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

Soulmaking in Your Dreams Kid! a book review

Troy Caldwell, M.D. is psychiatrist and spiritual director. In his clinical role, he  began seeing God work directly in the souls of his patients. This, combined with his interest in Spiritual Theology  he studied at the Anglican School of Theology)  propelled him into the role of Spiritual Director. He wrote Adventures in Soulmaking to tell stories of those he’s walked alongside, to explore ‘the patterns of Christian spiritual passage,’ to encourage people to be more conscious of their spiritual journey and as an aide to helping professionals (pastors and spiritual directors). Caldwell combines the insights of the Christian mystical tradition with the depth psychology of Carl Jung.

a219b0_77301c3cf5ae460c99c29211f7d52b33Adventures in Soul Making is presented in two parts. Part one provides a ‘coherent model of the soul.’ Caldwell begins with the story of a peddler who gives all his wares away and  isat the point of starvation, when a dream leads him to discover a treasure buried by his cabin. While listening to dreams may sound foolish to some (like one character in the peddler story), Caldwell sees this as a place for revelation of our deepest self and a place for Divine encounter. Caldwell shares his own story and stories from directees to illustrates dreams’ importance and the insights from Jung.  Next he explores  the ‘spiral path’ of Christian Spirituality (the Purgative, the Illuminative and the Unitive). Unitive is the goal but much of the focus of this book is on the Illuminative. Chapters four and five speak of the soul and levels of consciousness. Chapter six describes Nous Theology. Caldwell calls the Nous, our deepest self and he sets it in opposition to sarx (our base desires which cause us to sin (72-76). The next chapters (seven through twelve) dig into the importance of symbol and archetype (concepts gleaned from Jung but illustrated through Bible passages).  Chapter thirteen explores how symbols and archetypes reveal the meaning of our dreams.

Part two (chapters fourteen to twenty) explores deeper  important spiritual practices (i.e. the examen,contemplative prayer, scriptural meditation, lectio divina, journaling, inner healing prayer, etc) and tools for discernment. This is the more practical, less theory side of the book.

This is an interesting book and Caldwell has many fine things to say. I have been blessed by spiritual direction and appreciate the insights of psychology; nevertheless Caldwell’s use of Jung and archetypal symbols seems a bit esoteric to me.  At one point, Caldwell quotes a Gnostic gospel to illustrate his nous theology. Later he directs his readers to listen to a Twila Paris song. Somewhat eclectic sourcing here.

This is a book about the spiritual life. It is about going deep into yourself, paying attention to your inner dynamics and the power of Christ to bring personal breakthroughs. I find myself agreeing with the practices that Caldwell suggests without feeling like I can endorse his theology wholesale. There is a strong body/soul dualism running through his theology and method.  Talk of higher consciousness and archetypes are sometimes illuminating, but they also lend to a sort of neo-gnosticism. I find troubling. The emphasis throughout this book is on our own subjective spiritual experience. I am not dismissing Caldwell as a Gnostic or denying the reality of  spiritual experience. I am noting my unease with certain directions.

One of my standing critiques of self-published works is that reading them, you feel the editor’s absence. That is true here too, though in Caldwell’s case I think he has a narrative flow, and no grating grammar problems. I think this book would be helped if his prose was more concise and the book was shorter and the organization was tightened up a little bit.

These criticisms aside, I like this book enough to keep it on my shelf and there are sections I will likely refer back to. Certainly God uses symbols and the symbolic world to communicate to us. I appreciate Caldwell’s call for us to pay attention to where we are and where God is leading. I give this 3 and a half stars.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Winner, Winner Kosher Dinner: a book review

My introduction to Lauren Winner’s writing came more than a decade ago. My wife had read and liked Girl Meets God and loved it. I picked up her other book, Mudhouse Sabbath because I loved the premise. Winner’s turn toward God took her through Orthodox Judaism to Christianity (the story recounted in her first memoir). Mudhouse Sabbath was about the nourishing spiritual practices she found in Judaism and missed after her conversion to Christianity. She wrote appreciatively about what she found in Judaism and how these practices continued to nourish her, and weren’t incompatible with her new faith.

Paraclete Press has just released the study edition of Mudhouse Sabbath. This is not a rewrite. The chapters have the same format as they did when Winner first conceived the book.  In Winner’s new introduction she notes a couple of places where she would now write it differently, especially in her failure to explore God’s justice and her expectation of encountering Him as we work toward it (viii).  For example, the practice of fasting and Sabbath have implications for justice in the Hebrew scriptures which Winner left unexplored in the earlier edition (ix-x). She also acknowledges her growing cautiousness about borrowing from Judaism as a Christian (urging humility and grace).

The difference between this edition and its earlier incarnation (other than the new introduction) is the study notes. Winner’s words remain the same but the chapters are peppered with quotations, selections from Jewish authors and Hebrew scripture and discussion questions. While Winner’s original was thoughtful and engaged Judaism, it was much more a personal reflection on how she as a Christian convert could still appropriate these practices as part of her own spiritual life. That was the charm of the book. The study edition helps Christian readers engage these concepts and practices more thoughtfully for themselves.

Personally I like this edition a lot. It is possible to treat this book like the original, reading the main body of text as an exhortation to beef up your personal spiritual practices. But a study edition invites you into something more demanding and rewarding. The first edition was more privatized. This edition invites engagement. I gave the original four stars once upon a time, this I give five. Christian readers will find a deep well of spiritual practice. Jewish readers may find a book from a Christian borrowing from their traditions off-putting, but will be put at ease by the care and sensitivity with which Winner engages their religious tradition.  If you never read the original, skip it. This is the definitive edition.

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

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.

Formed by Community for God: a book review

The old joke about seminaries is that they are cemeteries.  I first heard this when I was discerning a call to vocational Christian ministry. “Why do yo want to go to cemetery?” My theological education was decidedly more lively than this crypt-ish descriptor. God used my time in seminary to shape me.  As I wrestled with doctrine, but I also pressed into prayer and community and came face to face with some of the ugly bits of my heart that still needed to change. God was gracious to give me friends and mentors who spoke into my life.  But the point of the ‘cemetery’ label is well taken: learning about God–theology, biblical history, exegesis, hermeneutics, discipleship–does not necessarily translate into ‘life with God.’  Sometimes theological centers of learning fail to form us spiritually.

Paul Petit is aware of this phenomenon. As the director of the spiritual formation programs for Dallas Theological Seminary has edited a volume which describes a ‘community approach to becoming like Christ.’ Most of the contributors to Foundations of Spiritual Formation are somehow connected with Dallas (either were students there or teach at the institution); however this is a multidisciplinary project and each author has unique insights.. Contributors turn around the notion of spiritual formation and examine in from various different angles.  The result is a holistic and comprehensive look at what Christian spiritual formation is.

Howard Hendricks writes the forward and argues for the necessity of small groups for spiritual nurture. Pettit’s introduction helps give a relational, holistic definition for ‘spiritual formation’ and urges us towards the practice of Spiritual disciplines as way to cooperate with the grace of God operating in our life (we don’t change our hearts, only God does that, but we can participate in the process). Pettit’s introduction is unpacked further in part one of the book. Jonathan Morrow describes a distinctively evangelical model of spiritual formation in chapter one (a model that is Christocentric and biblically-rooted). Richard Averbeck unfolds the formative nature of Christian worship and how spiritual disciplines help us ‘lift our sails’ so that God’s Spirit can move us closer to Him.  Gordon Johnston and Darrell Bock explore the nature of spiritual formation in the Old and New Testaments, respectively. In both instances they focus on the nature of community and how it lays a foundation of response for growth.

In part two, the contributors turn their gaze toward the practical elements of Spiritual formation. Klaus Issler focuses on the soul and the emotional life in Spiritual formation; Reid Kisling explores the importance of character development in spiritual formation; Bill Miller looks at the nature of love as a ‘lived-out action’; Andrew Siedel examines our identity in Christ and its implications for Christian leadership; George Hillman describes God’s unique call on us as individuals (in service to the wider Christian community); Gail Seidel helps us attend to God’s transforming work in our lives by narrating our own life stories; finally Harry Shields explores the importance of preaching in spiritual formation.

Each of these essays are instructive and helpful for laying out a full-orbed vision of spiritual formation. I appreciated both the depth and the breadth of these essays. The authors delve deeply into the biblical foundations for community and spiritual formation. They also navigate theology, insights from contemporary psychology, and leadership literature. The multi-disciplinary approach models a ‘community approach to Spiritual formation’ even as the authors give pride of place to the concept of community in our formation. This means the authors (under Petitt’s editoral direction) practice what they preach.

The essays are fairly cohesive but the authors do not necessarily agree on every point. Howard Hendricks forward relativizes the importance of preaching in favor of small groups, whereas Harry Shields gives it a place of privilege. Yet the distinctions between each chapter also rounds out the picture of spiritual formation presented here. I recommend this book for seminary students and ministers hoping to grow spirutually and lead others in transformative encounters. This is a great resource. I give it four stars.

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


From Reaction to Reception: a book review

At the heart of who we are is a longing for connection and relationship. This longing is thwarted through our woundedness but it doesn’t go away. One of the joys of coming to Christ is being brought into relationship with the Trinity–Father, Son and Spirit. We are invited into the primal relationship! Our spiritual maturation involves us learning what it means to give and receive love, the way this God-in-relationship does.

Richard Plass is the president and Jim Cofield is the the co-director of  Crosspoint Ministry in Jeffersonville, Indiana. There they invest in the spiritual formation of leaders and in matters of soul care. Their approach  to spiritual formation is biblical rooted, psychologically sensitive and historically informed. Their new book, The Relational Soul: Moving From the False Self to Deep Connection,  explores the relationality at the core of our being, how unhealthy attachments cause us to act out from the false self and how our relationship with Christ enables us to move towards greater relational health and wholeness.

While there are no formal ‘parts’ to this book, there is a natural division with a brief interlude between chapters one to six and chapters seven to ten. In the first section (chapters one through six), Plass and Cofield make the case that relationships and our longing for meaningful connection are central to how we learn to navigate our world.  Our ability to form attachment in our families of origin (chapter two) and our emotional memories (chapter three) determine how we respond to the world around us. To the extent that we are wounded, and we are all wounded, we react out of our False Self (chapter four). The False Self keeps us from real relationship because it motivated out of a sense of self-protection. This cycle is broken in our life by the operation of grace as we enter into relationship with the Triune God–the God in relationship! (chapter five). It is through our relationship with God that we learn that relationship with God enables us to move from our ‘reactive False Self’ to the ‘Receptive True Self.’

While these first chapters lay the ground work for the movement of spiritual formation, the last four chapters focus on the practical aspects of spiritual formation and accompanying disciplines. Chapter seven examines the necessity of self understanding in the spiritual life, chapter eight the importance of community; chapter nine explores the core spiritual disciplines for engaging with God (i.e. solitude, silence, contemplative reading of Scripture, and contemplative prayer). The end goal is chapter ten: transformation–dying to the (false) self and being raised with Christ, being fully enabled to give and receive love.

This is a phenomenal book full of rich insights on our fallen tendencies to protect ourselves from hurt, and thus cut ourselves off from true relationship. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to set us free to love and be loved. When we enter into the life and freedom that Christ brings, we enter into relationship with the Triune God and that changes everything. I really loved Plass and Cofield’s description of the process and their insights on how we are formed spiritually.

The concepts in this book are not ‘new’ to me. I have had my own struggles against the false self and had to wrestle through ways in which I was relationally ‘shut down.’  My false self is buoyant and independent and holds others at bay. It took some loving and committed friends and mentors to help me confront the relational patterns which were keeping me from growing in my friendship with God and others. I can say experientially that the movements which Plass and Cofield describe are true. They also describe the journey I still need to take as I still strive toward greater wholeness and transformation.

I highly recommend this book but I read it all wrong. I read it by myself and didn’t discuss it with anyone. I think this book is ideal to read together with others (i.e. in a small group, with a partner or with a mentor/discipler). This is a book that will spur on conversation and mutual self-exploration. This is a book which will help people move away from unhealthy patterns of relating toward deep relationship. The next time I read this book, I will not do it alone. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

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!