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.” 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

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” 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” 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”?

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” 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
, 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” 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.” 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” 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


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” of Peterson
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
(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
, 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”? 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” 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.” 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.” 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

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”
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 cliché “wholistic,” 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
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.”

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,” 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.” 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
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
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” 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
.) 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

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.