Saying “Yes” and Other Daily Doses of Discernment: a book review

There are a number of books  about spiritual discernment, evidenced by the shelf-full of books I own on discovering and discerning the will of God in times of choice. What sets Albert Haase’s Saying Yes apart from some of these, is his desire to set discernment within a larger frame than that decision-making-angst we feel when we are at a major crossroad. According to Haase, this book “highlights in a singular way that authentic Christian discernment requires daily listening to the megaphone God uses to communicate with us: the nitty-gritty of everyday life” (ix).

Saying Yes: Discovering and Responding to God’s Will in Your Life by Albert Haase, OFM

Albert Haase, OFM, is an ordained Franciscan priest, a preacher, teacher, spiritual director, and former missionary to mainland China.  While his vocation is with the Franciscans, and he has plenty of examples of what discernment has looked like for him in that context, he draws broadly on the Christian tradition of discernment. He synthesizes patristic wisdom and Ignatian insights and the margins are peppered with quotations from Christian spiritual writers.  This short book designed to help all Christian’s pursue God’s dream for their life.

Continue reading Saying “Yes” and Other Daily Doses of Discernment: a book review

From the Circus to the Garden: a ★★★★★ book review

Contemporary life is a circus like existence. We balance priorities, juggle demands, jump through hoops  as  we strive to tame our schedules. Or else we are distracted by the performances of others with little attention paid to our souls.  Susan Philllips, spiritual director and professor of sociology and Christianity at New College Berkeley asks, “How can we participate in the cultivation of our souls in a ceaselessly striving, circus-like culture that pushes us to be performers and spectators?” (15).  The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy is her answer to that question.  She unfolds the spiritual practices which cultivate fruitful living.

The Cultivated Life by Susan Phillips

Phillips’s prose awakens a hunger for the deeper Christian life. In her introduction, she shares this story from Matt who came to her for Spiritual direction (not his real name). Matt said to her:

I have been a Christian for decades. I try to live the right way, but I am not sure I made much progress the way forward, you know, the way of growth even flourishing. . . . I feel, spiritually the same way I did when I became a Christian as a teenager. I haven’t grown but I’m older. . . . I’d like to end well, if you know what I mean. I am not sure  what way of living would make a change, a change to the rut I am in spiritually. (16)

If you have ever felt like this, you know the frustration of not living with Christ as your center,vnot maturing, and feeling unfruitful. Phillips describes this numbness and spiritual malaise as a circus–this place where we are either performer or spectator:

There are physical sensations, or the lack of them associated with the circus experience of ‘vegging out,’ ‘pedaling faster’ and ‘jumping through hoops.’ As we’re thrown into shallow places of performing and spectating, we are bereft of feeling and sensation (an-esthetic= without feeling) in both circus positions. Yet people long to see, here and feel. (25)

Phillips helps us move away from these roles by pursuing nurturing practices which cultivate our inner life.

There are several types of practices Phillips commends. She asks us to pay attention to our own life and the things we do which we find life-giving (chapter two). She advocates a contemplative listening posture– a posture of receptivity toward God and others(chapter three). She invites us to ‘stop’ and practice Sabbath by turning away from the circus  toward God (chapters four and five). In chapter six, Phillips calls us to a cultivated attention, a form of Christian mindfulness informed by “texts, communities, tradition, teachers and guides and the all-surrounding presence of God” (116).  She  also advises praying scripture (chapter seven),  and developing relational  attachments which nurture us,  such as spiritual direction and friendship (chapters  eight through eleven). These practices promote and help us live into a fruitful and complete life (chapter twelve and conclusion). An appendix gives guidelines for the practices of  contemplative listening, sabbath living, lectio divina, finding a spiritual director, and cultivating friendship.

Eugene Peterson writes in the forward, “Susan Phillips has been for many years my writer of choice in matters of spiritual direction and maturing a robust Christian life” (9). He describes  Phillips deft use of metaphor, her self-implicating naming and her skillful story telling (10-14).  I could make a similar statement about Peterson, whose own books have been my go-to books for spiritual insight and pastoral advice. His commendation of Phillips is true, and I can see her quickly becoming a favorite author. This book made me hunger for a deeper, fruitful life. It is well illustrated by examples drawn from Phillips’s life and from her role as a director and professor.

There are no shortage of books about spiritual disciplines. Some of them are mediocre, others quite good. However, the notion of spiritual disciplines often fraught by a too privatized and consumeristic picture of what it means to live the Christian life. Often we are given something new to try out as an addendum to our own over-full lives.  What I appreciate most about Phillips’s approach is the way she calls us to relationship–to finding a director or spiritual guide, and friends who will share the journey. Phillips focus is on personal, spiritual growth, but she sets this within a communal context.

Phillips’s metaphors and images are organic and relational.  She is wise guide, and there were no shortage of passages I underlined, mulled over and re-read.I give this five stars and recommend it for anyone else frustrated with life in the circus. May God use this book to enliven you with his life! ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.




A Change of Heart: a book review

I am passionate about spiritual transformation. However many books on spirituality and spiritual disciplines suggest a variety of practices but do not communicate a sufficient theological basis for them. Robert Saucy addresses this lack by taking a systematic look at what the Bible says about transformation in Minding the Heart: the Way of Spiritual Transformation. Saucy is a systematic theologian at Talbot School of Theology. He is chiefly known for his writings on Progressive-Dispensationalism, Complementarianism, and Ecclesiology. I am in disagreement with his position in all of those areas; however I think that this book makes an important contribution to a robust Evangelical spirituality. Saucy’s understanding of spiritual transformation is biblically grounded and holistic.

There are fourteen chapters in this book. In chapter one, Saucy argues that as Christians we attain the abundant life that Christ promises through pursuit of our spiritual growth. But the way to grow in Christ is through spiritual transformation. This happens through a heart change. In chapters two through four, Saucy describes the inner dynamics of the heart. Saucy asserts that in the Bible, the heart represents the control center of the whole person (their thoughts, emotions and volition). In fact the heart is ‘the real person’ (chapter 2).  Because of human fallen-ness the heart is deceitful and does not behave as it should (chapter 3).  Real lasting change will take self-examination and self-understanding (chapter 4) However Saucy warns that self understanding is not enough, ‘unless we appropriate the cure, this effort is not only fruitless, but can easily lead to depression as we focus on the ugly distortions still residing in our heart’ (88).

The cure for our deviant hearts is the gospel of Jesus Christ and as we change the content of our hearts to reflect God’s truth (about Himself, the universe, the human condition, His atoning sacrifice, etc) we experience a total life change (chapter 5). Does this mean that spiritual transformation is something we do?  Not entirely. God is the true heart changer but we participate in the process (p 118). By apprehending and appropriating God’s truth, we undergo an emotional change and a behavioral change.  God is the initiator and primary actor but we are also a direct agent acting upon our own hearts by cultivating our inner life (chapter 6).

The above six chapters are conceptual. The next four chapters address what we can do personally to aid our transformation and growth: chapter seven exhorts us to renew our minds, chapters eight and nine describe the biblical concept of meditation and some guidelines for practice, chapter nine discusses how behavioral change effects our thoughts and emotions. Chapter eleven and twelve talk about the way community and our inter-relationship with others affects us.  Saucy demonstrates our connection to one another (in Christ) and how giving and receiving in community is both the fruit and a means of ‘heart change.’ The final two chapters put all the above together and urge us to a holistic understanding of salvation which involves the whole person (especially chapter 13). Saucy also underscores the importance of prayer to the entire process (chapter 14 and conclusion).

Saucy presents a biblically grounded understanding of the human heart and spiritual growth. He discusses the Biblical passages addressing the heart and draws on biblical scholarship to present an understanding of the human predicament and our hope for change. This is a Word-centered spirituality but Saucy is also psychologically astute. His approach to spiritual transformation privileges ‘thoughts,’  but Saucy does not have in mind mere cognition. Our minds interprets sense data and translates it into a meaningful emotion (140).  Thus both our mental and emotional centers play a part in our transformation and effect our actions. He does acknowledge that sometimes it works the other way–behaviors or ‘acting better than we believe’ can have a transformative effect on our heart and mind (see his discussion in chapter 10). However, fundamentally his understanding of transformation follows the familiar Pauline grammar of imperative-indicative (The good news first, and how we should live in light of it).  This means that hearing the gospel, making it a part of you through meditation and praxis (i.e whole-person-hearing) is what enables real, and lasting spiritual change.

So I am impressed with the substance of this book and how holistic Saucy’s approach is. I also love how generous he is. Saucy draws on the best of a a wide-range of scholars, theologians and saints and churchmen. This is a very Evangelical book, but not in the narrow sense. Any serious Christian will be able to appropriate Saucy’s insights. Saucy doesn’t spill ink describing what is wrong with some spiritual practices (i.e. centering-prayer, mysticism, etc). Even when we addresses a thorny topic like meditation, he stays focused on the biblical understanding of it, and draws conclusions from that for our practice. I recommend it for any one who wishes to deepen their understanding of Christian spirituality. My one proviso is that this book is more ‘academic’ than practical, which may frustrate some readers. However good thinking is needed in this area and I think Saucy does a great job of getting us to think biblically and theologically about our lives.  I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

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

Embodied Spiritual Formation: a book review

The Christian church, especially in the West, sometimes fails to give bodies their due. There are a lot of reasons for this. An emphasis on the ‘spiritual’ has led to a denigration of the physical.  In part, this is due to the Neo-Platonic influence  in early Christian thought, but modern evangelicals also have done their part to denigrate bodies. And yet the Bible affirms created matter as good and draws no strong distinction between our bodies and souls. We are embodied souls and ensouled bodies. What we do in our bodies and how well we care for them has a direct impact on our spiritual life.

The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation by Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold

Valerie Hess and Lane M. Arnold have teamed up to  explore the role of the body in Christian spiritual formation. Valerie Hess teaches Spiritual Formation  and Leadership to graduate students at Spring Arbor University. Lane Arnold is a spiritual director and writer in Colorado Springs. Both women bring a depth of theological reflection to our physical bodies, as well as experiential insights; however the Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation is not merely a book to get you to think more carefully about our physical nature.  Hess and Arnold want you and I to embody the sort of life which helps us enter more freely, and more satisfyingly  into our relationship with God. This is a book about spiritual formation which invites you to consider what you eat and drink, how you care for your body and the physical world.

There is so much about this book which I heartily affirm. In eleven chapters, Hess and Arnold cover a range of issues which relate to the body and physical reality: the incarnation, the church, worship, having a balanced life, having a theology of food, extremism (i.e. eating disorders and unhealthy habits), when bodies don’t ‘work’ like they should, aging, raising children to care for their bodies and care for creation. In addition, four appendices provide a look at ‘Holy Habits for the Whole Body,’ scriptural passages which discuss ‘the body,’ a list of suggested resources relating to each chapter, as well as a small group discussion guide.

By rooting their reflections in Jesus’ incarnation, they are able to affirm the essential goodness of our embodied life. Their reflection on the church, names it as an embodied institution–the physical expression of the Kingdom of God, which is made up of a bunch of people with bodies. They challenge us to think of ways as a church that we can help one another make healthy choices and engage in appropriate self-care.

Yet it would be wrong to think that being aware of our physical needs in spiritual formation means that we should focus solely on ourselves. Hess and Arnold talk about ‘your body’ but they also talk about physical life in general. They move easily between addressing issues of self-care to advising justice in food consumption, concern about agricultural practices, offering a sociological critique of how bodies are ‘imaged’ in our culture and advocating for environmental care. They are not just suggesting people ‘take care of themselves.’ They are urging us to thoughtful engagement with our physical world as we seek to grow in our relationship with God.

This is an accessible book with many practical suggestions. Each chapter closes with a prayer and reflection exercises which help to put the chapter into practice.  The authors share vulnerably about their own struggles with their bodies and offer advice and challenges in a gracious way. This is not the sort of book which will ‘guilt’ you in to dieting or an exercise program (though the authors advocate this). Rather they offer a gentle challenge to be more vigilant with what we do with our bodies.

Hess and Arnold have an important message for the church and I happily commend to you. Several years ago I changed some dietary habits and got into a regular exercise routine (which I am now struggling to get back into). I was amazed to discover how much this affected my prayer and devotional life positively. If we are serious about spiritual formation and growing in our faith, than appropriate self care is a must. Hess and Arnold are good guides on the journey to spiritual health. I give this book four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Seven Deadly Sins: Pracitices of Spiritual Deformation

Bosch Deadly Sins

You may regard this post as a teaser. I plan over the next couple of weeks to post reflections on each of the deadly sins, but I want to say something about what the deadly sins are and my approach to them. My hope is to probe each of the deadly sins as a means of taking inventory of my own soul(’tis the season to be penitent) but also to offer up some insights from the Christian tradition for those like me who struggle.

The Seven Sins were once eight but because of cutbacks Satan had to lay one of the sins off. Alright, maybe that isn’t exactly the story, but the Seven Deadly Sins did come out of a list of eight that one of the desert fathers, Evagrius of Ponticus(345-399 CE)formulated. These ‘eight thoughts’ were part of a demonic strategy to tempt the faithful (monks) away from their rule and their commitment to God. Evagrius’ buddy John Cassian (360-435 CE) built on Evagrius’ thinking but kept his list: Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Wrath, Sadness, Sloth(Acedia), Vainglory andPride. With Gregory the Great (530-604 CE) pride was separated out from the list and identified as a root sin of all the others. When Aquinas formulated his list these were the sins: Vainglory, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Wrath, Lust and Gluttony. This is the list I will be interacting with the later list but I think that Evagrius, Cassian and the desert dudes still have important things to say.

Following Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s insightful book, Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies(Brazos, 2009), I will be interacting with each of these sins as ‘vice’ rather than ‘Sin.’ What’s the difference? Sin is a term used broadly to refer to either a wrong action or a persisting condition. Vice is a more limited term referring specifically to practiced sin. Through a series of habitual acts the vice (i.e. Gluttony, Lust, Greed) (de)forms spiritual character. Think of it this way: if you overeat you have committed the ‘sin; of gluttony; if you are caught in the ‘vice of gluttony,’ you habitually overeat and thus are a glutton.

By thinking of each of these ‘deadly sins’ as a vice my aim will be to see where our habitual practices have spiritual mis-shaped us and then propose alternative practices which shape us in the virtuous life and our pursuit of God. I am excited by this series of posts, so please stay tuned. They will be Sinsational.