Anniversary Changes

Oak_tree_09262015This week marks the second anniversary of which was established in 2013.  Thank you for your faithful readership!

The theme of, as outlined in the Home page,  “is online Pastor (or Christian ministry) and related topics.  I try to write about issues from my ministry and from issues of interest to readers.” This theme will continue.  I will, however, in the coming months focus more intentionally on my writing technique.  In particular, I hope to develop the use of a more narrative style taking a page from Jon Franklin’s work: Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Hopefully, the quality of my writing will also improve.

My experience is  that online ministry is real ministry. The most popular posts on this blog over the past 2 years have not been the “light and fluffy” posts targeting topical issues or favorable demographics.  The most popular posts have been those that have real substance.  The number one post over past 2 years, for example, has been a hermetical study, Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s: Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Part 2with 171 viewings.  The number two post has been on leadership, James E. Plueddemann’s: Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church with 110 viewings. Both are serious reviews of serious seminary texts.

Effective immediately, I am reducing the number of posts each week to two: a lesson on Friday and a prayer on Sunday.  The lesson will take the form of a review or a reflection. I will occasionally offer other postings, as time allows.

In the coming weeks, I hope also to roll out 2 new series.  The first will be a series of prayers that I develop based on the Life in Tension series. This is an effort to honor the attention that my prayers taken from A Christian Guide to Spirituality in English and Spanish have received over time.  The second will be a new project: a spiritual autobiography.  As this point, I have not settled on a title but I will be working on an outline and title over the next couple weeks.

The oak tree appears on the Hiemstra family coat of arms and, in this case, grows in the parking lot at Oak Marr Recreation Center in Oakton, Virginia.

Yours in Christ,



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Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad ya está disponible!

Una Guia Cristian a la EspiritualidadSpanish Edition of A Christian Guide to Spirituality is Now Available!

Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad is now available on in paperback and Kindle EBook.

View the trailer in YouTube:

For a discount on the paperback edition, go to and enter 83WZLNW4 to receive a 30 percent discount.

Para más información en español, véase:

Alternatively, visit my Amazon author page at:

Thanks for your patience!  This project has been a blessing, but also a long time in coming.

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 2

Hernandez_review_part_1_08102015Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto part 1, goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Spirituality is a squishy word.

At one point when I was teaching adult Sunday school, I began to wonder what people really meant when they used the word, spiritual.

  • For some people, the word substituted as a new word for religious, which has, in many respects, become anachronistic.
  • For other people, spiritual means being in touch with the numinous—hearing voices, seeing visions, and interpreting the spirit world primarily from a non-Christian, non-western perspective.
  • For still others, spiritual is used as a synonym for relational—someone able to establish rapport with just about anyone or a passage in scripture offering relational insight.

Henri Nouwen’s writing on spirituality differed from the usual fare, in part, because he took spirituality seriously and, being a priest, wrote from a Christian perspective.

In his book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, Wil Hernandez focuses the first half of his book reviewing Nouwen’s 3 movements of the spirit: The Journey Inward, The Journey Outward, and The Journey Upward (v). These movements follow directly from Nouwen’s analysis in Reaching Out. The second half of his book divides into a chapter interpreting Nouwen’s spirituality as a Spirituality of Imperfection and a chapter on Nouwen himself, A Perfect Example of Imperfection (v). Let me focus a bit on each of these chapters.

The Journey Inward

For Nouwen, the journey inward consists of “reaching out to our innermost self” moving from “loneliness to solitude” (Nouwen 1975, 21). The objective here is self-knowledge, but more importantly being comfortable in one’s own skin.  A devote Christian, like Martin Luther, might wonder if all of one’s sins had been confessed (Bainton 1995, 35), but Nouwen’s interest in self-knowledge gravitated more towards how one relates to oneself.

In the psyche ward, for example, we might caution a patient from engaging in negative self-talk—an obvious example of relating to one’s self poorly.  Comfort in solitude consists of ease in spending time alone with ourselves.  This peace with ourselves makes it more likely that we can extend this hospitality others and find a place also in our hearts for God.

Hernandez finds Nouwen’s comfort in healing with the inward journey informed by his training as a psychologist.  He writes:

“As a newly trained psychological and theologian with a concern for melding psychology and theology, Nouwen’s cultural timing could not have been better.” (9)

All knowledge is God’s knowledge. Nouwen’s “pastoral bilingualism” (16) helped him seemly integrate his training and apply it without the usual academic veneer that usually poses a barrier to common understanding.  Hernandez sees this as a “search for wholeness” which does not preclude the church’s historical focus on holiness (25).

The Journey Outward

For Nouwen, the journey outward is “reaching out to our fellow human beings” moving from “hostility to hospitality” (Nouwen 1975, 63).  Here we find ourselves engaged in ministry. Hernandez sees Nouwen combining “the ministerial tasks of healing, sustaining, and guiding” (45) and 3 shepherding functions:

“Into the overlapping roles of a pastor (one who heals the wounds of the past), a priest (one who sustains life in the present), and a prophet (one who guides others in the future)” (45).

The definitions here are clearly Nouwen’s because one normally thinks of the 3 roles anointed in the Old Testament were—the king, the priest, and the prophet—not normally defined as above[1].

In this context, hospitality is thought of as a metaphorical virtual of being open, inviting, and warm with ourselves, others, and God—a spirit of healing and welcome (Nouwen 1975, 67).  Nouwen’s use of hospitality shares a lot in common with the Hebrew concept of shalom (שָׁל֙וֹם).  In Hebrew, shalom means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10001).  Nouwen (1975, 71) writes that: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.”

Ministry in the context of Nouwen’s writing flows out of his embrace of communion both as a sacrament (participation directly in the divine presence) and as a paradigm for community. This was the heart of Nouwen’s own sense of spirituality (26-27). Nouwen is a Catholic priest for whom the daily mass centers on the Eucharist. Table-fellowship involves a higher level of intimacy and mysticism than is usually found in protestant circles. The movement from hostility to hospitality may ironically involve traveling a greater distance for Nouwen than for many others because it starts with a deeper spiritual starting point.

Nouwen (2006) found great meaning in Jesus’ words: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matt. 20:22 ESV) This is because he interpreted Jesus to mean, can you accept the suffering which my ministry requires?

The Journey Upward

For Nouwen, the journey upwards is “reaching out to our God” which involves a movement “from illusion to prayer” (Nouwen 1975, 111) [2].   Part of this illusion is the illusion of immortality (Nouwen 1975, 116).  Related is the illusion of control. Prayer becomes a destination—communion with an immortal being—which as morals we cannot travel.  God must grant prayer to us as gift (Nouwen 1975, 123).

Hernandez observes:  “we all experience a gap between what we say we believe and how we live out our belief” (58).  Nouwen sees theological reflection focused on bridging this gap, saying: “a life that is not reflected upon isn’t worth living.” (59)  Elsewhere he writes that “the original meaning of the word Theology is ‘union with God in prayer’” (67).  From this perspective, the journey from illusion most obviously begins and ends with prayer.

Hernandez sees Nouwen as integrating three things in his spirituality: psychology, ministry, and theology which then correspond to movements in solitude, ministry, and prayer. This he refers to as Nouwen’s trilogy of coinherence (71).


Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.

In part 3 of this review I will examine the second half of Hernandez’s book which outline Nouwen’s spirituality of imperfect and a bit of his personal history.


[1] The king defended the nation; the priest served primarily in the temple, and the prophet reminded the nation of obligations under the covenant—not really a forecasting idea.

[2] A Calvinist would see the movement starting with God, not us.  However, Nouwen does see prayer as a gift.


Bainton, Roland H.  1995. Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther. New York; Meridan.

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905.  Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged (Bibleworks).

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

Henri J. M. Nouwen.  2006.  Can You Drink the Cup?  Notre Dame:  Ave Maria Press.  Review (

Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 2

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Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1

Hernandez_review_part_1_08102015Hernandez, Wil. 2006. Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection. New York: Paulist Press. (Goto part 2, goto part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Sometimes we read biographies to learn about the lives of interesting people. These biographies normally shine a light into corners of life where we might normally not stray. They substitute in many respects for a castle tour or, perhaps, a dinner invitation that we never received but wished we had.

Other times we read biographies to learn more about the lives of people who have profoundly influenced us. These biographies shine a light into corners of our own lives where we live but incompletely understand. Wil Hernandez’s biography, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection, falls squarely in this latter category.

Who was Henri Nouwen?

Nouwen is known as a Roman Catholic priest from the Utrecht, The Netherlands who wrote voluminous numbers of books on the subject of spirituality. The Henri Nouwen society summarizes his life in these words:

“Born in Nijkerk, Holland, on January 24, 1932, Nouwen felt called to the priesthood at a very young age. He was ordained in 1957 as a diocesan priest and studied psychology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. In 1964 he moved to the United States to study at the Menninger Clinic. He went on to teach at the University of Notre Dame, and the Divinity Schools of Yale and Harvard. For several months during the 1970s, Nouwen lived and worked with the Trappist monks in the Abbey of the Genesee, and in the early 1980s he lived with the poor in Peru. In 1985 he was called to join L’Arche in Trosly, France, the first of over 100 communities founded by Jean Vanier where people with developmental disabilities live with assistants. A year later Nouwen came to make his home at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada. He died suddenly on September 21st, 1996, in Holland and is buried in Richmond Hill, Ontario.”[1]

An open, yet discretely kept, secret among people who knew him was that he struggled with a homosexual orientation but remained celibate in keeping with his priestly vows (126).

L’Arche Daybreak

For those unfamiliar with L’Arche Daybreak, they are a community devoted to serving “men and women with intellectual disabilities” [2].  Nouwen walked away from a brilliant career in academia, writing, and speaking to serve as the pastor to a community serving those with special needs.  For Nouwen, this commitment was “driven by a desire to close the gap between what he wrote and what he lived” (viii).

For me, L’Arche demonstrated Nouwen’s authenticity as a Christian. During my clinical pastoral education, I worked for 3 months in a psychiatric ward and another 3 months in an Alzheimer’s unit.  After a hard day in the Alzheimer’s unit one day, I remember reflecting on Nouwen’s commitment—I knew that after a season of service, I would leave the unit and return to a more typical life. Nouwen entered D’Arche, lived, and died there.  After learning about L’Arche, I never looked at Nouwen quite the same way.

Hernandez and Nouwen?

What was Hernandez’ contribution to our understanding of Henri Nouwen?  In his foreword to the book, fellow Nouwen biographer, Michael J. Christensen, writes:

“Examining Nouwen’s own movements [of the spirit], Hernandez characterizes the spiritual journey as ‘a spirituality of imperfections’. By this he means a relational spirituality of intimacy with God and a faithful wrestling with God that gradually ripens into a mature communion or ‘completeness’ with the Divine; this, rather than a conforming spirituality of moral perfectionism and victory over sin that progressively takes on the characterological likeness to God’s perfect nature.” (x)

Having read much of Nouwen’s works, I can certainly see this quality in Hernandez’s writing and his interpretation of Nouwen. However, what strikes me as most prevalent in Hernandez’ writing is his repeated references to Nouwen’s early and unique contribution being to weave spirituality, psychology, ministry, and theology together in his writing (e.g. xiii). While perhaps prior biographers may have referenced this point, it was new to me and I found it helpful insight in understanding Nouwen and his contribution.

Background and Organization

Wil Hernandez[3] lives and works in Southern California and teaches courses on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen at schools like Fuller Theological Seminary.  He writes in 5 chapters divided into 2 parts:

Part 1:  The Integrated Journey

ONE:  Journey Inward

TWO: Journey Outward

THREE: Journey Upward

Part 2: The Imperfect Journey

FOUR: Spirituality of Imperfection

FIVE: A Perfect Example of Imperfection

These chapters are preceded by a foreword, preface, acknowledgments, list of Nouwen works, and introduction. They are followed by a conclusion and notes.  No indices are included.


Wil Hernandez’s book, Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection is a helpful guide to Henri Nouwen’s many books and other writings. His focus is clearly on Nouwen’s spirituality and writing, but he also talks about Nouwen as a person. For example, although I had heard rumors about Nouwen sexual orientation, Hernandez was the first to mention in writing among my readings. Hernandez’ work is of obvious interest to Nouwen readings, especially seminarians and pastors.

In part 1 of this review, I have given an overview of the book.  In parts 2 and 3, I will look in more depth at Hernandez’ analysis of Nouwen and his writing.





Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1

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Benner Cares Spiritually Through Dialogue—Part 2

Benner_review_08072015David G. Benner. 1998.  Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. (Goto part 1)


Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

An important motive for writing my book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality[1], was the observation that the current fascination with spirituality has neglected the traditional teaching of the church. The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments outline the details of Christian spirituality, but the deeper insights in them have been lost. The idea, for example, that idolatry (forbidden in the Ten Commandments) involves setting anything other than God as the first priority in one’s life and is potentially life threatening seems lost on most Christians. The traditional teaching of the church defines Christian spirituality.


David Benner takes a similar approach. In his book, Care of Souls, he devotes essentially the first half of his book—Part 1: Understanding Soul Care—to defining the boundaries of soul care—what it is and what it is not.

For example, Benner’s definition of Christian spirituality has 9 points.  Christian spirituality:

  1. “Begins with a response of the call of Spirit to spirit
  2. Is rooted in a commitment to Jesus and a transformational approach to life
  3. Is nurtured by the means of grace
  4. Involves a deep knowing of Jesus and, through him, the Father and the Spirit
  5. Requires a deep knowing of oneself
  6. Leads to the realization of the unique self whom God ordained we should be
  7. Is uniquely developed within the context of suffering
  8. Is manifest by a sharing of the goodness of God’s love with others and in care for his creation
  9. Expresses that goodness in celebration in Christian community” (95).

Instead of leaning on church teaching in his definition as I had, Benner prefers to capture the essence of Christian spirituality in his own words.

Hard Work

Capturing the essence of Christian spirituality is surprisingly hard work.  For example, In my own walk point 5 was the most surprising. If we are indeed the temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19-20), then it should be obvious. But I did not understand the importance of self-care in caring for others until I was well into seminary.  The lesson here is that we must each struggle to define and refine our understanding of God and ourselves.

Part of the reason spiritual development is hard work is that our whole person—conscious and unconscious—is involved[1]. Benner sees our conscious self as the self of “thought, volition, and behavior” (159)—a kind of aspirational self. The unconscious self is basically everything else—stuff not chosen (or not admitted) but nevertheless part of us.  In this sense, Benner writes: “Religion is the achievement of the consciousness; spirituality is the gift of the unconscious.” (160) Working on the unconscious (or shadow) side of our personality according frees us and leaves us better integrated persons, but it also means that we must probe deeply into aspects of our history and life that we have worked hard to suppress from others, but successfully suppressed mostly from ourselves.

Unconsciousness versus Consciousness

The bondage that we experience from our history primarily inhabits our unconscious.

I remember clearly an incident one morning the hospital emergency department in 2012. I met with a young woman who had recently lost a pregnancy in a spontaneous abortion. During the first 20 minutes of our conversation, we connected and the visit went well. Pretty soon, however, we began experiencing a role reversal. I was no longer ministering to her; she was ministering to me. Visiting with her reminded me of a pregnancy that my wife, Maryam, and I had lost about 20 years prior that I had not properly grieved. Emotions welled up in me that I was entirely unaware of. I had to break off my visit with young woman and I ended up in the chapel in tears for a good long spell. My unresolved pain in losing a child prevented me from ministering properly to the woman in the emergency department.

Problem of Repressed Grief

Uncovering repressed grief is not easy.  In talking about such spiritual work, Benner writes:

“To be useful for psychospiritual growth, journal writing needs to focus on inner life, that is, on such things as feelings, fantasies, reactions, intuitions, vagrant thoughts, troubling attitudes or behaviors, and puzzling experiences.” (163)

Benner is particularly interested in dreams which have the potential to connect us with our unconscious selves.  He compares an unexamined dream to an unopened letter (173).

A lot more could be said about this book.


David Benner’s Care of Souls is an interesting and transformative text. I highly recommend this book to pastors, other Christian care givers, and Christians who want to be spiritually sensitive in their ministry and open to their own spiritual development.


Have you ever been hijacked by an unconscious emotion?  How did you respond? Do you feel that it constrained your conscious choices?


[1] A friend of mine is fond of saying:  wherever you go, you show up!

[1] For details about my book see:

Benner Cares Spiritually Through Dialogue—Part 2

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Scazzero Links Emotional and Spiritual Health

Scazzero_review_0530215Peter Scazzero.  2006.  Emotionally Healthy Spirituality:  It’s Impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The collage provides an important symbol of the postmodern era.  A collage is collection of art objects strung together  whose defining concept is balance.  The solar system is a kind of collage, but before the Copernican revolution the balance was not obvious.

The cosmos became mathematically simpler to model with the Copernican revolution.  When astronomers started seeing the earth revolving around sun rather than around the earth, the stability of the planetary system became obvious.  In a similar sense, postmodern ministry looks like a collage—pre-Copernican—until it is brought into conformity with Christ.  In his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero centers on helping pastors and Christians to travel this journey successfully.


Peter Scazzero is a founder, former senior pastor, and now teaching pastor at New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York[1].  Peter and his wife, Geri, also found Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a teaching ministry[2].  Scazzero divides his book into 2 parts:  The problem of emotionally unhealthy spirituality (chapters 1-3) and the pathway to emotionally healthy spirituality (4-10).  The chapter titles are:

  1. Recognizing the tip-of-the-iceberg spirituality (something is desperately wrong).
  2. The top ten symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality (diagnosing the problem).
  3. The radical antidote: emotional health and contemplative spirituality (bringing transformation to the deep places).
  4. Know yourself that you may know God (Becoming your authentic self).
  5. Going back in order to go forward (breaking the power of the past).
  6. Journey through the wall (letting go of power and control).
  7. Enlarge your soul through grief and loss (surrendering to your limits).
  8. Discover the rhythms of the daily office and Sabbath (stopping to breath the air of eternity).
  9. Grow into an emotionally mature adult (learning new skills to love well).
  10. Go the next step to develop a “rule of life” (loving Christ above all else) (iii-iv).

These chapters are preceded by acknowledgments and an introduction.  They are followed by 2 appendices, notes, and a short biography of the author.

If spirituality is lived belief, then a well-formed theology leads us to a complete and well-formed spirituality. God’s immutable character and emotional stability become a model for our own virtuous character and emotional stability [3].  If theology is neglected, by contrast, then we work from an incomplete model–our spirituality will have holes like an unbalanced and haphazardly constructed collage.  For many Christians, one of those holes has  been their emotional life.

Personality Components

Scazzero sees our person divide into 5 discrete components: emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, and physical (18).  Scazzero’s Copernican revolution arose in seeing a link between the emotional and spiritual components of his life (19).  An important breakthrough came in discovering that he had misapplied biblical truths in his life (23).  He accordingly cited 10 symptoms of an emotionally unhealthy spirituality:

  1. Using God to run away from God.
  2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear.
  3. Dying to the wrong things.
  4. Denying the past’s impact on the present.
  5. Dividing our lives into secular and sacred compartments.
  6. Doing for God instead of being with God.
  7. Spiritualizing away conflict.
  8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure.
  9. Living without limits.
  10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey (24).

While he devotes chapter 2 to discussing these problems, they arise in different forms throughout the book.  I too struggle with these symptoms in my own faith journey all too often.


Scazzero covers a lot of ground in this book. Nevertheless, one priceless image stands out  which Scazzero draws from Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness[4].  Scazzero likens our lives to a white-out blizzard where it is easy to get lost and freeze to death without a rope to bind us to our home. The rope that he suggests is the daily office—praying the hours (153-157). Praying the hours structures our day around God. Great analogy; good advice.  Scazzero goes on to recommend developing a Saint Benedict’s rule of life (198-200) and making use of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s prayer of examin (211).

Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is a helpful and accessible read.



[3]See, for example, Matthew A. Elliott. 2006. Faithful Feelings:  Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids:  Kregel.

[4]Parker J. Palmer. 2009.  A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Scazzero Links Emotional and Spiritual Health

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Jepson Explores Spiritual Practices in Writing Craft

Writing_as_a_Sacred_Path_01052015bJill 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.

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Why Participate in a Small Group?

Mural in Riverside Presbyterian Church
Mural in Riverside Presbyterian Church

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.

[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.


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.

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Prayer Day 9: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

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God of all wonders. We praise you for Mary’s faithfulness and Jesus’ miraculous birth. Bridge the gaps of holiness, time, and space between us. Open our minds to the miracles that we experience daily but neglect to think about. Open our hearts to accept your will for our lives. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Dios de todas las maravillosas. Te alabamos por la fidelidad de María y el nacimiento milagroso de Jesús. Puente la brecha de santidad, tiempo, y espacio entre nosotros. Abre nuestra mentes a los milagrosos que experimentamos cotidiana pero se olvidan de considerar. Abre nuestros corazones a aceptar tu voluntad por nuestras vidas. En el nombre del Padre, el Hijo, y el Espíritu Santo, Amén.

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Prayer Day 1, A Christian Guide to Spirituality By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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Almighty Father:  thank you for the person of Jesus of Nazareth; who lived as a role model for sinners; who died as a ransom for sin; and whose resurrection gives us the hope of salvation.  In the power of your Holy Spirit, inspire the words written and illumine the words read.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Padre Todopoderoso, gracias por la persona de Jesús de Nazaret, quien vivió como un modelo a seguir por los pecadores, quien murió como un rescate por los pecados y cuya resurrección da nos la esperanza de salvación. En el poder de Tu Espíritu Santo, inspire las palabras escritas y iluminar las palabras leídas, En el nombre de Jesús, Amen.

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