Wonderful Books on Spiritual Formation — Especially Good for Lent

Perhaps you are like me and sometimes have a hard time keeping up with a dailylent word.jpg devotional; maybe it just isn’t your style.

Even if the list of Lenten devotionals and study resources that we shared in the last BookNotes didn’t quite appeal to your reading style, I would bet you still hunger for more depth in your life.  Maybe you are a little jealous of those who seem to be able to use the church calendar as a seasonal reminder to re-focus and live in to discipleship in a deeper way.

Ruth Haley Barton starts her fabulous book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation with an invitation to be in touch with our deepest longings, and to attend to those desires for “more.” Not more stuff, of course, but more life, more love; a faith that is evident and meaningful and helpful for real life. She writes, “One of things that still surprises me this far along in life is how and when and with what power my longing stirs.”  After some moving personal anecdotes, she suggests that we attend to these longings of our own soul.  

When was the last time you felt it – your own longing, that is? Your longing for love, your longing for God, your longing to live your life as it is meant to be live in God? When was the last time you felt a longing for healing and fundamental change growing within you?

Do not rush past this question; it may be the most important question you ever ask. But this is hard, I know. In religious circles we are much more accustomed to silencing our desire, distancing ourselves from it, because we are suspicious and afraid of its power.

Her next pages are brilliant in inviting us to name some of these deep longings of the soul, these very human questions. These can be explored any time, but many of our churches invite us to these things now, in this season.

Here I suggest some wonderful books on spiritual formation, a few that are well known and a few that may less recognizable, and few that are obvious and a few surprise recommendations. All of these are wonderfully done, my own (partial) “best of” list for ordinary folks wanting to think about what the theologians call sanctification and what some now call spiritual formation. Do you want renewal, revival, transformation, on-going growth, depth, holiness, even? Do you long to be (re)formed into the image of Christ? To want to deepen your interior life so the Spirit can do in and with you what God wills?

These books will help, I am sure of it. 

Also, if you mentor others, work in ministry, are a disciple-maker or spiritual friend, these are tools you should have at the ready to share with those who are hungry. If you want to give up something for Lent, give up buying something that would allow you to afford buying a few of these.  Give up something that sucks time away from time alone, reading, pondering, praying.

Maybe God might even be inviting you to give up some of your admittedly precious time and individualism; maybe you (really do) long for a small group, a safe community to explore your deepest desires for a better life. Why not call somebody, start a group, or a better group, even if only for Lent. It isn’t weird to invite a friend or two to join you in reading a book together, you know.  Who knows, maybe you’ll end up true soul friends, spiritual companions as you dive deeper into the way of Jesus.

Ccelebration of d.jpgelebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $25.99 I simply must start with this. This is a perennial best seller, a hugely significant book and, although a bit deep for real beginners to spiritual disciplines, it is still a true “must-read.” But it on your bucket list, have an extra copy on hand to share, refer to it often. This is a true 20th century classic, guiding us to disciplines of depth and joy.  There are three major parts, explaining practices that he says are inward (working on our own inner lives), upward (such as praise and worship which are oriented towards God) and outward in service in the world.  Good stuff, an anecdote to superficiality, which he says in his famous first page, is “the curse of our times.”

PPrayer- foster.jpgrayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home Richard J. Foster (HarperOne) $24.99 This is one of my all-time favorite books, beautifully offering more than a dozen ways to pray. It is every bit as good, and every bit as helpful as the more famous Celebration of Discipline. He wisely guides us into deeper intercession, praise, confession and such, but also shows how to meditate, pray the ordinary, use our grief as prayers of lament, and offers a stunning chapter on “radical prayer” about bringing the needs for social change before God’s throne, pleading and working for history-making cultural transformation. Wow.

Iinvitation to solitude and silence (black).jpgnvitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  Ruth invites us to one of the most important spiritual practices one can imagine, one which is counter-cultural and for some of us, desperately important.  I might note that some may not think a book about silence would be very interesting, and this one is more than interesting, it is fascinating, fun, vital, and very much appreciated by those who read it.  Highly recommended.

Ssacred r.jpgacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation  Ruth Haley Barton (IVP) $17.00  I know we recommend this a lot, and you may know we’ve hosted Ruth here in the area – her gracious, clear depth and helpful approach is a rare gift, and it comes through in her books.  In many ways, this is the perfect book – perhaps not quite as deep or heady or mystical as some of the spiritual classics, but not light-weight or simplistic.  She is forthright calling us into a life-style of spiritual practices that create a deeper sense of Gods transforming power and she draws on the spiritual classics to help us make it happen. Highly recommended.

Ggod is closer than.pngod is Closer Than You Think John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99  I think Ortberg is one the great gifts to religious publishing, a deep thinker (he worked with the impressive Dallas Willard on his last book) but a fabulous, fun communicator. The DVD to this is excellent and great for small groups. The cover declares “This Can Be the Greatest Moment of Your Life Because This Moment Is the Place Where You Can Meet God.” Okay, a bit over-wrought, but the plain-spoken guidance Reverend O offers on practicing the presence of Godgod is closer eye chart.jpg is rich and thoughtful and clear and profound. Is God maybe a bit like Waldo – hidden in plain view? You will learn much and laugh a bit along the way.  (By the way, the first edition of this had a fantastic cover design that looked like an eye chart; many didn’t quite “get” it, and they gave it a more typical kind of look. It is the same book, though.)

Tlife you always.jpghe Life You Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People John Ortberg (Zondervan) $18.99 This is the first Ortberg book I read and the first DVD of his I viewed; loved them both! We recommend it often, noting that, as he says, it is “Dallas (Willard) for Dummies.” Or, put another way, it is Richard Foster for beginners. Yes, it is a book about the classic spiritual disciplines, but he delightful shows how to weave them into an ordinary life, and how a spiritually attuned and God-centered life isn’t odd or pasty, but full and good. I love that he says this isn’t about your (so-called) “spiritual life” but about your life. This book can be life-changing and a nice window into how spiritual disciplines can enhance daily discipleship and gently transform real life, perfect for those who can’t imagine themselves reading heavy monastic literature or experiencing the mysticism of the contemplatives.

Ggod in my everything.jpgod in My Everything: How An Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God  Ken Shigematsu (Zondervan) $16.99  We have written about this before, and promoted it at several gatherings this fall – perhaps I over-emphasize the unique backstory, although that is interesting. The author was a driven and successful Japanese business man who ended up at the wonderful Regent College in British Columbia, studying theology. He ends up on a pilgrimage to Ireland which piques his interest in Celtic spirituality.  Yes, this could be considered a delightfully cross-cultural, multi-ethnic experience, but it is mostly just solid guidance on creating a life-giving rhythm to experience God in everyday moments. This guy knows our busyness and the challenges of living out faith in a secularized world. He helps us journey down this ancient pathway to learn to enjoy God and draw closer to Christ, day by day. An endorsement by Shane Claiborne indicates that it isn’t disengaged religiosity, but a new take on older monastic insights. It will help you create your own rule of life, your own sense of how to walk out your own sense of calling and vocation, truly guided by God. There are wonderful questions for reflection, guidance for your own processing, and tremendous stories helping you apply it all.

SSpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney.jpgpiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life Donald Whitney (NavPress) $15.99 I think this book is an under-rated gem and should be widely known among us.  Whitney offers wise and practical counsel about spiritual disciplines and calls us to serious practice of stuff that leads to a deeper kind of discipleship and fuller awareness of God’s glory and grace in our lives.  He is very fluent in the best of the Puritans – don’t let that scare you with dumb biases about their harshness, as that is mostly untrue.  I sometimes say this is a book comparable to Foster’s classic, but where Foster draws on medieval, monastic, and pietistic sources, Whitney uses thoughtful Puritan and Reformed sources. Highly recommended.

SSpiritualDisciplinesHandbook.jpgpiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us Adele Ahlberg Calhoun (IVP) $18.00 This is a majestic, amazingly useful, big handbook that tells you much of what you need to know – from the theological to the Biblical to the practical – about doing the many sorts of disciplines, practices, and experiences that put us into a posture of being encountered and changed by God. If you do any teaching on this, if you are any sort of a disciple-maker or spiritual friend this will be a go-to, often-used resource, chock-full of great information, insights, principles, and useful suggestions. Nice that it is endorsed so widely, from Ruth Haley Barton to Timothy Keller.

HHoly Available.jpgoly Available: What If Holiness Is About More Than What We Don’t Do? Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99 We recommend any of the many books of Gary Thomas who, perhaps akin to Ortberg, brings ancient, contemplative insights into very modern parlance.  He is greatly influenced by the deep spiritual classics (and has a great book introducing the classics to modern readers called Thirsting for God: Spiritual Refreshment for the Sacred Journey [Harvest House; $13.99.]) In Holy Available he shows his wide reading and deep debt to even the Orthodox tradition. (In fact, its original title was The Beautiful Fight which was a nod to an Orthodox phrase.) So he reads widely and knows this stuff well.

This one is actually one of my favorite books in this genre and reminds anyone who has been influenced by legalism or moralism that gospel transformation isn’t mostly about “does and don’ts” but about a Christ-centered change from the inside out, making us more available to join God’s holy work in the world. The grace that pardons also transforms, but this goes beyond merely “preaching the gospel to yourself” and standing firm against idols in one’s life (as some guidebooks emphasize these days.) This is robust, deep, wide, delightfully so, and very practical as it helps us literally take on the ways of Christ in our mind, our eyes, our feet, our hands. He calls us to be a “God oasis in a God-forgetting world, and shows what winsome holiness can look like, and how to join the beautiful struggle.  By the way, if you think this sounds soft of Biblical obedience or just a tirade against moralism, please know that it is not: it really is about being transformed into the image of Christ.  Thomas has another book on this, too, that is all about how the virtues of Christ can be embedded into our own lives as our own character is transformed into Christ-likeness.  See his very important Glorious Pursuit: Pursuing the Virtues of Christ (NavPress; $14.99) which is one of the best books on that topic.  I am surprised we don’t hear more about this kind of stuff – is being Christ-like beyond our reach? Thomas thinks not.

Tto-live-is-christ.jpgo Live Is Christ To Die Is Gain  Matt Chandler with Jared Wilson (Crossway) $17.99  I liked Chandler’s previous book, The Explicit Gospel and this has a similar tone – solid, Reformed, mature, but yet casual, winsome, teacherly.  He explains things well, lapses into hipster jokes and allusions some times, but yet still maintains a certain gravitas about the material.  This is a set of sermons working through the wonderful book of Philippians. You will learn why Paul yearned for these folks, how he commended them, what it means to take up a way of living that puts Christ first (and to promote and even join Him in his cross of suffering.)  Chandler’s friend Louie Giglio writes on the back “To know Jesus is the essence of life, and I love how Matt Chandler stirs up our affections for Him in To Live Is Christ, To Die is Gain. Matt’s beautiful, practical, and straightforward unpacking of Philippians will nudge you toward maturity… and a more robust walk with the Savior. Get it, and dive in today.”

Torganic_god.jpghe Organic God: Fall in Love with God All Over Again  Margaret Feinberg (Zondervan) $14.99 I think that Margaret is nearly a poster-child of a new kind of evangelical writing – she is young, hip, funny, passionate, mature but not at all stuffy or off-putting.  Publishers Weekly notes she is “a popular writer for culture-savvy evangelicals.” In this book, she gives us an upbeat and very cool version of a classic sort of book: a study of the attributes of God. If you want to deepen your knowledge of God, it is wise to study God.  Knowing God by J. I. Packer or The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer come to mind as older-school, heady classics. Here, Margaret invites wonder and a real encounter, an organic, natural encounter, with a big-hearted, beautiful, mysterious God.  This isn’t odd or unusual, but it is fresh and inviting. Very nicely done.

We stock all of her other books, too, and several dynamic DVD video lessons by Margaret, too.  Give us a call if you want more info.

Tlife god blesses.jpghe Life God Blesses: Weathering the Storms of Life That Threaten the Soul  Gordon MacDonald (Nelson) $12.99  Gordon MacDonald is a very gifted communicator, a splendid and mature man of God, one who is able to bridge the best of old-school evangelical piety and missionary zeal and the very real needs of contemporary people. He has the ability to make even younger readers long for depth and maturity, for character and virtue, for an interior life that is solid and good. There are fabulous stories, great Bible stories re-told, and tons of good advice about going beneath the surface to a life-giving and substantial life that can only be called “blessed.” I recommend any of his books — for instance the very useful Ordering Your Private World or the very honest and raw Renewing Your Spiritual Passion, but I re-read this recently and was reminded at how very good it is. One widely read and respected friend of ours thinks it is his very best.

By the way, you’ve heard the old adage about not judging a book by it’s cover?  Please.

Lluminous.jpguminous: Living the Presence and Power of Jesus  T. David Beck (IVP) $16.00  We named this as one of the books of the year a few months ago, and have heard nothing but good reports from those who purchased it from us. Beck is a pastor, a great storyteller, a solid Bible guy with a heart for the poor and oppressed (he has done considerable work in Haiti.) One reviewer put it well saying “David Beck writes with the head of a scholar and the heart of a pastor” making the book both thoughtfully well-written but also very useful for those of us needing some guidance.  I love how he arranges the book around the purposes of God, the presence of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the call to harness this presence and power to peacemaking in the world.  A great book for Lenten reading.

Tholy longing.jpghe Holy Longing: The Search for Christian Spirituality Ronald Rolheiser (Image) $15.00  Finally, this contemporary classic is being released paperback!  I don’t think this is one for beginners, but it is doubtlessly one of the best books on spiritual formation written in the last 25 years. (Some very conservative Catholics, I should note, have disagreed.)  Note the title’s allusion to desire, to our restlessness; he starts with this, helping to define what spirituality is, including what we do with this restlessness. Many adore this book, and many of our best customers have read all of Father Rolheiser’s several good books.  He has a wise take on spiritual disciplines, invites us into a deeper life and an encounter with our real selves (even our sexuality) and the crazy-making false gods we serve, without falling into needless mysticism or shallow psychobabble. Rolheiser is a powerful cultural critic, so understands how our faith must develop “in but not of” the social pressures around us.  Recommended for a slow, careful read, for those wanting to delve deeper into spirituality and inner transformation.

By the way, if you are a fan, you may have missed his small paperback release a few months ago called Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Franciscan Media; $8.99.)

Twell-played-life-why-pleasing-god-doesnt-have-to-be-such-hard-work.jpghe Well Played Life: Why Pleasing God Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work  Leonard Sweet (Tyndale Momentum) $15.99 You know we carry every new book by this prolific author and regularly exclaim about his writerly strengths –  he offers more illustrations and analogies than anybody writing, can turn an illuminating, witty phrase as cleverly as anyone, he has the best footnotes in the business, and anyone familiar with Sweet is astounded by his wide reading, how he knows so much about so much, and, of course, about his passionate commitments to Christ and His church.  He’s a postmodern and hot-wired media guru and yet maintains an utterly orthodox, solid theology. (Yikes — he’s written about being fluid and aquatic and may not like be called solid.) Regardless, we dig Sweet and you should check him out.

I will write more about this new one later, I’m sure, as I both greatly appreciate his call to play (even if maybe a little annoyed about how he seems to use “work” as a foil, as if we fail to embrace the gift of play because of recent teachings about vocation and work.) For now, though: this is a book about grace and freedom and child-like joy, and is (yes!) perfect for Lent. Lent is not (we must be reminded) about being gloomy, let alone about earning God’s favor by our own sacrificial practices. Len Sweet wisely asks “Do you secretly think that the harder you work the more God is pleased with you?” Do you think that this very month, harboring guilt rather than celebrating graced? This “offers a new spiritual direction for enjoying (and being enjoyed by) God. You’ll start to recognize that the things in your life that give God pleasure are the same things that give you the most joy – and that playing and rejoicing are core components of what makes God’s face radiate with joy because of you.”  Read The Well Played Life along with your Lenten fasting. I dare ya.

Nnot-who-i-imagined-surprised-by-a-loving-god.jpgot Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God Margot Starbuck (Baker) $14.99  You know that Margot is one of our favorite contemporary writers, feisty and fun and radical and challenging.  She can weave words like nobody’s business, and is witty and snarky and a great, great storyteller. Her last two books (Small Things With Great Love and Permission Granted) are about reaching out to those on the margins, about inclusive love and radical servanthood; I fancy her as a suburban mom with a dash of Dorothy Day.  Can one gal be part Tiny Fey and part Lauren Winner?  I don’t know, maybe I’m trying too hard to conjure up a fun image of her. She is fascinating and truly worth reading — I assure you that she is full of lively writing and mature depth.  

This book is brand new and is, quite simply, a moving treatise against legalism, a balm for those who have been burdened by guilt and religious fear. Wounded by or concerned about toxic faith? Wonder about the chronic fear so many children of God seem to endure?  Or maybe you harbor garden variety insecurities and doubts. The very fine writer Amy Julia Becker notes “If you are a good Christian who secretly worries that you aren’t quite good enough for God’s love, this book will confound you, delight you, and bring joy to your heart and soul.”  A Lenten type read?  Why not?  It will, I promise, remind you of your true identity: beloved.

Ssabbath as resistance.jpgabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now Walter Brueggemann (WJK) $14.00 I suppose part of the appeal of this season of the liturgical calendar is the reminder to re-focus clearly on Christ and, in a sense, unhinging from the world — the idols and dysfunctions and false seductions of the world, that is. In other words, it seems to me that authentic Lenten practices not only draw us to God, calling us to follow Christ, but necessarily leads to denouncing hurtful aspects of the society in which we live, disentangling ourselves as best we can from unhealthy ways of living. For those of who ponder these sorts of things, we’ve come to realize it is harder than it sounds.

Welcome here your ally, the always provocative, utterly Biblical, and often inspiring Old Testament scholar and servant of the church, Walt Brueggemann. In this accessible slim new book he names the consumerism and drivenness of our society as the sin that it is, and invites us to a revolutionary Sabbath way of life that can slowly undo the harm to ourselves, others and creation that our way of life has engendered. I intend to sit with this a bit this Lenten season, and although it will make me squirm, hope it will be a properly joyful kind of call to repentance.  Maybe you need just such a guide into inhabiting a Biblical worldview, and some of what that entails. This really is classic Brueggemann, and we can be glad he has put into writing these matters he has explicated so passionately before about liberation, freedom, and a richer new way of life offered in these ancient Bible stories.


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