Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.

Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.

Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.

Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.

Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.

For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.

As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Simple Prayer

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God.

I suspect that any of us who have set ourselves on the path of following Christ have struggled with prayer. For me it has been the movement from worrying about having the “right” words, to wrestling with things like prayer lists with long recitals of requests to beginning to wonder if I needed so many words and discovering that I didn’t need to fill the silences. Somewhere it dawned on me that the prayer the Lord taught his disciples can be spoken in fifteen seconds, and yet volumes have been written about it.

Charlie Dawes, in this book, observes that prayer can be simple, and yet not simplistic, that in prayer, deep can commune with deep without lots of words. Much like time with a person we love, we may enjoy a deep intimacy captured in a few words: “Lord have mercy,” “Your kingdom come,” “Forgive us our sins,” and “Father, forgive them.” In the Introduction to this book, Dawes writes,

“Simple prayers are all around us. They are found in Scripture. They are hidden in our daily lives. They swirl around our hearts and minds and rest on the tips of our tongues. Simple prayers are for both the novice seeker and the well-worn traveler on the journey of faith. Where do you find yourself at this moment? Are you new to faith? Have you been on this faith walk for years? Do you feel like you are losing your way? Do you feel the wind at your back propelling you into unchartered waters and have a rising anxiety about the unknown? Maybe you are looking for a way to deepen your prayer life. Then it is time to simply pray. We can trust that before we even articulate our thoughts, emotions, or needs, God already knows and desires to respond. A simple prayer paves the way for us to know and be known by God” (pp. 9-10).

The author begins by saying more about what he means by simple prayer, which is often the use of a single word, or short phrase, often drawn from scripture to capture  our particular longing for God and God’s presence. Then in succeeding chapters he writes about different simple prayers–the prayer of the heart, the prayer of faith, the prayer of forgiveness, the prayer of unity, the prayer of restoration, the prayer of finding your way.

Chapter seven focuses on simple words to pray–a single word or very short phrase. Here is one example:

“You know me. To be known by God is more than saying that God is aware of us; it is to say that God desires to inhabit every detail of our lives. God is not looking for a social media relationship with us, a relationship from afar. A need for intimacy is woven into us, and we all wander until we find our home in God. I remember watching the sitcom Cheers when I was younger. I loved when Norm would cross the threshold of the bar, and everyone greeted him with a loud, “Norm.” He was beloved, he was known. Take a moment and pray this simple prayer: You know me. Allow each repetition of this prayer to provide more and more assurance to your heart that you are indeed known by God. Your actions cannot undo this and you cannot earn it. You are not known as the sum of your skills or achievements. You are not embraced by the love of God because you have accumulated wealth or possess status. You are known because you are the beloved of God” (pp. 111-112).

What I appreciated about this work was that it articulated a way of praying focused less on methods or tasks, and more on intimacy with the one with whom we engage. It suggested what it might look like to “pray without ceasing” where we carry a word or phrase that we breathe before God throughout the day, like the Jesus prayer. This is prayer which liberates us from the temptation to “be heard for our many words,” tiresome for both the person praying and the one listening–what a mercy that God is so patient with so many of us! It is prayer without pretense or performance, just a few honest words that, like the Lord’s Prayer, may express volumes.

I don’t think this is all that may be said of prayer. Not all our models of prayer in scripture reduce to a word, a phrase or a few phrases. But if you have found the world of many words wearying and long for a more unvarnished, honest, and intimate relationship with God, these “simple prayers” may take you into new depths.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Paradoxes: Choices and Simplicity

Efficiency and simplicity are often at odds. So are choices and simplicity. One the one hand, the incredible cornucopia we encounter at any supermarket in the US likely staggers the imagination of people from many parts of the world. On the other, it can make for a fatiguing series of choices to make between brands, flavors, and varieties. We don’t just have apples–we have 25 varieties, some good for eating, some for pies, some for applesauce and more. Even more bewildering is the array of beers, wines and other beverages. And on it goes…

At one time, it seemed everyone knew the trusted brands, and when you had to replace a vacuum cleaner, or an appliance, or a car, you tended to go back to your old standby. Now it seems, you have to engage in a research process before you buy your toothpaste! Picking up Consumer Reports reviews, researching products online, and more seem to be the pre-requisite, unless you want to appear “uninformed”–a cardinal sin these days.  Yet I wonder. The most all this can do is tell me what the new buyer experience is–not irrelevant necessarily. But what I really want to know is, will it last and what will it cost to repair. Not so easy to find out until it actually breaks on you. Then you know!

Paradoxically, I think most of us simplify life by reducing the choices we make. Most of the time we buy the same items every time we need that item in the grocery, despite the attempts of coupon dispensers to get us to switch. Whenever I need a new pair of jeans, I just order the same ones I always do from LL Bean. I wonder if there are some further steps we can take toward simplicity that may mean less choices but greater freedom. A few I can think of:

1. One is simply deciding that some of our wants really aren’t our needs. That alone cuts down on the choices we need to make.

2. Work with retailers and other vendors who get to know us and actually care about customer service.

3. Similarly, when I find someone who provides good quality, I stick with them unless quality slips, even if it costs more.

4. Find another form of recreation than “recreational shopping.” I realize that sometimes it is fun to find a bargain and some really enjoy this and are shrewd in shopping at the best times to get a good price on things they need. That’s not me, though, and shopping does not re-create me!

5. Most of us don’t mind choices when it comes to the hobbies we love. Then we love learning about the varieties of equipment, or vintages, or whatever. Perhaps the most important choice here is simply knowing and staying within your budget.

What have you found helpful in navigating the array of choices we face? How have you negotiated the paradox that the freedom of choice does not always translate into the freedom of simplicity?

 

 

 

Paradoxes: Efficiency and Simplicity

I grew up hearing about all the labor-saving devices that were going to make my life so much more leisurely. The forty hour work week would become a twenty hour week because technology would make our work so much more efficient. Funny thing though–while technology has indeed increased our efficiency, it has not led to a more leisurely or unhurried life.

I’m struck with this every time I fly (something I’ve done a bit of, lately!). Flying itself is interesting, because I can be in meetings in Columbus in the morning, and be leading a retreat in another state that evening. But it is not only that. I am amused with how as soon as we are “wheels down” everyone is on their smartphone (except for me who still has a “dumb” phone), to retrieve messages, emails, texts and Facebook updates queued up for them during the hour they had to turn their device to airplane mode (even then they are often composing emails).  Gone seem to be the days of the leisurely nap or conversations with a seatmate. I was struck recently with what quiet places planes have become–except when there are babies and children on board. Everyone is working. Airlines of course are capitalizing on this by offering wi-fi so you can be even more connected.

The paradox is that efficiency doesn’t make life simpler. The faster we can do things, the more things we do which may have been needless. And sometimes, technology actually complicates things. Remember when you could pick up the phone and actually get a person on the line and schedule a time to meet, whether for business or fun–and you might get a few minutes of catching up with the person in as well? Now it is often a matter of a series of emails or texts back and forthing about a time, then a place–if you get responses. What once could be done in five minutes now may take a series of interchanges over a half day or more–and far less personal.

Meyer Friedman, MD

Meyer Friedman, MD

What it seems all this has done is created a society that is far more complicated, and in a hurry. Recently, I came across the term “hurry sickness.”  The term was coined by Meyer Friedman, MD, whose research was on type A personalities and the increased incidence of heart attack and other circulatory diseases caused by stress.

Perhaps it is time for a return to the old wisdom, which never would have talked about “working harder, faster, and smarter” but rather recognized that rest, play, reflection, and deliberate thought actually were far more fruitful adjuncts to a creative and fruitful life than relying on technology to “save labor.”

How have you stepped off the treadmill of “efficiency” to embrace a life of unhurried simplicity?

Review: The Rule of Saint Benedict

The Rule of Saint Benedict
The Rule of Saint Benedict by St. Benedict of Nursia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most of us to read this work is to enter another world. Not only is this written in the 6th century AD but it is written about a kind of experience, the truly monastic life, that few of us will experience, much less understand. So what is the worth of this work?

First of all, the choice of a monastic life is the choice to pursue a greater love of God and holiness of life through poverty, simplicity, submission, and stability in a community. For those who don’t choose monastic communities, it seems there is much we can still learn from Benedict, if we are willing to accept the challenge implicit in the “rule” he develops.

Benedict covers all matters of life in the monastery from the qualifications of the abbot to entering the monastery to the ordering of Psalms used in the prayers of the hours to times for meals, amounts of food and drink, the care of the sick, the treatment of guests and even the qualifications of the porter and the cellarer (the person responsible for keeping the monastery in food and drink).

Perhaps most challenging are some of the rules pertaining to excommunication. It seems on first reading harsh, because one can be excommunicated for even minor faults. Reading more carefully, it is evident that much of this has to do with resistance to the authority necessary to sustain such a community. There also are clear provisions for the abbot to work with the excommunicate to restore him and specific steps to restoration. What all this speaks into is the recognition that sin is deceitful and its roots go deep into our lives and that if one cares deeply about pursuing a holy life, such drastic measures may be necessary and that we cannot do it ourselves but only as we come under the authority of Christ and those who minister on his behalf.

Much of this challenges our “I’m basically a good person” culture that embraces radical personal freedom. It recognizes that freedom often comes through submission to the rule of another that brings order to lives out of control. And so, I think there are a number of insights from Benedict’s “Rule” that apply to those of us not living as monastics:

1. If loving God above all else is indeed the one thing in our lives, then this implies the simplicity that removes all that distracts from this pursuit.

2. Some “rule of life” is necessary for all of us–a rhythm of ordering our hours and days around the pursuit of our first love.

3. We cannot do this alone. Work and prayer in community with others of like mind is important to sustaining our resolve.

4. “Submission” is a nasty word to most of us in contemporary society and yet if we do not submit to Christ and those seeking genuinely to act on his behalf as shepherds to us, how can we hope to flourish “in green pastures and beside still waters”?

This particular edition is preceded by an essay by Thomas Moore and a helpful chronology of monasticism. Even if all the details of monastic life seem irrelevant, I would recommend reading the first seven chapters which include discussions of humility, the restraint of speech and seeking the counsel of others that have relevance for all of us. But the rest will not take a great deal of time, the whole “Rule” only occupies 70 pages in this edition.

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