You Don’t Have to Close Your Eyes: a book review.

Prayer is like kissing, you don’t have to do it with your eyes closed.  Joking aside, part of prayer is cultivating an open, and attentive posture before God. This is in essence what Sherry Harney’s Praying With Eyes Wide Open is about: learning to attend to your environment, circumstances, and the voice of God. On a practical level, the biblical injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), means you have to learn to pray with eyes wide open, especially while operating an automobile or heavy machinery, but Harney has more to say. She describes how purposefully opening our eyes, ears and selves to God in prayer, brings new dimensions to our prayer lives.

9780801014703Sherry, with her husband Kevin,  lead Shoreline Community Church in Monterey California and cofounded Organic Outreach International (a network which resources churches and families for outreach). Sherry has coauthored books with her husband and written study guides for authors like Dallas Willard, Gary Thomas, John Ortberg, Ann Voskamp, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Christina Caine, and Mark Batterson.  She is a sought after speaker on prayer, spiritual formation, outreach, and leadership.

Praying with Eyes Wide Open isn’t just about open eyes. Harney advocates praying with eyes wide open, ears wide open, hearts wide open and lives wide open. These four open postures provide the framework for the book.

In section one, praying with eyes wide open, Harney commends open-eyed prayer, that allows us to attend to and see our environment (e.g. people, relationships, pain, beauty, and joy). Section two, praying with ears wide open, discusses cultivating our ability to hear the voice of God and the Spirit’s gentle leadings as we enter into conversation with Him. Section three, praying with hearts wide open, describes how trusting in God’s love for us frees us up, to be honest, and vulnerable in prayer. Harney also discusses in this section, how to engage in spiritual warfare and give your worries to God. Finally, section four, praying with lives wide open explores the rhythms of praying for and with others, for big things and small, and trusting that when we pray, stuff happens.

Each of the sixteen chapters ends with a suggested prayer practice to try for a week, meaning that the book is designed for those on a sixteen-week prayer journey (with a small group or personally). However the practices are simple enough to double up on if you would like to read through this in less time (I don’t have the attention span for reading a short book in sixteen weeks).

I am pretty bad at keeping my eyes closed in prayer anyway but Harney makes a good case for using open-eyed (or ear, heart, life) prayers to cultivate an attentiveness to what is really going on around us. I particularly appreciated her suggestions on praying with ears wide open, asking God good questions, and listening for answers (79-80).  But certainly, I can learn to cultivate openness and attention in each of four realms that Harney names. This book makes me hunger for more intimacy in my own prayer life (as any good prayer book should do).  I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe  (another book of his on prayer) than God in the Alley. But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★