17 Books for Seeing More in the Bible

17 Books for Seeing More in the Bible

I’ve been spellbound by the Bible for as long as I can remember—by its stories, by its world, by its language, by the God who shows up like a jack-in-the-box throughout its pages.

When I went to college, I took Hebrew and Greek classes because I wanted more. I went to seminary because I still wanted more, thinking I’d teach Bible at a university some day. I took every Bible class they’d let me.

I love the Bible.

I live in Tulsa, and we have a pretty great skyline. You can walk downtown and soak in the beauty of the architecture and the history of streets that sprung up during the oil boom of the 1920s. You can enjoy all of that all on your own.

My friend Kelly gives tours downtown. She tells stories of the colorful characters who shaped Tulsa in the early days. She points out details in the ceilings and doorknobs. She illustrates the intentionality of the architecture and their context in the local character of the place. And because she’s shown me around downtown, I love it even more.

Books about the Bible should be like this. We don’t need a mediator to read Scripture. Anybody and everybody should pick up the Bible and read. So many characters in history like Augustine and John Wesley have had their lives flipped upside down because they read it. But at the same time, reading is a skill we develop over time, and we need mentors and teachers in how to read well—how to notice the details of plot, story, and characters, how to pay attention to the nuance and movement of storytelling, how to understand differences in culture and language from our own.

All different kinds of books are helpful when it comes to the Bible. There are commentaries (of infinite kinds), atlases, surveys, group studies, study bibles.

Here are some of the books I’ve found most helpful in tackling questions like, What is the Bible? What is it for? How do I encounter God in the Bible? How do I understand the cultures that the Bible comes from to make sense of what it means today?

We read the Bible, not for information, but for the transformation of our whole beings. So, some of these books exercise our minds while some exercise our hearts.

For general reading

The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
Let’s admit it: reading the Old Testament is difficult, to say the least. This book shows the intricate artistry of storytelling that the writers of the Bible utilized. You won’t read Genesis or 1 Samuel the same way again, and you’ll likely be persuaded to start learning Hebrew.

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey
Culture is one of our greatest obstacles in interpreting the Bible. In the West, we often take for granted that reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. This book takes a variety of selected stories from the gospels, highlighting the Middle Eastern cultural assumptions at work in them.

The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays
This collection of essays explores ways of reading the Bible in today’s world. The essays spring from “Nine Theses” outlined at the beginning that provide a framework for faithfully interpreting Scripture. Few books I encountered in seminary impacted like this one.

Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation by Richard Foster
This book focuses on bible reading as a spiritual discipline that forms our Christian character. Foster helps show how the ancient practice of lectio divina helps spur our Christian growth.

The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding
This is a great book for beginner’s to the Bible. It tells the whole story of the Bible like a novel—the Old Testament from the perspective of a family around a campfire during the Babylonian exile and the New Testament from the setting of a Roman house church dinner.

The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight
Why do we need the Bible? And why do Christians get such different things from reading it? These are just a few of questions raised by this book.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson
Like Foster, Peterson writes not so much to fill our head but to shape our soul. From the imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation, Peterson shows what’s possible when the God of this Bible gets inside us, and shares from his experience producing The Message.

The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra Richter
This is my favorite resource for telling the story of the Old Testament. Richter uses the image of a disorganized closet to describe the experience most of us have with the Old Testament. We know the stories of Daniel and Noah and Elijah, but most of us have never been taught how these stories are organized into one coherent story about the God who is redeeming the whole world.

(re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World by Brian Russell
What I love about this book is that it answers the “So what?” question one might raise regarding all this Bible stuff. We’re not out to win any Bible trivia contests. Russell illustrates how the story of God from Genesis to Revelation shapes our imagination for God’s mission in the world.

Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today by N.T. Wright
The issue of the authority of the Bible is a controversial one, and Wright suggests that what we really mean in that phrase is “the authority of the God revealed in the Bible.” Wright talks about how we read, understand and live out the Bible on this side of the European reformations of the 16th century and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.

For a reference library

An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry by David Bauer
For thousands of years, people have been writing books about the Bible. So how do you know what to read? That’s what makes this an invaluable resource for pastors and teachers. Imagine this post as an encyclopedia and that’s this book.

Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics by David Bauer and Robert Traina
Inductive Bible Study is a highly structured method for reading and studying the Bible. While not the only way to read the Bible, this method can train us in skills for slowing down and paying close attention as we read.

A Survey of the Old Testament by Andrew Hill and John Walton
Surveys are useful for your library for seeing the 10,000-foot view of the whole Old or New Testament. I confess, I’m partial to this one as it features photos that I took while touring Israel.

How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
Two of our most important considerations in reading the Bible are context and genre. This book details the various literary genres found in the Bible, along with helpful approaches for understanding each genre, whether poetry or narrative, wisdom literature or law, epistle or apocalyptic literature.

How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart
This is a permanent fixture on my desk, never out of arm’s reach. It provides introductions, key themes, and general outlines for each Bible book. It’s an essential resource for teaching.

Others

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture
I’m not a fan of all-in-one study bibles. Like a Cheesecake Factory, they may do a whole lot of things, but nothing particularly well. But if you really prefer having everything in one single volume, I recommend this one. I’m a visual learner, so I love the maps and pictures.

The Old Testament for Everyone series by John Goldingay & The New Testament for Everyone series by N.T. Wright
These aren’t quite commentaries and not quite devotionals. They are deeply unsightly and engagingly practical. Great for individual study or for small group reading.

Much like the scenario in the film Arrival, opening the pages of the Bible is an encounter with the living God and should arouse in us a deep sense of wonder. Do we catch our breath? Does our jaw drop?

Whether you’re brand new to the Bible or you’re a pastor or teacher, I hope something here increases your capacity for wonder at the God in the Bible.

~~~~~

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more
13 Books for Joining God on Mission

13 Books for Joining God on Mission

Franz Kafka writes, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Dead center in the middle of the Torah is the command: Love your neighbor. When Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, he responds with love God. And then, even though he’s not asked, he adds that the next one is love neighbor, as if the two are deeply intertwined.

When we talk about spiritual formation, we dwell in that space of “love God.” And when we talk about mission, we dwell in that space of “love neighbor,” in your neighborhood, every day. These are two halves of one whole. We attune ourselves to the work of God in ourselves, so that we can attune ourselves to the work of God in the world. We shouldn’t, and we can’t, do spiritual formation work without then being propelled out into God’s activity in the world around us. So, to read a book about spiritual formation in one hand, we should have a book about God’s mission in the world in the other.

Numerous books and writers have shaped my thinking about God’s mission in the world. Here are 13 that have made a particular impact. It’s not an exhaustive reading list. Several of them are books that have come my way as I’ve spent the last four years in a program focused on missiology in changing culture.

Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker by Gerald Arbuckle

We don’t become students of mission without becoming students of culture and students of the people who form cultures. “Inculturation” is a big word for talking about the back and forth between ethnic cultures and the story of God, that is, the Gospel. Arbuckle is a Catholic priest from New Zealand and anthropologist, and much of this work is focused on cross-cultural ministry.

 

Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan

Donovan, also a priest, spent 17 years in Tanzania. What he found among the Catholic missions there bore no resemblance to the church he read about in the New Testament. This led him into a deconstruction of faith and re-learning how to tell the story of Jesus in meaningful way to the Maori people.

 

Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines That Shape the Church for Mission by David Fitch

I remember while in seminary the first time having a conversation with my pastor about what are the things that Christians do. Fitch is a pastor, church planter, and seminary professor after a similar question, but with a twist: What do Christians do together that define them as “church”? These practices we do as a means of participating in God’s mission in making the world new. (You can read my review of this book here.)

 

Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith by Eric Jacobsen

In the United States in the 21st century, we are largely a “place-less” people, meaning we rarely, if ever, consider our immediate geography in relation to our place in the world. But the ways that we live in suburbs and cities have a profound effect on how we interact and connect with one another. This is just a little of what Jacobsen, who’s a pastor, is exploring here.

 

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block

How do you love your neighbor? How are you a neighbor available to be loved by others? This approaches the questions from more of a sociology and community organizing angle than theological. Most often, being good neighbors involves healthy doses of uncommon sense. Here are some online resources related to this work.

 

Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture by Lesslie Newbigin

Newbigin spent his clerical career as a missionary to southern India in middle of the 20th century. He retired to his native England to find himself home but not home as he discovered the church marginalized in a secular culture. Having spent his life on the mission field, he found his home country to be a mission field. In this series of lectures, the big question he’s asking is “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?'”

 

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

In the early 1990s there was a resurgence of academic study about God’s mission (or missio Dei) based on these works Newbigin had produced in the 80s. This academic work eventually evolved into popular literature about the “missional church.” There’s an essay in this book entitled “The Congregation as Hermeneutic of the Gospel” that’s been particular influential on subsequent writings on church and mission, calling the Church a “sign, instrument, and foretaste” of God’s work in the world. All sorts of Newbigin resources can be found online at Newbigin House of Studies.

 

The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon

The authors are pastors in Colorado and relate a story at the beginning about how they’d attended a meeting with their mayor. The question was posed, how can churches help serve the cities? And the mayor responded that most of the city’s issues could be resolved if people were good neighbors. I preached a sermon several years ago referencing the tic-tac-toe grid the authors describe, and people still come up to referencing that sermon and what they got out of it.

 

Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh

I grew up in an evangelical setting that emphasized Matthew 28 and the Great Commission as the springboard for our involvement in “missions.” Roxburgh leans heavily on the work of Newbigin and offers an alternative text for shaping our imagination for mission: Luke 10, Jesus sending the 70. Throughout the book, he unpacks many of the implications of this text as a springboard for our joining God in the places where we live.

 

Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: The New Shape of the Church in Our Time by Alan Roxburgh

This reads more as a field guide and is a great resource for a small group, missional community, or church plant. Here Roxburgh takes many of the ideas from Missional and breaks them into simple, actionable steps to do together, while avoiding making it feel like a program.

 

Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity by Clemens Sedmak

Sedmak is a professor in Austria and this brief book unpacks 50 theses for doing local theology. Talking about God, and therefore, loving God, takes on the dialect and accent of a particular local place. Places matter, as we often learn doing ministry in another country. I would have found this helpful when I was 22 and moved from Tulsa to Seattle.

 

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by Chris Smith and John Pattison

Taking cues from the “slow food” movement, the authors explore ways that cultural values of efficiency, consumerism, and individualism that quietly undermine meaningful spirituality. They imagine an alternative. Patience is counter-cultural. In many ways, this provides the theological ballast for a book like The Abundant Community. Online resources related to the book can be found here.

 

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight Friesen

This comes from the work of Parish Collective and explores the notion, “Where is the Holy Spirit at work in our neighborhoods and how do we follow?” The relationship between church and immediate neighborhood is front and center in this book.

May one or more of these books wake you up with a blow on the head, propel you out your front door, and love your neighbor more deeply.

~~~~~

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more
23 books for spiritual formation

23 Books for Spiritual Formation

“Can you recommend a good book?”

It’s a common question I’m asked, and the short answer is: Yes, of course I can.

I love books. I always have. I can relate to Annie Dillard’s character of whom she wrote, “She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live.

So here are 23 books I’ve found helpful on my spiritual journey so far, that invite me deeper into the inner life and communion with God. To me, inside every book is a person who has wrestled with God, asked questions, and seen the path beyond my next bend. These authors have been, and continue to be, trusted allies for my spiritual journey. I trust they may be for you as well.

The Cloud of Unknowing
This anonymous work comes from the medieval mystic tradition. By “cloud of unknowing” the author references the dark, mysterious vulnerable place where the only thing we’re comfortable with is our deep need for God. This is a common theme in contemplative spiritual writing. With brief chapters, it can make for great daily devotional reading.

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the money quote most often shared from this work. But it’s just the beginning of the German Lutheran pastor’s clarion call to practical obedience to Jesus despite a religious sub-culture swimming in “cheap grace.” The bulk of the work covers his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount.

Common Prayer by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro
Praying the “daily office” is an ancient practice of the church, and this represents a contemporary version of something like for Book of Common Prayer for those who may not have been raised in a liturgical church setting. For beginners in the practice of the daily office this is a helpful entry point.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile
I’ve found the Enneagram to be a tremendously helpful tool in understanding myself, how I relate to God, and how I listen to others, and then as a result, how I grow as a person. The Enneagram is a personality system based on nine types, and this book is a great place to start. (I’ve written a more detailed review of this book here.)

Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn
Two works I owe so much to the inspiration of The Sabbath Life—this one and Eugene Peterson’s book listed below. In this work, Dawn builds on ideas taken from Abraham Heschel’s classic The Sabbath and contextualizes them for a contemporary Christian audience in practical, down-to-earth ways.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
This classic has inspired much of the literature on spiritual formation for the past 30 years. In it, Foster details twelve spiritual disciplines—each related to our relationship to God, our relationship to others, and our participation in God’s mission in the world—as they’ve been practiced through the history of the church.

Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster
Many of us, despite the years we’ve spent in church, remain unaware of the great variety of Christian experience throughout the centuries. Foster, here, broadly outlines six major movements of the Church with a big “C”—which he calls the Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational traditions. He brings to light the gifts that each has brought the Church and also their blindspots.

The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross
Not a book you should read while you’re in the midst of experiencing a “dark night.” John was a 16th-century Spanish priest who explores the challenges we face—perhaps dry seasons, valleys of doubt—on the journey towards God.

A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
Published by a Quaker teacher in 1941, this book is about seeking inner quiet and stillness in the midst of modern life. He emphasizes the “light within,” God’s initiative towards us, and the simplicity of life.

The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
Lawrence was a 17th-century French monk, and this simple book is all about seeing God in all of the daily, mundane, routine, ordinariness of life.

The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
Manning was a Catholic priest who struggled with alcohol addiction all of his adult life. If you struggle with receiving the love and grace of God because you think you’ve done everything possible to disqualify yourself, this is something you need to read.

New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton
Merton’s biography, also worth reading, tells his story from successful professor and writer in New York City to taking Benedictine vows as a monk in rural Kentucky. He was one of the most prolific Catholic devotional writers in the 20th century. This collection is the best place to start.

Invitation to a Journey by Robert Mulholland
Mulholland was a professor at Asbury Seminary while I was on campus, and students affectionately referred to him as “Gandalf,” in part for his white beard and how he always looked ready to go on a hike. I always remember that image when I think of this book. In additional to highlighting classic practices of the Church, Mulholland also explores the various ways that the different Myers-Briggs personality types experience spiritual formation.

The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen
Nouwen’s story is every bit as powerful as his many spiritual books. He was a Catholic priest who late in life gave up a prestigious position at Harvard to live among a community of mentally and physically handicapped. This book is a profound reflection on Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen
One of the ideas in the Enneagram is that your broken places tend to be your greatest gifts to others. That’s the big idea of this book.

The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson
“The adjective ‘busy’ set as a modifier to ‘pastor’ should sound to our ears like ‘adulterous’ to characterize a wife or ’embezzling’ to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront.” And that’s just how this book gets started. I would substitute the word ‘Christian’ for ‘Pastor’ in the title because this message applies to every Christian.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero
Our capacity for spiritual growth is deeply related to our emotional maturity. This is the big idea of this book. To be healthy Christians, we need to tend to our emotions and develop self-awareness in this area for the sake of those around us.

The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith
This is less a book to read through and more a curriculum to experiment with in a small group. It pairs well as a companion with the Dallas Willard book listed below, and it’s the first of a trilogy. The second is The Good and Beautiful Life (which studies the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), followed by The Good and Beautiful Community (which delves into the Holy Spirit and the Church).

You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith
Everything around us shapes us. Public education shapes us to be particular people. The mall (as well as Amazon) shapes us to be particular people. In this book, Smith explores the way that we as humans innately worship, and we become the things (or Thing) we worship.

The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila
This comes from the same cultural moment as St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul. Teresa envisioned the spiritual life as a diamond in the shape of a castle with seven mansions, which represented seven stages leading to one’s communion with God.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
This is a handbook for the spiritual life from the 15th century. It may be the most famous and widely read Christian work outside of the Bible. Its brief chapters make excellent daily devotional material.

The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer
Tower was a no-nonsense, firebrand of a preacher in the first half of the 20th century. Many of his books, like this one, are a collection of sermons and articles. Tozer had no patience for a religion that did not give all its allegiance to King Jesus.

The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
With Richard Foster, Willard stands tall among Protestant spiritual formation writers of the last 30 years. In this book, he unpacks the Sermon on the Mount, and if you only ever read two authors on the Sermon, you can’t go wrong with this and Bonhoeffer.

Anne Lamott has written:

“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

I like to imagine all these writers along a big, farm-style table, passing steaming plates of home-cooked goodness up and down the table. They’re in fierce conversation with each other—sharing, listening, laughing, probably even arguing a little bit.

Maybe heaven looks a little like this.

I hope that you find at least one of two of these helpful in your own journey. And if you have one that’s been especially meaningful to you that you don’t see here, leave it in the comments below.

~~~~~

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more
Faithful presence book review

Faithful Presence: A book review

“You say you want a revolution? Yeah, we all want to change the world.” John Lennon & Paul McCartney

How do you change the world?

Human beings have this innate desire to make our mark, to make our dent in the universe. Most of us in North America have it engrained in us from childhood that we can make a difference. It’s the magnetic appeal of characters like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Alexander Hamilton.

How do you change the world?

The Christian answer to this question is: You don’t. Plain and simple. It’s not up to you. You don’t change the world. Rather, the better question is: How does God change the world?

And according to David Fitch, God changes the world through the Church as it faithfully discerns God’s presence in the world.

In a world of smartphones and Twitter and Netflix, how are we present with one another, much less, present with God?

In a world of sermon podcasts and satellite campuses and live streaming, how is our practice of church a shaping influence in our capacity to be present to God and one another?

If there’s a book that I could put in the hands of ever friend who’s a pastor or leader in ministry, Faithful Presence is the one. No other book that I’ve read in recent memory has given me such a new vocabulary for how to talk about church and practice church as a verb with others.

Seven disciplines

In Faithful Presence, David Fitch offers a vision of the church where spiritual formation meets God’s mission in the world. Without using the language “spiritual formation,” Fitch talks about spiritual disciplines as corporate activities, not just individual activities. These are not self-help with a thin veneer of religiosity. These are the means by which God shapes a community of people to change the world.

“Faithful presence names the reality that God is present in the world and that he uses a people faithful to his presence to make himself concrete and real amid the world’s struggles and pain” (10).

“Presence” is a key theme throughout the book, and Fitch anchors it in the story of the Bible. It’s presence with God that is lost in Eden. It’s regained in the tabernacle and temple. Lost in the exile and hoped for in the prophets. God’s presence in the world takes on a new significance in the person of Jesus. Now the Church, as the body of Christ, extends that presence into the world today.

Fitch presents two big ideas in this book. One is the idea of the seven disciplines, as the subtitle alludes. The other is the idea of three circles, or places, where these disciplines are practiced.

The seven disciplines are found in the stories of Jesus in the Gospels and in the stories of the church in the New Testament. These disciplines are the Lord’s Table (or Eucharist or holy communion), proclaiming the gospel, being with the “least of these,” being with children, the fivefold gifting (related to leadership), and kingdom prayer.

As Fitch expounds each one, he traces its historical development from the medieval church through the Protestant Reformation to today in the North American Evangelical world. As one example, “being with children” evolved over time as the ritual of confirmation and evolved further still into the programs of children’s and youth ministries.

In the three circles, Fitch articulates a vision for the Eucharist table as it shows us the presence of Jesus in the place of corporate worship, then into our homes in our neighborhoods, and then into the places in the world where we sit as guests. Some of the best parts of this book are the anecdotes Fitch tells about how he has learned to see God at work in his neighborhood McDonald’s.

Presence is with

For me, the two strongest chapters were the ones about the “least of these” (a reference to Matthew 25) and about children. This is may very well be because I work with a ministry dealing with poverty and I have two toddlers. Or it may be that what Fitch offers runs so counter to my own experience to what I’ve seen regarding children’s ministry and service projects.

The operative word in both of these disciplines is “with.” Too often, ministry is seen as something “to.” But the doctrine of the Incarnation shows us that God is with us, not doing things to us. Recognizing Jesus among children and among the poor is a mutually transforming experience.

About being with the “least of these,” Fitch writes:
“Through history the church has made its biggest impact when it has practiced being with the poor (whoever they are in our context) and resisted turning the poor into a program. In this way, being with the “least of these” disciplines us into the relational space of faithful presence with the hurting” (120).

And about children, he writes:
“As Christians, we can navigate the tension between being present to our children and guiding our attention jointly to his presence. If we can do this in the close circle, we will be able to do the same in the other equally important circles of life” (143).

It is in actively participating in these seven disciplines that we create spaces to be with one another, hear one another’s grievances and hurts, and be heard ourselves. Our world lacks such spaces. The church is uniquely designed to cultivate such spaces.

This is an important book. This is a helpful book. This is such a timely book. This is a needed book.

Read this book. Commit yourself to a community of people rooted in these disciplines. Watch how God changes the whole world.

“Behold, I am making all things new” —the risen Jesus (Revelation 21:5).

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter. I write stuff there that doesn’t show up on the blog. You’ll get a weekly Bible reading plan, as well as some other resources I find that have got me thinking each week.

Read more
enneagram book review

The Road Back to You: A book review

“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in the fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” —Thomas Merton

The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey of Self-Discovery is an excellent entry into the vast world of the Enneagram, a personality typing system with particular spiritual roots. The above quote, while it appears at the conclusion of the book, well articulates the need for self-awareness and self-discovery. Far from being a journey into narcissism, learning who we are, through tools like the Enneagram, is essential to our spiritual lives as we continually grow in the tasks of loving God and loving neighbor. The book is written by Ian Morgan Cron, an Episcopal priest (who also notes that he’s a Four), and Suzanne Stabile, a long-time Enneagram teacher (and type Two).

The Enneagram encompasses nine different types, and each are categorized into three triads, based on where you primarily make your decisions. This is how, then, the authors organize their book. There’s the Anger or Gut triad, which makes up the Challenger (Type Eight), the Peacemaker (Type Nine), and the Perfectionist (Type One). There’s the Feeling or Heart Triad, which makes up the Helper (Type Two), the Performer (Type Three), and the Romantic (Type Four). Finally, there’s the Fear or Head Triad, which includes the Investigator (Type Five), the Loyalist (Type Six), and the Enthusiast (Type Seven). If Buzzfeed and Facebook quizzes are Twizzlers and candy corn, then Enneagram is a 6-course gourmet banquet.

Each type is like a lens through which a person experiences the world, which uniquely gifts them, but each also has its deficits. “It helps people understand who they are and what makes them tick,” in the words of the authors (10). “It’s full of wisdom for people who want to get our of their own way and become who they were created to be,” as Cron recounts his spiritual director, Br. Dave, telling him.

Cron opens the book with a scene with his spiritual director who first helped him discern his way through the Enneagram. “What we don’t know about ourselves can and will hurt us, not to mention others,” Br. Dave continues.

This is an important detail about about the Enneagram: what it reveals to you isn’t just about you. It awakens a sense of grace for those around us who seem to have a completely different “operating system,” so to speak, whether our spouse, kids, boss, co-workers, pastor, congregants, or neighbors. The authors write, “The Enneagram is a tool that awakens our compassion for people just as they are, not the people we wish they would become so our lives would become easier” (228).

Each chapter includes 20 statements “What it’s like to be a …”, followed by a brief sketch of what a healthy, average, and unhealthy version of each type looks like. The authors then share the “Deadly Sin” associated with each type, what childhood may look like for that particular type, what relationships are like for that type, how they may experience the workplace, wings (or the ways each type blends into another), stress and security (another way that types are connected to one another), and lastly what spiritual transformation can look like for that type. Each chapter closes with ten paths to transformation. While one can certainly read the book straight through, this simple structure makes it an easy reference to go back and study particular types.

One particular common pushback against the Enneagram is the limiting nature of many similar assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs and DiSC profile. If there are seven billion people in the world, how can they all be boiled down to just nine types? To that rebuttal, Cron answers with the paint wall at Home Depot. There may be the color red, but there are infinite variations on that single color. The same is true of the Enneagram. There is the Six, but there are infinite variations of what a Six looks like. It’s an illustration I have already found myself using in conversations explaining the Enneagram.

Cron is an exemplar storyteller and his illustrations make each type come alive and remind you of people you know. It makes the book a very engaging read.

The authors write, “Inside each number is a hidden gift that reveals something about God’s heart” (228). If the book is missing anything, I would like to hear more about the gifts that each type offer the world. I would also like to hear more about the limitations of the Enneagram, that is, what questions is it not helpful in answering, and how does one keep from seeing things in the Enneagram that aren’t really there. But those are minor quibbles. What this book does well—introduce someone to the Enneagram for the first time—it does very, very well.

God is infinitely complex. That people are made in God’s image means that people are infinitely complex. And so, any system trying to make sense of that complexity has its limitations. That the Enneagram makes space for that complexity, for me, makes it one of the more helpful assessments available to bring some order in the chaos of our lives. And because there’s so much to it, it can be daunting where to start, much less, starting in such a way that engages the listener to want to go deeper. But this is something Cron and Stabile navigate extremely well.

I’ll be recommending this to anyone curious about where to start unpacking the Enneagram, and to anyone wanting to gain some deeper self-awareness in order to better navigate their relationship with God and others.

Read more
spiritual direction books

4 Helpful Books on Spiritual Direction to Get Started

Resources abound when it comes to spiritual direction. Lots of books and websites exist on the subject.

So, in an attempt to be helpful with burning question Where do I start?, here are a handful of books that helped me understand just what this was. I recommend each of them.

Keep in mind: Authors are allies for the journey.

The Way of Spiritual Direction by Francis Kelly Nemeck & Marie Theresa Coombs

Directors and directees alike should prepare for their sessions together by listening to God; that is, by contemplative prayer. We may prepare for a class by reviewing our notes. We may prepare for a job interview by detailing a personal resume. But in spiritual direction, directees do not prepare by preplanning exactly how and what to say to the director…. Directees need only listen to God within themselves. Then having listened, they reveal to the director whatever they intuit as significant in whatever way it comes out (79).

This one is pretty theologically thick, and at times a little clinical. The authors are writing from a Catholic perspective. They definitely unpack the “spiritual” in spiritual direction, in other words, that this is a work of the Holy Spirit. They bring up issues like common obstacles for both director and directee in the relationship, as well as address psychological issues that may arise, like transference.

Holy Invitations: Exploring Spiritual Direction by Jeannette A. Bakke

Present-day directors do not give answers or tell directees what to do in their relationship with God or when making life choices. Instead, they listen with directees for how the Spirit of God is present and active. Directors support and encourage directees as they listen and respond to God (19).

In terms of readability and thoroughness, this one stands out. Bakke draws on more than 15 years of experience in a Protestant context. Each chapter concludes with reflection questions for discussion or journaling, which are just the type of questions you might hear while meeting with a director. One thing I found most helpful was how she delineated the differences between spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, mentoring, and discipling. She includes an extended bibliography for further study.

The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William A. Barry & William J. Connolly

We define Christian spiritual direction, then, as help given by one Christian to another which enables the person to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God and to live out the consequences of the relationship. The focus of this type of spiritual direction is on experience, not on ideas, and specifically religious experience, i.e., any experience of the mysterious Other whom we call God. Moreover, this experience is viewed, not as an isolated event, but as an ongoing expression of the ongoing personal relationship God has established with each one of us (8).

This is a classic. It could be the standard textbook on the subject. For the authors, direction is all about helping people develop their relationship with God. It’s slightly more academic than these other books, but it includes numerous sample dialogues between directee and director. This is written more with potential directors in mind, but definitely captures the spirit of the what spiritual direction is about. It has a thorough bibliography at the end.

Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction by Margaret Guenther

It helps to begin with silence. If nothing else, the time with the directee is thereby set aside as a time of prayer, not as a conference or a friendly chat. The length of the silence may vary. In the early stages of working together, the directee may find it unsettling if the stillness goes on too long, but the quiet time can extend as trust grows (17).

Here’s what I like about Guenther’s book: It’s a book for beginners. Of all these, it’s probably the simplest and shortest. In addition to this central idea of silence, I also really appreciate her metaphor of midwife for a spiritual director. Having witnessed both my children come into the world by the assistance of a midwife, I totally get that picture.

These are certainly not the only good books out there about direction. But, they’re ones I started with and found useful in articulating the work of spiritual direction.

Read more