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4.0 out of 5 stars God-Help - Drawing Closer to God, August 5, 2010
This review is from: Exercising Your Soul: Fifteen Minutes a Day to a Spiritual Life (Hardcover)
It is always refreshing when a book about spiritual things includes a bit of humor. That is one of the discoveries I made in the latest book on my reading list, `Exercising Your Soul: Fifteen Minutes A Day to a Spiritual Life' by Gary Jansen, has that unique element.

Here is the synopsis of this book:

EXERCISING YOUR SOUL, by Gary Jansen, is a spiritual fitness program, a guide to firming up faith that offers practical techniques to recharge and enhance relationships with yourself, with others, and, most important, with God. Drawing on spiritual practices from Christian traditions, the prayers and exercises in this book are powerful ways of experiencing God in day-to-day life. Jansen brings to life each of the practices he suggests as he shares his own growth through the disciplines.
With beautifully told, modern-day parables and stories, EXERCISING YOUR SOUL makes complicated concepts simple and exquisite. The antithesis of a self-help book, it is rather a "God-help book," one that places God at the center of all things and can transform lives forever.

Here is the biography of this author:

Gary Jansen ([...]) has worked in publishing for more than fifteen years and served as editor in chief of Quality Paperback Book Club. He is currently an editor at the Crown Publishing Group, specializing in books on religion and spirituality. His first book, The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved, was praised by Paulo Coelho, the bestselling author of The Alchemist, as "a wonderful book."Publishers Weekly's review of Jansen's second book, Exercising Your Soul: Fifteen Minutes a Day to a Spiritual Life, called him an author who "amuses and inspires." Both books were published by Faithwords/Hachette. Jansen ([...]) lives in New York with his wife and two sons.
Mr. Jansen grabbed me from the start in the first paragraph of his Author's Note:
This strange little book you have in your hands is essentially a book on prayer. Not the namby-pamby, rattling-off-a-wish-list, "Oh, please let me have nice things" kind of prayer. (Who am I kidding? - just five minutes ago, I asked to win the lottery). I'm talking about prayer that will, by divine grace, help you experience God boldly, deeply, and intimately. This collection of reflections, anecdotes, stories, and exercises may appear to be masquerading as a self-help book. I can assure you it is no such thing. Exercising Your Soul is a God-help book, not because I have delusions of being the Creator of the universe, but because all life, all people, all things - all assistance - come from God. If this book helps you in any way, it is not my doing but because God desires every one of us to know him more fully. (p. xiii)

He also talks in the Author's Note about one of my favorite subjects - grace:

Grace, in some ways, is like an inheritance. It's been given to us. It's waiting for us. But we have to reach a certain level of maturity to experience the wealth. Yet, when it comes to spiritual matters, maturity isn't based on age or social standing or whether you marry a prince by the time you're twenty-one. It is measured by a person's openness to God. (p. xiv)

Gary made an interesting observation about the content of our day:

Did you know there are 1,440 minutes in a day? It's true. I did the math. Did you also know that 1 percent of all that time is fourteen minutes and twenty-four seconds? What would happen if you made a conscious decision, every day, to exercise your soul by giving roughly fifteen minutes of your time over to God? Just 1 tiny percent of your life. Would your life change?
Mine did. (p. 5.)

I had never thought of time that way. One percent certainly seems doable.

This is Gary's observation of how his life had been before he decided to commit to prayer:

What I realize now was that I had been suffering from a form of spiritual anorexia. Though I had grown up with religion all around me - and it was just about everywhere I went - I wouldn't let it enter into me. God, it now seemed, had been a banquet, but I had been a spoiled child who refused to eat. Something was keeping me away from nourishing my soul and in turn nourishing a relationship with God. My soul was hungry but I never opened my mouth.
Prayer soon led me to meditation and meditation soon led me back to prayer so that the two became entwined in my life in a way I never knew was possible. The more I spent time with God, the more I felt myself becoming stronger in my day-to-day life. This is not to say I wasn't weak - I had been asleep for over twenty years of my life and through any kind of spiritual muscle had atrophied to a point of almost becoming vestigial, with each minute I spent in prayer, I felt myself coming back to life. The scary thing is, for most of my life, I didn't even know I was dying. (p. 10)

The title of Chapter 2 is `What is a Spiritual Exercise?' Gary explains:

A spiritual exercise is any practice that draws you closer to an experience of union with the divine. These practices could take the form of various types of prayer, meditation, or contemplation - three separate and distinct actions that are too often considered interchangeable. (p. 14)

Gary assets that we as humans yearn for the unknown:

It is in this unknown that we find a connection that binds us to God and to each other. This connection is none other than Holy Spirit. Some things exist beyond ourselves. God, however, is not one of them. Neither is Christ. Neither is the Holy Spirit. Some of us may accept this intellectually - that the Spirit of God lives in each and every one of us - but it is the objective of this book to move away from the mind, to stop thinking, and to descend, not into nothingness, but to the depths of everythingness, a place where every thing, every person, every moment, every desire, every yearning is connected to each other and all those things are connected to God. It is a place of perpetual prayer, a place where you no longer practice the presence of God, you experience that presence fully in body and soul - two components of our existence that are intricately woven together.
This is the heart of the spiritual life. (p. 17)

There will be changes in your life that will be noticeable to your family and friends:

Maybe you're afraid that people will think you're weird. Look, you don't even have to tell anyone what you're doing. You can let it be a secret between you and God. In time, though, people will begin noticing a change coming over you - a positive change. Actions, they say, speak louder than sermons, though your friends and colleagues may not know for certain what's going on with you. Folks might think you've lost weight or comment on how less stressed you look (and you will lose emotional and spiritual weight that has kept you from ascending to the type of person God intended you to be). (p. 18)

Those are some good qualities to develop as a result of more communication with the God of the Universe.

Gary has an interesting observation on why humans resist change:

What frightens people away from a fitness plan, whether it's physical or spiritual, is fear of the short-term negative impact on their lives. I am a firm believer that people are not afraid of change itself. If I said to you, "I'm going to transform your life by giving you a million dollars," would you fear that? You might be afraid I had recently escaped from Bellevue, or that the money I have to give was stolen from a Wall Street robber baron. But if everything was legitimate, you'd do cartwheels.
On the other hand, if I said to you, "I'm going to install a new complicated computer system at your job that's going to make your life difficult and will take you twice as long to do your work," you're going to start shaking. People don't fear change. They fear their lives are going to be worse off than they were before the change. Change in many ways needs to happen in spoonfuls. (p. 20)

One of the benefits of prayers is that it will help us with our fatigue:

Tiredness is one of the biggest culprits that keep people away from the spiritual life. Prayer and meditation are a surefire way of energizing you. They're even better than Red Bull and Pop Rocks. And while many people believe that what they are looking for in life is rest - Saint Augustine's often quoted "We are restless, Lord, until we find rest in you" comes to mind - when we turn our lives to God, rest is the very last thing we could want. And if you don't believe me, what happens every time the Holy Spirit makes an appearance in the New Testament?
Someone takes action. (p. 24)

Mr. Jansen makes the parallel between the power of the atom (as unleashed in an atomic bomb) to that of faith the size of a mustard seed:

Now if you and I are made up of a billion tiny atoms, how much God-given potential - how much God-given power - lies inside each and every one of us? Not to destroy. Not to annihilate mountains, but to move the things in our lives that block us from being truly human and to raise, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, ourselves and others to new life in union with God.
How do we do that? Well, we can't. God does it through us, but prayer and meditation allow us to knock on God's door so he can answer and allow the gift of human potential - the gift of first life he bestowed on Adam - to flow through. (pp. 33-34)

I love how Gary thinks we should look at ourselves:

God created us to be greater than the angels! Greater than the angels! We slipped, and fell and scratched ourselves. The cut, the bleeding, however, does not change our original nature. Instead the enemy has shifted our focus ever so slightly away from the forgiving beauty of God to depravity. If we become what we focus on, then we as human beings have become everything we were never intended to be. (p. 34)

Gary explains the purpose for his book and the reason for prayer:

The premise of this book is to practice certain types of formal prayer so that you move toward a state of living in perpetual prayer.
Prayer is a gift from God for our benefit and is a way of entering into a state of intimacy. Practically speaking, it is a tool that helps to relieve stress and anxiety, quiet our minds, center our souls, and lead more efficient lives. (p. 38)

And meditation is hearing from God:

If so much of the way we communicate is nonverbal, couldn't God be communicating to us nonverbally? Meditation therefore helps us understand the body language of God. How can we read this? By reading the signs of God's creation around us, by listening to the voices of others and paying attention to how those words affect us emotionally and intellectually. Few of us are ever going to hear God speak in dramatic tones. Most of the time his words come from places you'd never expect - a friend, a bird, a song on your iPod, a billboard, a pothole, an illness, a disappointment - and when it does, you are on your way to contemplative experience of God. (p. 40)

Gary shares with us the definition of contemplation from Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation:

[Contemplation] is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual self... It is a spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude of life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. (p. 42)

Mr. Jansen presents us with four Breath Prayer exercises. He explains the benefit of focusing on breathing:

All life begins with a single breath, and so we begin these spiritual exercises by focusing on our breathing. Why? Besides the fact that deep, controlled, focused breathing is beneficial to our physical health, it also helps us shift our attention from whatever is on our mind - our problems, our desires, our responsibilities - to the gift we received from God at birth - breath. (p. 51)

I especially like Breath Prayer Exercise # 3: Come, Holy Spirit, Come:

This prayer is a petition for increase awareness of the Holy Spirit in your life. The Spirit is ever present, flowing through each and every one of us, tying together all of creation. Yet, we forget or don't realize the sometimes subtle flow of this divine person who exists and flows like energy from God the Father, through Christ, and into all of us.
This prayer is not a petition for the Holy Spirit to make an appearance in our lives, but to bring us to a level of awareness in which we realize that the Holy Spirit, the gift from God to all of us after the resurrection, is always present inside of us. We just need to let him out. (p. 56)

Another type of prayer is the Centering Prayer:

In this prayer, through the grace of God we focus our attention on the Holy Spirit, who lives within each and every one of us. How do we do this? By attempting to evacuate all the extraneous thoughts in our hearts and focus on a single representative word for that indwelling, for example, God, Jesus, Spirit, love, faith or strength. It is a quiet form of prayer, one we do individually and in solitude. (p. 59)

One other type of prayer is the Lectio Divina:

Lectio Divina, a form of Centering Prayer, is Latin for holy reading, in this case, the holy reading of Scripture. It is, as Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes, "a way of entering deeply into the text with a heart alert to a unique and personal word from God. Words and verses that catch out attention become invitations to be with God in prayer." (p. 64)

Gary asserts that what is there is a crucial ingredient missing in the world:

Then what do I mean by enthusiasm? Let's look for a moment at the definition of the word. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, enthusiasm comes from the Greek word enthousiasmos, to be inspired from God (en-theos) and means to have "a belief in the special revelations of the Holy Spirit."
What the world is missing now isn't misdirected energy, it is an outpouring - a flowing awareness - of the living presence of the Holy Spirit that exists in each and every one of us. (p. 75)

I love how Gary sees us as called to be heroes:

What is a hero? A hero is a person who takes action to help people. That is what the Holy Spirit calls us to do. When the Spirit descended on Mary after the angel Gabriel told her she was to be the mother of God, what did she do? She took action. She packed her things and journeyed to her cousin Elizabeth. To do what? To serve her. When the Holy Spirit descended on Christ after his baptism by John, what did he do? He took action and did what? He began his ministry and began serving. When the Spirit descended on the apostles at Pentecost, what did they do? They relinquished fear and began serving the people. Not just one group of people, but all people, of all nations.
We, too, are called to serve, to not be afraid. With the Holy Spirit already in us, there is no time to waste. We need to take action now and assist those around us, whether it's a family member, a friend, a coworker, a stranger on the street, our environment, our nation, our world. (pp. 79-80)

Mr. Jansen spends the majority of the end of the book outlining prayers pertaining to Jesus' parables and to Stations of the Cross Exercises:

The Stations of the Cross offer a way of walking in the footsteps of the Beloved. To walk through the stations is an examination, a journey of the soul, an exercise in being a witness, a supporter, a bearer of burden. In the Christian tradition, the Stations, also known as the Way of the Cross, are a sacred devotion that focuses on the Passion of Christ. Traditionally composed of fifteen events that trace the final path of Jesus' life - from the hours after the Last Supper up until his Resurrection - the Stations are a meditative prayer, a mystical pilgrimage into the suffering heart of Christ. They are, at their core, the story of Easter, which has at its center the story of a new exodus - a Moses-like movement out of myopic spiritual slavery into the panoramic promise land of love. (p. 139)

I found this to be an interesting book. These exercises can be used to draw us closer to God, and that is always a good outcome. I will take some of these exercises and put them into practice, and I thank Mr. Jansen for bringing them to the attention of the readers of this useful and practical book.

This Advance Reader Copy was provided by the publisher, FaithWords, for review purposes. All page number references are from this ARC and may not appear exactly the same in the final product.

Reviewed by Andrea Schultz - Ponderings by Andrea - [...].
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