Archive | Spiritual Formation

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)

The Desert Fathers | Helen Waddell

The cover of The Desert FathersThe desert fathers were radicals. They sold their possessions and left society behind to spend all of their time in prayer and meditation. The further away they were from each other and especially from society, the better. They lived alone in their huts living on crusts of bread and water as they wove mats from reeds to sell at the market for sustenance. They devoted their silent lives to prayer and meditation.

There’s something inspiring about these figures. They’re portrayed as heroes, and in once sense, that’s true. These were the fundamentalists of the third and fourth centuries who gave their lives in drastic fashion on what they believed was the path to godliness.

The insight they developed into human nature is rich. Many of their writings cut to the core of what it means to be a human wrestling with sin. Consider this sentence on fleeing temptation:

The Fathers used to say, “if temptation befall thee in the place thou dost inhabit, desert not the place in the time of temptation: for if thou dost, wherever thou goest, thou shalt find what thou fliest before thee” (94).

The ascetics realized that the temptations they fled society to escape from resided in their heart no matter where they went. Solitude gave them the focus to wrestle with that temptation.

Despite the legendary godliness of these saints, I struggle with their decision to leave society and mortify their bodies for a couple reasons.

  1. Jesus spent his life rubbing shoulders with the people the Desert Fathers fled from. Although many of the stories concern people who tracked the saints down, the Fathers spent their life trying to avoid the very contact Jesus sought.
  2. In mortifying their flesh, they were disdaining the body the good Creator gave them. This betrays an eschatology rooted in Platonism, far from the robust earthy spirituality of our Jewish heritage.

In the end, I can’t get past Paul’s advice:

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism … If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why do you as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:18, 20-23 ESV)

While I respect the wholehearted passion of these men and value their insight, I can’t help but think of them as stunted savants—excelling in prayer, solitude, and humility, while all the while missing out on the fullness of eternal life.

—Waddell, Helen. The Desert Fathers: Translations from the Latin (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).

The Good and Beautiful Life | James Bryan Smith

The cover of Smith's Good and Beautiful LifeIn the first book of his Apprentice series, The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith reveals and challenges us to work through the false narratives that misconstrue our vision of God. Once these false narratives of God have been swept away, we can examine the false narratives that we hold about ourselves. This is where The Good and Beautiful life picks up.

Using the Sermon on the Mount as a framework, James Bryan Smith looks at the various underlying factors in our predilection to sin.

Take anger, for an example. Smith describes anger as the natural result of two factors: fear and unmet expectations. These two factors are reinforced by the false narratives we hold about ourselves such as “I am alone,” and “I must be in control all of the time” (73). If we want to get rid of our anger issues, we need to start by replacing the false narratives that feed our anger. Band-aids will not do when we need surgery.

Following each chapter, Smith suggests a “Soul Training” exercise to help with the topic at hand. For anger, he recommends observing the Sabbath. It seems unrelated at first, but if you follow his argument, nothing forces us to let go of our need to control the world like Sabbath practice.

This book is a simple yet wise. It’s easy and enjoyable to read, wholly lacking in the self-help drivel that passes for spiritual reading and formation today.

—James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009).

Judges for You | Timothy Keller

The cover of Keller's Judges for YouJudges is a devastating book. It begins with disobedience and ends with utter chaos. Whether you read it as a court-polemic against life without kingly leadership or as merely a collection of stories about flawed heroes, you can’t escape the central thesis: Life, without God, becomes hell.

Timothy Keller does a good job at connecting the overall narrative of Judges. Rather that viewing the biographies of Israel’s heroes (anti-heroes?) in isolation, he demonstrates the progression of life when lived without God. Each judge is more morally corrupt and less effective than the former. The final two stories have no redeeming qualities. They are included to demonstrate the final effects of the repeated refrain which stands as the last sentence in the book:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)

I was raised in the church—a child of the Sunday School era. As a child, Gideon and Samson were presented as heroes. Just look what God can do when you give your life to him! The true story (as with most childhood memories) is darker and far more complex. Keller will help you through the darkness of Judges with his unwavering Christological focus.

—Timothy Keller, Judges for You (Surrey, UK: The Good Book Company, 2013).

No Man is an Island | Thomas Merton

1d933773f73598c596b77326977444341587343No Man is an Island is a reflection on the spiritual life. I’m aware that by using the word “spiritual,” some assume “otherworldly.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Merton has the entire person in mind—the person in relationship to God. He is concerned with our “integration in the mystery of Christ” (xxii).

The range of topics Merton covers is broad. He deals with everything from Love to Conscience, Solitude to Vocation, Intention to Charity. You can tell by reading these chapters that he has lived out his thoughts and ideas. He drills deep into human nature as he examines every aspect of our being in the light of God.

This book makes for great spiritual reading. I found that the best way to read it was to take it in small portions. To rush would be to miss his wisdom. I found his insight beneficial especially when I saw the tendencies he described in my own life. It takes time to make these discoveries.

My only frustration with Merton is the influence of Eastern Philosophy on his work. A good example of this is his words on Asceticism:

In order to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet. The peace of a soul that is detached from all things and from itself is the sign that our sacrifice is truly acceptable to God. (108)

In a few places like these, he makes the spiritual life sound like something Jesus certainly didn’t experience. Jesus, who cried at Lazarus’ tomb, who braided a whip to drive out money changers from the temple, and who begged God to relieve him of his burden, was anything but dispassionate!

That said, this volume is abundant in material to enrich the spiritual life of any thoughtful Christ follower.

—Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1955, 1983).

Hidden in Christ | James Bryan Smith

The cover of Smith's Hidden in Christ

Consider some of these sentences:

You have been raised with Christ.

Your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Clothe yourselves with compassion.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.

Be thankful.

Whatever you do, … do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We pick and choose good scripture verses to memorize. Almost everyone knows John 3:16—far fewer know John 3:17 (I’ve never seen it painted on a sign before). When it comes to Colossians 3, however, virtually every word is worth memorizing. Once you start it’s hard to know where to stop!

Colossians 3 is about recognizing that, as Christians, we have been transferred from death to life. It’s time to live like it! Since we are raised with Christ, let’s put our hearts and minds on the things that Christ loves, not on worldly things.

In Hidden in Christ, James Bryan Smith offers 30 meditations based on Colossians 3:1-17. He dives right into the depth of this passage and brings up many profitable thoughts. Unlike some devotional works, Smith’s meditations are close and legitimate applications of the scripture. Nothing is stretched or convoluted. Colossians is powerful enough as it is!

Spend 30 days in Colossians 3, and allow God to change you.

—James Bryan Smith, Hidden in Christ: Living as God’s Beloved (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013).

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