WHEN WORDS SPEAK: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).
Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others. This proved to be a difficult task. I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic. But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.
Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation. Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed? I also noticed that, if asked to do this again, I would probably pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.
Given all of this, I here present to you my revised list. Instead of three influential titles, I list five. These five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again. They have helped inform how I understand my life with Christ. They encourage me. They challenge me. They inspire me. They are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual growth.
- Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it very much began my journey into spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf. Years later, I picked it up again. This time, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
- A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly time and again. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, it turned to this small work strongly set within the Quaker tradition. I must say, from the first sentence, never have I read anything that spoke to my innermost desires. I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.
- You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Here I found a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology. Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description of the spiritual vacuum prevalent today. These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
- Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of later. Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read the most. I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work. I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time. His radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
- Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection. I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law. That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first. Introduction was the first book I chose to read precisely because I wanted to read about spiritual formation from the perspective of the ancient church. Instead of turning to new authors and new perspectives, I wanted to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith. deSales did not disappoint. His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.
There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life the greatest. I commend them to you. If you haven’t read these works, please do. I don’t think you will be disappointed.
LET US RESPOND TO EVIL WITH WORSHIP (March 27, 2019)
We have all heard the news regarding the attack that occurred on the Mosque in Christ Church, New Zealand, followed by the attempted stabbing after a Mass in Quebec. Most recently, there have been reports of an attempted attack on a priest in Edmonton. These attacks on people at worship are horrific enough, but added to the mix are statements regarding the constant threat of terror, the persecution of the faithful, and the continuous cycle of violence and bloodshed that we see being played out before us.
I do not want to write you and tell you not to be afraid about what you see occurring. These instances are frightening. In many ways, we live in a scary world. It will not do us well to put our heads in the sand and ignore what is taking place. Yet, I do want to suggest that the violence we have heard reported does not to define us. It can be easy to spend too much time looking at reports of what happened, how it happened, and why it happened; that all of a sudden we live in a state wherein we continuously worry about when it will happen next. What I want to ask of each of you to do, and what I am trying to do myself, is refrain from spending too much time or prayerful energy to following the rabbit-holes of fear that we can so easily get lost within. Hopping from one tragic report to another will only serve to distract us from the presence of Christ that surrounds us.
In this time, I think we can receive a wonderful lesson from the early church. I am reminded that the early Christian community lived under constant threat and fear – much more than we experience today. It was not just that they feared violence or rebuke…they expected it! Still, they persevered. The church persevered by doing two things. Firstly, they focused on the presence of the Lord with them. The assaults of evil can never out weight the divine love that dwells with us. Secondly, they Christian community spent their energy in prayer and worship. Persecution and tragedy did not deter them from participating in worship. As a community, they met together, sang together, prayed together, and shared worship together. They combated the evils they experienced with songs of praise and acts of mercy.
If the point of the attacks was to cause fear and hatred, then let us stand against it with love and peace. If the point of the attacks was to drive people away from worship, then let us respond by boldly stepping into worship. Let us be like that early church and remain undeterred. So if you are at worried, or scared, or concerned about the world in which we live, then make an effort to join the community in worship. Refuse to allow these stories to keep you in fear; rather be diligent in works of love, and acts of prayer. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, as the hymn says; and cast your heart upon the hope and peace that he provides. Remember, the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (1st John 4.4). Amen.
2018 – a year of growth
We have spoken a lot about the need to grow in our community, and word ‘Evangelism’ has been banted around quite a bit. Did you know that it isn’t just us? The Archbishop of Canterbury has also listed ‘evangelism’ as one of the priorities of his own ministry – and the one of the main calls of the church. Watch this video to learn more:
Let all who are thirsty come . . .
I recently downloaded an album of Taize music to my smart phone. The plan was to being able to listen to some meditative music whenever I go for a walk. Many of the songs are ones I am familiar with, as we have sung them here at the church. There was one, however, near the end of the album, that I was unfamiliar with. It’s words are gentle and lovely. It’s tune is simple yet poignant. I hope you like it as much as I do.
Biblical Meditation with Jan Johnson
Here is a wonderful podcast interview with Jan Johnson on the art and practice of biblical meditation. If you have ever wondered about what we do on the second Tuesday evening of the month (“Lectio Divina; In Quiet and Rest” and “Meditation on the Women of the Bible”), take the time and listen to this podcast.
A 3-step way of seeing Spiritual Formation
Every month my Spiritual Director gives me a passage of scripture to sit with throughout out the month. For this month he gave me Galatians 6:14-18. Just four small verses, but they are packed with content. So, this morning I thought I would spend some time in prayer and reflection on this passage. I went into the sanctuary of the church, sat with my bible open and my notebook in hand, and proceed to go through the movements of Lectio Divina on this passage. I would love to say that I had some earth shattering revelations take place; that the heavens pealed back and the Spirit of God descended upon me in overly-charismatic way.
Nothing like that happened. What I did experience was the gentle prodding of some important questions along with insight into a possible model of Spiritual Formation. Could this passage speak to how we engage in formation as the body of Christ? Could we look to this passage as a possible ‘three-step’ model of how we may grow into deeper Christ-likeness? First, let’s look at the passage.
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.
From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.
As I said, this passage is filled with great content and there are many different places where one can sink into deep reflection. How often do I boast in something other than the Cross of Jesus? What does it mean to ‘bear the marks of Jesus’ in my own body?’ These were some of the thoughts and questions that turned around in my mind and heart as I went through the Lectio movements. Yet the majority of my inner reflections centred on the two ways Paul references himself in relations to crucifixion. Paul seems to be suggesting that the cross of Jesus brings about a two-sided crucifixion for the Christian person. Or, to put it another way, the cross has two cruciform effects.
- The world has been crucified to me.
Christian life often runs at odds with the systems and values of the world in which we live. This is what Paul experienced in his own world, as the Christian Gospel was naturally at odds with both the political and various religious sensibilities of the Roman Empire. To see the world as crucified was to see the world as having no power or pull upon the Christian life. Thus, like Pilgrim in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one can step away from practices contrary to the living out of Christian faith, because Christians belong to an alternative kingdom.
The obvious question is: How do we see the world as crucified to us? How do we step away from the cultural messages of individualism, relativism, and moral obscurity? What does it mean, for example, to refrain from boasting about our own status or earnings when we live in a culture of ’15 minute fame’? Christ calls us to interact with the world in a different way, from a different grounding. We are not at home in the kingdom of the world. To switch biblical authors, we are sojourners here.
- I have been crucified to the world.
When we see the world as crucified to us, we can easily develop a sense of smug self-righteousness. If we are not careful we can begin to see ourselves as ‘better’ than those around us. While others belong to such a flawed and faulty world, we are more evolved – more holy. Yet the cross of Jesus is not a leans through which we see our own superiority over the world and its inhabitants. We are crucified as well.
In reality, we can only see the world as crucified if we see ourselves as crucified as well. Formation isn’t just about recognising the false narratives of the world around us, we also expose the false narratives that lie deep within. Where do I lack humility? Where do I boast in my own accomplishments or status? Where have I acted in frustration, in anger, in selfishness? The crucifixion of the self is an important step in this for it essentially is that which allows Jesus to become the still point of our lives.
I mentioned that I wondered if this passage could be used as a three-step model of Spiritual Formation. We have just looked at the first two steps. Step one: The crucifixion of the world to us. Step Two: The Crucifixion of us to the world. So what is the third step?
- The New Creation/Walking by this rule
Paul makes a point of saying that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mean anything, but what matters is a new creation. Circumcision – and by extension non-circumcision – indicated a certain status to be claimed. It was a merit that could be held up and boasted in. In this way, it could easily be seen as more important than one’s active participation in the kingdom of God. We hear echoes of Jesus’ statements to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and his criticism of their hypocrisy.
The danger is that we merely replace circumcision with ‘the new creation’ thereby making it just another status symbol. Yet the life of Faith is to be one of constant walking. We live our lives in the very context of our relationship with Jesus. Faith is not something to be held up and boasted about, because our faith is the very way that we live out our lives. So we do not just claim the world is crucified to us, or that we ourselves have been crucified; we actively live out this reality in the world.
This means that our formation in Christian life is an ongoing process, and never one that we can claim for ourselves, or boast about.
The Christ Hymn
At our last session of “Streams of Devotion” we talked about the Christ Hymn, from Colossians. I referenced this wonderful piece from Alana Levandoski, and people were so intrigued by my praise of this song, that I thought I would place it here.
You are what you love
I have just been reading a wonderful book by James K.A. Smith called ‘You are what you love: The spiritual force of Habit”. Below you will find a presentation that the author did at Biola University – describing the main premises of his book. Smith has many insightful things to say, and I encourage you to take 30 minutes and listen.
Is church growth really what it’s about?
The other day I had an interesting conversation with some colleagues. We talked about liturgy, about music, about cultural demographics – all the random things that get thrown in the mix when we talk about our ministries. This got me thinking about the ‘focus’ with which we engage in our life as a church. So much emphasis today is on the idea that the church is to ‘grow’ – and let’s be honest we normally aren’t talking about spiritual growth . . it’s about numbers.’
But is that really what it is all about? Is my task as priest just about engaging in attempts to increase the size of my church? Is it really just about butts in the pews?
In preparation for this week’s sermon, I came across this amazing quote. It is taken from the Commentary ‘Feasting on the Word’, and is part of the commentary on Galatians 2:15-21 (Proper 6, Year C)
“The emphasis on developing vision statements and strategies, marketing programs and services, and determining healthy-church-index scores is often just busy work that decreases the church’s understanding that it is a spiritual entity, called to be radically open to God at the core, and aware of what the living Christ is up to in the congregation’s midst. It may be that that what we want in our congregations, even the ministries we hold so dear, needs to be crucified afresh – because Christ is alive! The ongoing challenge is to pay attention to what the living Christ is up to.” (Heidi Husted Armstong )
I don’t want a big church. I want an alive one. I want one responsive to the presence of Jesus in our midst. I want a congregation that is willing to respond in openness to the presence of the Living Christ, even if that means we are never bursting our rafters or overflowing our sanctuary. After all, is church about us, or about Him?
Fellowship in the Blood of Jesus
Every month I go to see my Spiritual Director, Father Bob. We sit. We pray. We talk about all sorts of matters of faith life and ministry. Father Bob always gives me a verse for the month, a verse which I am supposed to reflect on every day. I must confess that I don’t always do this. I often start out very well, but then lose my momentum as I progress through the month.
The most recent passage that Father Bob assigned was 1st John 1:3-10. In this passage John tasks about fellowship, about light verses darkness, and about sin and forgiveness. It’s a beautiful passage, and (so far) I have very much enjoyed reflecting on it. What is more, particularly because it seems I have spent a lot of time as of late thinking about the nature of community, I find that this passage has a lot to say.
When Father Bob first read this passage, what struck me first was the order of the way John puts things. In verse 7 John talks about walking in the light of God, and how that means that we walk in fellowship with one another. Fellowship is a divine reality, held by God in God’s own heart. It is only as we find ourselves connected through our shared connection with our Lord that true fellowship can really exist. It is Jesus who unites us in fellowship and purifies us from sin. Yet then, just as we are about to rejoice in this awesome reality of Kingdom fellowship, John seems to pull the rug out from under us. Verse 8 contains the well-known passage “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Wouldn’t it have been better for John to reverse things? Wouldn’t it make more sense if it read “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.”
Is this how we often read this? If so, it kind of makes it sound like any fellowship should be devoid of any conflict or strife, and that disagreements and ‘otherness’ is a sign of weakness and sin. Yet unity is not the same as uniformity. Fellowship is something much deeper than agreement.
It is quite a profound thing that John is saying, in the order in which he says it. Community does not wipe away our imperfections, nor does it mean that there will not be bumps along the way. Fellowship demands grace and forgiveness. The fact is, we are fragile people. We have cracks and bumps, and none of us are free from brokenness. Thus as we live out our fellowship, we do so with the acknowledgement that we must continually cling to the gracious love of God and strive to live that out amongst ourselves. There will be times we do this well, and times in which we fail, yet fellowship calls us to recognize that the grace and forgiveness of God is able to help us walk together through deepest hurts and struggles.
Like I said, these were the reflections that first captivated me as I sat in Father Bob’s office. Just today I re-read this passage, and as scripture always does, it spoke to me in a different way.
This time, as I read, what jumped out at me was notion that the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. What is interesting about this verse is that it is spoken of in the context of what it means to walk in fellowship, not just with Jesus himself, but with each other. So what does it mean that Jesus purifies us in the very way in which we walk in fellowship with one another?
I remember talking with someone about my hope that the church could be about something bigger than our petty differences. I questioned if the church would ever get to the point where (to use woefully inaccurate terminology) ‘evangelicals could love liberals for being liberals, and liberals could love evangelicals for being evangelicals.’ My conversation partner agreed, but with one clarification. “I agree,” he said “That fellowship demands loving the other, but instead of ‘I love you for our differences’ I would say that we love ‘in spite’ of them.’
As I read this passage from John, speaking to the vision of what fellowship in the Kingdom of God is really about, I wonder if it is the ‘in spite of’ mentality that continues to fracture and keep us apart. If I say to someone that I love them in spite of something, then I am saying that their ‘fault’ is continually before me, that there is something about them that I cannot stand and cannot love. But the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin, and therefore, the things that we would spite should not be in our view any longer. Instead, what we see when we look at the other is the face of Jesus staring back at us. The purifying blood of Jesus removes all the places where we are tempted to cast aside or discard, or remotely suggest that one does not belong.
This vision of life in the Kingdom, a life together where we all, broken and cracked vessels that we are, receive grace from each other and the purifying love of Jesus, is so intoxicating that it calls us away from the bi-partisan controversies that we sometimes define ourselves with. It roots us in Jesus, and a way of life that we can live only as we lay ourselves down in order to breath in his spirit and walk in his footsteps.
I don’t know about you, but that is the community I am looking for. That is the community that I want to be a part of. That is the community I want to help create.
Reflections on Holy Communion
I am currently reading a book called “The Path of Salvation” by a 19th Century Russian Orthodox Bishop. I came accross this passage, and thought it was a wonderful description of how we are to approach the celebration of Holy Communion.
“If it is impossible to go to church, then do not let the hour of the holy and Divine Sacrifice pass without sighing and turning to God. If possible stand in prayer . . . At the moment the Divine Sacrifice is celebrated in church, something occurs that is more awesome and greater than anything on earth or heaven but it occurs invisibly, spiritually, before the face of the infinite Triune God, the holy angels, the entire assembly of the heavenly Church, before the eyes of faith of all who struggle and live on earth. It is invisible, but real nevertheless. Therefore, the believer should not let these moments slip past his [or her] attention. When he [or she] remembers it, this remembrance alone warms the heart and enraptures him [or her] to God, by which grace is drawn down.” (St. Theophan the Recluse).
52 WEEKS of Simplicity
(You can find all of Rev. Kyle’s writings on Simplicity at http://simplicity52.blogspot.ca/)
Simplicity is both an internal and external discipline. It speaks to the very way we perceive the matters of faith and life and has dramatic effectIn on the manner in which we live in this world. There is perhaps no deeper realm to this, or perhaps none more uncomfortable, that the manner in which we understand, use, and relate to money.Money is deeply ingrained in the very manner in which we live; there is simply no way around it. We use money, we spend money, we save money. Yet too often we fail to see our relation to money in any sort of spiritual context. It is simply that which is used as we go through the functions of our every day lives. Yet peel back the layers and we find that too often the money we have, or long to have, exerts a dominating force upon us. It controls us. It drives our action, establishes our focus, and calls our attention. We dream of ‘striking it rich’, ‘hitting it big’, or moving from ‘rags-to-riches.’ These lies communicate to us that accumulation of money is that which solves all our problems. We dream about what we will do when we win the lottery thinking that a massive influx of cash will set our life in order. Yet too often those who win the lottery find quickly find themselves in financial, moral, emotional, and spiritual bankruptcy.
Money promises freedom and happiness yet delivers slavery and depression. It keeps us in anxiety and fear. It tells us to be fearful of never having enough, despite the fact that too often that which it calls us to is far from necessary. It keeps us always focused on the riches we do not have, rather than highlighting the riches we do. Jesus knew that money too easily becomes a rival God demanding servitude. “You cannot serve both God and money (mammon).” Jesus knew that the money is able to exert an intoxicating pull over us. Like a rival deity it demands an emotional attachment. We become identified with how much we have and find ourselves unable to part with the smallest of units. Is it any wonder that our modern world, so full of abundance, has produced such a soul-crippling problem as hoarding?
This is why the discipline of tithing can be so powerful. Tithing dethrones the rival power. It frees from the emotional enslavement that money too often holds over our lives. In tithing we reclaim our proper place. This is because tithing, ultimately, is not just actually about money. Tithing is about worship. It is about divine allegiance. In tithing we strip money of the sacredness that this world wrongly gives to it, and again submit ourselves in humble faith to the Lord of heaven and earth. In this we enter into the joy and freedom found in a posture of dependance. Ours is not to strive and fret – ours is to humbly receive and give thanks. Consider the lilies and the birds, Jesus says.
Through tithing we truly uncover the beauty and goodness of all that surrounds us. The goodness seen in that which we own occurs truly as we see these things as expressions of God’s care and providence for us. This frees us from the burden of having to protect or hoard that which we own. For if the goodness of money is found, not in the ownership of it, but in its kingdom use, then we are able to uncover the blessedness of giving. “We would be hard pressed,” writes Richard Foster, “to find a teaching on money [in the Bible] that does not somehow mention giving.” (From ‘The Challenge of the Disciplined Life’).
There are many ways that we can enter into the discipline of tithing. While it does not have to be the typical 10%, we must resist the attempt to minimize its force. To do this is to value our ownership of money over our life with God. If tithing is seen only as an obligation, or worse yet – a bill, then we will never see it as an act of thanksgiving. The tithe should be significant enough that we notice the gift for it is in noticing that we express our thanks to God for all of God’s blessings in life. It is an act of praise and thanksgiving. We do not retain a sense of deserve or ownership of our money – we release it all into the hands of God and in doing so render our confidence and trust.
It should also be mentioned that we are also able tithe our time and/or service. Tithing does not have to be a gift of money. It can also be a gift of our time and our effort. Too often our life with God is relegated to 90 minutes on Sunday mornings while the rest of our lives are spent living unto ourselves. When we tithe our time or effort, we recognize the possible incongruity between our that which we say we believe, and how we actually live it out. What would it be like to increase my time with God each day? Can we spend more time in prayer, in worship, in study? Are my faithful expressions done out of duty or out of an internal desire to be with our Lord in intimate relationship?
The mathematics of tithing, whether it is in time/service or money, is not about 10% here and 10% there. Tithing is about our life with God; about our focus, our worship. And to that end it should always equal 100%.