on April 3, 2013
I'm not a fan of Christian fiction (usually). Too often I think it's full of trite characters, poor plotting, and shoehorned spiritual platitudes that sound good but ultimately leave you empty. It's a shame, too, because fiction is such a powerful medium and when well-written it can stir the heart in a very unique way.
That's why I find "Sensible Shoes" by Sharon Garlough Brown such a welcome, unexpected, joyous breath of fresh air. It's the powerful story of four women, each with issues and baggage from their past, who meet at a retreat center in Michigan. Through their retreats and their interactions God begins to move them from brokenness to wholeness, and the journey is breathtakingly inspiring. And here's the thing-it is both well-written and extremely insightful. No shallow platitudes here, no quick fixes that deny the heartache real people struggle with every day--"Sensible Shoes" is honest and raw in the way life is, and in being so it opens the door for authentic reflection on the ways God stirs us to step beyond our pasts and embrace a life that is rich, deep, and saturated with His presence.
If that were all, "Sensible Shoes" would be highly worth recommending. But what takes this book to another level entirely is the fact that it, while fiction, teaches and guides the reader as well as any non-fiction book on the spiritual life. If you like Richard Foster or Ruth Haley Barton you will love what Brown does throughout this book in teaching spiritual disciplines and ancient spiritual practices. The reader learns them along with the characters, and that is what I think makes this book totally unique. This would be a great book for small groups to read together and learn practices that would enrich their walk with God.
In short, great story, great characters, great spiritual depth. Christian fiction is in good hands with writers and books like this.
on September 3, 2010
This is one of those rare Christian novels where the quality of the writing is matched by the quality of the spiritual reflection. So much of what passes for Christian fiction these days can be very well written but spiritually bereft, or sometimes intriguing on a spiritual level but written so poorly the message is lost.
Not so with "Sensible Shoes." I have to say that I was not only engaged by the writing style and the beautiful story (stories, really) being told, but my Christian faith was challenged in a way that I'm still processing. If you enjoy good fiction and you're looking to draw closer to God, I can't recommend this book high enough.
on April 8, 2014
. Sensible Shoes is one of the only fiction books that InterVarsity Press has published. That in itself is intriguing. In my mind, if IVP publishes something, it must be really good- they are a no-fluff kind of publisher.
It was even better than I thought it would be. I read this 343 page book in three days- half of it on my flights between Madison and LA, and then the other half on the way back. It was the perfect travel companion. It was especially useful in helping to distract me from the fact that the airplane felt like a roller coaster on our way from LA to Dallas on the way home.
The real beauty of this book is that it ties together spiritual formation with really good fiction. Four women from different walks of life become unlikely friends during a 6 session spiritual formation retreat.
"Hannah, a pastor who doesn’t realize how exhausted she is.
Meg, a widow and recent empty-nester who is haunted by her past.
Mara, a woman who has bounced from relationship to relationship, trying to navigate a difficult marriage.
Charissa, a hard-working graduate student who wants to get things right."
At the retreat, they are led through several different spiritual formation practices:
Walking a labyrinth as a journey of prayer
Praying the Examen
Praying with our imagination
Self-Examination and Confession
Creating a Rule of Life
Not only do we learn about the practices right along with the participants, but then we see how it works out in each of the characters’ lives. We see the wrestling with God, the slow transformation, and the one step forward and two steps back that often marks the process of spiritual transformation.
I went into the book thinking that I would identify with one of the characters more than the others. Surprisingly, I found myself in all of them. The story is beautifully written and easy to get caught up in.
‘You can only turn to face God and receive his gifts when you’re convinced that God is love.’ (p. 120)
‘Our areas of resistance and avoidance can provide a wealth of information about our inner life.’ (p. 127)
‘In the examen we ask the Spirit to search us and know us. The Lord invites us to perceive his constant activity in our lives, to notice the things that move us toward God and away from God.’ (p. 182)
“Trusting God’s heart is everything…If I can always trust that God’s intention toward me is love, then even when I don’t understand the work of his hands, I can still trust his heart.’ (p. 241)
The book left me with a much deeper desire to do some soul work and engage intentionally in some of the useful spiritual formation tools laid out here in the text.
I think this would be a great book for a group of women to read together, or to be read within the context of a mentoring relationship.
on June 25, 2013
This book unmasked me. Without leading readers to rote, memorized theology, Brown leads her readers to questions that have the power to change. We watch her characters struggle to find the right questions to ask and we feel their profound relief when they begin to see the clear path--the one they were led to slowly, gently, and lovingly. Sensible Shoes is soaked through with the story of redemption. It's full and heavy with the message, but it's sweet and goes down easy. It's smooth.
What is so masterful about Brown's book is that she pulls her characters and her readers through murkiness to dawning awareness to poignant discovery. The four characters are carefully created to represent the things we know as truth about ourselves. I found my own frailties in the personalities and stories of each character. So often, while reading Sensible Shoes, I wanted to call friends and read them the tender lines that meant something to me. Brown's heart for people shines through and in reading her story it felt as if I was sitting at the feet of one much wiser than me who wanted me to be comforted, and to learn a better way.
Sensible Shoes blends fiction and allegory and comfortable familiarity with scripture and ancient truths to help us see the world around us in a new light. I highly recommend the book and hope Brown continues to write and share in this way.
on August 23, 2010
I picked this book up looking for some light summer reading, but found a book I'll be rereading and recommending to friends for years to come. Not only is the storyline powerfully engaging, but the insights into spiritual development are truly priceless. I found pieces of myself and many other people in the four women the story follows. If, like me, you have a tendency to "tear up," keep the Kleenex handy. There are powerful deep waters explored in this amazing journey.
on June 12, 2013
I've never read a novel quite like this before. Part fiction, part Spiritual instruction, part Bible study. I read this book slowly so that I could really absorb it. I'm so glad I didn't rush through to find out what happens to the characters. Because, doing so would have stunted the experience I was able to have through the multi-faceted approach of the author.
This is a book that would be fantastic in a small group, book club, or Bible study. I highly recommend it.
on January 4, 2014
If you were given a flyer from a local retreat centre inviting you to take a sacred journey and learn the unforced rhythms of grace, would you be tempted to take part? If you answer 'no', this book probably won't interest you. Otherwise, it's an invitation to take a terrific virtual course, through the eyes and experiences of four very real and complex women. We're even given the worksheets to make use of too. Frequent flashbacks to the worlds of the characters' girlhoods and youth gradually reveal more and more secrets, keeping the story moving and vividly displaying when some of their vulnerabilities and fixed attitudes first formed.
Mara is a lady familiar with rejection, first from kids at school, later from her husband and boys who take her for granted. Though she comes across to others as a colourful, confident person, she's nothing of the sort deep down.
Charissa is a beautiful, intelligent, high-achiever who aims to be an English Professor. Her husband, John, dotes on her and does all the cooking. Yet she feels very uncomfortable in situations which she can't control, and can't help looking down on people who haven't reached her high standards by their self-effort.
Hannah is a burned-out pastor who is forced to take a long sabbatical, yet finds it impossible to rest because being a busy servant, responsible for everyone else, is her whole life. Her part of the story became my favourite. What a satisfying ending for her.
Meg was hardest for me to deal with, at the start, coming across as too mousy by far. Come on, woman, you're facing a series of workshops, not a firing squad! Yet as her story unraveled, she grew on me and I found myself loving and understanding her.
How different they all are, yet how easy to see parts of each of them inside myself. Having a school history like Mara's, I totally understand her not being able to shake off the wounds years later. Like Hannah, I know how easy it is to build a false identity around not wanting to let people down. I get some of Charissa's attitudes too, such as her impatience for unstructured brainstorming, and wanting to be told definite answers to the elusive questions. And after deploring Meg for awhile, I realised that her imagination is just like mine, only my intense fears are in different areas.
I was torn reading this book. Part of me wanted to slow down and ponder the revelations deeply, while the other part wanted to gallop on and find out what would happen, or be revealed, next. Luckily, returning to Katherine's virtual-class worksheets is easy to do.
This book was full of pithy quotes, and here are just a few.
Hannah - 'Busyness is my socially acceptable addiction.'
Charissa - 'I've spent years investing energy into keeping up appearances, wanting everyone to think I've got everything together. Dr Allen calls it "impression management"'
Mara's son, Jeremy - 'I had a mom who loved me. And that's a lot more than some kids get.'
Meg - '...her imagination had always seemed more a liability than a gift, the vehicle by which she reaced at breakneck speed to worst case scenarios. She had lived in thousands of potential realities over the years, most of which had never materialised.'
Nathan - 'When Laura walked away from our marriage into an affair, her sin was condemned publicly. But for years, my sin had been congratulated and affirmed. I was such a good and faithful servant.'
And finally, one lovely image for the book lovers among us. "Hannah had forgotten what a prolific book-marker Nathan was, and his margin notes were undressed windows into his mind and spirit."
on July 12, 2011
This book unmasked me. I've been thinking a lot lately about the use of fiction to convict and compel. Although there are those who would argue fiction has no place in teaching God's truths, I would point them easily to Brown's writing. Without leading readers to rote, memorized theology, Brown leads her readers to questions. We watch her characters struggle to find the right questions to ask and we feel their profound relief when they begin to see the clear path--the one they were led to slowly, gently, and lovingly. Sensible Shoes is soaked through with the story of redemption like a cake soaked in milk or rum. It's full and heavy with the message, but it's sweet and goes down easy. It's smooth.
What is so masterful about Brown's book is that she draws from a long and active career in the ministry to pull her characters and her readers through murkiness to dawning awareness to poignant discovery. So often while reading Sensible Shoes I found myself wishing I'd had a hard copy instead of an e-book so I could underline and annotate. I wanted to call friends and read them the tender lines that meant something to me. Brown's heart for people shines through and in reading her story it felt as if I was sitting at the feet of one much wiser than me who wanted me to be comforted, and to learn.
Jesus taught with stories. We all know this and yet it seems that sometimes we shun stories and look only to non-fiction to teach us truth. Sensible Shoes, in the vein of The Noticer, blends fiction and allegory and comfortable familiarity with scripture and ancient truths, to help us see the world around us in a new light. I highly recommend the book and hope Brown continues to write and share in this way.
on February 11, 2014
I felt this book was contrived and the woman needed a big shake.
HOWEVER, we had a lively discussion at book club.
Our group was jumping all over each other to make a point.
I have rethought my first reaction and now I believe I was wrong.
This is the personal story of 4 very different women.
They are strangers on a Christian retreat. We have the shy
Meg, and the intellect Charissa. Then there are Mara and
Hannah who are beat down by life. Naturally, there are guys
in our story. There are several good men and one rat!
Brown is skilled in telling these stories. She shows the reader a before
and an after picture of each woman. We see them deal with each other and
cope with the hard lessons of their pilgrimage. This is an excellent
book for a book club. The reader is compelled to explore their
relationships and their growth---Leads to a great discussion.
on January 14, 2015
Almost two years ago, my friend Lorna told me that I just had to read this book called Sensible Shoes. I added it to my list of books to read, but I never got around to it. So, I was pleasantly surprised when, as a part of a wonderful “PhD Survival Kit,” she gave me a copy. When I was packing to go on my retreat, I slipped the book into my bag without really thinking about it. I figured, why not? It might be a good read.
It was so good that I couldn’t set it down.
The thing about Sensible Shoes is that it’s about a group of four women who are doing a long retreat and Brown’s writing style enables the reader to go on the retreat alongside the characters. This book is more than just a good novel, it’s a spiritual renewal—and for that, I think I would give the book 5 stars. But as a novel, it is also touching and helps reveal something intimate about the reader as the characters’ souls are being laid bare.
From a literature perspective, the story is well done. The writing is superb and the way in which the author switches between the character perspectives keeps you wanting to read more and find out what happens. I’ve already written on the blog about how I related to each character, so I won’t take up space writing about that now. I will say that each character is so real, so relatable that it makes it feel like a true story. I guarantee that you have met women just like Meg, Mara, Hannah, and Charissa. Reading this novel, you might well find yourself thinking of a friend who, like Meg, needs to learn her worth. Or, you might be reminded of a former classmate who, like Charissa, makes your blood boil when she is being superficial and judgmental. Each character has different struggles, different addictions that keep them from being in perfect communion with God. The story, then, is how each overcomes those obstacles and moves forward to be in better communion with God and with each other. Since that is the story of each of our own lives and spiritual journeys, I think that makes Sensible Shoes a hopeful read.
When the story reaches the bi-monthly meetings of the retreat group that the women belong to, there is a discussion in the story of a certain type of prayer. To help the reader in their own prayer life, Brown even includes a copy of the handout that the women receive from their retreat director in the story. I even borrowed from Brown in articles for my magazine. That’s how good these handouts are. With an M.Div. from Princeton and a job as pastor at an Evangelical church in Michigan, Brown is obviously an experienced retreat director in addition to being a great author—making me even more inclined to support her book. We ministers have to support each other.
I highly recommend this great work of fiction and hope that you will take the time to read it. I guarantee it will help you in your spiritual life.