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.

From Bud to Blossom: a book review

I am a faith blogger, meaning I blog about the Bible, theology, and the intersection of faith and life. I also review books (which you know if you’re reading this). I discovered the Redbud Writers Guild several years ago and immediately wanted to join. Then I discovered I couldn’t, all because it is a group of women writers and I am ill-equipped to join such a group.¹ That didn’t stop me from reading their blogs and following their authors everbloomon social media.  

I am not that broken up about not being able to join. I don’t actually need to break the faith blogger gender barrier, and the blogosphere is replete with other writers groups that my voice fits well in; however, I was impressed by the quality of writing I repeatedly encountered from members of the guild, bloggers and authors I’ve appreciated, women like: April Yamasaki, Margot Starbuck, Leslie Layland Fields, Jen Pollock Michael, Emily Gibson and others. This is a diverse bunch of women (not all of whom would feel at home in a Woman of Faith tour with geraniums in their hats). These are pastors, theology students, homemakers, activists, poets, novelists, theologians—women of color and anglos, Boomers, Xers and Millennials.

A new book project, Everbloom (Paraclete Press, April 2017), compiles stories, poetry and reflections from the women of Redbud (quite a few who were new voices for me). These stories speak of grief, anxiety, pain, loss and redemption.  These women share personal stories of difficult and grace-filled moments and the freedom found in Christ. The book is at turns vulnerable and full of good humor. Each author shares their story, closes with a brief prayer and a writing prompt for personal reflection.

This book is written by women, rooted in their experience, and the intended especially for a woman audience. Some of the writing prompts make this explicit: “What has been painful and necessary for you to grow as a woman and in relationship with God?”(16); “Reflect on your own ideas of motherhood using this statement: mother knows best.” (140); “Describe a strong influential woman in your life.” (202), etc.. But honestly, this is just a solid collection of writing, full of varied and poignant stories and guys would be encouraged by it too. I always feel sad when I visit a Christian bookstore and thoughtful women authors are quarantined in the ‘woman’s interest’ section (lest they have authority over a man or something). Sometimes us male readers will have to adjust these reflections to our experience, but women readers are accustomed to making adjustments for male authors everyday (or anytime their pastor throws Braveheart into their sermon). So guys: this is well written, man up and don’t be scared!

But with Mother’s Day just around the corner, this is a great gift idea for a mom or special woman in your life, It is a rich storehouse of stories, prayers and opportunities for reflection. I give this four stars.

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

V is for Vulnerability (an alphabet for penitents)

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. -Matthew 26:55

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. -2 Cor 4:7

Very few things are as important to the spiritual life as vulnerability. The vulnerable are those capable of being wounded and are open to attack. As in other aspects of the spiritual journey, Jesus is our chief exemplar and enabler. When he rode into Jerusalem, Jesus, the True Human, was vulnerable to the Roman authorities and the religious establishment. He also revealed his heart.

Jesus came to town teary-eyed (see Luke 19:40-44). Then he flew off the handle at the exploitation of the poor in the temple court.  We already knew Jesus to be a man of sorrows equated with grief (Isaiah 53:3) but in the same week, he would brave rejection and hatred, knowing that the crowds’ welcome cries would turn to calls for his crucifixion. The scribes and religious leaders tried to trip him up in his words when they saw him in the temple courts. When they finally arrested him it was in a night garden, through the betrayal of his disciple and friend—someone he shared his life and heart with. Jesus was vulnerable because of the risks he took in coming to Jerusalem and he was emotionally honest.  Had he opted for self-protection and self-preservation instead, we wouldn’t have a savior and wouldn’t know what it means to be truly human.

Personally, I find vulnerability one of the most difficult aspects of the spiritual life. I tend to keep my emotions close to my chest (though I’m quick with a joke). I like security as much as the next guy and want to leave myself open to attack. I can recall moments where my vulnerability was trampled on. But I have learned the hard way that it through the cracks in my clay-jar life that the light of Christ shines in me. I’ve learned that hidden wounds fester and get infected, but opening up, though risky, allows for healing and deeper relationships with others.

We cannot expect to be transformed, renewed, resurrected unless our true self shows up; we have no depth in our relationships (and the with-God life is a relationship) unless we learn to share who we really are. In 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 Paul writes, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” Christ is the head of the new humanity. He shows us a new way to be human and enables us to be our vulnerable,  true-selves without shame.

The Spirit in the Letter: a book review

There was a time I didn’t know who Henri Nouwen was. His name wasn’t bandied about very often in the church I grew up in. I was in my twenties before I discovered him. He had already passed away. I was in a Christian bookstore and saw a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged man with disheveled hair and aviator-framed bifocals. It was a display for a book of remembrances from those touched by Nouwen’s life.

I didn’t buy the book but I got hold of some Nouwen’s other books (they are called legion for they are many). I read Reaching Out, and a couple of his shorter works.  My appreciation for Nouwen continued to grow. Books like The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, Making All Things New, and In the Name of Jesus have stamped themselves on my heart and I return to them each every so often. I’ve appreciated the depth of Nouwen’s spiritual insight, his warm pastoral concern and the vulnerability of his reflections.

NouwenLove, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life reveals a less public and polished Nouwen (the one with the disheveled hair).  This collection of letters, collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, reveal Nouwen at three distinct stages of life. The letters in Part I (December 1973-1985) are from the period where Nouwen taught at Harvard and Yale but felt called away from academia to L’Arche, a community of care sharing life with the profoundly disabled. Part II (1986-1989), has letters from Nouwen’s early days at L’Arche, his interpersonal struggles, and his fight with depression and anxiety.  Part III (1990-1996) contains letters from Nouwen’s final years where he felt freer and more at ease.

There is a big range in these letters. Some of them are addressed to readers or folks whom he led in retreat asking for spiritual life or overcoming struggles. Some letters were to friends whom he has shared life with and confidants he trusts. Some letters were from colleagues and fellow authors with whom he shares an affinity and mutual academic interest who he wished to encourage. Some letters were for people he was planning a retreat or conference with. Nouwen is attentive to each type of recipient. Several times he sent along a copy of one of his books.

I like books of letters and have read several. Letters reveal some of the thinking behind an author’s published works and clarify their ideas. They give us a glimpse of how a person cares for those in their sphere of influence. I really appreciate this collection for the way it reveals Nouwen to me and clarifies his thinking. Some of these letters describe the angst Nouwen felt as he struggled with his sexuality and his desire to remain faithful to his vocation (Nouwen was same-sex attracted but called to the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church). Other letters reveal Nouwen sharpening his thought in conversation with friends, or clarifying his thinking for inquirers.

One gem I unearthed reading this, was his response to Sister Anna Callahan (letter dated October 31, 1988). He clarifies his Wounded Healer concept in response to a paper she wrote, “You write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants[sic].’ This is incorrect. It doesn’t really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds but that we minister best when we have recognized our needs and have attended to our own wounds”(195).

I highly recommend this book for Nouwen fans. Readers of Nouwen will be familiar with many of Nouwen’s ideas, but seeing how he responds to readers who contact them in the midst of their own dark night, or colleagues who are struggling with their vocation, showcase  Nouwen’s pastoral skill and deep love for people. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for my honest review.

R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” -Romans 1:17

Righteousness has fallen on hard times. We live in an anything-goes-culture, more Kardashian than Christlike. We buy what we want to buy, we cut corners where we can, we sleep with whoever we want to. The “just say no” slogan of previous decades has given way to moral permissiveness. Conservative Christians who used to call themselves the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, are among the most vocal and committed supporters of Donald Trump, a serial adulterer who’s boasts about sexual assault and harassment are well known (along with other moral quagmires and questionable things).
Continue reading R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

Q is for Questioning (an alphabet for penitents)

Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. -1 Cor. 8:2

“What is truth?” -John 18:38

Questions are the prerequisite to the spiritual life. If you want to grow in your understanding of God (or really anything), learn to ask good questions.

Small groups often pose questions to get people to begin to share their perspective and life together.  Good mentors learn to ask questions which help us clarify our vision of the world. Throughout the Bible, God even asks questions which invite self-reflection about where we are and how we got there (see, for example, Genesis 3:8 and God’s question, “Where are you?”). My scriptural study is most fruitful when I ask probing questioning of the text and try to chase down the answers.

We know the value of good questions, but we often view questioning with suspicion. Ask questions but don’t question the leadership. Ask questions but don’t question the central doctrines of the Christian faith. Ask questions but not too much, and some of your questions are off limits. In the Christian tribe I grew up with, I was taught to hold tenaciously to certain beliefs, and to not be so open-minded that my brains fall out. We formed our questions rhetorically in order to show that Jesus was the answer to what ailed us.  We were taught to regard scientific and skeptical questions as an attack on the Bible and the Christian worldview.  When people’s questions made us feel uncomfortable, we prayed that God would reveal to them the truth.

People avoid questions for two reasons. Either they feel assured in their knowledge of something or they are afraid of the answers. Those who are self-assured have stopped growing in either their field or faith: those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought. Those who are afraid of the questions don’t move past a surface and superficial understanding of the matter. What if asking a question is like pulling a string on your favorite sweater? If you follow where your question leads, will the whole garment unravel, leaving you tangled in doubts?  Is there a risk? Yes, an answer unearthed to a serious question may change everything.

I have not asked questions for both of these reasons. I can remember telling a Sunday  School teacher when I was twelve (the age Jesus was when his parents found him in the temple court asking questions), “Tell me what you were going to teach on today, and I will tell you all about it.”  An arrogant retort, but I didn’t leave such self-assured arrogance in adolescence. As an adult, and occasionally still, I offer up pat answers to tough questions, believing I know all there is to know about that (whatever ‘that’ is).

At other stages of my spiritual journey, I thought entertaining certain questions would shake the foundations of my faith. What is the relationship between science and faith? What if evolution is true? What insights can we gain from philosophy? From other faiths? Did Jesus really do that? Who did Jesus save us from? In what way does the cross effect our salvation? Dangerous questions,  but I learned to ask them. My faith did not implode, though it certainly changed. I am more confident today that Jesus is the answer to what ails the world. My faith grew through questioning, not avoiding the question.

Not every question deserves an answer. Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” has merit, but he didn’t ask it honestly. It was a cynical retort he asked before leaving the room to see who he could pawn Jesus off on. On the other hand, Jesus never turned aside the honest questioner. It is in asking of good questions that we find ourselves on holy ground.