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).

____________________________

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: Ignatian Spirituality A to Z

45985ignatian-spirituality-a-z750

Ignatian Spirituality A to ZJim Manney. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017.

Summary: An introduction to Ignatian spirituality in the form of a glossary of commonly used terms and key people.

Ignatian spirituality has been gaining in interest in recent years. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is steeped in this tradition. The hunger for a deeper spirituality extends far beyond Catholic circles and it is increasingly common to encounter some of the practices of Ignatian spirituality like examen or terminology like consolation and desolation in many retreat setting. Or you will hear of some who has done the spiritual exercises. It can all sound a bit like “inside baseball,” an experience author Jim Manney had. He looked for a guide that explained or defined these terms, and ended up writing it.

Manney has compiled an “A to Z” glossary of terms related to Ignatian spiritualty that includes history and biography of key figures from Ignatius, Xavier, and Peter Faber down to Fr. James Martin, Teilhard de Chardin, and Pope Francis, all Jesuits We learn the connection between the Society of Jesus and Ignatian spirituality. Manney has fun along the way. One of his entries is “Basketball,” highlighting the long tradition of outstanding Jesuit college teams, players, and coaches. He writes:

“Why this digression into basketball in a book about Ignatian spirituality? Because basketball is a city game, and cities are where you find Jesuits. The early Jesuits set up shop in the cities of Europe; the countryside was for monks and hermits. The Jesuits have been in the cities ever since. Most of the twenty-eight Jesuit colleges in the United States are located in urban areas, often right downtown. Basketball is a game of constant motion; it blends teamwork, individual skills, improvisation, and finesse. If you want a metaphor for Ignatian spirituality, basketball is a good one.”

Some of the terminology is in Latin, and some of it is important to understanding Ignatian spirituality. One example is agere contra, which means “do the opposite.” It is the idea that, when tempted, we desire the opposite, When tempted by riches, seek poverty. Engaging in self-pity? Go find someone to help. Another is cura personalis or “care of the entire person.” Unlike other traditions that sought spiritual progress through asceticism, Ignatius insisted that Jesuits live balanced lives and practice good self-care.

Along the way we learn that the Jesuits were suppressed for a time, for fear of their power both by secular rulers and in the church. And yet these were the missionaries of the church. The “Fourth Vow” is one of “special obedience to the sovereign pontiff with regard to missions.” At points, this vow aroused suspicion, and yet they’ve played a vital role in both the mission and reform of the church.

I found this the ideal guide for a “newbie” to Ignatian spirituality. Manney doesn’t assume anything, he keeps the text accessible and light-hearted (he even includes an entry on “Jesuit jokes”). Yet it is clear that as an editor for Loyola Press, a frequent speaker, and lay volunteer, we are learning from someone whose life has been shaped by the spirituality of which he writes. His book is no substitute for working with an Ignatian director. Rather, I suspect it will leave many wanting to.

____________________________

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

Waking and Sleeping

1024px-Bookends_barnstars

By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve come to think of those first and last moments of consciousness, before I rise in the morning, and before I drift off to sleep, as important bookends of my day. Too easily, I pick up the phone at the beginning of the day to check the news. Too easily, I end the day drifting off to sleep mid-sentence in whatever I’m reading.

So I’ve started two simple practices:

  1. When I awaken, before I do anything else besides shut off the alarm, I lay still and give thanks for God’s protection through the night and offer him myself and my day, including the specifics of it I know as well as all the things that will occur about which I don’t.
  2. And before I go to bed, rather than read, I simply take the last moments of consciousness to review the day, to thank God for all his mercies, to offer anything up that remains undone even though I am for the day, and to trust myself to his care.

I’ve been thinking more of late of how much of my days I go through without consciously being aware of God. I still find myself far from the Apostle Paul’s “praying without ceasing.” Sometimes perhaps, it is just a brain that finds it hard to be engaged both with the matters of the moment and to engage with God. But I suspect there are deeper habits of being that play into all this.

For now at least, I want to get the bookends in place. Then, perhaps, I can work on what is between them.

 

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.

____________________________

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.

Review: Becoming Curious

becoming curious

Becoming Curious, Casey Tygrett (Foreward by James Bryan Smith). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Commends curiosity as essential to transformation and helps us cultivate the practice of asking questions as a spiritual practice.

Anyone who has been a parent knows there is a season of life where you probably answer a hundred questions a day from your growing child. As children grow and change by asking questions, we begin to settle into the role of being people who have life figured out enough to have “the answers.” That settling can be dangerous, as we harden in attitudes and dispositions. We cease to grow.

Casey Tygrett thinks that curiosity isn’t just for the young but rather an essential for growth and transformation at any age. He proposes that we need to become, not childish, but rather childlike, and that learning to ask questions, lots of questions, can be a spiritual practice that helps us cultivate curiosity, and that can be the doorway to change as we live with our questions before God.

His book is organized around different kinds of questions we might explore, and each chapter ends with a “questions journal exercise” that encourages us in this practice. Among the kinds of questions he explores is the searching question that Jesus asks both James and John, and the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” He encourages us to think of how we would answer, and what it would be like were Jesus to ask the question of us and what we would answer him. He considers questions of identity (“who do you say I am?”), questions of motivation (Why?), the question of the other, and what it means to love the other well (“Who is my neighbor?”), and the questions of failure (our own) and forgiveness (of ourselves and others). Finally he considers what is perhaps the hardest question, what it means to change, which often involves dying, resurrection, and ascension.

What impressed me so much about this book was how Tygrett comes at so many familiar passages with a fresh slant. Earlier, I wrote on his discussion of “repentance.” There his question is, what if we thought of repentance as an invitation rather than a command? I found this fresh slant in the chapter on failure, where he observes that Jesus doesn’t make Peter confess that he had denied the Lord, and that Jesus invites Peter to participate in his own reinstatement in responding to his questions “do you love me?”

This was most apparent in what he wrote on forgiveness:

     “One of the reasons curiosity is so important to our growth and formation is that it’s not enough to hear Jesus teaching ‘forgive,’ and then we do it.

We need the second question–the curious question–How?

When it comes to forgiveness, the how is not just an event. It’s not just an action, an attitude, a prayer, or a gift given in hopes of burying a hatchet.

Forgiveness is an address. It’s a place where you live.”

I’ve never heard it expressed like this but it so makes sense. It is like there are only two houses we can live in–a judgment world or a forgiveness world. We either live in a world of judging and being judged, or in forgiving and being forgiven.

My sense is that this freshness arises out of the author’s own childlike curiosity. Perhaps one of the simple goodnesses of this book is the permission he gives to ask questions. Some of us may have gotten the mistaken notion that this is not permitted of “good” or “mature” or “orthodox” Christians. Far from being a problem or an apologetic challenge, he treats questions as an opportunity to be encountered by the God who is not put off by our questions but uses the questions we bring into God’s presence as a means not simply to inform us but to change us–to transform us.

____________________________

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.

 

Review: Liturgy of the Ordinary

liturgy-of-the-ordinary

Liturgy of the OrdinaryTish Harrison Warren (foreword by Andy Crouch). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Walking through the common events of an ordinary day from waking to sleeping, Warren explores how we encounter in these ordinary things the Christ we worship each Sunday.

I work with people in a university context who struggle to connect the Christ they worship each week with the seemingly ordinary, and often repetitive tasks that make up their days–answering emails, running experiments, attending committee meetings, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers or exams. In many cases, this occupies the most significant part of their waking hours. And for the ones who are followers of Christ, they often wonder what any of this has to do with the Christ they worship, and are attempting to follow. Time spent in a soup kitchen, a prison ministry, a mission trip–that seems closer to the real deal. Some wonder if they should even be doing the stuff that makes up most of their weeks.

There are others who think even the life I’ve described sounds “cutting edge” compared to spending much of their days feeding, cleaning up after, diapering, entertaining, putting down for naps and getting up again infants and toddlers. Or they work in some form of unskilled or repetitive work. And no matter what our work is, much of life involves a daily round of self-care, home care, and meal preparation, and a host of routine activities–every day.

Let’s face it. Much of life is lived in the ordinary and it is to this that Tish Harrison Warren addresses herself. Her book takes the tasks of the “ordinary” day and reflects on how we are met by and may be transformed by the Christ we worship each Sunday. She explores activities like waking, making our beds, brushing our teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, fighting with our spouses, checking email, getting stuck in traffic, talking to friends, drinking tea, and sleeping. She connects these with the liturgies she participates in each week as an Anglican priest. She writes:

“And every new day, this is the turn my heart must make: I’m living this life, the life right in front of me. This one where marriages struggle. This one where we aren’t living as we thought we might or as we hoped we would. This one where we are weary, where we want to make a difference but aren’t sure where to start, where we have to get dinner on the table or the kids’ teeth brushed, where we have back pain and boring weeks, where our lives look small, where we doubt, where we wrestle with meaninglessness, where we worry about those we love, where we struggle to meet our neighbors and love those closest to us, where we grieve, where we wait.

And on this particular day, Jesus knows me and declares me his own. On this day he is redeeming the world, advancing his kingdom, calling us to repent and grow, teaching his church to worship, drawing near to us, and making a people all his own.

If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus, I must learn how grand, sweeping truths—doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology—rub against the texture of an average day. How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life. “

She connects waking and baptism, as Lutherans often are taught to do in making the sign of the cross and saying, “remember your baptism” upon waking. Making beds reminds of the rituals that form a life. Brushing teeth represents all the embodied tasks that make up our day, and how we meet Christ through the bodily acts of standing, kneeling, and bowing. I particularly loved the chapter on sending email, and the blessing and sending that is part of our worship, and that may be implicit in our responses to our inboxes. She makes drinking a cup of tea a reminder of the enjoyment of all that is good in the sanctuary of God.

She concludes the book with a chapter on sleep, reflecting on the gift of sabbath and our struggle with lives of activism, and a resistance of sleep that may reflect a fear of dying. She poses an interesting question:

 “What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested–people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.”

Warren writes with an unvarnished realism about her own life, and yet there is also this sense of stepping back from the whirl of ordinary life in the various moments of the day to remember, and listen, and reflect on how Jesus as the Incarnate One brings his shalom into the whirl of the ordinary–whether it is a fight with a spouse, lost keys or a traffic jam. Warren’s thoughtful reflections help us move to that same place, a kind of center of quiet where the new creation life of Christ can enter into the ordinary spaces of our days.

This is a book I can give to those wondering if there are greener pastures of Christian activity than the everyday circumstances they find themselves in. It is a book that makes the connection between the extraordinary things we preach and pray and participate in each Sunday, and the ordinary realities of each week. From when we first wake until we lay down our heads at night. And all the spaces between.

_______________________________

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.

Review: The Wired Soul

the-wired-soul

The Wired Soul, Tricia McCary Rhodes. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2016.

Summary: Explores how our communications technology is changing how our minds work in ways that militate against a centered, focused life and introduces practices of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation that help us attend to God in a distracted world.

There is no question that laptop computers, wireless technology, tablets and smartphones, and other electronic devices in our lives have changed the way we live and think. They provide an unprecedented connectedness (during the recent attack at Ohio State, I learned that 150 friends were “safe” in under an hour thanks to a Facebook app). They give us instant access to information and also to consumer opportunities. They also can be a huge source of distraction. The average person checks a smartphone at least 100 times a day. It cuts into productivity, distracts driving, and even interferes with our sleep.

Tricia McCary Rhodes asks the uncomfortable question of how all this affects our spiritual lives and our ability to pay attention to God. Drawing on some of the latest findings in neuroscience, Rhodes writes that this technology, and our use of it literally rewires the neural pathways in our brains. We read differently, we are more easily distracted, we no longer remember things like phone numbers or directions that we once remembered. This has implications both for how we read and reflect upon the scriptures, our ability to slow down, and focus upon and attend to God.

Rhodes draws upon the Benedictine practice of lectio divina and the four most common elements of this practice, to counter the influences of this technology. In each section, she includes not only some basic discussion of the practice, but also exercises that can be done in 15 minutes to an hour, that take us into spiritual practices, indeed alternative liturgies, to use James. K. A. Smith’s terminology, on which she draws, to help us engage with God. These four elements are and the specific practices are:

  • Lectio. Here she focuses on both slow and reflective reading. In the slow reading, she has us focus on a single paragraph that we read and re-read, and then reflect upon. In retentive reading she introduces a method of Bible memorization.
  • Meditatio. The section on meditation focuses on giving our whole-body attention to God through an exercise that combines breathing, simple motion, and words. The exercise on biblical meditation begins with establishing a clear intention, moves to preparation of the heart, and then uses a set of simple questions to reflect upon a biblical text.
  • Oratio. In this section the focus is on prayer. First, she introduces the examen as a way to “pray the texts of our digital lives” and to consider their influence upon us. Then she turns to considering our relationships and the proportion of virtual to real face to face interactions make up our lives. She concludes with encouraging the practice of table conversation over meals.
  • Contemplatio. Reflects a movement from stillness in the presence of God into action shaped by that awareness of God. She offers exercises that help to enter into that place of resting in God, and then to return to that contemplative place throughout an active day.

Rhodes is not a Luddite, urging us to throw away our tablets and smartphones. Some of the exercises include their use and she speaks both of the helpful uses of this technology, and her own struggles with it. Most of all, Rhodes gives us some helpful practices to keep technology in its place, to keep it from becoming, in Neil Postman’s words, technopoly that controls and shapes our way of life. Christ followers want a Christ-shaped, rather than iPhone-shaped life. In a simple, readable format, Rhodes introduces us to some practices and helps us to ask some challenging questions that help us to embrace the life to which Christ calls us in a wired world.

_______________________________

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.

Review: You Are What You Love

you-are-what-you-love

You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Smith contends that our hearts and the ways we live our lives are shaped by what we love and worship, and that “liturgies” historically have shaped the loves of our hearts and the ways of our lives.

So often, in Christian circles, it is thought that if we can instruct Christians in right doctrine and help them apply this rightly in their lives, they will live Christianly. James K. A. Smith would not deny the importance of right doctrine but would argue that it is the shaping of our hearts, our loves, desires, and what we worship, that is crucial in translating right belief into our practices. Several years ago, Smith framed out in great depth this argument in Desiring the Kingdom (reviewed here). Many have asked for a more distilled version of this material, which he provides in this new work.

Smith begins by observing that we are not simply thinking things but rather people shaped by the habits of our hearts. Re-shaping our lives means recognizing the existing habits of the heart, often more culturally than convictionally-shaped, and re-orienting our hearts by re-orienting the focus of our worship. He believes this fundamentally happens through “liturgies” that re-shape the loves of our heart along the lines of loving the Triune God and loving our neighbors.

The problem he sees in much of contemporary church practice is its thin, expressive form. In an effort to turn away from liturgical formalism, it has rejected the proper uses of liturgy. Instead, he would contend as follows:

     “If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you are not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as good in all kinds of other sectors of life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth” (p. 80).

Smith then explores how Christian worship is meant to “re-story” our lives in a narrative arc of gathering, listening, communing, and sending. In the final three chapters he writes about liturgies at home and at work, and most tellingly, of the shaping of the hearts of our young. He decries the “next big thing” of much of youth ministry and contends for communal practices of eating, praying, singing, thinking and reading together across generations in both families and educational settings.

Even this distillation of Smith’s work is worth savoring and reading slowly. It is an important work for any charged with leading the formational and liturgical life of churches, as it is for those engaged in the formational work of education, and those who care about the translation of Christian believe into Christian practice in the workplace. It recognizes that we are far more shaped by our heart-habits, whether it is praying the hours, or regularly checking our phones, than simply by what we formally believe. Far too often we are those, who, like the author, read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan’s challenges to healthier agriculture and eating while sitting in a fast-food restaurant. Just as weight loss programs help us develop better liturgies toward food, Smith contends that the work of the church is to lead us in liturgies that shape our hearts around our beliefs in ways that God works to transform our lives.

I’ll leave you with three questions this provokes for me:

  1. If an outsider were to observe the lives of our congregation or group for a week, what would they conclude we love?
  2. What “liturgies” inside or outside our community seem most formative in shaping these “habits of heart?”
  3. What “liturgies” might we embrace to begin to be formed along the lines of what we believe?

_______________________________

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.

Review: Broke

Broke

Broke, Caryn Rivadeneira. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: The author reflects on the experience of losing nearly all financially, and what she learned by being broke and broken about the provision and abundance of God.

I think I may be an atypical reader of this book. From the endorsements, all by women, it appears that this is a book written by a woman for a female audience. It may even have been marketed as such. And I think this a big mistake. This is an important book for men to read because our relationship to money, and how that shapes our relationship to God is a vital matter for men to consider. It is my observation that for many men, where God has broken through in their lives is when they were broke, and broken, financially and cast upon the resources of God, and the Christian community.

That is the story of this book. Caryn Rivadeneira and her husband Rafi began with a storybook marriage. He was an investment manager, she a talented, college-educated writer. Together, on their wedding day, they had a bright future before them. They were the people who liked to give generously and help others. And then the bottom fell out as Rafi tired of his work, and then in the economic downturn, had difficulties finding other work, and Caryn just couldn’t make it on her writing gigs. Suddenly, they were dependent on the help of family and gifts and loans of friends just to stay afloat.

She recounts her struggle as it seems God doesn’t hear her cries to be delivered from their financial straits, and then the gradual and growing realization that, for a while at least, there were other things God wanted to be up to in her life. Coming to terms with mystery. Understanding that prayers for daily bread can be just that. Learning that the things we may run from, like enrolling your children in public schools, may be God’s invitation. Learning to wait for God when the shock and numbness of loss leave one feeling bereft of belief. She learns anew to keep company with Jesus and to cultivate the imagination of faith, and sometimes to be dazzled with the wonder of all the goodness that remains in the world, even in one’s “brokenness.”

The journey she describes is a journey many men face as well. Though there are more two-income families, the lingering sense of men’s call to be the “breadwinner” and to forge one’s sense of identity around doing this well may need to yield at some point to a deeper awareness of God as the provider of bread, of the gifts of life one does not work for, and an identity finds its roots at a deeper level that what one does and earns. If there was one thing I wish there had been more of was that we would have heard more of Rafi’s experience of this time, more of how they traversed this season together. I don’t know the reasons that Caryn chose to write this book primarily around her own perspective. Perhaps it was to respect her husband’s journey. Whatever the case, it may be that the “like and unlike” narrative of a woman’s struggle with financial destitution may speak at a different level to men than simply another man’s perspective.

We are left without a clear resolution of their financial challenges although we get the sense that things have gotten better. More important than finding financial security, Rivadeneira finds God anew. She writes:

     “We survived. I kept breathing. I kept stepping. And somewhere in the cracks, along the ragged edges of my marriage, in the desperate gasps of sudden poverty and all the questions that came with it, there was God. Big and glittering, soft and warm, smiling and beckoning. Somehow in the shimmers of all that, I began to taste and see, and feel and know, and hear and smell that God is good, and he was there in the broke bits. That he was using our time near the poverty line, treading in debt, to draw me near, to make me over, to answer a prayer bigger than my material needs. In this season of spiritual and financial brokenness, in this time of longing to know what God was up to and to experience his goodness and presence, God worked me over by showing me where and how I could find him. Which is all over the place. In every last thing, He satisfied my wonderlust–my unquenchable desire to feel his presence and to experience his glory. And I found him. And I found him good.”

The hope this book offers is not a “prosperity gospel” but the abundance of God Himself. Sometimes we just have to be broke before we find it.

Review: Embracing the Body

Embracing the Body

Embracing the BodyTara M. Owens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: An invitation to move beyond guilt and shame around our embodied selves to discover the goodness of our bodies and how God made us, meets us, and works through our bodied lives.

Working in ministry in academia, I’ve joked that many academics seem to think bodies are just convenient (or sometimes inconvenient) means to transport their brains. But I’m not so different in vacillating between being out of touch with my body and its messages to me, and living with guilt and shame, or just frustration at the desires, impulses, and physical failings of my body.

What Tara Owens invites us into in this book is to discover how being spiritual involves embracing the physical being that is us, rather than denying our bodies. And, probably for all of us, that involves getting beyond the discomfort we often experience with our own bodies. She writes at the beginning of the book:

“If you asked me if I was always comfortable in my body (and required that I answer honestly), I would have to say, No . . . no, I’m not. I’m of the opinion that there isn’t anyone alive who is at home in his or her body 100 percent of the time, and I don’t believe that I formed this opinion just to justify my own neuroses.”

She begins by exploring why this is, why we are afraid, how in the history of the life of the church we lost our bodies in a kind of gnostic spirituality. Often, our broken alienation from our own bodies is paralleled by a church body extremely uncomfortable with anything to do with the body, particularly the sexual aspects of our embodied life. We deny that we are of the dust of the earth even though Jesus came and fully lived out an embodied life to death and bodily resurrection. We have trouble with Thomas even though Thomas of all of them knew that if resurrection didn’t mean embodied life, it didn’t mean anything.

She challenges us to face our fears as we face ourselves. We are neither angel nor animal but live in a space between. We quest for beauty and curse the ugly parts of us instead of seeing every part of us as blessed. We crave touch yet fear temptation and rob ourselves of the beauty of the touches that connect us to others. We fear that desire may destroy us not recognizing that Jesus repeatedly asks “what do you want” of people.

In the third part of the book, Owens invites us toward a wholeness in the embrace of the tension of longing for the holy while having two feet firmly on the ground as symbolized by God command to Moses to take his shoes off before the burning bush and the holy ground. She invites us into a life of being comfortable enough in our skin to pray with every part of our being. She calls us to attend to the creation with our senses. One of the most powerful chapters was on our sexuality as she recounted how her fiance invited her into the making of love long before they consummated that love in physical intimacy. She encourages us to own our sexual history, and that of our families, and offer all of this to the redemptive care of the Lover of our souls. And finally she speaks of the experience of how as bodies, in a body of believers, we take the body and blood of Christ, which she describes in these words, “Receive what you are, the body of Christ…. Receive what you are, the blood of Christ.”

Each chapter concludes with a Touch Point, an exercise to help us enter into the particular reality of embodied life we’ve been reading about in each chapter. There is also a group discussion guide at the end, with one or two questions for each chapter.

I am a singer and recently attended a workshop that taught us about singing with our whole bodies, and not just with our mouths. We sing from our feet, through our calves, our relaxed knees, our thighs and hips, pelvis and abdomen, torso and shoulders, neck and head. When it is good, all are aligned and working together. So much more than eyes, noses, ears, and voices. We feel rhythms in our bodies as well as read them off a score. In one exercise, we stood hand opposite hand without touching with a partner (another man in my case), moving our hands, following one another to a beautiful peace of music, shedding self-consciousness as we moved with each other and the music, ending in a sense that this was profoundly good and beautiful.

In some sense, Owens’ book seems to me to capture this same idea, helping us to sing and move and live the Lord’s song from head to foot and with every part between. She helps us face our fears with her own stories of fear and the vulnerability both of stepping beyond those fears and sharing them. She helps us recognize all the ways God comes to us in our bodies and woos us to Himself and his dreams for us. In all of this she helps us see that we can only express our true selves through our physical selves.