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.
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.
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.
Purchase Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun here.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
I do adore my Christ. I do love the celebrations. I love the church services, and the church family. I love the sermons I get to study, write, and pray over. I love the usual busy work that surrounds the offices leading up to Christmas. But where I struggle the most is when after these festivities, everything closes for Christmas day. Well, everything but my restless mind.
Because I am busy with my thoughts, or busy in conversation, or walking a busy street. Yet on Christmas day, I'm robbed of my busyness when every venue, outlet, and commercial expression is taken from me. It's the one day in the year I can't do anything. This is, on the surface, a classic first world problem! Yet a guy who's that stimulated by productivity will sometimes mistake productivity for faithfulness to God. And this is where I sometimes have a problem. I'm learning that they aren't the same.
The only way I can secure that is through busyness.
(Cue the sad music, and the sermon on how the gospel frees us from thinking we can secure God's love through hard work).
Yes, I know. I shouldn't think that ever. But I do. Who doesn't? And Christmas, it turns out, is the forcible action that confronts my idolatry. It does this by keeping me helpless. Silent. Not busy. There are no chores to do. No errands. There are no check-lists to keep track of, no vision to cast, and no sermon to prepare. I can't meet with anyone, because they're all with family. I can't think deeply about things, because friends and extended family punctuate every minute with the laughter of inside-jokes. There is nowhere I can go to find a “safe place,” by which I mean, work. I am unsafe. But from what? Well…myself, I suppose. My idol of productivity–of busyness.
And sometimes it takes the town shutting down to pull me out of my comfort zone. I'm learning that silence isn't all that bad–though it feels like it–and is even a great outlet for prayer, as counter-intuitive as that seems. But I still don't like it. Perhaps that's my problem: words (in prayer) help me feel productive; the discursive thoughts Richard Rohr often warns about in his instruction on contemplative prayer, that we mistakenly assume are meritorious to God. Rohr, in his book, A Lever and a Place to Stand, suggests “Prayer beyond words” instead (59). So I tried it. But it's increasingly uncomfortable to leave words behind, when words are all you do in life.
We have to have a slight distance from the world–we have to allow time for withdrawal from business as usual, for meditation, for prayer in what Jesus calls “our private room.” However, in order for this not to become escapism, we have to remain quite close to the world at the same, loving it, feeling its pains and its joys as our pains and our joys. ~ Richard Rohr, 2.
In other words, we must all learn to withdrawal in holy silence, yet re-engage the pressures of “productivity” when our spirit is revived; after all, we're never not supposed to be productive. The Bible simply chooses an alternative: fruitfulness.
Sometimes this happens when you're busy, and sometimes it happens when you're not. After reading Rohr's line, I experienced an epiphany: God used December 25th to slow my life down enough to show me that he doesn't need me. Yet in the sermon I gave the night before, I also explain how the birth of His Son proves that he wants me (and you). Now, we're on another level.
And on this Christmas week, I'm trying to ride the border of that mysterious truth, if only because the shutting down of Santa Barbara forced it upon my over-productive mind. And to think some people don't believe in effectual grace! Tsk tsk. That's what a busy mind will sometimes do to you. Can I share something with you, from one mad thinker to another? (One that I robbed from a local bumper sticker)…
God's presence is worth the reflection.
Habakkuk 2:20 ~ The Lord is in His holy temple; let everyone on earth be silent in His presence.
We’re celebrating Advent at our church. and decided on calling the series “The Arrival.” When Christ arrives, He brings with Him the hope, love, joy, and peace characteristic of the Kingdom.
This is the first sermon of the series; it’s about hope arriving with Christ to his people, freeing them from despair. I pray it bless you on your own Advent!
The past historical event of the resurrection tells us what to believe about Jesus…
The present implications of the resurrection tells us of the justification wrought by Jesus…
The future implications of the resurrection tells us of the hope that we have in Jesus…
Enjoy Jesus, my friends. See you next Sunday at Del Playa Stadium!
I was recently communicating the gospel worldview in a Christian church service, and used an illustration to describe the implications of following Jesus. I thought it was a great illustration–I tend to use metaphors and stories that are dramatic–and several Christians pointed out that the illustration was very convicting and effective for them. Christians respond well to certain phrases and one-liners. We use slogans that reflect where we are at in our faith, and they make sense to us.
Shortly after the gathering, a millennial, who was not a Christian or a church-member, approached me with a different response than what I was expecting. She shared with me that my illustration, and the things I said, were confusing and traumatic for her. It made her feel shamed, not convicted. Some of my phrases were foreign to her, kind of the way inside-jokes feel to an outsider who hasn’t been around long enough, and my passion only added to this, coming across condescendingly. She felt that I was looking down on her. Now, this girl was very humble, and gracious in her approach. She never accused me, and spoke in a way that was disarming and conversational. I never felt like she was complaining or attacking me in any way. But it was still a great surprise to me! I had no idea that I was coming across as judgmental. I apologized to her very quickly.
I have posted several blogs on the problem of Christianese (see reader comments!), why we should care what other’s think, that we must make our beliefs comprehensible, and how to speak in everyone’s language, because those outside of our church culture don’t understand the way Christians speak. This experience brought it even closer to home, and humbled me. What made it even more alarming was that the part of my teaching most Christians commented positively on, and that I was most proud of, produced the opposite experience for someone who does not regularly hang out with Christians. I failed to explain a simple truth in a way that she could understand, in fact, I communicated in a way that gave her the wrong impression of the gospel.
I was unaware of this happening because I am so deeply immersed in a church culture that I don’t know how foreign my words are to many people outside of the church. And apparently, lots of my friends talk the same way too, because afterwards, we give each other high-fives over something profound that was said, while others may have no clue what I meant. We can be great at explaining the gospel to each other, but not to those who have never heard it before. I’m really glad that girl spoke up, and was so nice about it. Not only did I get the opportunity to clarify myself, but I also got to understand her worldview, and dialog with her about Jesus and the church.
iPhoneography has been a hobby of mine for a few years. Even though I have a full-time family that I love, spend many other hours in an office at work, and am part of a community, I still purpose time to go out on the town and shoot photos with my phone. (Here is my Flickr account. My Instagram: @chrislazo)
It is completely separate from my work space, yet engrained in the way I relax and create. It energizes me! What is more fascinating is that I do nothing that is inherently “spiritual.” I’m not necessarily praying or participating in a Bible study when I am on the Carpinteria bluffs shooting pictures. Nor am I practicing piety while snapping a picture of a couple embracing on a subway. Yet, I am enjoying life through Jesus in the way he has wired me, and this is through a phone lens.
Of course, iPhonegraphy does not replace marinating in Scripture, or the time spent in prayer…but it is just as much a part of my spiritual rest, my Sabbath. This all leads me to curiosity…
This is our story.
We’ve discovered that our beliefs about ourself have a profound influence on how and what we worship. The power of the gospel can widen our capacity to worship God with relative ease, since the gospel—with its outlandish teachings of an alien validation wrought in Jesus—manhandles what we end up thinking about ourselves.
We exchange our identities for Christ’s. This is why I spent the first year of Adorn focusing on one section of our vision: Jesus must be our highest joy. It occurred to me that there was no real output (mission) in our first year of gathering, and I often fought with the pressure to create programs, outreach, and missional opportunities for this rambunctious group of millennials. But the God and time would prove my stress unfounded. After a year, a culture had developed where people’s identities were being transformed into the image of Jesus, and the outflow that resulted from inward change would yield far more motivation and opportunity than any program I could contrive or manufacture. Without warning, we had a gathering of young people who were ready to change the world, yet firmly grounded in the unchanging identity of Jesus. It wasn’t “callings” that I was supposed to dish out, but rather, a clear, direct route to the person and work of the mighty Son of God.
If we do not shape our identity around Jesus, we will quickly default, wrapping our individuality around what we can carry out because we are a generation that is driven to make a difference in the world.
Consider these two scenarios…
In the first scene, your passion determines your identity; in the following scene, your identity determines your passion. Since our identity forms our worship, we must be exceedingly careful not to develop our identity (who we are) around our calling (what we do). These things must stay separate! An identity formed in Christ will create the motivation to succeed, without the fear of failure. But an identity formed by calling will relegate worship from God’s performance to ours, and will set us up for heartache when we fail miserably to match his impossible standards in every way. This generation must understand that our primary goal in this season of life is not in figuring out what we are supposed to do, but who we are supposed to be.