Monday, December 10, 2012

JOY TOGETHER

Before I left Sewanee, Tennessee to winter in New Iberia, Louisiana, Sister Elizabeth, a sister at St. Mary’s Convent, gave me the name and email address of a friend who is a Presbyterian minister and professor of pastoral theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. The friend has written several books on spiritual growth and was interested in obtaining a review about her book, Joy Together, Spiritual Practices For Your Congregation, on my blog. As I’m retired and am no longer assigned to a congregation, I thought perhaps the book might have no relevance for me but I was curious to read what this author had to say about spiritual practices. At my bedtime reading, I read half the book in one sitting and was engaged enough to complete my reading the following morning!

One reviewer wrote about Joy Together, “this spiritual journey isn’t about hiking solo,” but I found it to be a good guide to a deeper spiritual life on an individual level, and a cogent text for strengthening Christian congregations. The sections on prayer, hospitality, Sabbath, fasting, etc. could serve as suggestions for an individual to practice a Benedictine-like Rule of Life to deepen his/her faith, as well as provide a guide to building community within dwindling congregations.

Joy Together describes six specific spiritual disciplines in detail to indicate how these practices can be experienced communally: thankfulness; fasting; contemplative prayer; contemplative approaches to Scripture; hospitality; and Sabbath keeping. Baab says that these disciplines, particularly when practiced communally, assist us in resisting the attraction of acquiring an increasing number of possessions and accelerating our materialistic lives… so that we can rest in the love, grace, and peace which derive from God.

I was drawn to the opening chapter about thankfulness in which the author talks about experiencing boredom and repetitiveness in her prayer life twenty years earlier. We all know the drill – making a list of needs and describing those needs at prayer time. Baab writes that she decided to do a thankfulness-in-prayer experiment and was amazed at the many things for which she wanted to thank God: friends, extended family, a neighborhood garden, colorful leaves in the fall…and the “specifics of daily life became more visible to us as manifestations of God’s care. We had always been thankful for food on the table each day, but now many more aspects of our life seemed to flow from the hands of a gracious and generous God…we became more aware of what we had been missing in all those years of prayer times that were packed with our needs and wants. We simply hadn’t noticed God’s good gifts to us…”

From those realizations about how blessed she and her family were, Baab proceeded to introduce thankfulness praying in church groups, a support group of women clergy, and other small groups. In Joy Together, she emphasizes that prayers of thankfulness enable us to see what God has been doing and where God has been working…such prayers make us stop and look. “I wonder if the lack of vitality in so many congregations comes in part from the paucity of our thankfulness,” she writes…”if gratitude is a central way to express dependence on God and our desire to be together with God, then we may be missing a primary route to divine intimacy…”

Another cogent chapter in Joy Together deals with hospitality, the ancient practice that describes some of Jesus’ most memorable encounters with individuals, the most significant example being that of the last meal with His disciples. Baab advocates congregational hospitality in homes and in hosting the wider community. She emphasizes the latter in a Celtic saying, “Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,” citing service to the homeless and disenfranchised as examples of Christ’s hospitality. She sums up: “Hospitality requires a skill in thinking that affirms the significance of trading hospitality back and forth, the way my parents did so well and so generously, while also affirming the joys of engaging with strangers, the marginalized and unexpected guests.”

Each chapter in Joy Together ends with questions for reflection, discussion, or journaling, and recommendations for further reading. This is a distinctive book about the use of practices that deepen faith in individuals and in entire congregations so that transformation can occur in both cases. It’s enlivened by the author’s own experiences and those of individuals she meets in her work as a minister and professor of pastoral theology.

A memorable quote from Henri Nouwen is featured in the text: “The word discipline means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act.’ Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up.” In the midst of our days being filled up with Christmas hecktivity and consumerism, Joy Together is a “must read.” Create some space in which God can act.

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