I started out as nothing more than a tourist in the land of graduate school. The world of doctoral degrees, professors, and publications was as foreign to me as a bicycle is to a fish. I believe that it was high school that convinced me of the exotic, out of reach nature of academia.
Developmental psychologists tell us that high school is supposed to be the time when young men and women solidify a rudimentary sense of identity. The only thing that solidified in me during my years of secondary education was a serious smoker’s cough. Like Indiana Jones fleeing the Temple of Doom, I barely made it out alive. By the skin of my teeth, I escaped with a diploma in one hand, and a firm sense of academic inadequacy in the other.
Through a series of miracles, as well as a need to feed and clothe myself, I made my way through college and a master’s degree in counseling. Every high grade that I earned, every academic honor that I received, failed to penetrate the made-in-high-school, iron-clad belief that I was stupid. As I surveyed another “A” at the top of a paper, I would say to myself, “I fooled that professor.” I would dismiss every high mark on a test with the conviction that, I wasn’t a good student, I just knew how to “scarf and barf” information.
By the time the 1980’s came to a conclusion, I had “fooled” about three-dozen professors and landed in my chosen field of counseling. I really enjoyed this calling, but frequently felt that I was in over my head. I figured that taking one or two doctoral classes a semester would improve my skills as a counselor. In the early days of my Ph.D. program, I was a lot like an avid golfer who took lessons to improve his swing. All around me there were golf pros who belonged in the clubhouse. I felt like an amateur among pros—a tourist in the land of academia.
But then, gradually, things began to change. My program began to make serious demands on me. First one class, and then another, required real research. Eventually, to continue studying, I had to walk the feared gauntlet of statistics. Finally, the chairman of my department called to inform me that the “one-class-at-a-time” approach had to go. It was time to load up! After a year of full time academia, I discovered that my previous slow pace had accidentally placed my back against a wall. I had exactly one semester to prepare for, and pass a comprehensive exam over everything that had ever been written in my field.
In a makeshift office in our cold, unfinished basement, pots of coffee were consumed. Textbooks were highlighted, scavenged, and scattered everywhere. Binders of notes accumulated with silly pneumonic devices to memorize huge chunks of information. Two nights before the all day written exam, my son came down with a huge fever that required a trip to the emergency room. In one hand I held a feverish, lethargic toddler, in the other, a notebook that I memorized, as medicine dripped from an IV into my son’s little arm.
Sitting under the florescent lights of that Pediatric ER, it occurred to me that something had changed. In the process of sweating, worrying, praying, straining, and pushing myself to the limit, I was different. This prolonged rite of initiation had transformed me from a tourist to a fully naturalized citizen. I finally felt that I had staked a claim on a piece of land in the world of academia.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Luke 18: 1-8), Jesus described the value of persistence in prayer. On the way to this message, he introduced the metaphor of a self-interested judge who required a poor widow to threaten him multiple times before he would take care of her claim. In light of everything else he said and did (and was), it is hard to imagine that Jesus was asserting that our God is a self-centered despot. In another place in scripture Jesus said, “Your father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6: 8). In light of God’s affection for us, this passage cannot mean that God requires us to beg and plead to keep our petition fresh in his mind. Persistence in prayer is not meant to change God. Persistence in prayer is meant to change us.
In the crush of daily activities, and the noise of our busy lives, there is a way in which we can slip into being tourists in our own lives. We can easily find ourselves on a conveyer belt, just going through the motions. When something shows up that is worthy of our longing, that drives us to our knees in prayer, our status as a tourist in life changes. Like a doctoral student passing through a prolonged process of longing, studying, and striving to pass a comprehensive exam, God reshapes our identity in the forge of persistent prayer. In that kind of prayer that comes from the deepest longings of our heart, we move from going through the motions, like a tourist, to re-appropriating our lives in a brand new way. Through heart-felt, persistent prayer, we stake a claim on our own lives, and in staking that claim, become fully naturalized citizens in the Kingdom of God.
What is it in your life that is calling forth your deepest longings? What is it that draws heartfelt prayers from your lips? How is God reshaping you through your persistent prayer?