Sunday, December 16, 2018

A Card Deck for Centeredness (Product Review)

Mindfulness, strengths-based work, contemplation, and similar wellness-oriented activities, especially with overlap in psychology, are major areas of interest for me. I also tend to be drawn to prayer card decks.

The Untethered Soul card deck from Michael A. Singer, based on his book of the same name, caught my attention as perhaps a more secular version of this interest. These 52 cards have short phrases to inspire and help center readers.

First off, the box and cards are very well made and beautiful in their own right. It doesn't feel like a cheap paper or cardboard container or deck set. It's something that looks nice on a desk, which is exactly how I use this one. I put the lid on the base at a 90 degree angle, providing a background and display a different card each week.

The image backgrounds have a good nature basis that can be used for contemplation and almost automatically provides some relaxation. The phrases, grouped into themes, can be encouragements, inspiration, or even questions encouraging reflection. One could easily just read through all the cards and move on with life, but that would miss the point. Sitting with them for contemplation and centering work is where they're useful.

As I suspected, they do have a more secular feel in many cases. However, some cards draw from various religious traditions, albeit lightly. If someone wants encouragement from a single tradition, you'll probably want to pass on this set. However, if you're open to considering wisdom from around the world, the phrases and considerations can be a useful foundation for contemplation and meditation.

The deck's trailer provides a bit more context:



This video makes the deck seem quite new age-y/self-help-like, and it can have that feel (positively or negatively, depending on your perspective). However, I have to say I think the promises in the video are more than a bit over-stated. No card deck or phrase will be truly transformative on its own. If you view the deck as an opportunity to remind yourself to be present and reflect, then it can be useful. But the sayings aren't necessarily any more inspirational or transformative than other decks. In fact, the lack of a firm spiritual tradition or psychological rootedness may make the deck and phrases appear to have less depth or "thickness."

In any case, this can be a nice gift for a loved one or even yourself. The benefit of it not being overtly spiritual is it can be used as a gift in many contexts.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this card deck free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

This page contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through this link, we may receive a portion of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

12 Practical Celtic Spiritual Activities (Book Review)

The Celtic traditions have long held deep meaning for me. There's something about the Incarnational and holistic approach that makes it theologically and practically impactful and relevant in my mind. I have been a reader of Christine Valters Paintner's devotionals and work for a few years now, and love her spirit and wisdom.

All of this made me interested in her newly released book, The Soul's Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Practices for Seeking the Sacred. What is unique about Paintner's approach is that she provides a personal spiritual story, some historical background, biblical reflections, and concrete spiritual formation-type activities, including lectio divina and even photography, to help bring these practices home.

I also appreciate that her husband, John, regularly contributes to the reflections and applications of the practices. Another voice and perspective, albeit aligned nicely, bring additional context and wisdom to the text.

Paintner explicitly states that this book can be read from front to back, but also can be digested in any order desired. It really is that flexible, allowing the reader to dive into whatever practice is most relevant at a given moment. The subheadings and different aspects presented to each practice not only make them more concrete and readily applicable, but also provide easy moments to pause in readings and pick back up.

This isn't necessarily a book that one would read once through for lessons, although it could be used that way. Rather, it could be more of a reference tool, being picked up at different phases of life for wisdom and spiritual suggestions. There's enough variety and diversity that I can see it being useful in many contexts and phases of life.

It has enough philosophy and theology that it can have meaningful depth for those desiring traditional substance. It also has excellent practicality that it doesn't feel too "spiritual," abstract, or philosophical. The Paintners both come across as very practical to me, striking an excellent balance between Heaven and Earth.

If you're interested in Celtic traditions, this is an excellent addition, either for early explorers or even those seasoned in Celtic Christianity and spiritual formation.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

This page contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through this link, we may receive a portion of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Book Review of Brother John: A journey for meaning

A book as a contemplative spiritual experience. That would be my summary of August Turak's Brother John, a formally published and beautifully illustrated version of an essay for which he was awarded a Templeton Prize.

While many contemplative and meaning-focused texts can be quite philosophical and/or self-help-like, Brother John is an excellent example of spiritual story telling. The fact that it's a true story makes it all the more powerful. Turak's story telling is a perfect example of a spiritual biography that can inspire and encourage.

Turak provides spiritual and philosophical reflection and insights without feeling preachy or heavy-handed. He shares his story. He shares his reflections. He shares his conclusions. He offers them to the reader in case they're helpful. I think most people will find them meaningful.

A big differentiator in the text is the addition of paintings throughout the book from Glenn Harrington. Here's a preview from the trailer:



The paintings helped me slow down and engage the book as a journey. I can easily tend towards scanning texts to gain the basic points of knowledge trying to be conveyed. That's the not the point of this book, at least from my perspective. It's meant for us to reflect. Hearing Turak's personal story gave me a sense of peace after reading and motivated me to personally engage in some slower contemplative activities that I tend to put off for achievement-oriented activities.

Overall, this book felt less like reading a book and more like an experience. It's short, so it can easily be read in a single sitting, easily less than 30 minutes. But the insights will stick around longer. And I believe it's a book with visuals that one could easily come back to repeatedly.

I have to note that I also love that Turak has given the rights and proceeds from the book to the Self Knowledge Symposium Foundation (SKSF), a group he founded with his prize to help build meaning and purpose throughout the West, especially in colleges. Buying the book not only provides the reader with spiritual wisdom, but can also financially support others' journeys as well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

This page contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through this link, we may receive a portion of the sale at no additional cost to you.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: The Spirit of Simplicity

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

The Spirit of Simplicity has a compelling backstory: a 70 year old hidden text written by a famed French Cistercian, Jean-Baptiste Chautard, translated with notes by Trappist (a Cistercian branch) monk, Thomas Merton. In a world of complexity and loudness, simplicity for our lives and souls is compelling and increasingly popular.

The text itself is short: 114 pages of content, including 14 illustrations of monasteries, and 23 pages of notes from Merton. It is broken into two parts: The first being the aforementioned translation of Chautard’s The Spirit of Simplicity and the second excerpts from writings and speeches of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a leader of the Cistercian order, on the topic of interior simplicity, with added commentary by Merton. From a readability standpoint, the reader must remember this text’s place in history: Part 1 was written in 1920s French, translated into 1940s English, both with a target audience of the theologically trained monastic community. Bernard died in 1153. For readers familiar with dense mystical and theological texts, this time will seem familiar and accessible. For those looking for a simplicity self-help book, it will be a grind.

These kind of expectations is where the key focus of satisfaction with the book will be. This book may be most valuable as an insight into the history of the Cistercian order and its accompanying theological values. Its applicability to a lot of modern Christian life is limited, and many will disagree with many of the principles underlying some of the specific applications of simplicity.

A definition of simplicity may be helpful in assessing the book. In his foreword, Merton states, “simplicity may be defined as a constant and unchanging desire for one object and him alone… In the strict sense, simplicity is the perfect conversion of the will to God, asking one thing of God, and desiring that alone, and not going forth and multiplying itself in the world” (p. xviii). This is a laudable definition, albeit ironically complicated to explain simplicity, emphasizing what a difficult concept it is, especially in practice.

Repeatedly through all sections, the writers emphasize that simplicity is intended to bring union with God and the love of God. This may not be intuitive to many people, especially when exploring intellectual simplicity, a section in Part 2. In fact, Merton explicitly states that our intellect is to help us love: “Hence, simplicity in the intellectual order means subordinating all our knowledge to the LOVE OF GOD. We study in order to love” (85). What if we always thought of the principle of study and academia as helping us love?

This quote also reflects the reason for the process of simplicity: Subordination to God. Humility is the term often used to refer to this process, but it does not refer to general humility. Rather, it is humbling (subordinating) ourselves before God. Simplicity helps us to see God as supreme and sufficient, while helping us be obedient to God’s will. This is easier when not distracted by many things of life.

This moves us to what can be considered the limitations of this book: They are focused on a monastic life, which 1) not everyone lives and 2) not everyone agrees is theologically appropriate.

First to 1: This text was written to Cistercian monks. In Part 1, Chautard notes, “It is therefore a matter of obligation for us Cistercians to return often to the study of our ancient Rule, so that we may never forget the fundamental spirit of our reform to which the Church thought it not amiss to grant the title of a true religious order” (p. 12). This seems to provide the intent of his text. The entire focus is reminding his monastic brothers of their proper behaviors, calling them back to the core intent. Merton’s annotations and additions of Bernard’s writings fall into this same focus. If the reader is not a Cistercian monks, the directions will have limited utility, as they are often very behavioral in the context of Cistercian monasticism.

This brand of monasticism advocates for virtually complete withdrawal from society and people gets to point 2 (whether such withdrawal is really intended). To be fair to this spiritual tradition, it is wise to listen to those who promote it to truly understand the goal. The intent is quite holy, seeing to be more like Christ: “The soul of the monk is to reproduce the inner life of his master [Christ] by observing this Rule. That is all” (21). Indeed, all Christians should seek to reproduce the inner life of Christ. The Cistercian model advocates that the best way to do this is through both internally and external simplicity, stripping away as much as is possible. Chautard explains this by stating, “The monk detaches himself from everything that might weigh him down and bind him to the earth. He wants to be simple, not mixed up with the things that are below him” (9). It is hard to argue with this logic in many ways, as life can be distracting. Merton phrases it differently, but again points to separateness from the world as the way to find God: “The whole aim of the Cistercian life—and the fathers of the order are unanimous on this point—is to set men apart from the world that their souls may be purified and led step by step to perfect union with God by the recovery of our lost likeness to him” (71).

Likely all contemplative models and even most general spiritual development perspectives advocate for times of alone. Looking to Christ’s behavior, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, reinforce this. Indeed, contemplation and slowing facilitates the mystical experiences that the writers are honorably pursuing. However, this monastic approach advocates for this isolation full-time. Many would argue that this is contrary to Christ’s intent, especially when looking at the Great Commission. A balance of the extreme Cistercian version of simplicity with engagement in the world seems a more accurate reflection of Christlikeness.

For readers who want to better understand some spiritual perspectives, especially in the flow of the history of Western Christianity, this is a useful book. If you’re looking for spiritual guidance and inspiration around simplicity, another book in the spiritual formation genre or on contemplation would be more helpful.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Review: Developing the Bible and Faith Through Story

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Books on the Bible are a dime a dozen, with some worth even less than that. Much ink has been spilled on the nature of the Bible and interpretations of various passages. Often, these books are either overly academic, unrelatable to many readers, or intellectually unsupported.

Rob Bell's latest text, What is the Bible?, is none of these things. In his book, Bell tackles a variety of Scripture passages in order to better help us understand the fundamental nature of the modern Christian Bible. In short, Bell actually answers his book's titular question with its subtitle: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything. The Bible is intended to transform our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions through a variety of narrative methods in order to better respond to the world we live in.

In typical Bell style, What is the Bible? is broken up into highly readable and digestable chapters clustered into multiple parts that form an overarching narrative. Initially, the first few chapters were interesting and thought provoking regarding the specific passages being interpreted. However, they seemed disconnected from a larger coherent thesis. It takes most of Part 1 for Bell to really start making his core argument.

At first this approach was annoying and off-putting. The book seemed more helpful as an encyclopedia-type resource that could be helpful in interpreting particular Scriptures. This is not a bad thing in itself, but not exactly how the book seems to be advertised. However, as the pieces came more clearly together, the final effect was far more powerful than a traditional exposition on the nature of the Bible. Interestingly, this approach somewhat mirrors the way Scripture powerfully shares the transformative power of Yahweh and the Gospel--individual stories that don't always seem to connect, but still tell a deeper, developing tale.

Growth and development is really core to Bell's understanding of the Bible. Central to his interpretations of passages are the iterative steps needed to help humans move to new levels of understanding themselves, their neighbors, and the world. This hermeneutic provides compassion for people and situations that are otherwise easy to judge. Building compassion is one of the core traits that God is trying to build in people, so having compassion for our spiritual ancestors is a good place to start. However, a developmental approach to the Bible seems to consistently not be easy for humanity. We tend to take more of a stagnant approach to understanding all things spiritual, trying to make the case for a single perspective and set of laws that are good for all people of all ages in all places in all times. We don't do this with any other part of human development, recognizing the many variables that impact our development (or lack thereof). And when we recognize development has been limited, we can often acknowledge the contextual factors, giving us a chance to better understand where someone is coming from and have compassion on them.

Development, growth, and change, both as individuals and a species, are normal for all parts of humanity. Remembering that this applies to our spiritual lives can be transformative in how we see ourselves, others, and the Bible. Bell actually ends the entire book (even after the traditional Endnotes) with a section entitled A Note on Growing and Changing. He emphasizes this central role of growth and change, providing encouragement to those who may have experienced development, but whose communities may be uncomfortable with the change. Part of this encouragement also builds compassion for ourselves and what was helpful before, recognizing that what was useful at one point in our lives may not be now. This approach might help us better integrate our many lifetime spiritual influences.

This developmental view is similar to Peter Enns' perspective presented in The Bible Tells Me So. Both men use helpful subtitles to clarify their purposes. Enns' is Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. Enns is really more focused on helping us be more open to reading the Bible as it is. He includes a bit more scholarship related to biblical interpretation, as this is the core of his text (plus it's more of his background). Bell, on the other hand, is a storyteller at his core, and his theme is more helping us better understand ourselves and our world. Both authors use some similar language to talk about the Bible, and they have similar, accessible, digestable writing styles. These two books could be good as complementary texts, and do not necessarily duplicate efforts.

As noted, Bell is a storyteller. He is famous for his engaging, thoughtful, and moving oration and writing, and this book is no different. His style and approach is consistent with his past work, so readers who like his style will not be disappointed. He effectively brings biblical passages to life in a way few others can. It also works very well in this book, as his writing approach creates an accessibility and relationality that reduces defensiveness, creates intrigue, and invites questions. This is exactly what Bell wants in this book: He wants readers of the Bible to ask questions. Lots of questions. And some of his final chapters are focused on helping people ask good questions.

Bell's book is titled with a question, but he doesn't directly answer the question. In fact, it's a question that is likely unanswerable in a concise, direct approach. A book entitled What is the Bible? seems to be one that would have a lot of direct exposition to provide great clarity on such important topics as the nature of the Bible. However, true to Bell's style (and frankly the way the Bible and Jesus taught), the answers are provided through story, specifically helping us better understand individual stories in the Bible and how they connect as part of a larger story. There is a section where Bell more directly answers questions. In fact, it's about a quarter of the book. But this section is the end. Even the more direct analysis and argument is explained through story. In many traditional contexts, the exposition comes first, with stories used as illustrations and clarifications. However, a traditional approach would not have been as effective, as it likely would have put readers more in their heads, preparing intellectual arguments for or against. Bell's story first style creates a situation that is far more powerful than traditional argumentation. He is not merely making a scholarly, academic, intellectual claim. By putting answers to questions at the end, Bell is bringing readers along into a spiritual life that must be experienced to be understood.

What is the Bible? is a strong entry in both Bell's library as well as the general discussion of biblical understanding. He has a well-educated, but accessible style that makes challenging concepts more easily digestable. However, this text is no pop spirituality or pop theology text. It provides appropriately informed reflections that lead to solid new insights that can contribute to our on-going spiritual development through the value of biblical and modern story.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, July 3, 2017

Level Up the Tribe

For those interested, I gave the sermon at our church this weekend, entitled Level Up the Tribe. It's about God continuing to encourage our individual and group growth and development, moving towards unity and collective good over competition, domination, and hierarchy.

Here is an audio version: https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/fbcr/episodes/2017-07-02T16_10_16-07_00

And a video version:
https://www.facebook.com/fbcredlands/videos/1592785264079445/?hc_location=ufi

Monday, January 30, 2017

Whose Life is More Important?

https://www.trinitystores.com/store/art-image/christ-maryknoll
Back in November 2015, I wrote a post asking, "Is the cost of security and self-preservation worth it?" This seems particularly relevant with the latest executive orders, so I've decided to repost it below. I think it's of significant note that the refugees and immigrants being banned are not those who are threats to us, which seriously undermines any security argument.

Here is a sermon from a guest at our church with first hand experience of having Syrian refugees move into her neighborhood. An audio-only version is also available.

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Security has become a bit of a conversational past time the last couple of weeks. The Syrian refugee crisis and Paris attacks have, of course, brought this to a significant head. But the issue is not new and comes up with various issues, including gun control, police force, just war theory, etc.

My problem is that, like many issues, we have dichotomized the sides, which doesn't help any solution-finding. We need to validate that a sense of security for ourselves is important. But security for other people is important, too.

Assuming refugees pose various dangers to us (on Monday, I talked about my personal experience with Muslim peacemakers), is our safety more important than the safety of the refugees? Should we be putting our needs and (more commonly) comfort about the basic (often life and death-related) needs of others? It's human nature to do so, so it's understandable, but is it what we should strive to do?

When we start denying people asylum in order to protect ourselves from potential (not guaranteed) cultural changes and potential (again, not guaranteed) attacks, we should also not place these as opposites and acknowledge the true costs. Few people want cultural change, and no one wants the safety of their loved ones and themselves to be put at risk.

What we are saying is that maintaining our culture as it is is worth hundreds of thousands of lives of the Other who have no safe place to go. We are willing to let hundreds of thousands of innocent people live in limbo with a horrible quality of life with many likely dying in order to maintain a status quo culture and give us a sense of security. Is that cost worth it?

Let's assume for a moment that denying refugees prevents another 9/11-like attack, so we have saved 3,000 American lives. The cost is hundreds of thousands of refugees' lives. All are innocent victims. All would be tragedies. So are our lives worth more than theirs? What does it say about our value system that we put psychological security above human rights? The problem is the cost of denying refugees isn't ours to pay, at least in the short term and materialistically. It's theirs. But it's ultimately our cost morally.

What is our obligation to our fellow human? When do we put ourselves at risk in order to reduce the risk to someone else?

Should security be pursued at all costs? Is self-preservation or (wise) self-sacrifice for the sake of another the higher goal? 

Questions?

Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).