If you've read Flunking Sainthood, you'll know that I now realize that I was an idiot for trying all those spiritual practices alone rather than in the company of other people. DIY spirituality is not, at least for me, nearly as effective as DIT: Do It Together.
Lynne Baab's new book helps groups do just that. Although it's aimed primarily at Protestant congregations who want to learn together how to fast, keep the Sabbath, or express gratitude in prayer, it's adaptable for use by any group, large or small. Many historic spiritual practices arose in monastic settings (fixed-hour prayer, the Jesus Prayer, lectio divina) and were always intended to be practiced in groups, so Joy Together helps to move the focus away from the individual and back toward God and community.
It's a breath of fresh air. --JKR
As you wrote your new book, why did you think it was important to emphasize communal spiritual practices?
So many excellent books stress individual spiritual practices. Some of them talk about communal practices a bit, but practical illustrations are few and far between. It’s time for a book that gives practical examples of the ways Christian can engage in spiritual practices (also called spiritual disciplines) in families, small groups and congregations.
What’s the relationship between communal and individual practices?
They flow back and forth. For example, I learned about several forms of contemplative prayer – centering prayer, examen, lectio divina – in group settings. After engaging in those prayer forms with others for a while, I found myself praying that way on my own more often. To illustrate a flow in the opposite direction, I learned breath prayer from a book, and did it on my own for more than a decade before I started teaching it to groups. The last two times I’ve been worship leader at church, I’ve led the whole congregation in breath prayer. For me, thankfulness is another interesting example. My husband and I started praying thankfulness prayers together. Then I began to notice the way my personal prayers shifted more in the direction of thankfulness. Even later, I began to encourage groups to pray thankfulness prayers more often.
What do you think are some of the strengths of your book?
It’s hard to be objective at this point, when only my editor* and a few other people (mostly the people who wrote endorsements) have read the book. I asked one friend to read the book in pdf form, before the release date, in order to have a review ready to post on amazon.com. He liked the many stories that illustrate the ways groups can engage in spiritual practices. He also liked the fact that I bring my own life into the book, my own successes and struggles with spiritual practices. One idea that intrigued him came from a section in the chapter on fasting that covers Eastern Orthodox congregations, where fasting is entirely communal, as is feasting together at the end of their many fasts.
What specific practices did you cover?
I have individual chapters on six spiritual practices: fasting, thankfulness, contemplative prayer, contemplative approaches to the Bible, hospitality and Sabbath. I’ve written books on fasting and the Sabbath, but I decided to conduct more interviews for this book. With respect to the Sabbath, one interviewee said he believes keeping the Sabbath is one of the most challenging spiritual practices in our time. That surprised me, and I tried to address some of those difficulties in the chapter and make suggestions about how congregations can support Sabbath observance. Another chapter that surprised me as I wrote it was the one on thankfulness. My husband and I have been practicing thankfulness in our prayers together for almost 20 years, which has been transforming in the ways I mentioned above but in other ways as well. Writing the chapter was pure joy, because I long for others to grow in thankfulness and the good fruits that come from it.
Have you heard the growing concerns about spiritual practices?
William Willimon and others have spoken out about their concerns about spiritual practices. Willimon believes practices can become a way for us to attempt to take control of our relationship with God. He stresses that Jesus breaks in at unexpected times. Amen to that! I believe spiritual practices open up space and time for Jesus to do exactly that. The stories I’ve heard from people who engage in various spiritual practices certainly reinforces my perception. When we teach about spiritual practices, we need to emphasize that practices create space for God. They don’t in any way make God do something in our lives.
Willimon is also concerned that when we engage in spiritual practices, we may fall into thinking we are earning our salvation. That’s why it’s so important to teach about spiritual practices against a backdrop of God’s grace. Spiritual practices are a way to enjoy Jesus’ presence with us and spend time with the God who already loves us.
What do you think is the greatest contribution of spiritual practices in our time?
Spiritual practices nurture a posture of receptivity. In that posture, we are open to receive from God. We might receive guidance for ministry, or a sense of being loved way down deep, or relief of anxiety for the things on our mind. Or something totally unexpected. So much of life today requires us to take action and act like we’re in control. When we engage in spiritual practices, we relinquish control to God and open ourselves for God to meet us and surprise us.
*I was the editor for this book when I worked at WJK. What a pleasure! --JKR