Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe  (another book of his on prayer) than God in the Alley. But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★

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: ★★★★★

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.

Learning Love Does: a curriculum review

I thought about calling Bob Goff.  When I first read Love Does I read Goff’s phone number at the back of the book. He invited his readers to call and discuss the ideas of the book. I felt inspiration and hope stri reading his book. I was (and am) stuck in a job I don’t want. I felt like God passed me by.  I feel called to pastoral ministry (with an M.Div and student-loan-debt to prove it), but have yet to find a ministry job. To pay the bills I work at my local hardware/feed store and as I carve living in a small border town in Washington for me and my family. I often wonder what is next. I occasionally feel like I ought to let the dream die and just get on with life. Goff’s book was a book which gave me courage to hope and reason to keep striving. So when I read the number I almost dialed but I figured I had people in my life that would do just as well. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that needed a celebrity (even a Christian one) to validate me. Instead I turned to a few close friends and shared what was stirring in me.

However when the opportunity to review a ciriculuum based on Bob’s book presented itself, I jumped at the chance. The Love Does Study Guide with DVD  helps readers discover the depth of God’s love. In the DVD presentations, Goff shares some of the stories readers of Love Does would be familiar with: running away with Randy his Young Life leader, getting fired from his second job, helping Ryan (a young guy walking in the neighborhood) have an epic wedding proposal, his son’s boat buying venture, and ‘two-bunk-John’ (the guy that hoodwinks Goff into sponsoring a orphanage in Africa). Each of the five sessions combine a short video of Goff (about 15 minutes) with a group discussion guide. There are interactive components to the group meetings (including internet research on various smartphones, Bible study, and various activities.

I enjoyed watching the DVD presentations. Goff’s enthusiasm in the videos is as contagious as his book. He is full of whimsy and wonder and joy. One of the reasons I enjoyed Goff’s book so much was his storytelling and that remains a central feature of the curriculum . I skimmed through the studies to see how usable the material is and I was impressed.  The Bible study and the ‘What Love Does This Week’ combine biblical insights with actional steps for living risky, joyful lives inspired by God’s love for us.

As I  previewed the material, I thought that this would be apt for youth and young adults. But other generations will also catch Bob’s infectious joy!  I think this would be a fun and worthwhile small group curriculum. Those looking for more in-depth doctrinal or biblical study may be disappointed with the material but I found there was enough here to pique my interest and help me hunger for a deeper experience of God. I think many groups would enjoy this and it works in concert with Love Does (the book).

 

I give this four stars: ★★★★.

Notice of material connection: I received this book and DVD from the publisher for the purposes of this review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

 

Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: a book review

The most important human relationship is that of parents to their children. To know the love of your mother and father, will set you up to be able to love well and live well. Unfortunately our parents also have the greatest capacity to wound us. Neglect, rejection, abuse destroys a child. Bitterness against parents for past wrongs, poisons adulthood.

Leslie Leyland Fields tells the story of her own estranged relationship with her father, a man who showed little interest in relating to her and who had abused her sister. As an adult, she sees her father after a ten-year absence and is still hurt by his disinterest and distance. It is when he is in his eighties and in ill-health that she renews her relationship with him. Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers unpacks her story and others who have walked the difficult journey of needing to forgive their parents. Each chapter concludes with discussion questions and reflections from psychologist Jill Hubbard.

Two biblical images frame Fields story. Jonah is a prophet who is called to go to the people of Nineveh. The inhabitants of this city were Assyrians who had terrorized the people of Israel. Hurt and angry, Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh and flees. When God intervenes and Jonah finds himself going to that city, he can find no pity in his heart for those people. He waits for God to destroy them and is angry when he does not. This is a poignant metaphor for the bitterness childhood victims face. Fields shares stories of women in their seventies who are still bitter towards their father and unable to forgive. But bitterness poisons the well and thriving in life comes only when we learn to forgive.The other biblical image is Joseph. He also was forced to go where he didn’t want to go and carried profound wounds from childhood. And yet he was free to forgive and grow into the opportunities that God gave him and even forgive his brothers!

All people hurt, and all people wound. Those of us who grew up in a loving, supportive home were also hurt by our parents in some way. I’ve carried my own wounds into adulthood (which I won’t recount here). Fields and Hubbard offer a powerful reminder of the need to forgive. Fields own story of forgiveness and reconciliation is not perfect. Her father doesn’t change, or at least not much and he dies leaving behind six children who did not really know their dad. But she found away to process the past and not let it control her or determine her destiny.

I recommend this book to anyone who has difficulty in their relationship with their parents and who needs help processing the pain. Fields story makes this an easy to read book and Hubbard draws out implications. I give this book four stars: ★★★★.

Having Something Worth Saying, and Saying It Well: a book review

I like comedian and motivational speaker Ken Davis. I have several video tapes of him delivering inspirational messages and he never fails to make you laugh and think. There are a couple of his messages which I can still remember near verbatim years later.  One of the things that impresses me about him is his ability to use humor in a way that re-enforces his overall message. I know from experience that humor sometimes can undermine your message and make it difficult for people to take you seriously, but Davis is a master of moving you from laughter to tears while proclaiming truth and moving you to a response.

In the Secrets of Dynamic Communication,  Davis reveals the secrets of dynamic communication (not just another clever title).  This is a book about public speaking written for anyone with something worth saying. The most important component of  an effective speech is focus. Davis argues that pinpointing the purpose of your talk, will give you greater clarity and make you easier to listen to.  He advocates what he calls the SCORRE process.

When I first saw the acronym SCORRE, I figured that Davis is primarily a speaker and so not a great speller. But each letter represents one aspect of his system for preparing a talk, described in part one of this book the letters are:

  • S–Establishing the Subject
  • C– Choosing a Central Theme
  • O– Focusing on the Objective
  • R– Developing a solid Rationale (i.e. outline, organization).
  • R– Gathering Resources (i.e. illustrations, quotes, etc). 
  • E– Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate

Davis describes  ‘presenting’ in part two. He talks about involving the audience, using effective and non-distracting body language and controlling the speaking environment (i.e. lighting, sound, minimizing distractions, etc).

Part three imparts wisdom about thriving as a speaker. After a chapter on time management, Davis has a chapter on the use of humor in speeches.  He makes a distinction between high-risk humor (jokes that could bomb) and low-risk humor (funny stories which illustrate the point).  As I said above, Davis is masterful at using humor to illustrate his points, and his advice to other speakers is to not use humor that detracts from your overall message, or does not fit the context you are speaking in. His closing chapter describes the blend of logos, ethos, and pathos for dynamic communication. These are terms that come straight from Aristotle, but also describe (in the language of Christian spirituality) how our message and our lives should speak to head, heart and hands. I couldn’t agree more.

As I read through this book, I was able to assess where some of my own sermons have been most successful (and why a few bombed!).  I think I already implement aspects of the SCORRE process whenever I prepare a sermon or talk. What I haven’t really done is develop an objective statement the Davis way: wedding a proposition to an interrogative response.   His way of articulating an objective is very particular (i.e. he instructs us to always use keywords, stating that keywords are always plural nouns).  I am not sure that I will ever write an objective statement like the one he calls for, but his purpose is sound.  We’ve all watched speakers flounder and run down rabbit tails and wondered what they were trying to say. Having an objective disciplines a speaker to stay on task which helps everyone in the room!

If you engage in any sort of public speaking (which you will), this will be a helpful book. Davis is a seasoned speaker and has got a lot of wisdom to share.  Experienced speakers may regard some of this as basic, but it is worthwhile to review the basics and to evaluate your own process. I give this book five stars!

Thank you to Thomas Nelson and Booksneeze for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Jesus is WHAT?!?: a book review

Today after work I collected my things to leave and a co-worker spotted the book I’ve been reading.  Across the cover the words embossed are “Jesus Is _____.” My coworker pointed to my book and asked me how I would finish that sentence. I said, “Oh this is a book by this pastor in Seattle and each section finishes the sentence a different way.  He says ‘Jesus is your friend;’ ‘Jesus is Grace;’ Jesus is the point;’ Jesus is Happy–I haven’t read that section yet but I already hate it; ‘Jesus is here; and ‘Jesus is Alive.’

My coworker persisted, “Interesting, even knowing that context, how would you finish that sentence. If you had one word to say who Jesus is, what would it be.

I punted. “Well Jesus didn’t give one word, once he gave three: ‘I am the way the truth and the life. No one gets to the Father except through me.'” Other times he said he was the good shepherd, the gate, the vine the branches, the bread of life. It turns out Jesus is quite a lot of things. I didn’t answer her question directly because I believe that one of the biggest problems with our ‘one word answers’ is that we end up reducing who Jesus is.

Jesus is______.: Find A New Way to Be Human by Judah Smith

Thankfully Judah Smith does a good job at talking about who Jesus is and what makes him so special. This is an accessible and engaging look at what Jesus does for us.  Now this is not a book that delves particularly deeply into the gospel accounts. It does a little, but the focus of Smith’s chapters is what Jesus is for you and what life is like for those who follow after him. Jesus is.: Find A New Way to be Human is an examination of who Jesus is and what that means for us. Smith explores scriptures relevant to his theme but don’t expect heavy biblical engagement here.

What you get instead is a rather evocative look at who Jesus is:

  • Jesus is your friend— all of us our bad. We sin and fall short but the love of Jesus extends to each and every one of us.
  • Jesus is Grace– We don’t just keep on sinning because the Grace of God guarantees we’ll be forgiven in the end. Rather we see Grace relationally.  Grace isn’t just what God doesGrace is who He is. Jesus reveals to us the character, grace and goodness of God.
  • Jesus is the point–at the end of the day there is one answer to the meaning of life and its purpose, why we are here and how we understand God: Jesus.
  • Jesus is Happy–the promise of the gospel is that it is good news! Those who are in Christ will experience happiness, joy and peace. Jesus is the source of these things (BTW I didn’t really hate this section).
  • Jesus is Here–No matter how difficult your circumstances or what you are going through, you can be confident that Jesus is here and is close to you in your time of need.
  • Jesus is Alive–Jesus is alive and the life of the world. Those who follow him will discover a new way to be human. They will discover life itself.

Judah Smith wrote this book with the hope of drawing people more into the life of Jesus. I really appreciated Smith’s enthusiasm and message and think he is a great communicator. I think this book will be especially good for youth and young adults. However, in places I wish it were a little meatier. Smith does a good job of introducing people to Jesus, but more could be said about who Jesus was, what Jesus did, what Jesus does and what Jesus will do. I give this book ★★★☆☆.

Thank you to Thomas Nelson for providing me a copy of this book through their Booksneeze blog review program. I was asked for my honest review.