Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

Holt reviewBradley P. Holt.[1] 2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity is boring from an Eastern perspective because God created us and, in Jesus Christ, provided the means of our salvation—we must simply accept God’s gifts of creation and salvation. The role of pilgrimages to holy places; special clothing or food; knowledge of the divine; and the spiritual disciplines are presumably incidental for Christians. We must merely follow Christ’s example and live it out in our relationships with others. These other activities have entered some Christian traditions, but they often differ radically between groups.

 Introduction

In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt surveys a wide range of Christian traditions with:

“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)

This survey is helpful in distinguishing among more familiar traditions and adding others that are less familiar from years past or from non-Western sources. In this respect, Holt reviews these categories from the ancient church to offer a template—themes—for distinguishing traditions:

“We see in the first six centuries the beginning and development of certain themes in Christian spirituality that are significant to the present day: worship and sacraments, charisms, witness unto death, spiritual disciplines, monasticism, and mysticism.”(59)

If we take the sacraments as an example, the Protestant churches have fewer sacraments than the Catholics and sacraments play a more important role in Catholic services and pastoral care than in the Protestant tradition. Thus, focusing on the sacramental theme, it is easier to distinguish Protestant and Catholic spirituality.

Celtic Spirituality

One aspect of my personal journey of faith in seminary and beyond has been to understand my own history and spirituality better as I learn about other practices. My mother’s family, for example, is Scotch-Irish and rather less than observant in their religious affiliations while my father’s family is uniformly Dutch with strong commitments to the reformed tradition.

When I write:

Myself, when I am anxious at the end of the day, I retire with a good book to my front porch to enjoy a cool breeze, listen to the birds, and watch the sun set through the trees. Here God’s presence comforts me.

such observations seem a bit out of place in the highly rational reformed tradition, but the Celtic tradition is long known for its special fondness for God’s creation. Holt wrote an entire chapter on “Christian Spiritualty and Ecology,”which aptly described a part of my own spiritual experience that remained implicit, not explicit, in my thinking and writing.

One of the many fun facts that Holt offered was that private confession, now practiced by the entire Roman Catholic church, started in the Celtic tradition (79).

The Jesus Prayer

I found Holt’s discussion of the Jesus Prayer most interesting. In English, the most common form of the Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”(97) This breath prayer closely resembles the prayer of the Publican in Luke 18:13: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”(ESV) The Jesus Prayer is attributed to various monks going back to the fifth century, especially Evagrius, who would repeat the prayer constantly throughout the day (98) following Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17).

While I have been aware of the Jesus Prayer for many years, its use only became significant to me when I worked in a psyche ward at Providence Hospital. Psyche patients often obsess about traumatic and perceived traumatic events in the past, a problem known as rumination. Because such patients have trouble distinguishing fact from illusion, such ruminations about the past amply their perceived trauma and divert them from thinking more productively about their own present or future. Sister Maureen advised me to instruct such patients to substitute the Jesus Prayer for this negative self-talk and thereby to break the rumination cycle, a kind of cognitive therapy for these patients. It works for the rest of us as well.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.

Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for God provides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.augsburg.edu/faculty/holtb.

Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 2

Also See:

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/HotWeather_2019

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Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 1

Holt reviewBradley P. Holt.[1]2017. Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I began writing about Christian spirituality in 2013, I was deeply frustrated with the church’s superficiality and lack of interest in theology. My seminary professors strived to teach me the pastoral arts and how to read and interpret the Bible, but as my relationship with God deepened, I wanted to know still more. Ultimately, my writing helped to address some of these concerns and to share what I learned with others. Still, my soul doth pine for more.

In his book, Thirsty for God, Bradley Holt shares similar concerns:

“…a conviction that Christianity is not only Western religion, that the old books are still worth reading, and that Christians are often unaware of the great resources available to them from sisters and brothers of distant times or places.”(xi)

The depth of Christian spirituality is often lost when pastors focus almost exclusively on the double love command (love God; love others; Matt 22:36-40) reaching out primarily to “seekers” rather than addressing the deeper spiritual yearnings of the majority of their congregation. Holt describes this yearning as: “the living water of God fresh and sparkling and pure”, a thirst (5)

What is Christian Spirituality?

The word, spirituality, often conjures up the image of an exotic Eastern sect where adherents dress funny, chant strange phrases, live in communes, and find religious excuses to use drugs. While it has been years since we last observed such people hanging around airports handing out pamphlets, this backdrop has spoiled many people’s images of spirituality.

Holt reminds us that the root of spirituality is the biblical word, spirit, that in Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma) means breath or wind (6). Holt sees three uses—capacity, style, and academic discipline—but goes on to cite the Zondervan Dictionary of Christian Spirituality definition: “Christian spirituality is the domain of lived Christian experience.” (6-7)

Perhaps more interesting, Holt see biblical spirituality comprised of four basic relationships: “relationships to God, to self, to others, and to creation.” (31) In my own writing I have followed Nouwen (1975, 20) in focusing on the first three so the fourth attracted my attention. The relationship with creation is, of course, highlighted in Celtic spirituality’s attention to nature and the life and witness of Saint Francis of Assisi who was known to preach to birds and animals. Creation has more recently come up again in discussions of environmental concerns.

Background and Organization

Bradley P. Holt is a professor emeritus at Augsburg University, where he also studied as an undergraduate. He is a graduate of Luther Theological Seminary and received his doctorate at Yale University. Holt writes in ten chapters:

1.    What is Christian Spirituality?

2.    The Bible and the Four Relationships

3.    The Beginning of a Global Community

4.    The European Era

5.    Protestant and Catholic Reform

6.    The Modern Era

7.    The West Since 1900

8.    The Non-Western World Since 1900

9.    Interfaith Spirituality for Christians

10. Christian Spirituality and Ecology (ix)

The chapters are proceeded by acknowledgments and an introduction and followed by an afterword, appendix, and several indices.

The Spiritual Side of Creation

Creation formed perhaps the most interesting aspect of Holt’s treatment of spirituality, who writes:

“God intends humans to care for the earth, not destroy it, and that an exclusive other worldly focus on salvation in Jesus can distract us Christians from our responsibilities to the creation.” (264)

Although I have devoted the past six years to writing about Christian spirituality, this point escaped me, but not because I was unaware of his point. For me, it was an idea that simply occupied another room in mind, not labeled spirituality.

One of my earliest and most enduring influences was Henry David Thoreau’s Waldenwho begins:

“When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner to civilized life again.”(Thoreau 1960, 1)

He goes on to explain:

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce to its lowest terms…”(Thoreau 1960, 62-63)

The idea of a Spartan existence, which he immediately related to reformed spirituality paraphrasing the Westminster Shorter Catechism,[2] always had a special appeal to me. Exposed to the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden and to Thoreau, I have always implicitly associated creation with spirituality.[3]⁠ However, it took a recent reading of Holt (31) to remind me of my own spiritual roots in this regard.

Assessment

Part one of this review gives an overview while part two will provide more detailed examples.

Bradley P. Holt’s Thirsty for Godprovides a thorough overview of Christian spirituality with a rich, annotated biography of significant authors in the field. Western and non-Western authors are discussed. Among the Western authors, Holt is balanced in his treatment of Protestant and Catholic influences. Although he writes for an academic audience, his writing is accessible and informative.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1960. Walden and Civil Disobedience (Orig pub 1854). Edited by Sherman Paul. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Footnotes

[1]https://www.augsburg.edu/faculty/holtb.

[2]Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. (PCUSA). 1999, 7.001)

[3]I went on to earn a doctorate in agricultural economics, possessed as it were of a strong desire to deal with the world food problem following the 1970s concern for limited resources and limits to growth (MMRB 1975). This background does not make me an environmentalist, but it gave a deep appreciation for our role as stewards of creation.

Holt Chronicles Christian Spirituality, Part 1

Also See:

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Preface to Living in Christ

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Cor 9:24)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Christian walk begins with spiritual rebirth (John 3:3). On the Day of Pentecost with the founding of the church, the Apostle Peter described rebirth in these terms: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38) The Apostle Paul describes this rebirth differently, saying: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9) Rebirth is a lifelong transition that starts with repentance, baptism, belief in the resurrection of Christ—our living role model—and proceeds under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit.

Character

Every journey has a destination. As in the Parable of the Talents, Christians live in anticipation of Christ’s return and to hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt 25:21) Success in this context requires that we use our talents to advance God’s Kingdom to the extent we are able. Christian ethics requires modeling ourselves after Christ, striving to undertake our duty to advance the Kingdom, and living in the hope of Christ’s return in glory. In Christ, we live joyfully knowing who we serve and how the story ends.

Community

Although the tendency in our time is to interpret the Gospel as individuals, we live in a community modeled after a Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who live in perfect, eternal harmony. We are never alone in coming to faith, working out our gifts as we prosper in faith, and living in anticipation of Christ’s return. Being created in the image of a perfect and holy God, God himself models in Christ what it means to be good, be emotionally secure, and judge rightly. Our hearts and minds are wholly integrated and because we live in a community that values integration, we strive together to perfect our characters and our talents respecting spiritual boundaries provided by God himself.

Leadership

Part of our own maturation process is learning to live responsibly in community and to offer leadership in our families and the community of faith, and within society, regardless of our talents and roles. Christian leadership is rooted in humility which leaves room in our personal and corporate lives for God’s intervention. For this reason, inner strength, not physical strength, exemplifies the Christian leader because self-confident people are the ones willing to take up the wash-basin and follow Christ (John 13:3-15).

Four Philosophical Questions

The ethics question is one of four questions typically posed in philosophy that must be addressed by any serious spirituality. These questions are:

1.Metaphysics—who is God?

2.Anthropology—who are we?

3.Epistemology—how do we know?

4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

As an author, my first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question and my third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. In this book, I explore the ethics question writing not as one with specialized training in philosophy but as one cognizant of the need, both as a Christian and an author interested in Christian spirituality, to have a reasonable answer to the question—how do we act out our faith, especially knowing that we are created in the image of God?

Christian Perspective

In examining the ethics question, I focus on ethics from a Christian perspective. Here I will not try to justify Christian ethics so much as explain them. At a time and in a place where people scoff at developing a theological understanding of their faith and refuse to teach Christian morality, ethics is almost a lost art in the church. At the heart of the ethical dilemma is the problem that theological principles are in tension with one another and always have been, something that is so obvious that it cannot be overlooked and requires serious discernment. For example, how do you love a sinner who refuses to confess their sin and forces you to pay their consequences? How do you practice forgiveness? Ethics training may not answer the question, but it will help you frame it appropriately for further reflection and future action.

Spirituality is Lived Theology

Ethics is never devoid of a context for acting out our faith, be it character formation within our own lives, being mentored within the community of faith, or learning to assume leadership. It is therefore useful to review case studies of each of these contexts both in scripture and in our present circumstances. If our spirituality is lived theology, then it is informed by our theology and, in turn, our life informs our theological reflection.

References

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

Preface to Living in Christ

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/2018_Lead

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How do Christians Connect with God? (2)

Earlier I posted my comments before the Mubarak Mosque on October 15th.

The entire service is now available online in video (click here).

Photo of Stephen W. Hiemstra
Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia on Religious Founders’ Day, October 15, 2017

Background

Good afternoon. My name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor and a Christian writer. My volunteer work focuses on Hispanic ministry and I write about Christian spirituality. My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married 33 years and have three grown children.

My comments today will focus on how Christians connect with God. Because today we are celebrating Religious Founders’ Day, I take the inspiration for my talk from a sermon by the Apostle Peter that he gave on the day that the Christian church was founded, which we call Pentecost.

Invocation

Please join me in a word of prayer.

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14 ESV) In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Introduction

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

Let me start by asking, what do secular people think about connecting with God?

Basically, they say that if you talk to God, that’s prayer, but if God talks to you, that’s psychosis. While pastor’s often tell this story as a light-hearted joke, psychologist Sigmund Freud described God’s existence as an illusion.[1] Karl Marx believed that religion (that is, God’s existence) was the opiate of the masses.[2] In other words, if you believe in God, Freud tells us you must be nuts and Marx tells us that you must be on drugs.

In my recent memoir, Called Along the Way, published this last month, I write that anyone in this secular age who takes God seriously must be considered a brother or sister in the faith. In this spirit, I would like to thank the Mubarak Mosque for the invitation to speak this afternoon to address this important topic.

Scripture

How do Christians connect with God? (2X)

The basic path to connecting with God is outlined by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. Hear Peter’s words:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul writes to the church at Rome about 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, some 2,000 years ago:

“…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Roman 10:9 ESV)

Rome at the time of Paul’s writing was the capital of the Western world much like Washington DC is today.

Because most of you here today are not Christians, you may be asking yourself why Peter and Paul are so adamant about two things mentioned in these two passages: confession of sins and belief in Jesus Christ (2X).

Transcendent and Holy

To understand the focus here, you need to understand the Christian understanding of God. Christians believe in a personal God who is both transcendent and Holy (2X).

God’s transcendence arises because he created the known universe. The first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis says:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1 ESV)

As creator, God had to exist before the universe that he created and he had to have been set apart from it. Time, as we know it, is part of the created universe. Consequently, God stands outside of time and space (2X). Because we exist inside time and space, we cannot approach God on our own. He has to reveal himself to us (2X).

Likewise, we cannot approach a Holy God, because we are sinful beings, not Holy beings. Our sin separates us from a Holy God.

To summarize, we cannot approach God on our own because he transcends time and space and because he is holy. Only God can initiate connection with unholy, created beings such as we are. There is no path up the mountain to God; God must come down (2X). As Christians, we believe that God came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whose coming was prophesied from the earliest days of scripture. For example, the Prophet Job wrote (slide 5):

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27 NIV)

The Book of Job is thought by some to have been written by Moses before any other book in the Bible and before he returned to Egypt, which makes the anticipation of a redeemer all the more stunning. Moses himself lived about 1,500 years before Christ.

God’s Self-Revelation

So who is this transcendent God that loves us enough to initiate connection with us in spite of our sin?

Later, after giving Moses the Ten Commandments for a second time on Mount Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses with these words:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV)

Notice that God describes himself first as merciful. As Christians, we believe that God love is shown to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because God himself has provided the ultimate sacrifice of his son on the cross, Christians do not need to offer animal sacrifices—in Christ, our debt to God for sin has already been paid. This is real mercy, real love.

Listen to the confession given by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [that is Peter’s nickname], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinth 15:3-6 ESV)

Jesus, as the perfect son of God, is the bridge that God has given us to connect with himself through the Holy Spirit, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:

“And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)

Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to pray to God with the assurance that we will be heard; we are able to read the Bible with the confidence that God will speak to us; and we are able to live our daily lives knowing that God walks with us each step of the way. In this way, as Christians we are always connected with God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Will you pray with me?

Oh dear Lord, thank you for the gift of your presence through the person of Jesus. Forgive our sin and draw us closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Presentation

Before I turn over the podium, let me read a few words from the acknowledgment section of my book, Life in Tension.

“In the fall of 2014, I was invited to speak at a local mosque about my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. Speaking at a mosque was new to me and anticipating this visit I spent three days fasting and praying for guidance. Instead of guidance on the mosque visit, God inspired me to write this book.” (xvii)

The reference here is to the Mubarak Mosque where we now stand. Consequently, I would like to present you with a copy of the book, Life in Tension. Thank you.

[1] Sigmund Freud. 1961. The Future of an Illusion. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people.

How do Christians Connect with God?

Also see:

Blackaby Expects Answers to Prayer 

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2fEPbBK

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Willard Hears God; Aids Dialogue, Part 2

Willard_review_08172015Dallas Willard.  2012.  Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.  Downers Drove:  IVP Book. (Goto Part 1)

Reviewed By Stephen W. Hiemstra

If God exists, the idea that God speaks to us is unremarkable.

In the back of our minds, however, as postmodern people is the critique of Marx and Freud. Marx called faith in God the “opiate of the masses” while Freud characterized it as an “illusion”. Today they might have suggested that believers were “on drugs” or engaging in “wishful thinking”. While neither critique rises above simple slander—no evidence is presented—such innuendo has weakened the faith of many Christians.

But the Bible itself says that we should expect that God speaks to us every day.  For example, King David writes:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:1-3 ESV; 164-166)

Jesus said:

“For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (John 12:49-50 ESV)

The first example is often referred to as “general revelation” (revealed to everyone) while the second is referred to as “special revelation” (revealed only to believers).

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard offers an interesting starting point for his work: “God has created us for intimate friendship with himself” (12)[1].  What kind of relationship would it be if only of the parties to this relationship did all the talking?  He then writes:

“My strategy has been to take as a model the highest and best type of communication that I know of from human affairs and then place this model in the even brighter light of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.” (12).

The most intimate form of communication is dialog which presumes a relationship of trust.  Willard writes:

“Our failure to hear God has its deepest roots in a failure to understand, accept, and grow into a conversational relationship with God”. (35)

While we may lie to ourselves, a practice known as denial, those that know us well see (and hopefully accept) the good and bad in our personalities and offer us feedback.  Our friends and family love us and want what is best for us. Such is also our relationship with God.  But what friend would spend their day telling us how to improve ourselves?  Willard writes:

“In such conversations [with God] we also talk about other things besides what God wants done today. We talk about what is happening, what is interesting, or what is sad. Most conversations between God and humans is to help us understand things.” (39).

Dialogue between us and God is an important part of our relationship. What exactly does that look like?

Willard offers voluminous advice on recognizing God’s voice in the context of a mature, Christian relationship. One of my favorites is his discussion of the Parable of the Talents.  In this parable, Jesus starts out:

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” (Matt. 25:14-18 ESV)

The question is, how does the master evaluate the work of his servants when he returns? In part, the answer depends on the relationship of each servant has with the master, not on his allocation or the outcome of his stewardship. Note, for example, that the master’s accounting does not include a return of the talents or the profits! Note also that the master rewards risk taking and considers hoarding as sloth. Which of us truly knows the mind of God and rejoices in it? God is generous as assuming by the faithful servants, not a harsh taskmaster as the lazy (or risk adverse) servant assumes. (40-41)

Willards instructs his reader on the spiritual discipline known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading) which is used to experience scripture in new ways. Lectio divina consists of 4 parts:

  1. Lectio (read)—read the passage. The purpose here is not to analyze the passage, but simply read and sit with it.
  1. Mediatio (mediate)—read the passage again taking note of any words that stand out to you. Some people read and re-read the passage placing emphasis on a different word each time. What brought these words to your attention? What were you thinking about God?
  1. Oratio (pray)—After reading the passage again, take it to the Lord in prayer. Ask God what the Spirit may have said to you here.
  1. Contemplatio (contemplation)—Do as you are led. Sit with God and this passage. What does it invite you to do? (48-51)

Willard returns to lectio divina at least 6 times throughout the book[2] suggesting that he considers it is an important tool for developing a dialogue with God[3].

Much more could be said about Dallas Willard’s Hearing GodHearing God is likely to become a devotional classic.  It reads well and refreshes the soul.

 

 

[1] He cites among other things, Psalm 23 as evidence of this relationship.  What is the relationship between a shepherd and sheep if not to live together 24-7?

[2] See:  48, 103, 131, 164, 207, 247.

[3] The morning of the week I was to begin seminary, my morning devotional reading was:

“At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me! So he let him alone. It was then that she said, A bridegroom of blood, because of the circumcision.” (Exod. 4:24-26 ESV)

Confused about the passage, I found that the commentaries linked it the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel who left him crippled the night before he met his brother (Genesis 32:22-31).  Later that day, I was squirming in my chair in the office and by the end of the day I was afflicted with back pain so grievous that I could only lie on my back on the floor and I missed 3 days of work as a consequence. The commentary noted that both Moses and Jacob had responded to God’s call to travel—Moses to Egypt and Jacob to return to his brother—but neither was ready for the task that God had given them. During my 3 days out of work, I could do nothing but read lying on my back so I spent the 3 days preparing for my biblical competency examination.  I passed the exam right on the cutoff point—the pass rate was just 13 percent. Just like Moses and Jacob, I had responded to God’s call, but I was not ready for it.  On that occasion God helped me focus and saved me a year of additional study.

 

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Willard Hears God; Aids Dialogue, Part 1

Willard_review_08172015Dallas Willard.  2012.  Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.  Downers Drove:  IVP Book. (Goto Part 2)

Reviewed By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Reading a book on hearing God is perhaps motivated by curiosity or guilt or just the idea that we are not always keeping up our end of the conversation. Yet the target audience for such a book is clearly the mature Christian. An immature Christian would look for a book on prayer where implicitly the conversation is unidirectional. And a non-Christian would make that implicit assumption explicit—prayers are nothing more than happy thoughts that we vocalize—incantations meant to be heard by those around us. Me? I came to Willard hoping to improve my listening skills.

In his book, Hearing God, Dallas Willard asks: “How can you be sure God is speaking to you?” He answers: “we learn by experience” (9). Communicating with God is a dialog. Yet, this dialogue makes sense within the wider: “framework of living in the will of God” (13).

This dialogue is not necessarily easy. In the postmodern context, the dialogue with God is surrounded by fear. Comedian Lily Tomlin asks: “why is it that when we talk to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic?” (22) Good question. Perhaps,  we are afraid of what God might have to say to us.

Willard offers some important advice on humility. To the pastor who remarks–I do not believe that God plans his day around me—he responds: but we are important. God gave his son to die for us. Still, the fact that God speaks to us does not in itself make us important (46-48). Apparently, talking to a janitor should not be confused with offering him a promotion!

The structure of Willard’s book is not entirely obvious. He writes: “my strategy has been to take as a model the highest and best type of communication that I know of human affairs and then place this model in the even brighter light of the person and teaching of Jesus Christ” (12). Sprinkled throughout the book at the end of six chapters are six exercises. Most follow a lectio divina format—reading (lectio), reflecting (mediatatio), responding in prayer (oratio), and resting in contemplation (contemplation) (104-105).

Willard observes that: “few people arise in the morning as hungry for God as they are for cornflakes or toast and eggs” (283). I feel that quote. He understands the need to be step out for God, not only in the morning, but during the day. He writes that: “it is absolutely essential to the nature of our personal development towards maturity that we venture and be placed at risk, for only risk produces character” (173). As a former financial economist and current volunteer pastor, I can appreciate the role of risk-taking in improving ones decision skills.

Willard Dallas [1] was longtime Professor of Philosophy at was longtime Professor of Philosophy at The University of Southern California, teaching at the school from 1965 until his death in 2013.  He is also the author of numerous books on Christian spirituality.  Hearing God is written in 9 chapters:

  1. A Paradox about Hearing God.
  2. Guidelines for Hearing from God.
  3. Never Alone.
  4. Out Communicating Cosmos.
  5. The Still, Small Voice, and Its Rivals.
  6. The Word of God and the Rule of God.
  7. Redemption through the Word of God.
  8. Recognizing the Voice of God.
  9. A Life More than Guidance.

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and preface. They are followed by an epilogue, appendix, notes, and a scriptural index.

In some sense, writers on spiritual formation can only be evaluated like spiritual directors–do they walk with you and do you continue to walk with them?  In my case, I have finished a second book by Willard—El espíritu de las disciplinas: ¿Cómo transforma Dios la vida? He is good in both English and Spanish.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of the book.  Part 2 will delve into greater depth into some of the issues that Willard raises.

 

[1] www.dwillard.org/biography. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dallas_Willard.

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Benner Cares Spiritually Through Dialogue—Part 1

Benner_review_08072015David G. Benner. 1998.  Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. (Goto part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One distinctive of biblical faith is that each human being is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). One practical implication of this image doctrine is that when you speak with someone, it is like speaking to God himself.  In fact, many times God speaks to us through the people around us. A second practical implication is that each and every human has intrinsic value in the eyes of God[1].  Between the hint of the divine and this intrinsic value, everyone has an interesting story to tell—if one takes the time to listen.

Introduction

In his book, Care of Souls, David Benner implicitly understands and accepts the doctrine of the image.  He writes:

“Care refers to actions that are designed to support the well-being of something or someone. Cure refers to actions that are designed to restore well-being that has been lost.” (21)

One only cares for something of value.  In this case, we are talking about souls which he defines as:

“soul as referring to the whole person, including the body, but with particular focus on the inner world of thinking, feeling, and willing.” (22)

This is the Hebrew understanding of soul (nefesh or נַפְשִׁ֖י) which is quite distinct from the Greek understanding from Plato which divided a person into body and soul[1], which were truly divided (11).

Conscious and Unconscious Life

This body and soul unity is important in Benner’s thinking especially when he delves into the distinction between the conscious and non-conscious parts of our inner life.  He writes:

“Caring for souls is caring for people in ways that not only acknowledge them as persons but also engage and address them in the deepest and most profoundly human aspects of their lives.  This is the reason for the priority of the spiritual and psychological aspects of the person’s inner world in soul care.” (23)

While the cure of souls focuses on remedy for sin; care of souls focuses on the need for spiritual growth (28).

Care of Souls

Benner sees 4 elements in care of souls:

  1. Healing—“helping others overcome some impairment and move towards wholeness”,
  2. Sustaining—“acts of caring designed to help a hurting person endure and transcend” a challenging situation,
  3. Reconciling—“efforts to reestablish broken relationships”, and
  4. Guiding—“helping people make wise choices and thereby grow in spiritual maturity” (31-32)

I used to use the analogy of two soccer players working with each other to succeed in their game play and taking care of each other.

Benner offers 6 helpful principles (he calls them conclusions) defining soul care. “Christian soul care”…

  1. “is something that we do for each other, not to ourselves.”
  2. “operates within a moral context.”
  3. “is concerned about community not just individuals.”
  4. “is normally provided through the medium of dialogue within the context of a relationship.”
  5. “does not focus on some narrow spiritual aspect of personality but addresses the whole person.”
  6. “is much too important to be restricted to the clergy or any other single group of people.”

Christian Friends

 This last point is important—the idea of Christian friends is fundamental in Christian discipling. In fact, the first book by Benner that I read and reviewed was focused on this point[2].

Another key point is that the focus in care of souls is on dialogue between equals before God.  Benner distinguishes 4 types of interpersonal discourse:

  1. Debate“a civilized form of combat…has a focus and implicit rules that encourage participants to stick to the understood topic”. (134)
  2. Discussion“involves the advocacy of ideas and positions with resulting winners and losers” .(134)
  3. Conversation“involve the exchange not just of facts and arguments but also of feelings, values, and construals” but not to the extent and with the mutual trust required for a dialogue. (135)
  4. Dialogue“shared inquiry that is designed to increase awareness, understanding, and insight” among mutually trusting individuals. (131)

This focus on dialogue distinguishes soul care from psychiatric care where true dialogue is not possible, in part, because the talking is more of doctor-patient conversation between two parties that are inherently not equal. Dialogue is the preferred discourse in soul care because healing, sustaining, reconciling, and guiding are able to take place only when trust is present.

Background of Author

Dr. David Benner works and lives in Canada.  He describes himself as: “an internationally known depth psychologist, wisdom teacher, transformational coach, and author whose life’s work has been directed toward helping people walk the human path in a deeply spiritual way and the spiritual path in a deeply human way.”  He has held numerous faculty positions and written about 30 books [4].

Organization

Benner writes in 11 chapters divided into 2 parts.  These chapters are:

Part 1:  Understanding Soul Care

  1. What is Soul Care?
  2. The Rise of Therapeutic Soul Care
  3. The Boundaries of the Soul
  4. Psychology and Spirituality
  5. Christian Spirituality

Part 2:  Giving and Receiving Soul Care

  1. The Psychospiritual Focus and Soul Care
  2. Dialogue in Soul Care
  3. Dreams, the Unconscious, and the Language of the Soul
  4. Forms of Christian Soul Care
  5. Challenges of Christian Soul Care
  6. Receiving Soul Care

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction.  They are followed by notes and a topical index.

Assessment

David Benner’s Care of Souls is a transformative text.  Although some of these ideas here appear elsewhere, many of the discussions are uniquely Benner. For example, Benner goes a lot further than many authors in offering a theological underpinning to soul care, integrates the therapeutic ideas better than other authors into his care, and spends more time in explaining the usefulness and uniqueness of dialogue.  I highly recommend this book to pastors, other Christian care givers, and Christians who want to be spiritually sensitive in their ministry.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of Benner’s book.  In part 2, I will dig deeper into some of his more interesting ideas.

Question: Do you think that soul care is possible outside of a therapeutic relationship?  Why or why not?

Footnotes

[1] This intrinsic value provides the philosophical foundation for human rights. In the absence of this theological doctrine, the secular interest in human rights is a philosophical orphan easily forgotten.

[2] Or body, mind, and soul.

[3] See (Benner 2003) Also see review:  Benner Points to God (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-u3)

[4] www.DrDavidGBenner.ca

REFERENCES

Benner, David G. 2003.  Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction.  Downers Grove:  IVP Books.

Benner Cares Spiritually Through Dialogue—Part 1

 

 

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