October 6, 2006
Writer and journalist Philip Yancey admits that much about prayer is difficult for him. His latest book, PRAYER: DOES IT MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE?, offers valuable glimpses of why prayer is crucial, even if we don’t comprehend all of its mysteries. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com’s Cindy Crosby, Yancey discusses his personal exploration of prayer, what he sees as the biggest misconception Christians have about talking to God, and the questions about prayer for which he still has no answers.
FaithfulReader.com: What made you decide to write a book about prayer?
Philip Yancey: I could give a lot of answers, but the honest one is that I felt so inadequate in my life of prayer. As I talked with other Christians I realized that I’m not alone. We have this enormous privilege of communicating with the Lord of the universe, and yet we struggle mightily. I began with a list of questions, my questions. Why are some prayers answered and others not? Why do I sometimes hit a wall of God’s silence? Does it matter whether ten or a hundred people pray for someone’s healing? Does prayer change God or change us? Why tell God something God already knows? These seemed to point to the question in the book’s subtitle: Does prayer make any difference?
FR: Many authors write on a topic because they are considered an “expert.” In PRAYER, I sensed you came to it more as a journalist and a fellow struggler.
PY: Actually, I approach most of my books in this way. I’m not a professor or academic or ordained pastor. I’m an ordinary pilgrim. When I tackle a project, I try to represent my readers. As a freelancer, I have the privilege of devoting myself full-time to an issue, taking whatever time it takes to research in libraries and to interview others. But you’re right, I do so as a journalist, a fellow struggler. And never more so than in a book on prayer. I take some solace in a remark by Thomas Merton, who said that when it comes to prayer, we’re all beginners.
FR: Did you pray as a child?
PY: I did pray as a child, and I would describe my prayers as transactional. I wanted God to solve my problems, whether that was finding something I had misplaced or healing my sick dog. At the time, I believed God answered those prayers, but surely not all of them. My dogs died (mainly because we couldn’t afford distemper shots), and bullies kept pushing me around at school. Even then I had trouble understanding the mystery of prayer, why some were answered and some were not.
FR: How has the way you’ve come to prayer changed over your lifetime?
PY: Prayer has moved from this transactional approach to what I call “keeping company with God.” I have felt a lowering of the boundaries between prayer and the rest of my life. I see it more as a way of meditating through the day with God, who is always available and eager for our attention. We have to “tune in,” of course, and that takes attention and some discipline.
Along the way, I’ve become more relaxed about prayer. Some people ask me whether they’re “doing it right.” As I say in the book, if you’re doing it, you’re doing it right. In my research I’ve encountered a wide variety of styles and approaches, fitting with various personality styles and temperaments.
FR: Do you find it easier to petition God or to listen?
PY: I quote a woman who said that for every person who says (like Hannah) “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth” there are ten who say “Hear, Lord, for thy servant speaketh.” We have so much noise and static in our lives: email, faxes, TV, radio. Listening to God means stopping the frenzy, stopping the noise, and tuning in. To do that all day long is a skill I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.
FR: I appreciated your anecdotes about hiking and being outdoors, as you related them to prayer. Can you briefly tell our readers how you find that your experiences in nature influence your prayers?
PY: C. S. Lewis said that you don’t go to nature to learn theology, but you take your words to nature and let them be filled with meaning: glory, for example, or praise. Certainly nature does that for me. It was one of the pointers that showed the way back to God, as I learned a God who created coral reefs and alpine wildflowers could not possibly resemble the sour killjoy my childhood church proclaimed. Feeling grateful, I looked for Whom to thank.
In this book I also talk of mountains realigning my place in the universe. Like Job, I realize with a start that God is massively overwhelming. “Be still and know that I am God,” says one psalm. At once prayer humbles me, by reminding me that the universe does not revolve around me, and elevates me, by assuring me of God’s compassionate concern for even the trivia of my life.
FR: At what point do you find you have no answers and have to rely on trust or faith about prayer?
PY: At almost every point, frankly. I can never resolve the mystery of prayer. Why didn’t God intervene at Auschwitz, and in view of that how can I expect God to intervene with the relatively unimportant matters of my life? I don’t think anyone can answer those questions. In essence, prayer is a declaration of trust. Jesus gave us the model in Gethsemane, his prayer moving from “Take this cup away” to “Not my will but yours be done.” Alone, his friends asleep, surrounded by enemies on an alien planet, he too sensed some of the alienation and desperation we sometimes feel as we pray.
FR: Do you find that your own prayer life is cyclical? Is it stronger at some times, weaker at others?
PY: Indeed. I tell of a period when prayer seemed utterly futile for me, a matter of mumbling in the dark and having the words bounce back unheard. I turned to the prayers of others, both from the Bible and from great writers, and asked God to make their prayers authentically mine. I leaned on their faith when I had none of my own. That period lasted an entire year, then one day the cloud lifted and I wondered what had been my problem.
In a lot of ways, prayer resembles the act of writing. I never sit around and wait for inspiration --- if I did, no books would ever result. I slog through each day, putting words on paper even when they seem weak and inadequate. Keep at it long enough and eventually something of worth results.
FR: What single thing is still the most difficult about prayer for you?
PY: I would go back to the disjunction between God’s reluctance to intervene in big things (like Auschwitz) and the Bible’s exhortation for us to pray for small things. I can’t put those two together.
FR: You’ve mined some good sources on prayer, quoted throughout the book. If you had to choose one person or book that was most helpful, who or what would it be and why?
PY: A book I found at the very end of my book, too late to steal his good ideas! Many of the great books on prayer come from Catholic writers. Some orders devote themselves full-time to prayer, and they have a lot of accumulated wisdom. Much of it seems intimidating and inaccessible. In THE ARMCHAIR MYSTIC, Mark Thibodeaux, S.J. makes it simple and accessible.
FR: After conducting numerous interviews for this book, what do you believe the biggest misconception about prayer is among Christians?
PY: I can think of many. In my case, it was the matter of prayer as transaction rather than companionship. Some worry about the right form or formula. If I had to choose one, however, it would be the sense that prayer is a discipline; it is, after all, counted as one of the spiritual disciplines. I would like to see us realize prayer as more a privilege than a discipline. One of my favorite comments about the book came from a British reader who said, “At last, a book about prayer that didn’t make me feel guilty.”
FR: What value is there in liturgical prayer as compared to personal prayer? Is one more important than the other?
PY: C. S. Lewis wrote about mistrusting spontaneous prayers in church. How can you pray along with someone, he asked, when that person may be spouting wrong theology? As I mentioned, for a year I relied almost exclusively on prayers written by others. On the other hand, I’m afraid I feel most comfortable among the “low church” prayers from the heart. As a writer, I find it difficult to say the same words over and over; I’m always searching for new ones. I have found it best personally to search for a balance between the two. I don’t think I would use a word like “important.” We free-church Americans need to recognize that for most of church history, most Christians have relied on liturgical prayer. And, in fact, most of the prayers included in the Bible, including all of the Psalms, had a liturgical use.
FR: Can the act of prayer itself be valuable?
PY: I’ll have to quote C. S. Lewis again, who says that prayers from the “trough,” from times of doubt and pain with little encouragement to faith, mean most to God. I note, along with others, that most spectacular answers to prayer come to relative newcomers to the faith. I see a kind of reverse principle at work: the more mature the saint, the more times of testing will come, the less likely a given prayer will be answered as the prayer wishes.
FR: Are there ways of praying that we may not normally consider as prayer? For example, would you consider music or art to be “prayers?”
PY: We can turn almost anything into a prayer. When I have an ecstatic experience in nature or with music, I turn it into an act of prayer and thanksgiving. When I meet someone who tests my patience, I turn that into a prayer for help. In the book, I tell how this kind of exercise helps decompartmentalize prayer.
FR: From the anecdotes in your book, you’ve been doing some traveling around the world.
PY: My wife and I give priority to international travel. My books get translated into other languages, and sometimes I get invitations from my publishers overseas. I’ve found that such travel gives me a different view of my own country and my own faith. When I need an infusion, I go to a place like the Philippines or Brazil or China, where the Gospel is still new and still decidedly Good News. As a writer, I can bring back some of these experiences to encourage the U.S. church.
FR: What’s next for you, writing-wise?
PY: For the first time in 30 years of writing books, I have no idea what I’ll write next. And I’m surprisingly relaxed about that. I’ll be touring the US through the rest of 2006, and I’m sure by the new year something will grab my interest. If not, I’ll keep listening.
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November 10, 2003
Philip Yancey admits that he's a reluctant Christian at times, "plagued by doubts and in recovery from bad church encounters." RUMORS OF ANOTHER WORLD: What on Earth Are We Missing? is Yancey's attempt to discover for himself why he believes --- and to share his insights with those who he says live in the "borderlands" of belief. Here, Yancey and FaithfulReader.com interviewer Cindy Crosby talk about his most recent book, and how it fits where he is on his own spiritual journey.
FR: Your new book, RUMORS OF ANOTHER WORLD, is a departure from your last several books, which --- directly or indirectly --- dealt with disappointment with the institutional church.
PY: My last book, SOUL SURVIVOR, had the subtitle "How my Faith Survived the Church." I got one letter from a pastor who said, "Philip, I get so tired of you criticizing the church that I feel like writing a book called HOW MY CHURCH SURVIVED YOUR FAITH! You're right. I have been open about problems with the institutional church. I grew up in a toxic, almost cultic church, and I hear daily from readers who are "in recovery" from such churches. The year I began writing RUMORS OF ANOTHER WORLD, however, I took four separate trips to Europe, which has a very different religious scene. In countries like Czech Republic and Denmark, as few as two percent of the population ever goes to church. Conversations with such people kept echoing in my mind as I wrote. My concerns broadened from "How do I ferret out the truth of Christian faith from the overlay the church puts on it?" to "Does the Christian view of the world make any sense?"
FR: What are the "borderlands of belief" you write about?
PY: Borderlands are in-between places, such as the "no-man's land" between countries that dispute territory. In matters of faith, people enter the borderlands from two different directions. Some, like me, flee an unhealthy church experience yet still believe in an unseen reality worth pursuing. Others find church an alien experience: everyone else knows when to stand up or sit down and what to sing, but to an outsider it may seem foreign and off-putting. Even so, almost all people have a religious sense at various times. Many describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." I call such people "borderlanders."
FR: If there is an invisible world out there, why don't we see more evidence of it on earth?
PY: In this book, rather than asking why I don't see more evidence of God, I ask what evidence we do see. I look at nature, at beauty, at conscience, at epiphanies. These are rumors, not facts or proofs. I've concluded that a good share of the responsibility is ours: we need to learn to pay attention to rumors that are present, but overlooked.
FR: Your chapter "Designer Sex" is intriguing. Do you see sex as one of the "rumors of another world?"
PY: Yes, indeed, perhaps the most powerful rumor of transcendence that we have. I mention that Sports Illustrated calls its swimsuit models goddesses and Victoria's Secret dresses up its lingerie models in angel costumes. For many people, the nearly irresistible power of sex, a power that pulls them out of themselves toward another person, may be the closest they get to a religious experience.
FR: Has the church failed in presenting a persuasive point of view on sexuality?
PY: The church has failed in virtually every way. Most people view the church as anti-sex, concerned with the "thou shalt nots" of sexuality. Yet if we believe God invented sex --- including all the beauty, the strangeness, the wonder, even the humor of it ---surely God is pro-sex in the most profound way. I title that chapter "Designer Sex" because I believe the church's main challenge should be to articulate what the designer intended with sexuality. The more we align with that design, the more sexually fulfilled we will be.
FR: You write that you have actually undergone two conversions --- first from the natural world to discover the supernatural, and later another conversion where you rediscovered the natural from a new viewpoint. Please explain.
PY: After a rather bitter church experience, and a period of unbelief, I came back to God because of three things: romantic love, classical music, and the beauties of nature. G. K. Chesterton made the comment that the worst moment for an atheist is when he feels a deep sense of gratitude and has no one to thank. That describes my predicament precisely. I envisioned God as a frowning "supercop" in the sky who wanted to keep me from having a good time and to punish me for wrongdoing. Instead I discovered, initially through these "rumors," that the heart of the universe is a smile, not a frown.
FR: Anything else?
PY: Later, I revisited territory from my childhood faith and learned that love, grace, creativity, beauty and mercy were present in the Bible all the time; I had missed them. Now, as a believing Christian, I like to explore that territory, to honor and revere the natural world, and also individual human beings, as God's creations. Many people consider themselves environmentalists, but why? I know why --- because I am showing respect for God's gift to us, his work of art. Why support human rights movements? Because I believe a peasant in prison in China or Myanmar contains the image of God, and for that reason his or her basic human rights are worth protecting. In such ways I rediscover the natural world from a new viewpoint.
FR: You write that you used to believe "If it feels good, it must be sinful." How has your viewpoint changed?
PY: Several decades ago if you had asked me my definition of sin I would have said, "God's way of keeping us from having a good time." Now I would say, "God's way of keeping us from harming ourselves." I give many illustrations of why I now believe the following: If it feels good, it probably serves as a rumor of another world, and the most fulfilling way to "feel good" is by seeking out the designer's intent in that rumor. I can't do justice to that statement here; in a sense, the entire book makes that argument.
FR: Rather vulnerably, you share a list of your own patterns of sin in the book, including deceit, discontent, hypocrisy, greed and pride.
PY: I mention these particular sins as occupational hazards of a writer. Writing is a kind of exhibitionism, isn't it? I strip away the layers and try to express reality about myself. Because I do it in the privacy of my office, where I sit alone with my computer, it doesn't feel exhibitionistic at the time. Often it feels therapeutic --- much the way we feel when we go to a priest for confession or a counselor for therapy.
FR: There are some beautiful images of nature in RUMORS OF ANOTHER WORLD. Several years ago you moved from the Chicago area to Colorado. Has this affected your writing?
PY: I made that move at a time when I wanted to shift my style of writing. Chicago was great for journalism, for writing others' stories. I would walk outside my condo and see someone having an epileptic fit or getting mugged or whatever. I moved to Colorado at a time when I wanted to write more of my own story, a more reflective and meditative kind of writing. Colorado has been a very nourishing environment for that kind of writing. Most days I see more wild animals than people. I have to write about myself because there's no one else around!
FR: You write that it is relatively easy to "hallow" God in nature and much harder to "hallow" the ordinary events of your life. How do you try to make ordinary encounters and events an offering to God?
PY: It takes intentionality. I learn from the spiritual masters, most of who are Catholics, like Benedict and Patrick. For me, the key is learning to live for an audience of one. At the end of the day, do I judge myself by what other people think of me, or by the success standards of surrounding culture, or by my faithfulness to what I call the rules of the invisible world. How do I follow the rules of the invisible world, which require me to care about the poor and unattractive, for example, while living in a visible world that honors wealth and beauty?
FR: Your affection for C. S. Lewis, especially for THE WEIGHT OF GLORY, is obvious in the book. What role has his work played in your life?
PY: Lewis is a guide in all my books, but perhaps especially in this one because it so parallels his own spiritual awakening. What I call rumors he called longings. In his case, Wagnerian operas and Nordic myths stirred his belief in an invisible world. I can't say I share his taste, but I do share his sensibilities, and lean on him heavily.
FR: You turned 50 a few years ago. What are your goals in this stage of your life?
PY: Let's see. I'd like to climb all the mountains in Colorado over 14,000 feet. I'm getting there; I've climbed 38 out of 54 so far. I would like to continue traveling internationally. My wife and I take an average of four overseas trips a year, and I find it very stimulating to look at my own culture and my own faith through the eyes of people who view it differently. I would like to be able to respond with a ten-year career plan, but frankly it's all I can do to focus on one book at a time.
FR: What's next for you then, book-wise?
PY: I don't know. Honestly, I don't. Rumors took a toll. I find that writing gets harder and harder, perhaps because with each book I learn more of what I'm doing wrong. For the first time ever, I'm going to take a break, and not even decide what to write about for another six months or so.
FR: How do you resist the temptation to write what you know will sell versus to write what you're called to say by God?
PY: I figured out a long time ago that my calling as a writer is to represent the ordinary person in the pew, to describe a single pilgrimage. I try not to come across as an authority figure --- I'm not a pastor or formal teacher --- but as a pilgrim. I write about questions that occur to me and struggles I want to explore, and when I write I never know whether anyone else has the same questions or struggles. Besides, who knows what will sell, anyway? So many mega-books are surprise bestsellers.
FR: How does your calling as a writer shape your days?
PY: Much like a mystic, a writer has to "center." For me, the biggest challenge is to avoid distraction. When I worked as a magazine editor, I followed the office routine of moving papers around, responding to phone calls, letters, faxes. Writing is the hardest thing I do, so now that I am a freelancer, I find it easy to pick up this busy work instead. It's so much easier than writing. Somehow I have to fence off and preserve that time of undistracted, full concentration. Of course, at times I emerge from the cave and meet the readers of my books. I'm responding to this interview, in fact, in the midst of a twelve-city book tour. After the introspection and solitude of writing a book, it seems very strange to visit bookstores and interact with live people day after day. As an introvert, I find that grueling. But I remind myself that anything is easier than writing.
--- Interviewed by Cindy Crosby (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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