Spiritual Disciplines Handbook | Q&A with Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

In the Bible, we read about a young man named Daniel. A foreign military invaded his home city of Jerusalem. They burned all the buildings, killed many of the people without regard for age (2 Chronicles 36:17), and sexually assaulted many of the women (Lamentations 5:11). The attacking army put the survivors in chains and forced them to walk to Babylon. Daniel was among this group of captives.

If I had been in Daniel’s situation, I doubt I would have seen my years in Babylonian captivity as an opportunity for spiritual growth and deepening of trust in God, especially after I had just witnessed many friends and family get assaulted and killed back home. Perhaps many of the captives didn’t. But Daniel and a few others didn’t merely endure captivity in Babylon (including plots to kill them and changes of identity meant to insult them) but grew in their trust in God.

A major reason Daniel was able to deepen his relationship with God in the face of such adversity to spiritual disciplines. He may not have called it that, but he practiced spiritual disciplines, notably prayer, trust, and fasting. He persisted in his commitment to prayer even when praying to God became illegal. Violators would be executed. That’s why they tried to feed Daniel to lions.

When many of us think of spiritual disciplines, we think of Bible study, prayer, fasting, worship, and a few others. Those are all great ones to commit to, but there are many more that we can consider incorporating into our lives.

In Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines a spiritual discipline in the subtitle of her book: practices that transform us. Of course, many practices can transform us, but Calhoun covers 75 Christian spiritual disciplines including gratitude, rule of life, detachment, simplicity, waiting, mentoring, truth-telling, prayer walking, and journaling. With each spiritual discipline, Calhoun has crafted an accompanying desire. Here are some examples:

Discipline: Simplicity
Desire: to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters

Discipline: Forgivness
Desire: to live into Jesus’ forgiving heart and stop the cycle of vengeance

Discipline: Memorization
Desire: to carry the life-shaping words of God in me at all times and in all places

Discipline: Teachability
Desire: to remain a lifelong learner who is continually open to the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit

Discipline: Sobriety
Desire: to live with moderation and full attachment to God–without dependence on substances that are harmful to my life

Chart is on pages 13-16 of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.

You can view a table listing the 75 spiritual disciplines paired with their corresponding desire in the free preview portion of the book on Amazon.

Unlike many other books, I don’t recommend reading Spiritual Disciplines Handbook starting at the front cover and reading until the conclusion. Instead, the reader should treat it as a resource, reading sections they feel drawn to in a given season of life. It’s not a book you read and are done with, but a resource that keeps feeding you as you return to it each time. The table of disciplines/desires in the first few pages of the book can help the reader determine where to start.

Here is how Calhoun organizes each section on a spiritual discipline (I will use the discipline Confession and Self-Examination as the example here): first, Calhoun provides a table that includes the desire associated with the discipline, scriptures that encourage or show examples of the discipline (Psalm 139:23-24 is the first she lists for Confession and Self-Examination), a bullet-point list of what the practice includes (“admitting to God the natural propensity to rationalize, deny, blame and self-obsess”), and a list of examples the fruit that comes from God when one participates in the discipline (“gaining insight into your temptations and God’s work in your life”).

Calhoun then provides an opening reflection on each spiritual discipline. The reflection on Confession and Self-Examination is five paragraphs long which is pretty typical of the sections. She then lists several reflection questions and spiritual exercises that helps one implement the discipline. Here are fragments from Confession and Self-Examination:

From Opening Reflection:
Confession may be good for the soul, but it can very hard to do. We are invested in looking like good moral people. After all, appearing good is one way of dealing with the notion that something is wrong with us…
…The truth is that we all sin…
…True repentance means we open the bad in our lives to God. We invite him to come right in and look at our sin with us. We don’t hide behind being good, moral people or indulge in neurotic self-recriminations. We don’t pretend to be other than we are… In the presence of the Holy One we give up on appearing good and fixing our sin. We lay down our ability to change by the power of self. We turn to Jesus and seek forgiveness.

From Reflection Questions (one of five):
Does your confession tend to be along the lines of “Forgive my sins, dear Lord” rather than specifically naming your sins one by one before the face of God?
What does the lack of specific confession to do self-awareness?

From Spiritual Exercises (one of ten):
Enter into a covenant group or an accountability relationship where you cannot hide. Tell the truth about who you are and ask your partners to pray for you…

Quotes are from Spiritual Disciples Handbook pages 102-103.

If an incarcerated reader who is serious about spiritual growth were only allowed a few books on his or her shelf, I would strongly recommend that the Spiritual Disciplines handbook be one of them. Calhoun’s gifted style of writing compels the reader to reflect and act. Best of all, the book challenges the reader to deepen his or her relationship with God.

But when thinking about spiritual disciplines, it’s important to keep in mind these words from Douglas Rumford (who Calhoun quotes in her book): “In themselves, spiritual disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to a place where something can be done.”

Click here to view Spiritual Disciplines Handbook on Amazon.

Q&A with Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, author and spiritual director:

Question: In the Bible, Daniel continued his spiritual practices such as fasting and prayer while in captivity and it seems he even grew spiritually during that time. How do you think Daniel’s commitment to spiritual disciplines during captivity helped shape the path of his life?
Calhoun: Spiritual practices make room for God to show up in our life.  Prayer is a practice that intentionally opens us to the presence of Jesus.  Singing, making music, praising God — all open us up to more of God.  Reading the bible, forgiving our enemies, working for justice, serving others — are all spiritual practices.  They aren’t something we get perfect — they are simply ways we learn to live like Jesus.  And through seeking Jesus we change.

Question: There are so many ways to think about time spent during incarceration and many of them are negative. Do you believe that, while acknowledging the pain of incarceration, that imprisonment can be a time for spiritual growth? 
Calhoun: Suffering and pain. Incarceration and isolation.  Nobody wants them.  Yet I have found that times of difficulty offer me agency.  I can either constrict around my pain and make it the most interesting there is about me.  (And when I do that I live in the past — with a narrative that is often about being a victim.)  OR I can open myself to God and others.  I can choose to live in the past or I can choose to seek God where I am.  God can come into your darkness.   Jesus, God in person, comes to earth to show us how to live, forgive, and love.  Just look at his life and the cross and you will see that though you and I are imperfect we are also worthy of love and belonging.    

Question: Of the 75 spiritual disciplines you write about in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, are there a few that you may especially recommend to someone in prison?
Calhoun: Spiritual practices are not generic like an aspirin. If you have a headache, or a fever, or an ache, you can say, “here take an aspirin.” Spiritual practices fit the person you are now.  Some people will find the spiritual practice of gratitude a practice that helps them focus on God’s goodness to them. Others may find worship and song give them access to God’s love more easily. Still others may find bible reading or service ways they open up to God.   
So choose a practice that opens you up.
Make a list of everything you are grateful for.
sing and make music and worship God
Serve others
Read Scripture
Pray for others
Be a spiritual friend to someone
Practice being present to God
Practice kindness and control of your tongue
Have a breath prayer that you say to remind you that Jesus is present with you.  

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