Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

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

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

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

Review: 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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Gift of Wonder

the gift of wonder

The Gift of WonderChristine Aroney-Sine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: A “serious” Christian discovers creative practices that cultivate wonder, joy, and even fun in one’s relationship with God.

The one danger of being serious about one’s faith is, well…seriousness. It’s a danger for any committed Christian, especially those engaged in Christian work. After all, these are serious times, we deal with serious matters of life and death, injustices, suffering, and more. Often, when we talked about the practices that nurture a serious faith, we consider things like prayer, fasting, scripture study, worship, giving, and others.

This was the life Christine Aroney-Sine lived for many years. She describes how the shift in her practices to those that foster joy, child-likeness, curiosity, and play:

“It all began when I asked people, ‘What makes you feel close to God?’ They responded with stories of sitting by the sea, playing with kids, turning the compost pile, washing the dishes, and walking in the local park. Even taking a shower got a mention. Hardly anyone talked about church or Bible study. Most people connect to God through nature, interaction with children, around the dinner table, or in their daily activities. However, they rarely identify these as spiritual practices” (p.5).

Subsequently, the author developed a list of child-like qualities that we too-serious adults need to rediscover. Things like: delight in God, playfulness, sharing stories, imagination, curiosity, awe and wonder, love of nature, living in the present, gratitude, compassion, hospitality, looking with fresh eyes, and trust. The chapters of this book explore these qualities in scripture and her personal experiences and end with a creative exercise, best done with a group.

For example, in the chapter on imagination, she begins with a prayer on imagination, explores the imagination that leads to great books about future worlds and great discoveries. She invites us to reflect on what gets our own creative juices flowing. She narrates some imaginative expressions of worship. She tells of friends whose imaginations are opened by the reading of children’s books, or just by doodling! The chapter proposes that even good argument can be imaginative as we explore and debate different points of view. Then her creative exercise suggestion is to read a children’s book, and to choose a favorite Bible story, and re-tell it as a children’s story.

Along the way, you will be invited to plan a playdate, identify ten miracles before breakfast, walk a finger labyrinth, seed bomb your neighborhood, have fun with leaves, plan a gratitude scavenger hunt, and more. I’m tempted as I look at this list to pooh-pooh all this, and then it occurs to me that maybe I am far more like Eeyore than Pooh in such moments, and certainly not like Tigger!

Perhaps my favorite chapter, because it may be something I most struggle with was the one on resting in the moment. Aroney-Sine invites us into breathing and circling prayers or CAIM, drawn from Celtic spirituality. These think about the circles of our lives, God’s encircling care and protectiveness from that we would keep out of the circle of our lives. One simple example she quotes:

The Sacred Three
My fortress be
Encircling me
Come and be round
My hearth and my home. (p. 135)

The exercise for this chapter helps us walk, draw, and pray in circles. What qualities of God do I want in my life circle, even as I envision Christ’s outstretched arms embracing the world. What do we want excluded from our circle, who is in our circle and who do we want to invite in? We get to write our own circling prayer.

This might be a great book for a ministry team where things have gotten serious and earnest. Aroney-Sine never dismisses the serious challenges of life, but invites us to rediscover the wonder and joy and beauty of God that is the deeper reality that grounds our lives, the wisdom children grasp and we tend to forget. Who’s ready for a playdate?

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

Review: Practices of Love

practices of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

Man reading

Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

 

I recently gave a seminar on reading as a spiritual practice, that is, that reading may be one of the disciplines that helps us pay attention to God, and grow in our relationship with God and to more thoughtfully live in God’s world. Now I know that not all who come across this post will share my faith perspective. That’s OK. Feel free to translate this in whatever way might be meaningful for you, or even just skip it. No harm, no foul. But I thought it might be helpful to share some of that material with a wider audience.

First of all, it is dangerous for me to write about this because my temptation may be to read and to love reading too much! Sometimes other spiritual practices might be better for me–silence for example, where I am not taking in information off a page; or service, where I get up off my duff and practice my faith with others. I would also say that while in one sense all my reading choices (I hope) are things I would be comfortable offering to God, not all the reading I do is a “spiritual discipline or practice.” Sometimes, I, like most everyone who reads, just likes to read for fun–a good mystery or baseball book.

O.K., enough for disclaimers! I thought I might share some of the influences in my life around reading as a spiritual practice, and then some ideas for our practice.

Influences:

  • I work for and came out of a ministry that teaches college students practices that might be called “the close reading of scripture” –observing themes, literary devices, context, what we called “the laws of composition” that taught me not only how to read scripture but made me a better reader of other books because I had learned to look carefully at the text attending to the “meaning pointers” in the text.
  • We had leadership from the president on down to my immediate supervisors who encouraged us to sink our teeth into meaty and classic works of theology as well as devotional classics and works that analyzed contemporary culture like Os Guinness’s The Dust of Death, published when I was a student. Our president would say, “not all readers are growing Christians but all growing Christians are readers.”
  • The couple who ran a retreat center we used for student programs for many years, Keith and Gladys Hunt, talk as well as wrote about the joys of reading aloud as a family. Before there were recorded books, we would read aloud as a car and some of our best shared memories are our read aloud times as a family–from Bible stories to Narnia and the Little House books and so much more. From them I first learned that reading could be a shared rather than solitary practice.
  • A later president commended the reading of history and biographies. The questions of character and how character enhances or undermines effectiveness whether in leadership or everyday life has been a source of reflection for me.
  • Hearing Eugene Peterson at one of our staff conferences first introduced me to some of the formative practices of the church and the literature around these practices.
  • Working as part of a multi-ethnic team with strong men and women leaders has challenged me to begin to listen voices of both genders and many cultures. God is not a white male and women writers and those of other ethnicity help me understand dimensions of encountering God I may otherwise miss.

Ideas for Practice:

  • Recognize that we read in various ways–for leisure, for information, and sometimes just skimming and browsing.
  • Spiritual reading is different: it is slow, reflective, and repetitive. You are not reading to get through but to chew over and reflect on what you’ve read. You might read a passage several times or even pray it. Perhaps you will read it aloud if alone. Sometimes, just a few pages is enough.
  • Protect the hours you set aside for spiritual reading. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person, the early or latest hours may be best–out of the distractions of mid-day.
  • Finding a place and time where you won’t be distracted is key, even if for just 15 minutes. (It is estimated that if a person reads 15 minutes a day, they can read 15 books a year.)
  • You might also consider finding people to read with. Talking over things you don’t understand or things that for some reason have caught your attention with a group reading the same text can shed light we may not see alone.

A few book recommendations:

  • Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read provides an annotated list of spiritual literature. His Eat This Book goes into greater depth on the practice of spiritual reading.
  • C. Christopher Smith’s recent Reading for the Common Good is the best book I’ve seen on spiritual reading in community, of how reading together may change communities. I recently reviewed it.

I believe reading is an important practice for maintaining spiritual and intellectual vitality. I don’t think this necessarily means lots of books, but rather engaging deeply with the books we do read, and allowing them, in a sense, to read us.