Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep

Tish Harrison Warren
InterVarsity Press, 208 pages

There are so many things about this book that I love, beginning with the craft of writing. Tish Harrison Warren is a writer who knows the apt metaphor, the precise image and turn-of-phrase to make a story come alive in the mind of the reader. The opening sentence of the prologue is a worthy example: “In the middle of the night, covered in blood in an emergency room, I was praying.”

So begins her extraordinary book of theological reflection on prayer carefully woven with stories of human experience. That night in the emergency room introduces us to the ancient practice of night prayer, Compline. The lines of prayer become the structure around which she discusses what she calls the “craft of faith” through the “practice of prayer.”

Warren takes us deeply into the implications of prayer. For instance, commenting on the poet Scott Cairns assertion that a poem insists upon ambiguity to engage the reader, Warren writes: “What is true of poetry is true of the Christian life as well. Perplexity is built into the Christian faith. Ours is not primarily a faith of explanation but of salvation.”

She fearlessly explores the most devastating moments in her own life – miscarriages and the death of her father – as well as the suffering known that comes to us all. Warren’s fearlessness and vulnerability come from a radical conviction that God is ever present, though often inscrutable and mysterious. Sickness becomes an occasion to explore illness as a potential portal to solidarity with others and an experience of God. “We may find that God meets us when we have nothing to offer.”

In a section named a “taxonomy of vulnerability,” Warren moves the reader through practices of prayer by guiding us into the vast array of human experience. “The shape of our prayers determines the shape of our lives,” she writes, reminding us that prayer is the way our faith takes place in the world of the afflicted and the suffering, including those whose affliction is unrelenting and will never go away. She asks poignantly about the father and his son who is lives with severe autism, “What does prayer for him look like? What does the abundant life in Jesus look like for those whose lives will never look anything like the American dream?”

Subtly and with great creativity, Warren has crafted a theology around ancient prayer that has shaped her as pastor, priest, friend, wife and mother. The final chapter is the last line of the prayer which appropriately enough points to the eschatological hope of the Christian faith and the conviction that undergirds all our living. Drawing our attention to the cross of Jesus, she reminds us that the astonishing love of God for us is always known through the lens of the crucified one. Through this “refraction of the cross” we experience God’s love. In the light of this love often hidden in messy human experience, we know, “in the end, darkness is not explained. It is defeated.”

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