Monday, May 01, 2017

Praying with your back to the wall

It must have been May 1993 when I found myself stranded at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

I'd been living in Petionville, Haiti, for the past six months and was on my way to Pittsburgh for a visit with my parents, and to Minneapolis, Minn., to visit the mission's headquarters, before going to visit my church in Easton, Pa.. During the next weeks I was expected to raise my missions support, but first I had to get home. And that was proving to be something of a problem.

I'd left Port-au-Prince on time and arrived in Miami when I'd expected, but that's where my plans had broken down. A downpour had delayed flights leaving Miami, and now here I was at JFK, my connecting flight long gone and the airport terminal closing for the night.

“I'd like American to provide me with a hotel voucher for the night,” I told the service agent behind the desk.

“It's not the airline's policy to provide vouchers for delays or missed flights caused by weather,” she said for the tenth time.

“I understand that,” I said for the tenth time, matching her polite tone and professional demeanor for polite tone and professional demeanor. “But I'd like you to make an exception and give me one anyway.”

“I can't help you,” she said.

“Then is there a supervisor who can?” I asked.

My request may have been impertinent, but it wasn't like I had much choice. Depending on how you looked at it, home lay either 1,000 miles south, six hours to the west, or two hours away, but in the day before cell phones, there was no way to get there and no way to contact anyone. I had less than $50 in my wallet, no credit cards, and a duffel bag full of clothes and personal possessions.

Either American Airlines was going put me up in a hotel room, or I was going to be outside the airport in twenty minutes, trying to stay awake all night in the streets of New York. I'd lived the previous six months in a country under military rule, and even I had no desire to try that. My situation was that desperate.

Desperation can drive us to uncanny levels of audacity. My chief recollection of my interaction with that customer service agent is how utterly calm I was as I acknowledged that I had no right to ask for the break I was asking for, but I was asking for it anyway. Unlike other passengers on the flight with me, I never once lost my cool.

This encounter with the airline came to mind recently at a Bible study where we were looking at Luke 11 and Jesus' teachings on prayer. This being Jesus, he never could just give a straightforward answer to a simple question. No, he had to tell a story.

In this particular story, a man whose guest had arrived at an unexpectedly late hour, had nothing to feed him. This put the host in a bad situation. In ancient cultures having a guest carried with it a serious obligation to provide for their safety and well-being. It didn't matter if the guest had arrived after sunset, failing to provide a meal would be more than merely awkward or unfriendly. It would be unspeakably offensive, a devastating failure to meet an obligation.

So, unwilling to dishonor himself and offend his guest, the host ran to a friend who he knew could lend him enough bread to cover his failing. Of course, things never run smoothly. The hour was late, and the friend already had shut the door and gone to bed, and did not want to get up.

But need compeled the host, and so he barraged his friend with requests for help until the friend, mindful that the entire village could overhear the pleas for bread and his own steadfast refusal to help, finally gave in. He got out of bed, grabbed the loaves of bread and gave them and anything else the host needed, just to get him to quiet down and not shame the friend in front of the entire community.

With this story, Jesus taught a pretty simple lesson about prayer. Be persistent. Don't give up. Don't be afraid to be pushy. There's even a suggestion that God will feel put on the spot by your need and actually may change his mind about how he responds to your request. (I always did wonder if the relationship was strained afterward, due to the scene the two men made.)

In my experience, that's often where the lesson ends. A former pastor of mine often cited this passage in his sermons in which he encouraged us to ask God for what we wanted. His point: God loves us, and wants to give us good things. We just need to ask.

In this vein Pastor Weber loved to cite an exchange between Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Scott Raleigh. “Why do you ask for so much?” Elizabeth asked Raleigh in this conversation. “Because your majesty keeps giving me what I ask for,” Raleigh replied.

With no disrespect meant to my former pastor, nor to Sir Walter Scott Raleigh, there is something missing from such a lesson: a sense of desperation born of need.

It is desperation that drove the host in Jesus' story to plead for bread late at night. In the culture Jesus lived and taught in, failing to give his guest something to eat wasn't just a faux pas. It was a massive insult. When Nabal refused to give provisions to David and his men, it was an act of war. It wasn't just a kind favor that the host was asking his neighbor to help with, it was a stark necessity.

The same extremity of need is evident in other examples of prayer earlier in the gospel of Luke. Parents brought children afflicted with unclean spirits to ask for healing because the seizures threatened the lives and health of the children. A woman had spent a fortune trying to find relief from nonstop menstrual bleeding that had made her miserable, left her ceremonially unclean and kept her husband from her for years, and so she hoped just to touch the hem of Jesus' garment. Lepers wanted to return to the communities they had been driven from, the leader of a synagogue ruler was watching his daughter die before his eyes. These weren't people asking for gravy on their potatoes. They were people driven by extreme need.

Of course, this story being one of the parables of Jesus, it's not enough that it illustrate his lesson in a memorable way that we can still talk about thousands of years later. The story also has to end in a jarring way that makes us wonder if we're even talking about the same thing Jesus is.

After he finished his story, Jesus asked his listeners two interesting questions, and then made an astounding statement.

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (No one.)  “Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Don't be ridiculous.)

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Where did that come from? During the Bible discussion and study meeting last Tuesday one attendee suggested that Jesus was saying that he would send the Holy Spirit to people who believed in him. That may very well be true, but it feels like it's beside the point. This entire passage has been rooted in concerns such as meeting earthly needs such as bread for the body, and avoiding the snares of money by avoiding debt and forgiving debtors.

This isn't a pivot to a more spiritual theme or an appeal for an individual decision to have faith. It's Jesus cutting to the chase in the way that he does and drawing the line of connection between our faith and the earthly need of others. It's a reminder to us, who like to separate spiritual things from practical matters, that the two are inextricably linked. The Lord's Prayer, which includes a request for the day's bread, begins with the pledge “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

So what is Jesus saying? The first time the gospel of Luke mentions the Holy Spirit, is when the angel Gabriel promises the birth of Jesus, after telling Mary that her son will re-establish the throne of David forever. There are more prophecies, linked to the Holy Spirit, that promise that Jesus will overthrow the established order of things as he ushers in the Kingdom of God. The writer even claims that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism.

When he returns from wandering in the wilderness for 40 days, Jesus declares the purpose of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The connection between the Holy Spirit and the acts of mercy and compassion that Jesus performs in the gospel could not be clearer.

And that is what we see happen over the ensuing chapters. Jesus comes promising to usher in the Kingdom of God and restore things to their intended state. He heals all those who are sick without asking for payment, and without considering whether they are deserving of such charity. He casts out unclean spirits, he welcomes sex workers and immigrants into his company, and he feeds the hungry. There is no one so low that he will not lift that person up.

Receiving the Holy Spirit then isn't just a mark of personal salvation; to receive him is to step into the shoes of Jesus and commit to alleviating the suffering of the world around us. Just as Jesus proclaimed release to captives, healing to the sick and liberty to the oppressed, asking to receive the Holy Spirit is to put ourselves into the spot of the man whose friend came asking for bread when it was inexcusably late to come around asking for favors he had no right to ask for, and who gave it to him anyway.

God's goal, after all, is not for us to be happy. What is happiness, after all? It's a will o'the wisp that vanishes before we even can lay hold of it. God's great dream is not to see us happy and carefree, it is to enjoy a relationship with us.

And however awkward things might have been the next morning between the host and the friend he pulled out of bed, one thing is certain: The host will never forget what his friend did for him, and he'll be sure to repay the kindness whenever and however often the opportunity arises.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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