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    Entries in Christian Spiritual Formation (10)

    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.

    Tuesday
    Apr222014

    Book Review :: Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

    Living in a time of increased secularization has numerous byproducts, and among them is neglect of the soul. The immaterial or spiritual dimension of the human person has become a mystery, and while soul-language endures, questions such as "How is it with your soul?" are often met with perplexity and mystification. Our thinking concerning the soul is quite limited, and for those suffering from deepest distress at our spiritual core, we lack wisdom concerning where to turn.

    John Ortberg, in his latest book Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You ($5.99 on Kindle today), calls our attention to the soul, something he claims we acknowledge yet do not understand. We do live during a time when the soul is greatly neglected, even among Christian people.  Therefore, when a pastor or leader steps forward and offers us wisdom, we should evaluate their words first, and then, where found to be true, put them in to practice.

    I've read many John Ortberg books, and I think this is one of his best. It is personal and it is sophisticated. It is a readable work, one that I enjoyed. The book begins with a parable, with Ortberg telling us of a stream and its keeper. In the story there is a village, seated at the base of a mountain. High atop the trail, there is an elderly man who travels up and down the stream, keeping it free from debris or any substance that could pollute its waters. As long as the stream is well kept, the village prospers and enjoys the benefits. When the stream is neglected, all suffer. And Ortberg tells us the soul is like the stream, and we are like the keeper. We must do those things which lead to health. The first priority is reconciliation and a sustained relationship with the one for whom our souls are made--God himself. This is a vivid and practical image that is carried throughout the book.

    The book consists of a three-part construction. Ortberg explains what the soul is, and examines our lack of knowledge concerning this most fundamental part of the human person. He then explores what the soul needs--a keeper, a center, a future, fellowship with God, rest, freedom, blessing, sanctification, and gratitude. And finally, Ortberg explores the experience of desolation--known by many as the dark night. In complementary fashion, he also examines consolation, and the peace that comes when a soul is at rest, filled with joyous confidence in God.

    As someone who reads a great deal of literature on Christian spiritual formation and the care of the soul, I recommend this book. As I have said, it reads easy and contains engaging personal stories and helpful insight. For those who have read Dallas Willard, you will see how Ortberg points to and develops themes within his work. But you will also see Willard as a mortal, a fellow disciple of Jesus who loved God deeply and was transformed by grace, yet not without his flaws and struggles. Ortberg also does well with theological and biblical material that helps the reader to understand the soul, and to turn to Christ for healing.

    Other reviewers have noted that Ortberg often speaks of his mentor, the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. Some found the frequency with which an anecdote, saying, quotation, or experience with Willard makes its way in to these pages an annoyance, and I can see how this might be the case. As I have grown familiar with Willard's work and even attended a few conferences where he spoke in his final years, one of the trends I observed was for his interlocutors to wonder at his brilliance during question and answer sessions, or to tell stories of conversations where Willard's profundity required restatement or simplification in order to be understood. Many of Ortberg's quotations of Willard fall in line with this trend. Many Willard quotes are followed by, "Huh?"

    I happen to agree that Dallas Willard is an incomparable mind, and an unconventional thinker. His approach to Christian spiritual formation and the life of discipleship has been revolutionary for my own thought and practice, as it has been for countless others. In my opinion, Ortberg would have done well to let Willard's brilliance speak for itself, without drawing attention to his own slowness to comprehend his offhanded remarks or carefully presented teachings. But that is a matter of taste, not a matter of substance or value concerning Ortberg's overall work. Any reviewer that would downgrade their evaluation of this book because of an annoyance arising from this aspect of the presentation must not have paid ample attention to the lessons Ortberg does in fact offers us, whether by way of Willard, or through his own pastoral experience and theological reflection.

    The wise reader will not finish this book and consider it as an end in itself, but will look beyond it to the God who created the soul, and has made available every resource in Jesus to bring about its restoration and healing.

    Tuesday
    Mar182014

    The Importance of Song in Christian Spiritual Formation

    Great words from N. T. Wright, courtesy of RELEVANT.

    Here's a link to the article.

    I've read The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential. I recommend it.

    Tuesday
    Jan142014

    Book Review :: Mindy Caliguire's STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships

    Photo by Spyridoula Della

    Mindy Caliguire is a leading voice in the area of Christian spiritual formation. She writes with clarity and passion. In her book STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships, Caliguire helps us to understand three basic elements in the spiritual journey that can help church leaders think through how we create contexts where people move toward maturity in Christ.

    Caliguire identifies three distinct phases as we grow: Learning Together, Journeying Together, and Following Together. In the first stage, we discover the basics of the Christian faith. We learn the Bible, acquire a theological vocabulary, and are taught very simple practices, such as prayer. We establish relationships with others that are highly directive--we rely on others to show us the way, pointing us to Christ. As those just beginning, we need a foundation that is solid and dependable. We need to learn.

    Once the foundation is set, we transition to Journeying Together. We find other Christian friends who are walking alongside us, committing themselves to the cause, and providing us with both direction and discernment. We are being taught, but we are also listening with others, discovering the will of God for us, in our lives as they unfold. This phase might be bolstered by participation in a community group, a small fellowship, or as part of a retreat.

    Maturity leads us to a place of Following Together. Having gained foundational knowledge, faced obstacles, and increased in our love for God, we have now become steadfast. We're running the race. As Caliguire writes, the primary goal of this stage is to keep going. We act as God has called us to act, and we invite others along. We impart the wisdom that we've gained, and we remain faithful to the end.

    At each stage, Caliguire helps church leaders to identify where we might find ourselves, and how to break through when we feel stuck. She describes what someone ministering in each stage might possess in terms of giftedness, the makeup of their character, and what their next steps might be. Caliguire's model is meant to establish a frame for a church ministry, calling people within that ministry to identify where they are on the journey, and to find a place where they are challenged to step forward as they continue to follow Christ. The entire model, being relational, requires not only participants, but leaders.

    As far as model books go, this is a good one. It clearly expresses basic principles and key narratives that lead to the creation of environments that are conducive to formation in Christlikeness. If you're familiar with contemporary writings on Christian spiritual formation, you won't be surprised with new information in this book, but you will be helped by the clarity Caliguire brings to the application of these ideas to the local church. Her emphasis on the relational side of formation, of the essential aspect of community, is a needed balance, considering some spiritual formation literature focuses primarily on individual practices.

    But the book is not without a couple of shortcomings. First, I think there is a great deal of overlap between the ideas of Journeying Together and Following Together, and while I do find Caliguire's shades or degrees of maturity somewhat illuminating, the division here, in my mind, is rather small. Perhaps this is a limitation in myself as the reader, and not in Caliguire's presentation. But if I understand her correctly, the Journeying phase is where our commitment is deepened and our focus is established. During this period, we have set our mind on Christ, and we are determined to pass through any obstacle, even the challenge of the desert, to remain faithful to him. But once we transition to the Following Together stage, our primary goal is to stay the course. We're to remain with it. Everything that was established in the second phase of the model is solidified in the third. We cultivate our inward life, we commit ourselves to God's purpose, and we bind ourselves more fully to our company of Christians. There is a division, perhaps, but it is very fine, and I'm not sure how I'd fully apply these distinctions if I was developing my own model or asking those who I lead to locate themselves within this framework.

    As a second desire, I would've liked one example of how a local church has put the STIR model in to practice. An appendix with a narrative description of a single person's growth, and the relationships that were most helpful, would've created a fuller picture. If there are programs that have been used to foster the kinds of relationships Caliguire describes, I would've enjoyed a description of how those settings made an impact. While Caliguire provides examples of contexts where the stages can be experienced, I would've liked to see those elements compacted in to a single narrative.

    But however significant these shortcomings were for me personally, they do not negate the value of the book. If you're a church leader who is seeking to apply principles of Christian spiritual formation to your context, Caliguire is an instructive and clear voice. She gives you much to consider, and forces you to establish a narrative frame within which those you lead can find themselves. She knows and understands that the Christian life is a growth process, and that maturity does not come overnight. I'm thankful that Caliguire helps us to see that there is movement within our own spiritual journeys, and with God's help, there is progress. As church leaders, we are called to show others the way, to help those we pastor and shepherd to discover God's grace, and to fully rely on his power for transformation. Oftentimes, the vehicle through which God brings our greatest challenges is found in the lives of other people--change comes directly through relationships.

    I've already introduced these ideas in my student ministry, and they'll continue to serve as a subcurrent running beneath our efforts. Check it out.

    Thursday
    Feb142013

    Book Review :: Dallas Willard's Hearing God

    Dallas Willard’s Hearing God, Updated and Expanded: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God is the most practical, straightforward, and helpful theological resource on communicating with God I have ever encountered. Communicating with God may very well be the most pressing and least understood aspect of the Christian spiritual life today, and too often, I have worked with people who do not expect to hear from God, or who believe hearing from God is a spiritual experience reserved only for select holy men and women. This is despite the fact they have been invited to enter a “personal relationship with God.”

    Moving methodically and with precision, Willard introduces the reader to the “paradox in the contemporary experience and understanding of hearing God.” On the one hand, “we have massive testimony to and widespread faith in God’s personal, guiding communication with us,” and on the other we “find a pervasive and often painful uncertainty about how hearing God’s voice actually works.” Willard then gives guidelines for hearing from God, assurance that God is with us, an examination of God’s speaking in the created order, and the nature of God’s voice as “still and small” amidst competing voices. Then, Willard examines God’s Word and God’s rule, the transformation that comes through hearing and believing the gospel about Jesus, the ongoing role of Scripture in furthering that transformation in the life of the disciple, wisdom in how we discern God’s voice, and, lastly, how we listen for God in the everyday, beyond matters of simple guidance, growing in friendship with him. This book is narrowly focused but incredibly deep, laser-like but possessing a unique breadth. It is a treasure.

    Willard writes with a pastoral tone, expressing concern for those who have, so often, shared with him their difficulties in hearing God. Very gently, Willard reminds those who believe their prayers do not pass the ceiling that “God is beneath the ceiling.” God is near. God hears you. God has spoken, and his Word still rings out. God wants you to listen, and to discern God’s voice. Countless examples from Scripture, and the testimony of many Christians known and obscure confirm that God is a God who has spoken, and who speaks. God is good, and will teach all who are willing to learn to communicate with him “as a friend.”

    Willard is also a Christian philosopher. In my view, this is a strength. The author has given this matter careful thought, and has surveyed a broad range of theological and autobiographical writings on the subject of hearing God. He moves the reader through the finer points of hearing the divine voice, discerning God’s will, and living life before God in “the kingdom of the heavens.” Patient and thoughtful readers will be rewarded in considering the book as a whole, not only in reading those portions considered “practical.” We don’t “get to the point” when learning to hear God, we get to the person. God is a person, not a machine that can be manipulated through our own power. When we meet the Person and are initiated in to the life of the kingdom Jesus announced and enacted, the adventure begins, the conversation broadens, the world takes on a new shape. We do not control God’s speaking by mastering a “hearing technique.” That’s good news.

    If God is personal, and we enter a relationship to God, wouldn’t it make sense to communicate with this person who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? As Willard notes, a brief biblical survey of ordinary people like Abraham, Moses, Miriam, David, or Mary reveals that God is certainly an awe-inspiring figure, but near enough to befriend his human creatures. In one of the more profound insights explored in this book, Willard argues God’s greatness is amplified by his lowliness. If God desires to establish friendship with those who seek communion in his presence, he most certainly can bring it to pass.

    Once the premise that God can, and does, communicate with us is accepted, all that is left is to establish the ways and means we might experience such communication. That is no small task. How, exactly, does one discern God’s speaking? What role does Scripture play? What pitfalls exist, and how might we avoid them? What about those who abuse others through the claim they have heard from God? To what degree does God communicate his will for our lives, and to what extent do we possess a freedom to choose that which we believe is best? Willard addresses these questions, and others.

    A unique feature of the Updated & Expanded edition is the incorporation of lectio divina, or “sacred reading.” A bugaboo for some due to association with Catholic spirituality or mysticism (unfounded, in my opinion), lectio can be helpful when regarded as a means by which to discern God’s voice, and not as a means to some esoteric experience of God. Six familiar passages of Scripture are highlighted, complementing material in six of the chapters. The reader is invited to read, reflect, respond, and rest in the text. The inclusion of this type of Bible reading trains us  with regard to how God has spoken in the past, and in hearing God’s voice today.

    For those reading this book with others, each chapter ends with a series of discussion questions that review content and broaden the conversation. As noted on the back cover, a companion DVD resource is also available as a separate purchase. Taking on this topic with others isn’t a bad idea; you will find that a community of others learning to communicate with God is an immense help in understanding and applying the truths contained in this book.

    Lastly, I have read many books on Christian spiritual formation, and specifically on learning to hear God’s voice. Hearing God is unparalleled. It is a complex, sophisticated book, but it is incredibly clear and direct, immensely edifying for the diligent. Don’t let other reviewers dissuade you by describing this book as one “for seminarians.” I have read this book twice, and missed many key aspects on my first reading.

    But great books are worth rereading. They continue to teach us, as we change, grow, and develop. This is just such a book.

    If you found this review helpful, head over to Amazon and tell others.

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