Reviewed by Dr Catherine Hollier
5 MINUTE READ
Creating space to encounter God
At the height of the pandemic, after 18 months of lockdown, I desperately needed a holiday. Thankfully, this coincided with our annual seaside family trek to Crescent Head. It was then that I picked up a book I had heard much of, and was entranced…
Sensible Shoes, by Sharon Garlough Brown, is the first of a tetralogy following the lives of four Christian women who meet at a spiritual retreat. I have never read a Christian novel before, and found it fascinating. I could identify with various traits of the characters, and it gave me several reasons to stop and pause to reflect on my own life. Before long, I was scribbling in the margins and dog-earing the pages to come back to – only briefly halted when I remembered it was a borrowed copy! I soon decided I would buy a replacement and use this as my own.
“The theme of the book through the story, is to introduce us to various spiritual disciplines to create space to encounter God…”
The theme of the book through the story, is to introduce us to various spiritual disciplines to create space to encounter God – “where we can be deeply touched and changed by God’s extravagant love for us.”
Several spiritual practices are described including breath prayers, labyrinths, lectio divina, images of God, timelines, a daily examen, wilderness prayers, putting myself into the story, self-examination and confession, and rule of life. Some of these I had heard of, others were new to me. Without necessarily endorsing each of these, they nevertheless gave me a chance to “taste and see that the Lord is good”. Most involved a slow review of Scripture, seeing what God reveals of himself, and contemplating my response to Him. The questions raised were penetrating and thoughtful.
As well as outlining these ideas, the characters are generally realistic and flawed. Although at times the writing was a little forced, there was much to resonate with: different ways that I relate to God – different perspectives from within each character to see faults in myself, and the stories I might tell myself to whitewash my motivations as ‘righteous’. Sharon gently peels away the carefully constructed masks and nurtures each vulnerable character into facing a righteous God who cares and loves them as they are, redeemed by Jesus. She does not tie up each conundrum and resolve it neatly, but leaves some relationships open, tense and unresolved, much as in real life.
Garlough Brown has obviously put a lot of thought into the series, touching on many differing life circumstances. She includes singleness, widowhood, death, overzealousness, perfectionism, childlessness, divorce, marriage to a non-Christian, second marriage, step-children, love, duty, obedience, unbelieving children, and so on. I loved how she used the names of the characters to reflect something of their story, much as the Bible often does. She also knows how to deliver a literary turn of phrase to describe events and people, eg. “Charissa’s mother had once cautioned John about her daughter’s power to bring her own weather system into a room.” Evocative stuff!
Sensible Shoes prompted me to consider God many more times through the day, by being prompted to “stay with what provokes you”, slow breathing and stopping to remember God intentionally. The exercises pushed me past a superficial reading of Scripture to consider how knowing God and His character would change my understanding of Him and from that, the way I live.
“The exercises pushed me past a superficial reading of Scripture to consider how knowing God and His character would change my understanding of Him and from that, the way I live.”
It took me several days to finish the first book, pondering and reviewing my own life along the way. There were pros and cons to this – it did make my mind very busy in a time I wanted to rest and rejuvenate; but it was nevertheless refreshing. I do admit being pleased in reading the following three books that there was less self-reflection, and more story, so that I could enjoy the remainder of the series without quite so much intensity!
Over the following term, I worked sequentially through each of the various practices in the first book, giving myself much food for thought in contemplating God, and being changed in light of that. Several of my friends have also been reading this series and we have enjoyed sharing different insights gained.
Interestingly, there is a local artistic Christian couple who run retreats at their property at Fosterton1 who are planning a Christ-centred retreat with our group using similar spiritual ideas. Maybe there is something similar near you?
Written as it is, through the stories of four women, this book series is likely to resonate more with women than men. I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves to read novels, but who also appreciates a gentle mirror being used to reflect on our response to God through many circumstances. Enjoy!
Dr Catherine Hollier Dr Catherine Hollier is a part-time GP in Newcastle who loves to have time for both clinical and ministry work. She is a firm advocate for regular rest and loves reading and jigsaw puzzles, especially if she is in sight of a beautiful view!
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