Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: Prayer

It was the question the disciples asked the Lord Jesus: 'Teach us to pray.' Ever since, disciples of the Lord have been seeking to grow in their prayer life, seeking some way of learning how to pray. Already on my bookshelves, there are prayer books and books on prayer. This one, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller, is a worthy addition.

In the introduction, Keller asks and answers the question 'why write a book on prayer?' His aim is to write one that is theological, experiential and methodological; above all, one that is accessible to readers. He goes on to observe that books on prayer are either "communion-centred" (that is, experiential) or "kingdom centred" (that is, intercessory). This is a false dichotomy, as Keller argues, we see both in Psalms, 'the inspired prayer book of the Bible.' Thus, his book 'will show that prayer is both conversation and encounter with God... Prayer, then, is both awe and intimacy, struggle and reality.'

The book is divided into five parts, of which there are fifteen chapters. The first part looks at 'Desiring Prayer' and begins with a rather forthright challenge from Tim and Kathy Keller's own experience. Confessing that they found prayer difficult (and who doesn't?), they resolved to pray together every night - because they would most certainly take a life-saving drug every night without fail. Under this challenge, Tim resolved to search to understand and 'get' prayer. Yet it didn't come easily: 'There is a sense of the necessity of prayer - we have to pray. But how?' Having read and considered more, Keller shares that he made four changes to his private devotions - praying through the Psalms regularly; putting in meditation between Bible reading and prayer; praying morning and evening, not just in the morning; and praying with greater expectation.

This part continues with a consideration of the greatness of prayer. Keller points to Ephesians 1 to see how Paul prayed for people he loved - to know God better. 'It is remarkable that in all of his writings, Paul's prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances... Paul sees this fuller knowledge of God as a more critical thing to receive.' This chapter goes on to express how God's greatness is made known in our lives as we pray, both individually and in community.

Part Two helps in Understanding Prayer. While acknowledging that nearly everyone prays at some point in their life, Keller argues that not all prayers are the same. Rather, 'prayer is a response to the knowledge of God.' It is always response, producing a conversation with the God who speaks and reveals himself through Word and Spirit. This conversation idea is developed, with the illustration of babies learning to speak by listening to adults speaking to them. Likewise, our praying comes through immersion in the Scripture - both in knowing who we are praying to, and also how to pray. Further, Encountering God is encouraged, grounded in the God of the Bible, so that 'Prayer turns theology into experience.'

Part Three turns to Learning Prayer. It's from this point Keller assures the reader 'From here on in, we will try to answer the practical questions.' Over two chapters, Keller looks at the writings of spiritual giants on prayer - Augustine and Luther first, and then a separate chapter on Calvin's Institutes. Keller takes the wisdom of these forefathers to help us learn how to pray. Augustine's main learning point seems to be that we need to be changed for our prayer life to be changed - because our disordered love leads us to focus on the wrong things. To cry out for something in danger is only 'worrying in God's direction' without this change in heart and desire. Luther's contribution is to counsel the cultivation of prayer as a habit through regular discipline, meditating on the Bible text as (i) instruction, (ii) thanksgiving, (iii) confession, and (iv) prayer. He also recommends paraphrasing the Lord's Prayer with our own concerns.

Calvin, in his Institutes, gives some recommendations for prayer, including 1. the principle of reverence, 2. spiritual humility, 3. submissive trust, 4. confidence and hope, and 5. the rule of grace - it's not based on our performance, but God's grace. Keller makes the point that praying in Jesus' name isn't a magic formula: 'To pray in Jesus' name means to come to God in prayer consciously trusting in Christ for our salvation and acceptance.'

Having heard from some fathers in the faith, the next chapter focuses on learning from the Master, with a consideration of the Lord's Prayer - albeit with some contributions from Augustine, Luther and Calvin. This leads on to the 'touchstones' of prayer - a summary of all the ground he has covered thus far, and a table of prayer which is worth considering in greater detail (p. 141).

Part Four is concerned with Deepening Prayer - as conversation in meditation; and as encounter seeking his face. Keller recognises the difficulties of meditation for our 'cultural attention deficit disorder' and the 'hyperactivity of today's contemporary society... 'which makes slow reflection and meditation a lost art.' These were helpful chapters, focusing on sound biblical interpretation which leads to good meditation, and on experiencing what we really have as Christians.

Part Five concludes the book by encouraging the reader in Doing Prayer. These chapters focus on the themes of awe, intimacy, struggle and practice, rightly putting awe first (as does the Lord's Prayer). Following CS Lewis, Keller reminds us that praise doesn't just express, but completes the enjoyment - and all the more so with God. To help cultivate habits of awe and praise, Keller urges the reader to make every pleasure adoration; look to God before petition (as in the structure of the Anglican Collects in the Book of Common Prayer); and using Matthew Henry's categories of adoring God. The rest of the book gives more insights into Keller's practice, and contains some helpful suggestions and outlines for prayer and devotion.

As you would expect with Tim Keller, his book on prayer is thorough, at times heavy, but ultimately worth while reading. His pastor's heart shines through, always encouraging the reader to go deeper, to pray better, but above all, to encounter the God of prayer, the God who takes the inititative to rescue and redeem.

Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God is available from Amazon and for Kindle.

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