Doors to the Sacred: a book review

One of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins poems declares, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” With a cultivated awareness, we begin to see Christ’s presence in our lives and in the lives of those we encounter. While Hopkins explored the divine revealed in creation, Bridget Haase sees God in the faces of the people that she meets and the circumstances she faces. Doors to the Sacred: Everyday Events as Hints of the Holy opens fifty-two different doors, exploring where God shows up in the midst of our day-to-day life.

Haase is an Ursuline sister and a story teller. Each of the entries in this book tell a brief story. Sometimes Haase describes chance encounters with strangers. At other times she shares about the children she teaches (or the grown-up-ones she’s taught). She also tells a little of her own experience growing up and her vocation as a nun. These stories are paired with perceptive questions which probe God’s presence in our life and a prayer (sometimes quotations from scripture or from saints and holy people).

Haase invites readers to hunt for God with her, but she asks that we take our time, not rush through. These fifty-two entries correspond, by design, to the fifty-two weeks of a year and Haase promises that a year with this book will keep us busy. She also suggests reading this book as a devotional for a weekend retreat or a day of ‘intensive reflection’ (4).  For the purpose of this review, I read this book far too quickly, but I took enough time to get a sense  of where Haase’s prose would take me. I  took time to journal my responses to the questions she asked at the end of several of the chapters. I felt that her reflections and questions aided my awareness of the God-with-me and helped me retrace my steps to see where God has been present in my life. Some of her questions also helped me probe my own anxiety for where I don’t sense God’s presence and where I long for his guidance.

This is not your typical devotional. Haase doesn’t organize her reflections around a particular spiritual theme or scriptural passage. The experience of reading this book is more like ‘exploring a basement’ (4), or digging through boxes in the attic to see what you find there. Christ is present everywhere playing in ten thousand places and hiding behind every door. I dog-eared several pages to return to later. I give this book four stars: ★★★★

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

 

James

 

Getting Ready to Burn (in a good way): a book review

Albert Haase, OFM’s Catching Fire,  Becoming Flame begins with this inscription of this story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him,”Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Catching Fire Becoming Flame: A Guide For Spiritual Transformation by Albert Haase, OFM

Like this Desert Saying, Haase’s new book is not primarily a book about rules or spiritual disciplines. This is a book about  spiritual transformation. At a retreat that Haase led at a retirement home, an elderly nun told him a secret, “God l-o-n-g-s  to turn you into a saint! If you respond to God’s yearning you will be amazed at what happens(3).”  This is a book which helps us respond to God’s yearning and allow him to set our hearts ablaze.

The book consists of thirty-three short chapters divided into five sections. The first two sections layout a conceptual framework while the final three sections deal with practical concerns.  In part one, “the Spark from God,” Haase introduces readers to the spiritual life and the process of transformation.  He talks here about the nature of spiritual awakening, the stages of the spiritual life (purgation, illumination, and union) and how to deal with imperfections, sins and bad habits. He also talks about the necessity of CPR–Community, Prayer, and Repentance– if we are to grow and change in our relationship with God.  In”Kindling,”  Haase’s second section, he explores  in depth various spiritual concepts. Haase exhorts his readers to be secure in the love of God, to be attentive to prayer, have an attitude of Gratitude, cultivate Spiritual senses to see where God is at work, be aware of our ‘false self’ and the way suffering functions in the Spiritual life.

In the third section, “Catching Fire” Haase presents various prayer methods: the examen, meditation and contemplation, lectio divina, Imaginative prayer (Ignatian meditation), wonder-ing with creation, praying the stations of the Cross, and praying the Lord’s prayer.  Haase is able to draw together the insights of various writers on prayer and the Spiritual life and summarize their insights.

The fourth section, “Fanning the Flame,”  describes Spiritual Discernment.  As in the other sections, Haase articulates insights from a number of writers on the Spiritual life, but he uses his own story of listening to God’s call to missions in China as an example of how discernment works (Haase was a missionary to China for twelve years before being forced to leave).  He talks here about the nature of discernment, decision making and the experience of dryness, darkness and depression even when you feel like you are answering God’s call on your life. Haase recommends ongoing Spiritual direction, appropriate self-care and creating a personal rule of life to help us counteract the confusion that comes as we try to walk in the ways of God.

In his final section, “Becoming All Flame,”  Haase speaks about dynamic commitments necessary for living out the Spiritual life. Some of these are ongoing practices (i.e. the Examination of the Conscience, Sabbath Rest, Silence and Solitude, Pilgrimage, etc.). Other commitments are ongoing orientations (i.e. surrender and abandonment, forgiveness, Revealing everything to God).

Haase writes as a Franciscan preacher, retreat-leader and spiritual director. His writing inhabits Franciscan spirituality but he also draws on the insights of Benedictines and Jesuits and occasionally, Evangelical protestants.  The insights and practices Haase commends are instructive for any who seek to deepen their faith and be transformed into the image of Christ.  What I especially liked about this book was how down-to-earth it was.

While I certainly found things I disagree with in these pages (i.e.  I’m suspicious of some aspects of centering prayer), I admire the depth and insights of Haase’s writing and happily recommend this book. I give it ★★★★★ and think that Catholics and Protestants alike will appreciate this book. Why not become all flame?

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

[Note: Paraclete Press also has a DVD Curriculum available based on this book]

Spirit Baptist: a book review

Chad Norris was a preacher. He went to seminary at Beeson Divinity school and studied under Calvin Miller and Robert Smith, jr.  He was passionate about following God and living for him. But he struggled with depression and panic-attacks. He hungered for  a ‘New Testament’ experience of God. A fresh reading of the gospels (especially John) and  an attentive heart to where he felt God was leading, led Norris to a greater openness to the Spirit.  Signs, Wonders and a Baptist Preacher is his story.

Signs, Wonders and a Baptist Preacher by Chad Norris

Written with grace and good humor, Norris describes his journey into supernatural ministry. As pastor of Spiritual Formation at City Church in Simpsonville, SC, Norris has led mission trips and healing services.  His story tells of his own experience of healing and deliverance and his attempts to follow where the voice of God led him.  He is a bit of a goofball but this is a fairly even-handed account.

What I liked  about Norris’s story is that he doesn’t argue that being open to the Holy Spirit means you have to be as weird as you possibly can. His description of his  healing services is of a quiet grace filled moment where he and others pray for people. He acknowledges that some people still have to take medication and don’t get healed, and looks for the grace of God in the lives of those who suffer (he calls them the real ‘heroes’).  Ultimately though, Norris’s point is not just for people to experience the supernatural gifts. He wants people to know intimacy with God. This is his emphasis throughout.

I also appreciated that Norris is comfortable talking about pain and hard experiences. He doesn’t paint the Spirit filled life with Pollyanna brush strokes and he’s had his share of painful experiences.  He does commend Spiritual experiences because God is a supernatural God. What he presents here is not a formula.

Norris tells us that it was his reading of scripture which led him to a richer experience of the Spirit; yet this book doesn’t present a fresh reading of the Bible. It is more of a memoir of one man’s spiritual meanderings and the events that have shaped his life and ministry. Taken for what it is, I really enjoyed the book and I think Norris hopes that people will hear his story and be inspired to re-read the gospels for themselves and hear the voice of God calling them into a deeper experience of Him.  The book closes with a prayer that you can pray but there is no ‘how to’ in the text.  If you are to experience

I liked this book because I like Norris’s storytelling and his story. He is funny and the book is a quick read.  I give it 3.5 stars.

Thank you to Chosen books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

What’s in a Word?: Why I’m not ‘Driven’ and You Shouldn’t Be Either

This is the first of an occasional series where I critique the words that we Christians use. I know what you’re thinking, “James you are an overly critical and cranky man who thinks you are smarter and more holy than the rest of Christendom.” Guilty. Well, not really. I admit I am a little neurotic about some of these things but I also really think words matter. Yes the Spirit of God can shoot straight arrows with the crooked arrows of our words but the metaphors by which we habitually describe God, faith and the spiritual life shape our understanding and experience. Some of the words that we use are actually damaging and do injustice to both God and ourselves. I submit that one such word is ‘driven.’

I am not sure that I can blame Rick Warren for entering driven into our spiritual lexicon but he certainly popularized it with his wildly successful books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life and various purpose-driven spin-offs. But Rick Warren with his warm smile and Hawaiian shirts is not the only offender. A search of titles with ‘driven’ in the title from Christianbook.comreveal that many are clamoring to join the herd. There are books with titles like: Family Driven Faith, Driven by Eternity: Making Your Life Count Today & Forever, The Gospel-Driven Life, A Proverbs Driven-Life, The Passion Driven Sermon, Text-Driven Preaching, Spirit-Driven Success, Values Driven Leadership, The Spirit Driven Leader, Jesus Driven Ministry, The Values Driven Family, The Market Driven Church(I think this one is a critique), Character Driven, The Wisdom Driven Life, The Passion Driven Youth Choir, The Mission Driven Parish, The Spirit Driven Church, Driven by Hope: Men & Meaning, A Love Driven Life, A Passion Driven Life and From God-Given to God-Driven.Bull Whip Cattle Drive

Without critiquing the content of these books (some I am sure have great stuff to say and others just have stuff) this list shows how pervasive the word ‘driven’ is in the Christian publishing world. But the book title doesn’t even begin to reflect how much authors use this word within their books to speak of the sort of life we all should be living. This is picked up by pastors, blogs and every tweep from here to eternity. This is where I have issues.

What does it mean to be driven? It is obvious to me that the people who use it are trying to get at what are motivation is but this is bad language to be using. The dictionary defines driven as, “being under compulsion to succeed or excel.” I understand a personal ‘drive’ towards excellence but I get worried about what we mean when something outside of ourselves is the one said to be ‘driving us.’ Are we under compulsion by our families and values? Are we ‘driven’ by our commitments? Does God, the Spirit, Jesus ‘drive’ our spiritual life? What does that say about us and God?

I think this term stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the spiritual life. Hear the good news: In a world where we are driven by the will to succeed, the will-to-knowledge and the will to power, in a world where we are under the compulsion of a thousand demands internal and external, you don’t need to be driven anymore. You are being invited by God to enjoy the good things he has stored up for you. Listen to these words From Isaiah 55:

    “Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
    and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
    Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.
    Why spend money on what is not bread,
    and your labor on what does not satisfy?
    Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
    and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

This is fundamentally different from having any sort of ‘driven life.’ What if we understood our spiritual life less in terms of its demands and more in terms of what we are being invited into? What if we didn’t speak so much of ‘being driven’ but spoke of where God is drawing us?

The reason why I am so passionate that ‘driven’ is a bad word in the spirital life is because I tend to imbibe its message. I load on myself heroic spiritual disciplines and feel guilty about where I have failed to do all I am supposed to do. When it comes to drive I’ve got it and then some. What I haven’t always understood is that my life with God is more joyful, freeing and wonderful than I can imagine.

Marva Dawn’s hymn Come Away From Rush and Hurry capture for me the reality of the post-driven life:

Come away from rush and hurry
Marva J. Dawn

    Come away from rush and hurry
    to the stillness of God’s peace;
    from our vain ambition’s worry,
    come to Christ and find release.
    Come away from noise and clamor,
    life’s demands and frenzied pace;
    come to join the people gathered
    here to seek and find God’s face.

    In the pastures of God’s goodness
    we lie down to rest our soul.
    From the waters of his mercy
    we drink deeply, are made whole.
    At the table of his presence
    all his saints are richly fed.
    With the oil of his anointing
    into service we are led.

    Come, then, children, with your burdens –
    life’s confusions, fears, and pain.
    Leave them at the cross of Jesus;
    take instead his kingdom’s reign.
    Bring your thirsts, for he will quench them –
    he alone will satisfy.
    All our longings find attainment
    when to self we gladly die.

As we enter into this season of Lent, what is God inviting you into?