Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Importunity

Although not much more than a collection of funny moments, the film Bruce Almighty gives an interesting portrayal of how God might respond to our prayers. Do you remember the scene in which Bruce, now playing the role of God, checks his “e-mail” and realizes that he has millions of requests that need his attention? Unwilling to commit the time and energy needed to sort through all the prayers, he selects all of them and simply answers “Yes.” As the audience anticipates, chaos ensues.

What’s remarkable about that ridiculous scene is how close it comes to the gospel reading for today (Luke 11:1-13). Jesus is attempting to explain to his disciples what prayer should look and sound like. In response to their request, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he replies with the familiar, “Father, hallowed be thy name…” But that’s not the surprising part. We’re all well versed in what we’re supposed to say during prayer time, but it’s his depiction of God’s role in response to our prayers that leaves me scratching my head no matter how many times I read it.

The parable Jesus tells to explain the human-divine intercessory process is confounding. Basically, a man goes to his neighbor in the middle of the night to ask for some food. The neighbor grants the request—not because he’s a friendly neighbor but because he’s tired of being bothered and wants to go back to sleep. That, Jesus says, is how prayer works. If we ask and ask and ask enough to irritate God (a la Bruce Almighty) then he’ll finally give in to our demands.

Well, not really. This is a “how-much-more” type of parable, so it’s literal and direct application to our experience is limited. Yes, it’s true that God gives us what we ask for, but that’s because he’s so much more willing to give than a neighbor who is awakened in the middle of the night. That being said, there’s still the issue of the petitioner’s importunity—a perfect word. Importunity. God responds to our insistent, unrelenting requests. But I don’t think he responds out of irritation. I think he responds out of love, knowing that if we ask long enough we’ll appreciate that.

My neighbor and best friend growing up had a BB gun. In fact, he had two or three. And, for a while, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. And the fact that he was a year younger than I was didn’t help. I asked and asked and asked my parents for a BB gun (a la A Christmas Story), but they kept saying, “Later, when you’re older.” I asked and asked some more. Eventually, they gave in. Actually, they didn’t give in to my annoying, incessant requests. I think I finally grew up enough to be trusted with one. But to me, it was a longed-for answer finally granted. And I remember being so excited about getting a BB gun. Upon reflection, I remember being far more excited about getting the BB gun than I ever was at shooting it. It was the fact that my prayers had been answered that I celebrated more than the answer itself.

Jesus invites us to ask God again and again for things—not because he thinks God is more likely to give us what we want if we ask over and over but because by asking we become more appreciative of the granting. In other words, maybe it’s ok that my prayer life involves more “please” than “thank you.” Eventually, my heart’s desire will be granted, and the moment of thanksgiving that accompanies that answered prayer will be magnified.

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