Ford Attends to the Inward Journey

ford_review_09242016Leighton Ford. 2008.  The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning as I washed a coffee mug and looked out the kitchen window I saw a leaf twirling like a top above the fence in my back yard. Now, I guessed that it was suspended by a spider’s web, but I was curious how that might come to be. Of what interest to a spider was a dried up old leaf? I quickly finished washing the mug and hurried out to the backyard to take a look. Sure enough, above the leaf was a spider’s web—the spider had spun its web among many leaves in that branch. Only this one leaf, however, was dried up and had fallen there below to hang in the wind and grab my attention, like a small burning bush in a busy day.

In his book, The Attentive Life, Leighton Ford writes:

“This God creates, playfully, purposefully—out of nothing—space and stars, sun and moon, light and darkness, dandelions and donkeys, whales and kingfishers, and a handsome couple. And then he doesn’t get bored: he sees everything that he has made and takes delight in it.” (29)

In what do you take delight? In this book, Ford invites us into his own attempt to slow down and begin paying more attention, writing:

“My work has largely focused on evangelism—‘making friends for God,’…but a change has taken place…now is a time to pay more attention to my own heart, to deepen my own friendship with God and to walk with others who want to do the same.” (10)

So Ford invites us into his own journey, structured along the “Divine Hours”, a contemplative journey linking the hours of the day to the seasons of life.

For those unfamiliar, the Divine Hours are prayers undertaken roughly every three hours, 24 hours a day, following prescriptions first articulated in the 12th century by Saint Benedict and followed to this day in monasteries around the world. The traditional names of these prayer times are: the Vigils (also Martins), Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline (21).[1] After an introduction and a chapter describing attentiveness, Ford write 8 chapters following the Divine Hours, followed by an epilog.

Chapter 2 is most revealing of Ford’s character as a writer and willingness to share. He describes the Virgils, the prayers at 3 a.m. as—“The Birthing Hour: Time before Time” (50)—and starts his discussion by sharing his experience at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist Monastery in Moncks Corner, South Carolina.[2] Like the unborn child, the Trappist monk is silent, not by necessity, but by an oath of silence. Like an unborn child is vulnerable—especially in a society so prone to abortion, Ford shares his experience of learning at the age of 12 that he was adopted—“chosen in love”, according to his adoptive mother (54). In the pre-dawn darkness, the Virgils remind us of own vulnerability and of God attentiveness to us in spite of our weakness in the dark, in an unborn state or even a state of sleeplessness.

Ford employs this sleep motif to expand into a spiritual metaphor—how are  sleep deprived workers to pay attention to God? The sleep deprived are modern zombies, unaware of themselves, unable to love either neighbor or God. Sympathetic to the sleep deprivation of young seminarians, Ford invites retreat participants, not to long lectures, but to take long naps (6). Having experienced this gift of rest first hand at a retreat with the Pierce Fellowship at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS), I member feeling shocked and amazed to receive this unexpected gift of rest.

Ford’s influence extends directly into my seminary experience in other ways. Not knowing who he was until a bit later, for example, Ford and I shared lunch a couple years back at a GCTS pig roast in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was a student at the time. More generally, Ford heads his own ministry, Leighton Ford Ministries,[3] which “seeks to help young leaders worldwide to lead more like Jesus”. He is best known as Billy Graham’s brother-in-law, but he is an evangelist in his own right.

I am not sure how I learned about this book or why I purchased the copy that I bought sat on my book shelf for several months. But knowing Leighton Ford’s reputation, his book, The Attentive Life, started calling my name. When I finally found time to read it, I was not disappointed. If you are inclined to explore the contemplative life, this is the book for you. If not, step out in faith and try it—you will not be disappointed.

[1] Interestingly, Ford notes that “Benedict’s Rule” was written, not for clergy, but for lay people (21).

[2] http://mepkinabbey.org/wordpress.

[3] leightonfordministries.org

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