For a freelance writer accustomed to working in a basement office, moving electrons around a computer screen, the last few weeks have been most untypical.
In early September we filmed a video series on my new book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? A video crew flew out from Michigan, rented a lodge in Silverthorne, Colorado, and lined up all sorts of shooting locations: the St. Elmo ghost town, Loveland Pass, an observatory, a hike to a waterfall. In the book I talk about such places and especially what I’ve learned about prayer hiking in the mountains.
Wouldn’t you know it—no one can remember when it’s rained five days in a row in Colorado. Were the heavens laughing as we filmed about prayer making a difference while the weather nearly ruined the video we were trying to film? I stood in squishy mud with water streaming off my hat and talked to cameras covered with plastic manned by miserable photographers. We got it done, finally, after numerous retakes caused by my flubs, trucks backfiring, water on the lens, and other minor emergencies. Most memorable was the afternoon we stood on Vail Pass and I spoke of climbing during lightning storms, and the sky started growling and shooting bolts at us. It made the point at least.
The series will be packaged in a set of six sessions and sold to churches and small groups who want to study the book with some video aids and guidance.
One week later we took off for the United Kingdom, which is where I’m writing from. The book actually released over here a month earlier than in the U.S., and the publisher has organized an 11-city tour. We’re working with the Saltmine theater troupe based near Birmingham. They perform a series of five-minute sketches related to prayer, interspersed with a conversation between me and their director. They do a most powerful depiction of a scene from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. That’s the first hour and then, after a 15-minute break, they do one more sketch and I speak for about 40 minutes. Some events are held in town halls or auditoriums, some in cathedrals, with an average attendance around 1000.
Church attendance in the U.K. has sunk to about 7 percent, and remains that high only because of immigrants from Africa and Asia. Christians feel like a beleaguered minority, and it’s good for them to turn out in a cross-church group like this.
Our favorite part comes after the program, when we sign books. Last night in Birmingham, for example, we signed a couple hundred books. We met a Hindu who became a Christian at age 19, and got to know Jesus through my book The Jesus I Never Knew. One man had driven 300 miles that morning after spending a two-day retreat on Lindisfarne, the “Holy Island” founded by the Iona community. He had been reading my book on prayer on the Holy Island, and had many insights to tell me. We met widows who were still recovering from their husbands’ deaths, a high executive struck down with multiple sclerosis, and other such stories of suffering.
So far, my favorite comment on the book is a person who said simply, “At last, a book on prayer that doesn’t make me feel guilty.” After thinking and writing about prayer for the last couple of years, I’m convinced it should be more like a spiritual privilege, not a spiritual discipline. I have no idea why God chose me to write on this subject (another wry smile from the heavens), but I sense it a privilege to speak on it as well as write.
I’m rather reluctant to claim answers to prayer, but I should say that on the flight over here I felt the first symptoms of a sore, scratchy throat that, in my case, almost inevitably leads to a two-week cycle of raw throat, runny nose, then chest cough—just what I don’t need at the start of a tour. Well, someone back there must be praying because after two days the symptoms virtually disappeared. Hmm…maybe sinuses are easier to change than Colorado weather?
We have completed the tour of the U.K. and are returning home with a tired but satisfied feeling. We went to six cities in two weeks. Given the size of Great Britain, we were able to drive between most venues, putting about 1500 miles on a car, plus a long train ride and a plane hop to Ireland. (The latter provided some excitement: we flew “Flybe” airlines, which I renamed “Fly By Night.” The flight was four hours late, and had to divert from a city airport to an international airport because only 80% of the hydraulic system was working and the pilot needed a longer runway. After being escorted to the gate by fire engines and emergency vehicles, we found transportation to the venue some 20 miles farther away.) We managed to visit each of the regions in Britain, with one stop in Wales, one in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. In between I had several media interviews, although I declined a BBC appearance to debate Dr. Richard Dawkins on “Is God a Delusion”—the last thing Britain needs, I decided, is an American Christian debating a flaming local atheist.
The program, involving four sketches by the theater company, onstage interviews, a clip from the movie Bruce Almighty, a musical guest, and a few other video bits, came together very well. Brits seem to be more tolerant of long evenings than Americans: we started each night at 7:30 and ended the program at 10 p.m., with a 15-minute interval in between. After signing a couple hundred books, Janet and I would finally finish up after 11 p.m., and some nights we had to drive several hours after that. I’d estimate our average to-bed time at 1 a.m., not something we’re used to. We’re looking forward to a more regular eating and sleeping schedule back home! We didn’t really have time for sightseeing, but on our two-day break we got to see “Romeo and Juliet” at Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town. Very appropriate, since it’s his 500th birthday year.
For my morning reading I brought along John Wesley’s Journals. Amazingly, often I was reading about the very same cities we visited the same day I read his accounts. There were major differences, though. We did one engagement a day before a friendly audience, drove between cities, and stayed in hotels. Wesley rode a horse, forded streams, spoke to huge crowds in open fields, and faced angry opponents who often threw rocks at him. Some things have changed for the better.
The venues varied all over the place: from a modern concrete Catholic cathedral in Bristol (bad echoes here) to a warehouse-type apostolic church in Leicester to quaint Victorian theatres in Wales and London to various churches, city hall buildings, and a gorgeous guild hall auditorium in Glasgow. The actors and sound technicians had quite a challenge getting sound and props to work in all these places.
My favorite venue resembled a scene from Chariots of Fire or Harry Potter. I spoke on behalf of Wycliffe Hall, the only Oxford University college still committed to evangelical theology. They rented the dining hall of Keble College, a very ornate brick building constructed in the early twentieth century as part of the Oxford Movement Catholic resurgence. Think long, narrow dining hall with wooden benches and tables with little lamps on them, with portraits of solemn-looking dons staring down. Janet and I were at the “top table” on a raised platform, dining along with the VIPs, who included several lords and ladies and politicians who came up from London. Quite the scene. They served a full rack of lamb luncheon, complete with three courses of wine (this is Europe, after all).
We met hundreds of people and heard scores of stories. One singer who joined us in Scotland had become a Christian while serving an eleven-year sentence for murder, and had been deeply affected by What’s So Amazing About Grace? Another told us of his brother, a drug addict imprisoned in Zimbabwe, who had read the same book seventeen times. In a country like the U.K., you meet far more people who converted as adults, since such a small percentage of the population grows up in Christian homes. The U.K. seems depressed by ongoing problems of terrorism, crime, and economic stagnation, and the older generation in particular has the feeling that their country has been taken over by immigrants flooding in from places like Eastern Europe and Arab countries. And the church, representing such a small proportion of the population, feels especially depressed. Yet I find in such countries that Christians are more likely to band together, and more likely to come up with creative approaches than the larger, more institutionalized U.S. church.
We heard of many heartaches too. A woman who had been a mission executive now crippled by M.S. and bitter against God. The brother-in-law of a missionary nurse murdered in Lebanon (ironically, the widower then married the granddaughter of one of the five Auca martyrs). A woman in Belfast who started Restoration Ministries and works on reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics, and as a result attracts much opposition. A woman who adopted a young African girl beaten so badly that doctors had to surgically straighten both legs and both arms. And while on the trip I heard of yet another close friend diagnosed with cancer. If prayer is a cry for help, we all have many reasons to pursue it.
We’ve got used to living out of a suitcase, and I’ve adjusted to speaking rather than writing for a living, although I wouldn’t want to make that change permanent. In the U.K. we got comments about how together we present a full partnership, with Janet’s gracious extroversion balancing my reclusive introversion. I hope so.Copyright © 2006 by Philip Yancey