Review: Practices of Love

practices of love

Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett (foreword by James K. A. Smith). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017.

Summary:  An approach to spiritual disciplines that explores how various spiritual practices not only nurture our relationship with God but shape our habits of being in the world including how we love our neighbors, and the rest of God’s creation.

This book is probably different than any book on spiritual disciplines I’ve read. What Kyle David Bennett does is turn the spiritual disciplines “on their side” and consider how these spiritual practices, often focused on deepening our love for God, are also meant to shape our life, and love, in the world.

Bennett builds on the insights of James K. A. Smith, who wrote the foreword to this book. Smith contends that the way we live is shaped be what we desire, or love (see my review of his You Are What You Love for more on this). Bennett extends Smith’s work in a couple ways. Smith particularly focuses on “cultural liturgies,” whether Christian, in the context of worship, or secular, shaped by our life in the world. Bennett focuses attention, rather, on spiritual disciplines, habits of faithfulness we often think of bringing us closer to God. Bennett shows how these, turned on their side reshape ways in which we live and love wrongly–selfishly, idolatrously and so forth. He believes much of our lives are spent eating, thinking, sharing, giving, owning, socializing, resting, and working. These occur with others, in the physical world. Disciplines like feasting and fasting, meditation, simplicity, solitude, silence, service, and sabbath are meant to shape the desires we pursue in these everyday endeavors along kingdom lines.

The other way Bennett extends Smith’s work, and a key insight for the wider conversation about spiritual formation is that these are meant to be ongoing disciplines and that they all are integral to our life in the world. They aren’t meant as simply retreat fare, or a spiritual “fix” when we need a spiritual pick-me-up. These “practices of love” only have a chance to re-order our loves and life in the world if woven into everyday life.

This is where Bennett gets very practical. Each chapter considers ways our lives may be malformed and how a particular discipline may transform our practice. For example, practices of simplicity move us from lavish living or squandering to loving neighbors with pockets and possessions. Each chapter concludes with a prayer and “side steps” that are practical and doable to incorporate the particular discipline in your life.

What I most appreciate about Bennett’s work is that he addresses what often seems like a disconnect between spiritual disciplines and everyday life. Also, he gets very practical. A small group, a discipleship group, or even church leadership team could work through this together. There is no grandiose vision here, but in Mother Theresa’s word, “small things done with great love.” I’ll conclude with Bennett’s words:

What I am trying to say is that we cannot underestimate the power of simply being loving people who live lives of love, We cannot overlook the value of being people who sacrifice in the littlest of things so that our neighbor can have a more comfortable and peaceful livelihood. We cannot diminish the value and necessity of simply being sensitive to what those around us expect and need. These are goods from which everyone can benefit” (p.177).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faithful Presence

faithful presence

Faithful PresenceDavid E. Fitch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.

Summary: Expands upon the idea of “faithful presence,” exploring how this may be practiced by the church in fulfillment of her mission through seven foundational disciplines practiced in three different settings or “circles.”

In 2010, sociologist James Davison Hunter penned a probing critique of evangelicalism’s “change the world” rhetoric in To Change the World (reviewed here), and proposed as an alternative, the idea of the subversive practice of “faithful presence.” David E. Fitch, co-pastor of Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois, takes up this idea contending that Hunter ran out of space in his book in fleshing out “what the actual practice of faithful presence might look like.” He contends that without a new kind of formational practice in the church (in truth harking back to our beginnings), attempts at faithful presence on the part of individual Christians will simply be absorbed by the broader culture. He writes:

“Faithful presence, I contend, must be a communal reality before it can infect the world. It must take shape as a whole way of life in a peopleFrom this social space we infect the world for change. Here we give witness to the kingdom breaking in and invite the world to join in. For this to happen, however, we need a set of disciplines that shape Christians into such communities in the world” (p, 15).

In this book, Fitch commends seven disciplines that the churches he has pastored have practiced. He proposes that each of these disciplines presuppose the presence of God already in our lives and that our faithful presence, fostered through these disciplines, is the visible expression of God’s faithful presence going before us. He argues that these are disciplines that make faithful presence possible in our churches, neighborhoods and the wider society. He also contends that a key idea undergirding the practice of these disciplines is submission, to Christ and to one another, and that this is what makes these so counter-cultural.

The seven disciplines (he also calls them marks or sacraments) are: the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with “the least of these,” being with children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer. Fitch devotes a chapter in the book to each of these. He also proposes three circles in which each of these disciplines must be lived out: the close circle of the Christian community, the dotted circle of home and neighborhood, where Christians function as hosts, and the half-circle of wider society, where we are guests, but may also be the faithful presence of Christ. Faithful presence that advances the mission of the church operates in all three circles, not simply in the close circle, leading to a maintenance mentality, or in the half circle, leading to exhaustion.

I appreciate the effort of Fitch to expand this idea of “faithful” presence, because I also found Hunter’s proposal thin on specifics, and lacking in articulating the practices that sustain such presence and allow it to take a robust and transformative public form. I thought Fitch had some distinctive things to say about gospel proclamation, as opposed to teaching, in the context of the church, about the ministry of presence with children, and about the fivefold ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), contending for plural ministry leadership as opposed to hierarchical leadership in the church. I would like to have seen Fitch say more about the ministry of prophets, which was not elaborated.

Fitch also argues that through church history, the seven disciplines, meant to be personal, relational, and practiced in all the “circles” of life, have been institutionalized, formalized, and programmed. His proposal and practice breaks these strictures. Nowhere is this more evident than in his discussion of the Lord’s table, which is not only practiced weekly in his church but constantly in the lives of its people:

“The Lord’s table happens every time we share a meal together with people and tend to the presence of Christ among us. Granted the formal Lord’s table only happens at the close table. But that table extends from there. When Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me: (1 Cor 11:24-26, my paraphrase), he, in essence meant, in the words of theologian John Howard Yoder, “whenever you have your common meal,” whenever you eat in everyday life with people. And yet this table is shaped differently in the three spaces I call the close, dotted, and half circles of life. The table is never merely in here or out there. It is the continual lived space with and among the world. It is the table on the move. It starts with the close circle, the ground zero of his presence around the table” (p. 64).

This work is also important in how it connects our communal disciplines to mission, and particularly the working out of the practice of these disciplines in the “dotted” circle, and the “half” circle. It is a valuable resource, not only for the training of ministers, but for leaders of churches to read and discuss together as they think about the nature of the church, and the formative practices that shape the lives of its members. Throughout, Fitch couples biblical principles and practical examples, many from his own practice. In an era increasingly disenchanted with posturing and programs, this vision of faithful presence may be the cup of cold water desperately longed for in our cultural wasteland.

Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines

Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Summary: Dallas Willard’s classic work explaining why and how spiritual disciplines are vital for transformation into the character of Christ as his disciples.

This book, along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, were instrumental in introducing spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation into the parlance and practice of both mainline and evangelical Protestant Christianity. This work has been in print for 27 years and it may be time to take a fresh look at what has become a classic reference work on spiritual disciplines.

Willard contends that one of the major challenges facing the church is the transformation of character in the lives of Christians. He contends that spiritual disciplines, which may be observed in the life of Jesus, are in fact the “easy yoke” of Jesus. He likens transformation to the athletic feats of sports figures, that only are possible through years of practicing certain disciplines. His thesis is that:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” (p. 252).

A critical aspect of Willard’s thinking is his understanding of what it means to be humans who are meant to image God in their embodied existence. What has been overlooked in much of the church is that the “spiritual life” which is a vital part of being human is one lived out through our physical bodies. Salvation is not a moment but a life of transformation worked out in our bodies. He spends several chapters laying out this theology of the body, culminating in a look at the life of Paul and how his own understanding of spiritual life exemplifies this embodied understanding.

Willard then in two chapters outlines the history of the disciplines and enumerates some of the most important. Critical in his survey of history was a monastic asceticism focused on forgiveness of sin. Willard contends that Protestantism either continued or reacted to this mistaken focus. He argues instead for a kind of asceticism focused on the discipline of the body through which spiritual transformation occurs as it positions us to interact with God. He then describes key disciplines in two groups, those of abstinence (including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice) and those of engagement (including study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission).

The final two chapters take up the issues of poverty and power. First, on poverty, Willard argues that the idea that it is more spiritual to be poor. While we are not to show preference for the rich and should care for and even patronize the businesses of the poor and live among them, the issue is using resources under the grace of God for the good of people and the glory of God. He also has an interesting take on power–we idolize power when the radical character transformation of disciples leads to a situation akin to life under the judges in Israel. In the church Willard argues that:

“The leader’s task is to equip saints until they are like Christ (Eph. 4:12),  and history and the God of history waits for him to do this job. It is so easy for the leader today to get caught up in illusory goals, pursuing the marks of success which come from our training as Christians or which are simply imposed by the world. It is big, Big, BIG, and BIGGER STILL! That is the contemporary imperative. Thus we fail to take seriously the nurture and training of those, however few, who stand constantly by us” (p. 246).

The book concludes with an epilogue which is a personal appeal to apply the truth of the book. There are two appendices, the first of which is an excerpt from Jeremy Taylor “on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.” The second is an article on Discipleship that first appeared in Christianity Today in 1980. Don’t skip over this–it is a bracing challenge for church leaders to devote themselves to the work of making disciples.

I was struck afresh with how important this book for any of us who teach the spiritual disciplines and are committed to their practice in our lives. The disciplines are so much richer when we understand how God works through the disciplines for our growth in Christ. The central section, which can be a bit heavy going, is vital in a church that still often is “gnostic” in its view of the body. Most of all, it is a critically important book for any who are tired of nostrums and empty ritual and long for the experience of transformation.

 

 

Review: Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Living in Christ's Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God
Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom of God by Dallas Willard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book represents the “last words” of Dallas Willard, who died in 2013. In February of that year, he gave a conference at the Dallas Willard Center and was joined in presentations and dialogue by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. The book, more or less, is a transcript of their presentations and interactions. The format was that they alternated presentations, giving a total of seven with Dallas giving the first and last. After each presentation, there was a time of dialogue between the two of them (except for the second presentation where Ortberg is in discussion with an unnamed party).

The presentations explore what it means to enjoy Christ’s presence in our present life. Dallas begins with talking about taking Jesus yoke of discipleship on himself. Then John talks about spiritual transformation and the kingdom of God. Dallas follows with what it means to seek the kingdom and obey the king’s teaching. Then John explores not so much the doctrine of the Trinity as our experience of the Trinity in our own lives and in the church, as we are drawn into these eternally loving relationships. Dallas explores the inner life of persons and John follows with spiritual disciplines that train our persons for life. The book concludes with Dallas talking about the nature of blessing and leaving us with a blessing from God.

While I think it is important and valuable to read all of Dallas Willard’s work, one does find something of the “essence” of Willard in this book. He talks about the spiritual disciplines as a way of opening ourselves to transformation that we cannot work directly into our lives. Through John Ortberg, we hear about the relentless elimination of hurry in our lives. We’re challenged by Dallas at several points to support our fellow believers and leaders in other churches rather than treating them as rivals. We learn about a discipleship that is embodied in our physical life and actions and not “spiritualized”.

There are statements throughout that are aphoristic in nature:

“There is nothing wrong with the church that discipleship will not cure” (p. 16).

“You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (p.31).

“Well, what Jesus teaches us is that within his presence and with his work, we begin to live in heaven now, and that’s why he says that those who keep his word will never experience death…. I think many people do not realize they’ve died until later” (pp. 83-84).

And one for us readers: “Aim at depth, not breadth. If you get depth, you will have breadth thrown in. If you aim at breadth, you will get neither depth nor breadth (p. 149).

As good as each presentation was, the interactions between Ortberg and Willard are priceless as we see two men who have walked with God, and helped others do so, reflect on this life and work with Christ. Often, the asides are sparkling gems of insight–several of the quotes above are from the dialogues. All of this not only gives us a taste of Dallas Willard, but whets our appetites for the kind of spiritual life about which he wrote and in which he mentored so many. And if it did so, he would rejoice, in the more immediate presence of the Lord he loved and followed in life.

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