Monday, July 25, 2011

review: "Into God's Presence" by Liz Babbs

(a version of this review appears on Amazon here)

Liz Babbs, as this photo taken when she spoke for our church attests, is a saint.

Only a saint could open a book with:

"It's hard enough to pray, anyway.   Do I really need another book to make me feel guilty about my prayer life?"

What she has written instead is the definitive popular-level primer/ introduction to Christian meditative prayer; what she has written is  "Into God's Presence: Listening to God through Prayer and Meditation".

And kudos for more honesty: "The books I found on [meditation] were complicated, inaccessible....I wanted a simple 'how to' guide without any jargon....that fitted my lifestyle, not the lifestyle of a monk or a man." (p. 12).  Please don't read from that that this is a woman's book, or directed primarily at women.  It is not at all, it is simply one that she wrote from a place that resonated with her, and this approach delightfully makes the whole work more accessible to all (the more personalized/local, the more universal, as I learned from Andy ( as I posted elsewhere: "A pastor friend from a small town  [Andy] once shared his hesitancy to broadcast his sermons on the radio, as the references and st ries seemed so local and limited.  But he soon found that 'the more specific I was, the more universal the message was".  This brings the emotional narrative arc within reach of us all, and   touch and heal us in places we may not have known needed it".  See this for more on Andy) .  I am a man, and not a monk...and I loved this book.  Maybe women are far better at being honest...honestly! (By the way,  if you want another good prayer book by a woman, that is also not a  woman's prayers book, try out Margaret Feinberg's "Sacred Echo" and it's equally honest statements like "Though I pray repetitively, vehemently, I hear the thick silence, like that which follows the dropping of a heavy, leather-bound book onto a hard, wooden library floor."

Babbs helpfully defines meditation as a subset of prayer: "Christian meditation is a deep form of prayer that can lead to direct communion with God." (p. 15),  Her Celtic-sensitive approach (see her "Celtic Treasure"; but know that  Celtic Christianity is not at all a topic  in the book under discussion) allows her to approach meditation holistically and Hebraically.....and above all, honestly.

And honestly, honesty is a rare trait in books about prayer and meditation.

That she is candid about her own vulnerabilities, and the ironic circumstances of burnout while writing the book ("My Diary of Burnout," see pp. 142-145), wonderfully strengthens the book, and endears us toi her.

That she navigates complex theological concepts related to meditation; concepts that entire graduate classes are devoted to (Lectio Divina, p. 82.; Ignatian spirituality, especially how to use creative imagination  to meditate on  a Scripture like The Prodigal Son, p. 86-90),  and simplifies their explanations  and essence without cheapening their profundity for the sake or practicality is a  vital gift.

That she is (and her evangelical publisher, Zondervan) not afraid of what some would see as theological red flags (her complete healing from ME, or what we call in the US chronic fatigue syndrome/CFS; a visit to the Toronto Blessing, p. 69) is refreshing.  I also must thank Zondervan for not censoring the word "bastard" (p. 69), as that word alone, and its potentially shame,  is embedded in a story that is humbly honest and hugely healing.   Her theology is balanced and biblical, but also boldly gentle.

Suffice to say this book is strongly recommended, and will be included in the discipleship curriculum of our congregation. But a couple quotes I particularly enjoyed:

"Jesus could have healed many more people and been far busier....but he chose to listen to his Father and do what he said..His ministry was punctuated by withdrawal.  That was his action plan for effective ministry."  (p. 29) In this and other sections, she dismantles and deconstructs our idolatry of busy-ness.   The book itself is creatively framed by an inclusio: at the beginning (p. 17) she runs together a whole paragraph without spaces or punctuation, which she types out with spaces at the end, (pp, 183-184)so that we can read it, get it...and also get the point that we are far too overloaded, and need the punctuation and full stops of Christian meditation.

 I also  loved her testimony of "retreat on the streets."   "Jesus identified with those on the margins of society, and  we are called to do the same." No believer would argue with that thesis, how many of us have  intentionally experimented with"wandering the streets...{and} sensing God's heart for people." (p, 159).  This is what we call in our flock, "missional monastism," and key to a nondualistic meditation and biblical worldview.

One minor quibble; not with the content of the book, but with the way the publisher didn't "translate" several Britishisms (like "holiday," p, 148; and British spellings like "centre," p. 150 "programme," p. 161) in the American edition.  This would be a simple correction in any future editions.  I would hate for any Americans (or any non-British) to miss the point of some of her most helpful analogies and ideas; notably the "Who's in the Driving Seat-You Or God?" section (pp. 31-34, and note even in that title is a Brtishism, as Americans say "driver's seat").  The real problem is most Americans don't know that what we call the "trunk" of a car is a "boot" in the U.K (p. 142).   And I had to look up "M.O.T," (p. 150: "Going on retreat is a little like booking your car for an MOT." This is incomprehensible to Americans). Though I could figure out what it meant by the context, I had never heard of  it (It's "Ministry of Transport," and is an annual test of car safety in the U.K.)

Thanks St. Liz, for this valuable  Kingdom resource: a highly practical primer in something so basic to Christian spirituality, but so little practiced: Christian prayer and  meditation.

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