Friday, July 28, 2006

Book Review: Sacred Rhythms

For my Spiritual Experiments small group this semester, I built my own curriculum using a number of different resources. Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton was a book from the new Formatio line of InterVarsity Press that I picked up to use as a reference/resource. Barton has served at several churches, including Willow Creek Community Church, and I have enjoyed listening to her conference talks on spiritual formation.

Barton opened the book with the story of Blind Bartimaus and Jesus' question, "What do you want me to do for you?" That was really exciting because I love that passage and preached on it about a year ago. But then, the chapter became very difficult for me to "get." I just had a problem understanding and relating to the author and the topic as it was presented. The language seemed very distant from my experience and rather inaccesible to me.

My academic background is engineering and my personality is ENTJ with pretty high energy. I get all weirded out and insecure around contemplative types because they seem so holy and I seem so...well...spastic. So when I read stuff like, "When we pay attention to our longing and allow questions about our longing to strip away the outer layers of self-definition, we are tapping into the deepest dynamic of the spiritual life," my initial reaction is, ..."huh?" Granted, that probably shows just how much I needed to slow down, recognize my own shallowness, and read this book. But it was still rather difficult for me.

Once the book got rolling, I really enjoyed the individual chapters. Maybe it's because they were a little less touchy-feely and a little more practical. Maybe it's because I was beginning to understand the languauge of the author a little better. Maybe it's because I was actually getting in touch with my "longings." Who knows.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Self-Examination: Bringing My Whole Self Before God and A Rule of Life: Cultivating Rhythms for Spiritual Transformation. When I ask people how they grow spiritually, I am amazed at how often the responses involved things like self-assessment, goal setting, etc. Barton introduced the Ignatian Examen in a way that is palatable to modern-day readers. Rhythm is important for leaders, and establishing a rule of life, a spiritual formation strategy, or a spiritual rhythm, is absolutely critical.

Barton's chapter on Sabbath was honest, transparent, and very challenging.

The chapter on Honoring the Body was especially challenging and extremely important for our generation and culture.

Her explanation of Lectio Divina was very helpful, and I will actually be using some of that material in our Journey small group.

My favorite part of the book was Appendix C: Choosing Spiritual Disciplines That Correspond to Our Needs. Barton lists sins or negative personality traits and patterns with corresponding spiritual disciplines that can be implemented to help us grow in those areas. This table is extremely helpful when crafting a spiritual development plan or rule of life.

I guess this was the bottom line for me. It was good for me personally, but I didn't use it a lot within the group setting. Every time I read it, I thought, "This is why we don't see more men involved in contemplative spiritual life." I felt like John Ortberg's The Life You've Always Wanted fit more with my personality and leadership style. However, it was good for me to read because it stretched me and forced me to look at my complete inability to slow down and just be with God without thinking about small groups, sermon series, leaders, etc. There were very contemplative types in the group who would love this book, and I recommended it to them. So here's my final recommendation:

If you are a man, read John Ortberg's The Life You've Always Wanted.

If you are an extravert, have trouble sitting still, have lots of energy, have trouble praying, etc., read John Ortberg's The Life You've Always Wanted.

If you are all of the above and have read Ortberg's book, read Barton's Sacred Rhythms to stretch yourself.

If you are a contemplative type, read Barton's Sacred Rhythms.

If you long for silence, solitude, and a slower pace of life, read Sacred Rhythms. You will most likely find it a breath of fresh air and be thankful that someone "gets" you and your needs and gives you permission to be exactly how God has created you.


At 1:25 PM, Blogger Elaine B said...

But just to push back a little regarding contemplative spiritual men, some of the greatest contemplatives have been men. St. Francis, Brother Lawrence, Henri Nouwen.
I think that our culture is inherently hostile towards contemplation. And I think women are probably better at "faking it" and therefore seem more contemplative than they are.
My point is, I see this as a culture thing, not a gender thing. Focusing on getting men involved is a good thing, but maybe we need to focus on changing the culture as a whole so men and women have space for this.

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Heather Z said...

Good points, Elaine. The contemplative leaders of church history were certainly male-heavy. But I think there is a difference in being "contemplative" and being "emotional." There is definitely a sense of inward peace and reflection in the writings of Brother Lawrence and Nouwen. But I've never seen it as emotional. I think that's where things get scary for a lot of left-brainers and a lot of men (who are typically more left-brained).

David Murrow probably does a better job explaining it in "Why Men Hate Going to Church."

But definitely agree about being counter-cultural and helping people understand their need for contemplative space in their lives-- regardless of their spiritual wiring.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Heather Z said...

Oh yeah-- Elaine, I would be interested in your thoughts on Soul Feast. I know you used that in a group once, and it was on my list for this summer. But I never got around to getting it and reading it.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Elaine B said...

Heather, that's a good point. I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on its emotional content, but there are definitely writers (male and female) who cater to women with especially emotional writing. I don't personally care for that myself. :)
I do think that contemplation is important for every Christian, even left-brained ones. The only difference is how everyone accomplishes it. I prefer to meditate without words, or to pray via playing the piano, while someone else might meditate on Scripture. The important thing is the time for meditation and space.
I can't compare Soul Feast with the book you mentioned, since I haven't read your book, but I really enjoyed Soul Feast. I thought it was much less feminine/emotional than a book by Kay Arthur or Beth Moore. It is pretty much a "how-to" book, focusing on how to practice the disciplines, and it does have some guidelines for creating a spiritual discipline routine. I found that chapter to be the least practical and hands-on however. I tried reading Celebration of Discipline and never got through it-I thought it was boring. But Soul Feast was definitely not boring. :)

At 10:31 AM, Blogger Andrew said...

I'm just finishing the book right now as part of a graduate program at a Christian college near Minneapolis, Minnesota.

I find the author clearly approaches the topic of relationship with God from a feminine perspective (reflecting her desire to give and receive love). This is not necessarily a bad approach, but the reader should be aware of it, and of its limitations. A major premise she presents is an assumption that a desire to love and to be loved is universal among all people. She does not address the fact that men and women view love differently, and that, for men, one's most basic desire may be to honor and respect God--something which is an act of love, but would not be defined (by most men) as a desire to love or be loved--and to be used by God.

I was also troubled by some of the components of her recommended "Practice" sections. Although she insists that she is not espousing practices based on eastern mysiticism, I believe the influence is clearly there, with the focus on breathing, physical relaxation, repeated phrases, and visualization. The entire concept of "breath prayers" seems pulled from thin air. There is no scriptural reference to support the practice (as described), nor any reference to any early church teaching on the subject. The concept of having a recurring prayer to which one returns throughout during the day *can* be a good one, but recommending this specific practice troubles me.

In the book, Barton writes, "Imagine that in response to your cry, Jesus turns to you...and hear his question addressed to you: 'What do you want me to do for you?'"

That also raises another red flag in my thinking: that Jesus is depicted as being there solely to meet our needs. While it is true that God will meet our needs, and that he wants us to share our most intimate thoughts with him, including the desires of our hearts, I do not believe that this should be our initial thought as we attempt to commune with God. Rather, I believe we must begin with holy reverence for God. Should he choose to ask something of us, then we should respond. Once our relationship with him is founded and ongoing, there will be many opportunities to share our needs, but I felt that Barton's approach relegates Jesus to the status of being a divine vending machine.

A final thing that caused me to be cautious while reading this book occurred early on (p.27), when the author uses the story of the paralytic at the pool (John 5) to suggest we often do not want something enough to change. She states that the paralytic was "full of excuses" when asked by Jesus if he wanted to be well. That, in and of itself, is imposing a very specific and subjective interpretation of the parlytic's response. She goes further, however, suggesting that, after Jesus told him [the paralytic] to walk, "[he] reached within himself to that place of deep desire and deep faith and did what he was told." This places the success of his healing on the man's willingness to "[reach] within himself"! This is the same mentality presented by those who argue that those who are not healed simply do not have enough faith. What if the man failed to reach within and find this desire and deep faith? Would it have stopped God's power?

I do not mean to imply that the book is without worth, but it should not be accepted without a cautious mind. It has surely encouraged me to be more deliberate in my relationship with God, but much of the suggested practicum veers too much toward eastern mysticism for me to allow it to be used broadly as a tool for spiritual formation.


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