As October sneaks in the back door, I’m finding myself already in the third month of pastoral ministry. I’m preparing my eighth consecutive sermon; I’ve done several visits to homes and hospitals. The sum of people I’ve prayed with, laughed with, hugged or shaken hands with is well into the hundreds. What’s more, being in a small town means Jessie and I have even had dinner with the mayor!
One thing I’ve learned, quickly and sharply, is that things that impressed me in seminary don’t have the same dramatic effect on my congregants. People aren’t impressed when I offer some variation of a Stanley Hauerwas quip, such as: “the first work of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world.” It’s not gone over any more impressively when I attempt to do some Childs-ean canonical hermeneutical maneuver. No one has complimented my sermon’s works cited page.
But, my oh my, do they get riled up by a good answer to the question “So what?” It’s not at all the case that my beloved congregation doesn’t care about reading Scripture faithfully or theological interpreting culture. If I’ve made sense of the comments I’ve received, the reason they love a good answer to “so what?” is because, oftentimes, the line from sermon to discipleship is not always clear. Preaching on God’s “absolute difference” (to borrow a phrase from Rev. Warren Smith) does not directly translate into any meaningful action, whether an action of heart or soul or mind or body. They want to draw nearer to Jesus somehow and delight when the way is made known to them.
In his book Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World (Brazos Press: 2017, kindly sent for review by Louis & friends at Baker Publishing House), Kyle David Bennet offers an interpretation of spiritual disciplines that tries to answer the “so what?” for the practice of spiritual disciplines. According to Bennet’s analysis, somewhere along the way spiritual disciplines began functioning as acute, self-serving “solutions” to our spiritual anxieties or troubles. They are, Bennet argues, actually intended to be habits that shape our every action. Bennet defines spiritual disciplines as “practices for a community to reform its way of life together — the thoughts, attitudes, habits, practices, and behavior of individuals, and the general lifestyle or way of living of the community.” They are not one-time fixes to one-time problems. They are longterm disciplines for spiritual formation — that is, habits to grow closer to God and to one another.
After a two-part introduction, Bennet shows how spiritual disciplines are corrective disciplines to bad cultural habits. Each chapter shows how a discipline works both vertically (between God and the person) and horizontally (between the person and other folks). For example, in his chapter on simplicity, Bennet makes a theological claim: everything we have is a gift from God. Therefore, he continues, everything we have should be treated like a gift of God. But we (Americans) generally squander our possessions. Such squandering does not only offend God, “from whom all blessings flow,” but can also adversely effect our neighbor. We live in a world with limited resources — Bennet uses the sorrowfully relevant example of everyone converging on a grocery store just before an impending disaster — where overconsumption may literally lead to someone else being without food, water, clothing, or other resources. “When we own, we own what could be our neighbor’s. This may seem insignificant to us, but it’s definitely significant to our neighbor.” When we live simply — not owning more than we need, holding loosely to what we do own — we honor God as the giver of all gifts and love our neighbor by ensuring they will have what they need.
I originally requested this book to consider it for a small group study. Such a use would be ideal for this book. Bennet has written clearly and makes liberal use of stories and examples. Readers from many places in their spiritual journey would benefit from reading this book. I expect to use chapters or even the whole book in a future small group setting. I only hesitate to use the whole book because, while the book is highly readable, some may feel burdened by repetition.
If the folks that purchase this book are anything like my congregation, they will be ecstatic to discover Bennet offers them whole realm of practices that answer the question “so what?”