Barbara Moss is an Assistant Director of Ordinands of the Diocese in Europe. She was the Chaplain in Gothenburg, Sweden from 2005 to 2015, and served as Area Dean for the Nordic and Baltic Deanery and Editor of the Diocesan Prayer Diary. Here, she reflects on the theme of persistence in prayer, as presented in Luke 18.1-8 and 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5. She finishes with a quotation from the visions of Julian of Norwich, and the picture below shows an artistic depiction of Julian’s visions in the chapel at Ditchingham, Norfolk, photographed at a study weekend of the Eastern Region Ministry Course.
The theme of today’s gospel, persistence in prayer, was dear to St Luke’s heart. In telling the story of Jesus’ infancy, he presents two senior members of the Temple congregation: Simeon, ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel’, and Anna, spending the years of her widowhood in the temple ‘with fasting and prayer night and day.’
The unjust judge in this strange story is hardly how we imagine God. Yet many of us can give a wry smile of recognition at the way the judge gets so fed up with the widow’s perpetual nagging that he gives in just to stop her bothering him. I once saw an enactment of this parable by a mother and her four children. The star of the show was the four-year-old who kept on crying out ‘I’m thirsty’, and in the end, all four got what they wanted.
The theme of persistence in prayer had a special message to Luke’s congregation, vulnerable in their context, wherever they were, just as the disciples had been vulnerable in Jerusalem in the days after the resurrection.
And it has a special message in our contexts, whatever it is that leads us to pray for justice: climate change, political turmoil, or the demands of secularism, to name just a few. In my role as an Assistant Director of Ordinands, I have had the privilege of meeting men and women from various chaplaincies in our diocese, and reflecting with them on how the five marks of mission are worked out there. ‘To seek to transform the unjust structures of society’ can, indeed, be costly, in places where living as a Christian may be difficult or dangerous. Paul urged Timothy, ‘Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage.’ But sometimes prayer is the only thing we can do.
In my lifetime, many have seen answers to years of faithful prayer in the end of the Vietnam War, the collapse of Apartheid, the demolition of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, or the breakup of the USSR. In their prayers, they were crying to God for justice. And when the end came, it came quickly.
This does not mean that it is always clear where justice lies. Sincere Christians may be praying against each other, just as they may be voting against each other, or fighting against each other. We pray daily for the coming of God’s Kingdom, but see only a very small part of the picture of what this might mean. Some of the Psalms – the prayers with which Jesus grew up – express anger and frustration, and make very uncomfortable reading for us.
Jesus himself cried out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ But he also prayed, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’
The answer to prayer is not always Yes. Sometimes the immediate answer is more like ‘I never said this was going to be easy.’ I am reminded of the words received by Julian of Norwich, in one of the visions revealed to her in her illness:
‘He said not, “Thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased”, but he said, “Thou shalt not be overcome”.’