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Saturday, October 13, 2012

"Joy Together" (Lynne M. Baab)

TITLE: Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation
AUTHOR: Lynne M. Baab
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (203 pages).

In a world often blamed for its individualistic emphasis and behavior, the danger for Christians is that the world may have influenced them more than expected. Just recall the kinds of spiritual vocabulary we use. "Personal devotions," "Individual quiet times," "Spending time alone with God," "Self-examination," and so on are terms which many of us have often accepted without much thought. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that these things are not needed. In fact, many spiritual disciplines ought to begin with the self. That is not my concern. My concern arises when people choose to remain at the "self" stage. Thankfully, Lynne Baab has given us a book of doing spiritual disciplines together as a community of faith.

True to Baab's area of expertise, the book dwelves into spiritual disciplines such as fasting, giving thanks, contemplative praying, Scripture reading, showing hospitality, keeping Sabbath, spiritual discerning, and many more. Unlike her previous work, this book focuses on what it means to do spiritual disciplines communally, to be of the same mind and heart, to practice common disciplines through our individual uniquenesses. There are many advantages in doing so. Firstly, it helps us with a more holistic understanding of the spiritual disciplines. Secondly, it allows others to complement us, that each other's strengths to complement the weaknesses. Thirdly, there is an increase in learning of many perspectives for a more fruitful and enriching experience. Fourthly, it aids in our spiritual listening, that as we make space together for God, we are also making space together for one another. Fifthly, we get to participate in a spiritual feast. Sixthly, together as a body, we are able to practice MORE disciplines, to cover more ground than any one person is able to.  For this, Baab sees the practice of communal spirituality primarily through small groups, Church worship, fellowship as "indispensable and essential to the Christian life." Baab chooses to focus on six disciplines.

  1. Thankfulness
  2. Fasting
  3. Contemplative prayer
  4. Contemplative Scripture reading
  5. Hospitality
  6. Sabbath keeping 

The six point the way to other disciplines. More critically, the reason for choosing these six is to address  several concerns. Concerns surrounding the worldly consumerism and materialism in the world of advertising and consuming. Concerns about the need for spiritual growth on a daily basis. Concern about being equipped to live in God's wisdom and listening for God. Concerns about growing spiritually in our difficult world. Other concerns center around the decline of congregational giving, lack of enthusiasm in outreach, and the loss of purpose, especially, our understanding of the meaning of church. Are we able to rise above our own personal concerns about our own family, problems, work matters, personal issues, and to live Christlike, sharing our ups and downs with the communities we belong to? Baab says yes. In fact, it is imperative simply because we are created to be a community of believers. We need one another.

In giving thanks, we can thank not just for our own blessings, we can learn to give thanks to God for what has happened to our communities, our neighbours, and others. God blesses and guides not only us, but our friends, our communities at large. Giving thanks gives us new eyes to see the workings and wonders of God in this world.

In fasting, Baab begins with a reference to Richard Foster's bestselling book, "Celebration of Discipline," on how difficult it is to find a book about fasting. The secret of fasting is not in the physical hunger or thirst, but in the remembrance of what is more important in life. In fact, there are numerous biblical examples of communal fasting. Baab gives us many different options to cater to the different needs of each group.

In contemplative prayer, we grow in intimacy with God, sharing our 'aha' moments, together. Baab guides us through some spiritual practices like Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises of examen (examination of consciousness), Adele Calhoun's river and street metaphors, centering prayer among several others.

In contemplative reading of Scripture, Baab shows us the lectio divina exercise, of spiritual reading (lectio), meditation (meditatio), praying (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Instead of limiting oneself or the group to any one agenda, contemplative reading frees the group to let God speak freely. Baab also gives tips on group reading for small groups, church boards, staff meetings, and worship gatherings.

In hospitality, Baab shows us how to move out of two limited perspectives of hospitality. We have often been constrained by hospitality as a "paying a debt" or reciprocal arrangements; and the commercialized "hospitality industry." What about hosting community gatherings as a community of faith? I remember how the Jews come together for feasts. Surely, the modern Church can practise a form of feasting together? The key is to keep it simple and enjoyable.

Finally, in Sabbath keeping, we arrest the tendency of people to be trapped in a 24/7 world, non-stop activism, and the restlessness of society. One interesting idea Baab poses is the idea of a Sabbath for regular volunteers on Sunday. Recognizing that the majority of the work is often done by a minority of people, why not for one Sunday, flip it around?

My Thoughts

If you have been reading Baab's other works on spiritual practices, you will find many practices familiar to you. What makes this book unique is the focus on group practicing of these spiritual disciplines. The part that is most essential for group work is spiritual discernment. Through the six spiritual practices described in the book, one can connect individual discernment with community discernment. The part about whether spiritual disciplines are forms of self-help is an interesting segment of the book. She tackles the question of focus. Are disciplines directing our attention more toward God, or toward selves? Baab acknowledges this predicament and the dangers of spiritual practices becoming too curved into our needs and ourselves. Her argument is that any "initiative" on our part to do spiritual practices, is already a step that God has initiated first! If the spiritual disciplines are then shaping us to be more Christlike, why not? After all, when the Holy Spirit works in us, we learn to participate in God's work in all ways. The chapter on spiritual receptivity is worth the price of the book. It is an intelligent engagement with a modern society that is increasingly pluralistic and how we can be open and at the same time, be faithful to God's truth in the Bible. More importantly, when we are open, we are actually training ourselves to be more willing to let God transform us not only to be better people, but to be ready for the kingdom.

This is a good book to read together as a small group.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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