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    Entries in Renovare' (3)


    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.


    Book Review :: 25 Books Every Christian Should Read

    Christianity is a treasure trove of wisdom.  But, as the book of Proverbs tells us, wisdom must be sought.  And, again as in the book of Proverbs, it is helpful when we are supplied with father and mother figures who would point us the way, who would instruct us in wisdom so that we might learn, develop, prosper, and grow.  25 Books Every Christian Should Read: A Guide to the Essential Spiritual Classics is a guide, compiled by wise and thoughtful Christian leaders, who seek to introduce us to those who have helped countless Christians be spiritually formed in the way of Jesus.

    The structure of 25 Books is simple.  After a word of introduction concerning methodology and the layout of each chapter, as well as a helpful, critical exposition concerning the logic of how and why each work is selected, 25 Books proceeds chronologically from Athanasius to Henri Nouwen, providing historical background for each work or its author, a justification for why that work is essential, guidelines for reading the selection, an excerpt, and discussion or reflection questions that can be used by individuals or small groups.

    The selections that are included are all strong recommendations--I have read 12 of the 25 books from start to finish myself, and am familiar with the other 13 selections, having read parts or quotations from each in other works.  The books also reflect a diversity across the Christian tradition.  There are books compiled by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox.  There are theologians (Calvin) and philosophers (Pascal) and practitioners (Brother Lawrence).  There is both story (Bunyan, Dostoevsky) and poetry (Dante, Gerard Manley Hopkins).  There are men and women (Teresa of Avila, Julian or Norwich), though more men than women, not including the anonymous texts.  There is also more ideological and geographical diversity than might be supposed--though many of these authors might come from the "Western tradition", many preceded globalization and cultural homogenization.

    "Best of" or "Should Read" or "Must see" lists are notorious for being incomplete, and their compilation always leads to debate, as it should.  For as soon as the cut off line is established, it is inevitable that a number of selections will be left waiting near the precipice, looking on and wondering why they have been excluded so that another might be included.  What differentiates one from another?  Why is this book or record or movie or experience deemed worthy, while that one has not?  And oftentimes it is the case that this type of debate can be just as productive and fruitful as the discussion of those authors or artists or works that have been included.

    I make this point only to say that there are fair and unfair criticisms that have been levied regarding 25 Books.  There are those that may say that the selections given do not represent enough diversity, even among the contemporary authors included at the back.  In addition to recommending lighting a candle before cursing the darkness by providing their own recommendations, I would note that among those listed I see Russians and French and Spanish mystics.  I see British, German, and American authors.  I see Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox voices.  And I also see a number of women on the editorial board who compiled these selections, and were surely afforded by the board itself a great deal of sway.  There are also a number of "Top 5" lists scattered throughout the book from voices like Emile Griffin and Brenda Quinn, in addition to Ron Sider and Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith.  There are men and women that helped shape this book, from a number of different traditions.  The inclusion of The Desert Fathers and Augustine also allow for ancient Eastern or African voices to be included--Hippo, or present day Annaba, is located in Algeria.

    A dear friend of mine has noted that this list "skews contemplative."  But of course!  The list has been compiled by Renovare, an organization that is known for pushing the church toward soul transformation, mining the riches of the Christian tradition for all it is worth, and sharing its treasures.  And while there is some truth to this charge, it is hard to say that Augustine or Calvin, Bonhoeffer or even C.S. Lewis have been favorites of contemplatives.  Granted, Confessions has been read as more of a devotional book, but Augustine's prose has been invaluable for the intellectual development of the church on doctrines such as human anthropology and sin, God's sovereignty, and grace.

    There are books that I would have preferred to be included, such as selections from the Standard Sermons of John Wesley, or excerpts from the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas.  I'd also contend that Brian McLaren does not merit conclusion on the list of contemporary authors who should be read, having read and discussed in detail most everything he has ever published.  But as I've noted above, these lists must stop somewhere, and the exclusion of some provides a good contrast for the inclusion of others.

    I recommend this book as a "library builder", a helpful companion that points toward resources that are indispensable for every Christian library.  It is not an "end all" list, but a beginning point for conversation.  The discussion questions are solid, and the historical background is helpful.  The underlying point that Christians should read for spiritual formation is undeniable, and all that is discovered within this book's pages is worthy of passing on to other Christians, or even those considering the Christian faith.

    Solid resource, excellent selections, worthy of discussion, and trustworthy as a guide to authors and books that will build your soul.


    A Good and Beautiful Book. James Bryan Smith -- The Good and Beautiful God

    This summer I attended the Renovare' International Conference in San Antonio, Texas, and while I was there I signed up for an intensive track with James Bryan Smith, who presented material he and his team had developed for his forthcoming set of books called "The Apprentice Series."  These books, titled, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life (available for pre-order), and The Good and Beautiful Community (forthcoming) are progressively being released this year by the Formatio branch of InterVarsity Press, a division of IVP dedicated to spiritual formation resources.

    Before this conference, I did not know James Bryan Smith.  But I knew his mentors.  Dr. Smith has been discipled by Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen, and also names Rich Mullins and Brennan Manning among his contemporary spiritual influences.  Dr. Smith is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, and now serves as chaplain and assistant professor of religion at Friends University.  In the past few months I have had opportunity to sit down with Jim and members of his team on two occasions, and have been blessed by his life and leadership.  In developing the content for The Apprentice Series, Jim has been blessed with a team of five Christian leaders who have put this material to work in their ministries.  Thus far, I have met three of these persons--C.J. Fox, Matthew Johnson, and Jimmy Taylor.

    During my time at the Renovare' conference I was very impressed by what I heard from Jim.  After thinking about ideas presented by Dallas Willard and Richard Foster (and others) for many years, Jim had managed to capture those ideas and translate them into language more easily accessible to those laboring in the local church.  Jim's book, The Good and Beautiful God, is a good and beautiful book for this reason.  As someone who has found the work of Willard and Foster important for my own spiritual life, and as someone who has sought to incorporate those ideas in my approach to Christian ministry, I found Smith's book to be an incredibly helpful tool.  The book is accessible, theologically engaging, centered on Scripture, and practical.  It is also written with a pastoral heart that evidences a love for God's people, the church.  Smith knows that we, as the church, have a high calling to form people in the way of Jesus, and that our opportunity to do so, and to do so well, is immensely great. His book helps show the way.

    The Good and Beautiful God is structured in a way that centers on narratives and practices.  In each chapter Smith introduces a false narrative, exposes it, and then explores a "Jesus narrative" that better reflects the truth of the Christian story.  For example, "God loves me when I am good and punishes me when I am bad," is a prevalent story among many people--Christian and non-Christian alike.  Smith exposes this narrative as false, and instead grounds the reader in Jesus' kingdom announcement and the teachings of the apostle Paul, arguing that those in Christ are, "ones in whom Christ dwells and delights."  We are lavished in God's love.  We are safe and secure in God's unshakable kingdom.  God's love for us is unceasing, unstoppable, and inexhaustible.

    After an exploration of false narratives and an introduction of a new narrative, Smith recommends a practice that will help new narratives take root.  Smith calls these "soul training exercises."  Smith follows Willard in recognizing that we do not advance in the spiritual life apart from training.  In presenting how these exercises help us advance, Smith teaches an important principle that I had not grasped--that of indirection.  To illustrate how indirection works, Smith tells the story of Peyton Manning, who in Super Bowl XLI, outperformed the opposing quarterback, Rex Grossman of the Bears, in route to a Colts victory.  Manning went 25-38 in pass attempts, throwing for 247 yards with one touchdown and one interception.  Grossman went 20-28, threw for 165 yards, had one TD and two interceptions.  The weather conditions were horrible, with rain falling in Jacksonville for most of the game, and Grossman was clearly affected, much moreso than Manning.  Following the game, the story was told that Manning had worked all year with his center, Jeff Saturday, on taking wet ball snaps during practice, despite the fact the Colts home stadium was covered by a dome.  Saturday would ask Manning why they were doing this, and Manning replied that the day might come when they might need it.  He was right--and it came in handy on the game's biggest stage.  That is indirection, and soul training exercises work in the same way.

    The exercises recommended in TG&BG are:

    • Sleep
    • Silence and Creation Awareness
    • Counting Your Blessings
    • Praying Psalm 23
    • Lectio Divina
    • Margin
    • Reading the Gospel of John
    • Solitude
    • Slowing Down

    Smith recommends that these disciplines and these narratives should be explored and practiced in community, and TG&BG includes discussion questions and a small group guide.  Jim illustrates the relationship between practices, narratives, community, and the Holy Spirit this way:

    More resources for teaching this material are available at The Apprentice Series website.  I think this is a great resource, and could be used in small groups over a 12 or 13 week period.  As I have shared, I think that Dr. Smith has provided a practical, helpful, well grounded resource for those seeking to become more and more like Jesus.

    Check it out.

    Added note: For those in the Midwest, James Bryan Smith will be at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City November 6-7 leading an Apprentice Conference.  Though I don't know exactly what I'll be doing, I've been invited to come along with the team.  Check it out here.