Philip Yancey is known for asking hard questions about the Christian life. Bestselling classics like Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What's So Amazing About Grace? have made him one of the contemporary church's most compelling voices. In his new book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Zondervan), Yancey once again explores a profound subject from the perspective of a curious and candid observer. Today's Christian recently chatted with the author about Prayer and his journey as a writer.
Where do you get off writing a book on prayer? Hasn't everything to be said on the topic already been done?
I'm one of these guys who has a hard time praying more than seven minutes a day, and I've talked to many people who have similar experiences with prayer. So I started to wonder about the importance of prayer in the Christian life. Why do we pray? How long should we pray? Should we always sense the presence of God when we pray? These are things I wanted to know, and as a full-time writer I have the ability to go where my readers can't. They have jobs. They can't think deeply about prayer all day. They can't read 200 books and interview dozens of people. But that's my job—I like to explore things that I don't know the answer to, because I've got this privilege as a journalist of spending a year and a half trying to figure it out.
So what was your game plan for tackling such a massive topic?
I bought or checked out hundreds of books on prayer. The great books on prayer were old ones by people like Amy Simpson, Martin Luther, George Mueller, and Charles Simeon. And they all talked about prayer as the essential human act, that there is nothing more fulfilling we could do. If you're busy don't pray three hours that day, they'd write, pray four hours. Then I started interviewing people on prayer. My wife, Janet, and I would take people out to lunch and I'd ask them about their prayer lives. It was interesting to see the differences between what the books were saying and what people were saying about their real-life experiences, and that's when I knew I wanted to write a book that goes right down the middle and asks, "If prayer is supposed to be this, how come it's really like this for most people?"
You're known for asking questions about God and faith that many of us are afraid to ask. How did you develop that intrepid curiosity?
Let me explain it this way. I recently read Eugene Peterson's book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, in which he tells the story of growing up in a Pentecostal church. There was an old woman in the congregation named Sister Lychen who would have a word of prophecy every Sunday. She'd stand up and say, "The Lord has revealed to me that I will be caught up in the clouds of glory." She would stand up every week and say this. Eugene's parents would make him take her cookies, and when he'd get to her house, all the blinds were down, and all the shutters were closed. It was a house of gloom. She was always waiting to die. For Eugene, that represented the brand of Christianity where the whole purpose was to just get through this life so that life could really start in heaven. Later on, Eugene said he had this fantasy of bursting into Sister Lychen's house and opening all the blinds and saying, "Sister Lychen, look! There's a whole world outside! There's a world of turtles and hummingbirds and hawks and grizzly bears." When I read that, I thought, That is my life. I grew up in a cloistered, narrow church with the blinds down.
I was raised by a woman who had been widowed at age 26—my dad died of polio—and was left with these two boys. Her whole goal in parenting was to shelter us from the world. We weren't allowed to play outside of the front yard. We couldn't go roller-skating, because it looked like dancing. We couldn't even join the Boy Scouts. And the whole idea was to just get through life and hope like crazy that Jesus would come back to get you out of this evil world.
Early on, the worst thing the church did was give me a misconception of what God was like. I've been trying to overcome that ever since. But now the blinds are open, and I realize that part of my purpose as a writer is to open the blinds and make sense of the world for others.
And how has opening the blinds changed the way you live?
Ever since the blinds were opened, ever since I was allowed to play outside the front yard, I wanted to play everywhere! I love risk. I run marathons and climb mountains. My goal is to climb every 14,000-foot mountain here in Colorado. The experience of having the blinds opened has been amazing. The world is there. And it's God's world, and it's a good world. That's been the theme in my life since I've been set free.
What would people be surprised to discover about your life as a writer?
They would probably be surprised to know how boring most of a writer's life is. Sure, you get to travel a bit and do interviews in magazines or on the radio. But that's the artificial side; that's not the real life. The real life of a writer, for me, is an isolated, paranoid sort of existence. [He laughs.] I cannot write with someone in the room. People write to me and say, "I'd like to be your intern; can I come watch you write?" No way! I have to be alone, and when I get into that zone of writing, I eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day for weeks at a time. I don't want to think about anything else but the writing part. So I'll go away on a writing retreat and spend five days in a row alone, writing. Then I'll take a break for a couple of days and start over again. When I was working on Prayer last year, I did this for about 12 weeks in a row.
How does this affect your interaction with other people?
There has to be a sort of reentry period, because after a while I realize the only human I have talked to all week was the clerk at Starbucks. I'll say, "Tall latte, please." And that's it. I talk to Janet at night, of course. But sometimes when I'm in the thick of it, we'll have dinner with friends, and I realize that I've kind of lost the art of interacting with others. My timing is off.
Your books have been embraced by people across the spectrum of the church. Both "conservative" and "liberal" Christians read your stuff. Do you aim for that type of broad relevance in your works?
A psychiatrist friend of mine said, "Philip, your books are like your children. You have this idea of what they should be, and you do everything you can to make it happen. But at a certain point, you're not in control anymore; they're free. And then they often do the opposite of what you want them to do." And I've found this to be true. I might have an idea for what my books should be, but once I put them out there, they're free. God connects and uses them in ways I never imagined—and sometimes in ways I may not even like. But this is actually very liberating. I can't worry about how they are received by people. As soon as I start doing that, I'm missing the point.
So with this new book, I asked myself, What can I authentically say about prayer and stand behind it? And I knew it would mean asking a question like, Why are some people healed, and some people not healed? I frankly don't know. Nobody knows. And if somebody tells you they know, don't believe them. So I had to say that in the book.
When I think about your writing, I think about the introduction to your book Finding God in Unexpected Places, where you talk about a South African woman named Joanna who began a prison ministry that radically transformed one of her country's most violent prisons. When you asked her how she did it, she told you: "Well, of course, Philip, God was already present in the prison. I just had to make Him visible."
Yes, I love that line because that's what we're called to do as Christians. That's kind of like pulling up the blinds again, isn't it? God is already here in the world. We just have to point Him out to people. So many people have the idea that you have to leave joy, leave life, and go into the house and wait to die like Sister Lychen. But God is already here.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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