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.

 

 

 

Review: Called

CalledCalled, Mark Labberton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Understanding our calling to follow Jesus and seek God’s purposes for the flourishing of the world is key both to a life well-lived and a church that fulfills its mission. This book explores the contours of what it means to live a called life.

Mark Labberton has a vision of a church filled with people living out in daily life the call to follow Jesus and seek the flourishing of God’s purposes in God’s world. He sees the lack of the fulfillment of that vision expressed in lost churches that are self-absorbed, silo-ed, oppressive, invisible and often the bearers of bad news or no news. This lack is all the more urgent because he sees this church in the midst of a lost world characterized by free-floating values, disconnectedness from real community, consumeristic, and fearful–a place where the church which knows its calling could make a difference.

Having outlined the need, Labberton then charts the path. It begins by returning to the “first thing” of following Jesus. When Jesus called people, his call was “follow me.” Following means re-locating from the Promised Land of the American Dream to those who understand themselves to be exiles in Babylon. It means re-orienting by taking a hard look at how one is living out this call. It means re-focusing on who is calling and his fundamental call to character reflected in the fruit of the Spirit. It also means an embrace of wisdom, which he defines at “the truth and character of God lived in context.”

The next three chapters focus on three”ways” in which the called person lives. First is the Way of the Beloved–understanding ourselves individually and as communities as the beloved of God called to live in sacrificial love. The second is the Way of Wisdom, which is the translation of the truth and character of God into practical action that fits the needs of our context. Finally, he speaks of The Way of Suffering, in which faithfulness to Christ’s call is an invitation to enter into the sufferings of others, or even to suffer for the call itself.

Having laid out the need for a called people and the fundamental contours of the called life, Labberton turns to discerning the particular expression of calling for an individual. What is key here is keeping primary calling to Christ, to God’s purposes in the world, and to character, primary. Beyond this, individual call is discerned through the work of the Spirit, evidenced in the fruit of the Spirit, confirmed by the scriptures, attested to by the community, reflected in one’s spiritual gifts and strengths, and lived out in one’s context–one’s time, passions, work, finances and more.

The epilogue comes back to “first things” and challenges us with the idea that who we are as followers of Jesus is far more critical than what we do. All work that isn’t illegal or immoral is honorable and may be done unto the Lord. Opening ourselves up to pursue Jesus and listen to his call will lead us individually and together into well-lived lives and church communities that are salt and light in the world.

Each chapter concludes with a “Practice” section, allowing the reader to reflect on and put into practice the chapter content.

I can think of at least three audiences for which this book would be of value. First, church leadership teams could use this to great benefit to reflect on what it might be like to lead their churches in following Christ and hearing his call. Second, this could be helpful in adult ed contexts, particularly where the idea of “calling” is thought of as something for a special class of “saints”. Finally, this is a good gift for college students on the front end of discerning calling in their own lives.

The book size lends it to gift giving, and the short chapters and “Practice” sections lend this to use with groups. I would hope for wide circulation of this book, that Labberton’s vision of called people and renewed churches might be realized in many communities. Granted, that will take more than a book, but one never knows what the biblically-rooted vision found in this book under the grace of God might accomplish!

 

Review: Walking the Labyrinth

Walking the LabyrinthWalking the LabyrinthTravis Scholl. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: The book consists of a series of reflections over the forty days of Lent intermingling thoughts on the gospel of Mark, life, and the daily walking of a labyrinth in the churchyard of a neighborhood church.

Travis Scholl discovers a labyrinth in a churchyard in his neighborhood and determines to walk it over the forty days of Lent. Each day, he reflects on a portion of the gospel of Mark, interweaving these reflections with thoughts about life, and the peculiar type of pilgrimage that is walking the labyrinth.

The book begins with a helpful explanation of the history of labyrinths from the myth of Ariadne’s thread to the appropriation of the idea of walking labyrinths as a Christian practice–a kind of pilgrimage both to the center of one’s life and the center of one’s relationship with God.

The use of Mark’s gospel seems especially appropriate. Jesus seems to be perpetually walking in this gospel–a labyrinthine journey around and around Galilee, into the Decapolis and the regions of Tyre and Sidon, and then on to Jerusalem and the cross, which perhaps not coincidentally we learn forms the center of the labyrinth.

Scholl attempts to walk the labyrinth every day, coming at various times in all kinds of weather from snow to the incipient heat of summer. His reflections concern such things as pilgrimage in the middle of things, the seeming labyrinthine and circular natures of life, the westward facing entrance of the labyrinth, symbolizing both death and the hope of the life to come, the cross at the center of the labyrinth and his own life, and much more.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals. "Labyrinth" by Marlith - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals.  This is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. “Labyrinth” by MarlithOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite reflections was on the labyrinth being like the seed of the kingdom — growing day and night. The seed is itself a kind of labyrinth from which life emerges. Another is on the impossibility of keeping the kingdom secret, as secret as our practices might be. Jesus is in seclusion and sought out by the Syrophonecian women who answers his parable or riddle with a parable. She understands the secret of the kingdom that is found in Jesus, and receives her daughter whole.

Perhaps the final reflections tracing the way of the cross are among the best, as is the very last which captures the incredible excitement of the women’s report, “He is risen. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.” The labyrinthine journey of Jesus begins and ends in Galilee, just as one enters and emerges from the labyrinth in the same place.

The author concludes the book with recommendations and resources for those who want to walk the labyrinth and provides a day by day list of his readings in the gospel of Mark. In some ways, it was better that I read his book at a time other than Lent. While it could be helpful to use these reflections during Lent, there is a part of me that is inspired to find my own labyrinth and journal my own reflections, using Scholl’s book not as a devotional, but as a model. We shall see…

Review: The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows
The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

James Bryan Smith believes that our idea of God shapes everything about how we view and engage our world. He also believes that we cannot change our view of God by mere human effort, nor the way we live in light of this. Rather, he believes, having been influenced by Dallas Willard, that transformation comes from God and that we put ourselves in the place where we may experience this through spiritual practices, or soul-training exercises, where God can break in and change us from the inside out.

This is the first in three books in what Smith calls “The Apprentice Series” which is designed to help readers grow in Christ-likeness as their view of God, life, and Christian community are transformed as they encounter Christ. This first book focuses on the God revealed to us in Christ–his goodness, trustworthiness, generosity, love, holiness, self-sacrificing character, and transforming work. The book concludes in reflecting on the slow but certain process by which God transforms us as we continue to follow Christ–likened to the making of pickles!

Each chapter is accompanied by a “Soul Training” exercise. I studied this with a group and we attempted to practice each of these: sleep (everyone loved this one!), silence, counting blessings, praying Psalm 23, lectio divina, margin, reading John’s gospel, solitude, and slowing down. Good, practical direction is giving for each of these. The book also includes a discussion guide for small groups studying it together, which I again found helpful–although this works best in a 90 minute setting which we had to abridge because we were on a 60 minute schedule.

While this book can be read profitably individually, I would recommend getting a group together to work through it together. Not only does this help with actually doing the exercises, but also, the varying experiences of group members make sense of the chapter content, which might not reflect every individual’s experience (we had the experience of some not being able to relate to chapter material, particularly illustrations, until we were together as a group and someone shared how it connected to them).

In this, the book reveals something of a slant to experience and negative experiences of God and church at that. Sadly, there is enough of this to make this approach appealing and helpful to many and perhaps people with such experiences could not read on into the biblical treatment of Christ and God otherwise. For many in the student circles I work in, this approach, coupled with the soul training exercises has been very helpful in breaking through to an understanding of the grace and love of God for them, an experience of forgiveness, and a growing intimacy with God.

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