Spiritual Direction: a book review

One of my favorite teachers on Christian spirituality is Gordon Smith. I have been privileged to take classes from him at Regent college in the sacraments and conversion & spiritual transformation. I have also read several books by him on the spiritual lives. These books and classes have helped shape my vision of Christian formation and spirituality. Because of this, I pretty much put anything Gordon Smith writes on my must read pile. So when I saw that IVP put out a book by Gordon Smith on Spiritual Direction I knew I had to read it!

Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving & Receiving Direction gives Smith’s thoughts on Spiritual Direction. Smith, who is currently the president of Ambrose University College and Seminary in Calgary Alberta, got his PhD from Loyola School of Theology and sat under the spiritual direction of Thomas Green. As such, his model of Spiritual Formation is deeply influenced by the Jesuits, though he finds his theological home among evangelicals. This book shares his wisdom and particular understanding of what Spiritual Direction is.

Smith’s nine chapters articulate the nature of spiritual direction. Chapter one describes spiritual direction as an individualized relationship with a director who intentionally helps you pay attention to where God is at work in your life. Smith doesn’t shy away from the language of spiritual direction though some prefer the language of companionship or friendship, because direction implies intentionality and purpose. Chapter two grounds spiritual in direction in a theology of the triune God, an understanding of the religious experience and the  affections and the particularity of each person. Chapter three describes the nature of spiritual direction as a ‘focused conversation.’ Chapter four focuses on the importance of prayer to spiritual direction. Chapter five details the format of a spiritual direction session. Chapter six describes how spiritual direction can inform pastoral ministry, evangelism and friendship. Chapter seven examines the qualities of a spiritual director while chapter eight looks at the qualities of the directee. The final chapter explores the importance of the Holy Spirit to spiritual direction–as the only one true director.

My experience of spiritual direction is positive, if rather limited. I have read several books on spiritual direction and briefly had a regular director while in seminary. I also have been blessed to have several significant conversations with spiritual directors which have helped me make sense of my spiritual life, and sense of call.  Smith’s book is a fitting introduction to those who are new to the realm of spiritual direction and full of practical insight for finding a good director. I give this book four stars and highly recommend it for those who are curious about spiritual direction (especially my fellow evangelicals).

Comic-Book-Christ Dying and Rising: a graphic novel review.

I am a reader of great literature, and by that I mean comic books. I grew up reading comics and still love a great graphic novel. There is something special about artists who are able to pair storytelling with images in a way that is dynamic and compelling. You can’t get a more compelling and moving story of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. This is the story that Alex Webb-Peploe  and  André Parker tell through their new comic-adaptation, The Third Day.

This is not the first comic adaptation of the Bible. There are a number of recent projects which rehearse biblical themes in graphic novel form. What makes this title unique, is that other graphic novel adaptations veer from the biblical material to explain why things happen the way they did (i.e. why did Judas betray Jesus, why did the High Priest plot against Jesus, etc), The Third Day restricts itself to the biblical account focusing on three chapters from Luke (22-24). The words in this novel come straight form the Bible (HCSB version). Words from Luke’s prologue also introduce the story.

Limiting the text to the Bible alone does not detract from the story-telling. Webb-Peploe helps us hone in on what the Bible tells us about Jesus’ final hours. When speech is implied but not recorded in the biblical account, there are story telling panels with no speech bubbles. This attention to the gospel’s actual words leaves some questions unanswered but also helps us stay tuned into what the Bible tells us.

But Webb-Peploe doesn’t reproduce every word from Luke either. The economy and pacing of the genre demand a certain sparsity in the details. If you read this comic beside your Bible, you will notice some details skipped or skimmed over and other elements of the story left out (i.e.). There is the occasional word or phrase written out of order, but the events themselves follow Luke’s account.  To my mind, this is artfully telling the story by choosing which  elements to emphasize from the text.

I also loved that in addition to being biblically correct, this graphic novel is also ethnically correct. In a world full of white Jesus movies, yellow-haired stained glass Christs, and other pasty renderings,  it is refreshing to see an artistic presentation of Jesus that presents Him as an olive-skinned Mediterranean Jew. This is a marked improvement on the ‘traditional’ blue-eyed Jesus  often imaged through Western media and art. The illustrations in this book are strong and dynamic, well-inked and colored .I am impressed.  I give this book 4.5 stars and recommend it for young adult and teenagers, children and other fans of ‘great literature.’ The publisher suggests this title for teenagers. i I read it was my six-year-old.

Thank you to the Good Book Company for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

A Prayer for Income Tax Day by Walter Brueggemann

Brueggemann isn’t right about everything, but he is always worth reading. I especially like the collections of his prayers. This comes from Prayers for a Privileged People:

 

Income Tax Day

On this day of internal revenue,

some of us are paid up,

some of us owe,

some of us await a refund,

some of us have no income to tax.

 

But all of us are taxed,

by war,

by violence,

by anxiety,

by deathliness.

 

And Caesar never gives any deep tax relief.

 

We render onto Caesar . . .

to some it feels like a grab,

to some it feels like a  war tax,

to some–some few—

it is a way to contribute to the common good.

 

In any case we are haunted

by what we render to Caesar,

by what we may render to you,

by the way we invest our wealth and our lives,

when what you ask is an “easy yoke”:

to do justice

to love mercy

to walk humbly with you.

 

Give us courage for your easy burden, so to live untaxed lives.

An Intimate Collision: a book review

Craig Lounsbrough is a pastor, a licensed professional counselor, and life coach. In these three capacities, he has walked alongside broken people. He has also encountered his own brokenness. In An Intimate Collision, Lounsbrough introduces us to the people he’s encountered and what they reveal to him. As he sees them, I mean really sees them, he also comes away with a deeper revelation of Christ.

An Intimate Collision blends together personal encounters, a counselor’s keen eye and insightful biblical exegesis. In these pages, Lounsbrough is caught off guard by his own daughter’s declaration of love when he feels so jaded and cynical around the holidays. This causes him to meditate on the meaning of the incarnation, and the way at Jesus enters our brokenness and ministers to us in the midst of life’s handicaps. As the chapters unfold we meet people like:

  • Dustin, a six boy with spinal bifida who has learned a daily lifestyle of ‘overcoming’ obstacles.
  • Darren a thirty-five year old man with the mind of a child who has a plastic fish, full of childlike wonder and faith.
  • Jonothan, an abused child who finally experiences freedom from fear.
  • Amy, a suicidal and abandoned young lady who is given life and restoration
  • Susan, a girl given to profound emotional outbursts which her family and pastor could not understand.
  • And more. . .

Each of Lounsbrough’s chapters intertwine his encounters with these people, with biblical explorations of Jesus and his response to people on the margins. The people that Lounsbrough profiles challenge his own prejudice and lack of faith. At times, I found some of his language paternalistic, and antiquated (like when he speaks of one person as ‘retarded’), but I think his overall project honors those he encounters. By listening to and telling the story of broken people, Lounsbrough sees more clearly the crucified one.

Lounsbrough is an insightful and interesting writer. I was not sure what to excpet of this book but felt very touched by it. Lounsbrough has a real gift with connecting Jesus to the struggles of life and sharing his stories through winsome prose. I give this book four stars: ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from the publisher or author via Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review.

Question the Living: a book review

I remember sitting, once, in the audience at a Christian conference where  author, Philip Yancey, described how at time he feels like the most liberal person in the room and at other times, the most conservative. This captures in part my feeling while reading Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity. In this book, authors David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy take us through some of the distinctives of the ‘progressive-Christian’ perspective. As a avid (okay, occasional) reader of progressive Christian bloggers, I figured I would resonate with this book. Unfortunately for me, I felt out of step with much of what this book argues for (or against).

There are three parts to this book. They are: Journey, Reconciliation, and Transformation.  These are three really great words which describe the Christian spirituality.   However I have serious qualms with where Felten and Procter-Murphy go with the first and frustration with parts of their use of the second (I more-or-less like their use of word number three).

Felten  and Procter-Murphy invite us on a journey. This journey involves asking good questions, taking the Bible seriously (just not too-literally!), thinking theologically, and realizing that a couple of creation accounts in Genesis (Genesis 1 and 2) and how little we know about the historical Jesus makes room for us to believe whatever we want (i.e. alternative pictures of cosmology and Jesus’ role). In part two, they focus on how Christ brings reconciliation between God and humanity, between all peoples and creation. Here I found myself challenged by Felten and Procter-Murphy’s call to take relationships and creation-care seriously as a significant part of Christian spirituality.  Alas, their commitment to debunking biblical literalism lost me when they focused on the silliness of objective aspects of the atonement and the bodily reality of the resurrection. For me, part three was the most fruitful. In discussing transformation, they talk about the importance of social justice, incarnational spirituality, prayer, compassion and creativity in the spiritual life.

I found myself at loggerheads with much of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s material. First I was alienated by their source material. I have read some John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. I respect some of the scholarship (more Borg and Crossan than Spong) but find many of these conclusions overdrawn. Felten and Procter-Murphy quote these three (and others) as justification for liberal, progressive views but offer no argument as to why as a reader I need to take their words seriously.  A lot of what this book does is appeal to so-called experts, make dogmatic (or anti-dogmatic?) claims and then expect you to simply buy in and feel freed up by it.I don’t. There are so many assertions in this book that are made and assumed without any argument at all. Why should I question the reality of the bodily resurrection? Why should I simply see it as a metaphor? I am puzzled by this and why they felt the need to debunk every historical Christian claim as a relic of an unhealthy literalism. Christianity is a historically rooted faith and God is God. I can see questioning some narrow fundamentalist interpretations but I think this book goes too far in the other direction.

However the call to justice and incarnating the kingdom now seems appropriate. I have my evangelical roots and find many of Felten and Procter-Murphy’s ‘answers’ too liberal and loosey-goosey for my tastes. Yet I agree that questions are appropriate and necessary for anyone seeking to deepen their faith. I do not fault the questions, I just don’t think this book does the work to provide secure answers. There is too much conjecture and assertion and not enough real exploration. I give this book three stars: ★★★.

Notice of material connection: I received this book through the Speakeasy blog review program in exchange for my honest review.

An Inner Step Toward God: a book review and GIVEAWAY!!!

Alexander Men was a popular Russian Orthodox priest during the final decades of the USSR. Through much of his ministry career, his writings were suppressed. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the nation had a new experience of religious Freedom, Men was vocal in his proclamation of the gospel. Before the Soviet’s ultimate collapse, Men was murdered. Many regard him as a martyr.

During his life time, his books on Orthodoxy and the spiritual life were circulated in a clandestine manner–published under pseudonyms and passed out as carbon-copied manuscripts (or published abroad and smuggled back into the country). But because Men wrote in Russian, much of his writings remain unknown in the English speaking world. Editor April French and translator Christa Belyaeva have compiled many of Men’s works into a slim volume, An Inner Step Toward God. Readers will be treated to Men’s practical  insights on the nature of prayer and its practice in the Russian Orthodox tradition.

There are four sections of this book.  Part one records parts of two lectures: an informal one delivered in a parishioner’s house, and a formal lecture delivered in February, 1990 (months before his murder). Part two reproduces A Practical Guide to Prayer, a catechetical work utilized by small groups of Men’s congregants to deepen their prayer lives. Part three focuses on prayer and the Great Lent.  There is a chapter where Men describes the Prayer of St. Ephrem of Syria (a prayer sent daily through Lent by Orthodox Christians) and devotional instructions for this season. Part four has sermon selections from Men on various saints,  his public prayers and further selections from his sermons and lectures on prayer.  In addition to these sections, there are appendices which record  insights from Men and other Orthodox Christians on the life of prayer.

As a lowly Protestant, I often turn to the writings of the Christian east and find wells of deep insight. Writers like Kallistos Ware, John Zizioulas, Anthony Bloom, Paul of Finland and Alexander Schmemann have shaped my theology,  my love of the sacraments and appreciation for liturgy. I remain firm in my non-Orthodoxy but these authors help me see the wisdom and depths of the Great Tradition.  Men is a devout and insightful Orthodox author and I am grateful for discovering him through this gem of a book.

Men saw prayer as a means of cultivating an awareness of God’s presence throughout life and allowing God to transform us:

So let us pray that we may know He is with us right now.  The Word of God will be with us. We will take Him home, and He will live in us. And Finally, let us live in the light and in hope.  We believers are happy people who do not take advantage of happiness; we are rich people who neither take possession of nor utilize our treasure. Therefore, today we will wash away everything–our resentments, our disappointments, our worries and expectations, our sin and our burdens. We bring these things to the Lord so that He might strengthen us, for this is what is most important (18).

Men talks about breathing, prayer postures, managing distractions and ‘higher forms of prayer’ (i.e. cultivating an inner awareness of God through all of life). However his method of prayer is relatively simple: daily prayer with a prayer book, time reading and meditating on Holy Scripture, and the Eucharist.  Orthodox prayer practice consists of saying set prayers (i.e. rote prayers from a prayer book or the Jesus prayer) as a means of attuning your heart to God. Men argues that these forms of prayers awaken us to God’s presence, and work on us regardless of whether or not we ‘feel like praying or not.’ To say the words from a prayer book, day in and day out is formational.  I find myself challenged and inspired by Men’s prescription for daily regular prayer.

This book provided strategies for deepening my personal prayer life and introduced me to voice of someone outside of my own tradition. I am grateful for Men’s life and witness and to April French and Paraclete press for introducing me to him!

GIVE AWAY!!!

Paraclete Press was gracious enough to share a review copy with me. That means that in addition to the one I purchased, I have an extra copy to share with one of you. If you would like to win my copy, please comment below telling me how you practice (or don’t practice) daily prayer.  I will choose a winner, at random, from the comments. You have until April 18 to enter!

 

The Post-Leadership-Church?: a book review

As critical as I am of ‘leadership’ literature, I read a lot of it. I have issues with the way Chrisitian leadership has demeaned the laity and treated them as second-class-Christians but I also think that ‘leadership’ is important. Author Jon Zens thinks we’ve subverted the New Testament by attending churches with paid clergy who are set apart from the laity. The New Testament has something like fifty-eight ‘one another’ passages that encourage us to care for one another, love one another, bear one another’s burdens, etc. By making ‘ministry the responsibility of a paid leader, and setting him (and let’s be honest, it is mostly a ‘him’) in charge, we have absolved the church of their ethical and communal responsibility.

In 58 to 0: How Christ Leads through the One Anothers, Zens  and Graham Woods (editors) make the case that Christian authority is never top down but communal. They also see the clergy/laity divide as the inheritance of a Constantinian settlement. Prior to emperor Constantine, the ecclesiology of the church was flatter and less top down. Zen argues that Constantine imparted a two-tier Christianity where the ‘serious Christians’ were the clergy and the laity were everyone else. Zen and Woods draw on the writings of an impressive list of Christian writers in making their case for a flat ecclesiology. These include: Hans van Campenhausen, Judy Schindler, Bruce Davidson, Darryl Erkel, Hendrik Hart, Russ Ross, Lawrence Burkholder, R.L. Wysong, Norbert Ward, Kat Huff, Stephen Crosby, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, H.L. Mencken, John Howard Yoder, and Frank Viola.  Still most of the chapters in this book come from Zen’s pen. Despite the title and subtitle of this book, this book is more about the nature of church and leadership than it is about exploring the ‘one anothers’ Zens and Woods speak more about the ‘one-anothers’ evocatively than substantively.

I certainly resonate in part with the message of this book. I think that ‘ministry’ is the purview of  the church not the select few. It bothers me when church life is centered around the life of the pastor and he (male pronoun again!) makes the decisions for everyone. Still, as someone who feels called to pastoral work (with a wife also so-called and gifted) I think Clergy has its place. I think Zen’s is a little too dismissive of the role of clergy. In a particular place and with a particular community, having someone dedicated to caring for the community and providing direction is important and helpful. I am grateful for pastors who have been able to dedicate themselves to prayer and nurture of the church.

I think there is a prophetic edge to this book which makes it worth reading. Too often those who proclaim ‘the priesthood of all believers’ do not really believe it. They enshrine a senior pastor and treat his (masculine pronoun again-ouch!) word as gospel-truth. The truth is the church is more characterized by mutuality than hierarchy. Often denominational structures and ‘church structures’ obscure this. For this reason I think that Zen and Woods offer a good corrective. However I still think, that leadership and Clergy have their place. If not as direct ‘authority’ the clergy person is someone able to dedicate themself prayerfully to the spiritual growth of those in the community. I am grateful for pastoral leaders who have been able to give time and attention (through a salary!) to nurturing me and helping me to minister in Jesus name to the wider community. I give this book 3 and a half stars

Notice of Material connection: I received an electronic copy of this book for the purposes of review. I was not asked to write a positive review, just an honest one.