When God first nudged me in the direction of developing The Pastor’s Workshop, I threw myself wholeheartedly into the collection and curation of great content. It was, on the whole, a rather foolhardy enterprise, where I, a single person, would attempt to log thousands of quotes, stories, and prayers for the sake of the church. I must have gone through hundreds, if not thousands of books in that first year. Of all those books, the one that stood out the most was Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary.
Warren’s first book has a lucid writing style and a depth of understanding rarely seen today. It tackled the everyday (yes, the ordinariness) of the Christian life, in new and exciting ways. It grounded what we often see as the mundane in the larger narrative of the Christian story and called us to follow Jesus, even in the laundry-doing and the dish-washing. It’s a message we all need.
With all that said, when I heard Warren’s latest book Prayer in the Night was coming out, I anxiously requested a review copy from InterVarsity Press. This book shares a few similarities with Liturgy, including Warren’s excellent writing style, as well as her desire to share some of the spiritual vitality of her adopted Anglican tradition. It also deals with a particular time of day, but the tone is quite different from her first release. It is a theological reflection on suffering, organized around a specific prayer (during Compline) that anchored Harrison Warren through a period of deep loss, of both a child and her father.
One trend I have noticed in recent years are the number of Christian nonfiction works that deal with the topic of suffering, most usually in the form of memoir, though not always. What many lack is a depth of theological reflection to walk alongside the experience. Warren succeeds in this quite masterfully, and we can be grateful for her willingness not simply to share the deep losses of her life with us, but to do so with an integrity that neither minimizes the pain, nor explains it away in some sophomoric wishy-washy nostalgia.
“The problem of pain” Warren observes, “can’t be adequately answered because we don’t primarily want an answer. When all is said and done, we don’t want God to simply explain himself, to give an account of how hurricanes or head colds fit into his overall redemptive plan. We want action. We want to see things made right” (25). But some things being “made right” will not happen this side of paradise, so where do we turn when prayer seems impossible? For Warren, the answer was probably rather obvious, she turned to the prayers of the church, and more specifically to her Anglican tradition, whose evening prayer, Compline, is able to speak truth, to give light, even in the darkness of our souls.
When words failed, when emotions could not be put into words, this ancient prayer of the church became a lifeline for Warren, voice she could borrow when her own words could not capture the enormity of what she was experiencing. Here is that prayer:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
God isn’t brushing our pain “under the rug,” but rather inviting us to share it with Him. And where there are no words, we are invited to read the words of the saints who came before us, who also knew what great loss looked like, but would nevertheless remain faithful through the end. And so we have a need for us to find companions willing to be vulnerable in their pain, for those who set a course that we too can follow when crisis and trauma set in.
In chapter two, titled, Keep Watch, Dear Lord: Pain & Presence, Warren shares a very helpful analogy from her own life:
Years ago, during a vacation in New Hampshire, Jonathan and I climbed Mount Washington, which is notorious for erratic weather. It can change from sunny and warm to snowing in a few hours. The wind is so strong that it once held the record for the fastest wind gust on earth. On our hike, we thought we might be blown off the mountain (we have no photos from that day in which my hair is not blown entirely across my face). And then there’s the fog, which settles so deep and thick that hikers have gotten lost and died. So the good people of New Hampshire have made cairns along the trail: massive, towering rock structures that plot the course.
When the fog descends and the weather is dangerous, hikers can make it to shelter at the bottom of the mountain or at the top by walking from cairn to cairn in the white out.
In times of deep darkness, the cairns that have kept me in the way of Jesus were the prayers and practices of the church. When I could not pray, the church said, “Here are prayers.” When I could not believe, the church said, “Come to the table and be fed.” When I could not worship, the church sang over me the language of faith.
Inherited ways of prayer and worship—liturgical practices—are a way that the ancient church built cairns for us, to help us endure this mystery, to keep us on this path of faith, to guide us home. (pp.30-31)
This book, Prayer in the Night, is a cairn for us, built by a fellow saint on the journey, that we might not simply endure the mystery, but continue on the narrow path faithfully, awaiting the dawn, so that “he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil.1:6)
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Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
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