Review: Spirituality According to John

Spirituality According to John, Rodney Reeves. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: Through an imaginative study of the gospel, letters, and Revelation of John, considers what it means to abide in Christ, coming to faith, living communally in Christ, and facing the tribulations of the end of the world.

In my observation, it seems that much of our instruction in Christian discipleship, if there is such instruction, centers around the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) and the letters of Paul and maybe James, if we are up for the challenge. Of the writings attributed to John, we sometimes commend (or at least used to) the Gospel of John as reading for those considering Christ. Revelation we either shy away from altogether or use it to springboard into end times speculations. And John’s letters? Mostly, it seems we use a few verses like 1 John 1:9 as memory verses but give them little attention.

In this work, Rodney Reeves reclaims the canonical writings attributed to John as valuable in the shaping of our spiritual life. For Reeves, it centers around the world “abide”–what it means to make our home in Christ both individually and communally, and in his Word, which abides in us, enabling us to incarnate the person and work of Christ in the world. For the Gospel, the Letters, and Revelation, Reeves follows a fourfold pattern as he considers how we abide in Christ and his Word abides in us involving hearing the Word, confessing the Word, incarnating the Word, and abiding in the Word.

The Gospel of John is the invitation to follow the Word home. We hear this in Jesus response to the disciples question, “where are you staying?” with his invitation to “come and see.” Come and see gives way to “See and believe” as Jesus invites Martha to confess the power of Jesus to raise Lazarus and as Jesus invites Thomas to see and believe and Thomas confesses him Lord and God and worships. “Believe and see” flips the previous words, inviting the nobleman to return home with only the word of Jesus that his son would be well and the blind man to wash the mud out of his eyes, believing that he would see. They incarnate the word of Jesus, taking it in and living it out and discover its truth. Two women, filled with the word of Jesus abide in it. The Samaritan woman tells her townspeople to see a man who told her everything she had ever done and come to him, becoming the first evangelist in the gospels. Mary at Bethany proclaims Jesus as the anointed king who will die, also saying “see and come.”

The Letters of John, written to communities, speak of how we may commune with the Word together. Hearing the Word together moves the community from self-justification to confession of sin, recognizing that we cannot hate and say we love Christ. In turn, we confess that Jesus alone is the Christ, the anointed one, denying the worldly competitors that vie for our allegiance, recognizing them for what they are “anti-Christ.” The Word is incarnated in our communities by our love for each other and our hospitality to strangers, in contrast with Diotrephes. We abide together in the Word by loving without fear and protecting ourselves from idols, the worship of heroes or anything that supplants our love for Jesus, the source of our love for each other.

John’s Revelation instructs us in how we might remain in the Word until the end of the world–especially when that world is a counterwitness to the Word. The Word we hear in Revelation is a call to worship the Lion who is the worthy Lamb who was slain. Our confession of the Word is a declaration of war. Worship is warfare against the systemic evil of the world, joining, if need be, the two prophets slain and raised, in refusing complicity in the worship of idols. Incarnating the Word, is following the Lamb, including being slain rather than seeking the power of the evil one that promises success and power. We abide in the Lamb by looking for the new heaven and the new earth rather than placing hope in Babylon, which in our day, the author argues, is hopes in American greatness.

There is a strong challenge in the latter part of this book to the political idolatries of both left and right with the invitation to “come out from her, my people.” I’ve been asked whether we are living in the time of the Apocalypse, something any perceptive person might wonder with a global pandemic, rapidly warming and less habitable planet, insurrections, war, discord, economic collapse, and rampant inflation. Reeves concludes with posing for us the question that is most vital, and in line with his theme:

“The Apocalypse is not only a revelation at the end of the world; it is a revelation of the church at the end of the world. God knew that, as we watched the world fall apart around us, we would need to see our place in a crumbling world. When the earth quakes at the weight of glory, when heaven shakes earth to its core, when idols are destroyed and the kingdoms of men fall, when pandemics threaten humanity, when all creation is purified of evil and all that is left is what God has made, where will the church abide?” (p. 257).

Will we abide in the Word of Jesus, in Jesus himself, alone? That is both the question and the invitation posed by this book.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Way of Perfection

The Way of Perfection (Christian Classics), Teresa of Avila, edited and mildly modernized by Henry L. Carrigan Jr. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2000 (originally published in 1583). [This edition is out of print. Link is to a newer edition from the same publisher.]

Summary: Teresa’s instructions to nuns on the spiritual life of prayer and meditations on the Lord’s Prayer as a way to contemplative prayer.

I have yet to find the Christian who describes prayer as easy. Yet I know many who have persisted, wrestled with distractions, struggled with doubt, and broken through to times of intimacy with God, a sense of being greatly loved by the Father, and have witnessed the work of God in answer to one’s prayers.

In the late sixteenth century, the mystic, Teresa of Avila, gave a series of instructive meditations for the nuns in her order that have been collected in The Way of Perfection, a spiritual classic that has been read to the profit of many others wishing to deepen their own lives of prayer. This edition, sadly no longer in print, has been mildly edited and updated in language, to introduce Teresa’s instructions to a new generation.

Teresa begins by pointing to the role the Church plays in their formation and encourages their prayer for its theologians and priests. She urges them in love for each other, detachment from both family and the world, and humility, whether in quietly continuing in one’s prayers amid minor illness and accepting false accusations. Moments of transcendence in contemplative prayer are transitory, but the call to a life of self-sacrifice is ongoing.

She uses images from every day life to illuminate her ideas. For example, she likens prayer to water that cools, cleanses, and quenches thirst. She speaks of vocal, mental, and contemplative prayer, the latter a wordless resting in God’s presence. Her counsel is to be attentive in praying as we are able. Like many spiritual teachers, she invites us to pray the Our Father. She believes the Lord’s Prayer may take us into God’s presence:

“In case you think there isn’t much to gain by practicing vocal prayer perfectly, I must tell you that while you are repeating the Paternoster or some other vocal prayer, the Lord might possibly grant you perfect contemplation. In this way our Lord shows He is listening to the persons speaking to Him. He is speaking to her, suspending her understanding, and taking the words out of her mouth so she cannot speak even if she wants to.”

Thus, she emphasizes that contemplation is a gift of the Lord. The focus is on Jesus, his indwelling of us and presence walking with us, rather than in seeking an experience.

The latter half of the book is a series of talks focusing on the phrases of the Our Father. C. S. Lewis has written of how we may use the prayer as a structure that we “festoon” with our prayers and petitions. Her meditations are something like this, a reflection, I suspect, of how this has been so in her own prayer life. For many of us, the petition “forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others” is perhaps the most difficult. Her reflections on this are particularly rich and challenging, emphasizing that our forgiveness of others precedes, at least in intention, the request for forgiveness.

There is a bit of “stream of consciousness” in her writing, probably reflecting the turns of her mind. This warrants the re-reading meditatively of what she has written. I wonder whether perfection, even of contemplation can be attained in this life. There is a strain of that here, but Teresa tempers this with encouragements to practical self-sacrifice, and faithfulness in praying as we are able.

My own experience is that I have learned more about prayer by being in the presence of those who have lived lives of prayer, as I have listened to them pray and talk about their prayer life than by books. While we cannot pray with Teresa, we overhear her prayers and her instruction as one who prays. Little wonder this book has stood the test of time and speaks to us over four centuries later.

Review: Centering Prayer

Centering Prayer, Brian D. Russell. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: An introduction to the practice of centering prayer with practical helps and theological basis, by a practitioner who found the practice transformative.

Brian Russell was an “all in” Christian–a pastor and seminary professor. Then after a twenty year marriage, he found himself divorced. All the things that had worked suddenly didn’t. It was at this point that he discovered the ancient practice of centering prayer, and in that discovered in new ways the love of God, inward healing, and what it means to love and be present to other people. In this book, he offers a practical guide for others to enter into this practice and how it may change them.

He begins with an explanation of what centering prayer is, describing it as entering into “objectless awareness.” He offers this description:

“Entering into ‘objectless awareness’ is not about dissolving into the Divine or losing our identity as an individual created being. It is about embracing the silence as a new way of perceiving or experiencing consciousness. We are no longer ‘seeing’ through the lens of a subject pondering some object. Instead, we exist in these moments in a space of silence in which we may experience our truest self being fully known by God” (p. 17).

He offers practical steps for beginning addressing time, duration (it’s OK to begin with 1-2 minutes), atmosphere, setting our intention and choosing a prayer word to deal with our thoughts. It turns out that stray thoughts are both the challenge and opportunity of centering prayer. They draw us away from silence but our non-judging awareness and use of a prayer word like “Jesus” to return to being present to God is the opportunity. He shares four “r’s” that serve as classic advice:

  • Resist no thought.
  • Retain no thought.
  • React to no thought.
  • Return ever so gently to the sacred word.

In the following seven chapters comprising the first part of this work he addresses other aspects of centering prayer. He articulates why our souls need solitude. He talks about our feeling of failure as we deal with distractions and how important the step of gently returning to our sacred word again and again may be. He offers that centering prayer is a journey into the depths of God’s love as we say “yes” to the invitation to be present to God. He differentiates it from Eastern forms of meditation or mindfulness training in that our silence is consent for God to commune with us at a heart level. We grow in surrender through the practices of the four “r’s”. He cautions against our desire for the spectacular, for some “result,” and learning to appreciate that silence with God is enough.

The second part of the book turns to the theology behind the idea of a journey into the depths of God’s holy love. He unpacks Bernard of Clairvaux’s four loves: the love of self for the sake of self, the love of God for the sake of God, the love of God for the sake of God, and finally, the love of self for the sake of God. Finally he discusses fear and love and that our only fear is of the God who loves us utterly and liberates us of all fears.

Part three of the work returns to what he so aptly calls our “hamster-wheel minds.” He offers a discussion of Evagrius’s eight distracting thoughts to help us discern the kinds of thoughts that distract us and how the surrender of these allows God’s deep transformative work on our unconscious drives. Then in part four he turns to how this process brings to surface our “false self” and using a Star Wars image, takes us into the cave where we confront ourselves, where our deep wounds and our stratagems to bolster ourselves are laid bare to the overwhelming love of God for us that frees us to break through to our true selves and embark on the upward spiral of God’s love.

The book concludes with the fruits of centering prayer. Centering prayer propels us back into the world. Being present to God enables us to be more fully present to people, to create spaces where they know they are loved by God, and by us. And sometimes that will involve forgiveness.

I found this book both remarkably practical and inspiring in its vision of transformation that reflects the experience of the author. While Russell cautions that our process of growing into intimacy with God is a lifelong process, I was a bit concerned with the presentation of centering prayer as the “silver bullet” to breakthrough. No doubt, there was an aspect in which this was so for the author and he is careful to caution against seeking the spectacular. But in reading the acknowledgements, there is evidence of spiritual counsel and Christian community that played an important role in going deeper in this practice, as did rich practices of spiritual reading. No mention of spiritual direction is made, yet for many, the companionship of spiritual friends who attend and discern may also be very important.

Yet there is this to be said. Russell has given us one of the most helpful guides to centering prayer I’ve read, combining practicalities and spiritual groundwork with a clarity that offers steps for the beginner and rich fare for those more experienced in these practices. He inspired me to renew a practice of centering prayer I’d allowed to lapse. I won’t make any claims other than it has been good to sit quietly in God’s presence. I sense Brian would say, that is good enough.

____________________________

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: The Journey Toward Wholeness

The Journey Toward Wholeness, Suzanne Stabile. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2021.

Summary: Draws on the wisdom of the Enneagram to help focus on our responses to stress, both as they reflect our dominant and repressed centers of intelligence intelligence.

Suzanne has written a couple very popular books on the Enneagram, The Road Back to You (review) and The Path Between Us (review). The first is an introduction to the Enneagram and how it contributes to self-understanding. The second discusses how persons who are different Enneagram types interact with each other. This book focuses in on how different Enneagram types respond under stress, and how one might grow into health.

The book focuses on two aspects of the Enneagram. The first has to do with what Enneagram Triad our type is within. There are three triads. The Feeling Triad includes those who are 2s, 3s, and 4s, the Thinking Triad includes those who 5s, 6s, and 7s, and the Doing Triad, those who are 8s, 9s, and 1s. For each type in the Triad, our response to stress will reflect our dominant intelligence–feeling, doing, thinking. We are inclined to ask, “what am I feeling?” or “what am I thinking?” or “what is to be done?” depending on our type. Of course, none of these responses alone are always enough, and healthy responses to stress draw upon the best of all three. This comes by understanding the numbers we move toward in stress and security for our particular type, and moving to the healthy sides of these numbers. Stabile offers introductions to each Triad and then a chapter for each type in the Triad. She begins with an illustrative story, how a particular type sees the world, the type’s response to stress, including the Enneagram type we move toward in stress, a key to healthy response, practices to try and the type we move toward in security.

The second part of the book focuses on our number’s “Stance” which has to do with which particular center we tend to repress in our stress responses. The stances are the Withdrawing Stance (represses doing), including those who are 4s, 5s, and 9s, the Aggressive Stance (represses feeling), including those who are 3s, 7s, and 8s, and the Dependent Stance (represses thinking), including the 1s, 2s, and 6s. What this means is that without work, we draw on only two of the three intelligences when we respond to stress. Again, Stabile offers an introduction to each stance, and a chapter for each type within a stance and resources for incorporating the repressed intelligence. Particularly helpful for each type are the Transformative Possibilities, a list of suggestions for one’s type.

I found that the material for my type made sense, as well as making sense of how colleagues and friends who are different types respond. I am one of those Withdrawing Types, and the encouragement to wade into discussions and to share my observations and thinking is especially helpful. Obviously, knowing one’s Enneagram type helps, so I would encourage reading The Road Back to You or another introduction to the Enneagram before, or along with, this book. What was uniquely helpful in this book was to understand my default responses to stress and to discover that I have options and am not stuck with the default.

____________________________

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: Stability

Stability, Nathan Oates. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of the Benedictine commitment to stability, and what it can meet to sink our roots deeply, first into Christ, and then into the people and places to which he invites us.

We are a society on the move. I’m thinking just now of our church community. We have been a part of that community for 31 years and I can only think of eight people who were there when we came. Some of the departures were for very good reasons, to launch ministry elsewhere or to take a job that made sense for their calling. Some moved to nicer homes further away, and soon after found another church. Some just moved on for various reasons of dissatisfaction. At one point, during a difficult season when a number left, I described this as having pieces ripped out of my favorite shirt. Those departures hurt the most, and like other losses, I may not think of it as much, but the grief never goes away.

When Nathan Oates writes about stability, he is not insisting that we all stay put but rather that the stability that puts down deep roots, with Christ and with people in a place, is what births meaningful movement. It is different from the kind of restless movement of the gyrovague, that keeps thinking that the next new thing will satisfy our longings. (I should mention that the author does believe leaving abusive situations warranted.)

Oates turned to studying the life and rule of St. Benedict, the father of Western monasticism. Benedict gathered communities of those who wanted to set themselves apart from the world and created a Rule to govern their communal life. One of the problems he encountered was those who would never settle down in one place and it was he who coined the term gyrovague. His answer? He asked those who would join his communities to take a vow of stability: “to seek God in this place with this community under the guidelines established by this rule.” It was a commitment to a place, a people, and a purpose. Oates roots this call to stability in the omnipresence of God. We don’t have to go somewhere else to find God. Why then is there so much going in scripture? It is not in order to find God or whatever we are looking for, but rather that we have found what we are looking for.

Oates took his study of Benedict to another level, spending three weeks at the monastery at Norsia where the movement began. One of his first discoveries is to discover his days (and nights) being organized around prayer, seven times a day, where people scheduled meeting up “after Lauds.” You prayed more than you ate–two meals a day. Oates found himself constantly hungry. Instead of taking a break to pray, they took breaks from prayers, which Oates discovered is the monks’ real work. He learns that the formative work of stability comes as one goes deeper when things get hard, much like the choice every married couple faces. In turn, the stability of the monks becomes “the footing” for others around them. He describes the security the monks of Tibhirine provided their village–even when they suffered the death of a number of community members in a raid.

Oates sought to apply all this in his own church community, which led to four practices. First was to regularly celebrate the root of stability that bore fruit in the lives of people–birthdays, anniversaries, and even departures. Second, they valued the permanency of people. In this congregation it meant “raising our kids together.” Earlier, he speaks of a group of men who participated in his son’s “rite of passage” into adulthood. Third, they developed practices of placement, various traditions of community shared year after year–common meals and prayers, rites of passage, celebrations, and benedictions. Finally, he contends that families remain the primary formational communities (I wish he would have said more here about those who are not in families, where the church is family).

He concludes with an interesting question: where do we stay from here? The real issue is not just staying in a place or going. It is about radical stability–going deeper in Christ, growing closer to God. It has to do with prayer. The monks prayed a lot, and the point was deepening intimacy with God. He makes me wonder if so much of our present instability attests to how distant God is for us, and how so much of our grasping and contending is really an exercise in “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Oates believes the monastic practice of stability is something that God can use to renew our relationships, churches, and communities. So, where will you stay from here?

____________________________

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: Aging Faithfully

Aging Faithfully, Alice Fryling. Colorado Springs, NavPress, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of the questions that come with the changes of growing older and the invitations of God in those changes.

It seems that the mantra among those of my age group is “growing old ain’t for sissies.” You might think that those of us who have been at this game of life for awhile might have it figured out. What some may not realize is this is a new game, and we are rank beginners at it. Our bodies are changing, we are retiring from work, and maybe other pursuits of earlier years, our relationships with family, church, and others may be changing, and even our relationship with God may be changing as we let go of old patterns and open up to new ones. There are fears: about finances, about our relationship with our children, about losses of mental and physical abilities, and what the process of dying will be like for us.

Alice Fryling has written a beautiful book that engages all of these matters, some of which may even be hard to talk about and yet they may not be far from our thoughts. She writes as one in the midst of this process, seeing changes in her life situation, her body, and even in the things she wants to do and believes are God’s invitations. She shares her own journey even as she helps us to explore the contours of ours.

She begins by acknowledging that we are on a journey into the unknown, but that like the ancient explorers, it may lead to new places we did not know were there. She discusses retirement, not only from work but also some of the former activities that came with our working lives. Successive images of blossoms blooming and fallen, sap running, fruitfulness, and the best wine and new wineskins offer hope for what is fermenting, growing anew in our lives. She explores aging as a time of new birth, shedding the lies of the false self, even good, spiritual lies that no longer have a hold on us as we embrace what Christ is forming in us.

She acknowledges the losses of past work, of body, the importance of listening to the body’s messages and not denying the losses, but bringing them to God and opening ourselves to how we might be renewed inwardly when our bodies begin failing us. She talks about how we may struggle with the loss of control that sleep represents, and observes that insomnia, an accompaniment of aging, is also a loss of control, and another opportunity to surrender to the care of God. She considers letting go and our resistance to it. She observes how letting go may be a gift, as we acknowledge the changing desires in our hearts. We give up on “shoulding” and give ourselves to the “discipline of irresponsibility” that may be the first steps to responding to the Spirit’s invitations.

She confronts our fears and where we find peace as God leads us a step at a time. She deals with feelings of uselessness, loneliness, brokenness, and the concerns of the last season of our lives. Then in the epilogue, there is a wonderful summary by the decades of the sixties, seventies, and eighties of the questions that we may ask ourselves, and the sound counsel at any age that what we need are people who listen, not to solve us, but to draw us out. Appendices offer help with relevant scripture passages, an interview with her husband Bob, and a discussion what different groups–parents and children–would have the others know.

Alice Fryling’s honesty about questions, losses, letting go, and how she has found hope and peace is helpful. If you’ve reached our age, you are asking the questions and it helps to know one isn’t alone. Reflection questions and spiritual practices concluding the chapters offer opportunities to begin to listen for the invitations of God of which she speaks. As she proposes, the coming years are undiscovered country for all of us. I long not so much to know what they hold as to be found faithful in Christ to the end. Fryling offers the encouragement that the Lord desires this for us even more than we do, and will guide us safe home.

____________________________

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: Forty Days on Being a Five

Forty Days on Being a Five, Morgan Harper Nichols (Suzanne Stabile series editor). Downers Grove: Formatio, 2021.

Summary: Forty short reflections with prayers and questions for those who are Enneagram Type Fives.

This is part of a collection of nine nicely bound books with forty reflections for each of the nine Enneagram types. Why am I reviewing the one for Fives? I could say random choice or because Five is halfway between One and Nine. But you’ve probably already figured out that it is because I am a Type Five, or as those into Enneagram would say, I’m a Five. We are variously described as the Investigator, the Thinker, the Observer. I actually think I am far more, but if the Type fits…

The introduction by series editor Suzanne Stabile encourages us to be generous with ourselves as we undergo change and transformation as we grow in self-understanding. Then Morgan Harper Nichols, a five begins with a chapter “On Being a Five.” I felt like she knew me when I read this description:

“The basic desire of the Five is to be capable and competent. We seek to understand and we fear being helpless. We are driven by a pursuit of knowledge that can at times, cause us to live in our heads. We find comfort in our safe places and reading nooks. We can spend a lot of our time thinking, compromising, and searching for insight” (p. 6).

The forty reflections that follow reflect an understanding of that desire and way of living. At different points, we are invited to notice and live in our bodies. We are invited to trust that we know enough and that God can meet us where we don’t. We’re invited to share our understanding rather than keep it to ourselves. We are encouraged to step away from being the removed observer all the time. We’re allowed to acknowledge our need to recharge and give up trying to control that and allow God to fill our cup.

Many of the reflections conclude with a prayer or a question or both. Space is allowed with the questions to jot down your own responses. One example of a question that recognizes how easily Fives compartmentalize life is “How have you compartmentalized your life? Are there ways you could zoom out and look at the whole?” A short prayer that spoke to me was this:

God,
Thank you for giving me this mind.
Thank you for the gift of wisdom.
Teach me today that to lean into your All-Knowingness
     more than I lean into my own understanding.
Give me strength to live with questions so that I
     may trust that in the space between what I have
     asked and your answer, there is abundant room
     to grow in faith.
Amen.

The reflections are short, between two and four pages. These easily may be read and reflected upon in fifteen minutes. Self-understanding and transformation are a journey of a lifetime. This little book covers just forty days of that–maybe 600 minutes. But the reflections can lead the five to trust that we are prepared enough, that we know enough, and that God is more than capable of meeting us in the gaps, and to step out on the dance floor rather than hug the wall.

____________________________

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: The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation

The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation, A. J. Sherrill (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores how the Enneagram may be used as a tool for self-understanding that may serve as a guide on one’s discipleship pathway.

There is a spate of books on the Enneagram, which seems to be one of the latest “hot” things. Equally, there is a good deal of pushback around the use of the Enneagram, considering it more of a “New Age” or pagan approach that may lead Christians astray. One thing I appreciated about this book from the get-go is that A.J. Sherrill is cautious about both of these extremes. He writes:

People often ask me how I defend the Enneagram against such accusations. I tell them not to get sucked into defending it. One either finds it helpful or doesn’t. It is neither salvific nor soul-destroying. It’s simply a tool. From that standpoint it can be leveraged just as Paul leveraged “an unknown god” in Acts 17 to spur his listeners on to accept the claims of the gospel. God uses every square inch. If God can use an unknown god to amplify the name of Jesus, God can use the Enneagram.

Sherrill, pp. 13-14.

He goes on to mention four agreements he asks workshop participants to make:

  1. Remember you are not a number.
  2. Refuse to become branded as the Enneagram person, church, or organization.
  3. Resist the urge to type another person.
  4. Reclaim the Enneagram as a means and not an end.

Sherrill believes that the Enneagram is a tool to help offer self understanding that allows for the formation of our personality growing out of rooting our identity in Christ. He goes into each of the types of the Enneagram, the characteristic fault or sin of each, the lies we believe, and the truth we need for our personalities to be shaped by that identity in Christ. Sherrill argues that self-understanding rooted in Christ must lead to discipleship, which is the distinctive message of this book.

Sherrill believes that the self-understanding that comes from learning about one’s type enables us to move beyond a cookie-cutter discipleship to something that reflects both the flat sides and redeemed strengths of each type. He offers “downstream” and “upstream” spiritual practices that reflect each type. For example, for Fives (my type) he suggests downstream practices that go with the flow of the type of inductive Bible study and reading (both things I in fact love doing). The upstream practice for Fives is service projects on a regular basis to get out of our heads and use our hands. It’s probably why working in a garden, pulling weeds, or even digging post holes can be quite satisfying. For each type, Sherrill also includes a day or season of the church year that fits the type.

Sherrill proposes that while we cannot “type” biblical characters, we may find aspects of our types in them and so better understand how people like us encounter God. For example, he points to Nicodemus as an Investigator, like those of us who identify as Fives. We walk with him as he visits Jesus at night to investigate his teaching in John 3. In John 7:51, he vocalizes his thoughts with the chief priests and Pharisees, taking a risk. By John 19, he helps prepare the body of Jesus for burial, the act of a close follower, identifying himself closely with Jesus. Nicodemus needs time to process what he has heard, and then act, first vocally and then bodily.

One of the most interesting proposals in this book is that the Enneagram also may serve as a tool in evangelism, given the interest in the Enneagram in wider cultural circles including the corporate setting, in work teams for example. The Enneagram builds on the biblical insight of a world both beautiful and broken, exposing our need for redemption and transformation. We all have “holdings,” ways we try to stabilize reality so that we can cope with it, ways that reflect our brokenness. The Enneagram creates bridges for exploration with people turned off by or inured to churchy language but who are coming to realize that in some way, they are part of what is not right in the world.

The book concludes with a chapter on developing a rule of life based on character aspirations and practices that fit one’s type. Then the conclusion reiterates Sherrill’s approach of neither rejecting or making the Enneagram all encompassing. It isn’t Jesus, it won’t save our marriages, serve as a parenting guide, increase our profits, or save us. It can help us become Christ-like, give us insights into our relational dynamics, help us understand the uniqueness of our children, help us lead more effectively, and open conversations with those who do not yet know Christ.

This isn’t the best book to introduce one to the Enneagram or help one discover one’s own type. Sherrill offers an overview of the types and an appendix with some helpful background. He mentions other helpful works along the way, including Suzanne Stabile and Ian Cron’s The Road Back to You (review), which I would commend as the best place to begin if you want to understand the Enneagram. The gap this book fills is addressing how the Enneagram may be used in Christian discipleship, how it helps us not only understand ourselves but also how we may, as unique people follow Jesus as we seek the glory of God and the good of the world.

____________________________

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: Tending Soul, Mind, and Body

tending soul, mind, and body

Tending Soul, Mind, and BodyEdited by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of papers from the 2018 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference drawing from a variety of perspectives to consider how as whole persons we are formed in Christ.

The editors observe that there were three threads to the papers presented at the 2018 Center for Pastor Theologians conference on spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is an art. Spiritual formation is a science. And spiritual formation is a work of the Spirit forming us in the image of God in the likeness of the risen Christ. The pastors and theologians who contribute the bulk of the papers were joined by a couple of psychologists who add scientific perspectives to the discussion.

The papers were grouped in two parts. The first was on biblical, theological and historical perspectives on spiritual formation. It begins with a study of the first letter to the Corinthians from a civic and cultural formation perspective, inculcating the wisdom and vision to see themselves as a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, counter to their culture. Several other essays that stood out in this section were Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay on the formation of our human spirit in the character of Christ, Rachel Stahle’s mining the riches of Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts on sanctification, and a particularly insightful essay drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer on spiritual misformation. He observes Bonhoeffer’s counter-intuitive insight that conscience reflects, not the inner voice of God, but rather the self curved in upon itself that is the consequence of the fall, that is a defense against God. Vincent Bacote closes out this section with a study of the rich resources of formation in African-American Christianity with its emphasis on lament and embodied spirituality.

The second group focuses on practical wisdom. Todd Wilson leads off exploring how it is possible for pastors and leaders to be both godly and dysfunctional. He observes this comes of not taking either the body or the brain (our psyches with their wounds and scars) seriously and from the lack of interpersonal communion. Cherith Fee Nordling takes Eugene Peterson’s two word description of spirituality–“practice resurrection” and marvelously expands what this means for embodied Christians living in the hope of the resurrection. Andrew Schmutzer writes with candor that arises from experience of abuse and ministry with the abused. William Struthers offers a provocative essay on “neuropharmacoforation” exploring how we navigate a culture increasingly at ease seeking spiritual experience through chemical means.

I’ve touched on the essays that most caught my attention, but as in other proceedings from these conferences, what marks this collection are theologians, pastors, and other specialists working at the intersection of theology and pastoral care, where theology is informed by and connected with the care of people and pastoral care is informed by rigorous theological thinking in service of the people of God. What is heartening in this collection is to note the greater diversity of women and theologians who are persons of color. This is a great gain, and a model of the whole church learning from and instructing the whole church.

________________________________

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

Review: Wait With Me

wait with me

Wait With MeJason Gaboury. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that the experience of loneliness is an invitation to grow in our friendship with God.

“To be human is to be lonely.” These words, spoken by Friar Ugo, the author’s spiritual director, open the book. Jason Gaboury, perhaps like all of us, experienced loneliness from childhood. He describes growing up amid domestic strife from which he ran away at one point, and that ended in divorce. Friar Ugo poses this question:

   Have you ever considered . . . that the loneliness you’re experiencing is an invitation to grow your friendship with God?

That led to a journey to exploring how God meets people in their loneliness in scripture,  and to a startling insight that “flips” his perspective of God.

In one-word titled chapters, Gaboury takes us through Abraham’s experience of leaving home into a new relationship with God, of the encounters of Hagar and Moses with God in the desert, of the grasping ambition of Jacob that found its resolution in the grasp of God, and the desolation encounter of Elijah in the silence where he hears God’s voice. We are invited to consider our griefs and losses in the grief of Ezekial for his people. We explore how God may call us into the loneliness of risk leading us to a new place of trust through the story of Esther. We learn with Mary what it means to respond to profound and disturbing news with a heart that ponders before God. We watch as the leadership of Saul the persecutor is deconstructed and formed anew as the follower of Jesus during three days of blindness after the Damascus road.

Gaboury mixes his own experiences with biblical reflections–the loss of an ambitious friend to suicide, stepping into church leadership after the forced departure of a pastor, and learning to follow afresh as God revealed the dysfunctions of the leadership of which he’d been a part.

All this leads to another conversation with Friar Ugo. Gaboury had been describing some of his insights from scripture of God meeting people in their loneliness, all the ways Jesus enters into our pain. Then:

   Friar Ugo smiled, “I’m glad for the consolation you feel as you enter into the Scriptures, but I don’t think they’re the point. What if the loneliness that drives you to seek consolation was meant to expand your heart in compassion for Jesus?” He paused again. “You can’t love someone you don’t know, and you only know someone whose experience you’re willing to enter into with empathy and compassion.”

Gaboury proceeds to reflect on Jesus in Gethsemane asking the disciples to “wait with me” through his agonized prayer. Instead, they slept and abandoned Jesus, even before his arrest, trial, and forsaken death. Instead of considering how Jesus enters into our loneliness, Gaboury invites us to enter into the loneliness of Jesus, where Jesus ceases to be our therapist and we become his friends.

This is a startling insight for me, one I’m still weighing even as I write about this book. It reflects not only a different and true insight, but one that comes out of a deep reading of both scripture and life by the author in the company of a spiritual friend. Gaboury invites us to join that journey both in text and questions for reflection that invite us to sit with what we have read and to wait with God. But there is one more thing. Gaboury invites those transformed by waiting with God to compassionate witness to the God who invites us to wait with him in our loneliness–and His.

________________________________

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