Archives For Spiritual Formation


Yesterday, Dallas Willard passed into eternal glory. 

I hadn’t read his books much over the last decade, but prior to that they played very important role in my own formation.  As an aspiring philosopher myself at the time I was really digging into his work, I appreciated that he thought seriously and rigorously about following Christ, and that he was never afraid to ask hard questions.  I’ve appreciated hearing many stories over the last day of his gentleness and humility.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Dallas Willard, or who may have only read a book or two of his, here is a brief guide to his seven essential works by ERB editor Chris Smith.

Which books have you read?  Which have impacted you most?


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The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God

For me, this is Willard’s masterpiece.  I read it at a crucial time, not long after I had graduated from college, and was in a period of seeking a faith that I could identify myself with.  Willard’s depiction of a vivacious gospel that stood in contrast to the burdensome “gospel of sin management” that I had grown up with, played a major role in drawing me into the abundant life of God’s kingdom. Following in the footsteps of Bonhoeffer’s THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP, this book is a clarion call to take the life and teachings of Jesus seriously and to follow in his way. It also paints a compelling picture of the vibrant life we find as we do follow after Jesus.


A Brief Review of

Flunking Sainthood:
A Year Of Breaking The Sabbath,
Forgetting To Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor
Jana Riess
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2011.
Buy now:
[ Amazon ]
[ Amazon – Kindle ]

By Michelle Van Loon  ( )

There have been a slew of books in recent years where the author tries something new for a set period of time and documents his or her life change in the process. Julie Powell’s 2007 blockbuster book-turned-hit-movie Julie and Julia: My Year Of Cooking Dangerously is a perfect example of this trend.

Writing about the challenges and questions raised by a radical change-up in lifestyle with the goal of seeking spiritual transformation is an evergreen topic in books about the Christian life. Think Henri Nouwen’s 1981 Genesee Diary: Report From A Trappist Monastery or, more recently, Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey Of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do. Dobson’s book was based on Jewish author A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Quest To Follow The Bible As Literally As Possible.

Part of the expected narrative of these types of stories is an ending proclaiming “See? I am a changed, chastened and wiser human being, thanks to this experience.” But what if an author dedicates a year to seeking life change via the practice of various spiritual disciplines – and no change of note happens in her life?

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“A Life Fully Lived”

A review of

A Time to Plant:
Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt

By Kyle T. Kramer

Review by Ragan Sutterfield.

A TIME TO PLANT - Kyle KramerA Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt
By Kyle T. Kramer
Paperback: Sorin Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

I have long been haunted by the closing of Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.  And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.  This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.  And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament.  We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.

The passage speaks to the deep longing in our time for a community of sustainable virtue and values; a place where practices that ground us in what is truly valuable can thrive.

Often thinking of this passage from MacIntyre, I was struck years later when I read the introduction to farmer and writer Gene Logsdon’s book Living at Nature’s Pace.  The last sentence of the introduction of Logsdon’s book recalls with amazing parallel the last paragraph of After Virtue, as Logsdon writes, “Sustainable farms are to today’s headlong rush toward global destruction what monasteries were to the Dark Ages: places to preserve human skills and crafts until some semblance of common sense and common purpose returns to the public mind.”

Might MacIntyre’s new St. Benedict might be clad in overalls rather than a habit?

Kyle Kramer’s book, A Time to Plant: Life Lessons in Work, Prayer, and Dirt points in the direction of a “yes.”

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835430: This Sacred Moment: Becoming Holy Right Where You Are

This Sacred Moment:
Becoming Holy
Right Where You Are

By Albert Haase, O.F.M.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2011.

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Reviewed by Douglas Connelly.

I’m not a Christian with a particularly strong mystical bent.  I easily get lost when people start talking about connecting with God in hours of solitude or after an entire night spent in prayer.  I tend to have my feet planted on the solid ground of everyday experience.

I guess that’s why Albert Haase’s new book This Sacred Moment spoke so directly to me.  Haase is a spiritual director and retreat leader and he could probably talk a lot about the more mystical aspects of the Christian experience, but his direction in this book is firmly grounded in the present moment.  Holiness is not some ethereal goal to be reached in the future.  It is obedience and submission to God’s call in the present – in the sacred moment we are in.

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“Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love”

A Review of

The Good and Beautiful Community:
Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love
By James Bryan Smith.

Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.

The Good and Beautiful Community:
Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love
By James Bryan Smith.

Hardback: IVP Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ]

THE GOOD AND BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY - JB SmithLess and less does the term spiritual formation conjure up a mental image of an aged monk or nun, and the Quaker, quiet and contemplative in a still room.  Less and less does spiritual formation seem to be an individualistic me-and-God pursuit over and above one’s place in a community.  James Bryan Smith, in his Apprentice Series, follows the Renovaré movement (of which his biography describes him as a founding member) creating three work books about the “good and beautiful.”  His most recent book, which rounds out the series, is The Good and Beautiful Community, touching directly on one of Renovaré’s crucial values – spiritual formation in the midst of community.

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“Learning from the Children

A Review of

Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey:
Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture

By Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May.

Reviewed by Josh Morgan.

Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey:
Guidance for Those Who Teach and Nurture

By Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May.

Paperback: baker, 2010.
Buy now: [ ]

As a child psychologist with a particular passion and speciality in spirituality, particularly spiritual formation, I was very excited to review Catherine Stonehouse and Scottie May’s Listening to Children on the Spiritual Journey. This book discusses the results from multiple projects exploring childhood Christian spirituality. Before thinking it may be boring, allow me to assure you that it’s not. While it could definitely be used in an academic setting (the publishing house emphasizes that), it really is meant for laity, not academics.
I recently began a spirituality group as part of my organization’s child partial hospitalization program for psychiatric problems. This book was helpful in developing some activities to initiate discussion on spiritual topics. However, it really is meant for a parents and church-based ministries rather than therapists. And it is focused on Christian spirituality. So if you’re looking for ways to explore the spirituality of atheist children, this book is probably not what you’re looking for (although I would also argue it’s techniques could be altered for the appropriate spiritual context).


835300: Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs

A Brief Review of

Whole Life Transformation:
Becoming the Change Your Church Needs

By Keith D. Meyer.
Hardback: Intervarsity Press, 2010.

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Reviewed by William Mills

If you want a book that inspires, encourages, and stirs the imagination then Keith Meyer’s new book, Whole Life Transformation is just the book for you. Keith Meyer has both an MDiv and DMin degree and has been a pastor for over thirty years. He started the Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, MN and currently serves as a senior fellow with the Renovare Spiritual Formation Institute. Meyer is also a contributing editor to Leadership Journal as well as an editor of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care.

Many books deal either with spirituality or ministry but Whole Life Transformation includes the best of both these worlds. Meyer shows his readers that ministry leaders must be proactive in their own spiritual journey, seeking mental, physical, and spiritual health so that they can go out and serve God’s people. Meyer notes that many pastors, himself included, have lived, breathed, and preached a very active and “busy” ministry which included Church growth, high-energy evangelism, and increasing membership in their churches. However, after hitting bottom with his own personal demons as well as the repercussions of family dysfunction, Meyer sought help. Throughout this book Meyer includes personal stories from his therapy which included not just visiting with a pastoral counselor but also seeking out a spiritual director. After time in deep contemplation: reading the scriptures prayerfully, taking time away from parish life in order to spend more time with family, maintaining safe personal and family boundaries, Meyer felt equipped to re-enter ministry.

Whole Life Transformation is a book that every pastor and seminarian must read at least once a year. All too often pastors fall into the trap that our job is to be the CEO of our congregations, focusing our attention on what Meyer’s calls the “externals” buildings, budgets, increasing memberships, and so forth. Due to high stress from Church authorities and from parishioners pastors succumb to high demands and pressures which often result in some sort of addictive or toxic behaviors. Meyer’s shows us that if pastors are grounded in the person and ministry of Christ, a ministry focused on prayer, rest, proper mental and physical health, then we can best serve our flocks. I congratulate Mr. Meyer for his ruthless honesty about himself and about the Church at large and his boldness to take on the many demons that are plaguing the Church today.

Do yourself a favor and “take and read” Whole Life Transformation, you won’t be disappointed.


686122: Spiritual Formation A Review of:

Spiritual Formation

By Henri J.M. Nouwen
Hardback: HarperOne, 2010.
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Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.

[ Read the poem that the reviewer wrote
to accompany this review… ]

Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird have produced a second compilation (in a series of three books) of Nouwen’s works entitled Spiritual Formation:  Following the Movements of the Spirit.  Christensen and Laird pull pieces from a variety of Nouwen’s previously published and some unpublished pieces to create this seamless book as though Nouwen himself had penned it.

Christensen and Laird’s compilation is a pillar for understanding the process of spiritual formation against the grain of a progress-oriented culture.  Christensen, in the appendix, describes how Nouwen’s concept of spiritual formation is not progressive and linear, but rather a journey of progressive vacillation.  “The journey implies that progress is possible, but not in a measurable upward way, with cumulative results” (129).

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A Brief Review of
Becoming Flame: Uncommon Mother-Daughter Wisdom
Isabel Anders.
Paperback:  Wipf and Stock, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Angela Adams

Becoming Flame is a collection of dialogical wisdom, formatted as short, edifying conversations between Mother and Daughter on topics such as the monotony of daily tasks, insomnia and its requisite self-reflection, life and loss, the anxiety of decision making, and waiting for love—all familiar ground for every woman who will read this thin volume. To elevate Becoming Flame from banal “inspirational” books (I’m thinking Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul here), Anders draws deeply from writings of the Desert Mothers, the tradition of Divine Feminine, her experience as a woman and mother, and her own deep connection to Wisdom. The result is that Becoming Flame goes before us as a sacred text, marking the way as we “are what [we] should be. . . ” so we “. . . will set the whole world on fire” (6).

While some might wish Becoming Flame incorporated more formal feminist theology, what Anders has offered instead is an unacademic and uncontroversial compilation of uniquely feminine dialogical wisdom. According to Anders, “the language and process of becoming flame are drawn from a feminine wisdom that includes three basic components: a healthy receptivity to what is; an openness to fullness of being; and active employment of “practical love” (55). Anders has an obvious knack for blending all three with grace and finesse, kneading and making Wisdom as if it were bread (6).

I doubt that Becoming Flame will bring huge revelations about God or self to readers. But what I do fully expect is that readers will experience minor epiphanies about their own behavior and the patterns of life, find inspiration to persist in their present circumstances, and that through Anders’ carefully crafted words, Wisdom will bring peace. Take, for example, my favorite excerpt (which calmed my anxiety in the midst of house hunting!):

“Is there truly a Plan,” asked the Daughter, “that can guide me in every decision and assure me that I am choosing rightly?”

“You must bring your whole self to that question. Then, at the point where your deepest conviction intersects the line of present opportunity, you will be shown the Way. That is all we can ask for on this Earth,” said her Mother (38).

Becoming Flame includes a moving afterword, insightful notes, and group study questions for those interested in going deeper, but to be frank, by the end of Becoming Flame’s 59 pages, I found myself just longing for more conversation. Yet at the same time, I was glad that Anders did not write more if she would have been relying on her own wisdom—or even worse, artificially forcing more to come.


The Bench at Saint-Remy - Vincent Van GoghThe Bench at Saint-Remy
Kevin Book-Satterlee

(Painting by Vincent Van Gogh.

Poem based on
the visia divina exercises
in Henri Nouwen’s book
Spiritual Formation

the gnarled, twisted arm of the long-
overgrown tree; the rigid, knotted muscles
of the one providing shade and rest.
the Christ hung on the smooth-scarred planks
of a tree that once shaded the Roman soldier
or perhaps a pair of Jewish lovers
acting out Solomon’s song.

under the weary tree, ancient,
its bark wrinkles under the pressure of time
and earthly formation.  countless hours
providing shade has made it an expert
in blocking the scorching heat.

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