Directing My Kid’s Spiritual Formation: a book review.

As an erstwhile pastor and a full-time parent, I have a vested interest in my kids’ spiritual formation. So I was excited to dig into Jared Patrick Boyd’s book, Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide For Your Child’s Spiritual Formation. 

4625Boyd is a Vineyard pastor, spiritual director and founder of The Order of Sustainable Faith (a missional monastic expression). He has previously authored a book on composing a rule of life (Invitations & Commitments: a Rule of Life, The Order of Sustainable Faith,  2014).

In Imaginative PrayerBoyd provides a template for leading your children through a year-long transformative prayer practice (actually 42 weeks).  The book begins with a six-stanza  ‘Imaginative Prayer Creedal Poem (11-12).  Each week has an Ignatian style imaginative prayer designed for kids ages 9-12, reflections for parents and mentors, suggestions for pressing deeper into each theme with your children (through activities, research, and conversation), and suggestions to get your children to journal about. Even seven-week cycle includes a week of review which incorporates questions, activities and memorizing of the section of  Boyd’s creedal poem that corresponds to that section. The 42 weeks cover the topics of God’s Love, Loving Others, Forgiveness, Jesus the King, The Good News of God, and The Mission of God.

I read through this book a couple of weeks ago and took an atypical amount of time sitting down to write this review. Part of it is, this book came out in July, so me, or anyone reviewing it now, has not used the book as it was intended (a 42-week spiritual journey with kids). I actually have not used this with my own children, though I spoke with my daughters about it and they are super excited to try this out and I think it is a great way to harness their imagination to deepen their connection to God in Christ.

Essentially what Boyd provides, is a roadmap for us parents to slow down and become spiritual directors for our kids. Boyd tested the material with kids ages 9-12 because children these ages are old enough to grapple with significant questions and abstract concepts but also young enough to have a ‘sense of playfulness’ which makes the material more engaging (303-304). However, I plan to use this with my 8 and my 10-year-old. Having previewed the material, I like Boyd’s sense of the larger Christian story and the way he employs contemplative practices in an engaging way for kids.

On the topic, I have a big problem with a lot of Christian children’s curriculum because they focus almost exclusively on getting kids to behave better, promoting a form of moralism. Or they impart a faith formula that kids ought to believe. What is refreshing about Boyd’s approach is that is a transformative invitation to prayer.

I may revisit this later, but for now, I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars. Now for the practice of prayer. . .

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Simply Pray: a book review

There are lots of books on prayer, but reading them doesn’t necessarily make you a better pray-er. Developing a prayer life (or just knowing what you are ‘supposed to do’ while you are praying) can be difficult. But does it have to be? We know that ‘the prayer of a righteous man availeth much’ (James 5:16, KJV), but is it only those people with heroic prayer disciplines whom God listens to?

4481Charlie Dawes is a pastor in the DC Metro area and the former vice president for student development at South-eastern University. In Simple Prayer: Learning to Speak to God with Ease, he describes how to develop intimacy with God through praying short sentence prayers, or sometimes just a single word, which calls to mind God’s presence. In his introduction, Dawes says:

This book is for those too busy to pray and those who found their prayers to be lifeless. This is a chance to connect our prayer with historic prayers that have carried believers for centuries, and for those prayers to create space in our inner life for us to be with God(10).

Many of the prayer sentences Dawes points us to, are drawn directly from Scripture—a phrase from the Lord’s prayer, or a plaintive cry of someone Jesus encounters. However, Dawes also draws on the wisdom of the Christian tradition—the desert fathers and the Jesus Prayer.

Simple Prayer is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 discusses what simple prayer is. Dawes doesn’t just offer a simple definition. Instead he describes how prayer shouldn’t be transactional or ‘a performance.’ He describes the goal of prayer as ‘union with God’ and gives the example of praying Your Kingdom Come—a line lifted from the Lord’s prayer—as a short, focused prayer that reminds us (and Jesus’ disciples) that the powers we around us are not the ultimate powers. In this way, Dawes invites us to find ways to pray phrases from our Bible reading as a way of entering deeper into what the Spirit of God is saying. That is basically his method. Dawes writes, “Simple prayer is not about making prayer easier or reducing the amount our lives are devoted to prayer, it is about making it more accessible and more precise” (20).

The next seven chapters give various examples of simple prayer, and describes how to pray particular sentence prayers. Chapter 2 is devoted to describing the theology and practice of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner). Chapter 3 discusses the simple prayer of faith, using the prayers of the Roman Centurion who told Jesus, in faith, “Say the word (and my servant will be healed),” and the desperate father who cried, “I do believe, help me overcome unbelief.” Dawes sees these sentences (“say the word” and “Help me overcome unbelief”) as simple prayers we can each pray, to teach our hearts to trust, even when faith feels feeble. Chapter 4 explores the simple prayer for forgiveness; chapter 5, prayer for unity; and chapter 6 prayers for restoration. These chapters each follow the same pattern: description of phrases drawn from the Bible and instructions on how to pray each.

In chapter 7, Dawes discusses the history of monologistos—prayers that consist of a single word or phrasein the desert tradition (notably, in John Cassian’s Conferences, and John Climicus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent (103).  Dawes, then discusses several words and phrases in scripture which have been meaningful to his own spiritual life (selah, You know me, and Hosanna)The closing chapter explores simple prayer of finding your way, or more precisely prayers that align our lives with with the things God wants to accomplish.

As you may expect, Simple Prayer is a simple book.  It is just 130 pages and is mostly devotional reflections on Bible verses with invitations to pray the phrases. Dawes has done the ground work and it is possible to use this book as a prayer guide, praying the phrases which Dawes has highlighted for us. Yet simple prayer is not simply limited to these particular words and phrases, and you can take the method Dawes employs and pray other Biblical phrases.

As with other books on prayer, reading this book does not guarantee we will become better pray-ers, but Dawes does invite us to pray and gives us an accessible and focused way to do it. There is no formalic method here like centering prayer or stages to lectio divina (though this is a form of it). As someone who hates formulas and can over-complicate things, this instructive for me. It doesn’t have to be hard, simply pray.  I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review

Praying Myself Awake

I was reading this past week Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatological musings that are In the End—the Beginning (Fortress Press, 2004). He has a section where he describes what it means to Pray wakefully. Moltmann has this to say:

. . . that is only possible if we don’t pray mystically with closed eyes, but messianically, with eyes wide open for God’s future in the world. Christian faith is not blind trust. It is the wakeful expectation of God which draws in all our senses.  The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eyes wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God. (83-84).

This Moltmann quote begins, in typical Protestant fashion, taking a swipe at the mystics for promoting interior navel gazing instead of open-eyed and incarnational awareness of the world around them. I kind of get tired of that critique. Certainly some mystics, some of the time have evidenced a spirituality of privatized preoccupation and platonic idealism, though attention, expectation and a cultivated awareness of God and the world is also the prevue of  the mystics. However, I do appreciate Moltmann’s larger point, of praying wakefully and watchfully—looking for signs of Christ’s in-breaking Kingdom—a sort of hopeful awareness of God’s coming.

It is just the sort of reminder I need. As a pastor, I’ve preached about how the life of prayer primes our pump to see God at work in our lives. Praying expectantly for God to work in our situation, awakens our spiritual senses, allowing us to see the God who is always at work. Praying helps us take notice.  But I am mostly lousy at prayer.

I circled back to Moltmann in spiritual direction. I had been speaking to my director about feeling vocationally stuck, my longing to be rooted in place and my hunger for deeper community. I have been in my current city less than a year, and feel the creative tension of wanting to do something beautiful for God but not having a clear sense of what next steps look like.

My director suggested journaling (something I’ve done in the past but got away), and contemplative walking in the neighborhood. Neither practice is magical, but both practices involve slowing down and taking notice of what is happening in my life and the world around me. It is a movement away from my attempts at strategizing next steps to a spirituality of taking notice what is.

Implicit in this call to take notice, is cultivating an awareness of God’s Spirit and the things I am being invited into. I want to attend to this. So with Moltmann and the mystics, I’m going walking.

You Don’t Have to Close Your Eyes: a book review.

Prayer is like kissing, you don’t have to do it with your eyes closed.  Joking aside, part of prayer is cultivating an open, and attentive posture before God. This is in essence what Sherry Harney’s Praying With Eyes Wide Open is about: learning to attend to your environment, circumstances, and the voice of God. On a practical level, the biblical injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), means you have to learn to pray with eyes wide open, especially while operating an automobile or heavy machinery, but Harney has more to say. She describes how purposefully opening our eyes, ears and selves to God in prayer, brings new dimensions to our prayer lives.

9780801014703Sherry, with her husband Kevin,  lead Shoreline Community Church in Monterey California and cofounded Organic Outreach International (a network which resources churches and families for outreach). Sherry has coauthored books with her husband and written study guides for authors like Dallas Willard, Gary Thomas, John Ortberg, Ann Voskamp, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Christina Caine, and Mark Batterson.  She is a sought after speaker on prayer, spiritual formation, outreach, and leadership.

Praying with Eyes Wide Open isn’t just about open eyes. Harney advocates praying with eyes wide open, ears wide open, hearts wide open and lives wide open. These four open postures provide the framework for the book.

In section one, praying with eyes wide open, Harney commends open-eyed prayer, that allows us to attend to and see our environment (e.g. people, relationships, pain, beauty, and joy). Section two, praying with ears wide open, discusses cultivating our ability to hear the voice of God and the Spirit’s gentle leadings as we enter into conversation with Him. Section three, praying with hearts wide open, describes how trusting in God’s love for us frees us up, to be honest, and vulnerable in prayer. Harney also discusses in this section, how to engage in spiritual warfare and give your worries to God. Finally, section four, praying with lives wide open explores the rhythms of praying for and with others, for big things and small, and trusting that when we pray, stuff happens.

Each of the sixteen chapters ends with a suggested prayer practice to try for a week, meaning that the book is designed for those on a sixteen-week prayer journey (with a small group or personally). However the practices are simple enough to double up on if you would like to read through this in less time (I don’t have the attention span for reading a short book in sixteen weeks).

I am pretty bad at keeping my eyes closed in prayer anyway but Harney makes a good case for using open-eyed (or ear, heart, life) prayers to cultivate an attentiveness to what is really going on around us. I particularly appreciated her suggestions on praying with ears wide open, asking God good questions, and listening for answers (79-80).  But certainly, I can learn to cultivate openness and attention in each of four realms that Harney names. This book makes me hunger for more intimacy in my own prayer life (as any good prayer book should do).  I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review

The Color of Prayer: ★★★★★ coloring prayer book reviews

I am a big fan of Sybil MacBeth’s Praying in Color method (Or Praying in Black and White if you happen to be a masculine soul). It involves using drawings and colored pencils (or markers and crayons) to sort of mindmap your devotional life—intercessory prayer, Lectio Divina, prayers of gratitude, etc.  It is a perfect way to focus, for those of us who’s mind wanders during prayer. Prayers are captured in journals, sketchbooks and on graph paper. A record of our doodled devotion.   My wife has used this same method in children’s ministry, teaching kids to draw their prayers.

While I have benefitted from Macbeth’s method, I can, at times, be distracted by it. For the artistically inclined (or in my case, reclined), drawing prayers can draw us away from the heart of true prayer, when we focus on  the quality of our drawings instead of the prayer we are praying (Macbeth’s notes the struggles artists have with this method in a parenthetical note in Praying in Black and White).

pray-for-others-in-color

Macbeth and Paraclete Press have produced a new series of “Praying in Color” coloring books. Like other coloring books that Paraclete has produced, there are scriptures, quotations and other prompts on the left-hand pages, and a coloring sheet on the right-hand page. The difference is the right-hand pages reproduce the sort of ‘mindmap’ patterns which MacBeth uses in her Praying in Color books and workshops. The result is a simple, accessible way to appropriate her method in our own personal prayer times. Because the form is already given, it minimizes some of the artist’s distraction.

There are several volumes of these coloring books, corresponding to different ways of praying.  Praying for Others in Color  has Names and Titles of God on the Left-hand pages as a prompt to prayer (e.g. Abba, Deliverer, God of Compassion, Bread of Life, Holy Spirit, Restorer, etc), the right-hand page designs have bubbles and shapes to incorporate the name of God and those you are praying for (imaging God’s connection and care for those you bring before him). The images can be colored, augmented, added to, or simply written on as an aid to prayer.

contemplate-scripture-in-colorContemplating Scripture in Color is a chance to use drawing and coloring in Lectio Divina. MacBeth’s introduction instructs you how to use the words and images in the process of our scriptural meditation and prayer. We begin with Lectio (reading), reading the scriptural passage that accompanies the image, circling the word or phrase that jumps out on you. Meditatio (Meditation/chewing) we are invited to write down everything we associate with that word,  and to write our word on the coloring page and to ask God to share what he has to say about that word as we color. Oratio (Speaking) we speak our prayers to God as we color, maybe writing prayers and questions in the margins. Contemplatio (contemplate) is a ‘cool down period,’ a time to out down your pen and markers and sit with what emerged from the time. Several of the pages are left blank so that we can choose our own passage of Scripture and make our own drawings.

count-your-blessings-in-colorCount Your Blessings in Color is a chance to express gratitude. With prompts from scripture and quotes (from novelists, spiritual writers, and other luminaries), we are instructed to use these images to ‘count our blessings,’ creating a visual reminder of the what we have received.

Unlike most adult coloring books, the pages of each of these coloring books become a sort of spiritual journal as we pray for others, meditate on scripture or count our blessings. As with MacBeth’s other Praying in Color books, there is no right way to use these coloring books or preferred method. This is simply a format to help you dive deeper into the land of prayer. Users of these coloring books will find a nice balance between set formats and creative freedom.

These coloring books are great for personal use and make great gifts. I give them five stars. -★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved copies of these coloring books from the publiser in exchange for my honest review

Practicing Theolocal Spirituality: Prayer

In a previous post, I discussed our theolocal imagination and what it means for us to bear witness to the Spirit is already active in the world. I want to also describe some of the practices which shape us and enable our theolocal witness.  Prayer is fundamental to it all.

I say this as a lousy pray-er.  I would be the world’s worst mystic. I try to practice contemplative prayer, but am sabotaged by my frenetic ADHD. It’s your world and I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move your butt, to the dance floor now your butt’s up. Wait what?

When I sit to pray. I am immediately distracted. This is doubly difficult because I am an extrovert who works at home. Alone. I crave interaction. Personal prayer is difficult for me and I suck at it. I need to admit this up front because as a faith blogger and erstwhile pastor,  it is easy for me to cast myself in the role of expert. Not in this post, I am describing a practice which is still a major growth edge for me. Below I am describing aspects of prayer and spirituality I believe and long to grow into.

If you want (as I want) to know the Theolocal Spirit—our God-come-near we need to set aside time to explore and grow in prayer. As I see it, prayer is necessary to the theolocal practice because it changes who we attend to, our attitude in the moment, and awakens us to where the wind of the Spirt may be blowing.

Paying Attention to God

Have you heard of confirmation bias? It is a social psychological reality which describe how naturally, each of us tends to overvalue evidence which confirms our preexisting set of beliefs. It is the reason why those on the far Right are able to put a happy face on a Donald Trump’s presidency (for the way he drains the swamp, takes on the lying fake news, stands up for the little guy and promotes economic growth) and those on the Left see corruption, collusion with Russia, careless speech, misogyny, and treason. Both the Left and Right are looking at the same guy, but they pay attention to different things, emphasizing the facts (or alternative facts) which confirm their bias. Neither side sees the whole picture.

There is much more to be said about confirmation bias (such as the need for epistemological humility), but how does any of this relate to prayer? On a basic level, confirmation bias is paying attention to the truths which matter to us. I believe wholeheartedly that God is living and active in our communities, constantly at work—the wind blowing where it will—whether we mark His Presence or not; however those of us who carve out serious time for prayer, and prayerful activities (such as Lectio Divina) will see evidence of his Presence everywhere. Prayer primes the pump. Our prayer awakens a habit of mind where we see the Divine in daily life. This is the Confirmation bias of Prayer.

As a young adult, I was part of a faith community which emphasized personal evangelism. We used to pray for ‘divine appointments,’ opportunities to share our faith with others. When they happened we called this answered prayer. Perhaps, but if I am honest I also have gotten into many spiritual conversations without praying in advance (I also missed more than a few).  If we cultivate a life of prayer, we are more likely to see ways God is at work and make the most of the opportunities which come our way.

Do you see God at work in your neighborhood and in your community? What about in the lives of friends and neighbors? 

An Attitude of Openness

My guiding theolocal conviction is that wherever we are, God got there first and is already at work. When this conviction guides our prayer life, we parse our ecosystems differently. We don’t just look for the areas of distress (e.g. addictions, pollutants, destructive behaviors, isolation or whatever) but we look to others in our community with an expectancy to see the hand and face of God.

We come to a neighborhood, not with the hope of bringing the Kingdom of God but with the expectation that we will bear witness to the ways the Kingdom is already there. We don’t go into the world simply to seek and save the lost as the incarnate Christ once did (Luke 19:10) but we go expecting to identify the altar of the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and ways the Spirit of Christ is there calling out to human hearts.

As we pray, we pray for an attitude of openness to see how and where  God is at work.

Awakened to the Wind of the Spirit

In prayer, we cultivate attention and an openness to God, but we also are awakened to see the ways God’s Spirit is moving.  This is the fruit of learning to attend to God. We recognize where God is, and at work. We also see when God is on the move.  How do you reach a community with the love of Christ and bear witness to the reality of God’s Presence in our midst? What is the missional strategy that you should take with your neighbors? In your community?

The answer is different for different places and different people. There is no missional strategy or fancy acronym that will bring the world to Christ. The Spirit of Christ is already there, in the world. Get theolocal and learn to attend to the ways God-Came-Near is moving.

guwg-prayer-open-hands

T is for Tears (an alphabet for penitents)

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it,  saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God. -Luke 19:40-44

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Jesus came to the city triumphant, celebrated as King and riding on a Donkey foal. Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. They hailed him as King in the pageantry of Palm Sunday [incidently, there are interesting resonances between Jesus’ and Jacob Maccabee’s triumphal entry a century and a half earlier]. Days later these same folks would chant, “Crucify Him! Bring us Barrabas!” But today was a day of fanfare. No one present foresaw the tragedy of the coming week. No one, except Jesus.

When he drew near the city, he wept. There stood the Son of God, snotty faced and red eyed, his voice shaking,“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes . . .” Jesus wept for the spiritual blindness of the people—the way that their patterns of behavior, leadership, and systems had put them on a  path of destruction. Jesus wept because, in a few short decades, the city would be under siege. The walls of the city and the temple would be destroyed in 70AD. Those in the city walls would be crushed. Jesus wept because the people didn’t recognize the day of their visitation—Jesus, the Word made Flesh—he Incarnate God was riding into the city. The people did not see. 

Tears are cathartic. A good cry is an emotional response which releases an endorphin that helps reduce pain and improve our mood. Far from being a sign of weakness, emotional tears give us the strength to face difficult tasks. Sometimes naming past wounds can cause tears to well up in our eyes and provide the emotional release that allows you to move forward. If you have had a good cry in the face of grief, loss, betrayal, rejection, you know what I am talking about. This is sometimes embarrassing because when you cry your emotional self is exposed. But it is always good.

Tears are an essential component of the spiritual life and a sign that we are open to the rhythms of God’s grace. We have had too much of spiritual dry eye—the stony-faced rationalism of late Enlightenment Christianity. But like grace, tears can’t (or shouldn’t) be manufactured. Crocodile tears and manipulating the emotions are signs of a spirituality gone amiss. Yet, the soul sensitized to God’s heart will feel what God feels.

You may find yourself weeping at systemic injustice, racism, poverty, violence, war.  You might cry about the path we are on—the mutually assured destruction inherent in our divisiveness, violence, and mistrust. Your heart may break for your city and the spiritual blindness you find there, the ways people miss God’s presence and purposes. The soul that perceives the peril of our mutual life but never cries is dangerous.  It is the cryers that have the emotional honesty to name the pain. They don’t medicate their pain with distractions but take an honest look at the predicament we are in. We need more red-eyed prophets to show us a better way to navigate the world.

God soften our hearts so that it will break for what breaks Your heart. Let us feel what You feels. Give us the strength to look at our predicament and face the days ahead.