I believe that it is a common problem of all Christian people to say that despite earnest efforts, change is difficult, hard, appears slow, and, in some cases, quite out of reach. There are some facets of our character that seem to be immutable, or fixed, beyond change.
It is quite a modern problem, and one that is accelerated and reinforced by our situation in this time and place, that the expectations we have for the spiritual life is that it will be one of fast ascent or rapid development. But if you have read John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, you would know that Christian does not make his journey from home to the Celestial City in a day.
You would know that it is the trials that reinforce the virtues of the Christian life, and the companionship of others along the way that can make for refinement or detriment in character.
You would also know that the object of faith, the destination on the journey, is one that has been fixed, and that we move toward through a kind of plodding.
The progress is determined in large part by the declared intention, or decision, to set out on the journey and remain steadfast in bringing it to completion, and one of the joys of the Christian life is knowing that it is Christ himself who has and will supply the grace needed for us to accomplish our aim.
Entries in Spiritual Growth (13)
I believe that it is a common problem of all Christian people to say that despite earnest efforts, change is difficult, hard, appears slow, and, in some cases, quite out of reach. There are some facets of our character that seem to be immutable, or fixed, beyond change.
The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity (David C. Cook, 2012) is delightfully refreshing.
Stephen Smith gives the reader the sense that a rhythmic, well-ordered life that follows the pattern of Christ is one of freedom, not captivity. Even many of the Christian spiritualities today are law-based, seen as burdensome and difficult to traverse. And while, in a sense, the call to follow after Christ is a bearing of the cross, one filled with challenges and hardships, it is paradoxically through the cross that release is given and life is found. Smith maintains this balance well, for his book is an invitation to practices, to practical ways of engaging and following after Jesus Christ. His invitations to disciplines like humble anonymity, love of neighbor via love of family, intentional friendship, mindful observance of Eucharist, loving freely, routine Christian practice (ritual), and engaged suffering, demonstrate this is no easy walk, but it is the best of all walks. It is a walk with and in grace and truth, extended and found in Jesus Christ.
If you are looking for a guide, Stephen Smith knows a guy. His name is Jesus Christ. You will meet Jesus in the life of Mr. Smith. He points. And along the way, he helps, he prods, he questions, he challenges. He tells us to slow down, because Jesus did. And he helps us to see the kind of life that Jesus lived, telling us that we, too, can live that life, not based on our own efforts, but because Jesus has supplied the grace necessary, and the invitation, for us to come after him.
Read this book. Better yet, apply it.
NOTE: I received this book in exchange for a review via SpeakEasy. Learn more about Stephen W. Smith and his ministry, The Potter's Inn, by clicking here.
"That is so annoying!"
"You know what really annoys me?"
"I hate it when people do that! I find that really annoying..."
"That is so aggravating!"
Are you easily annoyed?
Annoyances are common. All of us have our sounds, mannerisms, social trends, or sayings that grate on our nerves. This may be due to temperament, upbringing, taste, or a cultivated impatience. Like all people, there are frequent occasions where I find myself annoyed. Some sources of annoyance are legitimate. Some only indicate a lack of maturity. And it is the latter we should avoid.
Try this exercise.
- Take out a pen and paper, or open a word processing document on your computer.
- List everything that annoys you. Everything. If you have trouble building your list, ask yourself, when is the last time I said, "That is so annoying!"
- Taking each item in turn, ask, "Why does this particular person or thing annoy me?"
- Ask, "Am I annoyed, or am I passing judgment on another person's likes, mannerisms, preferences, activities, taste in music or clothing?"
- Ask, "Is there a tactful and loving way I can remove myself from encountering the annoyance, or asking a person to desist from an activity I find annoying?"
- Look at your list. Does it include people? Pray that God would help you to love that person or persons in spite of their imperfections.
- Look at your list. Does it include trivial matters that are unworthy of a passionate declaration of annoyance? Commit yourself to honor a broader range of diversity in God's good world.
- Imagine another person you know well making a similar list. Would they list anything you say or do? Coming to a deeper understanding of our own limitations helps us to reach an accepting posture toward others. We do annoying things, too. Admit it, embrace it, and let that fact humble you.
- Next time you feel annoyed, laugh.
When asked the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength," adding, "A second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:29-31, my paraphrase.) Those who are mature persons, and particularly those who are becoming more like Jesus Christ, will school themselves in the art of loving imperfect people who do, say, produce, and propagate annoying things.
Some annoyances are legitimate. Others are rooted in our tendency to judge. Learn how to recognize the latter, and take up the challenge of growing beyond becoming easily annoyed, and embracing your neighbor as one made in the image of God.
Two weeks ago I stated that I would give away a copy of Stephen A. Macchia's Crafting a Rule of Life: An Invitation to the Well-Ordered Way, a new title from IVP's Formatio Press. Check out the blog here.
I also said that I'd post a reminder last Monday, but failed to do so. Very sorry I did not follow through. But if you've been waiting, here is a chance to add to your library.
Here are four ways to enter:
- Share this opportunity on Twitter. Mention me: @bsimpson.
- Comment on this thread. Answer the question below.
- Send me an email this week by clicking here. Tell me one book I should be reading. Write two sentences detailing why.
- Like my Facebook Page. Leave a comment on the timeline, sharing a favorite quotation.
Here is the question:
Have you ever put pen to paper and written a rule or a vision document to help guide your decisions? If so, what was your experience? If not, how could you envision this being helpful?
When I was in seminary, I was required to write a 25+ page paper, tracing my history, identifying my gifts, discerning my talents, outlining goals, and envisioning my future. I still have the paper, and while I've made some different choices, the discipline itself helped place me on a trajectory that has been a blessing.
You can enter more than once to increase your chances and to have a little fun.
There is more to come this week, I assure you. I've been running a small business, which I plan to write about, and taking care of the family. But I've read plenty and have been inspired quite a bit, and have stuff to share, including a couple of posts about writing a rule of life. If you don't already, please subscribe to the blog in the right hand column. And if you do, I'm so glad to have you as a reader!
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 writing...in 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.
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.
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.
This week I'm giving away a copy of Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken's Renovation of the Church: What Happens When A Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation.
I reviewed this book last week, saying it was worthy of debate and discussion, but lacking as a model book for church leaders who are focused on spiritual formation.
If you'd like a shot at this week's book, answer this question in the comments:
How has your church helped you to become more like Jesus?
I'll pick a winner this Saturday and send the book on its way.