Speaking Of God: Evangelism As Initial Spiritual Guidance by Ben Campbell Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was published in 1991 but has much to say to the Church today. It saddens me that a book like this has apparently had so little impact on the Christian Church. The author’s main concern is for the way that mainline Protestant churches, particularly his own Presbyterian Church (USA), had been losing younger members to more conservative evangelical or charismatic churches. This trend has been well documented and is still very evident today. Some of these people grow disillusioned, in one way or another, with their experience and may seek to return to the mainline, but it’s a trickle that won’t sustain the churches. Many more just seem to abandon the Church altogether. Something is missing. The problem Johnson sees is the way mainline denominations have all but abandoned their emphasis on the need for a vibrant personal commitment to following Jesus as a disciple for the sake of the cultural relevance offered by social activism. “In an effort to be universally relevant, we have often forgotten about individuals both inside and outside the church who need to be introduced to a personal faith. … Without personal conversion, either of the nurtured or dramatic type, the church lacks the energy to fulfill it’s mission.” (pp. 169-70.) The problem is that most of these members and clergy feel very uncomfortable or inadequate in talking to people about their commitment to Christ.
In the fall of 2009, I bought a bicycle that I could use instead of my car and started riding it to work. I live only a few miles from my work place and the bike route takes me through some much more pleasant scenery than the car ride. The bike ride takes only about 15 minutes. Riding by car can sometimes take that long because of the traffic. The bike came complete with fenders, head and tail lights powered by a dynamo in the front wheel hub, a rear rack, an 8 speed internal rear hub and a warning bell; a complete city commuter bike that I could ride comfortably in street clothes. There were a couple summers back in the 1990s that I rode my Schwinn road bike to work at AT&T. That was 12 miles each way over some difficult roads. I had to use the showers at work and bring a change of clothes. That was a nice workout, but I couldn’t do it regularly. Now I work closer to home and regular bike commuting seemed like a real possibility.
Every Other Monday by John Kasich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found the audio book edition at the public library when one of the books I had reserved for a car trip did not come in time. I had never heard of this book but decided to give it a listen since Kasich is now governor of Ohio, where I’ve lived most of my life, and since I have also been part of a men’s Bible study group of the same size (call ours, “Almost Every Friday”). I was interested in how Kasich’s experience compared with mine. I’m a little leery of politicians. I didn’t want to read a self promoting propaganda piece. I was pleasantly surprised by this book. This is not a showcase for John Kasich’s political views. It’s a story of what it’s like to have real group of honest friends centered around the study of Scripture. Kasich’s group has lasted over twenty years. The book helped me to reflect on, and appreciate much more, my own experience with the seven guys that I’ve met with over the last nine years. It also gave me a better understanding and appreciation for the man, John Kasich, and his friends. I was very impressed with the depth and substance of the personal issues explored in this book in the context of the group. These men are not shallow thinkers, nor are they a group of mutually affirming sycophants. With all their differences, they genuinely care for one another.
You have to get past the first chapter, which is no gripper, to really appreciate the book. Then it gets better as it goes. Kasich talks about the influence that religion had on him in his growing up years, how he departed from his spiritual roots as a young man, and the effect that his parents’ untimely death had on his return to “basics”, a struggle with the “big questions” of life and how this finally led him to gather together a group of men of different backgrounds and points of view for serious and candid discussions about how the teachings of the Bible apply to life. Over the twenty years, different men joined, and left, for various reasons but their lunch time meetings became a very important part of all their lives and these very different men became very close friends. This group meeting offered them things that the typical church Sunday school meeting does not: A chance to ask challenging questions, express serious doubts and to call one another to account for the way they’ve been living; all within the bonds of strong friendship. The stories about how these guys supported one another through some very difficult times, including the tragic death of one or their members, are well worth the time spent with the book.
I recommend the audio edition. It’s unabridged and well read by John Pruden in the conversational style in which it is written.
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When the Soul Listens: Finding Rest and Direction in Contemplative Prayer by Jan Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the best book on contemplative prayer I’ve read. It’s hard to imagine a better one to recommend to other Christians. It offers a clear, biblical justification for the listening, transformative kind of prayer that ought to be at the heart of every Christian’s relationship with God. It’s a very encouraging book, but it doesn’t make exaggerated claims. It carefully distinguishes a Christ centered form of prayer from other similar forms of meditation and contemplation practiced in other religions. It offers very practical help to those who desire to pray in this way. It helps the reader know what to expect, and what not to expect, and gives personal examples of the kinds of things that might happen in praying this way without being formulaic.
I have lead and participated in Christian prayer meetings for many years and have gotten the impression that, for many Christians, prayer consists mainly of asking God to do things. Petitionary prayer certainly has its place (see Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer for an excellent biblical exposition), but if it becomes the center of our prayer life we easily fall into the attitude that God serves our own agenda. Contemplative prayer is a powerful check on this and it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for greater intimacy with God. It focuses more on finding God’s own heart and desires and aligning ours with them. This is how we get closer to God. I recommend this book very highly.
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Coming Home to Your True Self: Leaving the Emptiness of False Attractions by Albert Haase
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is a great choice for Christian spiritual directors for a directee who would like to work through a book with them. It has a good chapter near the end on spiritual direction (which directees might want to read first). The book as a whole serves as a good outline for a spiritual journey that is focused on becoming your “true self” (the person God made you to be) and leaving the “false self”, with its attachments to things that separate us from God and stunt our spiritual growth, behind.
I particularly liked the chapter 5 introduction to contemplative prayer (“how prayer makes us prayerful”) which redirects the activity of prayer from something we must do, accomplish, get done to a means of holding ourselves more consciously in God’s presence throughout our day. The chapters on penance (as a means of preserving relationships) and discernment are very helpful also.
The last chapter on the “ongoing work of the Spirit” presents the traditional pattern of human development and spiritual growth (awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night, and union) in a very practical and helpful way. He points out that each person’s journey is unique, God isn’t bound by and particular road map, God will not trump his gift of free will to us, and that spiritual growth is more cyclical (or spiraled) than a linear progression.
Each chapter ends with several good reflection questions. The book also has some appendices with helpful information on designing a “rule of life” and finding a spiritual director. There is also an appendix which collects most of the charts and lists that are placed through out the book as a helpful aid to memory for the author’s most important points.
One thought that seems to run through the whole book is that there is really “nothing more to get” in life other than what our experience of God’s life provides. That life does not consist in the regrets and losses of our past or in our hopes and fears for the future. It it most profoundly experienced in the “here and now”. Without that there is no healing for our past or confidence for our future.
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A conversation among friends last week got me to thinking about the way some Christians tend to think of the Bible as an exhaustive source of truth. It took me back many years to when I first read a book by Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes entitled All Truth is God’s Truth. Holmes defends the proposition that all truth, no matter what its origin, is God’s truth. I greedily devoured this little book, made copious notes and underlines and even attempted to teach a Sunday school class on its content. I was new to the world of philosophy and much of what Holmes had to say went over my head, but still served to whet my appetite for more. This idea of the unity of truth, the false dichotomy of “sacred” and “secular” truths, stuck with me and has served as a guiding principle for me ever since.
Almost a year after the fact, I learned about the death, on 23 February 2010, of a good friend. I have never met Bill Pearce personally, but he helped me to get through some very difficult times in my life. I’ve lost touch with is work lately and at some other times, but it was there when I needed it most. Bill Pearce may not have been very well known as a celebrity, but he touched the lives of many thousands of people around the world through his music and his nightly radio program, Nightsounds. It was his Nightsounds ministry that played an important part in my life. Now that Bill is no longer with us, I want to remember him for what he’s done for me.
A few years ago, I took a seminary elective class in Emergent Christian Spirituality. I had read some things about emergent/emerging Christianity that I found interesting but which also raised questions in my mind. We read and discussed several good books by emergent church leaders or about the emergent church. We even designed our own emergent church service. It was a very good class. I think I gained a good understanding and appreciation for the positive contributions that emergent churches are making and I became quite sympathetic to the complaints they have with their more traditional evangelical church roots. But I couldn’t completely embrace emergent spirituality. I felt like I didn’t have a good home in either camp. I had to agree with some of the problems the more traditional evangelicals see in the emergent church. I wished for a third way. Jim Belcher has articulated that third way very well in his book.
I read an essay with this title over at The Scriptorium Daily (one of my favorite blogs) several weeks ago and it stuck with me. I’ve reread it several times since and would like to pass it on to others. It not only articulates some of the reasons why I’m also finding it hard to write much lately, but also beautifully expresses the longing I have–in my better moments–to hear and see Jesus; to have more of what I say, write, do and, indeed, for my whole life to be an expression of that hearing and seeing instead of my best approximation. Like the author says, “Pirating Jesus is not good enough.” So, at times I get locked into hesitation about writing and I’m glad when I find others who’ve overcome that same hesitation to say for me what I feel so unable to put into adequate wording.
Lately I’ve been spending much more time reading other blogs and neglecting my own. There’s so much good writing out there (if you know where to look), that it often makes me feel like I haven’t much of substance to contribute. But this posting by Jeff Dunn on the Internet Monk about Our Dangerous God, got me to thinking and writing a response. I’ll include that response here as well, but read Jeff’s article first if you’re interested.