Category Archives: spiritual formation
Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible. The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.
I know. Awkward way to start a book review.
But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.
What it’s about.
It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.
After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.
The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.
Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.
Why you should get it.
If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.
It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.
This is that time we tend to redo or accumulate plans for the new year: financial budgets, diets, exercise regimes, even plans to take a vacation later in the year.
Just about the only thing we don’t plan for is our spiritual life! But if there is anything more important to the Christian, it is the health of their inner being. The apostle Paul once said that “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8, NLT).
The Bible speaks a lot about planning. By all means, get physically fit. Plan a good budget. And find time to rest with your family, or get away. But don’t forget the part of you that needs the most care.
Make a plan to feed your spirit!
One of the most basic and far-reaching ways to do this is to be in the Word of God daily. I give an extensive sermon about the value of God’s Word here. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah was so sustained by the Scriptures, that he compared them to food: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). Jesus would take this even farther, saying that God’s Word was able to sustain us even more than bread (Matt 4:4).
We may find this agreeable. But if you’re like me, it doesn’t just happen automatically. There are too many other things in our lives that want to compete with our spiritual well being. That’s why we need to have a plan. And for some of you, it may help to have a little bit of structure for reading the Bible.
Here is the whole Bible broken up into quarters for readability:
Every day it will take you through portions of the Old Testament and portions of the New Testament. You don’t have to use this for your “spiritual plan,” but if it helps, by all means use it!
There will probably be times when you skip a day or two, or ten.
When that happens, it’s easy to feel guilty about missing chapter readings, and fall even farther behind trying to catch up. Inevitably, people stop reading all together because they are discouraged. Please don’t let this happen to you! It is not about reading every single word, or filling out a quota, or saying you read the whole Bible.
This Bible reading plan is about posturing yourself in the presence of God to receive from His words!
So if you skip a day here and there, or fall behind, it’s ok! Don’t try to catch up, just take it back up where you left off. The point of all this is not perfection, but consistently opening up the Scriptures. After a year of training yourself to hear and read God’s word, your life will be significantly transformed. But it’s hard to do that sometimes, isn’t it?
That’s why we need a plan for our spiritual lives going into 2015. If you need one, I hope this will bless you next year!
Let me define “favorite” and “of 2014.”
By “favorite,” I just mean impactful. But there are other things I consider too: if it was well written, if the author was able to carry me from beginning to end, if the ideas and concepts in the book were cohesive and well-developed, and if the writer has something to say that is worth reading.
What I mean by “of 2014” is not published in 2014–some of the selections are a decade older. They are simply books I read in 2014. I’m such a latecomer to books!
As a side note, this list is not written in order of importance. I’m lining them up as a narrative. I hope that storyline pops out in the descriptions about what has been most formative for me this last year. Without further ado…
It’s about time I read this one. The late Dallas Willard is one of the greatest thinkers of our day. I hesitate to say “Christian” thinkers, because he can flex his philosophical muscles with the best secular intellectuals of the century. Willard’s books often mix his mastery of the human personality with a deep admiration for the believer’s union with Christ. The Divine Conspiracy is his magnum opus. And what a great work it is! Taking the Sermon on the Mount as his cue, Willard pokes holes in flimsy, modern assumptions of Christianity that leave the confessor void of transformation or commitment. His premise is that being a “Christian” is to live vastly different in every area of life, because of the indwelling life of Christ. What follows is a four-hundred page juggernaut to convince you. By the time I was half way through this tome, I wasn’t just convinced, I was desperately hungry for change in my own life. One that can only be described as discipleship.
Emotional Health is a discipleship issue. Unfortunately, a lot of “discipleship” in the church consists of teachings and other knowledge gathering, with a dash of volunteering. Essentially, read more, do more. Scazzero opens with stories peppered throughout (both Biblical and personal) of why that doesn’t work. He immediately follows with examples of emotionally unhealthy habits (in case you are tempted to drop the book and think, “I’m emotionally good-looking”), before he explains what an emotionally and spiritually healthy person looks like, and how they become so. I found myself hooked. Mostly because the person he was describing so well, was me. He ends the last half offering a way out of the nightmare of emotional and spiritual immaturity. His solution involves getting mystical and contemplative, in a non-creepy sort of way.
Here is a more extensive book review I wrote on EHS.
If Scazzero revealed how detrimental emotional immaturity can be to an individual, then Lencioni shows you how it can unravel a team, community, or even a simple group project. Lencioni is a fascinating writer who takes two seemingly opposite concepts–business and narrative–and combines them. What you have left is a masterfully told story that drives home principles of team health and dynamics. The storyline is so captivating that you never even know what hit you. In the final chapters of the book, Lencioni steps out of his storytelling role, to explain what just hit you. Even if you are not a leader, per se, so much in this short read will enlighten you to why things didn’t work very well on that project you were working on with so-and-so. It will also prepare you for how to work well with others. A necessary component in today’s world of team-oriented everything.
Contemplative spirituality and spiritual disciplines can sometimes scare Protestant evangelicals, because it reeks of a mystical nature. I really appreciated Calhoun’s ability to break these practices down with clarity and brevity, supporting them with Scripture, and showing the differences between Christian acts of spiritual discipline and the counterfeits offered by other world religions. Each discipline warrants no more than three pages, including an inspirational explanation, a tutorial, appropriate Scriptures, and a litany of ways said discipline can transform your life. As good as each of these are, the gold is in the introduction. Nowhere, in all of the titans of contemplative spirituality and disciplines, have I witnessed such an clear and enlightening vision for why a Christian should practice them, or how to practice them effectively. If you get this book (and you should), DO NOT READ IT WITHOUT FIRST READING THE INTRODUCTION. It is that good, and that necessary.
This is an introduction to Lectio Divina, one of my favorite contemplative disciplines. It is the ancient practice of praying and meditating on the Scriptures, in a way that allows the Word of God to permeate, not just the intellect, but the heart. It is a slow reading of Scripture. It allows the reader of the Word to be read by the Word. Casey is filled with deep reverence and knowledge of Lectio, and his admiration for God’s word catches fire to the reader. A word of caution, it is not a manual for practicing Lectio Divina; for that, refer to Calhoun’s book on Spiritual Disciplines mentioned above; Casey’s Sacred Reading is a glimpse into a lifestyle of communion with God through His Word. It is meant to captivate you to a different way of reading.
The favorite of the favorites?
My number one book of this last year was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Scazzero. It’s affect on me was no doubt due to the journey I had been on at the time (which I talk about here). But as Scazzero points out, and as the experience of many other people I’ve talked to over the last couple months confirms, this is a topic that is as neglected by Christians as it is crucial for their maturity. This short read is a breathe of fresh air on a long pathway. So for all these reasons and more, this was the most impactful book on me in 2014.
What were your best reads of 2014, and why?
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ is a classic approach to contemplative prayer. It’s shaped by a longing to experience the indwelling union of God. Written in the 1700’s, it was banned by the church, and Jeanne Guyon was imprisoned. The sheer impact of Madame Guyon’s approach throughout the centuries at least demands our attention. John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf, Fenelon, Hudson Taylor, Watchman Nee. They were all influenced by this unassuming little pamphlet.
Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (EDJC) sounds like a devotional, yet it functions like a manual–with progressive steps, each leading to new levels of experiential maturity. That was the greatest draw for me—few books on prayer are written with such practical vitality. Guyon’s entire premise is based on experiencing union with Christ, so the subsequent chapters involve some added measure of surrender. I found myself easily drawn to her style of writing. It felt less like a theological exploration of prayer, and more like sitting at the feet of an older woman teaching me to pray. There were several chapters where I had to put the book down and practice what I read. Some of her instructions were as rich as they were simple, and I would get stuck on one page for several days, enjoying the journey those few words would take me. I think the power in this book lie partially in its audience. Guyon is clear in the intial chapters that she is writing to people who don’t know how to pray—basically illiterate believers of her time. I think it caused her to trim the fat, so to speak. What’s left is a powerful example of contemplative-style praying.
At times, her terminology has a Roman Catholic feel. This makes sense, as Guyon is apparently a Roman Catholic. I tend to veer away from Catholic books on contemplation. A Catholic might practice the same discipline as observed by a Protestant, and yet with entirely different motivations. Catholic contemplatives often practice spiritual disciplines believing that their asceticism will impact their salvation in a positive way. Protestants firmly reject this. We engage spiritual disciplines, believing that all we receive from God we receive by grace. And so the purpose of the disciplines is not to twist God’s arm, but to posture our restless hearts to experience his grace. That alone is a big difference between these two theological titans, and reason alone to generally reject Catholic books on contemplation. I think this is a healthy apprehension, summarized best by the late Lutheran theologian, John W. Doberstein,
It is not true that prayers and books of devotion, even the so-called “classics of devotion,” can be used indiscriminately. Many of them are infused with a mystical tradition which is completely alien to the gospel and can only be confusing to the evangelical user of them. Prayer and liturgy are realized dogma, doctrine which is prayed; but if the doctrine is false, putting it into the form of devotion does not make it any less false. The Roman Catholic forms of spiritual exercises can never be a pattern for us, though they have crept into many popular Protestant manuals and discussions of prayer and meditation. The difference that separates us is that all Roman Catholic meditation rests upon the dogmatic assumption of synergism. (The Minister’s Prayer Book, XIV-XV)
The Catholic influence alone would put up my defenses with this book, but Guyon kept evading many of my fears. In certain places she spoke of God’s gracious sovereignty with such brazenness, that I actually began to wonder if she was a closet Calvinist! For example, she asserts, “You can be sure you would never consent [to union with Christ] if it were not that God takes it upon Himself to act upon you…God must take responsibility for bringing man into union with Himself” (130-131).
I wonder if it were quotes like–usurping the works-based theology of the Catholic church–that resulted in her imprisonment. I can certainly understand. She said many things that initially rubbed me the wrong way. But was I simply biased and unteachable? So I tried to read it with an open, but discerning mind just to be sure. Unfortunately, some books have so much to “discern” that I wonder if they are worth reading at all! However, with EDJC, I’m torn. If it’s the case that Guyon was veering from her Roman Catholic roots, my opinion of this book would change drastically, and I would feel free to recommend it. At the moment, I don’t think I could give this book to a believer who was weak in their faith, or lacked sound theology or discernment. It’s one of those. But for Christians who have been trained with discernment, there are few books on prayer that were as exciting for me to wade through as this. It may be worth the effort for you.
Overall, it was refreshing. It is leaps and bounds more impactful than many modern books that opine for chapters on end about the technique and beauty of prayer without ever actually praying.
My final verdict: proceed with both caution and curiosity.
If I were to ask you to explain what it meant to be a Christian, what would you say?
Many would say it involves mostly rules. Others think it’s doing good things for other people. Or maybe church attendance. Perhaps intellectual belief. But how does the Bible define following Jesus?
Overwhelmingly, we hear descriptions about being in Him.
- Paul says “in Him” 11 times just in the opening chapter to the Ephesians.
- The same phrase, “in Him,” occurs 73 times in the New Testament .
- Just a couple tantalizing examples,
- In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:5-6)
- Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
- Just a couple tantalizing examples,
We also hear descriptions about Christ being in us.
- To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
- I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
- So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
So frequent are these terms used to describe the Christian, and so extensive is the scope of each, that for simplicity’s sake, the entire mystical endeavor is often simply called Union with Christ .
What is Union with Christ?
Christ put it rather succinctly, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, you are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, HCSB). I think Wayne Grudem’s definition is helpful here: Union with Christ is “a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation“. In other words, everything noteworthy about salvation–from start to finish, from conversion to glory–is inextricably tied to our union with Christ! We do not have any Christianity apart from our union with Christ.
It underlies all the works of God in our lives: election, calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. To study union with Christ is to explore all of these particular blessings, and therefore the vast range of meaning in that little word in. – John M. Frame.
Why should you care?
Some of you may think of union with Christ an abstract doctrine, useful only for arm-chair theologians who like to spend endless hours nitpicking ethereal concepts that never touch the human experience. I hope to relieve you from this state of indifference!
There isn’t anything in the Bible that touches the human experience more than this. 
When a person becomes a Christian, they are not merely brought into a new set of beliefs, a list of behaviors, or a social club; it is a mysterious, all-encompassing, multi-faceted relationship and realm involving a divine Person. God himself invades our mess in the most literal way possible. Divine beauty and sinful flesh converge in a miraculous display. That mystical relationship has tremendous implications. I’ll just share from my experience of life in union with Christ.
It explains who I am.
- I’m justified in Him (Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 5:17,21; Phi 3:9)
- I’m identified with Him (Eph 2:6,10)
- I’m adopted by Him (Eph 1:5-6)
- I’m brought near to Him (Eph 2:13)
To name a few.
It fuels how I live.
- My sanctification is in Him (John 15:4; Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 1:2,30; Gal 4:19; Eph 3:16-17; Col 1:28)
- The spiritual disciplines I practice are in Him (See my post on a “contemplative approach”)
- My emotional health is in Him (See my sermon on this topic)
To name just a few.
It shows where I want to go.
Perhaps you answered my original question by saying, “Christianity has to do with following a set of rules,” or “It is mainly about being a good person.” I would say Christianity may include or overlap with some of those popular definitions of religion—I certainly hope Christians can be identified with good people, who are consistent in their beliefs and convictions. But I would also suggest that being a Christian is more. It’s about being the version of humanity that God originally intended. But for that to happen, you must be indwelt with the Divine (2 Pet. 1:4).
In his Magnus Opus, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests that a person cannot keep Christ’s law by trying to keep Christ’s law. That person must aim for something higher. “One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow” (142).
I believe our Lord put it this way: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4, ESV).
Back to my point, where I want to go.
Well… I want health in my entirety. A healthy Christian is someone who is made more like the Christ who indwells them. Paul said that God’s good purpose is that we would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29), which is also to “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). This involves the health of the whole person. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). It’s what Jesus said was the most important command; the one to write home about, certainly, the one to remember if you are prone to forgetting such things.
I’m sure you’ve heard of nominal Christians. Perhaps judgmental Christians. Or [fill-in-the-blank] Christians. But my obsession is with healthy Christians.
I’m obsessed with how Christians can become healthy. So far, I’m convinced that it has to do with our union with Christ. So I obsess about that too. Mostly because I want to be a healthy Christian. And I want everyone I know to become one too.
What this blog offers
This blog exists in great part to take this far-reaching, all-encompassing, glorious doctrine of our union with Christ, and show it’s daily implications in everyday life. Union with Christ is not for the armchair theologians.
It’s for you. And it’s for me.
How do you experience Union with Christ?
The apostle said, “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). That’s a great place to start.
Your experience of Jesus starts by believing the truth about Jesus. As J. Todd Billings writes, “Full humanity is humanity in complete union with God” . So most of these posts will explore the realization or practical application of this truth. Even if it’s subtle. For example,
- How my ignorance of union with Christ drove me to a contemplative approach to Christianity.
- How union with Christ draws me to a life of simplicity.
- How understanding union with Christ enabled me to evangelize as the introvert that I am.
- How union with Christ protects us from getting burnt out by overwhelming needs.
- Or why union with Christ means Christians attacking Christians is a really big deal.
- It also shows up in some of my book reviews.
So, stay tuned!
Works Cited… Read the rest of this entry
“I think I know what’s wrong with me now: I’m spirituality mature, but emotionally immature. I have a lot of spiritual knowledge, but I’m not very good at managing my emotions.”
To give you a little background, I was in a season of my life where I was trying so hard to be spiritual and productive for God, yet feeling more stagnant and disconnected from him than ever.
His eyes widened as he replied, “You need to read this book right now.”
The book he recommended was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (EHS), by Peter Scazzero.
Until this point, I’d never really heard about it, even though it’s been around for a while. I was curious about why the good doctor seemed so convinced I needed to read it. When it came in the mail, I took one look at the subtitle and laughed. It said,
“It’s impossible to be spirituality mature while remaining emotionally immature.”
Before cracking open the first page, I knew this book was written for me. Chances are, it’s probably written for you too.
You only have to look at the title to guess that EHS is all about emotional health.
Broadly speaking, emotional health has to do with expressing or managing the emotions we feel. Practically speaking, it plays out in the way we interact with others. Scazzero’s entire premise is that without emotional health, you have no spiritual health either. The two are inextricably woven; really, the book is about both emotional and spiritual health. For a person to grow into a healthy disciple of Christ, they need to be concerned with managing emotions and cultivating their spiritual life (contemplative spirituality he calls it). The unambiguous diagnosis that emerges from the book, however, is that many contemporary Christians neglect either emotional health, or contemplative spirituality in the process of discipleship. But if you lack either of these, you aren’t growing in a meaningful way at all. What is absent in most Christian’s lives is not contemplation–otherwise, this would be a book about the spiritual disciplines. What’s missing is a Scriptural plan for managing emotions. Says Scazzero,
When we do not process before God the very feelings that make us human, such as fear or sadness or anger, we leak. Our churches are filled with ‘leaking’ Christians who have not treated their emotions as a discipleship issue. Grieving is not possible without paying attention to our anger and sadness. Most people who fill churches are ‘nice’ and ‘respectable.’ Few explode in anger—at least in public. The majority, like me, stuff these ‘difficult feelings,’ trusting that God will honor our noble efforts. The result is that we leak through in soft ways such as passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., showing up late), sarcastic remarks, a nasty tone of voice, and the giving of the ‘silent treatment.’ (143-144)
Scazzero’s book structure is simple.
In the first half of the book, he explains “what an emotionally unhealthy spirituality looks like” (p.2). You won’t get far in the book before you know whether the book is for you or not. In chapter three, he offers a clear solution: a marriage of emotional health with contemplative spirituality. This is the hinge of the book. The remaining half of the book offers a pathway to EHS. One that actually works.
Of the various pathways to Christian spiritual formation, there are two streams from which I have thoroughly benefitted: the Reformed tradition, with it’s panoramic view of God’s glory and emphasis on the Scriptures; and the Contemplative mystics, with their emphasis on the indwelling presence or God. One thing that always struck me about these two streams is their respective vernacular when it comes to growing in Christ. The Reformed tradition often speaks of looking outward to God who is holy other, and the contemplative stream often uses refers the believer inward to God who dwells within. One of the things I appreciated the most from Scazzero is that he marries these concepts together, as mutually compatible. He isn’t the first one to do this—there is a rich history of Reformed contemplatives at our fingertips who teach these things. Unfortunately, many of today’s books on spirituality are weighted in only one of these directions. It is refreshing to hear both “inward” and “outward” coalesce in Scazerro. For example, when he explains how emotional health keeps us from “self-absorbed narcissism” (61), while contemplative spirituality keeps us from getting exhausted as it “binds us to the living God” (155). In other words, emotional health keep us from imploding; contemplative spirituality keep us from burning out.
But it’s not for everyone.
The draw of this book lies in the problem it’s attempting to discuss. If you are emotionally stable, deal with conflicts well, have a rich inner life, processed your past hurts constructively, and are deeply self-aware of your own weaknesses, it’s probably not going to impress you very much. But if even one of these things rings a bell, you need to get this book.
As the beginning of my post betrays, I have experienced firsthand the frustrations that come with trying to grow in my relationship with Christ. In most cases, it’s because attention is brought to bear on only one area of life, such as the intellect, or habits. But the human personality is complex and beautiful. As the Psalmist said, “the inward mind and heart of a man are deep” (Ps. 64:6). While emotional health is not all that makes up a person, it is an important and deeply-encompassing part of the human soul, and ironically, one of the most neglected areas of discipleship in the church. For that reason, I highly recommend this book to anyone who feels spiritually dry, spiritually stagnant, or on the verge of burnout. I also recommend it for anyone that just wants to walk deeper with God and others.
Where to buy it.
In my last post I talked about the beauty and importance of simplicity.
Now, a few suggestions for practicing this. In his acclaimed book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster offers 10 principles for simplicity. It was written a decade ago, and yet is surprisingly relevant. I will mention each one, followed by a fitting quote. Then I will punctuate each of them with a successful personal experience, or a personal failure. Since some of these points connected with me more than others, the length or brevity of my “punctuations” will reflect that.
1. Buy things for usefulness rather than status
“Stop trying to impress people with your clothes and impress them with your life.”
This is cutting advice considering the city of Santa Barbara (or any part of Southern California). We are known more for image than we are for utility. And it’s hard to separate the two sometimes. I’ll admit, the jackets I wear to keep warm at night, also look really good! Rather than beat ourselves up over this one, I think it more helpful to rephrase this point in this way: “Do the things I own promote my quality of life or just my standard of living?” I hope for more of the former.
2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
“Remember, an addiction, by its very nature, is something that is beyond your control…How do you discern an addiction? Very simply, you watch for undisciplined compulsions” (91).
I gave an exhaustive sermon on Alcohol and the Christian back in 2013. It’s my most viewed sermon to date. I suspect the reason for its popularity is two-fold: Santa Barbara really likes their alcohol, and no one has ever given a full-blown sermon on alcohol here before. Now, there are countless Christians who can imbibe without sinning; there are also many other who cannot. I think it’s at this point that a careful distinction needs to be made about what we are free to do. Christian liberty means you have the gospel-freedom to partake (if you can), but it also means you have the gospel-freedom to abstain if you should! Some Christians drink too much (Eph 5:18), or against their consciences (1 Cor 8:12), or against their health (Isa 5:11), or against a weaker brother (Rom 14:21) when they, in fact, need to stop. They are deceived if they think drinking, for them, is a freedom. As the apostle Paul posits, “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12, NIV). If you are mastered by anything, it’s not freedom. It’s slavery. In this case, true simplicity prevents you from developing a bondage to an otherwise good thing.
3. Develop a habit of giving things away
“Masses of things that are not needed complicate life…most of us could get rid of half our possessions without any serious sacrifice” (92).
This is a hard one, because I like my stuff. But we are graciously forced to downsize periodically because of the size of living in Santa Barbara. There’s simply not enough five bedroom homes to accommodate our love for things. This makes life easier, and, well…simple.
4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry
“Timesaving devices almost never save time.”
I was one of these guys. I stayed in lines during the Steve Jobs era, waiting to be one of only thousands with the next best thing in their hands. Even though I knew the feeling would dissipate in a month, it was worth it to be among the select few in the world that had something most others did not. Silly, I know. But I couldn’t shake it. Then one day, I took Abby into a pool. With my iPhone in my pocket. For forty-five minutes. I tried to resurrect that thing using every Pinterest solution imaginable. From sticking it in a jar of rice for seven days straight, to laying it on a bed of rice in an oven at low heat. Nothing. I looked up my contract to see if I had any upgrades available. Fall of 2015. Ugh. Someone graciously lent me an older version. And I’ve been learning to slow down. I had to cut out most of the apps that used to take up so much of my time, due to the lack of space. Social media stopped running as fast as it used to, and I found myself wondering if it was worth waiting five minutes to check Facebook statuses that I know are just going to be about food, ex-boyfriends, and photos of people’s babies. Because of the pool accident, my life has gotten simpler–albeit in a small way. However, the magic was in the two weeks before my friend lent me a phone, and I had nothing. No way to search social media. No phone calls. No texts. No email. I hated it at first. But within days, I felt like I had come alive. I know that sounds sensational, but it really was true for me. I spent more time in the Scriptures than I have for a long time. More time in a contemplative posture of prayer. More time with my daughter. And wife. And God. I’ve since gotten a phone back, but with some semblance of simplicity to go with it. And it’s been worth it.
5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them
“If we own it, we feel we can control it; and if we can control it, we feel it will give us more pleasure” (93).
No one owns much in Santa Barbara, so I have nothing to say about this one, haha.
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for creation
“Simplicity means to discover once again that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof'” (Ps. 24:1).
I’ve been surfing a block from my office. And there is nothing that will silence the unending flow of emails in the brain than being in the ocean. Catching a wave is pretty darn intoxicating too. What’s your “creation” experience?
7. Look with healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes
“They are a trap.”
When I was a teenager, I racked up thousands on a credit card, because I didn’t know any better. Those cards are payed off, but the memories remain. My friend, Gerald Torres once told me, “If you live within your means, you’ll be happy. It’s as simple as that.” I’ve found those words to be true.
8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech
Passive aggression. That’s when you are indirectly hostile towards another person. Perhaps through a backhanded remark, an irritated comment spoken below the breath, or a Facebook status that doesn’t name anyone yet is clearly intended for a specific person to see. This is not how Jesus ever spoke. He was clear, direct, and honest. The reason we are not, is because we are too insecure with ourselves to be honest in conflict. Or because we fear. We fear the tension that will escalate when we deal with the hard issues in an interpersonal relationship. So we cover the truth, mask our feelings, and don’t say anything. Then we attach some level of piety and self-righteousness to our (in)action, thinking we took the high road. But we didn’t. This is evidenced by the fact that we cannot let it go. At least in our minds. We play the scenario over and over in our heads, thinking of what we could have said, or should have said. And we get angry while we do it. All of this anger is directed towards that person who originally upset us. We could have dealt with it at the beginning, but not it’s building up steam. Then when said person enters the room, we release a little passive-aggressive steam, couched in a note of sarcasm. And both sides of the relationship suffer for it. All of this can be prevented by being honest and forthright. Go figure.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
Welp, that’s almost everything in my kitchen, my closet, my car, and my office. To do this with any shred of integrity, you’d have to make your own clothes, ride a bike instead of a car, buy organic veggies, free-range meat, and American products. Guess how much that would cost? Do any of us do this? Why or why not?
10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God
Imagine a life that looks like this. Not an individual life, but corporate. Imagine everyone in your church free from status-envy, addictions, stinginess, the race to be cutting-edge, the obsession with belongings; or if we all developed a care for our surroundings, an aversion to debt (except to owe love); if we were easy to understand, and said what we meant, and if we all worked together to free the oppressed, and ran from anything that did not look like God’s will. I think our church would start to look set apart in Santa Barbara, yet, strangely alluring as well. Why? Because we don’t need anything except what we already have. What a glaringly different and attractive way to live. Such is the power of simplicity. No wonder Paul’s quirky instruction…
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: I do not have a life of simplicity. My life is really complicated. But I hope to change that someday. I’m writing now with that longing in mind.
I came across a passage in our Bible reading schedule that stopped me cold.
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I’ll come back to this passage in a paragraph or two. But first a question for anyone who has gone to a church.
Have you ever noticed the pressure in evangelical church culture to live an activity-filled life?
I’ve talked to more than one individual who felt this pressure. And as a result, condemnation, albeit indirectly, by their fellow Christians, for not being as “on fire” as the critical mass of worshippers in their church. Now a second disclaimer: No blame should be left at the feet of those who are passionate about their faith. Especially if they are excited about following Jesus. Passion is needed in the church. All I’m suggesting here is that not everyone is in the same place that you are, spiritually speaking. And they don’t have to be. Everyone has their own pace at which they grow in their spiritual walk. All that really matters is that you’re growing. We shouldn’t quench the fire of the zealous ones among us; neither should we quench the smoldering wick of the Christian who is just trying to make it through the day without screwing up. For that reason, I can’t stop going back to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, those two verses in chapter four.
Paul’s instruction are a blatant contrast from the now overdone trend in Christian youth culture to be radical, sold-out, and influential.
There is this prevalent idea among Christian (evangelical?) millennials to live in a manner that is unparalleled by their peers. In a way that stands out. There is an external pressure to wield as much influence, power, and connection in the world as possible. After all, this is the “next great generation,” as they say. And we have a hefty expectation to live up to. “Ahem”…for the glory of God, of course.
Now, I do believe God’s call on our lives is radical in itself. Jesus changes our innermost being, relationships, worldviews, social structures, and then sends us as disciples into the world to repeat the process with others. Just the nature of our salvation, involving the mysterious union we have with Christ is beyond the scope of imagination. Consequently, anything we do as Christians, if the presence of Christ is in us, is by association, of a radical nature. To share the gospel with a non-believer, if done with the Spirit of Christ in us, is a radical commission. To open our doors in hospitality to our neighbors, when infused by the Spirit of Christ in us, is radical. If we are one with Christ, then talking to a cashier at the local grocery store can be radical. If, by radical, we mean, “far-reaching or thorough” in its “affecting the fundamental nature of something.” You can see how talking to a cashier in a grocery store about Jesus can have “far-reaching affects” if you are speaking by the power of Christ’s indwelling presence.
So then why are millennials so unsatisfied with their jobs, homes, churches, environment, and callings? It’s not the technical definition of “radical” that we seem to be after. For then, we’d already be satisfied in the seemingly mundane, as long as God is present with us. But we’re not satisfied. We’re the unsatisfied generation. I lost count of how many restless friends I’ve known who left the town they initially thought they were “called to.” It’s like they’re always on the run to find the next best thing “God has for them.”
I wonder, why don’t I ever hear of millennials staying in the same place, for years and years, faithfully ministering to the same people, day in and day out? Why don’t I ever hear stories about that twenty-three year old who worked for twenty years at a job she hated because of the uncontrollable burden on her heart for a co-worker? Why do I less stories about millennials counting the cost to obey Christ, and hear instead about “chasing my dreams”? Why do I see young people hopping from “calling” to “calling”–as if God keeps changing our minds (or His) on what He’s called us to?
Could it be that we have turned an already Great Commission into a romantic expectation?
Maybe our dream is of big venues, great movements, and the prestige that will come when God uses us. Perhaps we daydream about the connections we’ll make, the book deals we’ll sign, or the influence we’ll have. We see non-profits, CEO’s, celebrity pastors, entrepreneurs and kind-of-famous musicians. Even if we can’t be that big, we at least dream of being as happy. We feel as though our right as Christians is to serve God doing what we want to do. We have passionate ambitions. We cannot imagine serving God in anything less than our dream job, with our best gifts, on our terms, and according to our schedule. I fully support dreaming big. But sometimes big dreams emerge from small beginnings.
I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel six years ago. The swell of global visitors in that room was astonishing, as everyone stood on tip-toes clamoring for a blurry shot of the famous ceiling frescos that were too far away to promise any photographic detail. Greatness. We want to be the Michelangelo of our day. But Michelangelo was primarily “gifted” as a sculpter. In fact, it’s said that he had a low opinion of painting. How many of us would turn that opportunity down because “our gifts are not being used,’ or “it wasn’t my dream job!” But Mike faithfully undertook the commission. Four years later, a masterpiece was born. That’s true greatness. But lying on scaffolding, with paint leaking into your eyes after the 10th hour on your back is certainly not romantic. Greatness rarely is. And according to the apostle Paul, the greatest ambition we should be pursuing is an invisible one.
What if God never intended for you to be legendary? What if you never made the paper, the TV, or even Youtube? Are you ok with being insignificant in the eyes of culture, to be obedient before God’s? What if God just wanted you to be faithful to your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your kids? What if the inner change that occurred over the slow months of investing into them was the world-changing venture God had in mind for you? What if God just wanted you to teach others what you were once taught? Would you be ok with that? Because Paul’s verse to live a quiet life, not bother anyone, and have a good reputation would also certainly dovetail with his calling to make disciples. Paul is consistent. Maybe we’re the ones that have it skewed.
In Hebrews 11:32-40, aptly nicknamed the Hall of Faith, some of the most faithful believers don’t even get named. To be sure, some of them “stopped the mouths of lions” (33). But others were simply mocked, flogged, or imprisoned (36). How unglamorous. All of them went down in history nameless and unknown to us. Yet they are unforgettable to God. In fact, the author of Hebrews describes them as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (30). A backhanded jab at prevailing culture’s adulation for celebrity, fame, and power. The irony is that most of us don’t even know any Greek pagans from that time in history–the ones with honor and prestige. But our churches exist because of the nameless in the Hall of Faith. The explosion of the early church was founded on the faith of such men and women. So yes, history yields a radical result. It’s just not worthy of the world’s fame. Or even a headline in a blog. But God is thrilled. Is that enough for you? To be praised by God, if not by the Huffington Post?
I think that Paul is calling us to a life of simplicity and obedience.
This grinds in the face of what many of us think we want (try sitting in a chair for 20 minutes without having to look at your phone). In fact, Paul seems to correlate the overall health of our relationships with non-believers to a simple and quiet life: “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business…so that you will behave properly toward outsiders”
I have recognized the glaring absence of simplicity in parts of my own life.
As I mentioned at the beginning, my life seems anything but simple. The times my life is the most complicated, sometimes also happens to be the most lacking in true, heavenly power. And I wonder if there’s a correlation. I long for simple power. To not be dominated by my calendar, technology, bills, emails, and urgent-but-menial tasks. I’m guessing that for a lot of you, it’s the same. That would make simplicity a discipline that we must enter into and practice if we’re going to take seriously God’s Word. It won’t just happen. But the discipline we enter into is not some spiritual form of self-flagellation. It’s a pattern by which we subvert dangerous cultural norms that threaten to derail us from true peace of mind. It’s a discipline by which we experience and reflect God’s power in our lives regardless of the external pressures of our world. It’s a way of saying, breathing, and living a simple motto: my union with Christ is enough. It lies latent in every believer who can slow down enough to trust and obey their Lord. It will cause us to slow down and refocus our inner life on the indwelling presence of Jesus, if we let it. But since acts of simplicity are an enigma for many of us, it might help for me to spell it out for the sake of clarity. Since I am still a novice at it, I’ll offer direction from one of the great modern-day contemplatives.
So my next post will bring with it ten acts of simplicity, by Richard J. Foster. A guy who knew where the radical nature of Christianity lied: the interior life of every Christian.
Book Review ~ Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, by Ruth Haley Barton
“I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God” (12).
Sacred Rhythms is an introduction to spiritual disciplines. It’s about creating space and cultivating rhythms that allow you to enjoy God.
I know this an older book–it’s from 2006–but it so resonated with me because of its personal effect on my soul. I am a pastor–which assumes, to some degree–that I am being spiritual quite often. That’s open for debate. I know one thing for certain: I can keep myself busy. But is business necessarily spiritual? Is productivity? Success? Barton argues that those things can actually be harmful to your spiritual health when they are able to wield control over your life (a condition she calls Christian fatigue syndrome). As a “minister,” there were many opportunities to get involved with spiritual activities, a lot of opportunities to make myself busy, and even a heightened knowledge of the Bible that I developed over time.
But something was still missing.
I made the process too intellectual, too rushed, too goal-oriented. Some of this led to a feeling of disconnection in me from the very God who lives inside of me. That’s probably why I loved this book. It clearly explained what was wrong with me for many years, and offered a simple invitation back into the arms of Christ.
If you have enjoyed the recent series here on the blog, Contemplative Approach to Spirituality, and want to know and learn more, you’re hard-pressed to find a better place to start. Here’s a bit of what to expect in the outline–three basic parts.
1. Introduction to Spiritual Transformation
I felt like Barton was talking to me in the introduction. I put my highlighter down when I realized that I wanted to highlight every single line on the first three pages–it really defeats the purpose of highlighting when you do it on every line. After the first three pages, the rest of the introduction is preparing you for what to expect in the writing: book outline, practical instruction, group suggestions, etc. But it’s in the next chapter when things really get rolling.
2. Invitation to Spiritual Transformation
This is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the book. Barton spends some time here whetting the appetite of the reader, exposing our need, and pointing us towards our truest desires. Since disciplines can seem a laborious drudgery to the uninitiated (or the badly initiated), this chapter is valuable in dispelling myths, and revealing our deep spiritual thirst, as well as the value in posturing ourselves to receive from God’s endless wells. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But it gets better.
3. Seven different types of disciplines
This section on disciplines are pure gold. Each of the remaining chapters explain a spiritual discipline. Collectively, they form a well-balanced diet of the Christian life. The disciplines are solitude, Scripture (lectio divina), prayer, honoring the body, self-examination, discernment, Sabbath, and The Rule of Life.
The flow of the chapters are what drives each discipline home.
Instead of bombarding you with practical instruction or ancient sayings, Barton appeals to your deepest desires, and pulls you into a story that you want to be a part of. The danger in plunging into spiritual disciplines is two-fold: You don’t realize you need soul-care, and are cavalier with it; or you approach it as another to-do list, and end up more exhausted than ever. However, I think Barton pirouettes around these issues gracefully.
Each chapter begins with her personal experience to draw your attention. Then she explains the inner desires the practice effects. After she persuades you of your need, the practical steps for getting started are laid out to be received. There is no chance of getting lost in some author’s convoluted sayings–Barton offers detailed, clear explanations on how to engage each particular discipline. Peppered throughout are historical insights, careful attention (and mercy) on our weaknesses, and expressions of the practice from Scripture. By the time I finished each chapter, I wanted to put the book down and seek the face of God.
I’ll conclude my review with eight quotes from the book…
This is fundamentally what spiritual disciplines are all about: choosing a way of life that opens us to the presence of God in the places of our being where our truest desires and deepest longings stir. (13)
A prayer welled up from the depths of my being, a prayer so full of desire that it was barely articulate: “O God, give me more moments like this–moments when I am fully present to you and to others in love.” (21)
Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. (24)
Solitude is an opportunity to interrupt this [vicious] cycle by turning off the noise and stimulation of our lives so that we can hear our loneliness and our longing calling us deeper into the only relationship that can satisfy our longing. (36)
We need a way of approaching Scripture that will move us very concretely from our over reliance on information gathering to an experience of Scripture as a place of intimate encounter. (54)
One thing I know for sure about prayer these days is that we do not know how to pray. It is only the young in Christ who think they know how to pray; the rest of us know we are beginners.(63)
One of the deepest longings of the human heart is to be known and loved unconditionally (91)
Sabbath keeping is a discipline that will mess with you, because once you move beyond just thinking about it and actually begin to practice it, the goodness of it will capture you, body, soul, and spirit. (133)
I think every Christian should familiarize themselves with spiritual formation and the practices that cultivate it.
I also believe the person who would experience immediate benefits from this book are those who are spiritually dry, fatigued, or just burnt out on the church, God, or Christianity. Sacred Rhythms takes advantage of the Christian’s existing union with Christ–not by shaming you into to trying harder–but by posturing you in your weaknesses towards the One who already lives inside you.
And as a result, this may be my favorite book I’ve read all year–I’ll let you know in December. Until then, get this book, and drink so deeply!
You can find the book on Amazon: Sacred Rhythms.
- A Contemplative Approach to Christianity (doctrineontap.com)
This is part five in A Contemplative Approach To Christianity, a series dedicated to introducing the quieter side of Christian practice, featuring a new writer every week. These are all from men or women who have been able to connect with God in the middle of the noise–often using spiritual disciplines that are very similar to those found throughout historical Christianity. I’ve asked these authors to share details about what their practices look like, to include us all in the opportunity to take part! As far as the blog series goes, you can speak up at anytime. Ask questions of the writer, or of me. Add your experience. Your apprehensions. It’s an open place. We’re all exploring. And may you be refreshed as you return to first things.
When I first learned that Christina married the tenured practice of journaling with hip-hop music, I must admit, I was intrigued. I know a few people who express their thoughts and prayers, examine their hearts, and confess their sins to God through journaling, but to intermingle this spiritual discipline with music is unique. I wanted to hear what she had to say, but I knew it would be too good to keep for myself. So we present it to you for your joy. For those who want to learn how to engage the soul in the disciplined art of journaling, Christina will, of course, lay out some helpful steps; much of this can work with or without music. But what I love about her approach is that you don’t have to constrain yourself with rigid formulas. Who’s to say you have to practice the presence of God exactly like Brother Lawrence, or balance your life just like Benedict of Nursia, or enjoy Lectio Divina only as outlined by Guigo? The point of any spiritual discipline is to connect your soul to the Christ who is already in you. It is not to fill a quota, check off a spiritual to-do list, or feel righteous about one’s ability to replicate someone else’s regimen. And for Christina, well…it seems her combination of writing mixed with the infectious sounds of a beat have done what was needed to help center her soul on God. I hope it greets you with refreshing intensity. I also hope it opens your eyes and heart to a world of spiritual creativity.
The rest of this post is in Christina’s words…
I am currently transitioning out of full time ministry that I have been engaged in the last two years. I am moving towards being used as a vessel of the Lord to be catalytic in the awareness and participation of African- Americans in global missions work. I am originally from Southern California but now I live in Orlando, Florida. Graduated from UCSB in 2012. Studied black studies, minored in applied psychology and education. I’ve known and loved Jesus as much as I knew how since I was five years old, but I’ve truly and wholly been walking with the Lord for the last six years. I have five siblings ranging from ages twenty-five to three. I am an auntie of one sweet baby girl who will be one soon. I have lots of friends in California that I love and dearly miss. I love all things creative and cozy. I enjoy cooking, eating, writing, singing, dancing, and Spotify. I am thoroughly amused by dry and corny humor. It’s the best when I am the only one laughing at a joke in a large group setting. I especially love word crafting like that expressed in spoken Word, poetry and Hip-Hop music.
Hip Hop, dare I say, is the language of my soul.
These wordsmiths say what I would say in a way they thought of first. My first experience with hip-hop that exalted the God of Heaven and preached the truth of the Gospel was through a friend of mine, Barry Moore, my senior year in high school. He met Jesus; gave his life to him and renounced all things against the Lord. For him, part of that meant throwing away his extensive music collection and replacing it, to which we both benefited from during rides to and from school. Then my freshmen year in college when I said no more to my divided heart, the Lord used this Hip-hop, alongside a church I love, to take my understanding of the Gospel from a hundred to about a thousand! Yet, it is ever increasing even now. I love Hip-hop music because artists can use such a small amount of time to say so much, and when you are speaking of an infinite God with infinite love, I say what better way than through a few 16s (or verses) over some incredibly engineered beats.