Becoming a Friend: A ★★★★★ Book Review

The Catholic Church doesn’t start the canonization process until after a person dies, but if there were applications for living saints, Jean Vanier would be top of the list. He is the founder of L’Arche, a network of intentional communities providing hospitality and care for those with developmental disabilities. He resides in the original L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France, where he has lived with people with disabilities for the past fifty-three years, regarded them as his teacher. The author of more than 30 books, Vanier’s gift to the church (and to me) is in imparting a vision of ministry that is inclusive of those margins, without being paternalistic. L’Arche is not a charity in the sense that they ‘do for the disabled’ but a community of welcome where those with disabilities, and those who are able, find themselves bound together in friendship and community.

9781640600966We Need Each Other: Responding to God’s Call to Live Together is vintage Vanier. The text of this book is drawn from talks Vanier gave at a retreat he led in 2008 for the community of Saint Martin in Nyahururu, Kenya (a community especially devoted to responding to Kenya’s HIV crisis). Vanier brings together scriptural reflections—especially on the life of Jesus— personal remembrances, and hard-won-wisdom on what it means to follow Jesus in being a friend to the poor and marginalized, facing our own fears and disabilities, and becoming more open toward the other.

The book is short but not what I’d call a quick read. It is only 138 pages and not overly complicated, but  I found myself reading and re-reading, reading slowly,  mulling over words and phrases, and underlining whole paragraphs. I will resist my urge to quote the whole book here, but here a few passages I found meaningful. The first passage discusses what it means to become friends with the poor, instead of just serving them from a place of privilege:

I can be generous:  I can volunteer to help someone living in an institution, or I can go into a slum area and listen to the people, or give them money. However, when I am generous, I hold the power. In my generosity, I give good things when I want. The initiative is mine. When I extend my generosity to you, I become superior. The equation changes, however when I become your friend. The generosity becomes a meeting point for the two of us, and the journey of friendship begins, When I become your friend, I become vulnerable with you. I listen to your story; I hear how much you have suffered: and you listen to my story. In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become a friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change (54-55).

On Spiritual growth:

If you read any books on the saints, you will discover that as one grows in spirituality, one feels less and less perfect. So, if you are feeling less and less perfect, it means you are getting closer to God! Those in religious life, when they entered the novitiate, had wings. After that, the wings were clipped and they began living in community, a life they found painful (65).

On the preferential option for the poor:

Those who are the most rejected must be respected. It is not a question of a preferential option for the poor. It is the fact that the Church is constitutioned by the presence of the poor. The poor are indispensable to the Church, because in their cry for recognition, in their cry for relationships, they are awakening the hearts of those who are seemingly rich in knowledge, wealth, or security (72).

On vocation and calling:

Sometimes I am a bit concerned when we talk of vocations, making reference only to the priesthood or religious life for sisters. I believe in the priesthood and I believe in religious life, but I also believe in the vocations of people with disabilities. I believe in the vocation of hearts filled with love of people like Maimanu and Dorothy and many others. We each have a vocation. We are all called by God to grow in love and be a sign of tenderness to the world. Our vulnerable Jesus is calling us to grow in love (118).

Sometimes people speak romanticly about ‘the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the disabled.’ Vanier has dedicated a lifetime to sharing life with the disabled in L’Arche and knows how difficult the journey can be. But he also knows the gift of love when we are open enough to share our lives with others. When he describes those with disabilities whom he calls friends, he describes what they have revealed about his own poverty of spirit and disability and ways they have spurred him on to greater love and humility. I highly recommend this book. I give it five stars – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: Paraclete Press provided me with a copy of this book. I was not asked to write a positive review.

Picking up the Pieces, Reaching for Wholeness.

This past weekend, I drove up to Portland for a Christian conference of sorts. I went to the Northwest Ekklesia Project Meeting. Chris Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church were the speakers (I heard about this gathering via Chris, and I’ve interacted with both authors online, though we had never officially met them until this weekend). In three sessions, Chris and John described our age  as being characterized by profound fragmentation, and they offered three biblical metaphors of church (Church as family, as body, as light) as a counter vision and way of being in the world. John and Chris drew   on their book, Slow Church, their current personal projects, and stories from church communities they’ve been privileged to interact with as a result of their book.

This was not one of those huge church conferences, but an intimate gathering, tucked into a small church in northwest Portland. Nobody made me wear a name tag, so I wasn’t subjected to institutionalized intimacy. There was only about 20-30 people there. I learned pretty quick that everyone else was in a thicker sort of community than I am in. The other folks who were gathered were committed to neighborhood and place, and they didn’t just do church together. Most were part of intentional Christian communities (co-housing, shared life, etc.). Nobody made me feel out-of-place for my thin, anemic communal life, or like I didn’t belong there. I felt enfolded in the hospitality of the group, but it made me aware of ways my experience of church was far less robust.

In the first session, John noted that fragmentation is a characterization of every age—in the very warp and weft of the universe. However, he identified three forces of fragmentation peculiar to our day: radical individualism, hypermobility, and materialism.

Traditionally the season of Lent is a time for preparing. We fast, and we examine our lives, we repent, and we strive to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly. And yet, I am not whole. I recognize the forces of fragmentation in my own life but also the longing for wholeness.

I am individualistic

John Pattison noted in his Friday night talk that the Apostle Paul uses the phrase ‘Our Lord’ something like 53 times, but only once says “my Lord” (cf. Phil 3:8). Similarly, 22(?) times the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “our Savior” and only once does an individual refer to Jesus as ‘my Savior’ (Mary, in her Magnificat, Luke 1:46).  Our post-Enlightenment age emphasizes the private individual. We are the self-made men. And faith and spirituality has become privatized. Evangelical Christians preach the need to accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior, and deemphasize the fact that Jesus came to overturn the social order and establish a new people.

And yet so much of my Spiritual journey is all about me, following my bliss, me on my journey toward my self actualization.  But Jesus calls us to something fuller, deeper and more involved than my personal relationship with him. God is community (Trinity) and the community the Godhead establishes images God’s unity in diversity, God’s justice and God’s love for all.

I hunger for deeper community, even as my own woundedness and suspicion keeps me from others. Part of my journey this season is to experience more of God with others because spiritual experience is so much more than the internal experience of my own human brain.

I am rootless

Sitting in a room full of people with a deeper, thicker experience of community life, I was struck with how hypermobile my life is. In conversation with Chris and John, before the conference began, I revealed my circuitous journey, and how I came to be in Medford. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, raised in Hawaii, two short years in urban mission in Atlanta and Miami, Vancouver BC for seminary, North Washington for several years, my pastorate in Florida and now, my neighborhood in South Medford. And then John went to talk about hypermobility as led to further fragmentation and rootlessness

Theologically, I prefer stability. I’ve read my Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. I went to a Parish Collective thing a few years ago and cried through the whole thing feeling like these were my people— those who commit to place and neighborhood and strive to feel the rhythm of what God was already do there.  As much as I’ve moved, I believe wholeheartedly in tending the soil where you are, and committing to place. Jesus was God with human skin come to dwell among his people. Incarnation happens in place, and there is reality we won’t enter into if we keep  on moving. I feel the rootlessness, but wherever I moved, I’ve hoped it would be for the long haul.

I am a materialist. 

Materialism means valuing the material more than the spiritual. It creates within us both a consumer mindset, where people and things are commodified, and a scarcity mindset, where we are most conscious of our material lack (e.g. resources, programs, technology, etc).

Certainly I feel both the forces of commodification and scarcity in my soul. Too often, my individualist impulse has subsumed even spiritual practices into commodities— techniques to achieve my personal satisfaction. And the weight of scarcity also weighs on my soul. Everything is a commodity and none of it is enough.

But of course, as in Browning’s phrase, my reach exceeds my grasp (or ‘what’s a heaven for?’). I long for a greater sense of God’s Presence to invade my reality, alerting me to where the real world of the senses doesn’t comprise all of reality, and that there is always more of God around than I realize. I feel too much the weight of scarcity, but the promise of Jesus is abundant life.


I am an individual, isolated from the Other. I am rootless, longing for connection. I am a materialist and a consumer, longing to taste and see the goodness of God. These forces of fragmentation are useful to me as a self-diagnostic, describing how fragmented I feel most of the time, but they also help me see the things I long to see in my life, in my journey with Christ. Fragmentation is not the end of the story.

 

 

All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance

Why don’t we practice peace?

Is that we don’t regard the biblical vision of Shalom as a practical alternative to the violence all around us? Is it all just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealism? Walter Wink observed, “Many of those who have committed their lives to ending injustice simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism” (Jesus & Nonviolence, Fortress Press, 2003, p.9).

And he’s right, isn’t he? Turn the other cheek seems like an awful way to stand up to a bully (if you like your face). Love your enemy sounds sooo naive. Pray for those who persecute you. Just what we need in the world: more thoughts and prayers!  If only Jesus had more American pragmatism about him. Didn’t he know that the best way to keep the peace is through a show of strength? Take up your cross? Nope. “Speak Softly and carry a big stick.”

But it isn’t just that we think the peace of Jesus as impractical idealism. We also lack the spiritual and moral imaginations to live at peace. Our Western mindsets cause us to think of our spiritual lives in individualistic terms. We talk about personal disciplines (e.g. daily Bible reading, prayer, quiet times, meditation). Our evangelical emphasis on personal conversion emphasizes our personal responsibility in the Christian life.  And yet to practice peace is to enter deeper in relationship. God’s shalom is always communal. It ripples out from Father, Spirit, Son—the perichoretic peace within the Godhead—into our hearts, our neighborhoods, our nations and all creation.

When we think about practicing peace we need to reimagine communal contexts for our actions. The individual who turns the other cheek may incur the violence of a bully or enable abuse to continue. But non-violent direct action becomes powerful when done in the community, before a watching world.

The Civil Rights era has become part of our cultural memory. Nonviolent protests in Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham awakened national outrage at the injustices faced by the Black Community. America saw BullConner, the KKK, White citizen councils, firehoses and dogs, young people jailed and beaten and finally decided that enough was enough (and yes, there is still so much work to be done!). The power of turning the other cheek is that shames the oppressor into repentance (Wink, 27). Turning the other cheek is all about social change.

When an individual person loves their enemy, it does something. At least one person has learned to rehumanize the opposition—to not see their enemy, whether nations or those across the political aisle, as evil incarnate. But the real power of enemy love is found when churches and communities commit together to a vision of humanity that leaves space for the redemption of the other. Wink writes:

It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny [w]hat they have of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. (58-59).

Can you imagine what it would look like if the church in North America were committed to this sort of vision of shalom? If we refused to demonize or write off anyone? What if we regarded Democrats, Republicans, the LGBT community, Westboro Baptist Church, Pro-Choice advocates, evangelicals, Muslims, terrorists, refugees, undocumented immigrants as all worthy of redemption?

The Advent vision of shalom is that one day wolf and lamb will lie down together (Isa. 11:6). The oppressed and the oppressor will be at peace; they will no longer be prey and predator. Do we dare hope for this? How can we become a people committed to seeing the humanity of oppressors, enemies, and adversaries?

Pray for those persecuted! But please, do it in public! Our world won’t be transformed when our cries against injustice are only done in private devotion.

The autumn of 2017 erupted with cries online of #metoo and brave women and men sharing stories of systemic abuse from Hollywood producers, actors, politicians, and executives. Time magazine named their person of the year “The Silence Breakers.” When darkness is brought to light, systemic change becomes possible.

Praying for the persecuted names injustice. It points it out. When we pray in public for the victims of religious violence around the globe, or victims of sexual violence, when we dare to acknowledge before God and the world the ways our unjust systems privilege one person’s race or economic status and do violence toward another, we both bear witness to our lack of shalom and commit to no longer being complicit in injustice. We can’t pray publicly about the persecuted, downtrodden and oppressed and remain the self-appointed guardians of the status quo.

Jesus’s call to nonviolence comes with a promise:

But  I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  -Matthew 5:44-45

It is as we love our enemies we become the household of God!

John Lennon’s sang: All We Are Saying Is Give Peace A Chance. I dare to hope for God’s shalom. But if peace is ever to have a chance we can’t embody it alone. May we become the “we” that gives peace a chance.

Embodying Hope for Those in Pain: a ★★★★★ book review

There are a number of recent treatments on the problem of suffering. Christian writers and theologians have reflected on losing loved ones, trying circumstances, diagnoses of debilitating, chronic, and terminal diseases, and natural disasters. Many of these theologians seek to trace the place that suffering has within the purposes of God.  In Embodied Hope, Kelly Kapic offers his theological and pastoral meditation on pain, prompted by watching his wife battle chronic pain and fatigue for several years. He doesn’t guess at the ‘why’ behind suffering but describes the reality of pain, and the resources available to those of us who suffer.

5179Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College (Lookout Mountain, Georgia) and an author of several books. He stands firmly in the Reformed tradition, but unlike some of his Calvinist friends, you won’t find him tweeting about ‘God’s greater purpose’ in the wake of profound tragedy. Embodied Hope doesn’t attempt a theodicy—a defense of God in the face of evil’s existence. His first chapter opens, “This book will make no attempt to defend God. I will not try to justify God or explain away the physical suffering in the world. Instead, I wrestle with nagging questions about our lives, our purpose, and our struggles. How should we live in the midst of this pain-soaked world? How do we relate to the God whose world this is?” (7-8).

In the pages that follow, Kapic examines the reality of pain, wrestling honestly with the experience (part 1), before examining the resources we have in the midst of suffering: Jesus (part two) and Christian community (part 3).

In part 1, Kapic takes an honest look at the problem of pain, describing its debilitating effect on our spirituality. In chapter one Kapic notes how the problem of pain causes us to ‘think hard things about God.’ In chapter two, he discusses the need for Christians to develop both pastoral sensitivity and theological instincts (24), by not attempting to untangle the ‘why’ behind suffering but instead seeking to love others well, even in our theologizing (26). In chapter three, Kapic advocates the place of lament and grief in Christian spirituality. He notes:

We will only discover hope when we are ruthlessly honest about what lies between us and that hope. At least such truth telling is required if we are ever to know the true hope of the ancient Christian confession. The church denies the power of the gospel when it trivializes grief and belittles physical pain, overspiritualizing our existence in such a way as to make a mockery of the Creator Lord. Faithfulness to the gospel requires the Christian community to deal with the messiness of human grief. Biblical faith is not meant to provide an escape from physical pain or to belittle the darkness of depression and death but rather invite us to discover hope amid our struggle (41).

Chapters five and six invite us to a spirituality that embraces our physical embodiment and the ‘questions that come with pain.

In part 2, Kapic describes the resources available in Christ Jesus for Christians suffering and in pain. Chapter six discusses how Jesus’ incarnation involved God’s self-identification with us in our embodiment. In chapter seven, Kapic explains how Christ on the cross, entered fully with us, into the experience of pain and death. In chapter eight, Kapic explores how we enter into Christ’s resurrection and the hope of redemption beyond our pain and death. Kapic writes, “Christian affirmation of resurrection is not chiefly about escaping this world but righting it. Resurrection is not about denying this world but rather enabling believers to have an honest assessment of their experience and yet to have a real hope for restoration beyond it. Pain is real, but it is not the only reality” (115).

Part 3 describes the resources available for sufferers within Christian community. In chapter nine, Kapic discusses, through the lens of Soren Kierkegaard and Martin Luther, the ways fellow Christians enliven our faith when we are in a weakened state, proclaim hope to us when we are unable to proclaim hope for ourselves, and demonstrates to us the matrix of divine love by walking alongside us in our pain and suffering. Chapter ten reflects (with Dietrich Bonhoeffer) on the resources of confession for those who suffer (e.g. forgiveness, cleansing, healing, restoration, release from shame and condemnation and false images of God that compound psychological suffering, and mediating Christ’s presence). Chapter eleven describes faithfulness in the midst of suffering.

Kapic offers these reflections as a gift to the church. Pastors, pastoral counselors and all who walk along side Christians in pain, will find Kapic’s counsel to be both wise and sensitive. He avoids clichés and offers an embodied hope to those suffering. I appreciate the way he wrestles with the reality of pain and takes an honest look at it. He honors those who are suffering by describing with sensitivity the difficulties they face, but also acknowledges how destructive pain may be for their spiritual lives:

Christians struggling with physical pain often develop defense mechanisms that are destructive in the long run. Denial, for example, can take many forms, like the cultivation of detachment from pain. By deadening their affections and repressing their frustrations, some seek to carve out an inhabitable and safe place. Not only is this strategy partly successful, but the colors of life soon dissolve into the blandness of grays and whites. . . .Although the one who closes off the pain this way may not literally lie in the grave, those who know them whisper concerns about how ‘dead’ they have become (58).

It is only after describing the dangers and realities implicit in pain, and encouraging sufferers to examine themselves honestly, that he describes the embodied hope we have in the midst of pain: the Jesus who took on flesh, suffered, died, rose and ascended and the body of Christ which mediates His presence today.

This book will be a helpful aid for pastors, sufferers of chronic illness and for their supportive community. I recommend this book highly. Five stars: ★★★★★

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

The Theolocal Imagination

This post was born out of a typo. Responding to a friend on Facebook, I tried to type on my tablet the word theological but my fat fingers produced instead theolocal, evidently too anarchic for an autocorrect fix. I did fix it before pressing send but it got me thinking, “Theolocal—what a lovely way to say God came near!” I was set on a path imagining what it means to reveal the theolocal God in my everyday life.

Incarnation vs. Bearing Witness

John tells us in the introduction to his gospel that the Word, who was with and is God (John 1:1), became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), or as every missional preacher, church planter or Christian community development organization reminds us, ““The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message). In Jesus, God was theolocal—he moved into the neighborhood. God was not watching us from a distance, but entered into our humanity, completely and fully. He suffered and was tempted by everything we suffer from and are tempted by (Hebrews 4:15). He was hungry and thirsty and experienced, for the first time in an eternity, what it meant for Him to be weak. The Incarnate One—Our Theolocal God.

Jesus’ Incarnation is an important clue as to how we ought to engage in mission. Certainly, we want to be Christ’s hands and feet, and incarnate Christ’s presence wherever we go. But unfortunately this is some people’s entire missional strategy: imitate Christ by trying to incarnate him wherever we are. In a significant way, the Incarnation has already happened and if this is the only we can imagine making the theolocal vividthen we will be pretty patronizing in our mission.

Jesus is theolocal in a way we will never be. If we incarnate his presence it is because our soul has been mystically united to Him through the cross. Incarnation is a once and for all event which we participate in,  but it isn’t something we make happen through block parties, neighborhood outreaches, church planting or bringing your neighbor a plate of chocolate chip cookies.  When we think about revealing the theolocal-ness of God, Incarnation cannot be our primary approach. God is still near, but not incarnated in the way  Jesus was. Instead, the Spirit of God goes before us and is already active wherever we go.

At Jesus’s Ascension, he said these words to his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). These words come to fruition in the next chapter, a rushing wind, tongues of fire and Peter’s testimony that the ‘Spirit was being poured out on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). On that day the disciples were empowered for mission and their mission was to bear witness to what God was doing and had done.

Like the first disciples, our mission is to “be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”  However, if we see ourselves primarily as the incarnation of Christ coming to the neighborhood we are likely to reach out in paternalistic, condescending and ethnocentric ways (see the history of Western Christian mission). If our job is simply to be witnesses we can imagine new theolocal possibilities.

Instead of us bringing Christ and his kingdom, we arrive and discover that the Spirit of God is already at work, that there are already signs of the Kingdom and Resurrection. Because we have eyes to see, we bear witness to what we see God doing in the neighborhood, city or place. We also bear witness to where we have seen God at work in our own life but we are primarily witnesses—observers who tell others what we see.

If we are to be missional people, then we need to cultivate our theolocal imagination. In some later posts I want to press into this a little more and explore what kind of practices help us make vivid our Theolocal God, but mostly this is about cultivating our spiritual senses so that we can see which way the Wind blows, and know that wherever we are the Lord is working, long before we got there. 

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.

Even More Thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s ‘The Sacred Year’

The third and final section of Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year explores ‘Depth with Others.’ The first two parts of the book explore ‘Depth with Self’ and ‘Depth with God.’  These sections are good (track the links back here, here and here to hear some of my thoughts on them). However, many books on spiritual practice do not move past personal transformation and devotional practice to a transformed community. Yankoski devotes himself to a series of practices which help him live life with and for others.

It begins with gratitude. Yankoski wanted to grow in grace and he sets out to thank people who have had a significant impact on his life. But sometimes people don’t hear verbal declarations of thanksgiving and emails are a click away from being forgotten forever. So Michael recovers the time-honored and ancient practice of writing thank you notes (which he re-christens as gratigraphs). He shares of several of these gratigraphs he writes which are met with an emotional response by the recipients. There were people literally in tears. In an age where snail mail is rare, letters and notes show special care and intentionality. What Michael discovered is that it connected him with others in new and rich ways.

Yankoski also discovers others ways of being ‘deep with others.’ There is the holy inefficiency of protest (chapter sixteen), the dedicated pursuit of justice (chapter seventeen), the interdependence of living in intentional community (chapter eighteen), and active care for others (chapter nineteen). These practices interpenetrate one another and build on some of the other practices which  Yankoski has shared about (i.e. Selah, the daily examen, solitude, listening prayer, etc.).  Michael Yankoski’s sacred year was a pregnant space where a new way of being was birthed and cultivated in him.

During his year, Michael had carried a hazelnut in his pocket to remind him of his spiritual quest. The hazelnut alludes to one of the divine revelations of Julian  of Norwich. God had shown her a hazelnut as a picture of His love. The hazelnut is made, loved and sustained by God. It became a powerful picture for Julian (and her readers!) of entrusting oneself wholly to God. So during Michael’s year he keeps a hazelnut in his pocket to remind himself of his spiritual quest to deepen his spiritual life. At the end of the year, the hazelnut is forgotten in a pair of jeans which goes through the wash. Michael finds it a few days later and discovers it had sprouted.

This book comprises a year in the life of Michael Yankoski. Unlike other ‘year long spiritual quest books’ the chapters do not follow a strict chronology ( like A Year of Living Biblically, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, A Year of Living Like Jesus, or Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor). The practices Michael tries to build in his life overlap and undergird each other. There is a story arc to the book. At the beginning of his year, Yankoski is disillusioned with the circus-like-atmosphere of American Christianity and his own. At the end of his sacred year he finds himself at an ‘entirely different place entirely’ (327).  But the other difference between other ‘year long quest books’ is Michael ends his year with no intention of ceasing to practice. A year of intentional exploration has given way to a lifetime commitment to living deeply (329).

As I have ruminated on Michael’s year, I too have hungered to enter deeper into spiritual practice and I have thought about what that would look like for me. Yet this book is much more a memoir than a spiritual manual.  I am encouraged by Michael to explore deep places, to give loving attention to myself, to the Spirit’s presence and to our sacred, broken world, but the exact shape of my quest is different as I am different. I found in these pages a hospitable place to explore various practices. At some points I take Michael’s direct challenge to enter into something (like writing gratigraphs). At other points I need to adjust his discoveries to my context (an overworked and tired father of three). This is the sort of book that invites personal exploration and would be a great book to read alongside other friends (think book clubs and small groups). Really great stuff!