I was just thinking that one of the really good decisions I’ve made in the past couple of years has been to listen to Jane Albright and dig into the book Good and Beautiful God, by James Bryan Smith. I had read the book as part of a Bible study several years ago and felt it was so practical and insightful. These last two years though I’ve been through the book about three more times. Every time I read it, the truth that is within these pages gets deeper into my heart. And the truth is really just solid teaching about Jesus, the Bible, and how to change from the inside out.
When Cheryl Baird suggested we use the first few chapters of the book as the content for teaching at our 2017 Rest and Renewal Retreat here in SoCal, I immediately knew she was onto something special and important. We have been having these retreats for 21 years now…seeing God faithfully come and meet us wherever we have landed, from Ojai to Malibu, Catalina Island to Big Bear Lake, the Lord has blessed each retreat in unique ways. Every year, though, I’m sitting here after the retreat for months, wishing we could do better keeping in touch and providing ongoing encouragement for all of these beloved women. Now, built into the rhythm of the retreat follow up we have the rest of this wonderful book!
I’m hopeful lots of us will follow through and read it…and take time to do the “soul training” exercises at the end of each chapter. In the meantime, I’m going to try to write a bit of what I learn from each chapter. It is a good process for me, and hopefully can provide some helpful insight to anyone who may be reading this....
So, here we go! Chapter One.
This chapter lays the foundation for the book, but even more I’d say it lays the foundation for living the Christian life. That sounds pretty dramatic…how can one chapter be foundational for all of our lives as we follow Christ? I’m tempted to say, read it and you’ll see what I mean!
Here is why this chapter hits me so hard—it is about the stories we are living. These stories are based on the narratives in our minds…family narratives, cultural narratives, religious narratives, etc. We live by these (whether we are aware of them or not), we interpret life circumstances by these, we make decisions based on these. Are the narratives in our minds true or false? Are they Jesus’ narratives?
I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, for example. Where does my definition of what it means to be a woman come from? Most of the time, I don’t think it comes from Jesus. I’m trying to figure out, what does Jesus say about gender? Our culture is sliding quickly into fluid gender identities based on feelings and experiences. This is a difficult and tender topic for many people. I don’t think there are easy answers, but I’m sure there are false narratives flying around that create more gender confusion than ever. I want to replace false narratives about gender with true narratives from Jesus. More on this later as I’m hopeful to spend time in October focusing on these issues in my reading and research.
Reading and research is one way to dig into false narratives, but I know without the guidance of the Holy Spirit I am likely to be spinning around looking at a million different viewpoints. The Holy Spirit is central to living the Christian life. Jesus went so far as to say it was good for Him to leave because the Holy Spirit would come after He left (John 14). Learning to walk in step with the Spirit is essential. As James Smith says on page 28, “The Holy Spirit is our unseen teacher who points us to Jesus and reminds us of his words. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is the one who is helping us change our narratives to Jesus’ narratives.” The Holy Spirit is a fascinating third person of the God-head who is often misunderstood to the point of exclusion. We must learn to listen to and walk in step with the Holy Spirit.
Chapter One ends with the soul training exercise of Sleep. Ahhhh…sleep until you wake up. That is the charge. What does letting ourselves sleep have to do with training our souls? James Smith says, “The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion.” That is quite a statement! I’m feeling it right now, how about you? He goes on to say, “The focus of this chapter has been to show how spiritual formation is a combination of our action and God’s action. We must do something, but we rely on God to provide what is needed in order to change. Sleep is a perfect example of the combination of discipline and grace. You cannot make yourself sleep….Sleep is an act of surrender. It is a declaration of trust. It is admitting that we are not God (who never sleeps), and that is good news. We cannot make ourselves sleep, but we can create the conditions necessary for sleep.”
And we can create the conditions necessary for change…as we rely on God to meet us and change us. So much to learn, Lord, come lead us please, show us Your truth...amen and amen!