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    Entries in Spiritual Formation (36)


    Prayer: What Does it Accomplish?

    Irresistible Attraction

    Of all the Christian spiritual disciplines, prayer is the most difficult for me, at least as I have come to understand the practice. We are commanded to pray, and taught to pray by the Scriptures, most notably by Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."

    And our pastors and leaders exhort us, telling us to pray, and from time to time they even give us a glimpse of what prayer looks like, earnest and transparent before the throne of God, offering praise, asking for divine help, confessing sin.

    But still, prayer remains difficult. Is God listening? Is his ear inclined to my prayers? Are my prayers, in effect, answered? Are "no," "yes," and "wait" the full range of responses God may offer? Could it be that the conversation is the end, and not the outcome or the result? Might it be that simply entering God's presence is enough? Could it be that prayer has other outcomes, other purposes, other transformative ends in the life of the faithful person, beyond the thrills of a spiritual experience, beyond the chiseling of character, or the witnessing of God's sovereign acts in accordance with our supplications? Or could it be that prayer is all of these, and more? That the facets, the effects of prayer are beyond our imagining? The privilege itself is ineffable.

    Here is a story that may capture one meaning, one end of prayer.

    I once heard a wise elder relay a story of a young monk who had become frustrated by the practice of prayer. He approached an older monk, his spiritual mentor, and asked, "What does prayer do? I am tired of praying! Prayer doesn't accomplish anything!"

    Instead of offering a theological rebuttal, the older monk simply said, "Here is my basket, woven together and made of straw. Please, take this down to the river and fill it with water, and return it to me."

    Again and again, the young monk filled the basket. And time after time, the basket slowly drained as he made his way back to the monastery. Finally, the young monk returned to his master, basket in hand.

    "Each time I attempted to return, the water ran through the basket. I attempted to do as you had asked, but to no avail," said the young monk.

    "Look inside the basket," the older monk offered. "What do you see?"

    The younger monk replied, "When I began, the basket was lined with dirt and a trace of filth, but now, the dirt has been removed. It is clean."

    The older monk then said, "This is what prayer does. It cleans."

    As you pray, remember, God may be at work exposing dirt and rinsing it away. The work may be slow and tedious and gradual. Your patience may wear thin. But take heart. Return again and again to the Water of Life.

    Let him cleanse you.


    An Interview With J. Brent Bill :: Coauthor of Awaken Your Senses

    J. Brent Bill is the author of Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.  This past week I posted a review of his book, and Brent was gracious enough to respond in the comments.  I asked him to join me to discuss his book a little more, and he agreed.  Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, retreat leader, and Quaker minister.  Brent graduated from Wilmington College and the Earlham School of Religion, and has worked as a local church pastor, denominational executive, seminary faculty member, and go-cart track operator.  You can visit his blog, his ministry website, or the Awaken Your Senses website to learn more.

    Here is the interview.  Brent has some great thoughts.  I hope you enjoy.

    What was your initial inspiration for Awaken Your Senses?  For those who are unfamiliar with the book, how would you describe the basic concept and how it developed?   As you and Beth have led others through the sensory exercises described in your book, is there a story or set of stories that capture how this approach leads toward transformation in likeness to Christ? 

    The initial inspiration grew out of a series of conversations my co-author, Beth Booram, and I had.  Beth was working on a book about spiritual nurture/development and someone suggested she interview me (I think it was her husband David, with whom I’m Facebook friends).  At any rate we met, I learned about her book Picturing the Face of Jesus: Encountering Christ through Art, and we discovered a mutual love the arts and what we felt was a neglected, but biblical, idea that our bodies are carriers of spiritual wisdom.  So we began meeting and chatting more, developed a workshop we called “The Art of Faith” with the idea of exploring body wisdom and were sort of off and running with the idea.  People came away from the retreats spiritually energized in a new way – ready to encounter Christ at play in 10,000 places (to borrow a poetic phrase of Gerald Manley Hopkins).

    Next, we began to separately, but at the same time, blog about “30 days of…” one of the physical senses.  Readers joined in, sharing their experiences of encountering Christ through taste (at the mass, at a meal, etc), touch, hearing, smelling, and seeing.  So the book then grew out of that idea that Christianity is a rich and sensuous faith—from sacraments and liturgy to the magnificent witness of creation and the holiness of an ordinary day. Yet, many Christians live rather impoverished lives, missing the abundant life that Jesus says he came to give us. They rarely engage their entire being in relationship with God and thereby miss so much of God in each daily round of beauty.   So we wrote the book with the intent that it would be an invitation to readers to invigorate their faith by employing more of themselves—their whole brain, all five senses and body—in order to experience more of God.

    We hoped that this book would be an invitation to daily worship in a fresh way -- through their five senses. Its purpose is to enlarge our souls in ways that cannot happen merely through participating in a weekly worship service. Our aim was to introduce readers to experiences of the God who created us soul and body.

    Regarding a story about how the experiences in the workshop or book have led to someone becoming more Christ-like, readers/workshop participants have told us such stories, but I am hesitant to share someone else’s story.  That’s their story to tell.  I will tell one story about how it has helped me to be more Christ-like.  I was in my usual hurry to work when I spied a big, black evil SUV sitting in the curb lane.  The no-parking lane.  The lane I use to get to the parking lot.  The light I approached turned red.  I stopped and glared at the back end of the SUV, brake lights gleaming a half a block ahead.  Just sitting there.  What a doofus, I thought. Now, I’ll either have to race ahead of the guy next to me and get in front of him or creep through the light, wait for the line of cars on my right to pass me and then fall in behind them and probably not make it through the next light.  Sitting there I got more and more upset with this person who was blocking my way – my important way – down the street. 

    Then, just as the light changed, the big, black evil SUV took a hard right across all four lanes of traffic and pulled into a parking spot.  The driver climbed out and bounded up the steps of St. Mary Catholic Church.  There he stood in front of a statue of Jesus.  He reached up and began touching its face, its hair, the folds of the robe.  My anger drained.  

    Embarrassed, as I passed I glanced in the rearview mirror.  The man still stood there, touching, caressing Jesus.

    I felt foolish. I also felt humbled.  I rush by that statue every day.  Sometimes I see it; most times not. But here was a man who stopped just to touch Jesus.  I don’t know his story.  Perhaps he just wanted to see how the sculptor had formed the statue.  But something tells me he had some deeper reason for that touch.

    I was reminded, by that man touching that piece of sculpture that I needed to be more patient, loving, and tenderhearted.  Less impatient and self-centered.  More Christ-like.

    I find that paying attention to my senses in daily life leads me into a behaving in a more Christ-like fashion.

    Your work strongly advocates for an embodied understanding of Christian life and faith, leading the reader to consider how our physical experiences can contribute to a deeper understanding of the life of faith.  Do you see this as a corrective to more abstract approaches to theology and Christian practice that emphasize the life of the mind?

    I think “corrective” is too strong a word.  As I said about, our goal was to encourage readers to employ their whole selves (including their brains!) in experiencing God.  We hoped to encourage both right and left brain thinking and our physical senses.  

    We do feel that many Christians, primarily Protestants and/or Evangelicals, have neglected – or even been fearful – of our bodies as carriers of spiritual wisdom.  Much more than our Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters, who incorporate many of the senses in their worship services.  Speaking for myself, I know that’s true.  I read and ponder and pray.  I listen to sermons and teaching.  My faith has been mostly in my head and heart.  For most of my life I have ignored anything my body tells me – either about life or faith.  I have been almost distrustful of it. 

    But, beginning about 15 years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, I began learning to pay attention to what my body was telling me.  I began a regimen of what I call “eating the hours” and turned it into a prayer practice.  It’s not the traditional “praying the hours” but when my body tells me it is 3 pm and time for a granola bar (and my body’s pretty good at telling me things if I learn to pay attention) then I use that physical prompt as a prayer prompt.

    I could go on and on, showing how Jesus evidently listened to his body by sleeping when he needed to, eating when he needed to, and so on.  He did not just come and speak (a physical act in itself) about the things of God, he lived in his body, as we live in our ours.  

    Our goal is not to disparage the life of the mind as part of development.  Indeed, both Beth and I are voracious readers of a variety of books about spirituality, theology, the Bible and more.  It’s just that we have come to find that our experience of and learning about God are much richer when we involve our whole selves.  And so we wrote a book inviting readers to do likewise.

    In your response to my review, you stated "all some very special way, [is] theological", especially fiction.  Can you say more about this?  What distinctions would you make concerning the value of both nonfiction and fiction as forms of theological expression?  Does one form of writing over the other lend itself better to your approach in Awaken Your Senses?

    Ah, now this is my own bias, I admit.  Which may be odd for a fellow who writes (primarily) non-fiction.  I know some of the most theological books I’ve ever read were fiction (and not “teaching” camouflaged as fiction).  Two that come to mind are Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Both a filled with theological thought – and follow the consequences of such thinking.  Owen Meany, for example, knowing that God has a purpose for his life and everything in it and how it leads to his sacrificial death.  Powerful stuff.  

    Now Irving could have written a non-fiction book on the premise that God has a purpose for our lives, but only folks who are interested in that premise would buy it.  By writing about it in fiction, it becomes more invitational – it is about story, not some abstract thought.  We will listen to a story without arguing, while we rarely read a book of non-fiction without some “Yeah, but’s…” – especially if we disagree with the premise.

    While Awaken Your Senses is non-fiction, we went with personal narratives because we wanted the book to be inviting in the sense that fiction is.  We wanted to tell stories.  We tried to not be “heavy-handed” or didactic, but demonstrate through our (and other’s) stories, the power of engaging our senses as another way to experience the wonder of God.  Were we writing a theological treatise on this topic, certainly it would have taken a much different form.

    A friend of mine who was a writer often said that all writing is problem solving.  We writers have something to communicate and part of the problem-solving is determining what approach works best for getting our material to reader in such a way that he or she can make the best use of it.  For Awaken Your Senses, a narrative/teaching approach that models our workshop seemed to be the best fit.  I think it would have made a lousy novel.  For one, speaking solely for myself, I’m not a skillful enough fiction writer to pull it off!

    Finally, your audience for this book are those new to the Christian faith, or "spiritual but not religious" seekers who may find these experiments a more helpful and understandable gateway to Christian faith.  Why did you take this approach?  How would you encourage church leaders who are trying to engage their world and invite others to follow Jesus?

    Hmmm, if I said that our book was primarily for those new to Christian faith or “spiritual but not religious”, then I misspoke.  Those are certainly two audiences, but they are not the prime audience.  Our primary audience is the Christian reader.  One of the people I imagined reading this book (and so wrote for) was a fellow like me… a long-time Christian who cares deeply about his spiritual walk and may have been hesitant or even resistant to thinking about involving his body as a spiritual tool.  I mean, I’m not an all “touchy-feely” sort of guy and I tend to shy away from group activities that involve my body (which is one reason is that I’m not a very good dancer!).  So this idea and practice was all new to me – and helpful in ways that didn’t have to be public.  Rather, using my senses is often something I do in the everyday activities of life – and that “he” (the man in my imagination) can, too.

    Now we do hope that new Christians and seekers might be attracted to the book and learn from it that Christianity is not just a set of propositions or theorems about a particular faith, but is a holistic faith.  It is about learning to experience God fully – mind, soul, and body.  It is about following the way of Jesus with our whole selves.  And I think that seekers, while in a seeking stage, are looking for real experiences of God more than they are lectures about God.  And so I think church leaders could use Awaken Your Senses and books like it that are rooted in biblical and Christian practice to invite seeker into experiences that lead them into the holistic faith that Christianity is – a total relationship with God.  

    Thanks again to Brent for taking the time to interact with me for this interview.  If you're interested in his book, you can find it here on Amazon, or participate in my book give away this week.


    Book Review :: Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill & Beth A. Boorman

    J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman, in their book Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God, invite us to think differently concerning our experience in the world, and to make new and fresh connections in how those experiences shape our understanding of and relationship to God.  This book is extremely practical and filled with earnest illustrations.  For many, it may be a welcome introduction to a different way of considering the seamlessness between Christian faith and physical experience.

    Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman cover each of the senses, taking each in turn.  The major divisions are Taste, See, Touch, Hear, and Smell.  Underneath each subheading, Bill and Boorman alternate meditations, offering at the conclusion a practical exercise that can be undergone in light of their meditation.  For example, Mrs. Boorman directs the reader in an exercise called "Tasting Words".  The reader is instructed to reflect on their day, and the words chosen in each conversation.  By carefully considering what has been offered and consumed, Boorman connects the sense of taste with the concrete nature of our words.  She then offers questions, "How do these words taste?" and more.  Bitter, or sweet?  Healthy, or debilitating?  Quite simply, this is another way of evaluating our speech-acts in light of Christian discipleship.  In addition to the practices, each section is front-lined by a work of art depicting each sense, and accompanying questions that serve to guide the viewer as they contemplate the work.

    Charity is a personal policy.  When I review books, I always try to strike the balance between honest critique and careful encouragement.  There are books that I enjoy I am certain others would not, and there are books that I do not enjoy I am sure others most definitely would.  This book is the latter.  The aim of Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman is clear--they wish for their readers to engage their world with all of their senses, and learn from these experiences something new regarding the God who made all things, including the faculties by which we perceive our world.  Through their sensory experiments, they also hope to instill in the reader a sense of an embodied faith.

    My disappointments, personally, had to do with the depth of biblical and theological engagement.  Though Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman do make connections to Scripture and to certain elements within the Christian tradition, I would describe those interactions as cursory, not substantive.  The primary thrust of this book was personal narrative, as is the case with a number of resources on offer in the area of Christian spiritual formation.

    It may be the case, then, that I am asking too much.  Mr. Bill and Mrs. Boorman are dealing in the gentle avenues of grace, and that may be exactly what the bulk of their readers will need--a soft introduction to a new way of thinking, or a gentle invitation to a more embodied way of thinking about life as a child of God in this world.  I have no doubt that such people will be helped by reading this book.


    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.


    Book Review :: Renovation of the Church by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken

    Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken desire to lead a church where people are becoming like Jesus. As co-pastors of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California, Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson have been on a journey. After founding Oak Hills in 1984, Mr. Carlson adopted many of the principles of Willow Creek in leading his church to become a growing, seeker-sensitive congregation. But over time, Mr. Carlson and his staff began to become uncomfortable with the witness, methodology, and philosophy of ministry that prevailed at their church. A change was needed. Rather than being consumer driven and seeker oriented, the leadership felt called to be Kingdom driven and discipleship oriented, and as a result of this new vision, everything changed. The authors describe this as a transition to making "spiritual formation", rather than numerical growth, their primary orientation.

    And while this may sound inspiring, this reshaping of vision came with a cost. Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken recast worship, abandoned the "show", and watched the church dwindle numerically. After being held up as a beacon of success as a Willow Creek style congregation, the bright perception that came with high numbers began to dim. Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson tell their story in this book of making a radical shift in philosophy of ministry--one that they believe in--and invite other leaders to reconsider their models, their language, their discourse, and their method for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

    As a leadership tale, this sounds good.

    But then why three stars?* This may strike some as odd. Why would you assign a book a three star rating if the book is confusing, at best?

    Simple. This book contains very high highs and very low lows. And as both take root, the ensuing result is a mudding of the waters. Christianity, being a deep well, contains a rich, nourishing tradition that delivers salvation, nurtures the soul, and fosters union with God. The church is called to present the water contained within that deep well, the Water of Life, Jesus Christ himself, in a manner that is compelling and clear and faithful to the biblical witness. I contend that Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken, while well intentioned, do not describe a church that accomplishes this aim. The gospel of the Kingdom, which they strive to announce, is muddled and unclear. The switch from consumer, seeker sensitive church to contemplative, spiritual formation church is strange. And the tale of their move from a numerically thriving church to a church with dwindling attendance and paring back to establish a culture that better forms people to actually follow Jesus is puzzling--in many aspects I found it to be more tragic than heroic--and this is not because I do not agree with the aim of helping people to follow Jesus, it is because of the method employed to get there. I found myself wondering if there was any other way to move the church from here to there without crushing the spirit of so many people, without altering worship so radically as to drive so many people away, and without having to rail against the congregation for their consumer mentality in such forthright and grating ways. Is slowness not an aspect of spiritual formation and growth? Is patience not a primary Christian virtue?

    I offer two additional critiques.

    First, in this book Mr. Lueken and Mr. Carlson fail to make clear distinctions between "the church" and "the staff and elders" when they tell their tale of change. In describing their reorientation of the church around notions of Kingdom and spiritual formation, they should be saying, "the staff and elders". If the church was truly moving that direction, then they would not have lost so many members upon making their shift. This is a top down change, not a bottom up change, and should be read as such.

    Secondly, it is disturbing to read Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken describe the loss of clarity that "spiritual formation" brought to the church concerning how to invite others to participate in the life of the church, and to come a saving faith in Jesus Christ. In critiquing consumer driven gospel proclamations, they offer no alternative that can be grasped and taught to others. In my view, they have no gospel. They have Jesus as moral example, as spiritual teacher, and giver of life, but they do not have a concise and transmittable piece of "good news". 

    I am passionate about spiritual formation. I am passionate about the Kingdom of God. I am also passionate about seeing persons who do not believe Christianity is true discover that it is reasonable, compelling, and persuasive, and that the gospel announcement of Jesus's life, death, and resurrection contains the power to awaken the soul to a converting and transformative faith. The gospel--the announcement of the present Kingdom as evidenced in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ--itself is spiritually forming. It is the beginning of a new work. And the church is the crucible wherein the transformative results of that news are brought to bear on the life of the disciple, who is then commissioned both to go forth and serve as one changed, as well as to announce that same news that radically altered their own life.

    This book is important and valuable. But I do not think Mr. Carlson and Mr. Lueken have provided a model to follow. I do believe they have given us a conversation piece. They have given us an example of a church that has attempted to be serious about discipleship and thoughtful regarding our cultural situation, rooted as we are in consumer America.

    Read it, debate it, and learn from it. Just don't treat it as a gospel of the definite new way of being church. Otherwise, you will have swung the pendulum too far.

    *I assigned this book three of five stars at