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    Entries in Christian Spiritual Formation (9)

    Friday
    Aug182017

    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.

    Saturday
    Jan242015

    Book Review :: Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard's Teaching on Faith & Formation

    Image via Christianity Today

    Early May 2013, I found out that Dallas Willard had died. My wife read an announcement of his death on social media as we rode together in a car. We both shed tears.

    This surprised me. I had never mourned a public figure. I never met Dr. Willard, but heard him speak on three occasions: in 2006 at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, in 2009 at the Renovare Conference in San Antonio, and in 2011 at the Apprentice Conference in Wichita.

    But I had read his books. One beautiful benefit of the written word is the opportunity to commune with other minds. Through his writings, Dr. Willard had deeply impacted my thinking.

    At his death, in a very full sense I felt grief rooted in hope. Dr. Willard was in Christ. I am quite confident he still is.

    Since Dr. Willard’s death, his fellow kingdom workers and scholarly colleagues have prepared his last manuscripts for publication.  I have continued to seek the treasures, old and new, God so graciously brought forth in him.

    It was only a matter of time before a work like Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard's Teaching on Faith and Formation would be produced.  The book is a collection of essays written by many who knew Dr. Willard best. It is structured on three pillars of Willard’s life and work: the personal and familial, the scholarly and academic, and the pastoral and ecclesiological.

    Many of the contributors are familiar: Richard Foster, J. P. Moreland, Gary Black, Todd Hunter, James Catford, John Ortberg, and others. Contributions by family members Jane Willard, Becky Heatley, Larissa Heatley, and John Willard add authenticity and insight. Willard was a human being, possessing faults. But he was good, thanks to the sanctifying work of God. Gary Moon, director of the Martin Family Institute and Dallas Willard Center for Spiritual Formation at Westmont College, served as editor for this collection.

    The essays range from anecdotal to analytical, possessing something for every reader. For anyone seeking to grow in any field of endeavor, it is important to identify models for living, and to follow them. Dr. Willard taught valuable lessons as a friend and family member, as a scholar, and as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

    One of my favorite passages in this book is from an essay by James Bryan Smith of Friends University. Dr. Smith cites numerous questions he asked Dallas through the years, one of which was, “So Dallas, which do you think is right, Arminianism or Calvinism?”

    I have wondered this myself, both who is right, and what Dr. Willard might think.

    Smith recalls Willard saying “Neither.” Willard then “went on to say that both were right, and both were wrong, and he did not fit into either camp.” 

    In each reflection, we are reminded that Dr. Willard understood that in order to thrive as a friend, family member, scholar, or disciple, Jesus is of utmost importance. We are disciples first. The question is, "Of whom?" Willard feared “Willard-ites.” Rightly so. His best students will learn to look beyond Willard to the one who summoned him forth as a witness. 

    Reformers are often memorialized, and their time is heralded as the coming of the kingdom. We build statues and tell stories of their past victories, often as an excuse to avoid the task before us. Eternal Living could be regarded as a monument, or a charge.

    I choose the latter.

    As a student of Dr. Willard, I hope to continue his legacy, not by celebrating Willard, but the God who gifted us with such a life. The church is in continued need of reformation. There remains among us a hunger for knowledge of God. 

    May God rise up for us more teachers like Dallas Willard, who will immerse us in the Trinitarian reality of God and the everlasting kingdom, disciple us in the good news of Jesus, and help us to know eternal life, both now and forever.

    Note: Thank you to InterVarsity Press, who mailed me a copy of Eternal Living.

    Saturday
    Nov082014

    Book Review: Nathan Foster's The Making of an Ordinary Saint

    When I was a child and our family went on a trip, my siblings and I played I-Spy, conducted scavenger hunts, or enjoyed the License Plate Game or Hey Cow. We read books or told stories. We asked our parents questions along the way concerning what we saw, when we would arrive, and what we could expect.

    Traveling with God is similar in that there are stories to be told, activities to be engaged, and guides to help us along the way. For Nathan Foster and his journey with God, his activities have been the disciplines, his stories have been a mix of biblical narrative and unfolding personal experience, and his closest guide has been his father, Richard Foster, best known for his book Celebration of Discipline, a contemporary classic of Christian spirituality first published in 1978.

    Celebration has sold millions of copies, and first impacted my life a little over a decade ago.

    Now, Nathan Foster is leaving his own legacy of wisdom and Christian witness. The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (BakerBooks, 2014) is an immersion in the disciplines, a revisiting of the teachings offered in Richard’s Celebration, and an honest recounting of Nathan’s personal experience seeking growth in the way of Jesus.

    Nathan explores twelve disciplines: submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. For each discipline, he quotes his father. Then, he tells his story.

    Nathan is forthright about his frustrations, however grand, and his progress, however slight. For those that assume the disciplines might be easier for some rather than others, they will discover this is not the case. They are a challenge for us all, regardless of autobiography. But they nevertheless have their reward, and are possible for us thanks to the grace given us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is what makes Nathan’s story enjoyable: we walk alongside him as he struggles, experience his disappointments, and celebrate his gains.

    Among the stories Nathan tells, I particularly enjoyed the lessons he learned while on his bike, his discoveries while memorizing the Bible, his willingness to submit to his children, and his disorientation when suspending his use of technology. I also enjoyed his brief historical sketches of Christian saints (Laubach, Woolman, Buechner), a subtle form of contrast and encouragement. Nathan seemed to be suggesting that we all have a long way to go, but through persistence and trust in God’s grace, we can all advance in holiness.

    If you enjoy memoir and have followed the spiritual formation movement, this book will be of interest to you. Nathan Foster is a good storyteller, and his struggle with the disciplines is reflective of what many experience today.

    I found his story to be encouraging and insightful, hopeful and invitational.

    For all seeking to grow as disciples of Jesus, the road will be marked with suffering but also with deep joy. Nathan Foster is walking that road, and calling us to join him along the way and discover the grace God has for us. May God honor his witness.

    Note: I received this work in exchange for a review.

    Saturday
    Jun072014

    Book Review :: Christ-Shaped Character by Helen Cepero

    The clenching line in St. Paul’s great meditation in 1 Corinthians 13 is this: “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Faith, hope, and love are determinative virtues for those who choose them as guides. But even beyond our choice to live according to these virtues is their inherent gifted-ness. Faith, hope, and love can be our possession because God has offered them to us as gifts, made accessible through the Son.

    Helen Cepero wants us to choose the path of love, faith, and hope. Her inversion of the virtues is intentional, for she recognizes that faith and hope are made possible through  love, “the greatest of these.” In Christ-Shaped Character: Choosing Love, Faith and Hope (IVP Formatio, 2014), she outlines a vision of discipleship to Christ that is narrative shaped and grounded in practice. Her writing is personal and welcoming in tone.

    The book has a three-fold structure, identified in the subtitle. Underneath the heading of love, Cepero tells the reader of our status in Christ as God’s beloved, the practice of hospitality, and the challenge of forgiveness. In her section on faith, she focuses attention on our greatest desires, and how every true desires finds its satisfaction in discipleship to Jesus. She also explores vulnerability as a vital posture for the disciple, and the need for sustained commitment if one is to move toward holiness. Lastly, Cepero expounds on hope through the practices of watching for God, assuming an anticipatory posture of infinite possibility, and using improvisation as a means to learn how to trust God.

    Each chapter begins with a story, develops a central theme, identifies an application, and recommends a practice. In her chapter on vulnerability, Cepero tells of her terrifying experience of nearly losing her son to sudden illness. After handing her child over to an emergency medical personnel, Cepero recounts her uncertainty, anxiety, and guilt. Surprisingly, she was met with grace. She had to be vulnerable in handing over her child, who recovered, and she had to be vulnerable in telling her story.

    Through this story, Cepero explains how the willingness to be vulnerable allows us to release our fears and enter an unexpected grace, whether from a neighbor or from God. In order to help us personalize this truth, Cepero introduces the practice of surrendering prayer, where we turn our desires and worries over to God, release them, and then choose to embrace a deeper faith.

    Cepero’s story is representative of what I take to be the journey of many Christians. She has sought to faithfully follow after Jesus, but not without struggle. She has matured throughout the years, and been amazed by the work of the Holy Spirit in ordinary moments. She has grown more compassionate towards those on the margins, and worked for justice. Her narrative approach, which I expect many readers will embrace, is this book’s greatest strength.

    But perhaps the strength of this book may also be its weakness. In her final chapter, Cepero writes, “Perhaps you reach the end of this book disappointed there is no road map, no prescriptive path, no global positioning system for guidance to a destination. Instead, there are only stories—my story, your story, the world’s story.” Some readers will reach this conclusion.

    However, Cepero also notes, “All of our stories are meant to be lived in the larger story of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Among the many things that this means is that our stories are not our own, nor is our story’s resolution. Our world is addicted to self-help literature and quick solutions to our problems. Cepero refuses to assume it is her role or responsibility to set us straight and “fix us up good, ” as is said in my neighborhood. Instead, she offers her friendship, a cure to our ills that does not always lead directly to the dissolution of our problems, but instead provides us with companions to bear the load.

    Some books are doctrinaire in theological focus, others determined to exposit an array of biblical texts. I think there is a place for those kinds of books. But there is also a place for Christians to tell their story, and to do so within the context of their working theologies and understandings of the biblical narrative. Cepero’s work is that kind of book. She offers her life and understandings, and invites others to follow Christ alongside her, experiencing the kind of transformation and change that he can bring. It is not always linear or clear, but it is certain and good. And the path we are invited to travel is not only well trodden by those who have come before us, but is meant to be shared by those now with us.

    That is the invitation. Walk the path.

    Wednesday
    May212014

    Prayer is Primal Speech

    Growing up as part of congregation, I grew up around people saying prayers. It was strange speech. In Sunday School and worship, before meals and at family gatherings, a respected elder would call upon everyone to pray. Someone would lead us in a petition for help, blessing, or thanksgiving. We would pray for neighbors, friends, family, community, church, or nation. Prayer was modeled before it was ever taught.

    Only in retrospect can I look back and call such speech strange. But the day eventually came when I was not expected to listen and attune my heart and mind to our collective petition, but to give voice and speak to God on behalf of the community. To my recollection, the earliest opportunities came as part of a Sunday School. I do not remember if I was an eager volunteer as a young boy. But I do remember that I was one of the few willing to give it a try during the middle and high school years. When a teacher asks for a volunteer and no one speaks up, someone has to step up and do everyone a favor, for we all know that until someone prays, we won’t be dismissed. And after you pray once, your peer group begins to look to you for leadership, since you’ve braved the voyage of prayer before and achieved safe passage.

    My first forays into prayer were not undertaken with a sure knowledge or unshakeable confidence. I simply spoke from my heart and relied upon the patterns of speech that I had received. Every prayer I recall being offered in the Baptist congregation of my youth was of the spontaneous sort. Scripture may have been quoted, but formality was not present or expected. Simple speech. I was trained to pray with simple speech.

    But as the years passed I realized I had much to learn. Prayer in public was one thing. Prayer alone, in the hidden place was quite another. What was I to say? When I gave voice to the cry of a community, I could articulate hopes and desires, or fall back on the reliable petitions of the people of God in all times and places. But when I was alone, I was not sure where to begin, or what to say in a world filled with trouble, speaking to a God who surely had other, more important matters to attend to than the trivial concerns of little old me. 

    Things changed when I offered a simple prayer, asking God to teach me to pray. That was my beginning. When I was alone before God I turned my being toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and began with that bit of simple speech, “Teach me to pray.”

    On some days, that was all that could be said. At other times, my private prayers, either written or spoken, stretched a little further. It was like I had discovered a muscle I had never really flexed, so the least bit of activity was a challenge. But I persisted in the knowledge that the strengthening of this muscle was vital for the well-being of the entire body, my entire self. No transplants were available. I was going to have to practice, to exercise, and build endurance.

    Eugene Peterson* was one of my guides along the way. He says it well:

    [W]hen we engage in the act of prayer itself, there is no preparing, no getting the right words, no posture to take, no mood to assume. We simply do it. Prayer is primal speech. We do not first learn how to do it, and then proceed to do it; we do it, in the doing we find out what we are doing, and then deepen and mature in it.

    That’s where we begin. We “simply do it.”

    Along the way I’ve figured a few things out. I have learned that God’s greatness is found in his lowliness. God can give ear to the concerns of “little old me,” because God is “great old God.” I’ve learned that my small, trivial concerns are not unworthy of a true friend, and I’ve become aware that it is self-centeredness and attempts at self-preservation that have kept me from crying out for help. I think I can handle my problems. I think I am the center of my own universe.

    Through prayer, God teaches us that this is not true. Through prayer, we suspect we will discover the One who rightfully belongs at the center of our lives, and of course, this displaces us. We think we belong at the center. Therefore we resist. Eugene Peterson states:

    In prayer we intend to leave the world of anxieties and enter a world of wonder. We decide to leave an ego-centered world and enter a God-centered world. We will leave a world of problems and enter a world of mystery. But it is not easy. We are used to anxieties, egos, and problems; we are not used to wonder, God, and mystery.

    I have also learned to rely on the Psalms. The psalmists have become my certified personal medical and training staff. Why?  Many of the Psalms are laments, and our world is filled with trouble. Each cry of despair only confirms that those who have been faithful through the centuries have been acquainted with grief, just like their Lord. But there are also psalms of petitions and celebration and remembrance. The Psalms teach us to pray, and to do so within the community of the prayerful. In joining my voice to theirs, God helps me discover my own deep need for salvation, redemption, healing, and restoration. I discover who God has made me to be, and who God is calling me to become. In prayer, my life is aligned with God’s life. My deepest desires are uncovered, revealed, and fulfilled.

    Peterson again:

    The Psalms train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees; lift our hands in concert with other lifted hands; join our voices in lament and praise with other voices who weep and laugh. The primary use of prayer is not for expressing ourselves, but in becoming ourselves, and we cannot do that alone.

    Peterson insightfully adds that “We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be,” and that “The regular place of prayer is the ordinary life.” The Psalms reinforce this discovery, and as we learn their rhythms and patterns, and adapt them to our own realities, they train us to rely on God in the same fashion as those saints of old.

    There are still lessons to learn. My training is not complete. But if prayer is something you are seeking to learn, begin, even if your first efforts appear to you as weak. The Word precedes your words. It is God who calls us to pray. When you cannot pray for yourself, rely on others to give voice to your cry, either in the Psalms, or in the congregation.

    “The Spirit searches all things,” Paul writes, “even the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10b) The Spirit searches our hearts, and reveals to us the unfathomable nature of God’s love. Prayer is our response. Let us learn from the One who will teach us.

    *All quotations are taken from Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.