Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: INVITATION TO RETREAT by Ruth Haley Barton

I’ve never read a book by Ruth Haley Barton that didn’t speak to my heart, and this is no exception.  Being a teacher of and on retreats, and a regular retreatant myself, I was looking forward to reading this small but helpful guide to the how’s and why’s of making a retreat.

For many Christians, especially Protestants, retreats are foreign, something made by Roman Catholics or disguised as preaching or evangelistic events.  Those are certainly legitimate and useful, but Barton’s subtitle, “The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God” hits the nail on the head of what a retreat should be.

The book is divided into four sections, introducing the concept of true retreat, preparing ourselves for retreat, what to undertake during retreat, and how we move back into day-to-day living from retreat.  Each of the twelve chapters offers practical assistance to the retreatant in terms of preparation and execution of the retreat.  Two appendices are offered for guidelines for fixed-hour prayers and planning a retreat.

For the person considering a retreat but not sure where to start, this book is a good place to start.  It helps us know ourselves as individual followers of Jesus as well as giving us tools for introspection when gearing up for a retreat and actually being away.  Among the key learnings, of which there are many, is to understand oneself as being able to be off-limits to anyone but God during that time, that none of us is indispensable.  Needing to be connected, 24/7, is often one of the biggest hurdles to an effective retreat, and Barton reminds the reader that such disordered attachments are not helpful to connecting fully with God.

Retreat is one of the main gateways to true spiritual freedom.  This book is a helpful guide in aiding us to achieve the true spiritual freedom the Lord seeks for us.

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat:  The Gift and Necessity of Time Away With God (IVP, 2018), ISBN 978-0-8308-4646-7.  I am grateful to Martin at Parasource for the desk copy he provided for me.  The book is available at most Christian retail outlets, including the Tyndale Bookstore in Toronto.

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Book Reviews

BOOK REVIEW: “SPIRITUAL FRIENDSHIP” by Norm Allen

Knowing my interest in spiritual formation, a friend and colleague gave me this book, written by a friend of his. Intrigued by the subtitle (“The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others”), and the brevity of the book (it’s a quick read at about 100 pages), I jumped right in.

The author is the founder of Touchstone Ministries in Orangeville, Ontario. His business is to nurture friendships among Christians in leadership in various walks of life, and his book illustrates why that is important to him, and hopefully, to the rest of us.

Spiritual friendship is a model of spiritual formation that can complement other ways of going deeper with God. To illustrate his51NNE34MOLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ understanding of this model, Allen draws from the rich breadth of Christian tradition – from the Celts to C.S. Lewis to Miroslav Volf . He tells many stories of his own experiences in spiritual friendship that have both blessed and challenged him (as any good friendship should).

We may say we have a lot of friends, when in reality what we probably have is a lot of acquaintances. How many others know us at the depth of our being? There are no gold stars for the number of friends we have who can read us like a book, of course, but there is great value in having at least one friend with whom we can share deeply, and mutually. It becomes easy for hard sharing to be one-sided, where one person becomes vulnerable and the other simply listens. But in order for a spiritual friendship to be truly mutual, it must involve both parties sharing deeply – not in an attempt to one-up the other, but to be transparent and honest with the other.

Spiritual Friendship will challenge and encourage you to find and engage in a friendship with another Christian who will walk with you as you walk with God. I recommend you pick it up.

Spiritual Friendship: The Art of Being Friends With God and a Few Others by Norm Allen, published in 2012 by Clements Publishing Group, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-926798-08-0.

Biblical Messages

“Instant” Spirituality?

When we want something, we want it now, don’t we?  While that can work for coffee, our spiritual formation doesn’t happen so quickly.  415AQMKJ3WL._SY450_

Robert Mulholland, Jr., in Invitation to a Journey (IVP, 1993) defines spiritual formation as a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.  In this message, based on Ephesians 1.3-8, we explore what this understanding of spiritual formation means for us as followers of Jesus.  You can listen to it by clicking here.  The initial noises you hear are my Keurig machine making me a cup of coffee…instantly.

The video that’s shown near the end of the message can be viewed here.

Musings

Summer Reading 2013

Summer is often a time when we can slow down and do things we really enjoy.  For me, one of those things is reading.  It’s been a while since I suggested some good summer reading for you, so I’ll take the opportunity to do that now.  Of course, you could read these at any time of the year you wish!  But here’s a short list of books that will help build your faith and encourage you in your growing walk with the Lord.  I put this list in our church’s summer edition of the newsletter.

Ruth Haley Barton,  Invitation to Silence and Solitude (InterVarsity Press, 2010)

Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms (InterVarsity Press, 2006)

Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

These three books by Barton give a good introduction to practical ways to be formed spiritually in the Lord.  It is her video study we’re doing throughout much of June and July at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton.  I have heard her speak in person, and her writing is just as compelling.  She has been a ground-breaking writer in the field of spiritual formation for many Christians.  Her writing style is easy to read and you’ll find great helps for building your faith.

Michael Mangis, Signature Sins (InterVarsity Press, 2008)

Mangis’ thesis in this book is that the seven “deadly” sins, as they once were called, can be seen as the foundational sins from which our typical sin patterns emerge.  It’s likely, he says, that we each have a “signature” sin from among the seven.  What we often find ourselves confessing is not sin but symptoms of sin, and that, as Dallas Willard said, we tend to engage in sin management more than anything else.  Each chapter closes with useful questions for reflection, and there is a group study guide at the back.

Robert Mulholland, Invitation to a Journey (InterVarsity Press, 1993)

While this book is by no means new, it is an excellent overview of what it means to be formed in Christ.  Mulholland correctly identifies that our spiritual formation is not something we do just for ourselves, but that it happens for the sake of others.

These are just a few books that can accompany you to the real or virtual hammock this summer.  Enjoy the rest, and remember to keep growing!

Encouragement From The Word

What do you want Jesus to do for you?

At St. Paul’s, Nobleton, we have a small group discussing a video series by Ruth Haley Barton entitled Sacred Rhythms, based on her book of the same title.  In lastBlind Bartimaeus Mark 10:46-52 night’s introductory study, we looked at the story of Bartimaeus in Mark 10.46-52.  In it, Jesus asks a deeply probing question:  “What do you want me to do for you?” (v. 51).

Most of the time, when we read Scripture, we read it to gather information.  Yet we can read Scripture to shape our lives.  As I’ve been known to say, information fills the mind, but formation shapes the person.  We can read the story of Bartimaeus to learn about the plight of the blind in the first century, and we can read it to place ourselves in the story, even opening ourselves to have Jesus ask us, “What do you want me to do for you?

Have you ever considered that?  Have you ever opened yourself to express your deepest desires to Jesus?

Because Jesus is God, he already knows our deepest desires, but there is something powerful, something intimate, about expressing them ourselves.  It’s like telling our spouse what we want to experience sexually – it’s that intimate, and arguably more so.

Perhaps that can be, today, your entry point into a more intimate relationship with the Lord.  Sit quietly as you ponder what you most want from the Lord.  Take time to tell him your deepest desires.  Allow yourself to be shaped by the Holy Spirit as you express them.

Why not do it right now?

Encouragement From The Word

Mission in God’s Big World

As you read this, I will be en route to Bangalore, India, where I will be providing spiritual direction to pastors and students (and possibly their family members) at the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies.  A team of six of us are helping to equip leaders of churches with new tools for spiritual formation.

This is a new thing for me.  And as I’ve told my congregation, it’s way outside my comfort zone.  The last few days of preparation were remarkably difficult, because my dear wife and I, in twenty years of marriage, have never been apart for three consecutive weeks before!  However, I pressed on, because I know God is in this in a powerful way.

One of the things I know this trip will teach me is just how global the church really is.  Never having flown farther than Vancouver before, I know this will stretch my picture of human society and enhance my understanding of what God can do in the world.

In that sense, I will almost certainly receive more than I give in this trip, but I hope to make a contribution to the Asian church as it enriches its understanding of spiritual formation.

God is at work all around the world.  While we in the North American church lament the closure of congregations and bicker over points of biblical interpretation and theological practice, the church in Asia bustles with excitement and activity.  People come to know Christ every day.  And I’m excited that I get to be part of that for just a few weeks.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28.19-20, NIV).  Wherever in the world you go to make disciples, know that the Lord is with you.

Please keep our team in your prayers.

Musings

“I don’t have time” or “It’s not a priority”?

After seeing a friend’s Facebook status the other day, I chose to write about how “I don’t have time” versus “It’s not a priority” relates to God’s invitation to being…

Based on the comments I received on the theme of last Sunday’s message, I get the sense that many of you are living the harried life!  Several of you spoke of how the shaken, cloudy water resonated with you.  I know what you mean.   But where does it go from here?

It’s one thing for us to commiserate, but quite another to do something about the problem.  That’s the hard part, isn’t it?  Most of us simply shrug our shoulders and say, “I don’t have the time,” when in reality, what we might better say is, “It’s not a priority.”

I’ve often wanted to try an experiment.  (I’ve wanted to, but have regularly said, “I don’t have the time!”)  I’d love to take a typical day and chronicle everything – everything – I do, and write it down so I could see where my time is really being spent.  It wouldn’t just be writing down “work” from 9 to 5 (or whatever), but denoting exactly what comprised that “work”.  Something tells me that if any of us did that, we might be a trifle surprised, maybe even humbled, by the results.  But that would be a great way to begin the process of prioritization.

Hopefully, you want to make time to just “be” with the Lord.  Rather than say, “I don’t have time to just ‘be’ with the Lord,” try saying, “I don’t make it a priority to just ‘be’ with the Lord.”  Ouch.  Trouble is, we often find ourselves with an even odder conundrum:  we don’t make it a priority to re-order our priorities.  Maybe that’s the place to start.

Even if you don’t bother to try my little experiment noted above, clear an hour from your schedule.  Sit in a quiet place, in a comfortable, upright position.  Take a notebook, or a sheet of paper, and write down the major things that are part of a typical day, and a typical week, for you.  There will be sub-categories, of course, but among your major categories might be such things as sleeping, eating, working, spending time with people you love, and having fun.  How would you prioritize these?

Clearly, earning a living is important, unless you’re already retired (which leaves you with more free time, at least in theory).  Sleeping is also important, since you need rest in order to be able to function fully.  Spending time with people you love matters, too, because your marriage (if you are married) is foundational not just to your own family but to all of society; your kids and other family members are important, too.  And we all need fun once in a while.  So where do we fit God into this scenario?

Ideally, God is part of every part of your day (and he is, whether we realize it or not).  But where do we fit intentional time with the Lord into this picture?

Something else you should gauge among the things you do in the day is the time you waste.  Most of us waste some time during each day; some of us are really good at it!  A friend of mine, who was struggling to find enough time to spend with the Lord, decided to cut out the 11:00 news at night, which, she reasoned, sent her to bed flustered anyway.  That produced a minimum of an extra three-and-a-half hours each week that she could spend with the Lord.

I’m confident that each of us, if we see time with God as a priority instead of just another thing to add to the list, can deepen our walk with the Lord through quality time sitting in his presence.  May God bless you as you work on your priorities!