The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

A Rule of Life: A Happy-Plan for Christian Living

In December of 2019, the Seattle Times noted that sales of daily planners and organizers rose to a whopping revenue of $386 million.  And this was just for the planners themselves – the books of blank pages and organizational spaces.  Sales of planner accessories is a whole other matter.  The stickers, the insets, the bookmarks – the tools necessary for the avid planner today – rang in a total of $3.9 million.  Clearly, “Planning” is big business.

While it may be tempting to see this as nothing more than a modern fad, I choose to see this differently.  At a basic level, the quick rise of the daily planner undoubtedly points to a deeply-felt desire to be internally ordered.  After all, given the constant flux and ever-changing nature of the world in which we live, is there any shock that there is an expressed desire to find a  touch-stone upon which one can order one’s life?  Planning is not simply about jotting down the tasks of the day – it is about expressing a view-point, an attitude, a spiritual disposition with which one chooses to approach the day’s tasks and demands.  Furthermore, the focus  on goal-setting serves to beckon the individual planner toward that pearl of great worth of which they seek. 

While the rise of planner-based businesses may be a recent phenomena, the attitude (dare I say spirituality) that lurks behind the adoption of these daily planners is quite  old. For example, were you aware that the Book of Common Prayer actually suggests that all Christians develop a detailed plan for Christian living?  It’s called a Rule of Life.  Not only do we find this in the BCP, but beginning with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Christian people of all sorts and stripes have found value in crafting a deep and holy order to their lives.  The rule, whether it be an individual creation or one governed by a monastic community, presents a way of intentionality – a routine of personal rhythms and guidelines that give shape to one’s life of faith. 

Importantly, the rule of life is not merely a thought about one’s life.  “A Rule of Life” specifically refers to a written record or one’s faith-intensions.   Thus when the Cranmer instructs “Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself [sic] a Rule of Life” (BCP, 555), he instructs Christians to physically write down how he or she will intentionally live out their faith.  Here is another crossover with the art of the planner.  Studies have shown that the physical act of writing one’s goals positively impacts one’s ability to achieve said goals.  Proponents of planning would undoubtedly agree.  The placing of stickers and motivational sayings across one’s agenda is not merely for the purpose of beautification.  It provides a written record of the life  one is aspiring to live, thereby increasing the likelihood that such aspirations will be met. Writing a Rule of Life actually increases one’s ability to live out the intentional way of faith.

This means that a Rule of life, while being a document to challenge and stretch us, needs to be workable.  For example, it will do no good for a parent of small children to write a Rule that says that he or she will spend 9 hours a day in silent meditation.  Anyone with small children knows this would be impossible. One’s rule needs to fit into the messy tapestry of life as we experience it.  Just like a financial budget needs to begin with the actually dollars and cents available to the person, a rule of life must refer to the life we actually live in the hear and now.  Only then can we begin to see the places where God may want us to shift our perceptions or habits to more fully engage in his presence.  It is also best to think of a Rule of life as a fluid document.  Like moving around stickers on a planner, a Rule of Life is always changing, and naturally includes a certain amount of flexibility.   

The Rule of Life, therefore, sits in this precarious place of fitting seamlessly into life as we experience it, while also challenging us to make changes to our spiritual life.  The best Rule is one we do not feel we need to worry over, while at the same time, being one that calls us to concentration, reflection, and prayer.  Arguably there is a messiness here.  Just as the best planner-pages are the ones that call the individual to strive to live the best life, so too our Rule of Life should hold out to us the life of faith we aspire to live.  And live we must.  We cannot remain eternally with intensions and desire.  Eventually Jesus calls us to live our lives.  Thus, a  Rule of Life cannot simply be about wishes and dreams; it must include actions and practices through which we will govern our spiritual life with God.  Adele Calhoun notes “Live-giving rules are a brief and realistic scaffold of disciplines that support your heart’s desire to grow in loving God and others.” (38)  While not detailing every moment of life, the Rule gives a framework in which we live our Christian lives.

In this regard, the Book of Common Prayer offers good guidelines for the different aspects we may reflect on in our Rule.  The BCP records that the rule of life should consider: The regularity of attendance at public worship, the practice of private prayer, bible reading, self discipline, bringing the teachings of Jesus into every day life, personal service, and the offering of money to support the work of the church.  These create the scaffold upon which an authentic, intentional Christian life is built.

Perhaps this is a challenge that the Rule of Life can place on planners.  Planning, if it is to be a spiritual habit and not just a creative one, must push past the desire to merely fill up one’s pages with generalities.   For example, does one use a planner to highlight the spiritual practices one is called to engage in?  It is all well and good to plunk in a sticker that says ‘Be prayerful!”, but how does one actually plan for dedicated time of prayer, or public worship? Does one plan out just how one will live out the teachings of Jesus in regular life?  These are questions a Rule of Life sits with, and to which today’s daily planners could aid in drawing people into deeper reflection.  To use the planner in this way would be to create an ongoing record of one’s life with God.  Whether you call this your Happy Planner, or your Rule of life, having such record can only be beneficial for one’s walk with the Lord.

Sources:

 Seattle Times:  https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/shop-northwest/which-planner-will-make-your-2019-perfectly-organized/

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg; 2015. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Messy Faith

This post first appeared at https://medium.com/@revkylenorman/  under the title “Embracing the Messiness of faith” 

Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.

I wish I was making this up.  Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed.  This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her.  Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.”  Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good.  It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her.  But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken.  The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better.  She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.

I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death.  Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family.   Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.”  This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die.  It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death.  It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62.  She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up.   I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.

I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith.  Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.  We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives.  When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable.   For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.”  Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation.  Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you.  Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God.  But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time?   What does this say for the one struggling for direction?  If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God.  In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.

The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations.  From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life.  In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers.  The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight:  Job is suffering because he deserves it.  Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer.  Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.  They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.

Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle.  The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve.  We see in Job.  Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers.  Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus.  God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us.  Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics.  Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation.  In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us.  He is hated, despised, and rejected.  Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross.  Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.

Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed.  But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey.  And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess.  It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment?  Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered.  Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore.  Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance.  Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess?   Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world.  It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

View at Medium.com

Habits of Devotion

This article first appeared at Ministry Matters under the title “Habits of Devotion: Observing the season of Lent in a healthy, restorative, and biblical way.”  Published February 27, 2020. 

 

Are you bored of Lent? This probably seems like an odd question to ask, considering we have yet to enter into the liturgical season. The question is apt, I think. With only a few days left to go before our big plunge into the penitential season, most of us are probably trying to figure out what will define this year’s observance. If you are like me, you probably have already started to ask yourselves a series of complicated questions: “Do I give something up or take something on?”, “Do I repeat a past observance or think of something new?” , “Do I focus on my exterior life or my interior life?” These questions can be hard to answer. Furthermore, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to figure out what will make for a good Lenten experience. Have you ever felt so exhausted trying to figure out what your discipline will be, that by the time Lent arrives, your passion for the discipline is already disappeared? We may still do our Lenten obligations, with an appropriate mix of understated humility and begrudging liturgical compliance, but that’s all we do. We observe them, but we aren’t transformed by them.

How might we engage in the season of lent differently this year? What might it look like to engage in this season of spiritual discipline with the purpose of transforming our spiritual lives? Are there practices or disciplines that have been proven to do this? Luckily there are. The book of Acts contains a wonderful description of how the early church structured their Christian lives. Having accepted the good news of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, members of this new community lived in a particular way. They structured their spiritual lives around four simple habits. We read in chapter 2 that the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” These habits are not complicated by any means. In fact, they are rather quite simple. All it takes is a little dedication and a willingness to engage in these actions on a regular basis. For that early baptised community, devotion to these practices opened them to the continuous presence of the risen Lord.

What would it look like if Anglicans everywhere purposefully engaged in each of these disciplines on a weekly basis throughout the season of Lent? What if we structured our life around these exercises? Importantly, these four practices call us into a deeper engagement with the community of faith in a way that giving up my favourite snack does not. By adopting these practices, my Lenten observance is transformed into our Lenten observance. To follow along with the example set by the early Christians, we need to know a little more about each practice.

The Apostles’ Teaching: For the early Christian community, devotion to the apostles’ teaching meant learning about Jesus from those who had been with him. This wasn’t about private moments of silent reflection upon the scrolls. The early community discussed Jesus’ teachings with one another and explored implications for their own lives. The point was to be influenced by Christ’s teaching, example, and Spirit. How might you join others in learning more about Jesus? Can you form a small group and commit to reading a Gospel each week, or work through a 12-lesson Bible study booklet? What would it look like for you to takes notes during the Sunday sermon? Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching is about allowing the good news of Jesus to form (and transform) the community of faith.

Fellowship: Fellowship lies at the centre of the faith community because it forces us to recognise the call to a common spiritual life. Fellowship is not just about “hanging out” or “shooting the breeze.” Nor is fellowship just about having “Coffee time” with one another. Fellowship is about connecting with a fellow Christian for mutual, faith-based, encouragement. In fellowship, we share what is occurring in our spiritual lives. This means we need to cultivate a radical sense of both hospitality and vulnerability. Could you call the clergy of your parish and arrange an appointment to talk about where you are in your faith life? Could you ask a fellow parishioner how you could support them in their faith life? We live in a time of rampant individualism, and because of this, it is easy for us to believe that such conversations are both intrusive and unwelcome. Yet devotion to fellowship demands that we push past the safety net of small talk and willingly engage in deeper, soul-rich, conversation and sharing.

The Breaking of Bread: The New Testament describes several instances where Jesus blessed, broke, and gave bread to people. Each case was a moment where the Lordship of Jesus was revealed in a particular way (c.f. Luke 24:30–32). The greatest example of this is the Last Supper. For Anglicans, we see our participation in the eucharist as the chief act of worship. Yet the hyper-busyness of modern day often interrupts our celebration of the Eucharist. This is understandable, and maybe unavoidable. Still, as a Lenten observance, what would it look like for you to devote yourself to taking communion every week during the season of Lent? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be on Sunday morning. Many churches have several communion services per week. If you cannot make it to church on Sunday morning you may choose to attend the mid-week service. Or perhaps you could call the church to arrange for someone to bring you communion in your home. (FYI: you don’t have to be a shut in to request this!). Now, if you do not yet take communion, perhaps this is the opportunity for you to engage in discussions with your local clergy about the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

Prayer: The community’s devotion to prayer probably sounds the easiest. However, this is not just about having a personal prayer-life. Devotion to prayer for the early Christian community was about devotion to communal prayer. The community gathered together to pray for one another, and to pray with one another. Prayer was both personal and liturgical. This is completely contrary to the privatised and individualistic way that we sometimes view prayer today. There are many different ways that you could cultivate communal prayer during Lent. You could say the liturgy of Morning Prayer (or Evening Prayer) using the BAS or BCP rites; take your bulletin home and pray the collect before bed each evening; ask someone to join you in prayer — either in grace before a meal, or in saying The Lord’s Prayer; seek out a Christian you trust and look up to, and ask him or her to pray with you. Options are limitless and opportunities to join in prayer with others abound. All it takes is a little creativity and boldness.

None of these practices are overly complicated. Each are fairly strait forward. So simple are they, in fact, that we often overlook the transformative power of them. The fact is, each of these practices opens the door for us to creatively engage in our life with God in a unique way. So, if you want the season of Lent to be a time of spiritual renewal, this is perhaps one of the simplest (and most biblically based) ways to go about it. May we all have a blessed Lent.

The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

This is my response to The Reverend Michael Coren’s CBC opinion piece regarding Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), posted on February 4,2020. (You can find his article here). Let me be clear about what this response is and is not.  This is not a position paper wherein I pose a counterargument to Coren’s support of MAID.  My intent is not to convince anyone of a certain ethical stance regarding this complex issue.  Coren’s support of MAID will go unchallenged. I do, however, wish to highlight how Coren discusses MAID, and suggest why, I believe, Coren’s piece is unhelpful and harmful.

Before I jump in, let me first tell you who is writing. I am someone who was born with a rare congenital heart condition.  I had open heart surgery when I was 6 months old, and while I have largely lived my life without complication, at 41 years of age, my heart has begun to decline in function.  Every passing year brings more reduced functionality. To put it bluntly, my heart is failing. Due to the rarity of my condition, my cardiologist cannot tell me how my condition will progress or what awaits me in the future.  All of this is to say I am not someone unconcerned with how this conversation is occurring.  Furthermore, while I am not someone who would choose MAID for myself, I understand why someone would, and I recognise that, in the future, I may be in the situation where this is presented as an option to me.  Now, onto my issues with Coren’s article.

Most disturbing is Coren’s position that the alternative to assisted dying is “unassisted dying.”  Coren writes that unassisted dying amounts to “dying in pain, anguish, and often totally alone.”  This is simply not true.  For starters, I would hope that as a clergy person Coren doesn’t believe that someone is alone when they die. More to the point, however, Coren completely dismisses the valuable ministry provided by Hospices throughout the world.  It is as if he assumes that MAID is the only resource available in which one can manage how they die.  Again, this is simply not true.  Coren ignores the simple reality that every single day there are countless medical staff who lovingly and ardently attempt to make an individual’s journey toward death as easy and painless as possible. I have had the privilege of visiting many people in Hospices over the years, and I am constantly touched by the care taken to ensure that no patient feels alone or abandoned.  Furthermore, letting “death come like a thief” does not equal dying alone.  My mother died in a Hospice room after her cancer ran its course.  She was surrounded by all her children, and her husband holding her hand.  We all had a chance to say our goodbyes and to trust her into the hands of God.  To suggest that opposition to MAID amounts to willfully condemning our loved ones to a painful, lonely, and agonizing death is ludicrous, and I would add, pastorally insensitive.

This brings me to another point. Apparently, Coren doesn’t believe that other people have adequate experience with death and dying.  Coren writes: “I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early” (my emphasis).  Does Coren really believe that people are living in blissful ignorance of death and dying?  Does he really believe that anyone who opposes MAID do so because they have never experienced the death of a loved one?  Frankly, I don’t believe that Coren thinks this way.  This sentence obviously is a rhetorical device designed to bolster Coren’s own position.  It suggests that Coren alone has done the hard work of journeying with people as they die, and no one else has.  But again, this is simply not true.  Personally, I have sat with parishioners as they have relayed to me their sense of frustration that death was taking too long.  I have held the hands of the dying; I have watched life-support be removed from a comatose patient.  I have been called to the bedside as someone breathes their last.  And in each of these situations I was never alone.  I was but one of many. Every day, millions of people spend time at hospital beds and hospice wards as they surround the ill and dying. Coren doesn’t have a monopoly on these experiences, and to suggest otherwise is disrespectful.

Lastly, let me touch on how Coren ends his opinion piece.  Coren, who has not spoken of matters of faith at all during his post, concludes this way: “Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposefully – we will all come to our senses.”  Obviously Coren is suggesting that God agrees with him, that he somehow has an inside track on God’s view on life and death.  Without typing the words, Coren essentially concludes his opinion piece with “thus saith the Lord.”  It is always dangerous for a clergy person to suggest that he or she has an inside track on how God views matters of morality and ethics. “Who can discern the mind of the Lord?” the scriptures say (Romans 11:34).  Don’t get me wrong, we can have our positions.  We can even believe that our position is a faithful response to God and the scriptures.  But we cannot suggest that disagreeing with my position is akin to disagreeing with God. This does not convey respect to others, or to the God we serve in humility.  By using the name of God “purposefully” here, Coren is labelling those who disagree with him as godless fools.  As a clergy person tasked to help others seek and serve Christ in all persons, this is uncalled for. At best the statement is misguided, at worst it is manipulative clericalism.

The very manner in which Coren speaks of MAID is detrimental to any discussion of the complexity of this matter. Coren caricatures those who disagree with him in the most ungraceful, unchristian, and insensitive of ways. The language he uses does not convey the spirit of humility, respect, grace, or love that we as Christians (or as clergy) are to evidence in the world.  In the future, may we all do better in listening to others and respecting the various complexities of our life together.

 

 

Hubris and Humility, When I get too big for my britches.

We know David to be hero of the Old Testament.  He is the man noted to be “after God’s own heart” (1st Samuel 13:14); he slew Goliath when everyone else was too scared to enter the battle field (1st Samuel 17); he grew to be a mighty warrior, a successful king, a consummate leader.  To top it all off, it is of “David’s line” out of which the Messiah is to come.  You can’t get much more of a compliment than that!

All that beings said, we cannot forget the David is also a man with flaws. In scanning David’s life, we see that David was a man who frequently lived out a sense of entitlement.  David lived and acted with a great deal of hubris.  This self-confidence served him in his tasks, but as he progressed from fabled hero, to military strategist, to mighty King, we see David’s confidence turning to pride.  David begins acting out whatever desire or wish that enters his fancy.

One of the most intriguing examples of this is David’s desire to build the temple of the Lord.  We read about this in 2nd Samuel 7.  Having been named King and now residing in the palace, David reflects on a lack of a “house” for God.  Here he is, in a palace of Cedar while the ark of God lies in a tent.  Surely this shouldn’t be the case, David thinks.  And so, resolved to rectify the situation, David sets out to construct the temple.

To be fair to David, I am sure that his desire to build God’s temple was born initially out of faith.  Furthermore, he did go to the prophet Nathan and seek counsel (it was Nathan who spoke out of turn).  Yet part of me wonders if something more is going on within David.  Is David’s desire to build the temple entirely altruistic?  I wonder if this is an instance of David being too big for his britches? I wonder if David believes that the Lord needs David to manage the LORD’s affairs in the world.  After all, he was the one who slew Goliath; he was the one who brought the ark back to Jerusalem; he was the one who was the continually saved the nation, he was the glorious king of Israel.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to believe that David thought “now the LORD needs me to build the temple, because nobody else is able to.”  The fact that building the temple would establish David as the head of the political and religious life of the nations probably didn’t hurt either!  Such an action would have only served to strengthen David’s authority and garner allegiance from all of Israel. (As smart as savvy as he was, I can’t believe that this escaped his notice). The point is, instead of humility and humbleness, David moved to erect the temple out of a misplaced attempt to manage where God resided, and how God was approached.

Do I ever live out such hubris?  Do I ever fall in to a mistaken belief that Jesus needs me to micromanage his affairs in this world?  Instead of humility and acceptance, do I ever believe that I am the one who gets to call the shots, with the Lord dutifully falling in line behind me?  Honestly, there are probably times when I do this.  I probably do this when I believe that God’s presence and activity in church is contingent on my perfect sermon or the perfect execution of liturgy.  I probably act like David a bit too much when I assume that God thinks about everything the exact same way I do; and when I assume that the head of the Church needs me to save his Church, am I not getting a little too big for my own britches?

David does not build the temple; he is told to cease-and-desist.  Nathan comes to him with the divine word that he is not the one to build the temple.  Yet, God’s response to David in this is beautifully instructive.  David isn’t just told “no”, he is reminded of the LORD’s power and guidance in the establishment of the nation, and his own family.  David is told how God has moved with the Israelite’s each day and how no ruler of the nation was ever tasked to build the LORD a house of cedar. I think there is a not-so-subtle reprimand here.  God is, in effect, saying “Who do you think you are to assume that you are the one to do this?”  David, with all the hubris flowing through him, is called to humility. He is reminded of his rightful place before the true and rightful King.

And then God says something profound.  God takes David’s desire, stated in verse 2, and flips it on its head.  In light of David’s desire to build God a house, the LORD affirms “I will provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so they can have a home” (7:10).  Furthermore “The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you” (7:11).  Again, David is lovingly put in his place.  The LORD does not need David to establish a house, because Israel’s future is in the LORD’s hands.  God is in control. David’s task in life is not manage God’s presence and activity in the world, but to humbly receive the blessings that God bestows.  David is asked to follow God’s lead; to do that which Gods him to do, and to not do what God does not call him to do.  Instead of crafting a house for God, God will establish a house for David.  Despite the great accomplishments and accolades David may have to his name, in the end, he is but a servant of the heavenly King.

It can be hard to be taken down a peg, to have God address our prideful hubris.  But this is necessary if we want to live our lives faithfully before God. In love, God reminds us of our place as part of His creation.  We are people formed of the earth, crafted in God’s image, redeemed by His love.  As such, God calls us to the place of submission.  We are called to receive, not create, the will of the Lord.  Furthermore, in those times where we may not know what the next phase of our journey is, we are called to wait for the Lord.  God does not need our management-strategies or our directions. God does not need us to create a path, construct a legacy, build a future.  These things are in God’s hands, and despite our knowledge or insight, God’s plan will prevail.  Instead of attempting to manage divine things, therefore, we should use our energy to be diligent in prayer and humble in spirit.   After all, as David’s son once put it, “Unless the Lord build’s the house, we but labour in vain.”

When Words Speak: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).

Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others.  For me, this proved to be a difficult task.  I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic.  But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation.  Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed?  I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.

Given all of this, I present to you my revised list.  Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ.  My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again.  They inform how I understand my life with Christ.  They encourage me.  They challenge me. They inspire me.  Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.

  1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf.  Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ.  It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
  2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition.  Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires.  I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.  Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
  3. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology.  Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for.  Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society.  These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
  4. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late.  Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often.  I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work.  I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time.  Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
  5. Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection.  I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law.  That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first.  Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted  to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith.  How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life?  Are they any truths that seem to transcend time.  deSales did not disappoint.  His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.

There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life.  I commend them to you.  If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.