What Happened When I Wrote a Best-seller

The year was 1965. The book was Are You Running With Me, Jesus? It was a collection of contemporary prayers that wasn't supposed to be a best-seller at all. There was little or no advance publicity. Also it became apparent reviews would be scarce. There didn't appear to be another book quite like it. So I was unprepared to open the New York Times one morning and find an enthusiastic lead review of my unheralded tome. Clearly my life was changing, and abruptly.

Roman Catholic nuns appeared to be the first champions of the book. In fact, it was an "underground" work for them -- a voice from the Catacombs saying something refreshing, promising, and new. The book was translated into many languages, including Chinese. Some prayers stood out and merited strong individual attention:

-- "This is a homosexual bar, Jesus. It looks like any other bar on the outside, only it isn't."

-- "What was Hiroshima like, Jesus, when the bomb fell?"

-- "I know it sounds corny, Jesus, but I'm lonely."

-- It's morning, Jesus. It's morning, and here's that light and sound all over again."

-- "The masks are on parade tonight, Jesus. The masks are smiling and laughing to cover up status anxieties and bleeding ulcers. Tell us about freedom, Jesus."

-- "It's a jazz spot, Jesus."

-- "Look up at that window, Lord, where the old guy is sitting."

-- "This young girl got pregnant, Lord, and she isn't married."

-- "I see white and black, Lord. I see white teeth in a black face. I see black eyes in a white face. Help us to see persons, Jesus."

The truth is that prayer had lately become difficult for me. Hadn't Sunday school taught me as a kid to look at God as an elderly white male? Many prayers seemed addressed to him. To make matters even more complex, the prayers themselves seemed to be in Old English as well as on the formal side. Could I -- how shall I put it -- just talk to God? Or was there some barrier?

There came an afternoon when I wrote a prayer that was simply natural for me. I penned it on an airline ticket. Clearly I had no idea of writing a prayer book -- or even a second prayer. Yet I kept writing prayers. They seemed to produce a touch of spiritual discovery, a kind of electric shock.

Over the years, in various ways I somehow became the book and the book became me. I love the book, of course. But I gave it away a long time ago. I think what matters is that we've got to continue learning how to pray. The best way to learn is to do it.

I wrote Are You Running With Me, Jesus when I was 42 years old. Next June 8 I will be 91. I'm still learning.