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.
This book is an exceptionally good introduction to the meaning of personal relationships that are called “spiritual friendship” and ” spiritual direction”. Good spiritual formation doesn’t happen well on a purely individual level. It’s important to have some trusted person(s) with whom one can discuss just about anything and be vulnerable and open. American Protestant Christianity in particular has been too individualistic for it’s own good. The “just me and Jesus” mindset works out little better than “just me” without a third person who is just as committed to life as a spiritual journey being there to observe and help discern the direction of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.
David Benner does a very good job of clearly describing the qualities and characteristics of spiritual friendship and spiritual direction, how they differ from each other and from other similar relationships like counseling, life coaching, discipleship, etc. and how then can be combined in a small group setting or (even!) within the marriage relationship. I highly recommend this book for those who want a good basic understanding of what it means to be “sacred companions”. This is a much needed ministry within the church today. I’m very thankful for the people who have filled this role in my life.
This book must be among the best of Henri Nouwen’s writing. In it he gives some very deep and penetrating insight o the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and its illustration in Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen shares with the reader the meaning he found for his own spiritual journey in studying the painting; how it illuminated the ways he was like the younger son, the elder son and how he felt called to be more like the father. Readers may see similar parallels in their own lives. This is a very helpful book. My own poster of this painting now hangs on the wall of my study.
I’ve read many helpful books on spiritual formation in my seminary work, for other classes I have taken, and on my own. I have many more lined up to read. Few that I have read have been more helpful to me than Ben Campbell Johnson’s Living Before God: Deepening our Sense of the Divine Presence. This is one book that I will come back to often. This book had much to say to me about what concerns me most at my stage of life experience. Johnson brings more that 50 years of his own experience in “living before God” to share with his readers in a most personal and engaging way. He shares his life with you, not just his ideas.