Review: The Intentional Year

The Intentional Year, Holly Packiam and Glenn Packiam. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2022.

Summary: An invitation to stop, assess, and plan around five clusters of practices that enable us to live purposeful lives.

It’s the time of the year we make resolutions out of a sense that our lives are not all they could be. It’s a good impulse as far as it goes. The problem is that, for most of us, it doesn’t go very far.

What we often lack is intention. The co-authors of this book, sharing out of their own yearly practice, suggest that we intentionally “stop for the purpose of moving forward.” They encourage us to take time, perhaps at the beginning of a new year, to assess our lives, looking back at our recent past, reviewing five spheres of life to think about what live giving practices or rhythms may help us flourish, and then establishing plans in each of these areas that reflect God’s word for us as we’ve assessed.

The book commends a three-fold process:

Reflection: First, we are encouraged to look back over the year, its highs and lows using the prayer of examen. Then they suggest considering what our review of our year suggests about what season we are in. Are there recurring themes? And through all this, are we hearing a “word” from the Lord. What do our trusted friends think of this word–do they hear the Lord in it?

Inventory: This involves taking a look at five spheres of our lives and the spiritual practices that undergird them. Are they life-giving for us, and if this is not the case, what practices might help us develop healthier rhythms? The five areas are:

  1. Prayer. The authors share several practices including psalm praying, silence, and lectio divina as new practices.
  2. Rest. Here, ideas for practicing sabbath are discussed and how this may cultivate a life of freedom.
  3. Renewal. Physical, mental, and emotional renewal are discussed, including setting aside time for reading and for gratitude.
  4. Circles of Relationship. We’re helped here to identify the concentric circles of relationships we have and how we might set priorities for these circles.
  5. Habits of Work. Vocation is briefly touched on, reflecting the intersection of God’s glory, the world’s good, and our joy, and then thinking about the shape of good work well done.

Action: The idea here is “making it stick. The authors walk us through the five spheres again in light of God’s word to us and challenge us to get specific with ONE practice for each sphere and what we will do daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly to implement and review our progress. Then the last thing is to get these plans into our calendar.

The book is set up so that it may be used over a weekend retreat or a series of day. The aim of developing rhythms of intentionality is to position ourselves under God’s grace to be fruitful. The co-authors conclude:

“That means the intentional year–your intentional life!–is not really about you. It’ s about how your life becomes good news for the world. The rhythms of prayer, rest, renewal, relationships, and work that you cultivate in your life are meant to produce fruit for the sake of others, gifts for the good of the church and the world. When you’re healthy, intentional, and living in freedom, peace, and purpose, others benefit. Yes, Irenaeus was right: The glory of God is the human fully alive” (p. 195).

Tired of failed resolutions yet want this to be a year of living well in Christ? This book offers a simple process, lots of practical guidance and examples, and reflection prompts and questions that can help you to be more intentional about your life.


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

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: Worshiping with the Reformers

Worshiping with the Reformers, Karin Maag. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A survey of the various worship practices of Reformed church bodies, revealing the diversity of practices and the reasons for those differences.

The Reformation led to many changes in the church. Among these were changes in various worship practices that reflected the changes in thinking about the worship of God by church leaders. Not all those changes were in the same direction. This book, a companion to IVP Academic’s Reformation Commentary Series, surveys these practices and the reasons behind them.

The book examines eight aspects of the church’s worship beginning with the matter of when people went to church. In many settings, attendance was more or less an expected duty, with the key driving factor of observance of the sabbath. Businesses were closed and activities banned that could distract from Sabbath attendance. At the same time, feast days were pared down, and many considered superstitious. What they did in worship is the second topic. I learned that seating was often arranged in a circle around a central pulpit, emphasizing the priority of preaching. A real challenge was attention, including the dealing with the problem of fights breaking out! Weddings in many settings occurred during worship, with the whole church witnessing vows. So did not only funerals but burials, a carryover of medieval practice that where the living literally worshipped atop their dead kin, buried under the floor!

As already mentioned, preaching took on a central role in Reformed churches. Calvinist and Lutheran groups tended toward more doctrinally oriented preaching while Anabaptist focused more on moral exhortation. Adherence to scripture was emphasized throughout and the training of pastors took on a greater priority. Regarding prayer, churches varied, though for all prayer in the context of worship was considered vital. Some focused more on the use of scriptures, particularly the Psalms and the Lord’s prayer, others on liturgy, which had a strongly participatory element. While the content shifted, prayer books continued to be important in teaching people to pray. Posture was debated–standing, seated, kneeling. This chapter includes a wonderful historic rationale for set prayers, over against extemporaneous prayer.

As is well known, baptism and communion were widely debated–their meaning, administration, their timing. Maag covers all of this without arguing a particular conclusion. She offers a fascinating discussion of the visual arts in worship and the tension between instruction and idolatry. She also explores music, the preference for simpler tunes for congregational singing, psalms versus, hymns, and the controversies around instruments, including organs. While some preferred a capella singing, the importance of instruments was to keep the singing from dragging, which tends to happen with unaccompanied singing. These were not simply matters of taste but of theology. Finally, Maag considers worship outside the church including the practices of pilgrimage, the care for the sick and dying, and household worship.

This is a highly readable survey rather than a granular treatment. We are introduced to dominant characteristics of worship in Reformed settings, and offered helpful bibliographies for more specialized study. Maag articulates that one of her hopes is that understanding the decisions, sometimes different, that the Reformers made will help Christians be more thoughtful of the Triune God they worship and how they give expression to that worship. It also strikes me that there is history from which we may learn without repeating the same contentions. Most of all, we learn that many things were done for theological reasons, rather than contemporary taste. Of course the spirit and manner in which this is done, with devotion and warmth and love for God rather than a judgmental sterility seems vitally important. Soli Deo Gloria!


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: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

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

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


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

Review: Rhythms for Life

Rhythms for Life, Alastair Sterne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: An approach to spiritual practices and a rule of life tailored to the unique identity, gifts, calling, and roles of each person.

Rhythms for Life joins an increasing field of books exploring spiritual practices and the idea of a rule of life. The author even includes a list of these books for further reading. What, then distinguishes this book?

I would contend that it is the first half of this book, coupled with the second half. The first half explores who has God made us to be. Sterne explores in successive chapters 1) identity, 2) gifts, talents, and personality, 3) virtuous values, 4) roles, and 5) vocation. The chapter stood out to me, defined as what we consider important and worthwhile, differentiating aspirational and actual values, how values are formed and transformed in Christ, and how we identify them.

Each of the chapters in the first part include a “workbook” section at the end beginning with prayer, identifying descriptive words that resonate, and asking a variety of questions to help one tease out and reflect on oneself. Doing this together in a group and inviting others to confirm or challenge your insights can be helpful.

The second part focuses on developing rhythms to live out our vocation based upon what we’ve learned about ourselves and our vocations. Sterne proposes four types of rhythms: 1) Up–Upward to God, 2) In–Inward to Self, 3) With–Withward in Community, and 4) Out–Outward in Mission. In these chapters there are brainstorming questions at the end of each section, rather than at the end of the chapter. Each of these chapters concludes with a sample set of rhythms organized around regular and seasonal rhythms and a growth rhythm.

In addition to the appendix on further resources, there is one on develop rhythms in community, and one on discerning a call to ministry.

Books have been written around the content in the first part. Others have been written around the practices of the second. What is unique is the idea of developing a rule of life around the self-knowledge gained in the first part. This sounds great in theory but I found the book short on ideas of how this translates in practice. Perhaps it just follows from working through the exercises. My own sense is that this is done best either with a spiritual director or a community of those who know and trust each other.

What is of value, it seems to me, are the insights gained by working through the first part of this. Knowing ourselves and knowing God walk hand in hand. And perhaps that helps us face honestly whether our spiritual practices are helping us engage with God and his calling in our lives.


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: Be Kind to Yourself

Be Kind to Yourself, Cindy Bunch (Foreword by Ruth Haley Barton). Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2020.

Summary: A little handbook of ideas and practices to help us exercise kindness toward ourselves by releasing what bugs us and embracing joy.

How often have you heard, “I’m my own worst critic.” Life is challenging. Sometimes we make it worse as we berate ourselves (and others) and rob ourselves of joy. Cindy Bunch, an editor who has worked on many spiritual formation books has written one that gets very real about the hard stuff (like a divorce) and proposes that we might do well to learn to exercise kindness toward ourselves, even as God has.

The book is organized around three ten-day examen guides, and within each ten days, four ways of showing kindness. The examen is one of the simplest and most straightforward I’ve seen. It consists of two questions:

  1. What’s bugging you?
  2. What’s bringing you joy?

Acknowledging and letting go of the things that bug us positions us to embrace the moments of joy in our lives and enlarge them.

Each of the chapters on ways to be kind to ourselves start with the author’s own answers to the examen questions and then offers some personal reflections and two or three sidebars with practical suggestions. For example the chapter on “I saw it on Twitter,” subtitled “Knowing What to Let Go” reflects on social media and email, and how we may redemptively use these tools. She begins by commending the use of the serenity prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”), and then offers sidebars on email management and a social media fast and reset.

There are chapters on paying attention to beautiful things, speaking kindly to ourselves, creating new mental playlists, self-care practices, and even a chapter on the Enneagram. As a bibliophile, I loved the material on reading, but was also challenged by the practice of slow reading, as one who tends to read fast. I was also intrigued by the idea of reading retreats. I even posted a “question of the day” about reading retreats on my Facebook page, and I think I had a bunch of people ready to sign up–particularly if the retreats included wine!

This book comes out during a stressful season which makes it all the more timely. I know of organizations providing distress days and making accommodations for the extra stresses on their workers. We may be tempted to beat up on ourselves because we don’t feel nearly as productive, or sharp, or as composed as we feel we ought to be. I think Cindy Bunch would want us to see that that’s OK. It’s a good time to rediscover what it means to be kind to ourselves. And it’s a good time to buy this book!


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: Make a List

Make A List, Marilyn McEntyre. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the human phenomenon of why we make and like lists, how we can turn lists into a life-giving practice, and a plethora of ideas for lists we might create.

Have you noticed how we like to make lists? From to-do lists to grocery lists to brainstorm lists to lists of favorites to guest lists–these are just some of the everyday lists we create. I know from blogging that we enjoy reading others’ lists. These posts always draw greater numbers of viewers. Perhaps it is the curiosity of how my list might compare to theirs.

Marilyn McEntyre, whose book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, would be on my top ten list of non-fiction works, is the author of this book that should be a delight to any list-maker. For one thing, each of her reflections on lists and their role in our lives includes a list of list ideas. Her first section, on Why Make a List? is a list of reasons for making lists. A few of these: to discover subtle layers of feeling, to name what we want, to clarify your concerns, to decide what to let go of, to get at the questions behind the questions, and to play with possibilities (there are more).

You may be getting the idea that McEntyre sees far more in lists than a practical function of getting things done. She writes:

When you make a list, if you stay with it and take it slowly, take it seriously but playfully, give yourself plenty of permission to put down whatever comes up, you begin to clarify your values, your concerns, the direction your life is taking, your relationship to your inner voice, your humor, your secrets. You discover the larger things that lists can reveal.

She believes lists are mirrors into our interior lives, ways we may learn, ways to listen, perhaps even to the Spirit, ways of loving, letting go, and even praying (after all, as she later observes, what is a litany but a list, usually a long one!). Lists can be a reflective and formative practice leading to greater self-understanding, and when we gift them to others, as she will talk about, a way of expressing love.

The second part of her work is on The Way of the List-maker. She explores how we might refine the kinds of lists we make, particularly along the lines of greater specificity and depth, from the basic to do list, to lists that clarify our values, to lists of words and phrases that have evocative power in our life, to a list of laments. She observes that some of our lists may even turn into a kind of poem. She talks about love lists where we enumerate what we love about another.

The third part is titled “Play Lists” which might be a play on words. She begins with a master list of lists that very well could be a playlist for list-makers. But I also think the aim of this section, as she has mentioned elsewhere is to make list-making playful, a kind of mental play that might take us into undiscovered country. She suggests “why” lists beginning with one of my favorites, why read. An interesting one, autobiographical in character is “What tennis teaches.” Another one is “What’s fun after fifty.” To give you an idea of lists she suggests after each reflection, here are some that follow “What’s fun after fifty”:

  • Fun I never thought I’d have
  • Slightly guilty pleasures
  • Why it’s fun to spend time alone
  • “Fun” I don’t have to pretend to have anymore
  • Deepening pleasures.

As you can see, this is both fun and serious, in the sense that these lists take us into what matters in our lives.

Finally, an appendix offers a grab-bag of additional lists. One that I think very appropriate for those who speak of “adulting” is a list of “What every adult should be able to do.” “What’s worth waiting for” is worth reading and meditating upon. Some are amusing, especially for those of us who have been there. One of the items on “Times to practice trust” is “When the DMV licenses your daughter.”

What makes this book so good is not only the great list ideas, perfect for a retreat day or other reflection time, but also the insights from McEntyre’s own life of making and reflecting upon lists. She often gives words to realities in our own lives we haven’t yet named. Yet she also gives plenty of space in her list suggestions to name our own realities, to listen for the unique ways we may hear both our own inner voice, our true self, and the invitations of the Spirit. Here’s a book to put at the top of your “to be read” list!

Review: Working in the Presence of God

Working in the presence of God

Working in the Presence of GodDenise Daniels & Shannon Vandewarker. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2019.

Summary: Addresses the question of workplace spirituality–practices that help us engage with God in the context of and amid our work.

Most often, when we think about spiritual practices, we think about a retreat to a monastery, or some other remote place, or at least in a quiet place in our home, if such exists. On the other hand, writings about workplaces often deal with the biblical theology of work, and biblical principles shaping the excellence and ethics of our work. This book makes a unique contribution to Christian workplace literature in exploring spiritual practices that one can weave into the ordinary rhythms of day to day work.

In fact, taking a page from Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, the authors begin the book by inviting us to identify our work rhythms and then encourage us that God wants to meet us in these everyday rhythms. The practices explained in this book are elaborated in ways that weave into those rhythms. These are organized around orienting to our work, engaging in our work, and reflecting upon our work.

Orienting to our work begins with our commute and creating a liturgy that fits the surroundings and circumstances of that commute. The authors then propose practices that set apart and remind us that our work places are holy ground. They take up our calendar and our to-do lists and the surrender of these to God. Finally there is the reading and reflecting on the scriptures–even a notecard in our pocket with a verse upon which we reflect throughout the day.

Engaging in our work commends practices that remind us of our call to be co-creators with God in our work. They begin with the affirmation of our call, both general and particular to our work. They encourage gratitude and celebration, recalling God’s blessings, the contributions of others. Sometimes, though, we contribute to the problems in our workplace. In this case, we practice confession at work, the ways we have fallen short. Finally, there are futile systemic problems for which we practice lament.

Sometime we need to step away and reflect on our work. They explore the practice of solitude–time alone with God. The practice of examen helps us review our days and allow the Lord to search our hearts–our joys, sorrows, the places where we need forgiveness, and grace. Finally, they encourage sabbath to rest, reflect, and relate.

In each chapter, the writers explain the practice, then share stories of several people and how they implemented the practice in their own lives, followed by practical suggestions for beginning the discipline. The chapters conclude with questions to use after practicing the discipline for a period of time.

This is a great book both for individual study and for a group of Christians in the workplace to read, practice, and discuss together. It upholds a vision of meeting God in the rhythms of our daily work. As part of Hendrickson’s Theology of Work series, it upholds a high vision of work as mattering to God. It goes further in reminding us that God’s presence extends beyond the parking lot into the workplace, into the places where we spend most of our waking hours.


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: The Possibility of Prayer

the possibility of prayer

The Possibility of PrayerJohn Starke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: We both long for a rich prayer life yet think it impossible for all but the spiritual elite; this work points to the possibility and practices that invite us into that life.

Many of us approach this matter of prayer deeply torn. We long for a rich relationship with God, and yet our fast-paced, disruptive lives, makes such prayer seem the preserve of a spiritual elite. We long for transformation, yet struggle with prayer seeming to be a non-productive practice in our “show me the money” world.

John Starke names the issue for us:

   The Bible challenges our utilitarianism. The prayers in the Psalms use words of waiting, watching, listening, tasting, and seeing, meditating and resting. It’s remarkable how inefficient these actions are. They aren’t accomplishing anything. There isn’t a product on the other side of these prayerful actions. Yet over the years they bring steadfastness, joy, life, fruitfulness, depth of gratitude, satisfaction, wonder, an enlarged heart, feasting, and dancing. (p. 7).

Starke contends that the possibility of prayer rests in a God who became incarnate in his son and who cares so deeply for us that he knows our tossing at night as well as the hairs on our head. While we pray in our nooks and crannies, we also pray in the heavenly places with Christ, entering into relationship with a God who is gloriously “heavy” [the meaning of glory], holy, joyful, beautiful, relational, and available. He suggests as we read scripture considering how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might be speaking to us, inviting us into deeper communion with the triune God.

He addresses one of our greatest barriers, which is a reactionary heart and way of life, a habit of the heart where we ignore living out of an inner life and are shaped by our responses to circumstances that only the slow, quiet work of prayer may shape. Prayer can be painful because it calls upon us to expose our vulnerabilities, and our sins to God. Learning to pray means learning to wait, to dwell or abide with God amid the ordinary, the mundane, when nothing special seems to be happening between us and God.

Starke then considers the practices that take us into this “possible” life of prayer. He focuses on the practices of communion, meditation, solitude, fasting and feasting, sabbath, and corporate worship. I particularly appreciated the chapter on fasting and feasting, particularly Starke’s recognition that we more often associate spirituality with the fasting side of this rather than a rhythm of both. I also found this striking  insight from Psalm 77:10-12 on the distinctive character of Christian meditation:

The psalmist is not engaging in passive exercises. This is not the gentle emotional work of relaxing and trying to empty your mind. It’s fighting. These are intentional habits: I will appeal; I will remember; I will ponder; I will meditate. Christian meditation is fighting, grasping for joy, It’s intentionally and regularly remembering and pondering the history of God’s power for his people. If you coast, you lose. (p. 111).

Starke offers spiritual wisdom borne of his own spiritual journey and pastoral ministry among busy New Yorkers. He encourages us that engaging with God is possible for ordinary saints if we begin to pursue the slow, quiet ways of prayer, and persist in a relationship that, over time, can bring great joy and transformation.


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: Becoming an Ordinary Mystic

Becoming an Ordinary Mystic

Becoming an Ordinary MysticAlbert Haase, OFM. Downers Grove: IVP/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: Explores what it means to be a friend of God, to walk in an awareness of God’s grace, in the ordinary of life.

From the time the author’s mother defined a mystic as “a friend of God,” Albert Haase wanted to be one of those friends. Years later he found himself frustrated, feeling he was walking in circles, wondering:

  • I should be further along on the spiritual journey.
  • Why don’t I see any progress?
  • What am I doing wrong?

His spiritual director observed that many of the great mystics felt like this, and that the fact that he felt like this signaled that he was a mystic as well, an ordinary mystic. Instead of striving, he began to learn what it means to be open to God’s grace. In this book, he shares some of the practices by which he learned that awareness of God and God’s grace through his days.

It begins with a mindfulness of the present of stopping to recollect, looking to attend, listening to reflect, and then going in response. In the first of the exercises that conclude each chapter, he urges this practice several times a day. He then moves on to the examination of conscience, a ruthless review of our sins and the ego obsessions that underlie them, opening us even more to the grace of God. He explores how meditation on the Sermon on the Mount can re-wire our thinking and ego obsessions. He invites us into the cardiac spirituality of love that is at the heart of the law. He teaches us to be transparent through the Welcoming Prayer, a prayer in which we welcome the unseemly emotions.

He moves into our experiences of the absence of God, the times of doubt and darkness, where all we can do is to surrender to we know not what. There is the struggle of forgiveness–of God, of ourselves, and others. He commends the practice of CPR: Confession, Pressing the “stop” button on our memories when they arise, and Relaxation that acknowledges what frail creatures we are and trusts God’s transformative work on his timetable. He draws us into exploring our inadequate images of God and the images of God we see in the life of Jesus.

He tackles the challenges we have with prayer and suggests we begin with the “Come as you are” prayer. He helps us to recognize prayer both as words and the silences between them, much like the notes and rests in music. He proposes that our life experiences are God’s megaphone and the question is not whether God’s speaking, or even whether can we hear him, but what is he saying so loudly in our experiences?

Perhaps some of the best counsel in the book are the principles he outlines regarding various spiritual practices:

  1. They are our response to God’s ardent longing for us, inviting us to go deeper with him.
  2. Whatever the discipline, it should foster a heightened awareness of God’s grace.
  3. This, in turn ought lead to our surrender to the will of God.
  4. One size does not fit all. Traditional practices are not helpful for every person.
  5. Any practice that makes us mindful of God’s ardent longing is acceptable.

He concludes with describing the practice of spiritual direction and how such a person can be a help in becoming aware of God and gives practical recommendations for finding direction.

I found much to commend in this encouraging little book. I found myself identifying again and again with Haase–the glimpses of grace, the profound awareness of sin’s depths in my life, the moments of perplexity, the times where God seems distant, and dealing with and welcoming into God’s presence my unseemly emotions. This is a book that may be taken on retreat, or read and used as a group. And it just may be that we will discuss that God ardently desires us, that we may also be “friends of God,” ordinary mystics.


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