Having the Horse Sense to Hear the Divine: a ★★★★★ book review.

One of my earliest memories involves a horse. I would have been 2. My family lived on an acreage underneath the big sky of central Alberta. We had two horses, a mare, and her yearling colt. Cinnabar. One afternoon I was in the sandbox behind our house and decided to go down the hill and visit with the horses. They watched me disinterestedly from behind their barbwire fence, glancing sideways at me, munching the pasture grass. I crawled under the fence to get closer to them. The yearling turned and ran and kicked me in the face. His rear hoofs scraped across my cheeks, just below my temples. Had I been one step closer, or the horse a little older, I may not be here today.  My mom tells me that I ran up the hill with more rage than pain screaming, “Cinnabar kicked me!”

 horses-speak-of-godMy family moved to the city and we didn’t have horses after that, but I would ride them, some, at the nearby dude ranch, or on my grandparent’s farm in the summertime if they happened to be watching their neighbors’ horses.  I love horses. They are majestic creatures, and I’ve since learned to not climb under fences and walk behind them, to respect their size and give them a wide berth.

Laurie Brock, an Episcopal priest and crisis chaplain, has a better relationship to horses than I ever had. In Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed, she shares the things she has learned from the horses she rides: balance, steadfastness, vocation, trust, routine, love. Brock writes, “I began to ride as a hobby. I did not expect to learn a language that spoke of God” (9).

Throughout these seventeen mediations, Brock weaves together stories of riding lessons, the horses she’s ridden, ministry, the church calendar, Scripture and the liturgy.  She is the student and she honors horses as her teacher. She learns from them. Sometimes the horses teach her about losing control, about having courage, and empathy:

As I reflected on the moment when I’d walked away from my dirty dishes and into the midst of tragedy in the aftermath of a death, I knew they were the same emoitions similar experineces. I could be in the presence of  grief and its wildness because I rode Izzy. And suddenly, I realized that the rearranging that hapened inside of my soul had to do with the words that horses had opened to me. (5).

Sometimes a particular horse would reveal something for Brock about facing fear, or discovering vocation. Sometimes the process of learning to ride illuminates an aspect of her own faith journey. For example, ‘collecting’ a horse—raising the horse’s head while keeping it’s weight slightly on its hind legs so that its movements are focused and directed—becomes a metaphor for own soul, as she finds for her soul the balance between control, energy, and direction in the Collect of the Eucharistic liturgy. (67-71).

Brock is both priest and chaplain but this is not a book about discovering God in the church. It is a book about wrestling with God and learning faith while learning to ride, It is about experiencing the grace of God in the face of a horse, and seeing the face of God in the grace of a horse. This is poetic prose. I highly recommend this book, especially for animal lovers and for those who connect with God outside of the church. Brock does a great job of translating the wisdom of the Christian experience into the language of horse and rider. The lessons she learned from horses are kinder and more generative than getting kicked in the face by a horse. God’s grandeur and grace. The divine and the equine. I give this five stars. – ★★★★★

I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

 

Leading with Mo’ Soul: a ★★★★★ book review

It took me too long to get around to Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. I am a Ruth Haley Barton fan and I’ve read several of her books: Invitation to Solitude and Silence (IVP 2004), Sacred Rhythms (IVP 2006), Life Together in Christ (IVP 2014). While there are tons of authors who explore the realm of spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation, Barton has a special gift for combining an evangelical sensibility with contemplative spirituality. She is a spiritual director and the founder and president of the Transforming Center, an organization dedicated to strengthening the souls of pastors, Christian leaders, and congregations and the organizations they serve.

4645So being a Barton fan, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (SSYL) had already been on my ‘to read’ list for several years, when a couple of years ago, a pastoral job I had imploded, and I was left reeling. Several friends and colleagues recommended this book and I made plans to read it. Though I never, until now, made it past my several false starts. I think I wasn’t in the right psycho-social-space to wrestle with this stuff.  Now in its second edition, SSYL frames the soul-formation of a leader with the life of Moses as her reference point (a page taken from Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses?).  Moses was a Hebrew raised in the house Pharoah, and his first attempt at leadership resulted in murder and coverup. The fear of being found out drives Moses to the wilderness. There, solitude begins to work on Moses’s Soul as he confronts his struggles with identity (who is he, learns to pay attention, and wrestles with vocation. When Moses emerges from the wilderness, there are other lessons he needs to learn about leading others, the gifts of the round-about-wilderness way, intercession, isolation, and sabotage, delegating, leadership community and detachment.

Barton is guided by the conviction, “what lies beneath the surface—of the ocean of our lives—really matters (39). Where we encounter and wrestle with what is swirling on our insides, is in submitting to the rhythms of silence and solitude. She writes:

God’s call to us is to find a way to do what Moses did—to leave our life in the complany of others at least for a time, to let go of all of our attempts to fix whatever needs fixing “out there,” to leave whatever hope we had of leading people somewhere, and to believe that what needs to be done in the deep interior places of our life is the most important work to be done right now. In fact, to try to press on without paying attention to whatever it is that is bubbling up from way down deep is the most dangerous thing we could do. (40).

So, each chapter weaves examples from Moses, from Barton’s own life, leadership and ministry, and examples from the lives of others who have thought to lead attentive of their inner life. Notable examples include Gary Haugen of IJM, who also wrote the forward, and Martin Luther King’s wrestling with the dangers of being a Civil Rights leader, and his detachment from seeing his work come to fruition (“I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve seen the promised land. . . I may not get there with you”).

The emphasis throughout is on practicing the sort of spirituality exhibited in the life of Moses. So each chapter closes with a practice designed to help us press into God and reflect on the character of our leadership. Often this is a moment in solitude. Listening to our breath, reflecting and listening in the quietness to what God may be whispering to our soul. A time to stop and attend to what is in us.

My exegetical, seminary-trained self, is occasionally critical with the way Barton uses episodes from Moses’ life as illustrative of spiritual practices, whether or not that is what the narrative is about. Moses didn’t run into the wilderness to pursue a life of silence and solitude and devote himself to prayer. He ran for his life because he was scared. He didn’t go there to do inner work.  Did the angel of the Lord cause the burning bush to burn and not be consumed because Moses was now ready to turn aside and pay attention? (60-61, chapter 4) This seems more pre-text than text. I wondered as I read if Moses story provides a canvas on which Barton simply paints the picture of spiritual formation she wishes to describe.

Yet, just as often, I found her insights into the story opened it up to me in ways that I had not previously considered. For example, Moses named his son Gershom because he had “been an alien in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22). Barton reflects, “this is a profound admission. It had taken a very long time, but finally, Moses was able to acknowledge what was underneath the behavior that had gotten him where he was. He was finally able to admit that all his life he had struggled with his identity and he was mad as hell about it” (47). The sense of identity dislocation and his feeling like an imposter makes sense of the young Moses’ life. Not only is this fruitful for understanding my own struggles with identity in leadership, but it changed the way I read Exodus 1-3. Similarly, the way Barton inhabits Moses angst and disappointment of seeing a promised land he would never enter was instructive and illuminative.

While this is the second edition, I didn’t notice any substantive changes in the main text of the book.  SSYL remain the same,  word for word, by my reading anyway, what it was in the 2008 edition. But included in this edition is a flexible group discussion guide (for a weekly group or meeting with a spiritual mentor) and an assessment tool for gauging the state of our souls as leaders.

Despite noting my occasional exegetical wariness, I can’t recommend this book enough. Barton names the issues that have swirled inside of me as I’ve pursued (and failed at) my pastoral calling (e.g. struggles with identity, clarifying calling, living within and recognizing my limitations, delegating, paying attention to God, etc). This would be an excellent book to read together as a leadership team or as guide for a lead-team retreat. I give this an enthusiastic 5 stars! -★★★★★

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

 

Do You Mind? a book review

My own interest in mindfulness is spiritual. Sure, it has its roots in Buddhism and I am very much on the Jesus-y Christian end of the world religious spectrum, but as my spiritual director observed, “All prayer begins with something like mindfulness”— paying attention to yourself, your world, and God. So, I picked up Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Can Build Resilience and Reveal Your Extraordinary in the hopes that it could help me move past my own anxious feelings and my Spiritual ADHD.

mindyourlifecoverMeg Salter is a mindfulness coach and Integral Master Coach™ who explores how mindfulness can help each of us experience life more fully, be more present and have greater resilience. She tells the story of her own mindfulness journey, and shares stories of how others journeyed toward greater mindfulness, discusses its benefits. She also offers a “Unified Mindfulness System” composed of three attentive skills, three types of practices and a variety of practices, related to the three types (83). The three skills are (1) concentration, (2) sensory clarity and (3) equanimity (allowing experiences to come and go without a push and pull or trying to manipulate them). The three types of practices involve appreciating ourselves and our world, transcending our self and world and nurturing our positive selves and our world (95). Three chapters (chapters 7 to 9) describe a variety of practices as they relate to each of the practice types.

There are some super-duper benefits to mindfulness. When you begin to practice it, you are more alert, more resilient, less anxious, less stressed and you get a good night’s sleep because you have no insomnia. You even smell better. Okay, I made up that last one. People who practice mindfulness may still smell bad, but because of their non-judgmental stance toward themselves, they feel a lot better about it.

I appreciated this book. Mindfulness practices (e.g. cultivating awareness of our breath and body in sitting practice, or taking note on our internal experience throughout the day) easily maps upon a variety of Christian practices, even if this is not an explicitly Christian book (it isn’t explicitly anything, except integral spirituality™). I made several notes in the margins and flags some of these practices to try to press into later. Her sitting practice aims at about 10 minutes of intentional practice (which is more doable than the 20-25 other mindful authors tell you to aim for).  I also appreciate that Salter pulls out of her coaching arsenal an exercise of creating a ‘mindfulness topic statement’ to help clarify both our future hopes for mindfulness and our present discomfort (there is a worksheet in the book, to create one, three different times). I give this book three-and-a-half-stars ★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my fair and honest review.

 

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.

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us.