Why Participate in a Small Group?

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46–47)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The early church was a small group. Many churches today remain small by choice.

My first small group experience occurred in high school when our senior pastor retired and the youth director left. Overnight our active youth program fell apart. The associate pastor stepped in to fill the gap, but only two of us stuck with the group: my best friend and I. Throughout my senior year in high school, our time together focused on two things: the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Cost of Discipleship. Interestingly, my best friend and I are now both pastors.

The original small group is the Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because our identities are formed by who we are in relationship with [1], our relationship with the Triune God provides an important example of what a loving, well-functioning community looks like [2].

Another foundational small group is the family. Families talk about every important matter in life. In the family, we learn to talk, pray, and to read scripture. Our families also teach us to joke, to love, to fight, and to reconcile. My first ministry as an adult was to my family.

Jesus did not write a book; he established a small group. This simple observation is remarkable because Jesus drew large crowds—therefore, his focus on disciplining the twelve appeared counter-intuitive. Jesus called the twelve disciples after spending an entire night in prayer (Luke 6:12). The Gospels record how very difficult the journey of faith was for Jesus’ disciples. Not all of them made it (John 6:66).

Small groups provide us the security to make difficult transitions (Icenogle 1994, 126–37) [3]. Most tragedies in life are involuntary transitions. During such transitions, we often cry: Lord—why me? Transitions become growth opportunities when we pray: Lord—why did you bring me to this time and place? Small groups provide a safe place to ask this question while inviting members to wait upon the Lord’s response together.

Footnotes

[1] Maureen Miner (2007, 116) asks an important question: “Can we have a separate and distinct relationship with each member of the Trinity?” If so, striking the right balance requires a community effort which is a mandate for small groups.

[2] This relationship has a name: perichoresis, which means divine dance. It defines the special and intimate relationship we see in the Trinity (Keller 2008, 213–26).

[3] Consultant William Bridges (2003, 43) makes the point that it took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took about 40 years to get the Egypt out of the people (Num 11:5). The point is that transitions begin with people looking backwards; proceed through a long period of uncertainty; and end as people began to adapt to the new environment (Bridges 2003, 100). After 40 years in the wilderness, it took new leadership, Joshua, to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.

References

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. El Precio de la Gracia [The Cost of Discipleship] (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Bridges, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Icenogle, Gareth Weldon. 1994. Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Keller, Timothy. 2008. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton.

Miner, Maureen. 2007. “Back to the basics in attachment to God: Revisiting theory in light of theology.” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 35(2), 112–22.

Why Participate in a Small Group?

Also see:

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

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Jepson: Spiritual Practices in Writing

Jenson_review_20210928Jill Jepson. 2008. Writing as a Sacred Path. Berkeley:  Celestial Arts.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The journey home requires travel in foreign lands.  The prodigal son could not love his father until he had left him; his older brother never came to love his father (Luke 15).  Much like contrast reveals the outlines of what we see, sometimes it is helpful to explore foreign lands in finding our way home.

In her book, Writing as a Sacred Path, Jill Jepson teaches writing through exercises in alternative, especially eastern, spiritual traditions.  She writes:

One of the writer’s highest goals is to express the inner workings of the human spirit in ways that evoke understanding and empathy. By making it possible for people of different regions, beliefs, and cultures to communicate, by allowing people to share each other’s experiences and views of the world, the writer acts as a warrior for peace (198-199).

Because many screen plays employ eastern spiritual practices and sometimes even eastern themes and settings, it is not surprising that this book would be published in California and writers there would find these exercises helpful.

Jepson writes in 10 chapters organized in 4 parts:

1. The Mystic Journey (Transcendent Awareness; Crazy Wisdom),
2. The Monastic Path (The Writer in Silence and Solitude; The Writer in Community)
3. The Way of the Shaman (Darkness and Healing in the Writer’s Path; Sacred Ground), and
4. The Warrior Road (Honor and Courage in the Writing Lift; Strategy and Skill for the Warrior Writer).

She describes these 4 parts as gateways to the sacred (9). The first two chapters (The Call and The Sacred Gift) function as an introduction. A conclusion (Walking the Sacred Path) follows chapter 10. The conclusion is followed by endnotes, a bibliography, an index, and a brief description of the author. Jepson describes herself as: a writer, traveler, linguistic anthropologist, and college professor (246). She knows her stuff.

Chapter 2, The Sacred Gift, bears special attention because it focuses on the critical role of stories in affecting personal and social change (21). The writer, as storyteller, plays a pivotal role in culture. Citing Buddhist and Hindu origins, she defines the idea of a mandala—a geometric depiction of the cosmos making our universe understandable—the opposite of a monkey mind—a chaotic, rapidly changing state of mind (21). A mathematical model or graph might, for example, function as a mandala. Jesus’ use of parables might form such mandalas and illustrate the transformational potential of stories.

Jepson applies her lessons through spiritual exercises which she annotates as: sacred tools. The book provides dozens of these tools. These exercises can have a couple steps or be rather lengthy. One tool, for example, is a visualization exercise:

1. Write your experience,
2. Imagine your opponent’s experience, and
3. Create a character (195-196).

Walking in someone’s shoes is certainly an old idea, but it is also a helpful writing exercise in any tradition.

Jepson has written an insightful writing manual. Writing as a Sacred Path is a fascinating book. The blend of Christian and pagan references, however, could easily lead to spiritual confusion. Christian spirituality begins with God, not with us. When we engage in spiritual practices designed to enhance our talents or power over ideas, we stray from Christian into pagan practice. This is a journey that writers need not and should not take lightly.  Nevertheless, the journey home requires travel in foreign lands and we are better for it.

Jepson: Spiritual Practices in Writing

Also see:

Friedman Brings Healing by Shifting Focus from Individuals to the Family 

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The Spiritual Disciplines of Prayer and Fasting

Stephen_W_Hiemstra_20200125b
Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020

Sermon by Stephen W. Hiemstra on May 1, 2021

Mubarak Mosque, Chantilly, Virginia,  Ramadan Virtual Interfaith (Iftar) Online Program

Background

Good afternoon. Thank you for extending me the invitation join you in this Time for National Healing through Prayer. In my talk I will focus on the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting and share a prayer from my book: Everyday Prayers for Everyday People.

For those of you who do not know me, my name is Stephen W. Hiemstra. I am a Christian author and a volunteer pastor. I have been writing about Christian spirituality now since finishing seminary training in 2013. During the pandemic I translated a second of my books into Spanish, started blogging in German, and drafted my first novella. Now that I am fully vaccinated I have started to catch up on other parts of my life.

My wife, Maryam, hails from Iran and considers herself a Muslim. We have been married over 35 years and have three grown children.

Invocation

Please join me in a word of prayer.

Loving Father, “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 the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts, illumine our minds, and strengthen our hands in your service that we might draw closer to you day by day. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Comments

Prayer and fasting are spiritual disciplines that serve to remove impediments to our relationship with God. God calls each of us into relationship with himself, but we are not always receptive to his call. The usual implements to this relationship can be described as sin and the worst of these is to reject God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Prayer removes the worst impediment to God’s grace and is the most theological activity that we ever engage in. Personal prayer is difficult because we often neglect our own hearts and find it easier to mimic other people’s prayers rather than sort out our own theological beliefs. It is hard to be honest with God if we are not honest with ourselves.

Other spiritual disciplines are best focused on our favorite sins, the ones that we secretly wrap our hearts around. Fasting is particularly helpful because by deliberately limiting our favorite sins—things like gluttony, sexual addiction, or lusting after power or money—we make room in our hearts for God.

In general, making room in our hearts for God is the focus of spiritual disciplines. When we forgive someone that has sinned against us, we empty our heart of the pain making room for God to enter. This benefits us even if the person sinning against us is unworthy and continues to sin.

Focusing on our worse sins in fasting has gotten more traction in recent years. It is accordingly popular today to have a technology fast or to limit our food consumption. Suggesting that Americans limit other sins tends to get less attention because first you have to admit that you have a problem. Among Christian counselors is often joked that Da Nile (denial) is not just a river in Egypt.

The season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter in the spring, is traditionally a time when Christians fast and pray most deliberately. As a Christian author, however, I can tell you that sales of my prayer books have been  strongest over the past year during periods when the pandemic was causing people the most pain.

On a personal level, I often pray most fervently when I am working out—while I swim laps or run outdoors—because my prayers remain uninterrupted. The stress of the pandemic and my need to keep mentally alert in my writing have motivated me to begin this spring to train for the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall. My preparations include both my workouts and a serious diet. Although I am not quite as disciplined as a  good Muslim during Ramadan, I have lost about 20 pounds since March 10th when I registered for this marathon.

Closing Prayer

Please pray with me.

 

Almighty God,

We thank you for

the security of a roof over our heads,

gas to power our heaters, and

power to run our appliances.

Help us to remember those who lack these things.

 

We thank you

for the mercy of being born in a land of plenty

that gave us food to eat,

clean water to drink, and

sanitary plumbing to use.

Help us to remember those who lack these things.

 

We thank you

for the protection of honest police,

the care of competent physicians, and

the instruction of educated teachers.

Help us to remember those who lack these things.

 

Give us discerning minds,

tender hearts, and helping hands,

when we forget who we are and

how you have called us.

 

In the power of your Holy Spirit,

bridge the gap

between discerning minds and the ones we have,

tender hearts and the ones we have,

helping hands and the ones we have.

Forgive us, heal us, and save us from our gaps.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

10/16/2016

Reference

Stephen W. Hiemstra. 2018. Everyday Prayers for Everyday People. Centreville: T2Pneuma Publishers LLC.

The Spiritual Disciplines of Prayer and Fasting

Also see:

How do Christians Connect with God?

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Nouwen: Mastered by the Holy Spirit

Nouwen_review_20201208

Henri Nouwen.  2007.  The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first ministry as an adult in the early 1980s was a summer program for high school and college age students.  As my kids began graduating and taking up life as adults, I noticed a disturbing trend.  The majority of them—those not disciplined enough to stay in school to earn a professional degree—had to leave Northern Virginia because the cost of living was simply too high. I coined the phrase, downward mobility, to describe the generational schism this dilemma caused.

Introduction

Until I heard about Henri Nouwen’s book, The Selfless Way of Christ:  Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, I had never heard anyone else use my phrase—downward mobility.  For Nouwen, downward mobility is conscious decision to resist the idolatry of a lifestyle focused on upward mobility (27) and simply to imitate Christ (38).  Nouwen writes:  The Holy Spirit leads us on the downward way, not to cause us to suffer or to subject us to pain and humiliation, but rather to help us to see God present in the midst of our struggles (47).  The Apostle Paul summed it up this way:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV).

At one point, my church used this last sentence (I can do all things through him who strengthens me) as a tie-shirt slogan for our Vacation Bible School camp.  These words are powerful encouragement for those of us traveling the downward way.

Leadership Temptations

Satan tempts us daily to return to the path of upward mobility.  Following Luke 4, Nouwen (49) sees Satan’s three primary temptations in ministry as:

  1. The temptation to be relevant (turn stones into bread);
  2. The temptation to be spectacular (throw yourself off the temple); and
  3. The temptation to be powerful (rule as king) [1].

Relevance

This first temptation can be the source of a lot of pain.  Nouwen (50) observes:  Doctors can heal; lawyers can defend; bankers can finance; social workers can restructure; but what can you [as Christian,  minister, or pastor] do?  Our natural tendency is to fix things; not to trust in God’s transforming power.

Draw Attention to Ourselves

The second temptation is to focus on ourselves and serve our own needs for attention and acceptance.  Here we need to make space for God in our own lives so that he can use us to be present in the lives of the people around us (58).  Nouwen commends a life of intimate communion with God through the disciplines of solitude, silence, and prayer (59).  If our ministry is not about God, it will ultimately become tiresome and pointless.

Power

The third temptation is to be powerful.  Nouwen observes that:  Power can take many forms:  money, connections, fame, intellectual ability, skills (61).  We want to be in control.  To be a servant of Christ, Nouwen reminds us, is to be a [humble] friend of Christ (65).

Discipline

Nouwen observes that the tension between our vocation as Christians and these temptations is a lifelong challenge (69).  Discipline is required but:  The discipline of  the Christian disciple is not to master anything [like an athlete, student, or professional] but rather to be mastered by the Spirit (70).  Nouwen highlights these 3 disciplines:

  1. The discipline of the church;
  2. The discipline of the book; and
  3. The discipline of the heart (71).

Church

For Nouwen, a Catholic priest, the discipline of the church is to re-enact, to be, and to celebrate the Christ event.  Liturgical discipline focuses on the Christ event—God breaking into human history (73).  We must create time and space in our lives for God.  In this sense, the church is our spiritual director (74).

Scripture

The discipline of the book is for Nouwen necessarily an act not just of reading but of mediating on scripture.  The phrase, Christ is the word of God, is not just high rhetoric; Christ is the word become flesh (77-78).  We must chew the word (78).  The angel tells the Apostle John:  take and eat (Revelation 10:9).  It must become part of us.  Otherwise, the mere words of scripture will become an instrument of Satan (82).

Prayer

For Nouwen, the discipline of the heart is personal prayer (82). The discipline of prayer leads us unromantically, ceremonially to the heart of God (87). This is not about rewards, personal acclaim, helpful projects, or even inner peace (83); this not about personal revelations or sensations (89). Time with God strips all of this away. In prayer, our questions over time morph into our answers (87).

The point of each of these disciplines is, of course, to walk the path of downward mobility to preserver in resisting temptation.

Assessment

I return to Nouwen’s writing periodically as a personal reminder to make time and space for the Holy Spirit in my busy life.  Reminders are imperative for me.  The fact that Nouwen abandoned a comfortable life as a Harvard academic in 1986 to work with special needs individuals in a D’Arche community gives his advice on downward mobility unique credibility.  Spirituality is not a hobby-horse of convenience; it is a life commitment.  I commend this book to your own reading and mediation.

Footnotes

[1] Also see:  Henri Nouwen.  1989.  In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  New York:  Crossroads Book.

Nouwen: Mastered by the Holy Spirit

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Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

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Spirituality: Monday Monologues (podcast) November 23, 2020

Stephen_W_Hiemstra_20200125b
Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on the Christian Spirituality. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Spirituality: Monday Monologues (podcast) November 23, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

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Why is Spirituality Important?

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.

No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6 ESV)

Some questions defy pat answers: Who is God? Who am I? What must I do? How do I know?

African Runners

At one point in world competition among marathon runners, Ethiopians ruled. The Kenyans had talent, but Ethiopians trained harder and trained better. Training at high altitudes built their strength; training as a team built their competitiveness.

Africans were not always allowed to compete in these games. The right to compete did not come all at once, but it started with efforts to abolish slavery. William Wilberforce, a devout Christian, spent most of his life leading the effort to abolish slavery in nineteenth century Great Britain. He later wrote about the need for spiritual training saying:

no one expects to attain the height of learning, or arts, or power, or wealth, or military glory, without vigorous resolution, and strenuous diligence, and steady perseverance. Yet we expect to be Christians without labor, study, or inquiry. (Wilberforce 2006, 5–6)

Spiritual Journey

Wilberforce must have had me in mind. For years, I professed Christ as savior but did not embrace him as Lord. My faith was incomplete. As I learned to apply the lordship of Christ to my life, I experienced a more sustained sense of Christian joy.

The content of faith is critical. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) If I have faith that eggshells are white, I have only defined eggshell color. But, if I have faith that Christ rose from the dead, my whole world changes—God exists and death no longer has the final word. The call to faith defines our identity in Christ.[1]

Postmodern Dilemma

The idea of Christian faith has become unfashionable. The postmodern world we live in is often like the Sahara desert where mountains of sand blow about daily. Direction in a world of shifting sand requires a surveyor’s marker that establishes location. Standing on a marker, a map shows both direction and distance. Without the marker, however, a map becomes a puzzle—like words without definitions—whose pieces have meaning only relative to one another. Scripture is our map; our marker is Jesus Christ[2].

The sun does not always shine; neither does it rain every day. Spirituality is living out what we know to be true on good days and bad.

[1] “Through the CALL of Jesus men become individuals. Whilly-nilly, they are compelled to decide, and that decision can only be made by themselves.” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 94).

[2] Benner (2002, 26) sees the role of a spiritual director as of pointing to God’s work in a person’s life.

References

Benner, David G. 2203. Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship & Direction. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig. pub. 1937). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wilberforce, William. 2006. A Practical View of Christianity (Orig. pub. 1797). Ed. Kevin Charles Belmonte. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Christian Classics; Hendrickson Publishers.

Why is Spirituality Important?

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Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

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Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Spirituality is lived belief. When we pray, worship, or reach out to our neighbors, we live out our beliefs. Our beliefs structure our spirituality like skin stretched over the bones of our bodies. These beliefs start with faith in God the Father through Jesus Christ as revealed through the Holy Spirit in scripture, the church, and daily life. Our theology orders our beliefs. Without a coherent theology, we lose our identity in space and time having no map or compass to guide us on our way. In the end, we focus on ourselves, not God.

Spiritual Foundation

Christian spirituality accordingly starts with God, not with us. Like the woman Jesus cured of a spinal disfiguration, our only response can be to glorify God with songs of praise (Luke 13:13). We experience lasting Christian joy, not with recognizing Christ as savior, but with recognizing Christ as Lord. Spiritual disciplines and experiences are part of this spirituality, but they are not necessarily the focus (1 Cor 13:8).

This focus on what God has done begins in verse one of Genesis where God is pictured creating the heavens and the earth. What exactly have we done to deserve being created? Nothing. In fact, our first independent act was to sin. What exactly have we done to warrant forgiveness? Nothing. Christ died for our sins. The only meaningful response to these gifts of creation and salvation is praise.

Early Church

The early church interpreted and summarized God’s revelations in the biblical text and early creeds. It later developed the catechisms to summarize key church doctrines. The Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s catechism, and the Catholic catechism focus on three key statements of faith: the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments (Chan 2006, 108). Not surprisingly, Sunday morning worship has for centuries focused on these three faith statements, often being memorized and put to music. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, encourages a focus on worship and is itself divided into 52 sermon topics for weekly use.

The key spiritual discipline in the Christian faith naturally is Sunday morning worship. The worship service includes prayer, readings from scripture, the spoken word, the sacraments, music, statements of faith, and other expressions of faithful worship. In worship, music binds our hearts and minds.

Spiritual Practices

This worship experience is strengthened daily through personal devotions as well as devotions with our spouses, families, and other small groups. The original small group is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our template for healthy community. And when we take our spirituality into the work world, it too becomes an opportunity for worship.

Hear the words; walk the steps; experience the joy!

Reference

Chan, Simon. 2006. Liturgical Theology: The Church as a Worshiping Community. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

Thielicke, Helmut. 1962. A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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Benner Points to God

Benner_review_20200805b

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

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The term, soul mate, is often bantered about in the popular media without a clear definition.  Usually, a soul mate is simply a photogenic member of the opposite sex who understands you. In seminary a friend spoke intriguingly about spiritual friends who: nurture the development of each other’s soul (16). This definition sounded remarkably like the relationship I shared with my best friend in high school who went on to become a pastor. When I learned that my friend took his comments from David Benner’s book,Sacred Companions: The Gift of Spiritual Friendship and Direction, I immediately ordered a copy.

Introduction

Some books are good for information; others offer solace in life’s journey. Benner’s work clearly falls in both camps. He writes: The essence of Christian spirituality is following Christ on a journey of personal transformation…Spiritual friends accompany each other on that journey (26). Reading along I discovered things about myself that had never previously been expressed in words.

Spiritual Direction

One such point was Benner’s comment about spiritual direction.  The objective in offering direction is not to provide counsel or even react to things said, but rather to point friends to God’s work in their personal lives.  Benner writes: spiritual direction is not primarily about theology. It is about personal, experiential encounter with God (155).  Soul care consists, not of advice or disciplining, but of compass reading.  Disciplining focuses on first steps while spiritual direction focuses on later stages in the journey (28).

Jesus modeled this focus saying: I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3 NIV). Only someone well along in the journey of life needs to reflect back on childhood experiences.  Paul likewise appeared to position himself primarily as a spiritual traveler rather than teacher.  For example, Paul writes: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8 ESV).  As a fellow traveler, Paul’s work as an evangelist placed him in the position of a guide pointing the way to Christ.  A guide travels; a teacher waits for students to appear.

This “compass reading” objective of spiritual direction and spiritual friendship is critical in offsetting the idolatry of individualism.  Normally, a preoccupation with holiness is critiqued by our society as “navel gazing” or becoming all churchy.  While is certainly possible to become obsessed with the programs and trappings of the church, becoming sensitive to God’s work in our lives normally has the opposite effect.  God is unseen and speaks through people and things seen.  When we become sensitive to God’s work, we become more fully aware of everyone and everything else in our lives.  This sensitivity accordingly strips away the pretense of individualism.  Compass reading has the effect of providing us a better set of priorities because God moves closer to the center of lives.  Jesus focused on children, in part, because they are more sensitive, not less sensitive, to what is happening around them than most adults.

Background and Organization

At the time of this book’s publication, David Benner was a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at eh Psychological Studies institute in Atlanta, Georgia.  His book is written in 9 chapters:

  1. The Transformational Journey;
  2. Hospitality, Presence, and Dialogue;
  3. The Ideals of Spiritual Friendship;
  4. Demystifying Spiritual Directions;
  5. Soul Attunement;
  6. A Portrait of the Process;
  7. Becoming a Spiritual Director;
  8. Spiritual Accompaniment in Small Groups; and
  9. Spiritual Accompaniment in Marriage.

The first 3 chapters focus on spiritual friends; the next 4 focus on spiritual direction; and the last 2 focus on combining the two.  These chapters are introduced with a lengthy preface and followed by an epilogue.

Assessment

If our faith in Jesus Christ is more caught than taught, spiritual friends play a critical role in our walk with the Lord. Reading Benner’s book was a key point in my journey.

Benner Points to God

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Books, Films, and Ministry

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Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

 

Rice_review_20200606

Howard L. Rice.  1991.  Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers. Louisville:  Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a lifelong Calvinist and seminary graduate, Howard L. Rice’s Book, Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers, came as a surprising find. The term, spirituality, has a New-Age ring to it. In reading about spiritual practices, I  accordingly assumed that I was straying from the reformed tradition. Thanks to Rice, I no longer feel that way.

Introduction

Rice organizes his book into eight chapters, starting with an introduction and followed by seven topical chapters.  The topics addressed are informative:  The experience of God, problems and possibilities, prayer, study, consultation, the practice of discipleship, and discipline in the Christian life.  None of these topics come as a surprise.  The introduction starts with the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death?  (7).  At the time of publication, Rice was chaplain of the Seminary and a professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Spirituality Defined

Rice defines spirituality as:  the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us (45).  He notes that:  spirituality demands letting go of control, taking emotions seriously, and emphasizing being as of equal value with doing (49).

Rice highlights the Puritan experience in explaining the reformed tradition (12). For Puritans, the preferred term is piety, not spirituality, reflecting the reformed suspicion of private revelation and guarded attention to the more colorful spiritual gifts. In worship, Reformed spirituality focuses more on scripture and the sermon while, in individual practice, it focuses more on prayer and meditation.

Importance of Theology in Reformed Spirituality

Rice emphasizes the importance of theology in the reformed approach to spirituality. For example, Richard Baxtor (1615-1691; 37) sought renewal of his congregation through personal instruction in the catechisms.  While this terribly un-modern technique sounds dated, I know of at least one pastor who successfully used it to energize a youth group.  The catechisms help church members to appreciate the doctrines of the church and to relate them to life.  Theology is not the only lens that Rice employs.  He observes that we encounter God in experiences of conversion, ecstasy, visions and spoken words, intuition, transcendence, and incarnation (30-35).  These observations normally qualify one as a charismatic in reformed circles!

Rice clarifies the role of small groups and church committees in the reformed spiritual life.  Reformed theology is systemic, complex, and complete–small groups and committees help maintain spiritual balance.  For the Calvinist, the spiritual life requires walking with a community of faith.  Rice writes:  that is why corporate worship, hearing the word preached, and sharing in common administration of the sacraments are so central for any Reformed understanding of the spiritual life (53).

Assessment

As a text on reformed spiritually, Rice’s book was unique in helping me understand my own faith practices.  Clearly, I might have benefited from Rice’s systemic presentation at a younger age.  Rice deserves to be studied more than once and is suitable for small group discussion.

Reference

Baxtor, Richard 2007. The Reformed Pastor.  Carlisle:  Banner of Truth Trust.

Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

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Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

Stott_review_20200427John Stott.  2008.  Basic Christianity (Orig pub 1958).  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Apostle Peter reminds us:  but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15 ESV).

Our ability to respond to Peter’s admonishment is clearly challenged today.  Outside of the criticism of our faith arising from the advocates for modern science, we are confronted in our shrinking postmodern world with a host of alternatives to Christianity from other religions and from complex and confusing voices in secular society.  In the midst of this whirlwind of controversy, John Stott’s book, Basic Christianity, offers us a plainspoken starting point.

Introduction

Stott outlines the Gospel in eleven chapters.  After a brief introduction, he presents has four parts:  1. Who Christ Is, 2. What We Need, 3. What Christ Has Done, and 4. How To Respond.  The first part focuses on the claims, character, and resurrection of Christ.  The second part focuses on sin.  The third part focuses on Christ’s death and salvation.  The fourth part brings us to count the cost, make a decision, and live the Christian life.

Background

John Stott (1921-2011) was rector (pastor) emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London and founder of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.  He was one of the authors of the Lausanne Covenant which started as a 1974 Christian religious manifesto promoting active world-wide Christian evangelism and continues to influence missions work today.  My first acquaintance with Stott came in 1983 when I visited Bonn in Germany as an economics student and a friend gifted me with Stott’s book—Gesandt Wie Christus (1976).  At the time, I assumed Stott was German.  Needless to say, Stott is still one of the world’s best known evangelical writers.

Apologistics

Stott acknowledges the enormity of the task of defending the faith–apologetics.  For example, he recounts a conversation with a young man having trouble reciting one of his church’s creeds because he could no longer believe it.  Stott asked him:  If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to change the way you live?  The answer was clearly no.  His real problem was not intellectual but moral (25).  This conversation is not an isolated event–advocating a disciplined life-style today is a tough sell. Why give up self-control to Christ and live a disciplined life when in Alice’s Wonderland every headache can be solved with a different colored pill?

Children Expected to Grow

Stott’s final chapter on being a Christian is most interesting.  He writes:  Our great privilege as children of God is relationship; our great responsibility is growth.  Everyone loves children, but nobody…wants them to stay in the nursery (162).  We grow in two dimensions—understanding and holiness—which work out in our duties to God, to the church, and to society (163-166).  This growth includes growth in our prayer life.  Stott advises readers to respond to God in prayer in the same manner that he speaks to you—do not change the subject.  If he talks about his glory, worship him; if he talks about sin, confess it; if scripture blesses you, thank him for it (164).  Stott’s comments about the spiritual practice of daily examine flow right out of this discussion.  In the morning, commit the details of your day to God’s blessing and, in evening, review what happened during the day.

Assessment

John Stott’s Basic Christianity provides a well-ordered accounting of the Gospel that is worthy of study and reflection.  His summary—God has created; God has spoken; God has acted—is brief but compelling (18).  The Apostle Peter’s admonition sounds initially like evangelism.  But, if the truth be known, the accounting of our hope in Christ benefits us at least as much as anyone we meet.

Stott Outlines Gospel; Speaks Plainly

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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