For The Someday Book

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Strength for the Journey: A Guide to Spiritual Practice by Renee Miller, New York: Morehouse Publishing/CREDO Institute, 2011, 134 pp.

strength-for-the-journey.jpgThis tiny little volume contains tiny little introductions to 20 different spiritual practices, along with a rubric for introducing and beginning each one. It is produced by the CREDO Institute, which runs the CREDO program of mid-career personal, spiritual and vocational development for clergy in the a variety of mainline denominations.

The book is intentionally lightweight and light reading. The 20 spiritual practices are grouped into five categories: Meditative Practice, Ministry Practice, Media Practice, Mind Practice and Movement Practice. Each section and each practice begins with a beautiful and simple color photograph, which invites you to slow down your reading for information and simply reflect on the invitation into spiritual practice. The author follows a formulaic approach to each one, offering a brief rationale for the gift and struggle of that particular practice; practical suggestions for how to begin to engage the practice and what to expect in the discipline; concluding with a short observation about what personality types will be draw to or resistant to a particular practice, and the stumbling blocks each might encounter.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of both ancient, traditional practices and contemporary, creative ones. Alongside praying with beads or praying the daily office, there is attention to technology, even movies as a possible spiritual practice. Movement practices do not just include walking and nature, but handwork. Ministry practices of hospitality and caring are joined by spiritual attention to money and gratitude.

Miller’s reflections made me want to try a few practices I had not sampled or engaged with any depth. She spoke with an honesty about the difficulty and reward (or lack thereof) of spiritual practice, emphasizing that it is not about obtaining a certain feeling or holiness, but about the way the practices take root in your life and shape you by the discipline you exercise in doing them to give attention to God. Her whole style had a sense of encouragement and accessibility I appreciated greatly.

I will be returning to this book throughout Lent, as I am preaching a sermon series called “A Lived Faith,” which is about inviting people into a life of spiritual practices, with a particular focus on those practices that we, as a congregation, should embody in an international, expatriate context. This is a book easily read in one sitting, but best consulted and savored slowly and spaciously.

 

Lit: A Memoir, by Mary Karr, HarperCollins, 2009, 386 pp.

I heard about the book on an NPR interview with the author, and picked it up on a whim when I saw it on the clearance rack at the bookstore for $2.50. It was not an easy read, because Lit tells the story of Karr’s descent into alcoholism and her long, slow journey to recovery. Karr is a poet, and her prose carries the density and rich vocabulary of her other literary craft.

The book tracks a downward spiral into a life controlled by the need to drink, beginning when Karr is 17 years old and living as a runaway in San Francisco and continuing through her college years, graduate school, marriage and motherhood. Thinking back, (I completed reading a few weeks ago), the first half of the book is hard to recall. It is blurry, muddled and full of memory-impressions that are vivid but do not unfold in a clear narrative. This parallels Karr’s descent into drink.

The memoir turns when she begins the road to sobriety, even though the journey is rife with setbacks. Her journey out of alcoholism reminds me of a maze. You know you’re headed somewhere, but you don’t know where it is or how to get there. Dead-ends are everywhere that make you double back and start again. You feel lost and alone. There are haunting images of her attempts to care for her son, and finding herself out of control again.

I was surprised to discover that this book was a journey into prayer and Christianity for Karr. Her struggle to find faith was the most compelling part of the book for me. Her sponsors and advisors in her recovery tell her again and again that she needs to find her higher power and learn to pray, but she resists because she can’t believe in God. A doctor who is also in recovery tells her:

Faith is not a feeling. It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it. (217)

Karr is worried about money, so the doctor instructs her to pray for money:

Then pray for it. Just pray every day for ninety days and see if your life gets better. Call it a scientific experiment. You might not get the money, but you might find relief from anxiety about money. What do you have to lose? (219)

I found this so familiar to my own experience of prayer. Unlike Karr, I have had the feelings before, and still do from time to time. But prayer is far more about discipline, openness and relationship than it is about feeling something.

One more section of conversation about prayer:

Deb says, Mary’s reluctant to get down on her knees because she doesn’t believe in God.

I add, What kind of God wants me to get on my knees and supplicate myself like a coolie?

Janice busts out with a cackling laugh, You don’t do it for God! You do it for yourself. All this is for you… the prayer, the meditation, even the service work. I do it for myself, too. I’m not that benevolent.

How does getting on your knees do anything for you? I say.

Janice says, It makes you the right size.

Lit is powerful as an inside perspective on what it’s like to build a self around alcohol, only to discover you’re lost—then to recreate a new self in sobriety. Beautifully crafted, this is an interesting read for anyone who’s been down this road of addiction and recovery, or loved someone who is somewhere on it.

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Harper Collins, 2009, 216 pp.

Barbara Brown Taylor never disappoints with the beauty of her language and the connections she makes about the movements of God in her spirit and her world. My book is full of notes and underlines to which I hope to return to borrow a gem for a future sermon. An Altar in the World describes her spiritual life outside of the church, since she left parish ministry several years ago.

Each chapter of the book describes a spiritual practice that can be done by anyone, in any place. They are deeply grounded Christian practices, although she moves beyond the classic list of prayer, study, Sabbath, service and more. Taylor carefully grounds each one in Christian tradition, even as she assigns them contemporary names free of all “churchiness.” Reverence becomes “the practice of paying attention.” Wilderness becomes “the practice of getting lost.” Prayer becomes “the practice of being present to God.” The prayer chapter was one of my favorites, because she talks about her life as a failure in prayer, if prayer is the art of constant conversation with God. She returns us to Brother Lawrence (whom I love), who models prayer as practicing God’s presence in every action and every moment, opening oneself to God at every turn.

While this book is certainly beautifully written, it did not grab me with the compelling power her previous works held over me. I wonder if it is because my own spirituality is so deeply connected to church, that church’s conspicuous absence made me feel absent too. It could also simply have been the wrong time in my life for this book—it just didn’t speak to my heart at this moment. I did not find anything in An Altar in the World that was new, as it seemed to rehearse similar territory to Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith and Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us, singing the same song in a different key. I love the two Bass books, and the whole movement around them to prioritize Christian faith practices. Taylor’s book belongs to that genre, so I appreciate it even if it was not my favorite among them. It would probably be a great book for someone on the edges of Christianity and church, but intrigued by a Christian way of life.

This whole movement speaks as a challenge and a call to renewal for the heady, wordy nature of mainline worship. Taylor points out that, in all the discussions of the decline of mainline churches, no one talks about the “intellectualization of the faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list.” I have been thinking a lot about this lately in our own church. I want to move people to experience God, and I’m not sure our current worship service is the best means for doing so. We need ways to move beyond saying words, listening to words and singing wordy songs as our only corporate expressions of worship. Taylor continues:

In an age of information overload … the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (45)

How can we stop telling people about God and actually bring them into God’s presence? Vital worship that involves bodies and senses and motion. Spiritual practices that shape our bodies into God’s bodies serving the world. Engaged faith that inspires people to make altars everywhere in the world.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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