V is for Vulnerability (an alphabet for penitents)

‚ÄúAm 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.‚Ä̬†-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‚ÄĒsomeone 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.

P is for Purgation (an alphabet for penitents)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

-Ephesians 4:22-24

Purgation is never far from Lenten spirituality. The discipline of fasting, and of chastened habits helps us to cast aside the things that hinder us and attend to the stuff that matters. The purgative way is integral to true spirituality. We will not grasp for God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

The Christian Mystical tradition places purgation as an early stage of the spiritual life. The mystics name these stages: Purgation, Illumination, Union. There is a purgative stage of stripping off the old self‚ÄĒpatterns of behavior, false beliefs, self-centeredness and petty idolatries. Then the ground is paved for deeper spiritual insight and experience (illumination). The illuminative stage likewise involves a letting go of self, but the primary energy is directed at training one’s attention on God. In the final stage, the soul is stripped of self and united with the Divine (union).

These stages roughly describe the shape of spiritual maturity. Purgation is for beginners, Illumination is the promise of those on the way, Union is our telos. However, the spiritual life, like other aspects of life does not always follow a straight ascent. Purgation-Illumination-Union is the cycle of Christian Spirituality: we let go, we attend, we commune.

If that is a little abstract, don’t worry about it. The point is that spiritual progress involves a purge of our old life as we make room for something new. The Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesians to “put off their old self, which was corrupted by its deceitful¬†desires.” For converts in the Ancient world, this meant letting go of religious ideas and the ubiquitous pagan idolatry and learning to locate their lives within YHWH’s story and the redemption Christ brings. It also meant for them, as for us, disciplining passions and desires‚ÄĒthe drive for success, greed, covetousness, lust, pride‚ÄĒand seek to follow Jesus wholeheartedly.

The mystics are right that purgation is felt most acutely by those who are beginners in the spiritual journey. It involves a radical reorienting of our thoughts, hopes, and actions. This is conversion. But the purgative way¬†isn’t just the purview of beginners. Wherever you are in your spiritual life, there are things you need to purge: attachments to people, faulty understanding, false beliefs about yourself, harmful habits, past hurts, unforgiveness and bitterness, shame. We will not grasp God with our hands full. There has to be some letting go.

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).

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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 ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ 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.

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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!¬†‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

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

 

 

 

God Loves Dusty: a book review

The Bible tells us two major truths about what it means to be human. First, we are dust. We are here a moment, limited temporally and limited physically. Depressing as that sounds this is only a partial picture. The second truth about humanity is that we are beloved by God. These truths held together guide our self understanding and the way we ought to approach God. To be dust is to know our need, that we have nothing substantial to offer God in and of ourselves. To be beloved is to know that God himself cherishes and longs for relationship with us.

In Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel explore these two sides of our nature (our dusty belovedness) and show the implications for prayer and the spiritual life.  Where many books on prayer offer techniques and detailed plans, this book is more about our proper orientation to God. Goggin and Strobel do have things to say about spiritual practices but this is placed within the frame of this dual identity.

The spiritual life is often about letting go of expectations. In the introduction, Goggin reflects on his experience leading retreats. People go on retreat asking ‘how can I fix this?” (whatever is wrong in their life) or “How do I get that feeling back that I used to have with God?” (a longing for spiritual experience). But Goggins and Strobel point elsewhere, “Our prayer for you is that you may have the ability to hear that these are the wrong questions. We are not intereseted in quick solutions, techniques, and formulas for getting you back on track, nor are we hoping to guilt you into the idea that you aren’t doing enough and you should just get your act together” (xvii). ¬†And so Goggin and Strobel’s alternative questions are: “Who is God?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to relate to Him?” “What does it mean to¬†be with¬†him?” (xix).

And so Strobel and Goggin probe the depth of human identity–our frailty and our wonder. The talk about how God in Christ called us his beloved, and ¬†how in the incarnation Jesus himself became dust by taking on our flesh. ¬†For Goggin and Strobel then, Jesus is an exemplar but not just for his sinless perfection. Jesus embodies and understands his identity before God, as beloved son and (humanly speaking) as dust. When we likewise understand this idenity it enables true prayer:

What becomes clear as we observe Jesus praying is that to pray s beloved dust means to pray in reality. We pray in the reality of who we are. We pray as beloved children of the Father. We pray as dusty ones, sinful and broken. We are called to pray in the truth of our identity. If we do not pray in the truth of who we are, then we cannot truly call prayer  being with God.  Being with God implies that we have actually shown up; we are actually present. PRayer is not a place to hide and cover like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It is a place to be honest like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. (113).

Our realness before God allows for relationship. Relationship means that prayer is not always a means to an end (fixing this or experiencing that). ¬†As Goggin and Strobel observe, ” Real relationship takes place in reality, and reality is that sometimes we experience disconnection, silence, and confusion. Real relationship is discovered in being with another within these experiences (107). ¬†The up and downs of life, feelings of spiritual dryness, profound longing are all seasons in relationship. Goggin and Strobel encourage us to press in anyway, “be with the God who is always with you. In short, the answer to desolation (dryness) in prayer is prayer” (109).

That is what this book is about. When we understand who we are before God, we are able to relate to him as we should. Are their disciplines and spiritual practices that nurture us? You bet. Goggin and Strobel commend regular and constant prayer, rest, silence, but this is no five step plan to intimacy with God. There is no formula, there is only relationship. We can press into God when we understand ourselves and we know his love for us. This is profound truth. Goggin and Strobel are also good communicators. There are plenty of analogies from their life–family, ministry, and pet chinchilla. This isn’t some boring disconnected treatise on prayer. I give this book five stars: ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Notice of material connection: I received this book for free through the BookLook Bloggers program for the purposes of review. I was under no obligation to write a positive review, just an honest one.

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): ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

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