This morning, like all mornings, our 2.5 year-old Short-haired Border Collie X Cattle Dog was very keen to go for a walk. As soon as I am up and about, he is persistently nudging or licking me and then looks into the laundry where his lead is. He repeats this in the late afternoon as well, if I am around. Nico loves his daily walk(s)! I can offer him food or a walk and he will choose the walk every time (our Labrador will choose the snack!). Nico is persistent with a capital ‘P’. Inevitably I will give in. It is easier to get the shoes on and go walking, whether the long or short version depending on time, than to endure his persistent nudging and his pleading eyes. Then, I am usually grateful to walk!
Sometimes persistence pays off. There is a wonderful story about Keith Jarrett, the world-renowned jazz pianist. Vera Brandes was the youngest concert promoter in Germany and worked part time for the Cologne Opera House. She had a dream to stage a late-night improvised jazz concert. She received permission for the Opera House authorities and signed Keith Jarrett to play. He requested a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano to be provided for the show, but the piano removers wheeled out the wrong instrument for the night and left for the day. When Keith Jarrett and his musical director arrived to prepare for the concert, Vera Brandes ‘introduced’ him to the concert hall and the piano. It was in very poor condition – muffled low notes, high pitched, tinny high notes, a couple of black keys not working in the middle, sticking pedals and it was too small for the concert hall – and it was horribly out of tune. The piano tuner did his best to fix the piano, but it was still far below Jarrett’s expectations and requirements. He was tired, sleep-deprived, suffering a painful back and generally very unimpressed. He threatened to walk out unless a proper piano was provided. It was impossible and Vera became desperate. Jarrett was outside sitting in his car awaiting news and preparing to leave. In pouring rain, the teenage Vera Brandes cajoled, begged, encouraged, begged some more and persistently urged Keith Jarrett to play. Looking through the window of his car at a dripping wet teenage concert promoter begging him to play, he finally gave in, ‘Remember always – only for you!’
At around 11:30 pm, wearing a back brace, Keith Jarrett strode out onto the stage and sat before a very imperfect instrument. For the next couple of hours, he mesmerised a concert audience of 1300 people, providing a brilliant performance that worked within the constraints of the instrument. It necessitated him changing his style, playing in different ways to overcome the extreme limitations and it was the performance of a lifetime. The recorded album went on to become the highest selling Jazz solo album and the highest selling piano album in history. It is a brilliant concert.
This story reflects how persistence and hope, dreams and passion, and urgent desire can lift someone to do something more than they feel they can or want to. If Vera Brandes had given up and recognised it was useless, impossible or hopeless, her own career as a concert promoter would end that night, and there would be 1300 patrons who would be left angry, frustrated, disappointed… And, the world would not have such a fine and brilliant performance! For Keith Jarrett, the persistence of Vera Brandes cajoled him into doing something that seemed so ridiculous and so ludicrous (and impossible!) that given his own physical state and that of the piano, he would never have attempted it. That Vera Brandes was so persistent and wore his resistance down meant that Keith Jarrett was forced to face a profound challenge – how to make good, sublime, music from an instrument that had so many limitations. It forced him into working within the capacity of the instrument and finding a way through that allowed his own skill and talent to shine through – together to create something uniquely beautiful!
In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 18:1-8), there is a story told by Jesus about a Judge and a persistent widow. She has been wronged, probably taken advantage of because of her vulnerable estate, being a widow. In the context, widows (and orphans) became highly vulnerable when they had no male to look after their interests and care for them. The wealthy and powerful often took advantage of such people. If a women’s husband died, the powerful leaders (including religious leaders) would offer help and take a large cut of the estate. Others may take it all.
The woman experienced injustice and went to the judge for help. He couldn’t care less for her (it says he had no respect for people nor God). The less he cared or listened to her, the more persistent and determined she became. Every day she went and knocked on his door, asking for justice. He inevitably gave in because she wore him down (the Greek version speaks of him fearing her giving him a blackened eye, until the end of time) – he recognised she would not give him rest and her persistence may cause other difficulties.
Luke introduced the story by suggesting that Jesus told a parable to encourage people to pray and not lose heart. Later, Jesus asks, if an unjust judge does this, how much more will God give justice to those who ask. It is an interesting question because, as most of us know, God doesn’t always answer our prayers and certainly doesn’t provide instant answers to even just causes. How many of us pray for really good things for other people – freedom for refugees, relief from drought, food for the hungry, relief from war etc – yet these things seem to continue unabated. God doesn’t seem to respond in such simplistic ways to our praying, even persistent praying. It is clear that God is not the kind of cosmic magician often portrayed by Christians who make the universal claim to prayer’s efficacy.
This is not an endorsement to make prayer an expression of lists of things we want/need God to do for us – or the world. There is nothing wrong with expressing our deep hopes, yearning, fears, grief… before God but such lament or confession is about expressing ourselves before God’s grace and we are ultimately drawn more deeply into this presence that overwhelms us in love. The struggle of life is part of the journey and God walks with us through such valleys to nurture new life and being in the crucible of suffering. It is also about drawing a rich community of love, grace and care around people to share each other’s burdens. Perhaps, God is more like the woman in the story and is persistently urging us into an engaged way of justice and life. Perhaps God is drawing us out of our closed world to engage with the issues we want to pray for and not ‘expect God to fix.’ Scott Morrison indicated he is praying for drought-stricken farmers and for rain. Perhaps the answer to his prayers lies within his power to bring some relief and support and that is what God expects??! What about you and me? How and where will our praying lead us? What persistent hope, anticipation and passion lies behind our praying and how might that lead us to action for the sake of God’s world? Does prayer lead us into God’s presence?