The importance of showing up

December 10, 2008

A passage from the book I’m currently reading. Yancey makes me want to be a Christian writer so badly.

Indeed, the New Testament presents prayer as a weapon in a prolonged struggle. Jesus’s parables on prayer show a widow pestering a judge and a man pounding on his neighbour’s door. After painting a picture of the Christian as a soldier fitted out with the “full armour of God”, Paul gives four direct commands to pray. Elsewhere, Paul urges his protégé Timothy to endure hardship like a soldier, to toil like a farmer, to compete like an athlete.

I have neither farmed nor served in the military but for thirty years I have been a runner, often entering charity races. I remember well how it all started. I met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writer’s conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America, which later became a national bestseller. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, “I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, “So Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?” I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!” Without thinking, I volunteered.

As our agreed-upon time approached, I realized that if I planned to walk through Texas in July with a backpack weighing sixty-pounds, I had better get into shape. I bought some cheap running shoes, stepped out the door, and sprinted down the driveway, expecting to run a few miles. At the end of the block I pulled up, gasping and wheezing, with an abrupt lesion in physical fitness. Lay off exercise for a decade or more, and the boy no longer responds.

I ran as far as I could that day – one block – then walked a block, ran another block, and limped home humiliated. The next day I ran two blocks, kept on walking, and ran some more. Within six weeks, just in time for Texas assignment, I was running seven miles without stopping. That began a routine of aerobic exercise that continues to this day. My body has become so accustomed to the regimen that, if I have to skip a few days because of injury or illness, I feel edgy and restless.

I learned early on never to ask myself, “Do you feel like running toady?” I just do it. Why? I can think of many reasons. Regular exercise allows me to eat what I want without worrying about weight gain. It does long-term good for my heart and lungs. It allows me to do other activities, such as skiing and mountain climbing. All these benefits represent the kind of “deferred gratification” Daniel Yankelovich referred to.

As with physical exercise, much of the benefit of prayer comes as a result of consistency, the simple act of showing up. The writer Nancy Mairs says she attends church in the same spirit in which a writer does to her desk every morning, so that if an idea comes along she’ll be there to receive it. I approach prayer the same way. Many days, I would be hard-pressed to describe a direct benefit. I keep on, though, whether it feels as if I am profiting or not. I show up in the hope of getting to know God better, and perhaps hearing from God in ways accessible only through quiet and solitude.

– Philip Yancey
Prayer: Does it make any difference?

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