Spiritual Practice of Fiction
the latest book from best selling author, Sharon Garlough
Brown, is the third in her four part "Sensible Shoes"
series. It is currently #5 on the Christian Booksellers' General
Contemporary Fiction list. "An Extra Mile" will complete
the series with a fall 2017 release.
When I first
picked up "Sensible Shoes," on a whim at the library, I had
no idea what to expect. It's a novel, yes, but it's also a sort of
spiritual retreat. This is like no Christian fiction I'd ever read,
and it tied into my interests in contemplative spirituality. This
was a book that read me. As I walked with the characters, I was
thinking about my life differently, asking questions about my
emotions and responses to the people and situations around me. The
series has continued to challenge, move, and encourage me, and now
the third book in the series, "Barefoot," has released into the
world. I caught up with author Sharon Garlough Brown to talk
Sharon, it's so good to talk with you today.
Sharon: It's wonderful to be with you, Cara.
don't you tell me a little bit about the
Sensible Shoes series?
SGB: At the moment, it's a series of three books. The series
starts with a book called "Sensible Shoes." "Sensible Shoes"
is a kind of a hybrid genre. It's fiction, it's a novel, but it
tracks four characters as they meet at a retreat center to learn
some ancient practices of the church, some spiritual disciplines,
and as they are going through the retreat there are six sessions.
Those handouts are available in the book, so a reader has an
opportunity whether or not to just read it as story and track the
characters on their journey deeper into the heart of God, and as
they're experiencing transformation, and healing, and freedom, or to
also participate in the retreat.
So that's the first book in the series, "Sensible Shoes." The
second book in the series is "Two Steps Forward." It picks up
right where "Sensible Shoes" leaves off, actually on the same
day, and tracks the characters forward through the season of Advent.
What I'm hoping, in "Two Steps Forward," is that people won't
just see it as an Advent book that they read at that season of the
year, but that we really discover that Advent is an opportunity, is
a posture, year-round, this season where we are preparing ourselves
for the coming of Christ, where we're practicing waiting, where
we're looking at themes like light shining into the darkness and how
is Christ Emmanuel, God with us, making Himself known to us in the
middle of the mess of life.
So the characters are no longer in retreat in the second book, but their
lives are unraveling, and the question becomes: what will they
remember of what they've learned and what they've experienced and
"Barefoot" is the third in the series. It's the same
characters, again life getting messy, and how are they connecting in
community and with God?
made you choose fiction as a way to express some of these ideas
about spiritual formation and spiritual practices?
SGB: Fiction is so invitational. Jesus knew the power of
story and told stories so well. We read story in a different way
than we read nonfiction. We read it with our guard down... we read
it with our defenses down, and story has this potential and power to
hit us and linger with us.
Story is stealthy. I knew I wanted to tell a story about the power
of the Spirit to transform us in this process of spiritual
formation, this process of being conformed to the image of Christ,
to becoming more like Him, and I sensed that the best way to do
that, given that there are already so many wonderful nonfiction
books out about spiritual formation and spiritual practices, was to
try a story form where I created four characters and introduced them
to these spiritual practices and just then let's see what God does
with them...where do they go in this journey?
you tell me a little about your journey with some of the practices
in the book?
SGB: I was in pastoral ministry for a number of years before
I was introduced to the notion of spiritual disciplines and the
contemplative way of life. I lived a very driven, very busy [life].
I had my socially acceptable idolatries in terms of trying to
perform well in ministry, trying to be enough and do enough for God
and for others. That really meant living on the edge of burnout.
About 10 years ago, I began meeting with a spiritual director,
someone who's just prayerfully attentive to listening to my life and
asking good questions about how I'm noticing and naming the presence
of God, how I'm resisting in fear, how I'm longing for God.
Even that first meeting, it began a paradigm shift in ministry, for
me, from working really really hard for what God had already freely
given, and that was His love. So it was a paradigm shift even in
understanding what spiritual disciplines are.
I grew up with this notion that spiritual disciplines are the things
that we are supposed to do in order to be faithful Christians and
now I see spiritual practice as a way of practicing receiving the
love of God and resting in the love of God and then responding to
that love in the world.
So practices that have become life-giving for me are things like a
slow meditating on scripture maybe just a short passage, Lectio
Divina, which goes back way into the early centuries of the church.
How are we letting the word read us, how are we letting the word
come to life as we slowly chew on a passage, listening for a word or
phrase that's catching our attention, kind of shimmering for us, and
then we begin to to chew it and ponder it and pray it and ask God
what is it about this particular word or phrase that's catching my
attention and inviting me to linger with it?
So that sort of practice has become very important. The practice of
Sabbath has become really important in my rhythm of life, where
Sabbath is a weekly way to declare that the world can run without my
vigilance and without me having to be responsible for anything, but
it's this gracious command and gracious invitation from the God who
generously works the rhythm of rest into our lives and reminds us in
Scripture that we are no longer slaves and that we practice the
Sabbath not only to remember the image of the one in whom we're
created, God who rests, but also to remember with the Israelites
that we were once slaves. They were slaves in Egypt, we were slaves
to our sin, and we're no longer enslaved people. Sabbath is a
radical declaration to say that we are free. That means free to
rest, free to play, free to enjoy God's gracious provision.
So those are just a couple of the disciplines that have been
radically life changing for me as I've practiced those.
writing these books enhanced your spiritual life?
SGB: That's such a great question. The only way I know how to
write is by praying my way through it. I never know plot points in
advance, or rarely know them in advance, anyway, and have to just
kind of pray my way day by day with the characters. I hope that that
has made me more attentive not only to my own life with God and what
I'm noticing about God's invitations from day to day, but also to
the presence of God in other people's lives.
Each of the characters is distinct from one another, they have different
struggles, they have different joys, they have different baggage
that they bring from the past. There are certain spiritual practices
that might be really really life giving to, say, Hannah in her
circumstances, that might mean nothing for Charissa, and vice versa.
So I'm experiencing the presence of God as I write and I hope that makes
me even more attentive to the presence of God in the lives of
prepared to send this new entry into the world, what was your hope
for the readers
of the Sensible Shoes series?
SGB: I had two hopes when I started writing "Sensible
Shoes" and those hopes have continued as the series has
developed. The first is that readers will catch a glimpse, a vision,
of what it means to be loved by God. And I know we can give a lot of
lip service that 'oh yes we know that God loves us.' But to truly
truly know that the most important thing that can be said about us
is not information about what our jobs are, what we've achieved,
what other people think about us, but that we, like the Apostle
John, are able to say that we are the disciples that Jesus loves,
that we are the ones Jesus loves. It's catching a fresh glimpse of
our identity in Christ as the Beloved.
The second longing that I had is that readers would connect with one
another in community. We're not meant to travel alone. The only
thing that God said was not good in creation was that Adam was
alone, and it's not good for us to be alone. Sometimes it can be
very hard to find trustworthy companions to walk with us, but I'm
hoping that the books in the "Sensible Shoes" series invite
community, and not superficial community, but deep, maskless
authentic, like 'this is where life is hard for me.'
I think that, sometimes, the gift that fiction and characters can give us
is they can give us mirrors to seeing our own struggle and then
windows into seeing God's presence in the midst of those struggles.
So my longing is that people say yes to the invitation to walk together.
I've made available a companion guide on my website sensibleshoesclub.com. There's a free companion guide, it's
available for "Sensible Shoes." It's intense. It's 12 weeks,
5 days a week, of scripture and then questions about the characters,
because it's often easier to see the truth in someone else's life
before we necessarily recognize it in our own.
So: what are the characters struggling with? What are they
processing right now? And then the mirror turns around to the
reader: what am I seeing in my life with God? And then some ideas
for prayer and for spiritual practice. I hear from lots of
individuals and groups that are using that as a way to walk together
and that's gratifying to me.
Sharon Garlough Brown - Barefoot
If you aren't
familiar with the writing of Sharon Garlough Brown, you just
don't know what you're missing. Her "Sensible Shoes"
series is soooo stinkin' good! Take a minute to read her guest
Barefoot Characters Have
"All that summer conceals,
winter reveals," author Annie Dillard writes. It's a
quote I read years ago, and it returns to me today as I look out
my window at the stripped trees, their naked forms gray and
stark against the morning sky. The lush green of summer is gone,
and now we see the structure and shape of each gnarled, twisted
branch. Winter is a season of vulnerable, courageous beauty.
It's the "Here I am," maskless and open, waiting and watching
season. And it whispers words of invitation and hope for those
who have ears to hear.
As "Barefoot," the third book in the "Sensible Shoes"
series opens, Meg Crane is peering out her window on a winter
morning, the bleakness of the landscape mirroring the sorrow in
her own soul. An accusing voice rings in her head, telling her
she ought to be more resilient, that she ought to be able to
bounce back from suffering and move on. Meg has known people
able to withstand pressure with remarkable equanimity, to
stretch, bend, and adapt to suffering with grace, with hope.
But, she laments, she has never been one of them.
While Meg ponders what it would mean to be "resilient," her eyes land
upon a certain tree in the neighbors' backyard, a tree with a
history. Here's what Meg sees and remembers:
The gnarled wild cherry tree in the next-door neighbors' backyard,
visible from Meg's window ever since she could remember, offered
a picture of resilient hope. Years ago, when Mr. and Mrs.
Anderson lived there, violent winds tore through West Michigan
on a balmy summer night and nearly ripped the tree out, leaving
the roots exposed. The next day neighbors gathered around it,
some of them bracing the trunk upright with hands and shoulders
while others stamped the roots back into the soil again. Mother
chided them from an upstairs window: they were fools, making
such a fuss over a tree. But Meg secretly cheered them on. The
tree always leaned after that storm, but it lived, its
lopsidedness testifying to resilience, its yearly blossoms to
Resilient in suffering, not impervious to it. That was the silent witness
of the stooped tree: not denial of the storm, but perseverance,
character, and hope as a result of it.
Oh, for that kind of testimony.
I wonder what you see as you survey the winter landscape, not only the
landscape of the physical world but the landscape of your own
soul? Are there barren and desolate places you prefer to
conceal? What would it mean for you to embrace the invitation of
this season, to stand open and vulnerable and exposed before the
God who sees you and knows you and loves you with an
extravagant, embracing, unchanging fervor? And what might it be
like to stand before someone else with a courageous "Here I am"
posture of openness and honesty?
In winter I am reminded that there is a particular beauty in the wounded,
imperfect lives of those who have weathered storms and stand,
bearing witness to a resilient hope which perseveres and to a
God who will make all things well.
Oh, for that kind of testimony.