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BOOK REVIEW

Insights From a Man Who Wrestles With God

RUNNING WITH JESUS, The Prayers of Malcolm Boyd, By Malcolm Boyd, with a forwardby Martin E. Marty, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, $15.99, 144 pages

September 30, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

There is a story in the book of Genesis in which Jacob wrestles all night with a man, who is also described in the book of Hosea as an angel and elsewhere as God. As the dawn breaks, Jacob's adversary urges him to break off the fight.

"I will not let you go, unless you bless me," a determined Jacob insists. Then comes the momentous reply. "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Jacob is then blessed.

Striving with God can seem somehow sacrilegious, particularly when one considers how often prayer to the Almighty is reduced to mere pablum, talismanic words that seek neither dialogue with the divine nor an appreciation of our own part in making God's work our own. Either that or the words we mouth are wrapped in a paralysis of disbelief.

Yet, as the story of Jacob illustrates, contending with God--asking questions and listening--is the work of those who wrest meaning and spiritual growth from the circumstances of their lives.

Like Jacob, the Rev. Malcolm Boyd is one who wrestles with God. In his new self-revelatory book, "Running With Jesus--the Prayers of Malcolm Boyd," he questions, challenges and, above all, opens himself to listening.

At times his questions and observations hang in the dark silence of monologue. Twenty-three of his 104 prayers end with questions. Still, he persists. He will not let go until he is blessed.

Boyd's latest book includes some of the best prayers from his previous books, including his signature, "Are You Running With Me, Jesus?" which became the title of his 1965 bestseller. For those unacquainted with Boyd's earlier work, the selections should be a welcome remedial reader.

Only a fourth of the prayers or meditations are new. That is to be regretted, because Boyd, vigorous at 77, is a sensitive man and Episcopal priest whose experiences commend his counsel. He has scars and triumphs that enrich those he touches. He marched during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. He was arrested inside the Pentagon during a peace Mass protesting the Vietnam War. He was one of the first gay priests to come out of the closet. He has just finished another book for baby boomers on aging and is poet-writer in residence at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

For Boyd--whose church is richly endowed with liturgical prayers of soaring transcendental beauty--there are times when simple conversation with Jesus keeps him mindful of the presence of God in all times and places.

"Authentic prayer," he writes, "bridges a heretical gulf between the sacred and the secular, the holy and profane."

What is the gulf to be bridged? What are the banal and everyday conundrums and challenges to be redeemed? His prayers reflect life in the raw, and, at other times, simple pleasures. Boyd engages God when he is overwhelmed, lonely, angry, impatient, exhausted and feeling inadequate. He writes of willfulness, traffic congestion and insomnia. He prays about what to say to an unwed mother who is pregnant and intends to have sex again with the father, even though she does not love him. He thinks about sparing the life of a cockroach, about the death of his dog and about the simple joys of gardening.

Some of the sections are not so much prayers as recollections he shares with God. One gets the impression that if God is not answering, God is surely listening.

One vignette concerns visiting his mother, who has since died, in a rest home: " 'Go away,' she says, almost inaudibly, forming the words precisely with her lips. Her eyes are hard. 'You're crazy,' she announced, giving me an uncompromising look of dismissal. 'Go away,' she repeats slowly. 'Don't come back . . . ' Patience and understanding. They are needed, especially in a retirement home, aren't they Jesus?"

Then there are the traps we set for ourselves. "I sit inside my jail, Jesus," Boyd writes. "I constructed it with my own hands, stone upon stone, lock inside lock. Here I am a model prisoner of my own will. Here I am the slave of self."

To listen in on Boyd's prayers is to come to a new understanding of what Jesus meant when he prayed, ". . . thy will be done." The words imply not a fatalistic acceptance of things as they are, but active participation in creation as created co-creators. Sometimes this means contending and wrestling with God; other times, simple listening and conversation about everyday life.

"Prayer, I've learned, is more my response to God than a matter of my own initiative," he writes. "I believe Jesus Christ prays in me as well as for me. But my response--like the psalmist's--is sporadic, moody, now despairing, now joyful, corrupted by my self-interest and frequent desire to manipulate God's love. The widespread, often hidden, community that is open to the Spirit of God incarnates prayer in its essential life. My own prayer is a part of this."

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