The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke

I’m recording this 2 hours before I am supposed to publish. It’s been a busy week. Lots of deadlines, lots of work. My to-do list looks more like a wish list. Is it possible for busy busy Christians to have a vibrant prayer life? Or is that only for monks in monasteries of the past?

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review Faithlife’s Free Book for the month of April, “The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World” by John Starke. 188 pages, published by Inter-Varsity Press in February 2020. The List Price is USD15.99, it’s offered for USD2.99 in Amazon Kindle at the time of this recording (USD2.99 is a great deal!) and it is free for this month in Faithlife.

Finding John Starke

According to Ligonier Ministries, Starke is the lead pastor of All Souls Church New York City and an editor for The Gospel Coalition. But according to The Gospel Coalition, he is the pastor of preaching at Apostles Church in New York City. Is All Souls Church the same as Apostles Church? Is he the pastor of two separate churches?

I didn’t know so I decided to fly over to New York City to visit the two churches for myself and investigate this matter for myself. Then I remembered the Internet, the indispensable tool for online detectives investigating anything from airline crashes to war crimes. So I fired up dear old Google and searched for “All Souls Church New York City”.

And I got, “As a community, we work to create an anti-racist & LGBTQIA+ affirming congregation, taking action on issues like immigration, climate change, voting rights and poverty & hunger.” There is also a link in this church’s website to Buddhism and Mindfulness.

Obviously, I got the wrong place. I soon discovered that New York City has an All Souls Church, it also has All Souls Christian Church.

I found John Starke’s Facebook page. He is currently the Lead Pastor at Apostles Church Uptown (which I also verified in the church’s website). He was the former lead pastor at All Souls Church (I presume it’s the Christian one, because if not, he has a great story to tell) and he is the former editor at The
Gospel Coalition.

And all this serves as a lesson to us all, “always check what you read online” and “Ligonier Ministries is not always right.”

I’m sure you are getting a bit restless for me to get to today’s book review. You want me to quickly get to the point. But what if the point of the book is to slow down, take a deep breathe, and wait?

Realities and Rhythms

The point of the book? Let’s hear from John Starke on what this book is about and how it’s arranged. I quote:

A vibrant prayer life is possible for you. I know it may not seem this way, but the whole thing is rigged for triumph.
That doesn’t mean that prayer will be easy or comfortable. It won’t. In fact, we should prepare for the long, slow haul of discomfort, confusion, and frustration, laced with joy, love, stability, and wholeness. There aren’t a few techniques merely to pick up so that next week the struggle for prayer will be over. Instead, there are realities that we need to grasp that lead to pathways (rather than techniques) toward intimacy with God. These realities—like the incarnation of Christ, our participation in Christ’s exalted status, and his participation in our troubled and lowly place—rearrange how we think about ourselves, God, and the world around us.

The realities we need to grasp are covered in Part One of the book, titled the Possibility of Prayer. It consists of six chapters and they are:

  1. The Impossibility of Prayer
  2. The Places of Prayer
  3. The Invitation of Prayer
  4. Outgrowing the Reactionary Heart
  5. Pain and Prayer
  6. Waiting and Praying

After understanding these realities, Starke introduces us to the pathways toward intimacy with God. He titles this second half, “The Practice of Prayer” which consists of another six chapters and they are:

  1. Communion
  2. Meditation
  3. Solitude
  4. Fasting and Feasting
  5. Sabbath Resting
  6. Corporate Worship

Normally, I pick a chapter to share with you so that you know what to expect from the book. Sometimes I pick the first chapter. Other times I pick a favourite. I had a hard time choosing.

I read one chapter and think, “This is good. I’ll pick this one.” Then I read the next one, and think, “What a great chapter. This is better.” And on it goes. This is a good sign of a good book.

The Possibility of Prayer by John Starke

Reality of Prayer

Listen to how Starke describes prayer in the first chapter:

Prayer is calling on God for his attention. We ask him to turn away from the exploding stars and supernovas and give attention to our trouble. We ask him to show us mercy. Why would we think this is a good idea?

That last question made me stop. Why would we think it is a good idea to call God’s attention on ourselves? We are sinners. He is holy. We don’t go walk into the savannah calling the lion. The lion is the predator. We are dinner.

In prayer, we call God’s attention to us. Did you ever stop to think about a universe where a great God listens to man? Cause there are many possible universes out there, you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Star Trek Universe, the Atheist Universe and many other man-made, fictional universes, with their own set of rules. What makes it possible in this world, our reality, what makes it possible for us to even pray?

If we don’t see the reality behind prayer, we understand and do prayer wrongly.

Starke gives this example:

Our modern world often sees our neighbors, relationships, marriages, religion, family, and civic engagements as enhancements, like a gym membership to enhance bodily health. Things that previous societies might have seen as obligations, we see as enhancements. They are meant to add and benefit, but the minute they begin to require sacrifice, become difficult, or challenge our assumptions, we move on. They aren’t enhancing anymore.
Many of us see God like that. And so we think of prayer, too, as an enhancement. But if we take the posture characteristic of what the New Testament calls us toward—poor and needy for him—then our prayers will begin to take a deeper turn.

I hope you can see there is much to unpack here, which Starke does in various parts of the book. Do you see prayer as an enhancement, something that helps you to be more spiritual. You tried it, it doesn’t work, so you conclude that prayer is not for you. Or you pray but you shouldn’t expect a deeply satisfying prayer life.

Can you see how that posture is different from what Starke describes? Starke argues convincingly that prayer comes from a posture of spiritual poverty. I need thee every hour, every hour I need thee.

Starke said, I quote: “Things that previous societies might have seen as obligations, we see as enhancements.” Is it right to see prayer as an obligation? Do you want to read a book that increases your guilt and burden?

Let me read an endorsement from Chuck DeGroat, professor of pastoral care and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary:

The Possibility of Prayer is beautiful and deeply countercultural. John isn’t asking us to layer another obligation on top of our lives but inviting us to a fundamental reorientation rooted in God’s presence. Because John pastors a busy people in a busy city, he knows the cultural obstacles and the existential hurdles. But this is a profoundly hopeful and eminently practical book. What a gift this is to all of us!

Plot Twists

I get a feeling that Starke is a guy who likes plot twists. In some chapters, he brings me down the path, and I think I know where he is going, when he suddenly goes off to show me something I know but in a new light.

When you see a chapter titled, “The Places of Prayer”, what do you think?

After explaining what Jesus meant by a prayer closet, Starke writes:

Maybe early mornings feel impossible. You work late or you’re a morning monster, and for the sake of neighborly welfare you wonder if evening prayers are better. But let me give witness to what I have seen: many a friend has sought to pray later in the day because mornings seemed so hard, but they never sustained any regular habit of it. I’m sure there are any number of reasons why they didn’t keep up with a regular afternoon prayer life, but I imagine one of the most common was that once the day began, it was hard to pause the momentum of efficiency and productivity for stillness. To this I say (I, not the Lord), it may be wise to make your time of prayer in the mornings after all.

Reading this, I expected the rest of the chapter to be about prayer closets, how to block out time to pray, how to tell the children to shush while mummy flips an apron over her head to pray.

The chapter is titled “The Places of Prayer”. How else would you understand “The Places of Prayer”? Places of Prayer, I thought it would be my bedroom, my office, my church, my floor, but Starke tells me the Places of Prayer are:

The Burning Bush where God meets Moses.
The Throne Room of God where God meets Isaiah.
The Eternal Communion of the Trinity.
The Place of Prayer is where Christ is at my right hand. (Psalm 16:8).
The Place of Prayer is where I am at Christ’s right hand. (Psalm 16:11).

I thought I was going to one place but I ended up in another. It doesn’t happen all the time in the book but enough to make it a fun read.

I give you another example of a surprise, this time marked by it’s absence. If you had to write a book on prayer, what Bible passage would you include? Let me give you a hint… Our Father in Heaven… Lord’s Prayer! Matthew 6:9-15.

What does it say for this Christian book on prayer that it doesn’t expound the Lord’s Prayer? Daring or Foolish? My take is if you are going to expound the Lord’s Prayer, you should make sure it fits in the overall thesis and not just make a flitting mention for the sake of it. If it doesn’t fit then leave it, and rest your case on the passages that do. This is what Starke did.

He doesn’t build his book on the Lord’s Prayer but that’s okay, you can read J.I. Packer’s book. Instead Starke builds much of his book on the Psalms, so much so, that I think he should one day write a devotion or commentary on the Psalms.

How much does John Starke love the Psalms? Near the end of the book, he writes:

I pray the Psalms at the end of the day because I want to go to bed with God’s perspective on my day that’s ending and with the hope that God has for tomorrow.

There is more that I want to share but time is running out. Before I go into Part 2 of the book let me quickly quote some portions from the chapter titled “Overcoming the Reactionary Heart”.

I quote:

A reactionary life acts in response to what happens rather than out of our inner lives. We often do not know how to handle what the world throws at us. We simply react. When others hurt us, we react with anger, bitterness, and resentment, moving us to hurt back or pass the pain down the line to someone else.

He later writes:

A Christian who wants to grow out of a reactionary life and into an enriched soul and spirit must learn to pray the psalms.

See the Psalms again! But the point in the chapter is we should look at prayer life as, Starke says, “God’s slow, quiet work”. When life happens our response is like that of a Zen Master, wait scratch that… why Zen Master? Our response to life should be like that of a Christian Saint, more powerful than a Zen Master because the Christian Saint lives in the knowledge of divine reality.

Practice of Prayer

Alright, I need to at least say something about the second part of the book: The Practice of Prayer. As he said earlier, we need to grasp the realities, which is in Part One, so that we can know the pathways toward intimacy with God, which is in Part Two. Starke distances himself from the idea of techniques. He prefers to talk about them as rhythms:

The practice of prayer consists of primary rhythms (communion, meditation, and solitude), and secondary rhythms (Sabbath resting, fasting and feasting, and corporate worship).

He later writes:

Our personal times of communion, meditation, and solitude are enhanced by the regular rhythms of Sabbath rest, fasting and feasting, and corporate worship. And our rhythms of Sabbath rest, fasting and feasting, and corporate worship are deepened by our personal habits of communion, meditation, and solitude.

I thought I read enough books on prayer to not be surprised. I’ve read J.I. Packer, Tim Keller, E.M. Bounds and a few others so I found it delightful to learn completely new things. Like the connection between fasting and feasting. I haven’t made up my mind about this, he gives enough biblical support to almost convince me, but I have a problem because I always saw fasting as some kind of Iron Man Challenge, not as a prelude to a feast.

Another eye-opening chapter is

The chapter on the Sabbath was also eye-opening to me. I think most Christians have reached a position on the Sabbath. I’ve even taught it. I thought I knew enough but it seems I did not go far enough.

Written by a Reader

Let me give my overall comments on this book.

I don’t know how to explain it but, you can tell that this book was written by a reader. I don’t want to exaggerate this but when he quotes Henri Nouwen, his writing takes on that persona. When he quotes Robert Farrar Capon, his writing is more witty. It could be just my impression because of the proximity of the quote made me associate the two together. And I don’t mean it in a bad way. On the contrary, his enthusiasm for these books and writers is fun to read.

Listen to this:

Some years back my wife and I discovered what is now one of our favorite books, The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon. It’s a culinary reflection on joy and life. It’s a cookbook, but it’s also theology. Capon is funny but also aims to rescue us from the dangers of mediocrity in our eating life, where there’s so much pleasure to be found—even in cutting an onion! My wife and I found the book and we both wanted to read it. So over several evenings, we shared a bottle of wine and took turns reading it out loud to one another. We had so much fun. There were moments when we had to put our glasses down because we had to belly laugh or stop to consider and reread what was just said. “Underline that!” we would say. Those moments stirred intimacy and vibrancy in us.

Don’t tell me that after hearing that you are not the tiniest bit curious to read the Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.

A Book Written For Me

I have read many books on prayer. Tim Keller. J.I. Packer. E.M. Bounds. With each book, I’m hoping to learn a bit more, get inspired a bit more, maybe even guilt tripped a bit more, to have a more consistent and vibrant prayer life.

One feature of this book is he doesn’t tell us about the prayer life of Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or Susanna Wesley. Not that I don’t like to learn or enjoy learning from the past. But sometimes it takes a bit of effort to see how knights, castles and horses fits into my world.

In those books I love reading the past, in Starke I love reading the present.

For example, Starke writes:

Without that intentional recognition of his [God’s] presence, prayer can seem distant and impersonal. Without the conscious welcome of his company (since he has welcomed ours), communion can often feel about as intimate as email.

Communion can often feel about as intimate as email. I get that. I get that praying like shooting off an email is a bad thing. I don’t want that kind of communion. So in that sense, Starke’s book feels like it’s written for me.

I struggle to have a vibrant prayer life.
I love to read and get introduced to new books and authors.
I have read enough books on prayer that I don’t miss an exposition on the Lord’s Prayer or the prayer life of past saints.
I am fairly techie and busy. I want to find stillness with God in a restless world.

I can’t say at the moment that this book has transformed my prayer life to be more consistent. I don’t think all the books I read has been a waste, I think they all play an important role in pushing me forward. Progress is slow. But an inch forward is still an inch. I would like to see what happens at the end of the year, when I do a long-term review to see which books made the deepest impact on me over the year.

If I could make one criticism, the book doesn’t have enough doxology. With the material he is dealing with, like for example the places of prayer, you have the burning bush, the throne room of God, the eternal communion of the Trinity, as he goes through them, he could have just gone into praise. How marvelous are you O Lord. Just bursting with awe at the reality he is describing.

For a book on prayers, he doesn’t end the chapters with prayer, nor does he pray much. I mean written prayer. I don’t know John Starke. I’ve never heard his sermons, read any of his articles and this book is his very first book. Is he shy to share prayers? Or is it because spot where he could have interjected with doxology, he doesn’t put his own words but instead the Psalmist’s.

This is a Reading and Readers review of “The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World” by John Starke.

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Book List

The Possibility of Prayer: Finding Stillness with God in a Restless World by John Starke. Amazon. Faithlife.