The Yanceys

Philip Yancey, left, his wife, Janet, and a friend, Joanne Barth, enjoy some time at White Sands Beach.

Most writers come to Kodiak Island to research material and find inspiration for their books. While those reasons may come into play for Christian author Philip Yancey, his primary purpose for his recent Kodiak visit was to teach and encourage fellow writers at Leslie Fields’ writers workshop at the family gillnet site on Harvester Island.

He came here with his wife, Janet, and their friend, Joannie Barth.

Yancey, a prolific author whose popularity skyrocketed in the 1970s during the Jesus Movement and maintained momentum in the following decades, also came to speak.

On a token sunny Friday night, he addressed a full house at Community Baptist Church. 

Yancey held his audience spellbound as he talked about his recent book on prayer. People were engaged because of the stories and illustrations he shared and the way he presented them. He not only writes well, but orally communicates stories well, too.

His final story featured Joanna and Julian, a black couple in South Africa who became Jesus’ hands and feet (and voice) during the fracturing years of apartheid. Once their work was completed, God led them to Pollsmoor, one of South Africa’s worst prisons that was built for a capacity of 800 but accommodated 5,000.

“Accommodated” is not the right word. The prisoners were stuffed in there like sardines, in the heat, the stench, the foul air that was poisoned even more by the curses and demeaning language that expressed anger and despair – an image of hell itself.

But Joanna and Julian brought the light of Christ to prisoners through Bible studies, activities and other acts of mercy. Many of the prisoners were transformed into God-loving believers. Violent actions in the prison plunged from more than 200 to two within a year.

When Yancey asked the couple what accounted for the change, they replied that God was already present at the prison; they just made Him visible. 

Making God visible was a thematic thread that ran throughout Yancey’s presentation, and it was directly connected to prayer.

Many good works have begun with prayers of complaints against the way God is running the universe, said Yancey. Complainers included Job, David and rock star Bono, who went to an orphanage in Ethiopia to help children who had lost their parents to AIDS.

Bono scolded God for not caring for the millions of parentless African babies. 

The more Bono prayed, the more he heard that “still, small voice” saying, “’Where do you think the idea of going to Ethiopia came from?’”

Bono ended up raising $15 billion to combat AIDS, enlisting the efforts of unlikely partners Strom Thurmond, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George W. Bush. 

God puts the onus on His people to care for the helpless.

“Bono said prayers are like boomerangs,” noted Yancey. “You throw a boomerang and it comes back at you.”

Quoting from the Lord’s Prayer, which says God’s “will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” Yancey said, “Prayer is not about our will, but God’s will.”

Yancey said that the “greatest revelation” that came to him while he spent a year writing the book on prayer was that prayer is “not so much inviting God into my life, but inviting myself into God’s life.”

Alluding to Isaiah’s image of the flowing river of justice, Yancey urged his listeners to “jump in the ever-flowing stream. Let justice roll like a river of righteousness. God loves making whole what was broken.”

Yancey compared God’s forgiveness to a mountain stream. That forgiveness needs to flow to the worst of enemies.

Projecting a picture of Al Qaeda terrorists on the screen, Yancey asked, “What would happen if every church in North America adopted one of these guys, learned to pronounce their names and pray for them? Didn’t Jesus tell us to do that?”

He noted that a colonel at Fort Carson, Colorado, who had served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, took the challenge and developed a website for people to engage in this radical form of prayer. His colleagues sharply criticized him for the project, Yancey said.

God causes rain to fall on the just and unjust, Yancey said. “If you want to be like God, that’s the way to do it.” 

Many illustrations and analogies for Yancey’s book on prayer were inspired by hiking in the mountains of Colorado where the Yanceys live.

He brought up the time he saw hikers appearing as tiny red and blue dots on the trail beneath him as he stood at a much higher elevation. Those hikers had no idea what it would be like at the mountaintop where Yancey watched them. He drew an analogy to prayer.

“I had a glimpse of God’s eye-view. I’m one of the red or blue dots. I don’t have any idea what’s going on in the rest of world.” 

Yancey gleaned further lessons regarding man’s vulnerability and smallness as he talked about the sheer terror of getting caught in a storm on the mountaintop.

Those storms are analogous to circumstances in which “the earth gives way, the waters roar, mountains quake, kingdoms fall,” Yancey said.

The fearful are advised to hear the Psalmist’s words: Be still and know that I am God.

“There is nothing you can do about it, except to trust God,” Yancey said. “It’s easy for me to think I’m in control. Part of prayer is to let my faith in God overcome temporary tremors in life.” 

People are wondering what stories of faith, love and God’s presence will birth and grow out of Yancey’s week at Harvester Island. 

What spiritual lesson will he gain from picking fish from the gillnet, sharing bread with fellow writers, watching the darkening clouds, passing boats and glorious sunsets. For this prolific writer, the possibilities for a book are endless.

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