Could You Repeat That?

“Peter, do you love me?” Three times asked. Three times answered. (See John 21) Once for each time Peter had denied his Lord. You’d think the lesson had been learned. But when Peter had a vision filled with food that he refused to eat, it took another three times before he got the message.(Acts 10) We could say that Peter was consistently stubborn. But maybe Peter is not so different from us.

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Fear not. Do NOT be afraid. Be strong and courageous. The Bible is filled with such messages. Over and over, God’s people need reminders to look beyond fear and find faith. Go and preach the Gospel. Go out into all the world. Go make disciples. Love one another. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Pray without ceasing. Run the race. Don’t give up. Ask. Seek. Knock.

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God is not annoyed or afraid of repetition. He uses it when speaking patiently to us. He welcomes it from us in prayer. Sometimes, I feel like I’m “nagging” God about certain things. After all, He already knows my needs, so why am I bringing the same request for the 19th time this month? Except God not only knows about my need, He knows my tendency to get discouraged and distracted. God doesn’t need to hear my request again, but He wants to hear me ask. More than that, He wants to hear me ask with confidence, knowing that He HAS heard and WILL provide– in ways and times I cannot know.

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God hears. God knows. God cares. It’s worth repeating! It’s worth asking– again!

Knock…

Matthew 7:7-12 New International Version (NIV)

Ask, Seek, Knock

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

I have heard many sermons using this passage, and the sermons always focus on our (active) end of the directive–Ask!  Seek!  Knock!   But what does this passage say about God?

God is omnipresent, and He has revealed Himself in creation, and through the lives of His people.  But God is also reserved– He does not give us all the answers; He doesn’t spoil us by catering to our every wish; He keeps certain things behind closed doors.

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“Knock, and the door will opened to you.”  There is no mention of a key or key card, a pass code, or any need for ID– just knock.  God will open the door.  I imagine thousands of (figurative) doors in my life– opportunities, blessings, challenges, relationships– each beckoning.  But the doors cannot be opened from the outside.  I can strain and push, yell and shake my fist at the closed door in front of me, kick at it, even try to break it down.  But if I knock, the door will be opened.

This doesn’t mean that I have no choices or free will as I go along.  I can find hallways, roadways, even freeways on which to travel.  And there are opportunities along those paths and roads that are not waiting behind a door.  But just like the questions we need to ask, and the quests for which we seek, the closed doors cause us to make a choice– will we knock or walk on?  Will we try to open the door in our own power, or knock and let God open the door from His side?

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Ask, seek, knock– God desires that we take steps toward Him.  He will not walk away, or reject those who sincerely desire His presence.  He will not give us “bad” gifts– though He allows us to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death”, He will not leave us there with no comfort or hope.  He will not “lock us out” of His goodness or His Grace.  In fact, HE stands at the door and knocks– waiting for US to open the door, as well.

Someone may say– “I turned away from the door, walked down my own path, and now I’m trapped behind a wall of doubt and guilt and bad choices.  There are no doors left for me”.  Jesus stands ready to change all that.  There are no walls or dungeons He cannot enter– He will make a door, if that’s what it takes– just ask!  You may have to climb over some of the debris, but He will pull you up and over any obstacle you can imagine.

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Someone else may say, “I have prayed and prayed, and God hasn’t opened the door for me…”  I don’t have an “easy” answer for you, and I don’t want to give a canned response– God isn’t a “one size fits all” God– His ways are good, but they are not always comprehensible.  I can only give an example from my own life.  I prayed for years that God would “open the door” for me to be married and have children.  I met several wonderful men, some godly, others just really nice guys who don’t follow Jesus.  I could have fallen into, or schemed my way into a marriage or sexual relationship with one of them– I could have tried to get pregnant for years before I found out I was barren.  I might have made a marriage work, might have adopted children, might have…But I kept knocking on THE door– the one that God set before my heart and soul– the door that called me to enter and be close to Him– to do it His way or not at all.  For over 25 years I knocked– sometimes faintly and with fear that the door would stay closed– sometimes with a sort of desperation.  And one day, the door opened– God’s door, God’s way.  I have no doubts or regrets about knocking at that door, or waiting for it to be opened from God’s side.  I had imagined what was on the other side of that door–what I have received is perfectly sufficient, even as it is totally different from what I imagined.  I never had children of my own– but as I waited for God’s timing, He led me to work with hundreds of children who blessed my life beyond description.  And in waiting, He led me to opportunities I would never have had if the door had opened in MY timing.  All I can say is this– God led me to desire something worthy and good and to His Glory.  I believed it was marriage and family–but even if I were still unmarried today, I would not stop praying; not stop knocking; not stop trusting in God’s goodness and His wisdom for my life.

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Another may say, “I knocked on a door, and God opened it, but it only brought me pain and misery.”  Once again, I don’t have a quick or easy answer for you, and there is no answer that will magically take away pain and misery.  I don’t want to invalidate or deny your experience, and I don’t want to claim that I know why God has allowed you to go through such an experience.  I would only challenge you to be like Jacob, who wrestled with God and would not let go until he got a blessing.  I don’t know why God withholds some answers and allows pain that seems needless and senseless.  And even though I know of many instances where God has brought resolution and healing out of tragedy, I also know that it doesn’t erase all the tears and questions.  My own experience brought years of depression, bitterness, and isolation even as it brought incredible growth and opportunity– I still have memories that bring tears and painful thoughts–but I know that healing is possible, and I still believe that God is “good”– I believe that God is with us even in our pain and sorrow.  I believe that Jesus suffered greatly, not only on the cross, but throughout His earthly life– He faced rejection, betrayal, frustration, misunderstanding, hatred, bigotry, injustice, loneliness, homelessness, poverty, hunger, and more.  Pain is intense, but it is not eternal.  Evil is real and it is miserable, but it is not victorious.

Keep knocking.  Your door may seem like the ultimate barrier, but God wants to open it for you.

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Persistent Prayer

BethelchurchI grew up attending a tiny country church numbering only a few families.  Church was not just a place to visit for coffee and a sermon on Sunday morning.  There were no large screens, no light shows, no bands, no padded theater seats.  What we didn’t have in the way of amenities, we made up for with fellowship– pot lucks,  church-wide outings, bake sales to raise money for missionaries, and community-wide Christmas caroling every December.  We didn’t have a big budget or slick publications.  There was no website or gym; no trendy decor in the entryway, or sound system.  But there was prayer– lots of it!  Prayer to open Sunday School; prayer to open the service; prayer at the end of Sunday service; and Wednesday Evening Prayer Meeting.  This was, for the children, an evening of games, singing, stories, and socializing with our friends, all in the church basement (painted cinder block walls, industrial fluorescent lights hanging down from beams to light up folding tables and metal folding chairs on the bare cement floor, which was sometimes home to spiders, toads and even the occasional salamander).  But upstairs, it was all business.  An hour of adults in the community coming together to pour their hearts out to God.

As I became a teen, I “graduated” to the upstairs–to a young teen it seemed an interminably long and slow process of sharing requests, sharing praises, and taking turns mumbling and rambling and regurgitating all that had come before, this time with eyes closed, and some of the old-timers on their knees instead sitting in the un-padded and creaky wooden pews.  Sometimes, there would be two or three hymns or a short devotional to round out the hour-long service.

I know there are churches that still have mid-week (usually Wednesday night) services, and some of them are devoted to corporate prayer  (my current church has one, in fact).  But most of these services have died out– due, I suspect, to the view I described above.  Very few of us are devoted to getting out one night every week to spend an hour kneeling on a hard floor “sharing” needs with others, only to repeat them to God.  But I think somewhere we missed the point, and the value, of these gatherings.  In going to Prayer Meeting, I got to hear the hearts of three generations of people across our community– farmers, construction workers, teachers, retired grandfathers, teens like me, pastors, recovering alcoholics, homemakers, business men and women–people with wildly different struggles, triumphs, and needs, and in different stages of their Christian walk.  I heard the exuberance of new converts, and the steady faith of aging saints; the struggles of the brokenhearted widower, and the needs of new parents.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson from Prayer Meeting was about persistent prayer.  Week after week we reported answered prayers, but other requests seemed to linger.  Some who desired healing never found it (in this life).  Some relationships were never restored.  Some faced the same struggles with anger, or job loss, or loneliness over a period of months.  Was our prayer ineffective, or our faith deficient?  Did God not hear?  Didn’t he care?

I believe God heard every word; every groan, every sigh.  I believe he ached with every burden we brought before his throne.  I believe he was (and is) in the midst of every gathering.  And I believe that prayer is often like those conversations we have with our oldest and dearest friends about those same persistent problems.  God has the power to deliver us without the struggle, without the wait.  We don’t know why he allows some struggles to play out over years while others end in timely triumph.  But I believe that for every situation that challenges our faith and endurance, he is there for every tear, every question, every ‘SMH’ moment, every stumbling step forward.  And when we come together to share the burden with our neighbors, family, friends in fervent prayer– God is present, not just as the Father on his throne, but as the Son who cried out on his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Spirit who interprets our groaning when words are not enough.

I say a lot of quick prayers; sometimes urgent, and often simplistic and even easy prayers.  I am slowly rediscovering the value of persistent  and corporate prayer.

 

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