A Room Full of Friends: Jana Childers
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; August 29, 2021
We are nearing the end of our sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, in which I have introduced you to authors who have come to reside on the bookshelves of my study, and who have, over time, become wise friends. One such friend is Presbyterian minister and author, Rev. Dr. Jana Childers, who is Associate Professor of Homiletics and Speech-Communication at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The following is a sermon I happened upon while working on my doctoral thesis, “Practices before You Preach.” During those months of research, I read endless sermons but this one entitled, “A Shameless Path,” remains one of my favorites. I pray it blesses you as it has blessed me.
Nearer than hands and feet. That’s what God is when we pray. “Speak to him for he heareth and spirit with spirit can meet. Closer is he than breathing. Nearer than hands and feet.” Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The poets have a high view of prayer—some of them anyway. The mere mention of the subject seems to send them running for the card file marked “sublimity” where they pull out adjectives: sweet hours, precious moments, privileged meetings. Before you know it, the violins are swelling and we’re wending our way through a dewy rose garden, walking and talking with a certain Someone whose voice, as one gospel songwriter put it, is so “sweet the birds hush their singing.” Prayer to a poet—or a gospel songwriter—is like romance to Barry Manilow, an irresistible topic.
I don’t know about you, but as much as I love the poets and especially the gospel songwriters, and as much as I want to know the nearer-than-hands-and-feet God, I have to say it: My prayer life is not much like a walk through a rose garden. Not only does Jesus not come to the garden alone to see me, not walk with me and talk with me, not meet me in the garden, lots of times I wonder if I’m even in the right zip code. My prayer life is not much like a dewy garden path. And that’s why I come to today’s scripture lesson with high hopes.
After all, I believe—I think many of us instinctively believe—that there is something to this thing called prayer. We know about what happens in foxholes. We pay attention when a person we admire says she will pray for us. We see prayer working in other peoples’ lives. And we believe Mother Teresa—don’t we?—when she says, “No prayer, no faith; no faith, no love; no love, no devotion; no devotion, no service.” “Yes,” we say, “I need that in my life!” For once we are right there in the front row of the classroom with the disciples, waving our hands and saying “Lord! Teach me how to do this!”
And Jesus says, in the translation of the New Testament scholar, Anne Wire, “Everyone who asks receives. The one who seeks, finds. And the one who knocks, gets in the door.” The Gospel according to Luke is not easy to hear today, not easy to preach, because it is not easy to believe. “Ask and it shall be given you?!” How could Jesus have said such a thing? How could that be true?
If it were true, of course, all the eight-year-old girls in the world would be braiding pink satin ribbons into the tails of their very own ponies. If it were true, all the eight-year-old girls in the world and their brothers and sisters would go to bed every night with just the right blend of fats and carbohydrates and proteins in their bloodstreams. If it were true, all the children of the world would at the least—at the very least—be living in peace. “Ask and it shall be given you” is an outrageous thing, perhaps even an obscene thing to say [in light of things happening in our world today]. How could Jesus say such a thing?
“Oh well,” we say, “maybe this is just meant for the ears of the disciples. Maybe Jesus was making that promise to those who are, you know, the spiritual elite.” I have to say I don’t think you can interpret the text that way, since, in Luke, the disciples are pictured as anything but elite. “Okay,” we say, “maybe Jesus means that eventually, out at the end of time, you will get what you ask for.” But that’s not a very convincing argument either, especially since Jesus goes right on from making the ask-and-receive promise to comparing the whole thing to hungry children asking their parents for food…not an “eventually” kind of thing! “All right,” we say, “maybe it means that if we ask in accordance with God’s will, then we will see our prayers answered.” And maybe that is true. But I don’t see how that helps explain this particular text, because there is no such qualifier in the immediate or larger context of this passage.
Okay, then, how could Jesus say such a thing?
The first thing we notice when we look closely at what Jesus said was that he did not say, “Ask and you will get what you ask for.” What he said was something more like, “Ask and you will get something good.” Notice the syntax of the rhetorical question he asks after he makes the great promise: “If your children ask for fish, will you give them a snake?” Do you see how that is not the same thing as saying, “If they ask for fish, don’t you give them fish?” Even Jesus’ word choice makes it clear that the promise he’s making is not as tit-for-tat as the promise we want to hear.
The second thing we notice is that there is something lost in the translation of the New Testament Greek into English here. The Greek does not say “Ask and you will receive.” It says “Aaaaassssk and keep on asking…Seeeeeek and keep on seeking…Knoooock and keep on knocking.” The Greek verb implies ongoing action. Be persistent, Jesus is saying. Be shameless. Run right up to that door and pound on it. Make a fool out of yourself with your asking.
Finally, the thing that is most often overlooked about the story Jesus tells here is that this is primarily a story about intercessory prayer. One friend goes to another friend on behalf of someone else. This is not a story about little girls praying to get a handsome husband when they grow up. This is not a story about young adults who beseech God for help in getting the right job. This is not even about older believers who bring their legitimate prayer concerns about their own health before God. This is primarily a story about intercessory prayer.
It is this kind of prayer—shameless, persistent, intercessory prayer—that Jesus guarantees.
I hope you have known a prayer warrior. I have. When she died some years ago at the age of eighty-eight, I took the plaque that had hung in her house for more than sixty years and hung it in mine. It says, “Prayer Changes Things.” I fussed and puttered for a while over the question of where to hang it. The front hall seemed so public. The dining room? Too preachy. The den? Well, it looked quite out of place over the big screen TV. I wondered what the people who visit my house would think. Such an old-fashioned thought. The words not even attributable to a respectable theologian. Ultimately, I hung the plaque in my old-fashioned kitchen. I do see people eyeing it sometimes as they chat to me before a dinner party. And I do wonder what they think. Maybe if they know it was my grandmother’s, they think I’m sentimental. And I am. Maybe if they know me well, they think I need help to keep on believing those words. And I do.
It’s not easy to believe. It’s not easy to keep on believing in prayer. But if you’ve known the kind of prayer warriors I have, you have to stay at the table with the question. Because beyond coincidence and synchronicity, beyond luck and happenstance, there is something that Jesus was pointing to and that prayer warriors know, something that changes people if not things. Something our grandmothers called, “answered prayer.” On my own grandmother’s prayer list there were lots of them: the alcoholic son who finds his way home against all odds, the troubled community able to mend its fences despite the things that were said, the word of forgiveness that comes at the last possible moment.
“What is the secret to answered prayer?” the disciples asked Jesus. “What is the secret to answered prayer?” “Asking.” Little by little, and here and there, and now and then, the kingdom of God is breaking in through the efforts of those who ask.
Oh yes, in the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known there are unanswered prayers and prayers that stay on the list for decades. There are seasons of doubt, sometimes even public failures. But there is not much of one thing. There is not much shame. Not much spiritual shyness. There is instead a gung-ho-ness—a readiness to ask, a willingness to throw themselves headlong into a situation of need—to jump off the porch and take off running across the backyard, skirts flying and apron flapping, through the fence and up the steps to that oh-so familiar door. There is a willingness to beat a path, to beat a shameless path to God’s door…in the asking, the prayer warriors say, is the secret.
Last year, I set my foot on an ugly path—a path not entirely my own. I was keeping company with my friend Lucy as she followed out the last twelve months of her life. During those months I learned what many of you who have walked with cancer already know—what a privilege it can be to join your prayers with those of a woman of faith who is facing her death. Time and again last Spring, Lucy urged me to accompany her to heaven’s door, as she rang its bells, rattled its gates, and slammed its knockers, not on her own behalf, but for those she would leave behind. We prayed for her husband, her little girl, her mother, and her father. We prayed. Some of us for lack of anything better to do. Some of us out of hearts full of faith. Some of us because we believed Lucy when she said she could feel our prayers. She was buoyed by them, she said, reminding us of what Charles Williams called the intercessory prayers of believers—”the glorious web.” We did form a kind of a web with our prayers. Me praying for Lucy in Atlanta from my home in California, Ron from Indianapolis, Gene from Kansas City, Pam from Toronto, and countless others.
In the last few months of her earthly life, Lucy’s own prayers were filled with a deep sense of God’s presence. It often came to her, wrapped in the words and music of a hymn. She came out of surgery one time with the words rolling up through her—“The Lone, Wild Bird,” one time, and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” another. Toward the end, she told me, it was the gospel songs that sustained her. As they welled up in her, she gathered visitors around her bed to sing them. This web of song and prayer sustained Lucy until that morning in July when her feet were lifted off the path and she was ushered through the door. The word of Lucy’s death went out quickly over the well-established grapevine, and by the time the hearse came to take her body, fifty-five friends had gathered. They flanked the walk and filled the porches of the little house, and they sang the body out. They sang “I’ll Fly Away.”
In the lives of all the prayer warriors I have known, there is heart break and loss, but there is not much despair. There is instead an invisible web that buoys them up and, ultimately, carries them home. What did Lucy get for all her praying? Did she get remission? Did she avoid pain? Did she see an angel? No. What Lucy got is what we all get. She got God, the God who is nearer than hands and feet.
God’s own presence is the answer to every prayer, the answer that surpasses anything we could ask for. Ask, Jesus says, and it shall be given you. [Amen.]
*Cover art photo by Reiseuhu via Unsplash, used by permission