On Having a Prayer Life: a book review

I had a mentor once who warned me of the danger of reading about prayer without praying. There is no shortage of books on prayer which describe prayer’s power, methodology, theology and practice. I have found many of these books thought-provoking and a few inspiring. But some books remain opaque to me–either too deep for me to grasp with my own shallow practice of prayer or too dry to set my heart ablaze. Mary Kate Morse has written a book on prayer which is theologically rich, warmly invitational and inspirational. A Guidebook to Prayer presents twenty-four ways to deepen your relationship with God and enter into the practice of prayer.

Morse describes prayer as ‘a love relationship involving the interdependent union of the Trinity’ (17).  Thus she doesn’t emphasize the duty of prayer but the way we attend to our relationship with Him. She says, “Rather than asking ourselves, ‘am I praying each day?’ we should ask ourselves, ‘Am I in a love relationship with God today? Am I living like Jesus today? Do I smell the sweet breath of the Spirit today?'”(17).

This focus on how prayer cultivates our friendship with God is a welcome alternative to approaches that treat prayer instrumentally (i.e. what does prayer do?) or in a utilitarian way (i.e. what do I get out of praying?). Instead Morse invites us to see prayer as our participation in the life of the Trinity.  A Trinitarian framework for thinking about prayer is the organizational framework for her book. The Twenty four ways of ‘praying’ are presented under the headings: ‘God the Father,’ ‘God the Son,’ and ‘God the Holy Spirit.’

In Part One, Morse  focuses on the Fatherhood of God. She begins with a  ‘community prayer’ which evokes  both the divine community (The Oneness of God) and the ways God’s people have publicly prayed as a community for millennia (the unity of the Church). She includes both Jewish prayer (i.e. Praying the Psalms, the shema ) and praying set prayers with a prayer book (i.e. The Divine Hours, Common Prayer, etc.).  Morse reflects on various attributes (His holiness, His loving-kindness,  His Worthiness) and activities of God (His creation, His resting, His activity) as invitations to different ways of prayer. She describes ‘creative prayer’ (making something as an act of prayer), work prayer (praying as part of your vocation, contemplative prayer, confession, blessing and worship.

Part Two reflects on Jesus’ example. The incarnation invites us into a whole new way of being. Praying in Jesus name means experiencing Him in his Humanity, in His lordship, in His servant nature–as reconciler, as love embodied, as teacher, as sufferer, as savior and as the head of the body. The prayers in this section invite us into a whole new way of being drawing on Christ’s example. Morse presents some classic prayer practices (i.e. the daily examen, lectio divina, the sacraments) with other prayers which invite us to put on the character of Christ. With Jesus we are invited to pray (and live) simply, as servants. At times this means we pray playfully aware that God is with us in our joys. But we enter into suffering and relinquish our need to be in control, learning that God is with us in our sorrows.

Part three describes the experiential dimension to our prayer life in the Spirit. The prayers that Morse collects in this section explore the Spirit’s ministry of intercession, discernment and guidance. The Spirit is what enables to experience God’s presence, His protection and deep joy. Thus the prayers in this section invite us to receive from God.

I find the Trinitarian framework helpful and inspiriting. I read this book with an eye towards practice and have attempted some of the prayer exercises that Morse suggests for individuals. However, each chapter includes suggestions for practice in groups, or with partners. This makes this an ideal resource for small groups,  prayer-partners, or really anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God. Morse really has a gift for presenting these practices in a way that includes seasoned pray-ers and spiritual neophytes. This is the sort of resource that is accessible to anyone wishing to enter the life of prayer. But this a book meant to practiced and not just read.

Morse has G. K. Chesterton quote at the beginning of her introduction which says, “The difference between talking about prayer and praying is the same as the difference between blowing a kiss and kissing.” More so for those of us who are perennial ‘readers of prayer books.’ We are even further removed from the conversation. I am a better reader than I am a pray-er. However Morse’s book has inspired me and I have made plans to do each of the partner exercises with my wife over the coming weeks. This book holds out a means to deepen our prayer-life and our participation in the life of the Triune God. I give this 5 stars: ★★★★★

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

Deeply Loved: Week One of Lent

It is just over a week since Ash Wednesday and I am settling into my Lenten routine. I am reading two devotionals through Lent. My ‘Catholic One’ I read with my wife. Last night she went to bed while I was blogging so I’m now a day behind. The other devotional is Deeply Loved by Keri Wyatt Kent.  I have agreed with Abingdon Press to post on this book and what I am learning from it each week. Normally I don’t really ‘do devotionals.’ I tend to read at a verocious pace and devotionals give you a small taste. And then tomorrow another. This daily measured pace is hard for me. It is like running. I like to run as fast and as far as I can, even if my body is stiff for several days afterwards. Devotionals force me to slow down and rest with an idea, practice or scripture.  It has been a good Lenten discipline for me.

I am enjoying Deeply Loved.  One of the things I’ve really appreciated is the tone. Each day has Keri’s reflections on a particular scripture and theme, followed by a ‘Presence Practice.’ These practices are an invitation to deepen your spiritual life. When I think about everything Keri is asking me to put into practice is is actually quite a lot, but it never feels like it. She has a gracious way of inviting me to deepen my spiritual practice without it feeling burdensome.  On day one she asked me to consider how I think God sees me and then replace my ‘gut reaction’ with the reality that God sees me with love and delight. On day two she asked me to recall Jesus’ loving presence with me throughout the day. After that she asked me to ‘slow down’ and prune out over commitments, review my day (intentinally pray the examen each and every day),  begin each day dedicating it to Jesus,  pray fixed hour prayers, practice the prayer of adoration, seek a spiritual companion, and set aside an hour to spend with God in solitude.  I am uncertain what she will ask of me tomorrow.

These practices have enriched my Lenten experience. I have not practiced all of them. I thought about the fixed hour prayer through out the day I read that one, but haven’t thought of it much since. I do not feel overcommitted at the moment (except at work but I can’t help that) so I didn’t prune anything out of my life. I haven’t yet found an hour to unplug and spend with God in solitude. However I have appreciated the challenge of these practices and feel the hunger for a deeper experience of God.

In the first couple days of reading this book I was reminded of a significant moment I had in Spiritual Direction just over a year ago. I was at a pastors conference, though thus far I have failed to find a position as a pastor in a church. While I was there I felt very small. Anytime someone asked me where I was serving, I smiled sheepishly and told them ‘nowhere at the moment.’ I was also taking a class at the conference where me and other participants reflected on the role of the pastor (Williomon’s excellent book Pastor gave broad outline to the course).  I felt like a failure and every insecurity I had welled up in me. I began thinking about my lack of experience, how I was bad at evanglism, how I needed to hone my adminstrative skills.

My prayer times were different. When I prayed I felt like God was pleased with me.  I remember reflecting in solitude on how timid I feel at evangelism. The verse from the gospels came to mind where Jesus says, “If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father.” In the past I’ve felt judged by that verse for everytime I failed to boldly proclaim the gospel for fear of sounding insensitive. But in my prayer time I felt something different. It was as though Jesus said to me, “You have not denyed me, you have staked your life on me!”

At this conference I got a moment to sit with a Spiritual Director and I told her this. She led me through a excercise where I listened to the voice of the ‘accuser in my life’ but then invited the voice of compassion. Through this excercise, her prayer and mine, and the Presence of the Spirit with us, I felt like God said to me, “You are loved and you are chosen.’

Now a year later I am doing a devotional  and the very first practice invites me to reflect on the reality of Jesus’ love for me.  I am Deeply Loved by God.

First Rule of Fight Club. . .a book review

One of my passions and interests is to help people grow as disciples of Christ. I also really like the gospel. So when I saw a book called Gospel Centered Discipleship coming down the pike, I just knew I had to review it. Jonathan Dodson, pastor of Austin City Life Church (located conveniently in Austin) has written a thought provoking book addressing what discipleship properly centered on the gospel is. In part 1 he defines discipleship, in part 2 he addresses the motivation and power behind discipleship, and part 3 he addresses practical aspects of how we live it out.

Sharing vulnerably about his own steps and missteps as a disciple, Dodson demonstrates the ways that our discipleship models sometimes miss the point. Some disciples emphasize piety at the expense of mission (spiritual disciplines, instead of social justice or Evangelism). Others emphasize missional activism but fail to help people grow in holiness. The desire to provide accountability, sometimes gives way to legalism, while other discipleship groups err on the side of cheap grace by providing license for believers to sin. Dodson doesn’t want you to emphasize piety at the expense of grace or vise-versa; both vertical and horizontal dimensions of discipleship are important. What he wants us to live into the reality that Jesus is Lord and follow him in his mission and piety.

Along the way, he invites us to experience confession and community, stoke our religious affections and commune with the Holy Spirit to help us mature as disciples. His focus on the ‘three conversions’ (conversion to Christ as Lord and Savior, conversion to the Body of Christ, and Conversion to Christ’s mission) ensures that his own model of discipleship is fairly holistic and communal. His model is rooted in church practice rather than individual disciplines.

The last section of the book, talks about how we can practically live out this model of discipleship. Dodson writes about ‘fight clubs’ which are his name for a three person small group where participants meet to encourage one another to fight the good fight in living for Jesus (fighting sin in our lives, fighting to keep Christ at the center of our heart, fighting to extend his mission). Admittedly, I find the name is cheesy and a little gimmicky, but I like the concept. At any rate, Dodson’s description of fight clubs can be modified. This is just one example of how you can live out gospel-centered discipleship.

There is so much I like about this book. I really appreciated the way Dodson critiques some versions of discipleship which I have found unhelpful (i.e. how accountability groups can promote legalism). His model of discipleship is Biblically and theologically informed (mostly from a Reformed Evangelical bent). While I may disagree in minor points of emphasis, on the whole this seemed like a helpful and thoughtful book. I really appreciated the richness of sources he cited.

[Edit 5-09-2012: The earlier edition of this review criticized this book for having a subject and scriptural index which did not actually belong to this book (a printing error from the publisher). Crossway has just sent me a corrected copy where this error has been fixed.]

As a whole I would recommend this book to someone looking for an accessible guide to discipleship for those who want the truth of the gospel and Jesus’ Lordship (his kingship and leadership) to penetrate every part of our lives.

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this fair and rather friendly review.