Review: Hidden in Christ

hidden in Christ

Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s BelovedJames Bryan Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2013, 2019.

Summary: Thirty short reflections on different key words found in Colossians 3:1-17 on what it means to be “in” Christ.

A number of years ago, I had the chance to go through James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God (review) with a group. Perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of this study was memorizing Colossians 3:1-17 together, a verse or two each week, forcing us to really meditate on each word of the text. The first three verses of this text are as follows:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3, NIV)

The title of this work draws on verse 3, and one of the themes Smith explores is what it means for us to live in Christ. Above all, it means to live as God’s “holy and dearly loved” people, (verse 12). In this pocket-sized work, James Bryan Smith leads us through a kind of lectio divina on this text in Colossians, focusing successively in 30 chapters on key words found in the text, offering short reflections on each one. For example, the first five are drawn from the verses above: raised, with, seated, set, hidden. As he considers the word “set” in verse 2, he offers these reflections:

   When it comes down to it, living the Christian life is simply a matter of where we set our minds. Every waking moment we have a choice about where, and on what, we will set our minds. That is something we are free to do. Having been raised with Christ and forgiven forever, and having Jesus with us in all we do, the primary practice of living as a Christian boils down to what we think about, what we dwell on, what values we keep before our minds, what truths (or lies) we have in our consciousness. (p. 37).

In addition to these brief reflections, there are sections about “Living into the Truth,” an “Affirmation” which is a brief statement summarizing the key truth represented by the word, a “Prayer,” and finally questions for “Reflection.” The short chapters and focus on a single word make this an ideal devotional resource that could be used over a month, or perhaps once a week for thirty weeks. There is also a group discussion guide at the back of the book for a five week discussion using six chapters each week.

In addition, this little book is a good introduction to the ideas in the Apprentice Series by the same author–or perhaps in my case, a good refresher. Recently, a paperback version of the book has been released, making it available at a lower price. What Smith models for us is the slow, reflective opening of ourselves to the message of scripture we often pass by in our instant-everything world. When we omit these practices, we do not gain time but lose the chance to hear God’s assurances of our belovedness.


Review: The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ

The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ
The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ by James Bryan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

None of us really WANTS to ruin our lives. Yet we often do, James Bryan Smith contends, because we don’t build our lives on the teaching of Jesus and let him shape our character. In this book, the second in his Apprentice Series, Smith takes us through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. His foundational contention is that the gospel of the kingdom Jesus preaches is not about getting us into heaven but rather getting heaven into us, the transformation of our lives as Christ’s new creations, which is what this sermon is all about.

Along the way, Smith takes some reads on the sermon that might be different than you’ve heard before. This begins with the beatitudes, which he argues describe the people who are included in the kingdom. In the command concerning murder and anger, he argues we often live with False Imperative Narratives such as “I need to be perfect all the time” that are sources of fear and anger and that trust in Christ in our brokenness is key to being liberated from anger’s destructive power. Similarly, living in the joyful gratitude for our desires liberates us from lust’s power. Our trust in the security of the kingdom’s promises means we needn’t lie but can tell the truth. We love and forgive our enemies as the apprentices of a Savior who did the same thing from the cross.

One of the most challenging chapters for me was the chapter on vainglory–the practice of doing things to be seen by people. In this, as all chapters throughout the Apprentice Series, Smith includes Soul Training exercises. For this one it was the exercise of secret service, of serving others without letting other, or even the person served, know if possible. The Soul Training exercises throughout provide very practical ways to begin allow Christ to form his character in our lives. In his chapter on avarice and the choice of two masters, money or Jesus, we are encouraged to practice de-accumulation by getting rid of five things. In the chapter on worry, he gives a very specific exercise for turning worry into prayer and releasing this to God. His challenge in the chapter on judgment is to live a day without gossip!

The concluding chapter comes back to where he began, the vital importance of building our lives on the teaching of Jesus in intimate fellowship with him. He shares with us Madame Guyon’s advice to her daughter on living a day devotionally as a means of helping us to develop a “rule” for our days–practices that help us remain in the presence of Jesus throughout each day.

I worked through this book with a group, which is Smith’s recommended way to use this book. I actually had previously read the book but found that working through this deepened my engagement with the practices he commends and provided for many significant conversations with each other on living the good and beautiful life that drew me closer to five others as well as to the Lord whose teaching we were considering.

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I also reviewed the first book in this series, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows.

Review: The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows
The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Bryan Smith believes that our idea of God shapes everything about how we view and engage our world. He also believes that we cannot change our view of God by mere human effort, nor the way we live in light of this. Rather, he believes, having been influenced by Dallas Willard, that transformation comes from God and that we put ourselves in the place where we may experience this through spiritual practices, or soul-training exercises, where God can break in and change us from the inside out.

This is the first in three books in what Smith calls “The Apprentice Series” which is designed to help readers grow in Christ-likeness as their view of God, life, and Christian community are transformed as they encounter Christ. This first book focuses on the God revealed to us in Christ–his goodness, trustworthiness, generosity, love, holiness, self-sacrificing character, and transforming work. The book concludes in reflecting on the slow but certain process by which God transforms us as we continue to follow Christ–likened to the making of pickles!

Each chapter is accompanied by a “Soul Training” exercise. I studied this with a group and we attempted to practice each of these: sleep (everyone loved this one!), silence, counting blessings, praying Psalm 23, lectio divina, margin, reading John’s gospel, solitude, and slowing down. Good, practical direction is giving for each of these. The book also includes a discussion guide for small groups studying it together, which I again found helpful–although this works best in a 90 minute setting which we had to abridge because we were on a 60 minute schedule.

While this book can be read profitably individually, I would recommend getting a group together to work through it together. Not only does this help with actually doing the exercises, but also, the varying experiences of group members make sense of the chapter content, which might not reflect every individual’s experience (we had the experience of some not being able to relate to chapter material, particularly illustrations, until we were together as a group and someone shared how it connected to them).

In this, the book reveals something of a slant to experience and negative experiences of God and church at that. Sadly, there is enough of this to make this approach appealing and helpful to many and perhaps people with such experiences could not read on into the biblical treatment of Christ and God otherwise. For many in the student circles I work in, this approach, coupled with the soul training exercises has been very helpful in breaking through to an understanding of the grace and love of God for them, an experience of forgiveness, and a growing intimacy with God.

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Current Reads

For a time, the GoodReads widget on my blog kept you informed of what was on my “currently reading” shelf. For the past week or so that has not been working and none of the bulletin boards I’ve consulted have shown me how to fix this.

So I thought I might give you a quick update of what I’m reading that you can look forward (or not!) to seeing me review in the not-too-distant future.  I actually have a number of books going at present because of groups I’m in and other projects as well as what I’m reading just for the interest of it.  I will include Amazon links so you can see more info about each of these books.

1.  John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University.  This is a collection of a lecture series and other occasional talks in which Newman lays out his vision for a Catholic university and university education in general.  Dense reading with at least one interesting idea in each lecture so far–and some things with which I’d take great exception, particularly what I think is an elitist view of the university. Our Dead Theologians group stopped reading after the first set of lectures–I hope to get around to re-reading the second set (last time over 20 years ago) sometime soon.

2. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow.  I’m reading this on my Kindle and nearly through it.  Alexander is an Ohio State law professor who makes the case that The War on Drugs, policing patterns, sentencing guidelines, and post-incarceration stigmas contribute to creating a permanent underclass of blacks and Latinos.  A challenging book.

3. James Wilhoit and Evan Howard, Discovering Lectio Divina. This is a good introductio with much practical help into this ancient practice of reflectively reading scripture.

4. James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God. Smith contends that many of us have distorted images of God that distort our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the world.  Through chapters exploring the character of God and “soul-training” exercises, he helps us see the source of goodness, truth, and beauty.

5. Hugo Young, This Blessed PlotJust started in on this one so will be with it for awhile.  Young explores the post World War II history of Great Britain and its policy toward Europe through the lives of those who helped shape that from the time of Churchill to Tony Blair.

6. Ron Highfield, God, Freedom, and Human Dignity. This is a distillation of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor looking at how we derive our sense of identity–do we source this in ourselves feeling our freedom and dignity threatened by God, or do we source this in God, understanding that we find our freedom and dignity through Him?

7. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory. Our Dead Theologians group decide to pick this up as easier reading than Newman. One of the essays I’ve most appreciated in this collection is “Learning in Wartime” in which Lewis answers the question of why should one devote oneself to higher learning when their are so many other “great matters” at hand–a perennial question faced by the graduate students I work with.

So those are the books scattered about my house that I am currently reading.  I look forward to sharing reviews of many of them in the near future.  So, what are you reading that you think I might be interested in?


Count Your Blessings

The phrase sounds kind of “old-fashioned” and reminds me of an old gospel tune that has the line “count your blessings, name them one by one.” I’m in a spiritual formation group right now that is reading James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful GodAt the end of each chapter, there are “soul-training” exercises and “counting your blessings” is the current one. One thing we are trying to do this week as a group is to think of five things for which we are thankful each day. Here are mine for today:

1.  Receiving two calls that from people I’d been meaning to call–saved me the effort of trying to track them down!

2.  Cool nights that make for good sleeping weather.

3.  The chance to sing with my friends in Capriccio Columbus this evening.

4.  Meet-ups at Chubby’s with my son.

5.  Every day I get to spend with my wife!

We talked about gratitude yesterday and how this isn’t often our default and how thankfulness (for me it is to God for these blessings) enriches our lives. Thinking of the title of the book, it strikes me that thankfulness reminds me of how good and beautiful life often is (as well as being hard and painful at times). We often talk about the “problem of evil or suffering” but much less about what I might call the “problem of goodness”–why is there so much goodness and beauty in the world? Counting blessings leads me to think (and I know not all will agree) that it is because there is indeed a good a beautiful God who is the source of these things.