This week Janet and I will be halfway through a book tour on Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? that is taking us to 15 cities. Typically we’re gone for a week, home for three days, then off again. We have just enough time to do the laundry and get some dry cleaning done. Of course, there are always surprises. On one trip we returned to find that the grader of our dirt road had cut through a cable, leaving us with no phone service (cell phones don’t work in our canyon) or Internet. During that same trip we learned that the bear had torn up our birdfeeder again. Ah, the joys of country living. There are compensations, of course: a couple of days ago Janet saw a large bobcat strolling up our driveway in broad daylight, and we regularly have to stop on our road to let a herd of elk cross.
The hectic pace, spotlights, and encounters with hundreds of different people each day could not differ more from my normal life of quiet and isolation. I wouldn’t want to do this without Janet along, to be sure, since she’s the extrovert in the marriage. At the same time, what could be more rewarding than to see in person the results of my efforts at home? Every night on the road we hear incredible stories of people who found comfort or challenge through one of my books.
Several times the events on the prayer tour have included time for an open mike, and people bravely tell their stories to the audience. I think of one shy young man in Boulder, Colorado, who said in a halting voice, “I always wonder about prayer, whether I’m doing it right…” My answer is that if you’re doing it, you’re doing it right. Or an older man with a lush beard who shuffled to the microphone at an auditorium at Calvin College. He mumbled, and I almost interrupted him to ask him to speak up. I’m glad I didn’t. This is what he said. “God gave me Parkinson’s Disease. How can I possibly think he listens to what I have to say in prayer?” The room got very silent. Cautiously, I told him that even though I was at a college named for the patriarch of predestination, I don’t think God “gave him” Parkinson’s. We know best what God is like by looking at Jesus, who went around healing people and never told a wounded person “Just accept it, it’s God’s will.”
The topic of prayer brings out intimate moments like these, and confronts us with mystery. One young woman told of her joy when God answered her prayer to bring her friend back safely after a year in Iraq. A few days later, he died in an accident. Another told of her nineteen years in an abusive marriage. “I would pray, ‘Lord, if someone is killed by a drunk driver, let it be my husband.’” Her church offered protection when she finally got the nerve to leave the marriage, and six months later her husband committed suicide. “I’m a chauffeur for a limo company now,” she said. “I have lots of time to pray, every time I’m stuck in traffic or at a red light.”
We went first to the Midwest (Minneapolis, Chicago, and Michigan), a good place to start since my publisher is located in Grand Rapids. There we ironed the kinks out of the program, which uses some video and Power Point. Then on to the Northeast, where in four consecutive days we had four very unique venues and engagements:
All in all, we’ve had quite varied experiences. I wouldn’t want to do this for a living, but it is a refreshing change. I’m writing this on the day that news stations are trumpeting the failures of Ted Haggard and the scandal’s potential effect on elections. If you only read the papers and watched TV, you would think Christians exist merely as a voting bloc to be swayed this way and that. Getting out there in person, you see that there are millions of Christians in this country who truly take their faith seriously as the most important part of their lives. To them, politics is the small news, not religion. Janet and I feel honored to step into the lives of these people, many of whom we’ve connected with vicariously through writing, and gently point them further down the path.
We leave for California (great—no neckties!), then Boston, then Texas and finally the Southeast (Atlanta, Charlotte, Florida). We are racking up frequent flyer miles, staying mostly healthy, and trying not to gain weight. We thank you for your care for us, which many of you are expressing through prayer. If you’re doing it, you’re doing it right.
The book tour is over. We’re winging our way back home from Orlando on a cramped commuter airplane. Looking at my calendar, I count 40 times when I’ve spoken about prayer, in 27 different cities, beginning with our tour of the U.K. in September. In an act of marital fidelity and sheer endurance, Janet accompanied me to every event, bless her heart. At book-signings while I’m trying to remember how to spell my own name, much less the inscription for the book buyer, she makes each of them seem like the most important person in the world—a true gift.
I think back to last year at this time, when I was writing the book on prayer, sealed away in a mountain condo, the clerk at Starbucks being the only live person I talked to all week. This fall I signed about 8000 books and held at least a one-line conversation with each book buyer. Ah, the vagaries of a writer’s life: from total isolation to social bombardment. The personal contacts complete the connection, however, and though a tour like this keeps me from getting any more writing done, it does remind me why I do it.
Just this week in Atlanta a woman told me of her four-year-old daughter who was hit by a truck and dragged along the road. Her church scolded her for a lack of faith when the little girl did not experience complete healing. Now, fifteen years later, the mother still cares for her brain-damaged child, and thanked me for writing honestly about bodies that don’t get healed and prayers that don’t get answered as we may want. She asked me to sign the most battered, dog-eared paperback copy of Disappointment with God that I’ve ever seen. Directly following her, an African-American woman asked me to write a brief note for her five-year-old son, who disappeared in Savannah, Georgia, more than a year ago. She had collected such notes from pastors and speakers: “Maybe they’ll find him, and if so, I want him to have these notes to welcome him back.” In the same line, a professional-looking blonde woman in a pin-stripe suit leaned over the book table and told us she had come to the meeting right from the courthouse, where she attended the trial of a man who had raped her son. She held up What’s So Amazing About Grace? and told me of her family’s struggle to learn grace in that situation.
A few days later a man bought four different books from the book table and asked me to sign each one. “My son just got recalled to Iraq, his third tour of duty there,” he said. “I plan to send him one of these books every three months.” I asked if the son had volunteered for Iraq. “No way. He’s in the National Guard. He has a three-year-old of his own at home.”
Readers standing in line know they have only a few minutes of time at most, and as a result they skip the small talk and get right to the point. Janet and I hear incredible stories of pain and alienation, healing and reconciliation. For all its faults and failures, the church offers a place to bring wounds and to seek meaning in times of brokenness and struggle.
We’ve been in Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregational, emergent, and California-generic churches. Especially in comparison with what I find overseas, I am amazed at the resources and options available to Christians in the U.S. In home groups and Bible studies and Sunday School classes, folks gather together to explore their faith. When we offered an open mike for questions, most were serious and thoughtful. How can I pray for my wayward kids in a non-manipulative way? What about prayers to Mary and the saints? What about requests for prayer from missionaries and ministries—how can you make them vibrant and meaningful?
One woman, an ordained pastor in Houston, told of a dark period after her son died when for 18 months she could not bring herself to pray. She cried out one day, “God, I don’t want to die like this, with all communication cut off!” Even so, it took her six more months before she could pray again. A woman with multiple sclerosis, shockingly young, limped to the microphone and said she was preparing for a time to come when she wouldn’t have the ability to do much else than pray.
Once again, we feel honored to have such intimate contacts with strangers, to hear how the work done in isolation makes possible a connection that we only find out about later. We’ve eaten our fill of airline snack packs and spent quite enough time standing in security lines but, miraculously, not a single plane was late on the U.S. tour and our baggage always arrived. Driving to some venues, we got a whirlwind tour of our amazing country, passing roadside stands selling artichokes in California, fresh lobster in Massachusetts and boiled peanuts in Texas and Georgia.
The very last question I was asked, at a beautiful Presbyterian church in downtown Orlando, FL, was, “Philip, how can we pray for you?” I said the first thing that came to mind: “You could start by praying for what I should write next!” For the first time in thirty years, I have no idea what that will be. I do, however, have a renewed sense that the act of writing about my own faith is an enormous privilege that, thanks to the machinery of publishing, I get to share with friends and strangers alike all over the world.
“We read to know that we’re not alone,” said the student to C. S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands. Yes, and we write in order to know that too. I won’t be doubting it for a long while.
Copyright © 2006 by Philip Yancey