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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Soul Keeping" (John Ortberg)

TITLE: Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You
AUTHOR: John Ortberg
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013, (208 pages).

What is the soul? What does the soul need? How is the soul restored and revitalised? These questions are expertly dealt with by bestselling author John Ortberg. Also a pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, Ortberg has written several other popular books about the Christian life and spiritual growth. Reflecting on life and death, the vibrant and the lethargic, Ortberg moves from basic Christian living toward a fundamental aspect of spiritual growth: Caring for the Soul. He calls this the "most important part" of us and compares this to a "keeper of the stream." Nourish it and the soul would flourish. Ignore it and the soul would diminish. Throughout the book, Ortberg reflects on his interactions with his spiritual mentor, the late Dr Dallas Willard about soul talk.

"The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it's who you become. That's what you will take into eternity. You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God's great universe." (Dallas Willard)

This eventually becomes Ortberg's thesis in this book, that we are the keepers of our soul and taking care of the most important part of us demands our wholehearted focus in cultivating, developing, and growing our souls. That is why this book is entitled: "Soul Keeping."

Songs have been written about it. Psychotherapists have analyzed it. Prayers have been uttered of it. Science has even tried to weigh it. For Christians, some have also attempted to calculate the cost of a soul. Instead of seeing the soul as the center of the person, Ortberg points to a different direction. The soul encompasses everything else. Unhealthy souls scatter all the person's mind, will, and self all over. Healthy souls will integrate and maintains integrity through gratitude and generosity. In a tough world that often tries to pull us apart in many directions, Ortberg lists several such dangers. There is the danger of being so success-driven that touches up the outer but impoverishes the inner. Fame is fleeting but distracting as well. The parable of the sower aptly describes how our soul is like the seed being described. Are our souls likened to hardened grounds of fear that fall on the way and become lost? What about the shallow souls that never really take root? What of the cluttered soul and the many things we do in the name of spiritual growth? Sin is a major part of soul destruction.

After describing the risks and dangers of ignoring the soul, Ortberg moves toward what we can do. He makes readers appreciate that the soul is fundamentally a needy being. We need at least nine things, namely:
  1. A Keeper: we need to take responsibility to care for and to keep the soul nourished
  2. A Center: we need God to be our center so that we will not be easily distracted or tossed aside
  3. A Future: we need a clear sense of the hope and promise of an eternity with God
  4. Being With God: we need to recognize that our true home is with God
  5. Rest: we need to be engaged in a rhythm of race and grace, knowing that is the natural cycle of creation
  6. Freedom: we need to live in the freedom of the gospel
  7. Blessing: we are wired to bless and be blessed
  8. Satisfaction: our spiritual cravings need a satisfactory resource
  9. Gratitude: we need to cultivate a spirit of thanksgiving always.

Ortberg concludes with a chapter on the classic work, "Dark Night of the Soul" that such a journey may be necessary in order to grow an intimacy in us for God, that nothing else truly matters, and only God is sufficient for all of our needs.

So What?

This book is eloquently Ortberg. The introduction is compelling, showing us that the soul is indeed a much neglected part of us. By ignoring this, we are essentially ignoring the most important part of ourselves. The soul is not just a spiritual component that drives the rest of us. It is the rest of us that resonates with the quality of our souls. The intimate talks with Dallas Willard are priceless. Readers can see how much Willard means to the author, and how the author grows his own spiritual awareness through the years. Ortberg has a keen understanding of the troubles that afflict Christians at large. The problems of a busy society centered on success and popularity. Even preachers and Christian leaders are not immune from such temptations. By including nine ways to cultivate soul-keeping, Ortberg has made this book a practical how-to guide to keeping our souls healthy.

I wonder about the order of the nine needs of the soul. Is there an order to it? My feelings on it are mixed. If there is an order, then the list begins well but ends rather abruptly. While it is nice to start with the "keeper" to ignite the responsibility card, if I am a staunch Calvinist or Reformist, I may ask why not begin with God? Why is gratitude the last instead of rest? The part about satisfaction could have been merged with gratitude. I am sure there could have been more than nine ways, but given the brevity of the book, the author can only list so much. Personally, I prefer more references to the spiritual classics of old, especially monastic literature and ancient spirituality of the early Church fathers and the desert monks. The chapter on "Dark Night of the Soul" ought to have more meat in it. In all, my sense is that this book begins well but the conclusion is mild. By beginning and ending with his recollections of his time with Willard, sometimes I wonder if this book is also part-memoir of his time with his mentor instead of simply a popular treatise on soul-work. It is both. That's why it lacks the impact of a pointed bullet. Nevertheless, I can recommend this book for popular reading and growing of our inner soul.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Publishers and Icon Media Group in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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