Scripture passage: Luke 18:1-8
It turns out that the second weekend in October is an extremely popular time (at least in New England) for high school seniors and their parents to go visit colleges. On Monday morning, when Lizz and I arrived at Middlebury College in Vermont for the 9 a.m. information session, we were dismayed to be told that the room was full to capacity. I’m certain we did not look very happy to be given this news by the student sitting at the reception desk. An extra session had been scheduled, but it would not begin until 10 o’clock. We had driven for two hours to arrive by 9. By 10 we had planned to be on the campus tour.
“I could conduct an overflow session right now in this room,” a voice offered. Wonderful! Our faces brightened. I did not know who the man was, but I liked the solution. Alas, it turned out not to be that easy. “These people can wait until 10,” insisted the woman who was in charge of crowd control. “The director made that decision?” asked the man. “Yes,” the trail boss shot back, “we made our plan on Friday. The extra session will be at 10 o’clock.”
Lizz was starting to panic, and equally unhappy people were starting to pile up behind us. What could I do but plead our case? “The problem that presents,” I said in what I hope was a polite and diplomatic tone, “is that we have appointments later with professors and coaches.” “You can’t stay until 10?” came the exasperated reply. “We’re staying all day,” I repeated, “and we have appointments scheduled.” It was all true! I held her gaze until she whirled around and disappeared. “Don’t worry,” I whispered to Lizz, not entirely certain whether I was giving good advice, “it’s going to be okay.”
In a moment our adversary was back. Apparently she had consulted with the director. “All right,” she said to the man who turned out to be a professor working in the admissions office. “You can conduct an information session now, but it has to be only 45 minutes and not an hour. The tours have to get started at 9:45.” Perfect! What did any of us care whether the information session was 45 minutes or 60? The day was saved! And believe me, I thanked the professor profusely, both before and after his lecture, which was a very well done version of what could easily have been titled “Middlebury 101.”
It occurred to me later that my experience bore a small resemblance to a story Jesus once told his disciples about “the need to pray always and not lose heart.” In this story, too, a woman has to be somewhat insistent in order to achieve a good solution to her problem. I’ll be reading from Luke 18:1-8.
Apparently there are benefits to persistence, even in the spiritual realm. Just as success cannot be achieved in athletics, music, art, business, or scholarly pursuit by giving up, quitting, and failing to try, so also in prayer. God is eager to grant justice and give help, but if we aren’t asking, God can’t answer.
“Perseverance may be one of the most underestimated virtues,” says one observer of human nature. “Maybe,” this person speculates, “it’s because when we see people who have made it, whether they are famous sports figures or actors or owners of businesses, we tend to credit their success to how much talent they have, or how smart they are, or even how lucky they are. We don’t think about all the false starts, all the humiliating rejections, all the lonely hours they suffered before finally succeeding.”
“Talent and natural intelligence and even luck can take you a long way,” admits this wise person, “but perseverance can take you further.”
Perseverance suggests Jesus, can prevail even against selfish and self-serving people. How much more, then, we can expect God to respond to our cries for justice. The only thing that God and this horrible judge have in common is that they are both in a position to grant justice. God embraces and promotes justice. The cold-hearted judge is completely uninterested. Jesus’ story is about “the need to pray always and not lose heart”; it’s about the power of persistence. If we give up; if we lose heart; if we quit praying (because we’re too tired, or it doesn’t seem like we’re getting the answer we want, or we don’t have time, or we’ve lost interest)… we will never see the great places that God is trying to take us.
The widow in Jesus’ story must have known that she faced a difficult road. The judge assigned to her case was not recognized for his compassion toward people, his reverence for God, or his respect for what was fair and right. And yet, either out of desperation or commitment to the principal of the thing, she did not give up. Eventually, the corrupt judge granted justice so that he could be left alone.
Other “underdogs” throughout history, like this widow, have taken up seemingly impossible causes and found, as she did, that persistence can “win the race.” For example, when William Wilberforce first introduced a motion, in 1788, to England’s parliament, that the slave trade should be abolished, the proposal was soundly defeated. Plantation owners, ship owners, investors, traditionalists, bankers, the royal family, and a whole host of other people viewed Wilberforce’s cause as dangerous and radical. But Wilberforce was convinced that God never intended for human beings to be slaves. He introduced another anti-slave trade bill in 1791. It too was defeated. In 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, and 1799, his motion was again rejected. Also in 1804 and 1805. Wilberforce was not to be deterred. Abolishing slavery had become his life’s mission. And while his legal efforts were rejected over and over again, society’s opinion was actually beginning to change. Finally in 1806, 18 years after the concept had first been proposed, Parliament disbanded the slave trade throughout the British Empire. It took another 25 years to actually free all the people who had been enslaved, but the buying and selling of people was no longer legally sanctioned. This dramatic change took place (in large part) because Wilberforce was adamant, determined, strong-willed, disciplined, and absolutely unwilling to give up. He kept his eye on the goal and, failed attempt after failed attempt, he did not lose heart.
Tenacity is a quality that can produce both practical and spiritual benefits in the world. When God gives us a ministry and we stick with it, beautiful things can happen. As we all know, conditions are not always favorable for what we are trying to accomplish. The economy might be bad; people’s hearts might be hardened; the trends of a highly mobile society might be working against us; market and technological forces might be seducing many; we might face health or relational or employment struggles. But if we can hold fast to God; if we can pray and not lose heart, over time we will get to see what God is bringing to pass.
While in Massachusetts these last few days, I was able to stay not only with Su-Yen, but also with Su-Yen’s parents. For those of you who didn’t know Su-Yen, she was a member here who moved away 5 or 6 months ago because the Navy assigned her husband David to graduate school. I think we all agree that Su-Yen is one of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people we have ever known. When I stayed with Su-Yen’s parents, in the house where Su-Yen grew up, I learned that Su-Yen is a product of two more of the sweetest, kindest, gentlest people you could ever hope to know.
The Wong family came to the United States from Taiwan 26 years ago, and settled in Amherst because that was where their sponsors lived. In the years since then, almost everyone they knew in the beginning has moved away, and many other friends and acquaintances have come and gone. But Charlie and May have stayed, in large measure because of their commitment to the Chinese Church that they helped to found. Mr and Mrs Wong provide essential leadership and year-round planning and support, both when the church has a pastor, and when it does not. The choir meets in their home; they keep folding chairs in their living room. They facilitate an annual outreach festival, doing whatever is needed from sewing the costumes to cooking the food to renting the auditorium.
Mr Wong explained to me that the church reaches out to the dozens of students and faculty members who come to the University of Massachusetts each year from Taiwan and mainland China. To those far from home, and those who may never have known that a life of scholarship and a life of faith can go hand in hand, May and Charlie offer hospitality, encouragement, and, often, an introduction to Jesus and to the life of faith. For 26 years, their Chinese and Chinese-American Christian community has been meeting in another church’s facilities. This year, at long last, they bought land and they are going to build their own church.
“I was brought up in a Christian home,” Mr Wong told me. “Faith was a great gift to me that I would like to be able to share and pass on to others.” He left me with the impression that a relationship to God is a treasure too great to keep to one’s self. He and May have stayed in one place, committed to one little church with an average attendance of about 70 people. In both good times and bad they have been a great blessing to probably hundreds of people who,like me, who pass through and are touched by their graciousness.
Perseverance sustains life and creates hope. God is always reaching out to us, and when we become determined to reach out to God as well, we become partners in building a faith that never doubts that God is with us and for us. When we do it consistently, praying becomes a lifeline in the difficult seasons of our lives, and a joy in the pleasant seasons. The last story I will add today to Jesus’ story about “the need to pray always and not lose heart” comes from a book loaned to me by the Middlebury professors with whom we really did have an appointment!
Don Mitchell is not only a teacher, but also a sheep farmer. Based on what he knows of the reality of shepherding, he has written the story of a shepherd who tends daily to his sheep, fall, winter, summer, and spring, year after year, no matter what tragedies come into his own life. The shepherds greatest grief is the death of his wife, which comes unexpectedly, much too early in the cycle of life. These are his reflections: “Our lives are not all summers. There is evil in this world, and good. Contentment and privation. Warmth and chilling to the bone.”
And so he has a question: “How may one stand up to the facts of winter? How may one endure a world growing increasingly hostile to us?:
From long years of experience, he arrived at an answer: “What sustains us through our winters are patterns of deliberate caring for ourselves and others.”
Patterns are habits, established over time. Patterns of deliberate caring are the result of doing over and over again what is right, kind, thoughtful, generous, loving, good — even when those things do not feel easy, or convenient, or particularly rewarding, to do. In other words, patterns of deliberate caring are the result of perseverance. Perseverance can actually save our lives because perseverance invites and allows God to work in us and through us.
May we never give up searching for God, and striving to do God’s will.