Preston Yancey talks about his new book, Tables in the Wilderness
I need written prayers because otherwise I become too comfortable with my own haphazard version of grace.
— Preston Yancey, Tables in the Wilderness
We’ve been hearing the same narrative our whole lives. Gladys and her friends in the seniors’ ministry are holding the church board hostage, trying to keep drums off the stage. Meanwhile, the pastoral staff fights to be relevant and gain some credibility in contemporary culture.
But there’s a new narrative on the rise. Some of us are longing for something rooted and authentic — dare we say, traditional.
We’re not traditionalists in the true sense; we can worship with loud hand-raising music to be sure, but our arms are kind of tired. We miss the hymnals we saw in our childhood. We’re skeptical of the kind of self-help Christianity where sermons come in the form of financial advice, where mid-week Bible study is replaced with free guitar lessons or jazzercise classes. We’re told to pray and read our Bibles and make good choices, but we’ve never really seen it done in meaningful ways.
A decade has passed since Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz hit the shelves, capturing the heartbeat of the post-modern Christian. Now enter Preston Yancey and his new book Tables in the Wilderness, speaking into an entirely new evangelical context.
Yancey, at 25, is far too young to have written a spiritual memoir, but he up and did it anyway. He tells his story of a real struggle with God, where he starts to keep time according to the liturgical calendar, where the Eucharistic wafer clings to the roof of his mouth, and where he learns how to pray with the Saints of old.
But his story is not about how you should fall in love with the things of God. Yancey’s story is about falling in love with a real and living God, a resurrected and ascended Jesus.
I sat down to chat with Yancey about his book release. He’s a surprisingly normal guy who watches terrible TV shows (read: Pretty Little Liars), and unashamedly hates himself for it, enjoys baking, and loves being newly married.
I ask him what is causing the shift toward liturgy and sacramentalism. Technology, he says, while often cutting into our spiritual life, has allowed us to be more involved in the bigger conversations happening around the world. “The threshold of our spiritual literacy is so much higher now,” Yancey says.
“The vastness of the questions we ask are sometimes a little too big for the usual pat answers and standards that evangelical culture relied on for a really long time.”
Yancey says that the reason why a lot of millennials are drawn to liturgical communities is because it gives them the sense that they’re a part of history, connected to the past.
“This thing has been handed down to you,” says Yancey. “And you feel like you’re being entrusted with a way to worship that was handed down from the people before you. And you too shall hand [it] down to the people that come after you.”
As with any way we do church, there is a certain temptation to idolatry. Tables in the Wilderness is about how God speaks through the silence and shapes us with a void of words.
For Yancey, the silence was about discovery and humility. He says, “God gave me a wide girth and a long leash when it came to rediscovering the tradition and high church and all this other stuff. There came a point where I had taken all of these things of God, and made them substitutes for God,” says Yancey.
“And God was like, ‘OK. We’re done. And you’re going to go sit in the stillness and the silence until you stop making this about whether or not you’re Anglican or Episcopalian or high church or whatever else. When you’re finally ready to make this about how you commune with me. Not everybody else needs to go high church and you need to stop acting like it.’”
Tables in the Wilderness is a circular narrative. At the beginning of the book Yancey has the foul taste of evangelicalism in his mouth. But by the time you turn to the last page he is reconciled and reinvested in “evangelicalism.”
I ask him how we can be evangelical and liturgical at the same time, and apparently I hit a nerve. He says, “I think first we have to rescue the word [‘evangelical’] from our own presupposition that we know what it means. And we have to abandon the expectation that evangelical means I vote a certain way, I believe a certain way about certain things … and we have to get over our need to not be evangelical because we think it’s the person who’s pounding on the door, asking someone if they’re going to go to hell.”
In the book, Yancey’s dad says to him, “To tell a story is an act of worship…. To be entrusted with a story is an act of holiness.” Clearly, Yancey has taken this to heart; Tables in the Wilderness is written artfully and beautifully, telling not his life story, but a story of how he has experienced God up until now.
And as with any great storyteller, Yancey is able to capture the reader, as we see ourselves in his narrative, wondering if he has been taking notes on all our lives.
Or maybe, just maybe, God is on the move, and our shared experiences are part of His much greater story.
Preston Yancey’s book Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again hits the shelves on September 30, 2014. He tweets @prestonyancey.
Featured photo (Flickr CC) byYağmur Adam.
Photo of Preston Yancey by Ebersole Photography.