Archive | Spiritual Formation

The Discourses | Symeon the New Theologian

The cover of Symeon's The DiscoursesThe man was intense!

One the eve of a rebellion, when the monks under his supervision ran to the Patriarch of the city to get relief from their severe Abbot, Symeon spoke to them:

I cannot endure to be silent about the things I have seen, about the wonders of God I have known by fact and experience. Rather, I testify of them to all others as in God’s presence, and say with a loud voice, “Run, all of you, before the door of repentance is closed to you by death. Run, that you may take hold of it before you depart this life; make haste that you may receive it, knock, that your Master may open to you before you die, and that He may show himself to you.” (349)

Symeon was not only severe. In a compassionate moment towards those who insufficiently fasted during Lent, he said:

[God] it is who in great generosity gives crowns to the zealous and duly rewards their labors, and also in mercy and loving-kindness grants forgiveness to the weaker. (181)

Symeon was driven by a vision of God that would not let him relax. Having experienced the inexpressible light of God, he was compelled to urge the people around him to press on towards that light.

My biggest struggle with Symeon (and all the ancient Orthodox saints) is their spirit-flesh dualism and extreme asceticism. They are constantly preoccupied with escaping the material world which God deemed “very good” and validated by becoming incarnate. That said, Symeon’s passion and insight into the spiritual condition made the struggle worthwhile!

Symeon’s Discourses are deep devotional material. Written for those in a monastic life, they are still relevant today for those with a passionate commitment to Christ.

Symeon the New Theologian. The Discourses. The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters. Translated by C. J. deCatanzaro. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

To Know As We Are Known | Parker J. Palmer

The cover of Palmer's To Know As We Are KnownThe way in which we know things—our epistemology—matters. If we view the world objectively, as an object to be categorized and filed, we do damage both to the world and to ourselves. True knowing “requires the knower to become interdependent with the known” (32).

Parker Palmer, author and educator, develops his philosophy of teaching in To Know As We Are Known.

To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced. (xii)

Teaching has to be more than the passing down of objective facts. Genuine teaching brings learners into a community where they interrelate in faithfulness to the subject. Palmer even offers some practical advice for teachers to transition in this direction.

Stories are important for Palmer. A film about the nuclear weapons program, the account of a desert father, and the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate are all illustrative fuel that Palmer uses to flesh out his ideas.

To Know As We Are Known is an important book for both teachers and students that challenges the epistemology of the Enlightenment.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. New York: HarperOne, 1983, 1993.

Slow Kingdom Coming | Kent Annan

The cover of Annan's Slow Kingdom ComingWe like things fast. Chrome now pushes Facebook notifications to the front of whatever page I am browsing so I get the message the instant it arrives (that is, until I figured out how to disable it). We lay massive transoceanic fiber cables under the sea to shave milliseconds off financial trades.

In a world that glorifies speed, how do we handle a 2,000 year old promise? How can we pray, “Your kingdom come,” without expecting to see immediate results?

In Slow Kingdom Coming, Annan urges us to take the long view when it comes to kingdom work. Rather than frantically running around and throwing starfish back into the water (if you haven’t heard that story, it’s in the book), we need to focus on doing things the right way, even if it takes time.

Annan quotes Kierkegaard on this:

He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses. And when he . . . only uses those means which are genuinely good, then, in the judgment of eternity, he is at the goal. (125)

In sum: the means matter.

This is a wise and practical book that gives speed-addled Christians five practices to employ in their kingdom-work:

  1. Attention
  2. Confession
  3. Respect
  4. Partnering
  5. Truthing

If you have ever been frustrated by the slow pace of change or question your ability to make an impact for the Kingdom of God, Annan’s book will inspire and encourage you.

Annan, Kent. Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016.

Between God and Satan | Helmut Thielicke

The cover of Thielicke's Between God and SatanImagine the scene. After decades of life as a tradesman, with growing awareness of his true vocation, Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin. What relief! The heavens open, the Spirit descends, the voice of the Father validates his Son and his Son’s ministry.

Immediately, the same Spirit that descended gently like a dove throws the Son into the wilderness where he encounters Satan and wrestles with the depths of temptation. This trial will define his ministry.

Helmut Thielicke, a German theologian, first published this meditative study on the temptation of Jesus in 1938 in order to “strengthen the followers of Jesus Christ in their resistance to ideological tyranny” (v). The book was reissued in 1946 after the collapse of the Nazi regime. The book was most recently reissued in 2010 emphasizing the fact that the tempter works in every era.

If we are going to resist the tempter, we need to look to Jesus, the perfect human, who resisted temptation until the end. Thielicke approaches the temptation of Jesus with a keen understanding of anthropology and human weakness.

Between God and Satan is an excellent devotional book which will open up many avenues for understanding the significance of Jesus’ temptation.

—Helmut Thielicke, Between God and Satan Translated by C. C. Barber (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958).

The Advent of Justice | Sylvia Keesmaat

The cover of Keesmaat's The Advent of JusticeAdvent is often misunderstood in the evangelical world. For years, I saw it as a mere prelude to Christmas. Only recently have I started to search out the depths of the season. Advent is a season of absence, of waiting, of anticipation. In Advent we come face-to-face with the judgment of God before receiving His gospel.

The Hebrew prophets are foundational figures in the season of Advent. More than anyone, they understood the spiritual depravity of their culture and desperately tried to connect their people to the heart of God. In The Advent of Justice, the four authors (Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Mark Vander Vennen, and Sylvia Keesmaat) mine the riches of First Isaiah and offer both critique and hope to our own culture.

While every author had something valuable to add to the season, Brian J. Walsh’s writings for the first week of Advent stuck home the hardest. He tells the truth of the prophet clearly:

The problem is that good news without prophetic critique invariably is a cover-up. Good news that will not openly and honestly confront that which perpetuates brokenness and sin is not good news at all. An Advent without judgment isn’t Advent at all. It is a secular Christmas with a store-bought peace. (15)

These authors bring you face-to-face with judgment which will challenge the way you live. Your Christmas will be the richer for heeding them.

—Sylvia Keesmaat, ed., The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

New Seeds of Contemplation | Thomas Merton

The cover of Merton's New Seeds of ContemplationSerendipity: “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.”
—Google Dictionary

I was listening to the Homebrewed Christianity Podcast while running, just after finishing up Merton’s book. The Podcast was a question-and-answer time with the influential German theologian of the cross, Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology emphasizes the pathos of God. While the Greek philosophers envisioned a dispassionate Deity, Moltmann (in line with the Old Testament) speaks of a passionate God who is angered, loves, suffers, and even repents!

It was during this discussion that I realized what bothered me about Merton.

Before I get there, let me start with praise. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk, a man dedicated to cloistered contemplation. This book is a collection of advice about contemplation. What does contemplation mean? Do you need to be isolated to be a contemplative? What sort of obstacles do contemplatives face? What is the role of spiritual experience in contemplation?

Each of the 39 chapters are full of insight into the human condition—insight only grasped by someone who has spent his life in the contemplation of God. The more I grow in the Christian life, the more Merton’s observations resonate with my own experience. He is a wise spiritual director.

Now back to the problem. For Merton, the ideal contemplative is not a person who is passionate but one who lets feelings, even religious feelings, flow across the surface of her mind without being moved. These consolations are mere distractions:

Many contemplatives never become great saints, never enter into close friendship with God, never find a deep participation in His immense joys, because they cling to the miserable little consolations that are given to beginners in the contemplative way. (206)

I wholeheartedly agree that experience-chasing is devastating to true Christianity. That said, if our God is passionately engaged with his creation, if he created us with passions and emotions, how could ignoring that part of our being honour God? Could this emphasis of Merton be the result of his interfaith dialogue with Buddhism adjusting his anthropological insight?

In the end, I value and will continue to read Merton. Much of this work was pure gold. However, I fear that his dispassionate view of humanity suggests a deity more like the Greeks envisioned than the Hebrew writers of scripture!

—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1972).

The Meaning of Marriage | Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller

The cover of Keller's The Meaning of MarriageThe subtitle says it all. This book is about “facing the complexities of commitment with the wisdom of God.” In our day marriage is something that’s fought over, argued about, and defended. In the midst of all the polemic battles, can we really hear the wisdom of God?

Timothy Keller brings four roles to the table in this book:

  1. Theologian: Timothy Keller’s understanding of theology is deep. To be sure, there are elements of his Reformed theology that I would take issue with, but not here. His view of marriage is deeply rooted in biblical theology.
  2. Pastor: Keller is the long-term founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. His years of pastoral work have given him an insight into human nature and the needs of both married and single people. This book is the product of his care for people’s relationships.
  3. Communicator: Pastors have to communicate—it’s part of who we are. Keller excels at this, as his New York Times bestseller status indicates. This book is easy to read and to understand. Keller makes profound subjects comprehensible with good case studies and analogies.
  4. Husband: Timothy’s wife, Kathy, co-wrote this book. This co-authorship adds to the balanced feel of the book, especially on the topic of gender roles.

The Meaning of Marriage is a good resource for pastors looking for counseling material and a great resource for anyone who wants to get beyond the cultural battles to understand the mystery of marriage with the wisdom of God.

—Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY: Dutton, 2011).

Homilies on the First Epistle of John | Saint Augustine

The Cover of Augustine's Homilies on the First Epistle of JohnFun fact: St. Augustine’s sermons on First John are our earliest extended work on this book of scripture. Preached in 407 during Easter Week, they focus strongly on the epistle’s main theme of “love” which he unpacks in detail. Here are some examples:

The greater the charity, the less the fear; the less the charity, the greater the fear. (135-6)

You shouldn’t think that you love … your neighbor when you don’t correct him. That isn’t charity but indifference. (112-3)

A wicked person, therefore, can have all these sacraments, but a person cannot be wicked and also have charity. (108)

Unfortunately for modern readers, Augustine spends a significant amount of time confronting the Donatists—a church schism with a strong belief in their people’s own moral purity. While germane to his time, his strong stance seems to undercut the message of brotherly love.

After reading his magisterial Confessions, these sermons felt a little lackluster. Still, they reflect the mind and heart of a brilliant theologian preaching for the benefit of his own people. We are blessed to be able to listen in some 1600 years later.

—Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: New City Press, 2008)

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