In the business world, inventors can make a fortune by giving shape to simple ideas that affect nearly everyone, such as the tetra-pak milk carton and cats’ eyes in the road.
The millions-selling author Philip Yancey does a similar thing in the world of literature. He explains, “I choose a topic that I don’t feel good about, that I have a lot of questions about, rather than something I feel like I am an expert in.” It just happens that his questions are often ours too, and we lap up his books.
In an earlier (2001) interview with him, I asked him what unwritten book he would like to produce. He replied that he would like to write about his evangelical background.
“There are some wonderful books that capture the essence of growing up orthodox Jewish, growing up Catholic. But I don’t know any that capture the experience of growing up evangelical.”
Years later, he is still getting there. The project is “in the back of my mind and the front of my diary.
“I feel both blessed and cursed: cursed in that I grew up in a pretty bad family, pretty bad church; but blessed because I came out of it in a redemptive way. There are a lot of folks who are quite curious about the church, but can’t put it all together, can’t really believe it’s authentic, so I’d like to try to express that the best I can.”
He has made more progress in other areas of his life since we met. His hobby is conquering ‘fourteeners,’ the 54 mountains over 14,000 feet high in his home state of Colorado. He has now climbed the lot. Some are easily walked, but – leaving the most difficult till last – he had to face fifteen that “involve climbing, exposure and scary drop-offs. A few are downright dangerous.” With him on the last one was Eric Alexander, who had guided the first blind man up Everest.
On his web site, he recounts how, on the ascent, he often thought back six months to when he had a broken neck, and was “strapped to a body board, immobile, with the very real possibility of paralysis or some permanent disability.”
Despite his mountaineering expeditions, his broken neck was from a road accident. After speaking in New Mexico, he was driving on a remote road to Denver at about 65 miles per hour, when a curve came up suddenly and he turned to the left too sharply. When a tyre left the asphalt and hit dirt, his Ford Explorer rolled over several times, fortunately ending the right way up.
An ambulance took him to the nearest town, where they discovered that he had a pulverised C-3 vertebra.
Here was someone whose fame was launched on the back of a book asking, “Where is God When it Hurts?” and whose latest is called “Prayer – Does it Really Make a Difference?” suddenly thrown into a life-threatening situation similar to many he had recorded as an author. In particular, he was precipitously close to being in the situation of a man he interviewed for the book about prayer.
A person came up to me and said, ‘At last – a book on prayer that didn’t make me feel guilty!’ Wow, that makes me feel really good!”
The quietly-spoken author recalls meeting an air force colonel, who had hit a bump in the road when cycling. He went over his bicycle, landed on his head, broke his neck and was paralysed. To avoid bed sores, he had to shift his weight from one side of his body to the other.
When serving in Europe, he had bought two icons – one was of the baptism of Jesus and the other was of ‘Cristo, Ponto Crator,’ Christ the ruler of all.
Yancey relates, “When he had this pressure sore, he could only be on his side. They had to hire someone so that he would be turned. So for twenty minutes, he would stare at ‘Cristo, Ponto Crator’ – the ruler of all. Then twenty minutes later a buzzer would go off and they would roll him over and he would stare at this slender, naked figure, subjecting himself to baptism – an ordinary human being, frail, vulnerable. And he said, ‘My prayers are like a pendulum swinging back and forth. Sometimes I have faith in a sovereign God, ruler of all, who can solve everything, and sometimes (he) feels so small, so human; things seem so out of control’.”
The colonel was one of 50 people Yancey interviewed as research. He recalls, “These interviews were all over the map: there were some ‘miracle, charismatic’ type people; there were some people who were in the depths of despair, who never had any prayers answered; and at the end I had these 50 compelling stories and I didn’t know what to do with them.”
Feeling that it would be unfair “to subsume them under my own framework somehow; to use them as illustrations to make my own point,” he dropped the stories into the book in self-contained boxes.
This was a deft way to cope with prayer not being a precise science. As a reader who reacts badly to ‘how to’ material, he struggled with the practical chapters.
“I acknowledge mystery and part of including these little boxes from people is my way of expressing strongly that we don’t all have the same answer. Prayer is a personal and individual experience. I wanted to let people speak for themselves. People have experiences that I’ve certainly never had – and may not even want – but it is their experience of prayer.
“But there are some things like unanswered prayer and ‘Why do some people get healed, apparently, and some people don’t?’ that we do need to look at in an analytical way. I try to do that as much as possible, but I try not to wrap it up in formula.
Yancey’s modus operandi is to ask his own questions, so how satisfied is he with the answers he has found?
“Pretty satisfied: I felt that I had learned a lot.” He now understands prayer as a privilege, rather than a duty. He also admits, “It helped me to be honest. I found that I tended to edit my prayers. I would figure out, ‘which things do I think God will possibly answer?’ then I’ll pray those things; and ‘Which prayers are proper?’ and then I’ll pray those things.” He chuckles with a slight embarrassment at the thought, adding that now he is much more likely to pray exactly what he thinks.
“God can take anything in prayer: he can take anger, he can take anything – except indifference. And often that is my reaction: ‘Oh well, that doesn’t matter. I won’t even talk to God about that’.
“Another area in which I changed a lot is that I tended to pray in a prescribed period of time, say fifteen minutes in the morning – if I’m lucky; fifteen minutes is a pretty long time! – and now I’m much more likely to pray in the process of the day; to break down the barriers between times of prayer and the rest of life. That’s been very helpful. Prayer is an ongoing conversation throughout the day as it’s taking place.”
But his prayer life has plenty of shortcomings. He confesses that fasting scares him (“I’m a pretty skinny guy!” he jokes) and he once felt as if his words were bouncing off walls, unheard. When he still could not pray after weeks of trying, he bought a Catholic prayer book, the Book of Hours, which took a long time to figure out.
“It’s kind of like Microsoft Windows: a lot of different windows opened, you have to know when to turn to this saint and that. Many of the prayers are from the bible. I just started reading and would say, ‘God, I don’t have any prayers of my own, but I’m going to pray this prayer and ask you to make this my prayer somehow.’
“I did that for a whole year. Then one day it was like, ‘Now, what’s my problem? Of course God listens!’ and I would be right back to where I was the year before, feeling quite comfortable talking to God.
“That was new for me. As a writer, it’s generally hard for me to do written prayers, because writers are always trying to find a new way to say something.” Laughing, he adds, “Even though I should like high church liturgy, I really don’t, because ‘Didn’t we say this last week?’”
This has not stopped him from praying the Psalms, “because the Psalms express pretty much the whole range of human emotion, with ways that are very beautiful and better than I could come up with on my own.”
Yancey’s personal pattern is to go at dawn to his solarium, which has views of a well-used bird table and a mountain that is snow-capped all year round. “I read the bible, I read Christian books; I meditate and pray in the morning, each day. That’s what works for me. That’s when I often struggle with God, but it usually takes place in that one room.”
The revolution in my own understanding of prayer is not so much trying to get God’s attention, but rather trying to understand what God is doing.
Although he describes himself a verbal person, who finds it hard to sit and listen, meditation has now become a vital part of his prayers. “My pastor in Chicago used to say, ‘Every morning, my first prayer is: “God, tell me what you are doing today in Chicago, and how I can be part of it”.’ To me, that’s very healthy.”