A Grace Disguised, by Jerry (Gerald) Sittser

I wrote this review on the first edition of this book back in 2001 and posted it on Amazon.com. I want to put it here also because I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Read on if you’re interested:

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“How did it go?”

I ended September and began October with a three day retreat at The Convent, the venue for a retreat and spiritual direction ministry called “Sustainable Faith” run by David and Jody Nixon. The building is a renovated convent on the grounds of the Vineyard Central Church community in Norwood, Ohio (Cincinnati area). My visit there was a very peaceful and refreshing time for me. On most days my habits of prayer, reading and serious reflection seem on the periphery of each day’s events or fit into the gaps in between. It was good to spend a few days with those things at the center. I had no schedule, no specific agenda, no distractions (unless one counts the wonderful smell of fresh, brewing coffee coming from downstairs in the morning). Dave and Jody are very gracious and grace filled hosts. They have turned this old house into a warm and welcoming place for the weary and wandering soul in need of some solitude. I highly recommend The Convent if you’re looking for such a place.

Since my return, several people have asked me, “how did it go?” or “what did you learn?” I’ve been thinking about that myself, trying to put it in context.

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Still Amusing Ourselves to Death

51F1J5QRFFL._SL110_.jpg I recently read an essay in the current issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Hitchens entitled “Cheap Laughs: The smug satire of liberal humorists debases our comedy—and our national conversation.” Hitchens’ complaint with liberal humorists like Al Franken and Jon Stewart seems to be that they are as ideologically bound as their right wing counterparts. Their satirical wit employs a double standard that belies the inconsistencies and foibles of reigning liberal politicians while continuing to hold chastened conservatives up to scorn. I could be wrong. Hitchens doesn’t seem to make his point clearly, but he seems to want to hold liberal humorists up to a higher standard than others, and seems dismayed at the way some of them are being compared favorably with Mark Twain or Walter Cronkite.

Then, while cleaning out some old magazines, I happened to read a column in the April issue of Touchstone by J. Daryl Charles called “Wasted By Watching” (sorry, it’s not online at this time) about what I think is one of the most important books I have ever read.

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Spiritual and Emotional Health

This is a very helpful book. Peter Scazzero draws from many different sources and presents their content in easily digestible form. The issues he deals with are very important ones for any Christian who wants to grow spiritually into the Christlike person that God intended him or her to be. The basic premise of the book is that it’s impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature (though it often does work the other way around). Those who want to grow spiritually must grow and maintain their emotional health. Lacking in this is at the root of the failure of many discipleship models being used in the church today.

After describing the problem and symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality Scazzero gives us as an outline of a life that balances contemplative spirituality (consciously living one’s life in God’s presence) and our daily activity. Following that are several chapters on different aspects of reaching emotional and spiritual health: Accepting and understanding your emotions and understanding your “true self”. Healing the wounds of past experiences that hinder emotional and spiritual health. Dealing with the experience of your life hitting a “wall” in upheavals beyond your own control to remedy and the feeling that life has passed you by. Grieving over past mistakes and losses in life rather than trying to “stuff” them and pretend they no longer matter. The proper place of sabbath rest, recreation and refocusing on God throughout each day. Learning to love well. Developing a “Rule of Life” to help you be more conscious of, and intentional about, your spiritual and emotional growth.

This is a very good book for individuals and groups to spend significant time studying and applying. I also recommend the companion book by the same author, Begin the Journey with the Daily Office for those who have had trouble developing a habit for fixed times of prayer throughout the day. This book is a very good start and follows the themes in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Very few people live well on one meal a day (even if it’s a large one). More small meals a day keep your body supplied better. The same is true of time spent with God.

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The Sponge Was Full

I’ll bet some of you thought this blog was dead. I thought so too, but maybe it won’t be much longer. This summer has seemed like a pivotal time for me. After four years of seminary and one year in the Wellstreams program, I felt saturated and tired. Tired from the effort of all that practice and study while trying to have a normal family life and work a full time job, and saturated with so much good information and experience picked up from five years study of, and practice in, spiritual formation. The crisis that helped bring me in to that phase of my life seems more in the background these days. Not that I’ve conquered it, but I think that I have begun to see ways of accepting it, making sense of it, and using its influence to push me in the direction of greater spiritual growth and a stronger, more well grounded faith.

This spring, Toward the end of Phase 1 of Wellstreams, I started a discernment process that led to my decision to discontinue the program. Phase 2 would have kept me in the saturation process for another two years. There were several reasons, circumstances and events that led to the decision not to continue. It wasn’t just the feeling that I couldn’t go on this way for two more years. But after soaking up so much for so long, it seemed like time to start an outflow, both for the benefit of others and to make room in me for fresh “living water” (John 4:10-14) and turn this sponge into a fountain. I still think training in spiritual direction is in my future, but perhaps in a less intensive venue. For now I need to find more of my own direction to provide a context from which to help others. After so long, I’ve felt spiritually disconnected in a way, rootless. It’s time to put into practice more deeply what I’ve learned in a way that is more driven by God’s intentions for my life than by the specific requirements of a class or training program (I’m reminded of Psalm 1:2-3 here). It’s time to be open to the the possibilities that are hard to notice or consider when one’s life is so full of other things. I enjoyed the Wellstreams classes and will miss my classmates who will go on without me. I think I made some good friends there and I hope our paths will cross again. But rarely has a decision like this seemed so clear to me as to seem like God is really up to something in it. Pray for me and for Mary Beth too, please.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about having more time off this summer is getting to to more discretionary reading instead of assigned reading (and writing). I’ve been using Shelfari for a while to keep track of my reading, but I’ve recently copied it to Goodreads to try that out. So many good books … so little time to read them all. I hope to be doing more discretionary writing too. Some of it should find its way to this space.

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Lenten Reading

51Y033DJKJL._SL160_.jpgLooking for something to read for Lent? I found this one, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, in 2003 and I’m using it again this year.

“For Breadth of scope and depth of insight nothing rivals this collection”, says on the dust jacket. I heartily agree! This collection of readings is the best supplement to Lenten and Easter devotional reading that I have ever used. I’ve never seen such a selection of great authors’ writings between the covers of one book. Each of the 72 selections are about 4 or 5 pages long. They are grouped into 6 sections that form a progression from the Invitation prepare for Easter by seriously examining oneself and following through on the themes of Temptation, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and New Life. There are quite a variety of perspectives represented in these writings. Every one of them will reward the thoughtful reader in different ways. There isn’t a dull one in the bunch. These aren’t shallow “inspirational” writings. They will challenge and encourage, and sustain serious reflection. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’d say that Malcolm Muggeridge’s “Impending Resurrection” was the high point. I highly recommend this book.

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Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God

The writers over at Mere Orthodoxy often have some interesting things to say. This one caught my eye. It’s a letter to a friend who struggles with belief in the goodness of God; something many of us struggle with sooner or later. This letter gives some very wise advice, I think, and presents a thoughtful personal perspective.

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Hearing God, by Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard’s book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, has the most practical, wise and biblically sound reading I have ever done on the subject of divine guidance. It’s a book worth reading over and again for those who wrestle with the problems of how God communicates with us personally: Is it presumptuous to think that God would want to communicate with us directly? Isn’t the Bible an entirely sufficient revelation of God’s will for any and all Christians? What is the relationship between the Bible and more personal forms of communication from God? How do we reliably distinguish the voice of God from our own thoughts and desires? What if something which I believe God is telling me later proves to be mistaken? Willard deals with these issues in very perceptive and insightful ways, not with pat answers and formulas. (Though he does provide one formula at the end of the book, it’s for “living with God’s voice”, not for getting God to speak with us on matters that may concern us.)

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Richard John Neuhaus In Defense of Death

Quite by accident yesterday I came across a reprint of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ editorial “In Defense of Death” in the Columbus Dispatch. It’s a tribute of sorts to Richard John Neuhaus, a theologian and Catholic priest who died on January 8. Neuhaus was the editor of First Things, “The Journal of Religion, Culture and Public Life.” I was a regular reader of that journal for the first several years of its publication and came to value the unique and intelligent, if often controversial, perspective of its writers on the role of religion in public life. Neuhaus book, The Naked Public Square, though somewhat of a rambling and disorganized read, was very important to me in my early thinking on the relationship between religious belief and public political discourse. It helped me realize that there can and must be a defensible and sustainable middle ground between the extreme positions that would favor either theocracy or an entirely secular state and that most of the freedoms we take for granted in this country depend upon maintaining that balance. In the last several years my primary concerns have been drawn to other things but I have been glad to be able to browse back issues of First Things occasionally on their web site. One of those other concerns of mine has been how people of faith come to terms with, and conquer their fear of, the inevitability of their own death. Brooks’ editorial is an awe inspiring account of how this happened in the life of Fr. Neuhaus. It’s well worth reading. So is Neuhaus’ essay, mentioned by Brooks, “Born Toward Dying.”

[Edit: 22 March 2009] Christianity Today recently published a remembrance of Neuhaus’ life in the March 2009 issue. You can find it online here.

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Where Is Our Hope?

Where is our hope?” is the title of a recent posting on Scot McKnight’s blog, Jesus Creed, and it sums up pretty accurately my own preferred attitude toward the coming November elections. I try to make informed decisions when I vote. I try to listen to advocates for both sides and read different points of view. It often happens that the more I do this the less clear my choices seem to get. It’s especially difficult when I’m surrounded by so many people who believe the choices are clear. I marvel at, and sometimes envy, their certitude on the matter. Eventually I come to what I think is a reasonably confident decision according to my own conscience and, in the process, a hopefully respectful attitude toward those who disagree with it. I think it’s helpful to understand McKnight’s use of the theological term eschatology in the meaningful sense of what we view as being of ultimate importance, the means by which God fulfills his purpose for humankind. It’s important to me to remember that politics is not my faith, my ultimate source of hope. My faith informs my political choices but it is not identical with them. I sometimes wish I could split my vote and give different candidates a percentage. Maybe if we could do this it would relive the pressure that so many seem to feel in seeing their own, and everyones else’s, vote as an expression of 100% confidence in a candidate. We wouldn’t be so tempted to only listen to one side and disparage the other. But maybe the better solution is just to realize that we must often make difficult choices in this world, make them as responsibly as we can and live as best we can with the ambiguity and uncertainty knowing that our ultimate hopes lie above and beyond them.

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