Prayer in the Zone

Proper 24, Year C

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker there is a room in the middle of a mysterious place called the “Zone.” It is a place where life on earth was interupted by an alien force and it has become dangerous to anyone who moves through it without care–the landscape always shifting, the wreckage of civilization overgrown by the wild. Stalkers are the people who are able to travel through the Zone, they know the way to the room. In the film two men, named simply “Writer” and “Professor,” hire a character named, keeping to the theme, “Stalker,” to take them to the room. Their motives vary, but they are attracted there by its magic–the room is a place that will give you your heart’s deepest desire.

It would seem that this is a wonderful thing, but as Stalker relates early in the film, this can be a dangerous proposition. Stalker was taught the way to navigate the Zone by a man named Porcupine. Porcupine brought others to the Zone without entering the room. One time, however, he went in. When he left the Zone he found that he was suddenly fantastically wealthy. The room had fulfilled its function and granted the deepest desire of his heart. Porcupine then committed suicide, disgusted at what lay at the center of his soul. Sometimes our deepest desires are not clear to us and we take a risk in having them exposed and fulfilled.

Tarkovsky’s Stalker names a tension that I think is at the center of our readings this week. In Jeremiah and Luke we read of the heart and its desires, of prayer and its fulfillment, and in all of this we must recognize that we are not in the simple territory of a God who hears, but also in the difficult territory of claims for justice and calls for help that might just as well reflect the waywardness of our hearts as the truth of our cause.

For a time when I was just out of college I taught at a Christian high school. At the beginning of class we would often pray and at times I would take prayer requests. Most of the requests were sincere and reflecting all the goodness of God’s kingdom coming, but there were times when I found it difficult to know how to pray for the requests offered. For example, there were requests for larger houses for families already living in places that spanned well beyond the necessary squarefootage. “Can you pray that we close on this house today, because we really need a bigger house.” I could only pray that God would give us what we need.

It is hard for us to properly hear the parable of the widow and unjust judge in a time when our desires are formed by the consumer economy more than the Kingdom of God. Unlike the originally hearers, a beleagured community looking for hope while in the midst of persecution, we are tempted to hear God promising to fulfill our consumerist desires if we just keep up the persistent prayers (Creflo Dollar and other “prosperity” preachers suggest such a read). Perhaps, like the room in the Zone, our persistent prayers for justice will reveal to us that we are not the widow, as we’d like to believe, but rather those who are taking advantage of her.

This is, in fact, the theme Jesus picks up in his next parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee prays assuming the righteousness of his cause while the tax collector prays assuming his unrighteousness before a God to which he calls for mercy. The tax collector wants God’s way to come into his life; the Pharisee wants his way to be God’s way.

Our reading from Jeremiah offers a hint of how God provides a solution to this problem of prayer. I once heard a lecture by the late Dallas Willard in which he said that he believes that God truly wants to give us the desires of our heart, but that in order to do this God must do much work on the wanter. This is the vision of Jeremiah as he proclaims the divine message to God’s people: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” It is our hearts that need to be changed, to be brought into God’s ways.

When I first saw Stalker it was in a film class in college. The professor had written on the Christian aspects of films by Tarkovsky, a man deeply formed by the Eastern Orthodox Church. The film opens in black and white, but when Stalker and his companions enter the Zone suddenly everything is in color. Our professor suggested that the Zone is the Kingdom of God, that it is the place where true life dwells even if it is shifting and dangerous. Stalker throws out weighted rags as the way to find his way through the shifting landscape and these, our professor argued, were prayers.

What becomes clear over the film is that Stalker desires only to be in the Zone. He is content to be in this dangerous yet colorful landscape. Rather than simply forging into the Zone in order to get something of use outside of it, Stalker goes into the zone in order to find again the beauty of the unsettling but colorful landscape. In the end, that color finds its way out of the zone and into Stalker’s own home where his disabled daughter, though disfigured, has extraordinary powers.

Our invitation in Jeremiah and Luke is to open our hearts to transformation. We do this by entering the dangerous and unsettling, beautiful and wild territory of God’s kingdom. When we learn to stay there we will come to see that the miracle is the place itself and not the fulfillment of our desires as they were before we entered. It is by being with God that our hearts come to want what will really satisfy; it is by remaining there that the color of the Kingdom will begin to spill out into the world around us. It is in the Kingdom that we will not lose heart because our cause will be just, and our desires will be formed toward the peace and wholeness that surpasses all understanding.

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