For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘spirituality

Journey Inward Journey OutwardJourney Inward, Journey Outward by Elizabeth O’Connor, HarperSanFrancisco, 1968, 176 pp.

I was introduced to Elizabeth O’Connor in my first semester of university, when I attended a retreat for those interested in exploring ministry as a vocation. (I was supposedly there as a music leader, not a candidate for ministry, but, well, you can see where that went.) A workshop leader used multiple passages of her Cry Pain, Cry Hope that have stuck with me ever since.

There is an ongoing conversation within my ministry colleagues about the crucial role of discipleship and faith formation, and the “competition” between time or investment as churches in acts of justice and compassion and acts of prayer, worship and study. I am firmly committed to the church’s mission and advocacy endeavors, but believe they require investment in the work of discipleship, shaping our inner lives in the mind and heart of Christ. The movement can work both ways–engagement in outward works of compassion and justice can lead us toward inward works of devotion, and inward works of devotion can lead us toward outward acts of social engagement. But it can be a struggle to sort through the balance, and engage those who think one side or the other is more important.

As I am preaching a Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices, including both inward and outward ones, this seemed like an apt time to seek O’Connor’s wisdom in a new arena, even though this book is old and set in a different era.

Journey Inward, Journey Outward is the second volume (the first was Call to Commitment) of the story of the Church of Our Savior in Washington, DC, an intentional, missional Christian community in the 1960s led by Rev. Gordon Cosby. The congregation has sought with care and great deliberateness to develop disciples of Jesus governed by inward habits of prayer, worship and communal living, engaged in outward practices of mission. As always, O’Connor’s gifts as a writer give voice and perspective and ways of framing that capture my thoughts and inspire deeper reflection.

 

She begins with a conversation about vocation, the way of intentionality and consciousness of God at work in our lives. She describes those without vocation, comparing them to the crowd surrounding Jesus (as opposed to the disciples):

They do not receive anything into themselves; things happen to them, but never in them. Their lives are rich in outer events, and poor in inner ones. (5)

The person who has lost his true self has a hunger in him. It may be expressed in apathy or industry. He may try to satisfy it with a job he works at 14 hours a day, or a family that is ‘everything’ to him, or success that is worth all striving, or the acquisition of things, of which there is no end of want. But there is nothing to fill the emptiness of the one who is not following the way of his own inner being. (7)

This is exactly the kind of pain I see so often in the people I meet every day, most of whom are “good people,” dedicated to serving others and trying to live rightly. Yet there is a pain, an alienation, a loneliness, a “God-shaped hole,” as some would say. More outward action and good works will not fill the void. More, it is not the way of Christ.

O’Connor says that the journey inward involves three engagements:

  1. The engagement with oneself — moving toward self-knowledge, plumbing the depths of our own consciousness
  2. The engagement with God — from St. Teresa: “We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God.” Prayer, both in daily life and in time apart, along with study and spiritual disciplines
  3. The engagement with others — a real commitment to friendship and relationship with others, even when it is difficult

She summarizes the whole thing here:

If engagement with ourselves does not push back horizons so that we see neighbors we did not see before, then we need to examine the appointment kept with self. If prayer does not drive us out into some concrete involvement at the point of the world’s need, then we must question prayer. If the community of our Christian brothers (and sisters) does not deliver us from false securities and safe opinions and known ways then we must cry out against that community, for it betrays. (28)

The inward must not be sacrificed to the outward, nor the outward to the inward. There is no transformation that way. (30)

That’s what it’s all about–transformation. If we are about the work of Christ, it is always transformation that we seek, and that requires both inward and outward engagements.

The remainder of the book gives practical insight and stories to the way Church of Our Savior has endeavored to live these practices in their life and work together. Specifically, they organize mission groups for all members that practice both inward-looking prayer and worship together and outward-looking engagement in service and justice in the community. The stories O’Connor tells speak of remarkable transformation, in both the communities they serve and the individuals who have opened their lives to God in this way: an army captain turned potter and artist; a homeless shelter for children emptied as children are placed in homes; a coffee shop become worshiping community. Each remaining chapter unpacks the story of a mission group, recounting its many challenges and small victories on both the inward and outward paths.

A few remaining treasures from her writing to share.

After discussing the role of risk-taking in the Coffee House community, and the importance of taking risks as part of the life of faith, she talks about the safety they found to take risks:

The safety was not in protection from ‘slings and arrows,’ but in a group of people who, however poorly they might embrace it, had as the basis of their life in Christ an unlimited liability for one another. (84)

The image of having “unlimited liability for one another” is worthy of further exploration and reflection.

She recounts the exploration of faith in the church’s education program, and in particular one person’s account of the role of Gordon Cosby in inspiring their faith. Quoting this individual:

“I knew that this was a man of faith, and that he included in it the faith that I could have faith. I became expectant myself, and when I became expectant, things began to happen for me.” (105)

There is something true and holy in this explanation of ministry. We hold faith that others can have faith, that God is at work in their lives. Even when we have doubts, the role of pastor and our presence with them represents that to people. And that simple presence and faith of expectation opens the way for people to believe for themselves that God is at work in them.

Dr. Cosby’s education session included three relationships that each of us need if we are to be growing in faith.

  1. We need those who are further along the way, who give us hints of where we are and raise the question of where we are going.
  2. We need those who are our peers–fellow pilgrims with whom we share the day-by-day events of our life in Christ
  3. We need those who are not as advanced as we–a little flock which is ours to tend and nourish (110)

While I resist the notion of being “advanced” in faith, it is true that there is wisdom and excellence in practice developed over time, and helping others navigate terrain that you yourself have already traversed is important to one’s own continued growth.

In spite of its age–some of the book is very 1960s–O’Connor’s writing and perspectives on the spiritual life and the inward and outward journeys remain insightful. If you are curious, you can usually find a used copy of O’Connor’s works online at Alibris. (I know because I have lent out Cry Pain, Cry Hope a few times and had to replace it.)

 

 

 

Advertisements

Here are the rest of the books I read in 2016-2017. There is more non-fiction, plus fiction and an explanation.

JUSTICE ISSUES

20180114_165642Racing Across Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendship by Deborah L. Plummer, Pilgrim Press, 2004, 127 pp.

This is another UCC General Synod bargain that sat on my shelf for years, until it was just the right thing at the right time. The congregation I currently serve is interracial and international, bringing together people of many languages, countries and colors. I think our greatest opportunity is to build friendships across these lines. Plummer’s book explores both the promise and challenge of cross-racial socializing, boldly naming the ways that we feel most at home around those of our own race, the discomfort we feel when we are in a minority, and the ways that socializing with those of other races can help us realize our own narrow views. This is not a book about ending racism via friendship, although Plummer certainly addresses racial prejudice and white privilege in context. It is a book about friendship, and about how difficult—but worthwhile—it is to intentionally pursue friendships across racial lines.

The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence by Gary A. Haugen, Oxford University Press, 2014, 346 pp.

My congregation has a partnership with International Justice Mission, founded by Gary Haugen and engaged in justice work around the world. This book helped me understand the organization’s difficult work, the problems it addresses and the strategies it deploys. Haugen argues that criminal violence and the lack of effective law enforcement are the single biggest issues impacting impoverished people around the world. This does not mean that poor people are criminals—quite the opposite. Poverty means that you will, almost inevitably, be the victim of a crime, and the perpetrator will go unpunished. All of the aid programs for food, education, shelter and water will remain ineffective if people are not safe from violence. Haugen addresses not just oppression and state injustice, but the everyday criminal violence, police corruption and lawlessness that afflicts poor communities. IJM is doing the slow, painstaking work of building systems of justice and local law enforcement around the world, and this book describes it. What most impacted me in reading this book, however, was the realization that these same forces of corruption and the unavailability of justice to those who cannot afford to pay for it hold sway in the streets and neighborhoods of the United States, as we have especially seen in the murder of black men and women by police, with impunity.

THEOLOGY AND SPIRITUALITY

20180114_165723The Spirituals and the Blues by James H. Cone, Seabury Press, 1972, 152 pp.

Another classic I finally took time to read, prompted by plans to develop a Good Friday service called “The Passion in Spirituals,” weaving together the story of the crucifixion in conversation with African-American poets and spirituals. Cone’s work gave me the appropriate theological context for understanding the spirituals, and helped me to curate the service and write the notes to accompany it. The book argues that, since many African Americans were denied access to publishing and writing, their theology and faith expression was instead passed on through the singing of spirituals. Cone then mines the spirituals and the blues for the theological insight of the black community, with special attention to the ways the lyrics claim liberation from oppression. He writes, “Resistance was the ability to create beauty and worth out of the ugliness of slave existence. … Religion is wrought out of the experience of the people who encounter the divine in the midst of historical realities.” (29) Cone’s theology, then, emerges from evidence of that religious resistance from the spirituals and the blues.

The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter J. Gomes, HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, 383 pp.

I am still questing for just the right book, one that introduces people to the Bible with an affection and a critical eye. I bought this one on that quest more than 10 years ago, and recently thought one of the chapters might adeptly address a church member’s concern. I started reading for that reason, and quickly discovered in The Good Book a 20-year-old time capsule of theological hot topics. The mid-1990s were key to my seminary and formation, and I saw all the old debates here. I was able to marvel at how far we have come, how stuck we still are, and how much farther we have moved away from Christendom and toward both cynicism and hope. Gomes’ wisdom remains solid on the topics he addresses. The chapters on “The Bible and …” (race, women, anti-semitism, homosexuality) remain of their time. It’s not that we aren’t still arguing about those topics, but the way we are talking about them has changed in the last 20 years. The remaining chapters, on more timeless topics like the good life, suffering, joy, mystery and evil, remain solid. I especially appreciated his chapter on wealth, though the income inequality and flagrant worship of opulence in our time sometimes made it seem quaint.

What’s So Amazing about Grace? and Where is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey, Zondervan, 1997 and 1977, respectively, published in one volume 2008, 584 pp.

Writing all these reviews in a row is proving to me how many books I have read after they have rested in waiting for many years—this two-in-one combo is another one in that category. I picked this up in surgery recovery. I think I needed some theological reflection on these questions in my own life after the tumult of the year, but I wasn’t able to handle anything too challenging. Unlike most theologians I prefer, Yancey was actually trying to answer those questions in a way that offered comfort to earnest seekers. I think I sought that solace. While Yancey’s answers did not always convince, they did offer reassurance and hope. His conversation about finding God in suffering gave practical, everyday examples of the co-existence of joy and struggle, reminding us that they often come together. More importantly, he flips the question back on Christians: “where is the church when it hurts?” (249) The book about grace, though written 20 years ago, parallels some of the conversations happening in recent books on the purpose of the church (including Glorify, Weird Church, and Standing Naked Before God, which I read this year and review in this same post). Yancey argues that grace is the thing that the church has to offer that nothing else in the world can provide. He focuses not the overwhelming nature of human sin, but on our existential need to forgive and be forgiven. He contrasts God’s desire with a world and a spirit of “ungrace,” and chastises those who act without grace toward those it deems sinners or unchristian. Both of these books were better than I expected. While there was an occasional evangelical twist I couldn’t abide, mostly they offered simple expressions of comfort to me in a difficult season. Proof that it may take me awhile, but eventually I do read these books I buy. When the moment is right, they are just what my soul needs.

ANTHROPOLOGY

20180114_165513Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behavior by Kate Fox, Hodder, 2004, 583 pp.

This was the single most helpful (and embarrassing) resource as I was getting acclimated to life in London. I am grateful to the church member who gave me her copy when I arrived. Kate Fox is an Englishwoman and an anthropologist who turned her sights on her home country, observing the behaviors, traits, cultural understandings and quirks of English people. She studies food rules, dress codes, speech patterns, rites of passage, money, taboos and every other area of culture. I read this book like a missionary studying up on a foreign culture, and realized in every single chapter something that I was doing wrong or completely misunderstanding. It was my own personal way of discovering my cultural faux pas. Fox’s writing is full of humor and self-deprecation for her home country, which is important, because she identifies self-deprecating humor as one of the most important traits of Englishness, alongside things like social awkwardness, class consciousness, and “eeyorishness.” I’m not sure I would have truly understood this book until I lived here. I’m also sure it would have taken me a lot longer to understand living here if I hadn’t had this book for help.

SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

20180114_165811Swim, Ride, Run, Breathe: How I Lost a Triathlon and Caught My Breath by Jennifer Garrison Brownell, Pilgrim Press, 2014, 146 pp.

This author is a friend whose book I was delighted to read, but again it sat awhile, because it was all about timing. I read this in the thick of chemotherapy, the hardest season for me. Something about the title captured my attention—the pacing and physicality of the verbs felt like my life in the moment: “just keep going.” I didn’t have capacity to reflect, but the author did, in beautiful and powerful ways that touched my soul. The short, poignant chapters were often all I could handle. I needed to know God in the simple act of keeping moving and breathing, and this book showed the holy to me. I don’t do well with physicality, with pushing my body’s limits. This book invited me to think about the power of incarnation, and seeing the strength and courage of a fellow Jennifer encouraged me to face the hard things I was going through at the time. This is a beautiful reflection, inspirational and truth-telling, and I loved it.

Sea Changed: Coming Home, Healing and Being at Peace with God by Kate Nicholas, Authentic Media, 2016, 294 pp.

A member of my congregation introduced Kate Nicholas and I, saying “you two share cancer, preaching and a joyous spirit. I think you should connect.” That connection has been a great blessing so far, not the least of which was the introduction to this marvelous story. When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, the author started to write the story of her life to share with her two young daughters. She had had a lifetime of adventures, but the story that emerged was one of God’s presence throughout, chasing her and changing her, shaping her and transforming her life—eventually even healing her from cancer. Kate’s life story is fascinating, but especially so because she tells it with rich detail and makes the people come alive. More, though, she makes God come to life, revealing all the ways the Spirit has been quietly at work around her, calling her to faith. It is a powerful testimony and a joy to read.

Standing Naked Before God: The Art of Public Confession by Molly Phinney Baskette, Pilgrim Press, 2015, 211 pp.

This book might fit more aptly in the “church leadership” category, because the first half is a rationale and strategy for integrating public confession into the weekly worship of a congregation. As always, Molly Phinney Baskette’s writing is compelling and revealing, speaking deeply about how God is present and at work in the church’s life. But for me, again reading in the thick of treatment, it was the second half, a collection of personal confessions and testimonies, that spoke to me most deeply. They are examples of the kind of practiced, prepared confession described in the first half of the book, but they are also glimpses of individual walks with God, struggles and successes and colossal failures, all of which the Spirit redeems and transforms into messages of grace for all who listen. Each was a tiny gift of hope to me.

Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel by John Donne (with The Life of Dr. John Donne by Izaak Walton), Vintage Spiritual Classics, 1999, 234 pp.

This book spoke to me and for me in the early months of 2017. I was recovering from chemo and surgery, and turned to John Donne in similar circumstances. The “emergent occasions” which he references are the days of his deathly illness and long recovery. He prays earnestly, with faith but without consolation, for God to preserve his life through his illness, and vacillates between hope and despair as he endures treatment. When he writes about his relationship with his bed, seeing fear in the eyes of his physicians, and the pull of ministry even as he recovers, I felt such a resonance and understanding about the reality of facing a deathly illness. It was the poetry my soul needed, like the Psalmist who gives voice to our sighs. My reading was interrupted by the death of my father, and I returned to complete Death’s Duel, his final sermon as (many years after the other illness) he was preparing for his own death. Again, it offered me words and reflections that unlocked and explained my own feelings. This was an agonizing read, for the beauty and poignance were piercing for me this year.

In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.

This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

In Search of BeliefJoan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.

Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:

God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)

God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)

Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:

We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)

To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)

God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)

Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.

One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,

Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)

The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)

As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne,2014, 200 pp.

Learning to Walk in the DarkThis book was not what I expected. As always, because it is Barbara Brown Taylor, it was beautifully written, with deep observations and insights, God-tinged at every turn. However, I expected darkness in this book to be far more metaphorical. Taylor’s previous two books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, were about her journey into a new and unexpected future outside of traditional ministry and church. I expected this to be an exploration of that new and unknown reality. However, Taylor–ever ready to surprise–responds to her quest with an engagement in real, physical darkness. She literally walks in the dark, in a variety of ways, and then reflects on what she has learned.

One important note (which probably would be more fitting at the end of this review, but preoccupied me and might preoccupy you, so I’ll address it first): How does Taylor address the historic dualism between light and dark, which expands to divide white and black, male and female, good and evil, with one side of the duality always paired with good and the other evil? That equation of darkness with evil has deep implications in the systemic racism, fear and distrust of people of color throughout the world. To neglect addressing it would be to perpetuate it. Taylor does address it, and quickly. While I would have liked more depth in her examination of that painful history in metaphor and reality, she does not ignore it and handles it enough to make me continue reading without a feeling that something important was unacknowledged. More, though, the whole book itself turns out to be a reclaiming of the dark as a place of beauty, a place of God. The fundamental trajectory of the book is her insistence that God is not only light, God is also dark. God dwells in the darkness, not just to illuminate it, but because darkness is also of God and a path to God. So, in the end, her book contributes helpfully to overcoming that anti-darkness legacy, even though I still would have welcomed a more explicit unpacking of that particular part of history.

Taylor begins by identifying darkness as “anything that scares me,” which seems problematic given the issues I just raised, and, again, I do not thing she adequately addresses it. However, she goes on to name the problem almost immediately after, and then to offer her critique of “full solar spirituality:”

…a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. (7)

The danger of this “full solar spirituality” is that darkness or sorrow or trouble in your life becomes a symptom of weak faith. Taylor contrasts this with “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the seasons.” (9) This book then asks,

What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have faith enough to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? (9)

The first chapter invites the reader to consider his or her own personal history of the dark, hearkening back to childhood relationships and fears of the dark. It contains one of the most insightful lines of the book, quoted from James Bremmer:

Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous. (37)

Darkness is the perfect source.

The subsequent chapters look at the scriptures for important events that take place in the night (there are many–think of how much God speaks through dreams); at the ways we are “hampered by brilliance” and need the darkness of night to thrive; and the so-called “dark emotions.” She explores the work of psychiatrist Miriam Greenspan, who sorts out the differences between depression and “dark emotions.” The problem is not the emotions themselves; it is our inability to tolerate them.

When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights… There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says–just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. (78)

Later in the chapter, she discussed the work of Ken Wilber, who talks about the different functions of religion as translation (helping people understand  and find hope in their hardships to strengthen their selves) and transformation (dismantling the self and dislocating comfort). In American culture, “translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more.” (88) I have found this to be a key part of my own ministry. I am often the only person in situations of grief or tragedy that is comfortable sitting with the person in their sorrow, not attempting to fix anything or even hurrying them through or making things easier, better, comforting. As Christians who follow a God who died on a cross, I think we should be far more skilled at being present to discomfort and suffering than we are.

Taylor then moves into more physical experiences of darkness, such as a “blind restaurant” exhibit and a spelunking adventure, before turning to St. John of the Cross, the via negativa and the “dark night of the soul.” She discovers herself moving away from all she thought she grasped about God, toward a mysterious trust in the presence of God even when she feels only the absence of God.

When we can no longer see the path we are on, we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. (147)

Learning to Walk in the Dark is a book about loss, but it manages to avoid being heavy or weighty. Sometimes, I even longed for it to feel a little more hefty. Instead, loss becomes a companion, like darkness, that we need not fear or carry as a burden, but journey with along life’s way. This book is full of all the richness Taylor provides, but without much of the depth of scripture study we have seen in her “churchier” works. It would find an easy home among the “spiritual but not religious,” while also opening new spiritual paths for those of us who stay within traditional religious life. I found wisdom, insight and joy in its pages.

Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.

This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Laws of the HeartJoan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.

In the introduction, she writes:

The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)

Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.

For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:

Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)

I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:

The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)

“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)

If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.

Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison, drawings by Joel Filartiga, Doubleday Books, 1982, 137 pp.

compassionThis book came recommended in connection with my Macedonian Ministries group’s ongoing work on compassion and Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion. Several of my colleagues have used it as study material for small groups in their churches.

The best description of the book is that it is a deep meditation on compassion in the tradition of Christ. Nouwen, McNeill and Morris begin not with what it means to act compassionately, but with the compassion of God. What does it mean to say that God is compassionate? How is that compassion shown, given the obvious reality of evil and suffering in the world? They contrast compassion with competition. We humans are motivated by competition with one another, but God (and Jesus) are able to show compassion because they are not in competition with us. This realization about competition really struck me. Competition is not just about being better than others, it is also about being distinguished from others. It is when we strive for distinction (in contrast to humility, not sameness) that we move away from compassion. For example, they discuss being a servant:

Service is an expression of the search for God and not just the desire to bring about individual or social change. … As long as the help we offer to others is motivated primarily by the changes we may accomplish, our service cannot last long. (29)

That connects service to obedience to God, because “whenever we separate service from obedience, compassion becomes a form of spiritual stardom.” (36)

After the meditation on the compassion of God, the authors move through the characteristics of a life shaped by compassion.

  • Community—a compassionate life is not lived alone, but within a group of others “walking on the same path” (49)
  • Displacement—a voluntary response to being called out of our lives, recognizing we are sinners in need of grace
  • Togetherness—letting go of our desire to be special so that we can create healing space for others
  • Patience—patience provides discipline to the life of compassion, making us open to God’s time and others’ time
  • Prayer—opening our hearts to the needs of others, shaping our spirits
  • Action—may include confrontation, and emerges from deep joy and gratitude from God, not from a need to be noticed

There are many beautiful expressions and spiritual insights throughout the book, but the chapter on prayer captured one of the best theologies of prayer I have ever heard.

Prayer is not an effort to make contact with God, to bring God to our side. Prayer, as a discipline that strengthens and deepens discipleship, is the effort to remove everything that might prevent the Spirit of God, given to us by Jesus Christ, from speaking freely to us and in us. The discipline of prayer is the discipline by which we liberate the Spirit of God from entanglements in our impatient impulses. It is the way by which we allow God’s Spirit to move freely. (102-103)

I found this book to be rich and moving on a multitude of levels. It address the whole of the spiritual life, not just the “acts of justice and mercy” that are on our spiritual to-do list. I think it could work well in a group, for clergy or laity, for people in various places in their discipleship journey. I anticipate returning to it many times in the future.

Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr, Jossey-Bass, 2011, 200 pp.

Falling-UpwardIt’s difficult to write a review of this book. I was drawn to it, and the Spirit spoke to me through it in some powerful ways. At the same time, I found myself with some large disagreements with the premises and arguments it contains.

Rohr describes the spiritual life in two halves. The first half is about building the container that gives shape to your life–your persona, your career, your family, your identity. The second half of life is about the contents of that vessel, the true stuff of life that can be contained by it. However, he argues, you can only begin to address these second half of life concerns when the vessel begins to fall apart, or at least when you stop believing in the container as your true self and source of strength. He uses the example of Odysseus, who spent 20 years on his famous journey trying to get home. It was a first half of life journey, with conquest and titles and power. But The Odyssey doesn’t end there. In the final two chapters, Odysseus must undertake another journey, which involves traveling inland and letting go of his oar, the tool that delivered him safely home. This was a second half of life journey, a letting go which finally allows him to rest at home.

I connected with Rohr’s work because I am finding myself  moving into a different phase of my life. I will be 40 in less than a year. My family and career choices are fairly well settled, and I am happy with both. Yet precisely because so much is now settled, it also feels like there is a new opening in my life, and a desire to live differently and more deeply. Rohr’s book offered several helpful guideposts that pointed me in the right direction for this journey.

In his chapter on the first half of life, he identifies the importance of strong forces to push up against.

Healthily conservative people tend to grow up more naturally and more happily than those who receive only free-form, “build-it-yourself” worldviews, in my studied opinion. Here is my conviction: without law, in some form, and also without butting up against that law, we cannot move forward easily and naturally. (25)

Rohr’s construction reminded me of Freud’s superego, which holds the law for us. We must eventually move beyond it, but it is an important ingredient in our development. Given that so many people are still in the first half of life journey, it made me ponder the role I play as a pastor. Many people look to me to act as their superego or lawgiver. It is a role I am reluctant to assume, because I generally see more gray than black-and-white. However, I wonder if I need to find ways to be more strident in my nay-saying to the destructive forces around us, and give more structure and form to the faith I teach and preach. It is not an encouragement to me to be more black-and-white, but to be bolder in proclaiming right from wrong, even in the face of resistance.

As he begins to address the second half of life journey, Rohr’s various chapters gave me language to talk about many of the concerns that have been on my heart.

  • The Tragic Sense of Life: Life does not move forward in an orderly straight line of progress, but constantly wrestles with sin, failure, tragedy and hardship. 
  • Stumbling over the Stumbling Stone: We must lose something in order to find it. “There will always be at least one situation in our lives that we cannot fix, control, explain, change or even understand.” (68)
  • Necessary Suffering: Incarnation leads to suffering. It is all around us, built into creation. Resurrection requires a dying.
  • Home and Homesickness: “God hides, and is found, precisely in the depths of everything, even and maybe especially in the deep fathoming of our fallings and failures. Sin is to stay on the surface of even holy things, like Bible, sacrament, or church.” (95)
  • Amnesia and the Big Picture: “Life is about practicing for heaven. We practice by choosing union (with God) freely–ahead of time–and now. Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then.” (101)
  • A Second Simplicity: Similar to Ricouer’s concept of a second naivete, which I have long found insightful. “Simple meaning now suffices, and that becomes in itself a much deeper happiness.” (113)
  • A Bright Sadness: Our happiness is more sober, but our sorrow buoyed by a sense of God’s goodness.  “Your concern is not so much to have what you love anymore, but to love what you have–right now.” (124)
  • The Shadowlands: The persona we create in the first half of life comes with a shadow, that which we try to hide or dismiss. The second half of life requires us to acknowledge and confront this shadow side to ourselves, which always humbles us.

I resonated deeply with many of these realities and concerns, and recognized my own need to engage in this kind of spiritual work at this point of my life.

In spite of its helpfulness to me, I also hold some profound arguments with Rohr’s construction. First and foremost, it is very masculine in its orientation. The model of leaving home, conquering and returning is rooted in the masculine hero myth, and women’s journeys can take a very different path. Similarly, Rohr seems to insist that some crisis, failure or falling apart is required to launch the second half of life journey. While I do agree that something must be shaken or cracked in the steady persona in order to launch that journey, I do not think an earth-shattering crisis is a necessary condition for advanced spiritual development. Yes, one must integrate suffering and hardship and tragedy into a sophisticated spiritual life. Yes, one must let go of the relentless pursuit of status and certainty to reach the second stage of the journey. However, I believe that process may not be a single, shattering earthquake. It may be more like a snake shedding its skin—over and over again, as seasons change, we are required to let go of the old in order to grow into the new. It is painful and uncomfortable and ugly to look at, but in the end we are made new. Not once, but many times throughout our lives.

Rohr’s Falling Upward was not unproblematic, but it was also not unhelpful. I recommend it (with the arguments above) to anyone who feels a sense of restlessness even as they should be settling in to the life they have created, to anyone who is interested an a deeper journey, to anyone contemplating mid-life and beyond.


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.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,665 other followers

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: