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“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving. But the Father is always looking for me again with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.'” ~Henri Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” ~ Luke15: 31-32

I had an interesting experience today after Church service. The speaker had just finished teaching on reconcilation, victimization, and the “unfairness” of life. More importantly he invited us to consider the extravagantly “unfair” nature of our heavenly Father’s love toward us. As I pondered what it would mean for me to be an “Embassador of Reconciliation” toward those I felt had treated me unfairly, I decided to go into our prayer room and share my struggles with another brother and recieve prayer. I was immediately confronted by a print of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of The Prodigal Son:

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Maybe it was the immediacy of the moment after the sermon, or perhaps my realization that I still had “heartwork” to do regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, but the painting stopped me in my tracks as I was immediately overcome with emotion. How providential. What I was feeling in that moment, the awareness of my own sinfulness as well as my hardness of heart toward those who had sinned against me, the memory of Jesus’ parable of “The Prodigal Son”, the awareness of my own need to both grant and recieve forgiveness, it all hit me instantly. All I could do was stand there and gaze. I was aware that God was present and was doing a work in me in at that very moment. I secretly wished (a voiceless prayer, really) that no one else would enter the room and disturb this intimate moment. Afterwards I did pray with another brother, and shared my struggles, but quite frankly, the ministry I was looking for, the confession, the absolution and grace to do what I needed to do – that “heart” work took place as I prayerfully contemplated Rembrandt’s painting, which for me had become a passageway into Christ’s teaching on repentance, forgiveness, and the extravagant grace of God. I find it no small coincidence that the sixth book on my list was going to be Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

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Henri J.M. Nouwen was born in 1932, and ordained to the priesthood in 1957. A popular author, of many books, some of which are considered classics, Nouwen, in his latter years served as a pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for handicapped adults in Canada. It was after a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s painting, one that moved him deeply, that he decided to write this book.  In it he describes his own spiritual journey as he consider’s Jesus’s parable of the return of the young prodigal who had left home for a distant land and squanders his inheritance; the bitter, resentful older brother; and the compassionate father. Nouwen said of Rembrandt:

“Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

One of the strengths of the book is how it speaks to our compulsive pursuit of those things that can never satisfy:

“Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addiction make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country,” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.” It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.”

Nouwen paints a compelling portrait that enable us to recognize ourselves in both the spiritually bankrupt condition of the prodigal son, and in the self-righteousness of the dutiful older brother. But most importantly he stirs in us a desire to return home, and reminds us that no matter how often or how far we’ve fallen, our Father who is searching for us even more than we for Him, is there waiting with open arms, ready to restore, and eager to lavish His love upon us. The book is a modern classic and highly recommended.

 

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“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”  – Brother Lawrence

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” – Brother Lawrence

The fifth offering on my list of influential spiritual formation books is the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.

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The Practice of the Presence of God is probably the most read book in my library. I first came upon the book about twenty-five years ago, and for years I read it at least once or twice a year, and even now rarely does a day go by that I do not pray asking God to help me put its principles into practice.  It’s a short and easy book to read and quite enjoyable, and the principles within are simple and effective.

Brother Lawrence was an uneducated layman in the Catholic Church who served as a soldier before entering the Discalced Carmelite Prior in  Paris. He worked in the kitchen for all of his life as a monk, but was a kind man who was very popular and much admired. He endeavored to “practice the presence ” of God in the mundane tasks he was assigned to throughout each day; in essence, to pray without ceasing. For him, something as simple, and menial as washing the dishes became an intentional act of devotion. He made every moment of his day an exercise where he would not only take moments to stop from his labors to worship God, but also while he was engaged in his labors or interactions with others, he would acknowledge truth that God is always present and converse with Him. No task was too small nor challenge so great that God was not presence, and so he would simply relate to and converse with God as an ongoing act of prayer the way one would converse with a dear friend who is close by:

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

The simplicity of this small book of letters, his ongoing conversations with another disciple whom he is guiding in this practice, are profound and practical, and makes one long for the same kind of intimacy with God that Brother Lawrence enjoyed. More importantly, he shows us the way as we are invited to listen in on a series of conversations between two brothers learning how to cultivate a close, intimate, relationship with a God who is present even during the seemingly “unimportant” times of our mundane lives. Highly recommended.

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.” – Dallas Willard

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” – Dallas Willard

The 4th book on my list is Dallas Willard’s The  Divine Conspiracy.  

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The Divine Conspiracy is a Masterpiece, pure and simple. Though my list of 15 spiritual formation books come in no particular order, I will say that this book changed my life, and when I thought of making this list, it was the first book I thought of (and always is since I first read it thirteen years ago). It isn’t a devotional book though it is deeply spiritual. Nor is it a “how to” manual, although it is pragmatic and instructive, which shouldnt be surprising since Willard is a brilliant thinker and renowned teacher. In The Divine Conspiracy Willard gives contemporary christians  a vision of what meaningful spirituality and discipleship is and what it looks like in practice. It’s a brilliant presentation of a Christian worldview of authentic Christian discipleship in the world. Richard Foster, author of the contemporary spiritual classic Celebration of Discipline says of Willard’s book:

“A masterpiece and a wonder…the book I have been searching for all my life…I would place The Divine Conspiracy in rare company indeed: alongside the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. If the parousia tarries, this is a book for the next millennium.” – Richard J. Foster

High praise, I know, but much deserved.  Christianity Today named Willard’s book their 1999 Book of The Year, but it’s really one for the ages. Read it and find out why.

I was recently asked to name the books and authors that have most influenced me or helped to form me spiritually, so I’ve decided to post a list of 15 of my favorite spiritual formation books. Over the past ten years or so there has been a renewed interest in the topic of spiritual formation, and much confusion. In general, spiritual formation is the growth and development of a person’s interior or spiritual life through the practice of specific disciplines. This means that there are many perspectives and approaches to spiritual formation depending on one’s belief system, thus the confusion among some Christians. But rest assured, as unfamiliar as some might be with the term, there is no way around the reality that one way or another we are all being spiritually formed. The issue for Christians is whether we are being intentional in our pursuit to become formed into the image of Jesus Christ. So, by way of definition:

Christian spiritual formation is the intentional process of being conformed to the image of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of others. Though it involves the practice of spiritual disciplines, it’s also a way of life lived in community with others, and grounded in Scripture.

Over the next several weeks I’ll highlight the spiritual formation books that have been most influential in forming me spiritually, or I think may be helpful to those who are new to the subject. Today I’ll start my list with three books from an author who has most informed my concept of the vocation of a Pastor: Eugene Peterson.

In 92′, 93′, and 94′, Peterson wrote three books on the vocational calling of a pastor:

1. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 

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2. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction

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3. Under The Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness

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I discovered these books at a time when I had grown extremely discouraged with church work, and increasingly disillusioned with pastoral ministry. I saw one leader after another use ministry as a means to promote themselves and advance their careers. Many of those who were sincere in their wish to serve were overwhelmed with the business of “running” the Church. In these books Peterson Calls us back to the pastoral vocation of prayer, scripture (studying and teaching), and spiritual direction. Peterson helps leaders reclaim their “Vocational Holiness” from those who would “…enlist them into religious careers”.

   

…. Well, actually, I’m back and still “In Exile”. It’s been nearly two years since I last made an entry in my blog “Ron In Exile”. Why the long hiatus? Mostly due to lack of time (teaching and performing took up a lot of time). But I also did it for the sake of my spiritual health. Though I found blogging about spiritual issues helped to clarify what I believed and why, I also realized that it held a potential danger for me at that time.  One can spend so much time reading books, and thinking about subjects to write about, that it becomes easy to believe that one embodies the truths they’re writing about. In an earlier post I quoted Helmut Thielicke and wrote:

“‘Theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like a Gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men, truth and love are seldom combined’ (Thielicke).  As theologians, since God is love, our study of God should make us more loving, otherwise it is a vain intellectual pursuit.  If we use knowledge to control and intimidate, or as a shield to mask our own insecurities, then we become nothing more than Pharisees seeking to justify ourselves at the expense of others.  It’s too easy to confuse intellectual understanding with actually walking in the Spirit.  “Possessing” knowledge about some spiritual truth does not of itself make one more spiritual.  It may in fact lead to self-deception.  If theological study does not cause one to live into the truth revealed to them, then his theology has failed him, or better yet, he has failed his theology.  It is a sobering warning Thielicke gives when he writes, “Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure…death lurks in the kettle” (p.36).  Living the truth is what makes a man spiritual. Being a doer of the word is what brings life.

And so I took some time to try to live into some of the truths I believe God was trying to work into my life during that season. I read no new theological or ministry related book that wasn’t devotional in nature, but I did listen to lots and lots of new music, read and performed in several plays, and spent more time getting to know and learning how to better love the family members and neighbors that were around me. Death was “lurking in the kettle”, and I’m still learning, but I do feel more rooted in love and ready to start blogging again. I hope you’ll follow along.

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