Review: True You

true you

True YouMichelle DeRusha.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Using the analogy of pruning, explores how our true selves, our true callings can emerge when we remove the clutter of business, of false selves, and idolatries that obscure the true shape of our lives.

Michelle DeRusha proposes that the tending of ourselves may be much like the process  of fukinaoshi, or open pruning which allows a tree to flourish by cutting away the dense clutter of branches so that light can reach the center. It is hard pruning, cutting away living as well as dead branches that obscure the true shape of the tree. It is persistent, cutting away suckers that deplete the tree of nourishment. DeRusha proposes that God’s work of revealing our true selves follows a similar process.

DeRusha shares her own narrative to help us understand this process. It began for her with sitting on a bench for five minutes a day (“directed rest”) while walking her dog. She talks about the relentless press of busyness that clutters our lives and robs us of these contemplative moments. Sitting quietly is like studying the true to understand its essential shape and what needs to go. For DeRusha, a question came one day: “Why do you have trouble with intimacy?” An orthopedic injury came to represent physically a deeper question: “Do you want to get well?” It came to a head at a retreat in Italy when some more questions were asked:

“What does it mean for you that rest is found in God? What does it mean when we are away from him?

She broke down as she recognized that in her relentless restlessness, she didn’t know God, and thus finding rest, finding calling.

The remainder of the book describes the journey of “hard pruning” that began as it became clear what needed to be cut away. She talks about the dark night that comes in facing our brokenness, our apartness from God and our deep longing for God. She leads us into the stillness on the “far side of the wilderness” and the practice of waiting, of staying in place. She also discusses that learning who God is, and learning who we are go together–that this process of waiting, of resting begins to reveal the true shape of our own lives, our “birthright gifts.” In the end, this inward journey takes us outward, as we connect the rest we find in God, the gifts we discover in ourselves, and the needs of the world come together.

Each chapter includes a “Going Deeper” set of reflections at the end. This makes the book an ideal adjunct to a series of retreats, or an extended journalling process. This would also make an ideal Lenten devotional. She concludes the book with an appendix that includes practical tips for taking “directed rests.”

DeRusha combines the seemingly “ruthless” practice of open pruning with a gently written exploration that explores why we so clutter our lives, why we are so busy. Through her own story, she helps us ask if we are running from God–from resting in God and intimately knowing God. Her reflective writing helps us long to wait, to listen, to attend, to pay attention to our lives. She helps us to see how the pruning away of busyness and the false images of self opens us up to the true shape of our lives.

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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: The Sense of an Ending

The sense of an ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes. New York: Vintage International, 2011.

Summary: A bequest that includes a letter and a diary forces a man in his sixties to examine the way he has remembered and conceived of his life.

One of the dangers of reaching one’s sixties is that you begin the process of remembering your life. What is often not considered is that the way we remember it, and tell it may be of our “best self” but not necessarily of our true self. We may not even be aware of it, but there are episodes that are edited out, things done and said that we shove in a mental drawer, or hide in a closet. This novel, a Man Booker prize winner by the author of the more recent fictional biography of Dmitri Shostakovich, The Noise of Time (reviewed here) is a finely written psychological exploration of our constructed memories that shield us from knowing our true selves.

Tony Weber is a retired, divorced late middle aged man living in London. The first part of his book is a remembering of his life. He begins with his adolescence in a boys school, and the heady mix of ideas and awakening sexuality that is part of this period. We meet his friends, Alex and Colin, and the fourth who joins this group, the philosophical Adrian. The boys part but stay in touch during college years. Tony reads history at Bristol while Adrian goes to Cambridge. Much of the story here involves Tony’s relationship with Veronica, his encounter with her “posh” family, and the mother who tries to warn him off her while making him eggs for breakfast. Tony and Veronica have a sexually frustrating relationship and only have intercourse after she breaks off with him. This leads to an even more messy conversation where she tries to get him to be real to her, real to himself. Eventually Veronica gets into a relationship with Adrian, who writes him asking leave for them to see each other. Adrian sends a reply that he doesn’t go into a lot of detail about, and then gets on with his life, going to America and traveling around with a girl for a few months and then parting. When he arrives home he learns that Adrian has committed suicide. Tony and his friends puzzle over this, move on and separate. Tony marries, has a daughter with whom he has a decent relationship, divorces Margaret, his wife, lives a reasonably successful life, and enjoys a quiet retirement of trips and volunteer work. Until…

He receives word one day that Veronica’s mother had died and left him a bequest of five hundred pounds, a letter, and a diary. The money he receives easily enough. The letter and diary are in the possession of Veronica, who will not yield them up, at first. The second half of the book describes a number of encounters, often ending with the refrain from Veronica, “You just don’t get it, do you? You never did and you never will.” First she sends a cryptic page from the diary. Then she gives him the letter, which turns out to be a brutally cruel letter, the letter he had written in response to Adrian’s letter, a letter he had white-washed in his mind.

He begins to see that the memory he has constructed of his life doesn’t fit the reality. Yet he is troubled by what he doesn’t get, and this takes him deeper, into his choice of “peaceableness,” of an unwillingness to feel pain or to take a risk to really live and be responsible for his life. I will not give away the secret why Veronica’s mother gave him the bequest or came to have the letter and diary. What it brings him to is a sobering alternative narrative of his life that he summarizes with these words:

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.”

This is a book that holds up a mirror to show us the false selves that we construct with our “best self” memories and the danger of a life lived embracing that false self. It seems to me that facing up to the false selves, the constructed memories, as painful as these are, may be better than living cluelessly. If nothing else, it makes us keenly aware of our need for redemption.

Spiritual Formation Books

Recently, several people asked me for a list of books on spiritual direction. I didn’t feel I’d read enough of these to provide much of a list. However, many books on spiritual formation touch on this and have much else that is helpful to growing in our love for God and more fully reflecting his intentions for us. Since this is a “day apart” for many of us (for others Friday, Saturday, or a different day), I thought I might post a list of the books I’ve reviewed over the past couple years in the area of spiritual formation. They are in order from most recent to earliest, with links to my reviews.

  1. The Rule of St Benedict. Classic little book describing the ordering of monastic life.
  2. Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual DirectionMargaret Guenther describes her own practice of spiritual direction.
  3. Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture Into Ordinary Life. Howard and Wilhoit give practical instruction in this ancient practice of meditative reading that traces back to the Benedictines.
  4. The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual FormationHess and Arnold talk about the link between the care of our bodies and our spiritual life.
  5. The Third Third of Life: Preparing for Your FutureThis book explores how we position ourselves to finish well the final leg of our lives.
  6. Lord, Teach Us to Pray. This is a little gem of a book of Andrew Murray’s reflections on four passages on prayer.
  7. Green Leaves for Later Years. Another book on spirituality in the later years of life, one my wife and I both enjoyed!
  8. Spiritual Rhythms in Community. This book explores how spiritual formation can occur in a group context.
  9. The Return of the Prodigal. Henri Nouwen’s wonderful treatment of the parable of the lost sons inspired by Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal.
  10. The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. Hagberg and Guelich consider our growth in faith as a progressive journey with identifiable stages.
  11. Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups. Explores how can leadership rise out of our habits of spiritual formation, where our decisions are spiritual discerned.
  12. A Traveler’s Guide to the KingdomJames Emory White links descriptions of various places to which he has traveled with various aspects of the Christian life. A travelogue for the journey.
  13. Kneeling with the GiantsExplores prayer through the example of ten saints.
  14. The Enneagram in Love and Work. A good introduction to the Enneagram, a tool that works by identifying one’s cardinal sin. This book focuses particularly on our love and work relationships.
  15. True Self, False Self: Unmasking the Spirit Within. True self, false self is an important concept in spiritual formation work–the false self being defined as what we have or do, the true self, who we are as God’s beloved.
  16. The Contemplative Pastor, Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction. Classic Eugene Peterson writing to pastors about this important aspect of their work.
  17. The Fire of the Word: Meeting God on Holy GroundThis book focuses on our practices of reading scripture and not just reading a text but encountering the living God in the words of scripture.
  18. Seasons of the Soul: Stages of Spiritual DevelopmentAnother book on stages of spiritual life, simplifying this to three: orientation, disorientation, reorientation.
  19. The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-DiscoveryDavid Benner’s book gives what I think is the best account of true self/false self.
  20. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of MinistryRuth Haley Barton uses the life of Moses to explore the spiritual formation life of leaders.

Well there’s twenty books! I don’t necessarily consider these the best 20 books on spiritual formation, simply those I’ve reviewed in the last couple years. Are there books on this topic that you’ve found helpful? I’d love to hear of these!