Friday, November 23, 2007

Book Review: How Strong Women Pray

November 23, 2007

Motivational speaker Bonnie St. John has conquered amazing challenges in her life, including having her leg amputated when she was 5 and being horribly abused by her step-father as a little girl. But in spite of her harsh introduction to the world, she won Paralympic medals in skiing, graduated from Harvard, won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and served on the White House National Economic Council.

But St. John's biggest struggles began when she became a mother and gradually remembered her abusive childhood. Forced to deal with decades of memories she'd unburied, St. John found her emotional life unraveling, and she turned, bit by painstaking bit, to God. Prayer came slowly to her, and as she began her own quest to understand prayer, she began to wonder about the prayer life of other women she knew. Who prays? How do they pray? Where and when and why do people pray? Her ponderings became interview questions, and the result is this book that mixes St. John's own life story with snippets of stories of other women's prayer lives. As St. John writes in her introduction, "This book is a spiritual quilt of women's lives you can wrap around yourself."

About two dozen women were interviewed for this book. Some of them spoke powerfully of prayer, like Colette Branch, who packed up 100 severely disabled people and 200 employees and evacuated just a day before Katrina demolished New Orleans--in spite of being laughed at by others who thought she was over-reacting. And Janet Parshall, a radio talk-show host, really stands out as a woman who knows the voice of God through prayer. Unlike many of the women in the book, she writes, "I've gotten over the idea of ritualism in prayer. There's the ABC approach and the method that models the Lord's Prayer. I think it's important to go deeper than the formal prayers that we've been taught. Above all else, He listens to us and He wants to communicate with us."

I think many of the women interviewed for the book are stuck at ritualistic prayer. And some seem to mix up prayer with some kind of transcendental state or as a gimmick. Amy Domini writes that she uses "prayer to get to that place where problems can solve themselves overnight." She says, "I realized...that I could put myself into 'the zone' by praying, and actually lower my heart rate." I don't really get that. It seems more like praying for prizes than spending time with God.

I found myself skimming the stories toward the end because for me, the real meat of the book was Bonnie's own story. I would have been perfectly happy just reading her memoir and her journey into walking closer to God, because she is wonderful. I like her honesty and her moments of realization, like when she realizes during one of her interviews that people actually thrive on coming together and praying together: "Apparently, I was doing it the hard way...I thought I had to do it all by myself. I didn't understand that seeking support in prayer would make me stronger and better as a mother, as a motivator, as a business owner, and as a friend."

This is where St. John starts, as she writes in her introduction: "Conversations about prayer are rare. People can go to church together every day and never talk about how they pray. Husbands and wives can pray separately for a lifetime and never share the experience. Even in a prayer group, most people talk about what they are praying about, not how they actually pray." This statement really jumped out at me because, well, I do have conversations about prayer with my friends. I can't imagine a sermon in which our pastor didn't discuss the power of prayer at some point. It's only been a few months since we completed a women's Bible study about women and prayer. My friends regularly tell me, "I'll be praying for you." And wow. I was struck yet again by the blessedness of my life. Kind of like Dorothy and the red shoes, I've had prayer all my life, surrounding me and protecting me. I forget sometimes that what has been handed down to me by my parents is something that others, like St. John, find only after years of struggling and searching. I am certain that by the time St. John finished this book, she came to a whole new place in her relationship with Christ.

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