Brother John: a book review

A few years ago, I read one of those genre-busting books by this guy I never heard of. It was called Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks by August Turak. Turak took the wisdom of the monks of Mepkin Abbey in Raliegh, North Carolina and applied their insights to business. I enjoyed the book, and I even reviewed it here. The book was unique enough that it stayed with me, though I have to admit, I forgot the author’s name.  

Brother John

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that my latest genre-busting read about monks, was actually by the same guy and set in the same monastery. This time it wasn’t a business book, it was a picture book, called Brother John. It was written for adults but nothing suggestive( not that kind of picture book). In it, Turak describes his time on a Christmas retreat at the Mepkin Abbey, and how the particular witness of a monk-saint called Brother John stoked Turak’s spiritual hunger and helped reveal to Turak his life’s purpose. 

This book is two decades in the making. The events described in the text happened over twenty years ago (1996). In 2004, wrote of his experience at the monastery for an essay contest on “the purpose of life” from the John Templeton Foundation. The essay won him the coveted Templeton Prize. Turak was able to turn this same essay into a picture book by enlisting award-winning artist, Glenn Harrington to illustrate it. Harrington provides over twenty full-color paintings of the Monks and Mepkin Abbey.  

The book describes Turak’s encounter with a holy life, revealed to him, first by a selfless act, Brother John walking him back to his cottage in the rain. But this small act opened up space for Turak to examine the condition of his own heart and his hunger for the holy.  

This is a quick read (it’s a picture book) but thoughtful and evocative. The art is stunning. I love the way the book communicates a sense of the sacred. It is set in a monastery, and the monks are located in the Christian tradition, though Turak writes broadly and inclusively enough that all spiritual seekers could find themselves in these words. I give this four stars. 

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy for my honest review. 

Watch a Trailer for the book. 

What’s the Frequency Ken?: a book review

I don’t know Ken Shigematsu.  I have been in the same room as him on several occasions, I’ve been to his church and even heard him preach. I have listened to audio lectures by him which I found in the Regent College library. I have several friends from seminary who attended his church and spoke appreciatively of his ministry and preaching, but I have no direct experience with it.

I do, however have some experience with rules of life. Several years ago my wife and I participated in a year long urban mission (creatively callled Mission Year) where we attempted to share the love of Jesus with our neighbors in a marginalized section of Atlanta.  Our ‘mission’ was given structure by a mandated routine which included morning prayer, sacred reading and weekly Sabbath. We were also instructed to devote particular hours in the community (usually at the end of a day working at our volunteer jobs). When I left Mission Year, I quickly fell out of that routine, but I have circled back to it many times knowing that structure enabled my wife and I to give our lives in service to the community we served. a structured commitment enables us to invest in the important things in life and ministry.

Shigematsu tackles the idea of writing a  rule of life in God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God.  Drawing on the monastic tradition, he points to Sabbath, Prayer and Scripture reading as foundational practices that enable us to cultivate our connection to God ( he labels these three practices as ‘roots’). Building on these practices, Shigematsu also tells us how to ‘relate’–how to cultivate relationships with others, God-centered sexuality and how to set proper boundaries around family relationships.  He then, recommends practices which ‘restore’ us. These include attention to bodily health, recreation, and an appropriate understanding of money. Finally he suggests practices which enable us to ‘reach out.’  Our work, our commitment to justice, and our witness are all ways in which our faith in God spills out in blessing to the world.  Shigematsu suggests making a rule of life which attends to each of these areas, but keeps us rooted in the rhythms of Sabbath, prayer and scripture reading. An appendix collects several sample rules that people (Shigematsu’s small group) have written.

There are several features to Shigematsu’s approach to writing a rule of life which I think are instructive. First, Shigematsu resists the temptation to over-complicate the spiritual life. He suggests writing a rule of life which attends to each of these areas, but this isn’t a burdensome, heroic attempt. In fact, Shigematsu advises that a big part of writing a rule, is learning  to pruning back the places  where we are over-extended. A rule of life is not a bout adding to your life, it is about living from the right center.

Secondly, I think Shigematsu gets the order of things right. By beginning with ‘root practices’ which address how we relate to God, he provides the foundation for other practices. His second section sets the boundaries for human relationships. His third section talks about personally restorative practices and the final section talks about outreach.  I find it easy to live the reverse–to want to do something great for God, have fun, care for friends and if I have time, pray. By attending to priorities in this order, Shigematsu  makes sure that we keep first things first and that our ‘witness’ to a watching world is characterized more from overflow, than obligation.

Third, I appreciate that Shigematsu draws on the wisdom of ancient monks, contemporary writers and ordinary Christians. I was pleased to see both authors and friends I love commended by Ken in this book. I have no direct experience with his ministry but when he shared with joy about things friends of mine have said and did, I am totally won over by his humility and grace.  Some of the people he mentioned were professors of mine at Regent, others were fellow students who live exemplary lives.  Shigematsu has many wise things to say but he doesn’t paint himself as the grand guru of the spiritual life. He draws on the wisdom of his community.

Fourth, Shigematsu is careful to point out, living for God doesn’t necessarily mean you get whatever YOU want. Intentional choices about vocation or finances, may make you godly, but it might not make you rich. Shigematsu doesn’t promise prosperity for those who succeed in living God’s way.

Finally I appreciate that this was a well written and thoughtful account of ‘life under a rule.’ Each of his points are well illustrated by stories from his own life and others.

I have lived under a rule and have some experience with crafting a  personal rule of life. This may be the single best resource I’ve read on writing a rule. I think Shigematsu catches the crucial elements of living an intentional Spiritual life. He uses too much alliteration for my tastes (i.e. root, relate, restore, reach out), but I like what he captures with these categories. I would recommend this book for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. A rule of life is essential for ministry so anyone seeking to impact their world for God will find Shigematsu’s reflections fruitful.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Cross Focused Reviews and Zondervan for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.