Monday, October 31, 2011

"Marriage Spirituality" by R Paul Stevens

TITLE: Marriage Spirituality - Ten Disciplines for Couples Who Love God
AUTHOR: R. Paul Stevens
PUBLISHER: Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1989, (165 pages).

With his huge experience as pastor, seminarian, counselor, and of course, a married man, Stevens is certainly one we can learn from, with regards to marriage. Written with the Christian believer in mind, Stevens selects ten disciplines for couples to practice together. He believes that faith strengthens Christian marriages. For Stevens,

"To be married means to have our privacy invaded, to live dangerously close to another sinner, to be interfered with by someone who claims to love us but does not always know how. Yet to be married also means to celebrate a sacrament every day, all day, through everything we share, even when we are not together." (14)

The underlying conviction the author has is the need for husbands and wives to cultivate spiritual friendship with each other. Before this can happen, six barriers have to be addressed:
  1. 'Too many agendas': that sucks away time and energy to prayer;
  2. 'Overfamiliarity': that couples are not sensitive to fresh insights from each other;
  3. 'History of mutual sin and forgiveness': seeking each other's forgiveness is hard;
  4. 'Unresolved problems': unhealthy tendency to wait (forver) for problem to be resolved BEFORE any talk of spiritual togetherness;
  5. 'Afraid of intimacy': Fear of letting spouse into the insecurities of oneself;
  6. 'Complicated structure': the need for couples to see their marriage unique relationship in itself.
Simply put, the way forward is to let the marriage relationship become a 'response' to God's grace in the couple's life. The author suggests several ways to do the ten disciplines. One way is by taking an intentional 10-week experiment on developing spiritual friendship. Another way is through small couple mentoring program where two or three couples meet together regularly to encourage one another. Others include weekend retreats, teaching sessions or through sermons over the pulpit. The key is not to 'solve' but to share the journey.

The ten disciplines are:
  1. Prayer that shares a special intimacy with God and each other.
  2. Conversation that involves listening to the heart.
  3. Sabbath that learns to rest, leisure, and play together.
  4. Retreat that encourages solitude together as a couple.
  5. Study to train the couple's ability to listen to God.
  6. Service to serve together.
  7. Sexual Fasting to learn to attempt to focus on resolving a particular spiritual matter.
  8. Obedience in doing God's will together.
  9. Confession to enable healing.
  10. Mutual Submission to affirm the equal relationship of both spouses.
My Comments

This is a lovely book to read as a couple. The strength lies in the application aspects where the author details the steps to practice the discipline. For example, the 'putting into practice' is not only realistic but covers practical details of a typical busy life. The author shows an astute understanding of marital challenges, and writes in a very encouraging manner. Personally, I feel that ten disciplines are a little too much. The disciplines are important. However, the book will benefit more if it focuses on say 5-7 of them. For instance, prayer and conversation can be combined. Confession and Mutual Submission goes hand in hand. The same goes for Sabbath and Retreat. In its current form, the book is best used for a teaching course rather than a marriage manual for couples spiritual friendship. If there is another title, I will certainly suggest: "Cultivating Spiritual Friendship in Marriages."

I recommend this book for Christian couples, especially those where both spouses are active in Church or work in a Christian organization.

Ratings: 4 stars of 5.


Monday, October 24, 2011

"Journaling as a Spiritual Practice" by Helen Cepero

TITLE: Journaling as a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God Through Attentive Writing
AUTHOR: Helen Cepero
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008.

Write with a purpose toward knowing God and self. This is the key theme in this book. The author is a director for Spiritual Formation, and shares brilliant insights on how journaling can become a spiritual practice. She writes:
All spiritual disciplines and practices, including journaling, are about learning to be aware and awake, open to God, ourselves and the world around us. Journaling is meant to give clarity to your day and rest to your night, reminding you even when you are not writing in your journal that God is there with you, in and through it all.” (12)
The purpose:

“Our true goal is a deeper relationship with the God who longs to meet us at the heart of all that we were and are and hope to be. Attention to our own reality - our dreams and our wounds, our desires and our hopes, our friends and our enemies, our past, our present and our future - is not for its own sake, but to tune our hearts to hear God’s transforming Word for us.” (12)
Unlike general writing, spiritual journaling begins with God. When one writes, one writes by honing attentiveness on the presence of God, expressed through our writing.
Like all spiritual practices, it begins with the trust that God is active at the heart of our lives and the life of the world. It begins with our openness to trusting in the transforming power of Christ’s Spirit to lead us closer to our true selves and to God. As we regularly and intentionally pray in this way, we discover that ‘God is already present in the hidden depths of the present moment; it is just because we were skimming along across the surface of what is happening that we were unable to know and rest in that presence.’” (20)
About the Book
The author begins with an introduction of what journaling as a spiritual practice looks like, giving tips as to the timing, the place, the kinds of journal materials, and suggestions for overcoming the writer’s block.

In chapter 2, she urges us to just start writing.
Doubt, fear, faith struggles and feelings of insignificance can all cripple our journaling practice if they stay locked within us. But if we allow all of this to flow out of us and onto the page, we just might find our way through to a life lived with God, as well as a new sense of self-knowledge. If we wait until we can get our faith lives ‘right’ or make sure our motivations are unmixed or keep our minds and hearts clear, we will never begin a true spiritual practice at all. The journal is a starting place for dealing with all the faith struggles that are still going on, the doubts that linger and the fears that lurk. Saying them ‘aloud’ on the page helps us find the courage to continue, courage that is rooted not in our personal effort but in God’s eternal love for each of us.” (30)

In chapter 3, Cepero starts by noticing how God pays attention to us, and that we need to learn to exercise that attentiveness to God and to ourselves too. She points out 2 possible threats to our journaling experience. The first is the ‘censor’ that threatens to slice off part of our story. The second is the inner critic that undermines our writing.

Chapter 4 moves from noticing to honouring one’s story. One of the problems Christians face is the lack of self-esteem, that one is not significant. The author guides one to appreciate one’s name, as well as how God ‘named’ us. It is less of how we are searching for God, but a matter of how we are found by God.

Chapter 5 provides some writing guidelines to engage God via focus, free writing, mapping one’s life and context, recognize changes, and accepting invitations from God to approach Him.

Chapter 6 is a practical help regarding how our physical body conditions affect our writing.

Chapter 7 is a retrospective journey to our past where one learns to illuminate one’s past with thanksgiving, with naming our moments, with learning to let go or to hold on, and to discern God’s voice.

Prayer of Examen is a gentle summary: “Praying for light, looking back in thankfulness, praying into the heart of the day, and letting go and holding on.” (81)

Chapter 8 shows that journaling can also look forward. One can write up a to do list, and to reflect on the meaning and purpose of it. In learning to wait and hope, one plants the seeds of faith by believing that God will speak forward in due time. Just like the disciples who did not understand the word on their way to Emmaus. Until they met Jesus who explains the Scripture to them.

In chapter 9, readers learn to examine the present too. It can be used like a compass to know where is one now. Based on Jer 6:16, the author guides readers to look at South, East, West and North. South is ‘the direction of sunny exposure - the direction of creativity, imagination, spontaneity and play.’ (94)

East is ‘the direction of the dawn, the rising sun. It is the perspective of new beginnings.’ (95)

“Ask yourself: What light is just beginning to appear on my horizon? What am I being asked to take hold in a new way? Where am I being called to embrace something? What areas in my life need change or transformation? As you look to the east, remember that beginnings are usually small and can seem almost insignificant.” (95)

West is the ‘direction of the setting sun’ on a perspective that indicates endings and letting go. (96)

North helps keep the other perspectives aligned, as a navigational north star. This is the guiding light, representing the ‘stabilizing forces’ showing us where we are and where we ought to go.

She ends with the center that is at the middle of the compass, saying it is the human person in the center, us that moves with God.

Through dialoging, embracing the Cross, seeing God in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, one journeys the faith.

{journaling allows us to remember old histories with new insights.}

She ends with 6 fork-roads that require each journaler to maker a decision.
  1. Is journaling a distraction away from God or attentiveness toward God?
  2. “Is this a critic, or is this a mentor?”
  3. “Is this being rooted, or is this being stuck?”
  4. “Is this foolish or is this faith’s sake?”
  5. Is this a stumbling block or opportunity for growth?
  6. “Detour or home?”
My Comments

A book like this is rare. We have many books in the market that teach techniques, writing styles, overcoming writer's blocks and tools to aid writing. Yet, very rarely do we find books that uses journaling/writing as a spiritual practice. Cepero helps us by showing us how the simple act of writing and journaling can become a holy exercise of focusing our attention toward God. I like the gradual movement from life to paper, from paper to history, from history to future, and then back to the present. I appreciate the way Cepero uses the compass, asking us to begin with the South, East, the West and letting the North be the guiding light that brings everything together. Integrative spirituality is such an important part of spiritual discipline. I am glad Cepero has done this well. Very well.

There is a minor suggestion for improvement. Cepero will do well to expand her work to include the latest technological tools, like the Internet, blogging, social networking, on how one can use technology to facilitate journaling. Perhaps, the author can write a book: "Blogging as a Spiritual Practice?"

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Monday, October 17, 2011

"A Slice of Trust" by David Hutchens and Gibbs Smith

TITLE: Slice of Trust: The Leadership Secret with the Hot & Fruity Filling
AUTHOR: David Hutchens and Barry Rellaford
PUBLISHER: Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2011

Not many of us have the time to read. Sometimes it is due to the busyness that we succumb to. Other times, it is because books are not easy to read. For such people, it will be great to find a book is not only gentle on our time, but also captivating to read. This book is perfect for the busy person.

About the Book
Based on Stephen Covey's The Speed of Trust, this book tells a fable of two men running a pie-shop business. It brings alive the many concepts that highlight the importance and efficiency of trust in the business world. At the same time, it teaches us the need to exercise wisdom. Through the simple story, one learns:
  • trusting people speeds the process up;
  • "Trust is built over time, a slice at a time." (66)
  • "Being trusted invites people to be their best." (40)
  • "To trust is to lead." (50)
  • In trust, the risks are large, but the rewards are huge.
  • High Propensity + Low Analysis = Blind Trust
  • High Propensity + High Analysis = Smart Trust
  • Low Propensity + Low Analysis = No Trust
  • Low Propensity + High Analysis = Distrust
The goal of trust is to be willing and open to trust others. This may be difficult for some people, especially for those who have been hurt or taken advantage of before. In order to aid trusting, adopt a level of analysis that is appropriate. Remember to analyze the situation, the contexts, the environment more than the person. The moment we start to psychoanalyse the person, we are treating the person as an object. Instead, study the contexts so that you can understand how and why the person is reacting as such.

This may not be explicitly Christian, but it sure has Christian principles that can be practised. I believe that the Church needs a high level of trust within. Small groups need to be trusting of one another. Trusting that is smart, and honest. By reading this book, one also learns that trust needs to be built over time. In fact, like any relationship, trust is imperative to the health of any organization. If you want to grow in closeness in any group, make sure that you have slices of trust.


Monday, October 10, 2011

"What Good is God?" by Philip Yancey

TITLE: What Good Is God?: In Search of a Faith That Matters
AUTHOR: Philip Yancey
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Faith Words, 2010.

This is the latest book by Philip Yancey, with lots of references to his previous writings and recollections of his own faith journey. The author entitles this book in a thought-provoking way, showing readers that faith while not easy is possible. Amid a world of suffering, pain, terrorism, heartaches, it is still possible to discover and search for a faith that matters.

The book begins with Yancey's personal near-death experience that rocks him back to memories of his own faith journey. Through the lens of "What Good Is God?" he probes the matter of suffering at the massacre of Virginia Tech University in 2007. Instead on focusing on the pain and hurt, he focuses on the comfort and healing that many have provided.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"The Journey Through Grief" by Alan D. Wolfert

AUTHOR: Alan D. Wolfelt
PUBLISHER: Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2003.

The Journey Through Grief: Reflections on HealingThis book is a very helpful guide to grieving and mourning. Recognizing the angst and pain behind loss and suffering, the author begins with a gentle understanding of grieving in two ways. Firstly, he recognizes that grieving is inner expression of emotions while mourning is an outward demonstration.  The importance if mourning and grieving cannot be underestimated because it is central to healing. Secondly, he makes a plea toward heart-based comfort rather than head-based answers.

"... another important lesson I have learned is that healing in grief is heart-based, not head-based. Modern therapies sometimes separate the head from the heart; it's as if we should somehow be able to rationally think through our grief." (1)

The way to help the heart is via "6 yield signs." The needs are numbered as:
  1. Acknowledging the reality of the death.
  2. Embracing the pain of the loss.
  3. Remembering the person who died.
  4. Developing a new self-identity.
  5. Searching for meaning.
  6. Receiving ongoing support from others.