Good News Lent: Baptism


It began with a baptism. Before Jesus’ forty-day fast—his wandering in the desert to be tempted by the devil—before he took the road to the Calvary, before even his earthly ministry, Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan river (Mark 1:9). Baptisms are always good news. They are a celebration of something new: a new birth, a new sense of belonging, a new work of God in the baptized. Jesus’ baptism is no exception. It inaugurated a new phase for the Incarnate Son. He no longer was biding his time until the preordained hour. With his baptism, something new began: Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.

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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.




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.

More Thoughts on ‘The Sacred Year’: by Michael Yankoski

When Father Solomon first challenged Michael Yankoski to enter deeper in to spiritual practices he told Michael, “Spiritual practices are a way of mapping your own personal soulscape–helping you become more aquainted with who you are, who God is, and the people he’s placed you into this life alongside of” (13). This gave Michael a way of organizing practices into ‘depth with self,’ ‘depth with God’ and ‘depth with others’ as he explored spiritual practices during The Sacred Year.  In two previous blog posts, I reflected on my initial thoughts in coming to this book and my reactions to part one of the book (Depth with Self). In this post I want to reflect on part two, Depth with God and what I have heard in the text.

First let me say again how much I love Michael’s treatment of practices. This is not a ‘how to’ book which gives step by step instructions on how to do each discipline. This is Michael’s journey to somewhere deeper. Each of these practices enable Michael to inhabit a new dimension previously absent in his life. As such, these practices overlap and feed into one another. We saw this in part one where the practice of Selah (shutting up and paying attention) enabled Michael to attend to his life, to receive daily bread, live simply, explore creativity and number his days. The same is true in part two. We have a list of interrelated practices, each enabling the next and allowing Michael to press deeper into the spiritual life.

We begin with the practice of confession. Michael shares a childhood story of shoving all his dirty clothes and mess under his bed when he was told to clean his room. When a pungent ‘rotten meat’ smell emanated from his room, his mother took a broom handle and helped Michael scrape out all of the junk from under his bed until they found the culprit (126-7). This becomes a poignant analogy for confession–it is a way of getting rid of the awful smell in our life. As Michael enters deeper into confession he is also has to face up to his image of God. There are ways that Michael has felt that God loathes him (129) or at very least is deeply disappointed in how sinful and defective he is!. Underlying the practice of confession is a confidence in God’s great love for us. God does not loathe us, he longs to set us free and confession brings us into greater freedom. Michael’s experience of confession is so rich that he petitions his baptist church to let him build a confessional in their sanctuary (138). They don’t accept Mike’s offer, but the pastors of his church do make themselves available for confession during the season of Lent and are surprised at how many people sign up (139).

In addition to confession, Michael delves into the realm of listening prayer (chapter 9). Like Michael, I grew up in a context which advocated intercessory prayer. We were good at making our requests known to God, but seldom made time to listen to Him. By focusing on listening prayer, Michael cultivates attentiveness to God.  This has resonance to the practice of solitude (chapter 11) where  he learns to counter the world full of social media caw-caw-cawing and ADD by entering deeper into silence, stillness and solitude. He also learns to ‘attend’ through his practice of sabbath (chapter 12–in a lot of ways, this practice is selah writ large) and entering into the wilderness (chapter 13).

Perhaps these practices all invite Michael into a different ‘pace’ but this is seen most readily in his explorations of the practice of ‘Lectio Divina,’ and regular Eucharist (chapter 10) and the sauntering pace of pilgrimage (chapter 14). Rather than rushing through texts and scavenging for something meaningful, Michael takes up Eugene Peterson’s challenge to Eat This Book–to chew on the biblical text by reading slowly and devotionally. Regular celebration of the Eucharist invited Michael to meditate on Christ’s death by chewing, sipping and swallowing.  When he explores the idea of pilgrimage, Michael is as much challenged by the mode of travel as he is by his destination. It is fitting that his pilgrimage to Mission, BC from Vancouver to the monastery he’s visited throughout his sacred year enables him to enter into place and pay attention to things that he would not have seen otherwise. This leads to a chance encounter (divine appointment) with Virgil, a lonely fellow traveler (226-9).

The Sacred Year has me thinking about  the nature of sacred practice. Someone once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and experiencing different results. But how often do we do that? For example, my mom doesn’t know my children. When my grandfather was still alive, she would say to me over the phone, “I need to be there for my dad right now. When he passes away then I can visit you and your family.” My grandpa has been dead for a couple years now, my mom has yet to visit (though she has her reasons). If you want to grow personally, interpersonally and spiritually you need to act intentionally. You need to behave in away that counters your regular practice (i.e. buy a plane ticket and visit) Spiritual practices are a way of combating our status-quo responses.  By the way I share this story about my mom to my shame. I wish I had a closer relationship with her, but I also find it hard to reach out to her and connect.  Something has to change in our relationship. I feel primed  and challenged to explore part three of Michael’s book ‘Depth With Others.” 

Further Reflections on Michael Yankoski’s Sacred Year.

A couple week ago I posted my initial thoughts on Michael Yankoski’s The Sacred YearSince that time I have read through part one of the book.  Michael discusses practices which helped him achieve ‘depth with self’ (parts two and three go on to discuss depth with God and others).  Michael begins with the self because his sacred journey stems from his existential angst and longing for something meaningful.  Michael feels the rub between his persona and role a conference speaker and public Christian witness and his anxious inner self. As he beings his journey into Spiritual practices, he is seeking something which propels him away from the plasticity and cheesiness of ‘American Christianity’ to something more substantive. So he begins by contemplating an apple.

I will discuss the apple in a moment but first allow me to theologically nerd out. I love that Michael chose to talk about ‘practices’ instead of disciplines. Writers on the spiritual life sometimes tend to use these words interchangeably but they are different.  To me, ‘discipline’ carries a private connotation whereas ‘practice’ evokes something communal and participatory.  I know that writers on Spiritual Disciplines like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster also speak about ‘corporate disciplines’ but I think disciplines, in general, signify a sort of ‘private practice.’ The language of practice is more open-ended and invitational.

So Michael contemplates an apple.  From the apple he seeks to learn attentiveness. The fruit of attentiveness is that  you attend to what’s in front of you. Michael learns this from the Psalms, The Psalms are often broken up by the word selah which is a sort of musical notation. Michael says his favorite translation  he’s heard for selah is “Shut up and pay attention!”(26). So he gets intimate with an apple and sees, feels and tastes what it has to offer. This selah attentiveness spills into self examination with the practice of the Daily Examen (chapter three), baking bread and learning about sustenance (chapter four), paying attention to the pull of materialism and practicing simplicity (chapter five), cultivating creativity (chapter six) and living life mindful of our own mortality (chapter seven).  These chapters layer on top of one another and reflect the ways Michael is growing. These are not unrelated disciplines but a web of practices which invite Michael to a deeper place.

I am challenged by the energy and commitment that Michael presses into depth with self.  He is led along the way by the insights of friends and wise guides (like Father Solomon in the monastery) and hiking companions which name his lack of self. He uses the Bible and Christian tradition as his source book and draws generously on some very thoughtful recent Christian writers. However most of what is said in part one of this book seems accessible to any spiritual seeker.  Michael has a strong faith commitment, but by starting with the self he is on common ground with other seekers.   I think that the next section, ‘Depth with God’ will delve deeper into the Christian tradition and understanding

I liked Michael’s previous book Under the Overpass and read it while I was working directly with the homeless.  I read it in one sitting cover to cover.  I could not do that with this book.  Reading this book invites you into personal reflection. I found myself re-reading sections,  chewing on the words. I am excited to see where Michael Yankoski’s sacred year takes me!