. That is to say, we have come to regard this religion thing as about `fixing things`, making my life better. And for `better`, we read `easier, smoother and so on`. People endlessly say: “All we could do was pray”. In the last resort- because that`s what it often is- the faith thing seems to be all about problem solving, putting things right. “That`s what God does isn`t it?”
Well, I`m not so sure it `works` like that. And I think our experience bears this out. You see it`s worth asking whether all we have done is to buy into this world view which says, “Me and my needs are right at the centre of it all”. And pragmatically, we put in the time, effort and energy and we look for the results… We look for God to do his bit. But this isn`t faith, this is business.
So some people will say `why bother praying?` Well, fundamentally so that we can enter into the truth of who and whose we are. You see, I appreciate the way this parable acknowledges that we do indeed cry out to the heavens sometimes. Again, there is honesty in this parable. Jesus gives us permission to say “this hurts”. We want someone to fix it.
But beyond this he asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” He wants us to go beyond praying until we get what we want. Praying until he just HAS to see things from our point of view…. and instead learning to trust and to watch and to wait. So much easier said than done….. But so often this is the holy ground. This is God`s space, his moment with us and the rest is silence.
There are two other perspectives we might like to take away with us. Firstly, if we were to focus on the persistence of that widow in battering the ears of that judge, perhaps we`re challenged to think about what it would be like for me, for us, to show the same urgency in praying `Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven` as we do when something personal is bothering us. That would lift our horizon a little.
And secondly, I would invite us all to become a bit more familiar with the Book Psalms. I think we really do need to explore more ways of using them more often in our worship. You see these are our prayer book. The shear range of prayers that are offered; praise, lament, shouts of joy, cries of anguish are all there to affirm our human condition and to stretch us. On the one hand they give us words to use when our own words fail us. On the other they manage to earth us because they give us a sense that those experiences of life which, with some justification we would wish to avoid, are actually the soil in which our faith lives and grows.