The Possibility of Prayer, John Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Summary: We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life.
Many of us approach this matter of prayer deeply torn. We long for a rich relationship with God, and yet our fast-paced, disruptive lives, makes such prayer seem the preserve of a spiritual elite. We long for transformation, yet struggle with prayer seeming to be a non-productive practice in our “show me the money” world.
John Starke names the issue for us:
The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).
Starke contends that the possibility of prayer rests in a God who became incarnate in his son and who cares so deeply for us that he knows our tossing at night as well as the hairs on our head. While we pray in our nooks and crannies, we also pray in the heavenly places with Christ, entering into relationship with a God who is gloriously “heavy” [the meaning of glory], holy, joyful, beautiful, relational, and available. He suggests as we read scripture considering how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might be speaking to us, inviting us into deeper communion with the triune God.
He addresses one of our greatest barriers, which is a reactionary heart and way of life, a habit of the heart where we ignore living out of an inner life and are shaped by our responses to circumstances that only the slow, quiet work of prayer may shape. Prayer can be painful because it calls upon us to expose our vulnerabilities, and our sins to God. Learning to pray means learning to wait, to dwell or abide with God amid the ordinary, the mundane, when nothing special seems to be happening between us and God.
Starke then considers the practices that take us into this “possible” life of prayer. He focuses on the practices of communion, meditation, solitude, fasting and feasting, sabbath, and corporate worship. I particularly appreciated the chapter on fasting and feasting, particularly Starke’s recognition that we more often associate spirituality with the fasting side of this rather than a rhythm of both. I also found this striking insight from Psalm 77:10-12 on the distinctive character of Christian meditation:
The psalmist is not engaging in passive exercises. This is not the gentle emotional work of relaxing and trying to empty your mind. It’s fighting. These are intentional habits: I will appeal; I will remember; I will ponder; I will meditate. Christian meditation is fighting, grasping for joy, It’s intentionally and regularly remembering and pondering the history of God’s power for his people. If you coast, you lose. (p. 111).
Starke offers spiritual wisdom borne of his own spiritual journey and pastoral ministry among busy New Yorkers. He encourages us that engaging with God is possible for ordinary saints if we begin to pursue the slow, quiet ways of prayer, and persist in a relationship that, over time, can bring great joy and transformation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.