Nurturing the Spirituality of the Ordinary
Not long ago, a group of us sat through a two-day retreat event with good friend Ruth Haley Barton. We have promoted her work in these pages before (Equal to the Task, Becoming a Woman of Strength and her several small group Bible studies). But this was the first time to experience her leadership in a guided walk-through of her new curriculum An Ordinary Day With Jesus: Experiencing the Reality of God in Your Everyday Life, which she has co-written with John Ortburg. Ruth and John are on staff at the huge and hugely famous Willow Creek Community (mega)Church, specializing in spiritual formation.
At another recent, large and prestigious ecumenical event, a mainline theologian blasted what he called the mega-church tendency towards "drive-through spirituality."Â A good line, but if this Willow Creek-produced video experience is any indication, the critique will have to be aimed elsewhere; I know of very few mainline denominational churches who are this intentional about making the wisdom of the ages applicable for contemporary middle America.
Ruth Haley Barton, who studied spiritual direction at the well-respected Shalem Institute, makes it clear that An Ordinary Day With Jesus is not a drive through experience, but the embodying of ancient disciplines and practices that can revolutionize our lives, over the slow, long haul. While she clearly believes in this product--the package of workbooks, leader's guide and video--it is, let us remember, an invitation to a deeper, saner, more gentle and God-centered way of life. Indeed, as her co-author's own wonderful and witty book of "applied spiritual disciplines"Â for busy people puts it, this moves us towards The Life You Always Wanted (Zondervan, $12.99). Which is to say, transformation.
Since our opening 20 years ago, Hearts & Minds has emphasized a selection of contemplative writers, spiritual and devotional classics and has attempted to foster an appreciation for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant mystics. While it used to raise a few eyebrows, the appropriation of the deeper contemplative traditions is now increasingly accepted--in fact, friends of ours here in Central Pennsylvania have, over the past decades, opened ministries of spiritual formation and direction. (It is worth noting that several local friends have started spirituality centers and written books on this topic as well--such as Kent Groff and his Oasis Ministries and Russell Hart and his Center for Spiritual Formation. Similarly, Presbyterian friends in our region have a helpful organization called Sabbath House, with some of their folks publishing as well. If you are in this part of the state and want to know more, let me know!)
Some mystics, as most of us know, tend to so emphasize the ecstatic spiritual experience that they seem disinterested in ordinary life. (The dangers of dualistic gnosticism and various forms of super-spiritual piety have often been critiqued in these pages! Any time I begin to recommend spiritual disciplines and resources for deeper experiences of God, I get worried--what if such reading leads people away from the world God so loves and wants us to befriend? What if my enthusiasm for authors who need to be read with theological discernment end up leading people away from the biblical story, rather than toward it??) Actually, such fears are not unique; it has been the routine warning of many of our deepest spiritual writers--from Benedict to Merton, Thomas A Kempis to Richard Foster--not to let that happen. "Otherworldliness"Â is indeed a concern, as is religious sentimentality. So, we struggle: just how does all this deeper spiritual language translate into daily life? And does it empower us for a life of thoughtful discipleship in the modern world, or does it lead us to retreat into what is sometimes called "navel-gazing"Â?
If you don't recall, I have written passionately about this before, offering suggestions of authors and books (even specific chapters) which help us "pray the ordinary"Â as Foster puts it, and find that rhythm of a balanced journey inward and outward. I've suggested prayer books that I find unusually down to earth. By clicking here, you can review one of those essays--I hope you don't mind me saying that it is worth reviewing--and invite you to continue this discussion about "ordinary, earthy spirituality"Â by reflecting on that little article. (But don't forget to come back to the rest of this review.) Hopefully, it will serve as a helpful follow up for those using An Ordinary Day With Jesus, by considering the significant work of Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and that postmodern evangelist Len Sweet's powerful invitation to "mezzuzah your universe."Â Those brief remarks and book suggestions may help clarify the need for a creation-based, real-world, whole-life approach to biblical spirituality and will point to some of our most helpful spiritual writers.
One of my favorite books, by the way, to get at this in a way which is both meditative and practical, is Parker Palmer's The Active Life, which has been recently reissued (Jossey-Bass, $16.00). The subtitle calls it "a spirituality of work, creativity and caring"Â and is most likely trying to capitalize on the success of his good work on education and vocation. The Active Life is the best on this quandary since Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action. Along with the titles I mention in the aforementioned link, Palmer may be a helpful companion for those struggling with this aspect of a faithful and socially responsible spirituality.
Quite a while ago, I did the unthinkable: I dared to critique a Henri Nouwen book. (Those who know how we have long admired him will appreciate my confession.) I stand convinced that his popular study of the Desert Fathers (The Way of the Heart) is deeply flawed and my comparison of the "earthy spirituality"Â of Peterson will give practical insight into this discussion. My concern about the popularity of such work extolling the Desert Fathers' search for God, which led many to abandon families and work, illustrates why I believe that the Barton/Ortburg curriculum is so very important as it wisely brings the classic devotional literature to bear on the pressures and lifestyles of modern folk and their daily routines.
An Ordinary Day With Jesus video and workbook would be ideal for small-group use, or for a weekly Sunday school class. It is experiential, discussion-oriented and interactive. The biblical and theological basis for this practical approach shown by Barton and Ortburg's AODWJ can be found, though, in such important works as Dallas Willard's extraordinary Divine Conspiracy, the aforementioned Life You Always Wanted (Ortburg), Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas, and the medieval classic, Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre De Caussade (originally translated as Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence). Certainly the all-time great Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence is foundational for their project of integrating a sense of God's presence in the mundane moments of ordinary life. And, of course, The Imitation of Christ (especially in the robust new translation by William Griffin!). Their footnotes include several citations of Bonhoeffer's wonderful Life Together, which tells us that they know what he knew: authentically biblical spiritual formation involves the nitty gritty details of life lived in fellowship, with conflict resolution and living together in the daily grind of community. Practical, contemporary and visually hip as AODWJ is, it is clearly informed by age-old wisdom and profound teachings from the best of the communion of the saints. "Drive-through spirituality"Â? Ha.
Into the Depths of God: Guidebooks
for the Spiritual Journey
Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster (HarperCollins, $22.00). Essential, serious and yet accessible. I do not overstate by saying it is one of the more significant religious texts of the entire 20th century (as it anticipated and help create the appreciation of classic spiritual writers within Protestant, and specifically evangelical, circles remarkably seen in the last dozen or so years).
Spiritual Classics and Devotional Classics (HarperCollins, $16.00 each) compiled and edited by Richard Foster and his ministry partners are the most useful introductions to the primary source writings in this field and are ideal for serious small group use. He is a master of choosing representative selections, explaining why that particular passage is useful, what one can expect to "get out of it"Â and placing it in a sequence of other similar readings. It's like a guided tour through some of the best religious literature of the past 2,000 years. Some have really liked the Spiritual Formation Workbook for small groups.
Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home by Richard Foster (HarperCollins, $22.00). I absolutely love this book--and intend to reread it again soon! Perhaps easier to read than Celebration..., with shorter chapters. The best book on prayer I've ever read.
The Divine Conspiracy: Discovering Your Hidden Life in God by Dallas Willard (HarperCollins, $22.00). Foster, who rarely blurbs books, has endorsed this with a breathless forward, claiming it to be one of the great books in all of church history. And he knows the literature better than anyone. Okay, even if he's wrong by half, that makes it one of the more significant books of the past 1,000 years. Enough said.
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard (IVP, $12.99). In large part on discernment and sensing God's will; see also his The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (HarperCollins, $15.00), which many have found exceptionally well-rooted and insightful. Even for those who have been at this for a while, Willard's work is so theologically impeccable and thoughtful, I seriously commend him.
Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie Thompson (Westminster, $17.95). Henri Nouwen says in his forward that "when you have read and lived this book, you have been in touch with the best Christian spirituality has to offer."Â What a resource, offering guides to prayer, worship, fasting, hospitality, spiritual direction and the like. Includes a great group study guide.
Sacred Pathways: Discovering Your Soul's Path to God by Gary Thomas (Zondervan, $12.99). I mention this again for those unfamiliar with the author Publishers Weekly called "the evangelical Henri Nouwen."Â Pathways is for those intrigued by Meyers-Briggs, the Enneagram and other such personality/temperament tests, as it attempts to guide folks to prayer styles that are appropriate for their own natural dispositions and uniquenesses. Very helpful, especially for those called to help disciple or mentor others in spiritual formation. (Thomas also has a truly remarkable book on marriage, unlike nearly anything out there, with a lovely companion jacket to match Spiritual Pathways entitled Sacred Marriage on the spirituality of marital relationships.) His Glorious Pursuit develops a rather contemplative approach to character formation and the virtues of following Christ while his forthcoming Authentic Faith (Zondervan, March 2002) is all about honesty, vulnerability, and honoring our brokenness with integrity. It looks to be exceptional.
On the Way: A Guide to Christian Spirituality by Gordon T. Smith (NavPress, $11.00). My, what a balanced and thoughtful guide to the Christian life. With a great emphasis on lived prayerfulness, it wisely includes treatments of calling, vocation, the Christian mind, recreation and the like. Smith is the Dean of Regent College in Vancouver, so he hangs around with Packer, Peterson, Houston, Dawn--you can trust his guidance!
Companions for Your Spiritual Journey: Discovering the Disciplines of the Saints by Mark Harris (IVP, $9.99). There are oodles of books which serve as introductions to the "great could of witnesses"Â from which we can learn; this one is clear, practical, historically reliable, well-balanced and evangelical. In 12 chapters, covering saints from Origen to Julian of Norwich, the Celtic saints to Aelred of Rievaulx, this is the place to start.
Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. (IVP, $10.99). This book covers an immense amount of substance, thoughtfully written and theologically balanced. It can best be described with the old clichÃƒÂ© "wholistic,"Â in it reminds us that we undertake our journey not only for ourselves in quietude, but in service to others. A down-to-earth road map, including some very helpful stuff about the dynamics of spiritual change and the communal nature of our journey. Very insightful.
The Journey: A Pilgrim in the Lands of the Spirit by Alister McGrath (Doubleday, $9.95). I mentioned this book often--it is an excellent spiritual guidebook to the faith journey, creatively written by one of the premier Anglican intellectual theologians of our day. He keeps it interesting by identifying in each stage of the journey dangerous detours, possible road signs, an oasis or two and hitchhikers (figures from church history who have gone before and can give us companionship and guidance). Very, very interesting and truly reliable.
Spiritual Mentoring: A Guide for Seeking and Giving Direction by Keith Anderson & Randy Reese (IVP, $11.99). Reading this excellent book will help you become a wiser mentor of others, or if you are considering entering into a relationship of spiritual direction. These two wonderful writers--both involved in campus ministry--cover the waterfront of recent theories of mentoring and draw on the ancient wisdom of classical spiritual writers. An altogether wonderful and useful resource.
Receiving The Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time by Dorothy Bass (Jossey-Bass, $14.95). I devoted a whole column to this book and I think I am willing to say that this is perhaps the single most eloquent religious book I've ever read. Delightfully and carefully crafted, I am happy that Ruth & Ortburg so utilized it in their section on the pace of life. Sweet.
The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser (Doubleday, $21.95). There is substance here, little fluff or trendiness. Practical but hard hitting, this is a truly extraordinary book, one of the more thorough ones out these days. It has garnered rave reviews from those who know deeply this literature, and it should be seriously considered. Rolheiser is a Catholic priest who has written widely.
Into the Depths of God by Calvin Miller (Bethany House, $12.99). A well-known writer and pastor, this is a beautifully-crafted, life-changing journey of the heart. As popular writer Max Lucado explains, "Calvin has done us a favor. He has spelunked the caverns of the mystics and returned with jewels."Â
Solitude: A Neglected Path to God by Christopher Moore (Cowley, $12.95). This dear book has become a new friend, offering me substance and courage to seek out deeper knowledge of God and myself by claiming the space of solitude. Too many books on this important topic are either overly psychological or weirdly mystical. Chris's book is wise, down-to-earth, orthodox and rather fun to read. Nicely done.
Living in the Sacred Now: Discovering Wonder in Everyday Faith by Kim Thomas (Harvest House, $9.99). I've plugged this delightful author, musician, poet and painter's work before (Simplicity: Finding Peace By Uncluttering Your Life, and her two great folk-rock albums recorded by her duo, Say-So). Here, she gives wise little rants, daily readings, meditations, reflections--what do you call these brief homilies? Funny, thoughtful, and altogether honest, reading this book creates a space to find wonder, joy, awe, God. Don't be confused by my light-hearted endorsement, or that it is written by an artiste: heady heavy-weight Dallas Willard has a similar rousing endorsement on the back. Very, very nice.
Street-Wise Spirituality: Where Faith in God Meets Real Life by Jim Thomas (Harvest House, $9.99). The other half of the previously endorsed Say-So--Jim wields a mean acoustic guitar along with his dry wit and deep walk with Christ. I mention this less because it is a deeply profound classic but because it is so very, very practical. ("Vital truth in work clothes,"Â one reviewer said.) I love this guy--who studies Lewis, McGrath, Willard, Edwards, and it shows. Give this to one who wants a clearly-written primer on basic Christian growth.
The Sacred Romance and The Journey of Desire by John Eldredge (ThomasNelson, $13.99 each). It is a fascinating observation that these two books have caught the attention of the evangelical subculture, becoming amongst the most-talked about books in years, particularly on college campuses. Eldredge is passionate, exciting and invites us to search for a life that we've only dreamed of. This is good stuff, written with stories and biblical study and conviction and delight. The President and CEO of Maranatha! Music has said that after reading this, "my life will never be the same."Â This explains the ache that our hearts long to have fulfilled. Wow!
Your God Is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God Your Can't Control by Mark Buchanan (Multnomah, $12.99). The rather extensive introduction by Eugene Peterson--on words and stories in spiritual formation--is almost worth the price of this good work. And the subtitle says it all, doesn't it? Solidly biblical, yet insights which may take you aback. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a more vibrant Christian discipleship.
Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard Foster (HarperCollins, $15.00). I will end this too brief list with the author with which I started, an author probably too humble to admit to being an extraordinary leader in the movement for spiritual renewal in our time. Always interested in that balanced, biblical, life-giving approach, Foster here draws on the strengths and deepest insights of various streams of the Christian tradition--charismatics, social activists, evangelicals, monks, the liturgical renewal movements--to show that the most healthy spirituality will be informed by the broader body of Christ and the very best the different "tributaries"Â the church has to offer. This is a great argument for ecumenicity, for vibrant interdenominational appreciation and for a practical, lived piety. Praise God for this wonderfully noble effort!
There are so many other names whose work we should at least recognize as we guide others towards the deeper spiritual waters. Contemporaries like Ken Leech, Ken Boa, Alan Jones, James Houston, Timothy Jones, Evelyn Underhill, Beldan Lane, A.W. Tozer, Susan Muto, Basil Pennington and the older mystics like St. Theresa of Avila, Julian Norwich, Ignatius or William Law. (Ask about the thin little paperbacks packaged in small and quite handsome slip-cased, boxed sets under the name Upper Room Spiritual Classics.) There is virtually something for everyone and, not surprisingly, these classics can be mined again and again with different insights each time. After all, is that not one of the definitions of a classic?
We invite you to become familiar with these incredibly significant writers--most likely by starting with the contemporaries, and see who most they draw upon, and working backward to the more weighty and ancient texts. Why not consider a reading group, using together one or two of the books described above? Or rent the Barton/Ortburg video, work through the An Ordinary Day With Jesus disciplines, seeing Jesus to reveal Himself in your ordinary days, and refresh yourself in the lifelong journey toward deeper, more spiritually-charged living. Let us know if we can be of any help.
For all the talk we do in this column about culturally-relevant and faithful lifestyles, Christian social activism, and how a biblically-informed worldview creates a foundation for living uniquely in the real world of politics, art, technology and media, let us be clear: such Christian worldviewish insights--and all the books we most often rave about in these pages--will be useless if we are not truly inspired by God's own Holy Spirit, if we are not prayerfully aware of God's guiding hand, if we are not deeply and profoundly engaged in a true relationship with the King of Kings whom we serve. May it never be that we are so Kingdom-minded that we ignore the sweet presence of the gracious King Himself. Books about prayerfulness and contemplative spirituality may be just the resource we need not only to know God better, put to become the effective agents of Kingdom reformation that our aching world needs us to be. And relating the classic spiritual disciplines to ordinary, work-a-day, daily lifestyle habits may be just the place to begin.