Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe than God in the Alley (another book of his on prayer). But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★

God Loves Dusty: a book review

The Bible tells us two major truths about what it means to be human. First, we are dust. We are here a moment, limited temporally and limited physically. Depressing as that sounds this is only a partial picture. The second truth about humanity is that we are beloved by God. These truths held together guide our self understanding and the way we ought to approach God. To be dust is to know our need, that we have nothing substantial to offer God in and of ourselves. To be beloved is to know that God himself cherishes and longs for relationship with us.

In Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel explore these two sides of our nature (our dusty belovedness) and show the implications for prayer and the spiritual life.  Where many books on prayer offer techniques and detailed plans, this book is more about our proper orientation to God. Goggin and Strobel do have things to say about spiritual practices but this is placed within the frame of this dual identity.

The spiritual life is often about letting go of expectations. In the introduction, Goggin reflects on his experience leading retreats. People go on retreat asking ‘how can I fix this?” (whatever is wrong in their life) or “How do I get that feeling back that I used to have with God?” (a longing for spiritual experience). But Goggins and Strobel point elsewhere, “Our prayer for you is that you may have the ability to hear that these are the wrong questions. We are not intereseted in quick solutions, techniques, and formulas for getting you back on track, nor are we hoping to guilt you into the idea that you aren’t doing enough and you should just get your act together” (xvii).  And so Goggin and Strobel’s alternative questions are: “Who is God?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to relate to Him?” “What does it mean to be with him?” (xix).

And so Strobel and Goggin probe the depth of human identity–our frailty and our wonder. The talk about how God in Christ called us his beloved, and  how in the incarnation Jesus himself became dust by taking on our flesh.  For Goggin and Strobel then, Jesus is an exemplar but not just for his sinless perfection. Jesus embodies and understands his identity before God, as beloved son and (humanly speaking) as dust. When we likewise understand this idenity it enables true prayer:

What becomes clear as we observe Jesus praying is that to pray s beloved dust means to pray in reality. We pray in the reality of who we are. We pray as beloved children of the Father. We pray as dusty ones, sinful and broken. We are called to pray in the truth of our identity. If we do not pray in the truth of who we are, then we cannot truly call prayer  being with God.  Being with God implies that we have actually shown up; we are actually present. PRayer is not a place to hide and cover like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It is a place to be honest like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. (113).

Our realness before God allows for relationship. Relationship means that prayer is not always a means to an end (fixing this or experiencing that).  As Goggin and Strobel observe, ” Real relationship takes place in reality, and reality is that sometimes we experience disconnection, silence, and confusion. Real relationship is discovered in being with another within these experiences (107).  The up and downs of life, feelings of spiritual dryness, profound longing are all seasons in relationship. Goggin and Strobel encourage us to press in anyway, “be with the God who is always with you. In short, the answer to desolation (dryness) in prayer is prayer” (109).

That is what this book is about. When we understand who we are before God, we are able to relate to him as we should. Are their disciplines and spiritual practices that nurture us? You bet. Goggin and Strobel commend regular and constant prayer, rest, silence, but this is no five step plan to intimacy with God. There is no formula, there is only relationship. We can press into God when we understand ourselves and we know his love for us. This is profound truth. Goggin and Strobel are also good communicators. There are plenty of analogies from their life–family, ministry, and pet chinchilla. This isn’t some boring disconnected treatise on prayer. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book for free through the BookLook Bloggers program for the purposes of review. I was under no obligation to write a positive review, just an honest one.

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: a book review.

I love the Psalms. They reveal and revel in the goodness of God for his people Israel. The point to the coming Messiah. They  are ‘a mirror for self-understanding,’ exploring the whole range of human emotion and offering it back to God.  Athanasius, one of the Church Fathers,  said that in the Psalms you find depicted “all the movements of the soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries” (xv).  He saw that the psalms had words appropriate for the whole range of human of experience, and that by praying these words, we are taught how to speak to God about our life. We become involved in a ‘self-involving discourse with God’ (xviii).

In Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus he exhorts his friend to take hold of the Psalms and to pray the words written on the page:

Each person sings what has been written as about himself or herself, not at all as if receiving and reciting what was intended for someone else, they take it as their own, as if the words were theirs and offer it to God as though they had composed the words themselves (xviii)

He goes on his letter to suggest different psalms for prayer in particular circumstances. Unfortunately Athanasius’ letter remains opaque to many ordinary, western reader. In part this is do to how he lists off references to Psalms, almost haphazzardly on a range of topics.  Also his numbering of Psalms follows the Septuagint (which differs from modern translations which follow the Masoretic text).

Benjamin Wayman has done us a service in his presentation of the Psalms employed by Athanasius in his pastoral counsel. In Make the Words Your Own he provides a brief overview of Athanasius’ theology of the psalms (and the importance he places in the actual words of the psalms for our own growth in virtue), and Athanasius’ litany of psalms under eight headings: (1) Psalms of suffering; (2) Psalms for the Betrayed; (3) Psalms for the Harassed; (4) Psalms for the Guilty; (5) Psalms for the Thankful; (6) Psalms for Reflection; (7) Psalms for instruction; (8) Psalms for Daily Life. The Psalms in each section have as their heading Athanasius’ own words from his letter to Marcellinus.

Because these Psalms are arranged topically, they do not fall in Athanasius’ original order; however this makes a useful guide–directing readers to particular psalms which address their physical circumstances or emotional state.  Wayman also follows the contemporary (Western) numbering of the Psalms with the versification from the Book of Common Prayer Psalter.

Athanasius’ headings are generally insightful, though occasionally awkward for modern ears. For example, he introduces Psalm 2 with, “If you want to condemn the evil plot of the Jews against the Savior you have Psalm 2″ (145).  Centuries of Antisemitism have proven that ‘condemn the evil plot of the Jews’ is a rather bad shorthand for the Jewish priesthood’s plot againt Jesus. Wayman lets Athanasius’ word stand without comment. I wonder at the wisdom of this.

In general I think this is a really useful presentation of Athanasius’ pastoral insights of the Psalms and a accessible guide to the psalms for prayer. I recommend this to anyone interested in the spirituality of the psalms and wants to deepen their prayer life. Lay readers interested in patristics will also find this useful. I give this book five stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

Doubt Has Its Limits: a book review

Some people think faith is about swallowing Christian truth claims full-sale and never doubting again, ever.  As the saying goes, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it). However when you become a Christian, you aren’t really supposed to leave your brain in the front closet.  We need our minds to help us think through problems, wrestle with ideas and to be able to discern truth properly.  Faith and doubt work together to help us press into God’s truth and experience al that God has in store for us.

Christina M. H. Powell is a person who knows well the tension between doubt and faith. In her day job she is a Harvard educated  biomedical research scientist conducting research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She is also an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God.  When asked if she has ever questioned her faith, she answers, “Sure I question my faith, but I also question my doubts” (17).  Faith takes us into a realm beyond human reason, but Powell knows professionally and personally there is real value in doubt.

So in Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith she showcases the value and limits of doubt. In three sections, she unfolds some of her own faith journey and struggles and how she has resolved them, both as a scientist and as a person of faith.

In part I, she begins by ‘thinking through doubts.’ In chapter one, she takes up Isaac Newton’s challenge to ‘build more bridges than walls’ (17-8).  Rather than seeing doubt and scientific inquiry as antithetical to ‘real faith,’ Powell sees the value of science, doubt and inquiry for examining and exploring our world and weighing evidence. Faith takes us beyond on the realm of  measurable evidence and experience toward hope and expectation. Powell would have have us doubt and investigate even in the midst of faith  because both science and faith have important things to teach us (29). Chapter two explores deeper the ‘interplay of influences’ between faith and facts. As a scientist and a believer Powell has a keen eye for aspects of each that have shaped her calling and experience (48). Chapter three and four describes the value of doubt and questioning for discernment and growing in knowledge and understanding.

Part two explores the sources of doubt. Chapter five describes the limits of human reason. Sometimes doubts arise because are ability to reason and read the evidence only takes us so far (we see through a glass dimly). Sometimes we doubt because are questions remain unanswered (chapter six). Still doubts are not always intellectual. Sometimes our doubt is born out of real-life-pain (Why would a good God let this happen?) or disillusionment (why is the church so hypocritical?). Powell gives good strategies on how to hold out faith in the face of tragedy and how God uses disillusionment in our hearts to turn us into agents of change (chapters seven and eight, respectively).

Part three speaks about resolving doubts, not in the sense of getting an answer to every question, but in making your peace with them. Chapter nine talks about the authentic journey. Rather than trying to stuff doubts down, Powell shows that there is real power in honestly wrestling with them. In Chapter ten she talks about ‘retracing the path’ and the reality that a ‘reason’ for something is not always apparent in the moment. Sometimes we see God’s hand most clearly  in hindsight.  Finally Powell closes where she began with a passioned plea to ‘build bridges’ between faith and science:

I remain confident that the key to a greater understanding between scientists and minsters will come from making connections. If pastors reach out to scientists within their congregations to learn more about their work, then science might not feel so intimidating.  If scientists share how they integrate their faith and their profession with seminary students, then the next generation of pastors will be better equipped to minister to those with technological backgrounds. The friendships that form between individual scientists and individual ministers will become the bridge betwen the two professions. With mutual respect in place, dialogue will become much easier. (192-3).

What the above summary doesn’t fully reveal is how much Christina Powell shares her own journey: existential crises, discernment, clarifying her sense of call and making peace between science and faith. This book is not a detached, abstract ‘thought experiment,’ but describes her own journey of faith (and doubt) and offers the insights she has gained. She weaves together her own story with biblical reflections and insights on faith and science.

I think that pleasantly surprised me about this book. When I picked it up, I thought it was a new book on apologetics. It is that, but it is also is a book for Christians to how to better think through their faith. This will certainly be helpful for new college students (sometimes youth graduate church when they graduate high school because they were never given tools to think through their faith). But I think it can also be useful for deepening a conversation in church on the relationship between faith and doubt, God and nature, the scientific method and Revelation. As a pastor, I appreciate Powell’s challenge to be a better bridge builder and commend it to you.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Transformed Together on Emmaus Road: a book review

Ruth Haley Barton is well established as an author of Christian spirituality. I have read and found beneficial her Invitation to Solitude and Silence and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. The former, explores the importance of practicing silence as a spiritual discipline while the latter examines eight spiritual practices that help people press deeper into faith in God. Barton draws on the insights of the broad Christian tradition, but her writings is palatable for an evangelical audience.

Though I had read and enjoyed Barton before, I wasn’t prepared to like Life Together in Christ: Experiencing Transformation in Community as much as much as I did. My standing critique of many books on spiritual disciplines is how they appeal to an individualistic, consumer mindset and apply  it to the realm of spirituality (if this doesn’t work, try another discipline. . .). Barton made strides in Sacred Rhythms to address this attitude, but Life Together in Christ is a more developed, mature reflection on the nature of Spiritual practice.

Barton frames her exploration of communal spiritual transformation through one of the Jesus’ most evocative post-resurrection appearances.  In Luke 24: 13-35 we hear the story of Cleopas and his companion, despondent on their trek home from Jerusalem after Jesus was crucified. They are met on their way by a stranger who listens to them and explains to them, from the scriptures, why the Son of Man would suffer. When they reach the end of their journey, they invite him home for dinner and discover in the dinner grace that Jesus himself was their travelling companion.

Barton turns over the words of this story and reflects on nine communal practices and characteristics which enable and encourage spiritual transformation. These are:

  • Choosing to walk together
  • Welcoming the stranger
  • Choosing to listen and not fix
  • Gathering on the basis of shared desire
  • The place of men and women in community
  • The cruciform nature of the spiritual journey
  • Locating our own stories in Jesus’ story
  • Discerning the presence of Christ in our midst
  • Bearing witness to what we have seen and heard

Barton is an astute reader of the text, but this isn’t a purely exegetical treatment (more of a sustained Lectio Divina). She finds in this story some great segues to the nature of the spiritual life in community. I appreciate her insights into spirituality. I also like that they way these chapters are crafted and set up, to sit down and read it cover to cover by yourself (as I did) is the absolutely wrong way of doing it. Barton is not naive about the difficulties, letdowns, betrayals and disappointments that happen in real-life Christian communities, but she is cognizant that to live the Christian faith we are a part of the church–God’s kingdom people. Her words hone in on how to be God’s people (and God’s presence) for one another.

My favorite part of the book was her explanation of the nature of the spiritual journey, or in her words, “the paschal rhythm of death, burial and resurrection as the essential rhythm of the spiritual life, and of suffering as a necessary part of it” (102). These poignant words helped me see how Christ’s cross and resurrection not only explain the journey the Son of God took, but all of us who are in Him. Often I hear this said theologically (we have been crucified with Christ and our lives are buried with him)  but Barton helped me connect the dots a little bit on how this is a lived reality.

I highly recommend this book. It is the best book on community I read in 2014 and it would be a great resource for small groups or to read with a spiritual friend (Barton herself is a spiritual director and leads a ministry dedicated to strengthening the souls of and training pastors and ministry leaders). Because it reflects on Christ’s resurrection, my lectionary-loving friends may appreciate reading through this in Easter as they seek to deepen their resurrection practice. However the principles and practices are applicable anytime. I give this book a hearty high five (stars): ★★★★★

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Taking, Making and Faking Life: a Christian Approach to Bioethics (a book review).

Modern medicine poses ethical dilemmas for Christians. Controversial issues like abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, cloning and genetic engineering challenge Christian views of morality and human dignity. But how are followers of Jesus supposed to make decisions about health care and life and death?

Christian Bioethics was written to provide guidance for pastors, health care professionals and families. C. Ben Mitchell, PhD, and D. Joy Riley, MD conduct a dialogue on a range of topics. Mitchel is Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University and Riley is physician specializing in Internal Medicine and the director of the Tennessee Center for Bioethics. Together they frame the issues, discuss relevant scriptures and share their suggestions of how Christians ought to respond.

Mitchell and Riley argue for a return to the Hippocratic and Christian tradition of medicine. They urge physicians to heal  not harm and promote respect for the dignity of human persons. Their ethical discussion ranges from Taking Life (abortion and euthanasia) to Making Life ( Infertility and reporductive technologies, organ donation, cloning and animal-human hybrids) to faking/remaking life (aging and life extending technologies). The two of them are adept at framing the issue and limiting what they are talking about. They also say some thoughtful stuff. I particularly enjoyed their discussion on dying and their reference to both the Bible and to the Christian tradition. Quite a lot has been written on the topic of ‘dying well’ and Mitchell and Riley bring things together in a winsome and relevant manner.

Rather than sharing their thoughts on every issue, I would like to share what I found most helpful. I think the biggest value of the book is their ethical framework. On pages 41-2 they layout the process for medical ethical decision making:

  1. Define the ethical issue or problem
  2. Clarify the issue.
  3. Pray for Illumination by the Holy Spirit.
  4. Glean the medical data on the issue
    • What is the diagnosis?
    • What are the available treatments?
    • What are the possible outcomes
    • Are there complications?
    • Are there implications for spouse, family members, or others?
    • What precisely is the moral question(s) to be answered?
  5. Glean the Scriptural data on the question, identifying the biblical issue:
    •  Precepts or Commands
    • Principles
    • Examples
  6. Study the scriptural instruction carefully:
    1. What does the text say?
    2. What does the text mean?
    3. What is the genre?
    4. What are the literary style and organization?
    5. What definitions and grammar are significant?
    6. What is the context?
    7. What are the overall theme, purpose and historical significance
    8. Apply the biblical instruction to formulate a potential answer.
  7. Engage in dialogue with the Christian community.
  8. Study the views of the church down through the ages
  9. Formulate a decision. (41-2)

This method delineates the approach that Mitchell and Riley attempt throughout this book. I really appreciated the care by which they approached the issue and sought out the wisdom of scripture with hermeneutic sensitivity. They make judicious use of the Bible. I am in general agreement with their conclusions (pro life, human dignity and trust in God) but I think this hermeneutic piece is the most  helpful, especially since neither is a specialist in theology or biblical literature.

One small criticism is that Mitchell and Riley claim this book is a ‘guide for pastors, health care professionals and families.’ I can readily see how pastors and families would benefit. I think health care professionals would to, but they spend too much time explaining medical terms, issues and procedures in dumbed-down layman terms for people in the discipline. I think most people who work in healthcare would find these parts of the book overly simple.  I would think a more technical volume would probably be of more value for those in health care.

I am happy to have this book as part of my pastoral library (alongside other books like Shuman and Volck’s Reclaiming the Body). It does a good job of connecting the Bible to contemporary life issues. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher via Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

A Sobering Comic: a book review.

Ever since I was a kid scouring the house for enough change to buy X-Men from my local convenience store I have loved graphic novels. I love books in general and believe wholeheartedly in the power of words. But when words and images combine in a storyboard, narrative comes alive. Action in still life.

Images also have the power to communicate important truths. As an adult, some of my favorite graphic novels include Spieglman’s Maus and Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints. These novels are both ‘historical,’ exploring holocaust and national tragedy (respectively).  Other Graphic-non-fiction explores politics and social activism (see for example, Joe Sacco’s Palestine). I have reviewed on my blog a few different graphic novels exploring religious themes: saints in Christian history, scripture, etc.

Sobriety: A Graphic Novel is different from the above. It too is graphic-non-fiction but its aim is therapeutic. Author Daniel Mauer is a former Lutheran minister and is an active participant in the recovery movement.  In Sobriety he combines his skill as a story teller with the art of Spencer Amundson to explore the power of the Twelve Steps.

Sobriety’s plot follows what I suspect the conversation in an Alcoholic Anonymous Meeting is like. Mauer’s characters come from diverse backgrounds. They each have their own understandings of God and spirituality and the stamp of addiction is different for each of them. Still each finds help through the twelve steps. The conversation begins after Larry the ‘old timer’ shares in a meeting how he found sobriety. From there a conversation ensues between he and Alex (a gay, Londoner atheist with a Heroin and Ecstasy addiction). Larry is also sought out by Hannah a college freshman who went from honor roll to serious addiction in her first year of college. Their circle widens to include Debby a single mom (a pill-popping-alcoholic) and Matt (a gang-banger and Meth addict). The conversation explores the significance of each of the Twelve Steps as each tries to work through their own issues and experience.

Mauer and Amundson periodically also insert themselves in the comic to visually display rock-bottom, to explore A.A’s founding or Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy. The multiple narrative makes for an interesting and engaging read and showcases the way A.A. (N.A. or other similar twelve-step-based groups) can help people work through their addiction and find the way to freedom.

I think this book has a good message. At times I wondered if addicts would find this novel a little bit  too preachy. I mean, I agree with the message and know people who have been helped through twelve-step programs, but it kind of felt in places like an overgrown Chick-tract (except it didn’t go off on an Antisemitic rant or say the pope was the Anti-Christ). But this is a general problem for all fictionalized-narratives put to didactic purposes. I think this is a good graphic novel to fet in the hands of someone getting into recovery because it covers many of the issues and questions addicts face, but it doesn’t quite reach as far as ‘great literature.’ I give it three-and-a-half stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from the author or publisher via Speakeasy, in exchange for my honest review.