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Go the distance: How the Chilean miners were able to pray and not lose heart

October 19, 2010

Luke 18: 1-8

If we persist, in spite of everything that works against us, if we can pray and not lose heart, it becomes possible to go the distance.

The story of the importunate widow reminds us of the power of persistence in prayer.  The widow asks for justice from the judge. And he ignores her… And she asks again, and receives the same response. She continually persists in asking…until he decides to grant her justice, just so she’ll stop bothering him.

The story would be a great story no matter what the context, but in Jesus’ time widows were utterly powerless.  There were no respectable jobs for widows.  They had to rely on the charity of others to survive.  They couldn’t even be witnesses in court.  And this widow was forced to deal with an unjust judge.  She knew there was no chance of compassion from him.  Can you imagine what it felt like to the widow to go before such a judge?  She had no power, no way to assert her case.  

The first time she encountered the judge and asked for mercy, she likely went  home, crushed by despair; utterly depressed and hopeless; knowing she has to put up with whatever happens to her because she is a widow. And that was the way it was.

And he was a powerful, unethical, uncaring judge who had no compassion for anyone. And that was the way it was.

But something very interesting happens. Possibly after she lay there mourning and weeping, Maybe trying to let go of the idea that she deserved justice, trying to let go of any hope of justice. She realizes she can’t let it go. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of her soul, she discovers a steel core that is welded to the notion of justice. And no one is going to take it from her. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter that she is poor, helpless and powerless. All she cares about is justice. And she doesn’t have any cronies she can call on, or a bag of money she can bribe the judge with or clever witticisms to charm him.  All she has is herself… and that is what she uses.

Day after day, week after week, she goes to the judge and demands her due. Relentlessly, unfailingly going the distance And eventually, she wears him out.

The idea of persistence sometimes seems foreign to us.  We are so accustomed to being consumers. All our needs are anticipated and even those things we hadn’t realized we needed are anticipated: sandwich griller or a mini-mixer or a hand-held bag sealer.   I never knew I needed any of these things, but they are so handy.

In such a consumer environment, it is easy to become spiritually soft. If any challenge we face or any dream we have isn’t pre-packaged in plastic complete with microwave directions, we think it wasn’t meant to be. If it doesn’t happen at the first or second go… we lose our interest or our will.  We feel defeated.

We can become like the Sunday walker who is faced with a marathon After we have gone the first mile, we are ready for the ice cream break and think it should be about over; because we’ve given about all we had allotted to that task.  And we will soon discover that it has only begun.  If we are going to go the distance, more will be required. All of us face a time when we need spiritual fortitude, when we need to be able to go beyond anything we’ve ever done up to that point in our lives.

The magnificent, transforming, saving experiences in our lives are never those things that are dropped into our laps. They are those things that we have to fight for and to sacrifice for and to believe in so much that the steel core of our being becomes welded to it. There is going to be a time in our lives when we need to know how to pray.  Prayer will be all that we have, and we need to learn how to pray without losing heart. That is what Jesus taught us in this story of the persistent widow.  Jesus said, “Pray and do not lose heart.”

In those first 17 days, the Chilean miners were trapped 2,000 below the surface with absolutely no assurance that anyone was looking for them; with meager rations of food to be shared among 33 miners; and with even more meager light available.  Three miners in particular, Mario Gomez, Jimmy Sanchez, and Luis Urúza, were able to persist in the face of horrific conditions.

Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest miner, only 19 years old, didn’t even want to be working in the mine.  He was afraid of the dark and afraid to go into the mine, but he didn’t have a better way to provide for his daughter who had just been born.  Every time he went into that mine, he was scared. Yet, he was willing to go the distance for his family.

Mario Gomez, the oldest miner, who had been mining since he was 12 and whose father was a miner, was 63 years old.  He had made it through his dangerous life as a miner and had planned on retirement in a couple of weeks.  When he was home, his wife prayed all the time and included him in her prayers, morning, noon and night.  He might have even gotten irritated on occasion, with all her praying. Yet, in that mine, with darkness all around him and no evidence of any reason to hope, he found hope in his prayers.   He remembered the lessons his wife had been teaching him all those years.  He remembered how to pray.   And he became the leader for all the miners in prayer. In those prayers, hope became welded to the steel core of their beings, of their community.

One miner after another testified, if we hadn’t had God in there with us, we wouldn’t have come out alive.  Several said, there weren’t 33 in there, there were 34… and God was the 34th.  Another remembered, “I was with God and I was with the devil and God won.” 

Luis Urúza was the foreman on the job and his leadership was invaluable.  He organized the days and the nights, setting a schedule of activity.  He structured a time for worship and prayer together as part of their community life.  He set the tone: all of us are in this together.  We will all be rescued together.

When resources are scarce and we are scared…it is so easy to be our worst selves and succumb to the nightmare of survival of the fittest. But the community never broke down. They were able to pray and not lose heart

In the end, they were able to go the distance, sharing a spoonful of tuna and a drink of milk every 48 hours.  They were able to go the distance and survive the bleak darkness and heat, not disintegrating into melancholy and violence. They were able to go the distance, waiting in hope until they tied the note to the probe and let the world know they were still alive and well, all 33 in the shelter. "Estamos bién en el refugio los 33."

After 69 days underground, when Mario Gomez came out of the mine, he dropped to his knees in thanksgiving that he was able to go the distance.  He said he wasn’t rescued, but reborn.  “I have come back to life.”

Jimmy Sanchez was able to leave the dark and come out into the light, greeting his daughter, for whom he had given so much.

And Luis Urúza, the last man out, a simple miner, was congratulated by the president of the country for his leadership, as a billion people looked on.  After the national anthem had been sung and the cheers had died down, Urúza had the courage to go the distance and to stand toe to toe with the president with the whole world watching and say, “This should never happen again.”

It is not likely you will be stuck in a mine for 69 days.  However for all of us, there are times in our lives when we are trapped with no way out… because of mistakes we’ve made in our lives or… because of illness or… because of the tragedy life brings to us.  In those times, all we may have is prayer.  Let us practice praying, so that we are prepared to pray and not lose heart, that it might be possible, in the end, to go the distance.

Rev. Dr. Beverly Prestwood-Taylor
United Church of Christ, Athol, Massachusetts
October 17, 2010

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