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    Entries in Formatio (11)

    Wednesday
    May312017

    Book Review: Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary

    All too often I hear stories from Christians who experience life apart from the mystery and delight that flows from trusting in the promises of God’s ongoing, everyday presence and companionship. Daylight breaks and routines unfold until the moment the sun hides again beyond the horizon. Another day is put in the books. The calendar turns, and the years pass. After a while, life comes to be described as “just one damned thing after another.”

    Sadly, I have shared these assumptions about life, and God’s workings and ways within it, failing to perceive the unending possibilities immediately before me for love, grace, and the overwhelming tide of the holy.

    That is why it is so refreshing when I encounter a book like Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, has allowed the practice of Christian worship to reshape her imagination and adjust her eyesight, renewing her vision in the everyday. Through engaging storytelling, clear prose, and acute theological reflection, she invites us to see our days not as mundane and meaningless, but as the arena of the eternal and the sacred. We join God upon his playground, as well as in his workshop, and we are his friends and co-laborers. Our play and our work is not profane, but is the very place where our redemption is actualized.

    The structure of her book is very simple. Warren walks us through a single day, from waking until sleeping. She writes, “How I spend an ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.” She considers her everyday chores and routines, things like making the bed and brushing her teeth, and how these actions remind us of how our lives are shaped, and how we are mortal, embodied creatures. She considers our need for confession, faces the reality of friction in our closest relationships, and contemplates the gift that is a good meal. She takes up the bane that email can be, and often is, and reframes it as but one aspect of vocational holiness. She reflects on time, community, pleasure, and sabbath and explores their meaning for us as human beings. There are no empty calories in this book. Every sentence is a hearty morsel, amounting to a wholesome meal.

    The book also includes a bonus: questions for discussion to accompany each chapter, as well as suggested practices to help the reader become more aware of God’s presence.

    I rarely dish out such high praise, even for books that I like. But I found this book so surprisingly fresh, and so creative, that I cannot help but gush. Consider your days, and, like Warren, allow the practice of worship to reshape how it is that you see. Discover that God’s holiness is abundant and present in every task that we undertake as his servants and friends. God does not remake us into the image of his Son apart from the kitchen, the cubicle, or the park. He meets us where we are. He works in our midst. He speaks in a thousand tongues, and with no sound at all.

    Attune your senses, and open your heart. God is present and active, unfolding his mystery in this moment, and the next. Warren can help us pay heed to the Spirit, to respond to the holy, and to walk with the Son. Take up and read. This is a great book.

    Friday
    Aug192016

    Review: A Spirituality of Listening

    When we imagine a person who is mature in Christ we think of someone persistent in action and filled with spiritual wisdom. We think of the words they say or the work they do. We associate that person with love, joy, patience, kindness, and other virtues. Only in rare cases do we think of the person who listens.

    But listening is the ground and starting point for the development of the person who is spiritually wise and mature.

    In A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (IVP Formatio, 2016), Keith Anderson argues for the practice of listening. We live in an age of distraction, overpopulated with words and filled with frenetic activity. We live at a time when people long for a word from God. There is restlessness and anxiety in both world and church.

    But God has spoken. God is speaking. We have failed to listen. “Be still,” the psalmist writes, “and know that I am God.”

    Hearing a word from God is often associated with esoteric religious experiences. But Anderson argues for a different account of the spiritual life and a different reading of the Bible. Anderson writes, “My claim is simple: spirituality is grounded in ordinary life experiences. We need to learn to listen to rhythms of life, narratives and creation. I also make a more complex claim: Jesus learned to know God through biblical forms still available to us.”

    Anderson merges two ideas. We encounter God in the everyday, and Jesus is the one who shows us how to listen. It is through Jesus-style listening that we come to know God.

    Anderson writes:

    Biblical spirituality says there is still a source that reveals the voice of the living God. It asserts that God is not done with the business of revelation and creation but instead continues to have something to say and something yet to be accomplished in the very culture that isn't sure if God is done speaking.

    Anderson writes of the creation, the commonplace, the Bible, and specifically the Psalms as locations where God is revealing himself. Anderson writes about Hebrew spirituality and Israel’s call to listen, found in Deuteronomy 6:4. He explores the prophetic voice, the cry of lament, and the example of Jesus as crucial points of investigation that help us become attuned to God’s manner of speaking.

    In his final chapter, Anderson explores otherness, community, and God’s diverse vehicles for bringing a word. Anderson states, “We aren't much good at listening to otherness--different languages, worldviews, ages, genders, sexualities, abilities, demographics, religions or philosophies.” It is not easy to listen to those who are different.

    Anderson sees our differences as akin to accent. He writes, “Learning to listen to God also means learning to listen to those who listen to God in ways that are unfamiliar or just different than my way.” I am from East Texas. I am well versed in sounding funny. And there are plenty of Christians (and people, for that matter) who sound like Yankees to me.

    Learning to listen to those who are different, those who are other, is one of the great challenges of Anderson’s book.

    Another challenge concerns God’s manner of speaking and how we come to listen to God’s voice. Anderson writes much of the commonplace as the domain of God’s revelation. There is truth in that claim. God teaches us within the context of our lives as they are lived today.

    But there is also the Bible. And therein lies the tension. Learning to hear God in the commonplace is best conducted when the experiences of everyday life are filtered through the biblical narrative. How God speaks to us in and through the Bible is a matter of theological debate. But it is through the words of Scripture that God has spoken and is speaking; it is as though an eternal, timeless voice echoes through the ages and comes to us as a word presently spoken.

    Listening is indispensable for spiritual formation in Christ. We cannot become mature Christians without learning how to listen. Jesus not only is our Savior, he is also our Teacher. Teachers instruct by example, but also through words. He is the Good Shepherd. Hearing his call to “come” is accompanied by his invitation to “follow.” In the words of the old hymn:

    Take up thy cross and follow me,
    I heard my Master say.
    I gave my life to ransom thee,
    Surrender your all today.

    Wherever he leads, I’ll go.

    But first, as Anderson reminds us, we must listen.

    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.

    Tuesday
    Feb192013

    Book Review :: Hess and Arnold's The Life of the Body

    James William McClendon, in volume one of his Systematic Theology, observes that a certain "biblical materialism" is essential for the formation of ethics. God is the creator of all organic matter, including our bodies. The church, as the people of God, is a bodily fellowship--the body of Christ. Therefore, determining how we are to live, and why, is predicated on certain assumptions regarding our physical nature and constitution in the world.

    Knowing this, Valerie Hess and Lane M. Arnold focus on the body in their book, The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation (Renovare Resources) (IVP Books; Formatio). Hess and Arnold explore the intersection of Christian spiritual formation and physical health, carefully examining the interrelationship between body and soul.

    First, they reflect on the significance of the incarnation, asking what it meant, and now means, that Jesus has a body. Second, they consider the bodily nature of the church, noting the implications for communal life and for the individuals who together comprise the whole.

    Next, Hess and Arnold guide the reader to reflect on just how we offer our worship to God with our bodies. We take steps to enter a worship space. We behold the beauty of the created order with our eyes. We feel water on our skin in baptism. We "taste and see that the Lord" is good as we celebrate the Lord's Meal. We move our tongues to sing and pray to God. We listen to the Word of God proclaimed in Scripture. We use our hands to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Engagement with God is a physical reality, not only a mental or ethereal phenomenon.

    The incarnation, church, and worship of God are the soil from which the remainder of the book flowers forth. Hess and Arnold help the reader to envision a balanced life, and what that means for diet, food choices, and exercise. The authors examine cultural messages about the body and warn against dangerous extremes. They also consider illness, bodily deterioration, suffering, and dying, and what those experiences signify for discipleship. Additionally, they turn an eye to the future and help us consider what we are teaching the next generation, and how we might care for the created order as part of a life well lived in the body.

    The basic message of The Life of the Body is better self-care--a better diet, exercise, sleep, enjoying the created order, and glorifying God in our bodies--which leads to better care for others and for God's good world. Hess and Arnold structure that message in a way that is easy to comprehend and understand. Much of what they say is intuitive, stating truths that most of us have considered but not applied. Most of us know, for instance, that food served at potluck dinners is not always healthy, or that the cultural messages about the body we are saturated with are often idolatrous. Nevertheless, these reminders are helpful, and the practical instruction in this book is notable not because of its profundity, but its simplicity.

    Hess and Arnold are right to argue that care of the body is absolutely essential for spiritual formation and Christian ethics. Life in the Kingdom of Jesus entails placing all things under his Lordship, including who we interact with, what we eat, how we exercise, rest, and how those practices, in turn, lead us to care for our neighbors through the care of our world. Books like this one are rare, though not unprecedented (John Wesley's Primitive Physick comes to mind), primarily because many of the truths given are assumed, and because they are convicting. We often neglect our physical well-being due to busyness, overwork, or apathy, and thus fail in an area that is foundational for the overall stewardship of our lives. Hess and Arnold offer a corrective, and provide a solid trajectory for those who seek to be spiritually formed in Christ, body and soul.

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

    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.