Practicing (Kathy Escobar) -- A Review
By Kathy Escobar. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. X + 231 pages.
Some of us have had grand visions about changing the world. Over time we discover that changing the world is more difficult than we thought. Therefore, we can easily get disillusioned. Perhaps that's why so many ordained clergy leave vocational ministry and even the church before they've been at it for five years. As time passes, however, we may become more circumspect about the possibilities of changing the world. Our visions might become less grand and more realistic. We probably will become more realistic about our own abilities to make this happen. But there’s no need to lose hope. Changing the world begins with changing ourselves. Or so Kathy Escobar would have us believe (rightly so).
Escobar is copastor of The Refuge, a church in Denver. She is also a trained spiritual director and group facilitator, and she brings these skills to this conversation about change that begins at home. Her book Practicing, which is designed to be used both by individuals and small groups, addresses the basic concerns we all have about the state of the world and our place in it. She does so by offering practices that can strengthen us for the work ahead, so we don’t get burnt out or give up before the journey is complete. This isn’t the first book, nor will it be the last, that deals with spiritual practices. But, each of these resources has something unique to offer. That is true here in Escobar’s book, which draws on her own life experiences. Like many of us, she has evangelical roots. Unlike me, she had to deal with the question of whether she as a woman could serve in a ministerial position. She pushed through this, though not without many challenges, to become a pastor who is committed to the work of God in the world. In fact, she’s committed to engaging in work that will change the world. However, recognizing that we have to start with our own lives, in this book, she shares insights that have assisted in her journey. She offers these insights to others, especially to those who are spiritual refugees and others like them.
As for the spiritual practices, she introduces the readers to, she writes that "real change in ourselves doesn't come through a few minor tweaks in our behavior or from breezing through a book on practice. Practice is centered on deep inner work in our souls that propels us to habitually, intentionally, and repeatedly live out new, healthier ways over the long haul" (p. 4). While I disagree with what appears to me to be a dismissal of theology at one point early in the book (p. 5), I found the book compelling. That's because she describes faith as a verb. She understands that faith is not just something to believe, but it has something to do with the way we live our lives.
In the course of the book, Escobar lays out ten practices that can assist in transforming our lives so we can participate with God in acts of world transformation. These practices include healing, listening, loving, including, equalizing, advocating, mourning, failing, resting, and celebrating. I sense that at least a few of these listed practices will stand out to each of us. There is a progressive dimension to these practices. Consider practices such as including, equalizing, and advocating. There is a contemplative dimension to the discussion, but it is designed to lead to active participation in God’s work in the world.
Since I noted the practice of advocacy, I will focus on it. When it comes to the practice of advocacy, she wants us to pay attention to the prepositions. She points out that there is a difference between to, for, and with. The first two prepositions are the easiest for us to implement, "especially if were raised in church or involved in missions-oriented projects." However, the problem is that the preposition to tends to be paternalistic because it emerges from a belief that somehow we're better than others, and so we have something to give to those in need. The problem, she notes is that this can be patronizing and disempowering. As for the preposition for, it can lead to a maternalistic perspective. She writes that this preposition is centered on us, in that we want to do things for others, "so that our anxiety is relieved." The problem here is that it produces codependence that is rooted in a desire to control. Therefore, it is best to embrace the preposition with because it is incarnational. "It is built on equal value, mutuality, and arises from relationship instead of stepping in and trying to solve problems on our own terms" (p. 123). It isn’t as easy to do the latter, but it does make sense, especially if we truly want to change the world for the better.
Another practice that stood out to me was the chapter on failing, probably because I’ve experienced failure at numerous points in my life, and I know I’m not alone. She writes that "perfectionism is not only exhausting, it's also paralyzing" (p. 166). So, "a core piece of the practice of failing is embracing our humanity. Owning it, leaning into it, wearing it, and remembering we are in good company with a whole bunch of others who are also struggling with feelings of failure" (pp. 167-168). But it's not just owning it, it's persevering through it. The practice leads to resilience. which she defines as "the ability to navigate adversity, failure, and change with as much health as possible. It's the ability to absorb pain and struggle but not let it kill us. It's a bounce-back-ness that isn't fake or denying of reality but deep and tangible." (p. 170).
Having explored each of these ten practices, she concludes by encouraging us to keep practicing. She reminds us that transformation takes time. It requires "repetition, intention, and ongoing improvement." (p. 218). She concludes each chapter with a prayer, a set of questions for personal reflection, a set of questions for group discussion, and finally practices. The prayer she offers in her conclusion is fitting.
God, we need your courage to keep practicing.
Help us stay the course when we want to give up.
Stir our hearts, move our feet, rock our world.
We're ready, we're willing, we're open.
Help us keep changing ourselves so we can change the world.
Amen. (p. 224)
For those who wish to change the world, here is a well written and accessible book that is filled with stories of Escobar's own life, as well as the lives of those who have traveled with her on this journey. In her discussions of the ten practices, she provides us with tools to change ourselves so we can participate with God in changing the world. By focusing on personal change, we will discern the truth that we can’t change the world by ourselves.
Practicing, by Kathy Escobar, is a valuable book that speaks to our current state of affairs. There is much to do in the world, but we will truly falter if we don’t start out on the right foot. If we heed her guidance, then we will find words of encouragement for the journey ahead.