Good Math

Scripture:  Luke 18:1-8

            It was Labor Day weekend 2008.   I was in the middle of nowhere North Carolina.   The church I served at while in Seminary had a tradition of going white water rafting over Labor Day weekend.  For reasons I never quite understood part of this tradition involved driving all of the way to North Carolina and camping in the Blues Ridge mountains.   So it was early Saturday morning, and it was my job to make the pancake batter.   I do not remember exactly what I did, but let’s just say mistakes were made.   I did bad math and ended up using way too much water.   To try and salvage the pancakes we added anything we could to thicken it up.   The batter ended up a little thin, and it had an interesting vanilla flavor from all of the powdered coffee creamer we used but it worked(ish).    Math is hard and for years I have struggled with the subject.  Studies show that I am not the only one.   Three out of ten Americans claim they are not good at math, and six out of ten admit to struggling with a math problem in life at some point.     I was never the best at math, but I did not really struggle with it until geometry, and I never rebounded.   After barely getting credit for Algebra II, I had all that I needed to graduate, gave up on an academic honors diploma, and just accepted the fact that I am bad at math.  Since then, whenever I make a minor math mistake or I am a little slower to solve a math problem someone in my family is always quick to remind me that “I am bad at math.”    It turns out though that according to research out of Purdue University that is one of the reasons why I am bad at math.   Unless there is an established cognitive disability, then there is no such thing as being naturally bad at math.  Now genetics can make math come easier to some people than others, but trigonometry is something that we could all grasp if we truly wished to.   The research shows that the biggest factors at being good at math are hard work and self-confidence.  Essentially, those who believe they are good at something are more likely to work at it, and those who think they are naturally bad at it will not put forth the effort.   Some of us will have to work harder than others, but we all have the ability to do math.   However, when we hit a lot of resistance many of us tend to instead find the path of least resistance.   I know that this was true for me.   I struggled with math, so I ended up telling myself (and let others tell me) that I am bad at math.    This research from Purdue could do a lot to change how we approach education, but I think it also illuminates aspects of our faith.   When it comes to success at something like math hard work, good attitude, and persistence is more important than being born with natural ability.   In the same way persistence is an important aspect to prayer.   

            In this morning’s scripture Jesus tells a parable because he wants to relay to his disciples the importance of being persistent in prayer.   According to the scripture, Jesus told the parable because Jesus wanted to “show them that they should always pray and not give up.”  In this parable Jesus tells of a widow who is nagging a judge.   In Jesus’ day, a widow was truly the least of these.   If a widow did not have a son who lived close, then she had little means to provide for herself, and she had no one of influence and power to advocate for her.   In the parable Jesus does not mention what the woman’s problem is, but that is not important.   What is important is the way that the woman keeps after the judge.     Jesus mentions this judge does not fear God.  This is a way of saying that he was not a good, church going man.  He did not value justice as a virtue or seek to show mercy.   The words humility and compassion were probably not in his vocabulary.    Jesus also tells us the judge was unjust.  This paints the image of a power hungry man, who used this power for his own benefit.   We get the impression that this judge tended to do what was best for him at all times, and he always took the path of least residence.   

            For us today, it does not take a whole lot of imagination to imagine that sort of selfish, uncaring government official.   Sadly, the more things change the more things stay the same.  For the disciples, they probably also were easily able to summon up a mental picture of the kind of person this judge would be.    They knew that a man like this would normally not help a widow.  She had no money and no connections.   Whatever her complaint is, no matter how much she was in the right, doing something about it would have required work from the judge.  It would have been work that did not benefit him in anyway.    The widow also knew this which is why she would not let it go.    Even though the judge initially said “no” the woman kept after him.  She would not let up.   Eventually, the judge does what she wants just to get rid of the annoyance.     Jesus extols this woman’s persistence as a virtue. 

            Now at this point, I know I am like “wait, what?”   I imagine most parents probably have that reaction.   If you have not had young children for a while then perhaps you do not remember how single minded they can be.   One of my parents’ single favorite stories to tell about me is about a blue truck.  When I was three we were traveling and stopped at McDonalds.  At that time Hot Wheel Toys were in the happy meals, and one of the possible toys was a blue truck.  Apparently I wanted that blue truck, but that was not what was in the happy meal box. Obviously I have no memory of this event but I was not happy about it.  Apparently, I insisted on the blue truck.  I insisted loudly on the blue truck.   No amount of reasoning, misdirection, or even punishment would change my mind.   I wanted the blue truck and I kept loudly asking for it, again and again.    In that McDonalds I was “that kid” and my parents were “those parents.”    Finally, the store manager relented and brought me the blue truck to make the crying stop.   Since having my own kids, who have had their own single minded incidents, my parents like to re-tell this story with a bit too much glee.   

            Seriously though, what gives?   The same kind of persistence that parents fight against is the same kind of persistence that Jesus lifts up in this parable.   Does Jesus really want us to nag God until we get our way?   Well, no but yeah kind of.  

            There is a key difference between my toddler desires for a blue truck on the plight of the widow.   I did not need the blue truck, I wanted it, and I threw a tantrum because I did not get what I wanted.   The widow’s was wronged and her request was for justice.   My cause was selfish her requests was right and just.    So the message of this scripture is not that we should harass God about giving us our every whim and desire.   We are not supposed to speak our prosperity into being and then keep saying it until God gives into our demands.   The message of this scripture is that if our plea is just, if our plea is right, if our plea is within God’s will then we need to stick with it.    Jesus’ last statement in this morning’s scripture is “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”   

            The main point of this scripture is that persistence should be part of our faith.  This scripture assures us that God’s care for us is great, it assures us that God hears our prayers, and even if we do not see our request met we should not give up.   We should persist because God hears our prayers.   The experience of Todd Stevens, pastor of Woodside Bible church in Detroit, displays the truth of this parable.   His son Levi was born with a rare ocular defect called ocular albinism. This meant that his eyes lacked pigmentation, and as a result his vision was underdeveloped.   There was no way that this condition could be medically corrected.   Todd and his wife Erin were told that his son would never be able to drive, have uncorrectable vision, and would most likely have to attend a school for the blind.   Having an urgent prayer need caused Todd to begin to really look at how people pray in scripture and he had a startling observation, he writes:  “Before Levi came along, when I prayed I would always give God an out when I asked God to do something.  I would make my request and then I would say something like but your will be done.  . .But when I prayed I didn’t say it because I was seeking God’s will.  I said it because I didn’t think God was really going to anything in response to my prayer anyway. . . I said it because I didn’t have any faith.  But not this time.”

            Starting when Levi was two months old, Todd prayed.   He prayed boldly that God would heal his son and let him have normal vision.   He asked everyone he knew to pray.   After several months people would ask him if this was something they were going to keep praying for, and he said they could stop praying but he was not going to stop until God answered his request by granting it or telling him to stop.   Todd kept praying with the sincere belief that God could and would grant this request.   Initially there was no real change, but each year with each annual checkup, there was more pigment in his eyes than the year before.   Todd kept praying, and it got to the point where his eyesight had a normal level of pigmentation.  The uncorrectable issue was corrected.  The specialists stated that sometimes things happen with no discernable explanation, but Todd and his family know that the explanation that God answers prayers.     

            In the instance of Todd’s prayer God answered it over time.   There is a small caveat, that sometimes God does answer our payers but the answer is not the answer we want.  The apostle Paul once wrote about a thorn in his flesh that he prayed repeatedly God would remove, and God told him that he absolutely would not.  Paul was at peace with that.   In the same way, if we are persistent in seeking God in prayer then our prayer will be answered one way or another, and I have confidence we will know God has spoken and be at peace.  Even if what is truly in God’s will is not what we want in a particular instance, we should still be persistent at seeking God in prayer until God acts one way or the other. 

            I know I am guilty of this, but we should not pray about something as a one and done.   We should be faithful in prayer and find that God is faithful to us.  When we pray we often want things to happen instantly, but that is not how things work.  Life is not instantaneous.  God’s timing is not always our timing, and we have to keep persistent at it.   Just like being good at math, the key to being an effective and righteous prayer warrior, is persistence and the right attitude.   We are persistent because we have the faith that God hears our prayers, our cause is just, our cause is based in love, and we want to see God glorified through our answered prayers.   The attitude we should have is also based in our faith.   We pray not as a way to hedge our bets, but we pray because we truly believe that God is going to answer our prayers.   We truly believe that in God’s timing, that “God will bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out.” 

            We should pray with persistence.   If there is someone you desperately want to turn their hearts to Jesus, then lift them up daily.   If there is an injustice that you are deeply passionate about, then pray without ceasing.    If our cause is just and right, then we can be assured that God hears our prayers and we can be assured that God will act in God’s timing.  May we pray.  May we pray bold, God sized prayers, and may we not stop praying.    May we pray, and pray, and pray.  So that when the son of man comes he will find faith on the earth.  He will find faith at Edinburgh UMC.