The Gates Are Open

June 2015

A Better Way to Pray

Posted on June 18, 2015

Jim had prayed and asked God for a particular request almost every day for ten years. He rarely varied from the way he worked his prayer. He prayed using the same words with the same intensity day after day, month after month. I spent time with him every couple of weeks in a prayer group, and I noticed the repetition of this particular prayer request. Why was he repeating the same prayer over and over?

I finally asked him why he did this. By way of answer he threw a bible verse at me:  “Luke 11:8. Look it up. I’m being persistent.”

Here is that verse in the New American Standard Bible:

“8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.”

So I looked it up. And I read more and more about it. Because I teach on prayer regularly, I sought to understand that verse, and the entire parable that precedes it. What I found years ago changed the way I pray. It also helped me to see the key reason we are to pray. Up until that point in my life, I had externalized it, made it into a thing instead of what it is: A relationship.

First, let’s look at the entire parable and see the key point. (For the sake of understanding, let’s say something about parables. The stories direct the hearer to a key truth. The details of the story are only relevant as they direct the focus to the main point. People make errors in interpreting parables by trying to make every detail have significance). So let’s observe the parable in another translation than the one mentioned above.

5 Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.

Key points are often discerned by looking for key words. These can often be the word repeated most often. This is the case in this parable. The word “friend” repeats over and over. This tells us that though parable is teaching a truth about prayer, it is also about friendship. The details of the story will draw together the connection.

It is important to read this story with the mindset of those who originally heard Jesus tell the story. They lived in a dangerous part of the world. One did not travel at night because it was too unpredictable. Thieves, wild animals, crumbling and decaying roads all made a nighttime journey a bad idea. So when Jesus begins his parable with the description of a man taking a journey in the middle of the night, everyone’s ears perked up. For anyone to travel at night, the need must have been urgent and immediate. A few sentences into the story we also learn that the man needs some food and is going to keep traveling. This underscores the urgency of his need.

Additionally, no one disturbs a friend in the middle of the night unless there are no other choices. The original hearers could tell this man was desperate. The only person you can impose upon at that time of night is a close friend. Only a close friend will overlook all the inconveniences and understand the need.

This parable is about friendship and prayer. We must tie those concepts together to understand the conclusion.

The story takes an interesting twist at this point. The guy on the nighttime crisis journey picks a friend who is all out of bread. So that man, not wanting to abandon his friend in need, thinks to himself “Who can I call on to help us out?” The answer is obvious: A friend. Confident he can approach his friend even at night, he knocks on his door and asks him for bread.

Remember, it is still the middle of the night.

The answer from inside is not surprising. This is a different situation altogether. The one knocking on this door is not a man journeying on a desperate race against time. This is the guy down the street. And in homes of that time, people slept everywhere  in the house. Getting up and answering the door, getting out the bread and all that entails would wake all the children up. It is no surprise that he turns down his neighbor’s bread request at first.

But the man persists. He explains to his neighbor-friend why he needs the bread at that hour. Any Jewish person of that era would hear the urgency as Jesus tells the story. So, because his friend asks with so much urgency, the man gets up and gives his neighbor bread.

Now, this is where Jesus draws a conclusion that many people misinterpret. He tells his hearers that the key here is the persistence of the friend to keep asking that turns the tide. So bible teachers will see this and say “This is the key to prayer. Keep asking and don’t stop. Keep storming the gates of heaven until God answers. This is what Jesus wants us to do.”

But think how this paints God. God seems reluctant to help us. Until we bug God enough with our prayers, God is unwilling to do what we ask. Only when the volume of our annoyance reaches to the right amount will God answer us. The key, according to this teaching, is to be persistent.

The New American Standard uses the word “persistence” in verse 8. The NIV translates that word “shameless audacity.” The Greek word is Anaideian. It literally means to be “without shame.” Shamelessness is often equated with “boldness” and “audacity”. Usually, when all emotional hindrances are removed, boldness and persistence rise up. But that can be deceiving in this instance.

First, we don’t see this man coming back hour after  hour to ask his neighbor for bread. He presses the issue, yes, but he keeps pushing because they are friends and he wants his friend to see why this is a special situation. We would all do the same. Second, though the verse tells us he gets up not primarily out of friendship, it does note that friendship is part of this equation. A friend in need, who can express that need to his friend, will get bread. That is what Jesus’ hearers took away from this.

Friendship is the key to this parable. At every stop along the way, this is an enterprise that only takes place because of existing friendships. There are no strangers or casual acquaintances involved. Now, the climax of this teaching comes in Jesus’ immediate application of the truth.

He tells them, “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”

In the original Greek text, the verbs, “ask”, “seek” and “knock” are all formed in the Present Imperative tense of the verb.  In lay terms, this means this is a continual command. It would mean “keep on asking, seeking and knocking.” This is not a one-time event.

What distinguishes our friends from our casual acquaintances? Many elements go into friendship, but two are consistent. First, friends spend time together. And second, friends communicate at a deeper level with each other than with acquainatnces. If you do not have these two things, you can’t call it a close friendship.

Prayer is all about friendship with God. God designed prayer to be a two-way conversation with God. Many times prayers are not answered because, as James says “we want to use the answer to prayer for selfish reasons.” If we treat prayer as a conversation with our friend Jesus, then if our motives are wrong, he will correct us. Then, when we pray a corrected, edited prayer, God is much more willing and able to answer it.

For years, my mother suffered from a damaged heart that had through Rheumatic Heart disease. She ended up having four open-heart surgeries. Each time she went under the knife I plead with God to keep her safe. Each time, my friend Jesus gave me assurance that he was going to rescue her. Twice, her heart gave out as they began the surgery and both times the doctors brought her back from death. God does answer those prayers.

One afternoon, my mother’s husband called and told us Mom went in to the hospital with pneumonia. But he assured me that it was not that serious and she should leave the hospital soon. I went and talked to God about how to pray for her. I didn’t get what I expected from that conversation. God showed me that He wasn’t going to save her this time. As I fought the tears, I asked God what I should pray. He showed me to pray for my own heart, for her husband, for my brother and sister. I spent an hour praying for all these people. I had just finished praying when the phone call came. My step-dad told me that Mom had passed peacefully, though unexpectedly, into the presence of God.

I had shameless audacity every time I prayed for Mom. And many times, God answered by healing her. The last time, He answered by changing how I prayed. This is how our friendship with God works when it comes to prayer. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 reminds us that he begged God three times to remove his “thorn in the flesh”. Finally, after the third time, God told him not to ask any more. And then God added, “my grace is sufficient for you.” In other words, Paul, you can ask me to help you live successfully with this thorn in your flesh, but I’m not taking this one away.”

Are you a friend of Jesus? If you are, can you see prayer as a conversation and not a platform by which you get all your whims realized?

Summer Reading List – Selected for Joy and Encouragement

Posted on June 15, 2015

summer readingThere are so few places where we are lifted up, infused with Joy or encouraged. One way we can find these things is completely under our control  We can choose what we want to read this summer. I have made it a point to find books that inspire joy in me and lead me to become more encouraged.

Thinking about that goal, I remembered many of the books that brought me incredible joy in the past. Not surprisingly, many of them are oriented around God and faith. But not every one of them fits that description. There are just some amazingly encouraging people who have not found the path of faith but have learned aspects of it regardless.

So, to help you find joy and encouragement, here is a list of books that I have read in past years that gave me so much joy and inspired me to believe in God and life again.

1. “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.  This is one of the more recent encouraging books I will mention, but it certainly deserves its place at the head of this list. This book tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who goes through horrible, mind-destroying events and comes out the other side triumphant. But that’s just the first part of the book. The second half of the book tells about his faith walk and how it changed his life and many others. The most encouraging biography I have ever read.

2. “The Song of Albion” trilogy by Stephen Lawhead. This is a gem. Many people have never heard of Lawhead, but he may be one of the 20th Century’s greatest fantasy writers. I have met people all over the world who have read this story and who believe it should be mentioned in the same breath with the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings for its beauty and expertise. I agree. I won’t give away the plot, but it involves all of the great themes of an epic.

3. “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. This is the last book on Economics you will ever need to read. What’s that? You haven’t read books on economics? No matter: this is the one to read. It will give  you a sense of joy about this financial world we live in. He focuses on one truth: How you prepare for coming crises is the most important part about your financial life.

4. Any book by Patrick McManus. It is hard to pick out just one because every volume by this master humorist is amazing. He started out his writing career by writing the last page essays in Outdoor Life magazine and his books are mostly collections of those essays. You will laugh out loud and want to tell others about the amazing stories you’re reading McManus grew up in rural Northern Idaho in deep poverty. But what he found was a love of fishing, hunting and outdoor living and he passes this along with his wealth of humor. You will be lifted up as  you read any of his books. Probably best to start at the beginning with “A Fine and Pleasant Misery” and “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?”, his first two books.

5. “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder. I consider Kidder to be the most gifted nonfiction writer in America. His three Pulitzer prizes are great proof of this. Mountains Beyond Mountains is his most joyful and thought-provoking work. It tells the story of Paul Farmer, the world renowned doctor who changed the way that medicine is conducted in developing countries. Farmer single-handedly wiped out TB in Haiti and is the great advocate for many of the world’s poor. It is not all bad news out there.

6. “Zorba the Greek” by Nikos Kazantzakis. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you cannot believe the pure joy that can come out of a book. This book is all about living life new every day. Authors as diverse as Annie Dillard and Ken Gire have both lauded this as one of the greatest books ever written. And I guarantee you, food will take on an almost ethereal quality after you read this.

7. “Seeing What is Sacred” by Ken Gire. Though this is not Gire’s finest book, it always inspires joy in me. As does another book of his “Windows of the Soul.” Ken gets God; he understands that joy is one of the great gifts of God. This book will leave you almost breathless as he describes what most people don’t see.

8. “Loving Each Other” by Leo Buscaglia. Just as the title says, there is an art to loving others. Buscaglia devoted his life to learning how to love, and he gives us this incredible volume to tell his story. You will be amazed at how love is transforming lives, even through children.

9. “Taming of the Shrew” by William Shakespeare. I told you this was an eclectic list. My favorite play by Willy boy, this always makes we want to enjoy people more than ever. This is a celebration of women and a celebration of marital friendship. You didn’t know that? Read it again.

10. “Anne of Green Gables” by Lucy M. Montgomery. If you thought this was a book for girls, I am here to say that I know several manly men who love this book (the entire series as well). We all know that joyous experience of finding a group of people you belong to. Anne’s journey is just that: It is a quest to connect to friends all over this world. It is Zorba the Greek in a different setting.

11. “The Name of the Wind”/”The Wise Man’s Fear” by Patrick Rothfuss. These two gems are also fantasy, but they feel so real you’ll get swept up in them. Rothfuss is the only rival in this world for George Martin in terms of how long and careful he is at his writing. Whereas Martin has dark, violent and ugly themes, Rothfuss’ themes are joy, light and love. But here is my warning. If you read these and love them as much as I do, you will be angry at me. These are the first two books in a trilogy, and Rothfuss has already taken five years working on the third one. You will love the books and then hate that the third one isn’t finished.

12. “Marley and Me” by John Grogan. The love of a dog and his owners. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the book will inspire and delight you. I dare you not to get a rescue dog from the pound after reading this.

13. “Hind’s Feet on High Places” by Hannah Hurnard. Finally, an allegory that hits any heart that has struggled with personal loss and grief. The main character, Much Afraid, wants to be part of the life of the Shepherd. How she gets to where the Shepherd lives is the most intriguing aspect of this tale. You will see yourself on many of the pages and you will cheer when she makes it where she’s going.

Of course, there are many others I could have mentioned.

What books have brought you joy? Which ones have encouraged you?

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