Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion - Richard J. Foster & Gayle D. Beebe

You Don’t Have to Go it Alone

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion
Authors: Richard J. Foster & Gayle D. Beebe
Publisher: IVP Books
Pages: 364

Among some Christians, there is little, if any, attention paid to church history or those who have gone before. In some cases, the writings and thoughts of past luminaries may be disregarded or frowned-on because of their religious tradition, or because some of their teachings are considered controversial or unorthodox. Our tendency to write people off that we disagree with is tragic. We end up losing out on whatever we might have learned from them and may diminish their significance in the eyes of others. I’m not suggesting that we embrace false doctrine. When we encounter teaching that may not be correct, one noted Bible teacher of the past likened it to eating fish: “eat the flesh and spit out the bones.” This is an approach that I favor, one that requires us to become mature, able to distinguish between right and wrong.

This is the broadminded way that Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe take in Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion. They serve-up the best from twenty-six different historical figures who in some way have contributed to our understanding of experiencing God.

The book is divided into seven major sections. These consist of the seven primary paths to God that have been recognized throughout Christian history. The authors summarize them as:

 The spiritual life as the right ordering of our love for God
 The spiritual life as journey
 The spiritual life as the recovery of knowledge of God lost in the Fall
 The spiritual life as intimacy with Jesus Christ
 The spiritual life as the right ordering of our experiences of God
 The spiritual life as action and contemplation
 The spiritual life as divine ascent

The three or four individuals selected for each section were chosen “because of the way their witness to Christ has endured over time and guided people through the ages.”

The mature perspective, the ability to place individuals and events in their historical context, the expert synthesis of each individual’s thought and major writings, plus the simple but profound practical applications at the end of each chapter, combine to make this an outstanding resource. One slight drawback might be that you don’t get much of each person’s own words, but it would be hard to adequately represent their teachings through quotations in such short chapters. Some of these original writings can also be difficult to read. But if that’s what you want, each chapter gives you the titles of major writings. The book serves as a fine introduction to many of the brightest lights in church history.

This is easy to read and the chapters are short enough that you can read one a day as a devotional. The content is deep enough to provide much to think about. Richard Foster, who writes the “Reflecting and Responding” sections in each chapter, wisely chooses to keep his applications simple. Some of the thought is complex and as helpful as it may be, it’s important not to get overwhelmed or to try and copy the experience of someone else. We never want to lose the simplicity of personal devotion to Christ. Fortunately, the authors are of a similar mind in that they keep Christ at the center. One way to approach the book is to be like the Bible character Ruth in the fields of Boaz. Anyone can glean from the wealth of material presented.

Though I’ve read about a number of individuals covered in this book, I count it a joy when I can learn about people that are not as familiar. One such person for me was George Hebert, an English poet and pastor. His appreciation for beauty and language are endearing and an uncommon reminder of the role that they can play in our life with God.

Is humility something we can work at? Wouldn’t that generate pride in our ability to achieve it? If you are tempted to think that there is nothing that can be done to foster humility, you may want to read Benedict of Nursia. He “leads us through twelve degrees of humility that usher us into the presence of God.” One of the most interesting is “to speak gently, using reasonable words and humane tones. This emphasizes the way human speech can lift up or tear down.”

If you have ever read much of A. W. Tozer, regarded by some as an evangelical mystic, you may have come across repeated references to a book that was influential in his life and the lives of many others. The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous author is completely summarized here, so that I now know what it’s all about. The “cloud of unknowing” represents all that we don’t know about God. Our mind can make us aware of our lack, but this classic emphasizes that it’s only though our love for God that we begin to penetrate that cloud.

Don’t be tempted to think that this book might be too mystical, or one that advocates more of an ascetic lifestyle. I was pleasantly surprised throughout by the authors’ practical emphasis. They and their subjects continually remind us of our need for community and combining devotion with action. Love for God and service to others is a theme echoed frequently.

Some of us may have started out in the Christian life thinking that we are on our own when it comes to spiritual growth. This books shows that many others have traversed that path, and there are helpful things we can learn from their experience.

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