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“When a doctrinal student at Princeton asked, ‘What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?’ Albert Einstein replied, ‘Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer.’”
And so begins chapter one of Phillip Yancey’s newest book, “Prayer: Does It Make A Difference?” It’s a promising way to start a book and it stirred my hopes that maybe with Yancey’s help I might get some conclusive answers about the subject.
I’ll be honest with you. I’ve been in a dry spell for the better part of a year, the last several months unable to have much of anything that resembled a vibrant prayer life, sometimes not even able to pray at all. I felt much like Jayber Crow from Wendell Berry’s book of the same name who eventually found it pointless to pray if every prayer ends with “not my will, but thy will done.” What’s the use in bringing requests to God if in the end you tell Him to disregard them?
I know that more than being a wish list prayer is also communion and conversation. But increasingly what I got from prayer was a numbing sense of isolation and the fear I was talking to myself. I know that prayer is also meant to be an exercise in aligning my heart and mind with the eternal instead of the gnawing temporal – like Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands says: “I don’t pray to change God, but so that God can change me” (paraphrase from memory). And yet there’s the sticky matter of the scriptures continually encouraging us to pray for more than just perspective, that anything can be asked for in prayer and that we should pray expectantly. In fact, much of the Lord’s prayer is comprised of material requests: for food and relational dynamics, for God’s kingdom to be realized on earth as it is in heaven, for the eternal to interrupt the temporal course of things.
I found that I kept adjusting my expectations of prayer as a way of self-preservation – expecting less and less so I wouldn’t be disappointed. The heart learns to protect itself. But I couldn’t help feeling this was a cop-out and a refusal to engage the tensions between what the bible says about prayer and my own experience of it. So though I refused to fall back on a half-minded theological position of lowered expectations, I also found the tension between the biblical text and real life experience too enervating. So I opted for a different kind of copout, I guess: I just quit praying. I couldn’t find a motivation for it and just felt helpless when I would try – lost in a labyrinth of speculation, half-knowledge, and experience. I would ask others to pray for me and found great comfort in that, but as for myself I had become a deaf mute.
(I need to say here that my experience includes some incredible instances of answered prayer and God’s faithfulness – nearly irrefutable evidences of his involvement in our lives. Yet from the desert, those memories seem distant and somewhat torturous in that they won’t allow you the comfort of abandoning hope altogether, but lead you on in hopes that God is still listening though all evidence accuses Him otherwise. Yancey explores the difficulty of God’s seemingly selective involvement when he writes: “I keep wanting Jesus to be more systematic. I want him to solve world hunger, not just feed five thousand who happen to be listening to him one day. I want him to destroy the polio virus, not merely heal an occasional paralytic… we keep expecting God to move in immovable fixed patterns, but the bible shows a tendency for God to act in a way that seems almost arbitrary… quirky.” Yet having seen Jesus care for the one paralytic, we can’t help but hope that he cares for our ailments and we are left with the sometimes arduous work of hoping when all else would tempt us otherwise.)
When I saw that Yancey had released a new book on the subject of prayer, I couldn’t wait to dig into it in hopes of finding a better understanding of prayer to help me out of my own rut. The book chronicles his own frustrating attempts at reconciling the difference between what the bible seems to promise about prayer and the way it plays out in real life. Though I hoped for something more conclusive, it quickly became apparent that Yancey’s book was offering at least as many questions as it was answers. Any answers he did posit were often unsatisfying – which to his credit is much like prayer itself. And yet, by the end of the book, a peace descended and I found that I was praying regularly again.
Yancey is great at what he does. He’s not a Buechner or Nouwen but he’s a reflective and intelligent believer who is gifted at bringing big ideas to a mainstream audience and helping them wrestle with things they may not otherwise wrestle with. It was through Rich Mullins that I discovered Mark Heard – Mullins being much more accessible than Heard but plowing some of the same ground – and it’s through Yancey that a lot of people have discovered writers more exceptional than himself (like Buechner and Nouwen). I think of him as a bridge builder, building 3 way bridges between God, average people, and the kind of worthwhile rigorous faith that comes from thoughtful reflection. He serves his readership well in my opinion and gently helps people ask difficult questions, securely holding their hand through the process. His books are researched thoroughly and are filled with moving stories and quotes from a wide spectrum of sources. “Prayer” is no different. Smart, thoughtful, very moving.
He asked a lot of questions I had already afflicted myself with, so there was no real sense of new revelation. And yet revelation occurred in me slowly and subtly over the course of reading this book. Maybe revolution is a better word, a slow, almost imperceptible revolution, less in my understanding and more in my soul.
Thinking about it afterward, it seemed to me that reading this book was much like marriage counseling between God and myself. I realized that I’d been bottling up my frustrations and hurts and was locked in an ongoing conversation with myself. My inner dialogue sounded like the bitter complaints of a hurt lover: “What’s God’s deal anyway? Why is He ignoring me? Why the constant invalidation of my concerns? Why the cool disregard of my needs?” Also, like a disgruntled spouse, I would talk to others about my frustrations. Between going over my grievances with others and the ongoing conversation with myself, I realized I had ceased talking with God about it. We were estranged.
Reading Yancey’s book became like a therapy session between God and myself with Yancey as a mediator. Through his words I was able to express my own grievances as well as hear God’s side of the story in a fresh way. We were on speaking terms again and more than gaining perspective I was re-gaining access to a relationship. Halfway through there emerged a real sense that the act of reading the book itself was an intimate time of prayer. We were talking again.
As I mentioned, Yancey offers little in terms of satisfactory answers to the problems that prayer poses, but prayer has never been very well suited for finding answers – Just ask Job. Relationship has to be the ultimate goal of prayer. We need to fall in love and sense that we are loved, too. We need help in engaging the mystery of this love. And any attempt on Yancey’s part to diminish the tension and mystery inherent in prayer would render his book impotent and less than true.
In the end, Yancey helps us ask the hard questions about prayer, but also confronts us with the hardest kind of answers – messy, ambiguous, and the kind that dare us to hope and to engage our heart, mind, and even soul. Whether or not you are struggling with prayer, I highly recommend this as a thoughtful book full of heart and integrity. My prayer is that, like me, you will find peace, perspective, and an opportunity to engage the God of the universe in an intimate conversation about your own deepest hopes and fears.