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    Entries in Christian Spiritual Formation (10)

    Tuesday
    Sep262017

    An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel, Author of Keeping Place

    Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP Books, 2017). You can visit her blog here. I interviewed her about the book, which is excellent, and she was gracious in sharing her thoughts.

    BAS: Keeping Place is a biblical and theological reflection on the meaning of home. What led you to write the book?

    JPM: I’m one of those people who can’t answer the very simple question, “Where’s home for you?” I think that’s a big reason that the topic of home has been an important one for me. Currently, our family lives in Toronto, Canada. We moved here from Chicago six years ago, so in many ways, we’re outsiders here. But even before that, I’ve had a long history of moving. As a child, we moved often for my father’s education and job. I can’t really say where I’m from, where I’ll be buried, which inspires a weird sense of dislocation, to be honest. I think it’s that dislocation, that homesickness, that give rise to a deep longing to be rooted somewhere.

    I think it’s also fair to say that this book is a natural follow-up to my first book, Teach Us to Want. If I argued in that first book that desire isn’t always this terrible, corrupt part of ourselves, that sometimes our desires have very important things to say about God, our place in his world, and the purposes for which we are made, then I work out my own deep desire for home in Keeping Place. And what I found, in Scripture, is this incredibly hopeful idea that God is a homemaker, that he’s made a home for us, that we do in fact belong somewhere, that all our sense of impermanence in this world is finally going to come to a glorious end. The gospel story is a home story!

    BAS: In your second chapter you present a history of homemaking, noting the ways domestic roles have taken shape over time based on numerous factors. You write, "According to Scripture, home is shared human work." You explain that homemaking has not always been the exclusive domain of women. You then proceed to outline biblical instructions for men within the home. I found this to be a welcome reminder with regard to my role at home. Has your work been engaged by a male readership? What has been the response?

    JPM: I have to say that I’m so incredibly encouraged by the response from male readers! My publisher and I knew that this was going to be a tricky task, trying to market a book on home to both women and men. It’s not a topic that immediately seems resonant to men, which is why that chapter you’re mentioning had to be very early in the book. I needed to draw out that important pre-Industrial revolution history to make the case for saying that home should matter to everyone, and I have heard from men that they’re appreciative of that historical context. I’m blessed by the men who have put a lot of their own support behind this book; Scott Sauls wrote the foreword, several different men endorsed it, men like you who are featuring it on their blogs and podcasts. I’m grateful. I want also to say that it continues to be difficult for women in Christian publishing to have their work taken as seriously as male authors. I think it’s telling when I hear from women that their male pastors have not one single title, written by a woman, to recommend to their congregation. It saddens me to see booklists published by popular blogs and websites and not to see a single woman author on those lists. It’s just not true that women aren’t publishing good books these days, and I would love to see men reading more widely—to include women as well as other marginalized groups.

    BAS: In chapter four you write about our modern tendency toward mobility and the importance ofplace. I find that many people feel caught between the tension of wanting to be on a journey while simultaneously longing for home. The chapter closes with a reflection on the Benedictine vow of stability. How do you see stability and place as important for spiritual formation and Christian witness?

    JPM: I’ll tell a quick story. Just this morning, I was walking to the gym, which is right in my neighborhood. I’m there three times a week, so there’s a lot of familiarity with the people there, both at the gym and at the Tim Horton’s where I camp out for the half hour before my fitness class starts. I hadn’t been to the gym all summer, and as I walked there this morning, I recognized the same woman who frequently begs outside. My first thought today was, “She’s still here? What a bother.” But then the Holy Spirit ever so gently asked, “But isn’t this your neighborhood? And doesn’t that, it some way, make her a part of your sphere of responsibility?”

    That’s what stability does. That’s what rootedness does. It starts to imprint on your soul, on your conscience, who belongs in your sphere of responsibility, whom God is asking you to actively love. Our habits of mobility—of constantly moving from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, even church to church—can, in very tragic ways, disrupt the important, if also difficult task, of living with and loving broken people in broken places. When people and places disappoint us, we so easily sever our ties and move on, not recognizing that the restlessness of our souls, the pining for the greener grass somewhere else, is never going to be satisfied. The shine always wears off the new. I am as guilty of that illusion of anyone else.

    Stability, while hard, offers so many gifts: the gift of our sanctification (because we stay rather than leave when times get hard); the gift of being known and received by people who know our story, the gift of fruitful ministry (because ministry is always relational, and there’s no rushing that). I’m just starting to experience these gifts here in Toronto, and we hope to stay put!

    BAS: In your chapter on marriage you write, "The mystery of self-sacrifice in marriage is that it is not an obstacle to self-fulfillment but a means to it." You note that both marriage and family involve various forms of self-sacrifice, and say "The mystery of marriage isn't its limitless capacity for securing our personal happiness. the mystery is its witness to the eternal, self-sacrificing love of Jesus for his bride." How do Christian convictions about marriage offer a counter-narrative to modern understandings of self-fulfillment, and how can the uniqueness of Christian marriage offer a compelling witness to those who are not part of the community of faith?

    JPM: As I talk about in the book, marriage is a tremendously important practice of stability. It’s not commitment to a place for a lifetime—but commitment to a person. And as Paul talks about in Ephesians, it’s marriage that witnesses to God’s unfailing love for his people. I think that parallel—of Christian marriage to Christ and the Church—forces us to lament how easily we in the church discard our marriage vows for that proverbial greener grass. I’m right now in the middle of watching a very close friend choose divorce—and I say choose, because the situation, while complicated, doesn’t necessarily warrant it—and it is a tremendous grief. I think she thought divorce would be easier than a difficult marriage, but I think she’s realizing that it’s not that easy.

    What could it look like for us, as Christians, to keep choosing our marriage even when it’s not necessarily fulfilling our dreams and desires? Anyone who has been married for some time knows that we must choose our marriages every day: choose confession, choose repentance, choose service, choose self-sacrifice, choose honesty, choose love. You don’t choose those things and get immediate reward. But if these are your regular practices, I think you’re moving in the direction of a marriage that is resilient, God-honoring, and as you say, something your neighbors are going to notice. And when they do, you get to say something to the effect of, “We’re no heroes. But Jesus is in this marriage, too, and it’s his faithfulness that is holding us together.”

    BAS: In our household one of our great challenges is finding space for rest, or sabbath keeping. What wisdom would you offer to those who believe themselves to be "too busy" to keep sabbath and create space to reconnect and remember their Creator?

    I’d love to answer this as someone who has got it all figured out. But I absolutely don’t! I will say that one thing that has been incredibly helpful to our own family is to draw fairly strict boundaries around Sunday. Generally, our kids don’t participate in athletic events on Sunday, we don’t usually drive them to birthday parties. And let me be honest and say that this restriction limits what they can and can’t do, especially when it comes to sports. None of them has been able participate in any super competitive leagues because that requires Sunday involvement. But it’s allowed us to make worship a priority for Sunday, which isn’t a small thing.

    It’s interesting to me: my oldest daughter and I were recently visiting a college campus, and one of the campus ministers was giving us a tour. He was talking about the kinds of Christians who lose their faith at college, and he said one group of kids who don’t really grow in their faith are those whose parents, in high school, let them miss church for athletic events and for homework or school projects. Their parents told them, implicitly if not explicitly, “Your sports, your athletics: these matter for your future. They’re more important than church.” And I think that should feel haunting to us as parents! Sabbath isn’t, as you say, simply a practice of rest: it’s a reorientation of our hearts toward God. That makes church a really big part of Sabbath-keeping.

    In terms of making the time for rest, I’d love to quote from one of my favorite books, Essentialism. It’s not written by a Christian, but the principles in the book are incredibly wise, especially for people caught in the busyness trap. Let’s be honest with ourselves to say that we choose busyness more often than it chooses us. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown puts it this way: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” The fact is that God—GOD—has given us, not just the priority, but the privilege of rest. We have the time to keep Sabbath, to engage deliberate rest in our week—but maybe a better question is, “Do we have the courage?” Do we have the courage to get behind, to leave something undone, to trust that God is upholding the universe if we don’t open our email? Sabbath, for me, is exactly that kind of trust. And when I let myself surrender to the idea of my own smallness, even for one day, it recalibrates the rest of the week.

    BAS: I sincerely thank Jen for taking time to chat about her work. Keeping Place can be purchased at Amazon and other fine book sellers around the land.

     

    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.