Drawing Near to God's Heart
By Lisa M. Samra
Sharon Garlough Brown loves stories, especially ones that draw readers to see themselves in the characters. When she felt God urging her to write about the impact of spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines in the lives of women, Sharon chose story to teach deep truth camouflaged in the pages of a captivating novel. This act of obedience resulted in the Sensible Shoes series of spiritual formation fiction.
Sharon’s personal narrative begins in Arcadia, Calif. The oldest of two children, Sharon grew up in a church-going family but it was not until college that she responded to God’s grace. An English language and literature major at Smith College, Sharon went on a candlelight Advent carol tour through churches in the Northampton, Mass., college town. At the fourth church, she was deeply moved by the sincere and heartfelt worship of several mentally-impaired adults. For the first time, Sharon had an overwhelming sense of the nearness of God. Filled with the peace of God, Sharon offered her life to the Lord as she walked back to her dorm.
From Smith College, God directed Sharon to Princeton Theological Seminary where she met Jack Brown, a fellow seminarian. On their first date in December 1991, Jack told her he was taking her to a restaurant that had lots of atmosphere even if the food wasn’t great. When they took a quick side trip to his dorm room to get his forgotten wallet, Sharon found he had decorated the room as an Italian bistro serving microwave lasagna. They married two years later to the day.
After graduating with Ministry of Divinity degrees, Sharon and Jack moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where they joined ministry staffs in neighboring churches in the Scottish seaport city. God blessed them with a son, David. Following their time in Scotland, the Browns served at churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Southampton, England, before settling in west Michigan in 2003, when Jack took a job as an associate pastor at Thornapple Covenant Church near Grand Rapids.
The transition to West Michigan was formative for Sharon. It was the first time since David was a baby that she was not on a church staff. Without a title or office, Sharon sat alone in her apartment one quiet morning after taking David to the school bus stop. In her grief, she cried out to God, “I don’t know who I am when I am not serving you.” She knew instantly in her soul that the Lord was telling her that her identity was solely as the beloved of God. Her prayer began a period of pruning as she went through the very painful process of disentangling her personal and professional identities.
Sharon laid down her desire to serve in ministry, but after three years the Lord began to open the first of many ministry doors. Sharon and Jack were invited to serve as co-pastors at Redeemer Covenant Church in Caledonia, Mich. In addition to her responsibilities at the church, Sharon was given the opportunity to serve as an adjunct faculty professor in the ministry department at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. As a trained spiritual director, Sharon also developed a ministry of coming prayerfully alongside women to help them recognize the presence of God in their lives.
During this time, God was showing Sharon the importance and value of spiritual disciplines. She was deepening her understanding of these ancient practices, which include such exercises as meditating on Scripture, worshipping God in community, confession, fasting, silence, and various forms of prayer.
Another door God was opening came in the form of encouragement to write. In 2010, she published her inaugural book, Sensible Shoes. The second book in the four-book series, Two Steps Forward, was released in September 2015, with the third installment, Barefoot, in October 2016. The books invite women to understand the purpose and value of spiritual disciplines as seen in the lives of four women–Charissa, Hannah, Mara, and Meg–who connect at a spiritual formation retreat. Aided by guided teaching outlines interspersed throughout the book, readers are encouraged to practice the same spiritual disciplines the characters are learning.
JBU sat down with Sharon to ask her about the Sensible Shoes series and the importance of incorporating spiritual disciplines into a woman’s spiritual life.
JBU: The Sensible Shoes books contain rich teaching on spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines that are normally found in nonfiction resources. Why did you decide to write these books as fiction?
Sharon: Fiction provides mirrors so we can see ourselves more clearly. It opens windows so we can see God more clearly. We read fiction differently because we read fiction with our guard down. What I hear more and more from readers is, “I saw myself.” There are so many good nonfiction books about spiritual formation and I didn’t think there was a whole lot for me to add to what has already been written. But, what I didn’t see was spiritual formation fiction.
JBU: Sensible Shoes is a story of women participating in a spiritual formation group. How do you define spiritual formation?
Sharon: Spiritual formation is the process by which we are conformed to the image of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s the formation of Christ’s life in us, and it’s always a work of grace.
JBU: How do spiritual disciplines fit into that process?
Sharon: While we don’t have the power to change ourselves, there are ways we can say “yes” to the work of God in our lives. Spiritual disciplines are practices that help us receive, remain in, and then respond to the love and presence of God.
We can frame spiritual disciplines more negatively as the character Mara, who when she first hears the idea of practicing spiritual disciplines at a retreat thinks, “I already feel guilty and I haven’t even gone.” Or we can frame them as an invitation, ways to create space where God can come and do new things. I use the example of not having the power to make the sun rise but choosing to be awake to watch it happen. Spiritual disciplines help us to practice being awake and attentive to the presence of God.
JBU: What is a battle women face on their spiritual journeys toward conformity to the image of Christ?
Sharon: We do a lot of hiding and avoid intimate relationships. We have not come far from the garden in terms of creating masks and fig leaves to hide behind. Not just with God but with each other. Authenticity is a call to take off the masks, to come out from hiding, and to be known as we are truly are.
JBU: How can women become more authentic with God, with themselves and with others?
Sharon: Living authentically is living without those fig leaves. We need to look at the areas in our lives where we are hiding, identify why we are hiding, and name our fears. Typically, it is a shame-based fear, a fear of rejection, or a fear of failure that prevents us from being authentic. Growing in authenticity is growing in security in God’s love. We need to find people who demonstrate God’s love to us so that we feel confident to come out from hiding and be real with one another.
Pray for the gift of one person with whom you can be completely honest, vulnerable, and transparent. If we don’t have such a relationship, we need to seek God to guide us into one. And we also need to seek God for the grace to be the sort of people others find trustworthy. Our souls are timid and often need to be coaxed out of hiding gently.
JBU: If you could select one spiritual discipline for a woman to begin to put into practice, what would you recommend?
Sharon: It is a tough question because we’re all wired uniquely for life with God, and there is not a one-size-fits-all sort of prescription. But, if spiritual disciplines are meant to provide a pathway for a deepening intimacy and communion with God, then we’ve got to take seriously the invitation to attentiveness to the presence of God in the midst of our daily lives. There are some basic disciplines we can practice that help us prayerfully pay attention to God: Taking time to voice our gratitude. Lingering over the Word. Making unhurried time to listen well to a friend or serve someone with love. The difficult discipline of “slowing down” can deeply impact all of our relationships, especially our relationship with God.
JBU: Many people are familiar with the spiritual disciplines of memorizing Scripture, silence, and service, but Sabbath may be more unfamiliar. How would you define the spiritual discipline of Sabbath?
Sharon: We are created in the image of a God who rests. Yet we are living in these rhythms where we are exhausting ourselves and wearing ourselves out. We are living beyond what God has asked us to do. It takes faith for me to say that 24 hours a week, I am trusting that the world can run without my help. It is an act of faith to say I am going to cease from work and trust that what I need for tomorrow will be provided.
JBU: How do you practice the spiritual discipline of Sabbath?
Sharon: I practice Sabbath from Thursday night to Friday night although it will be different for each person. I retreat and rest from the demand to respond to emails; the demand to be in conversation with people. I don’t answer phones. I don’t check email. I am really deliberate about the community I say “yes” to. If it is going to be energizing, refreshing and fun, then I will say “yes.” But, otherwise, my Sabbath is silence and solitude. It’s reading. It’s praying. It’s journaling. It’s savoring cups of tea. For me, it’s about slowing down to be truly present to God.
JBU: What discipline have you found helpful for you recently?
Sharon: The spiritual discipline of celebration is one that I’m very deliberate about practicing. When I practice this discipline, I celebrate the goodness of God and the love of God that has already been lavished on me.
To help me practice celebration, I was challenged to choose a color in autumn and every time I saw the color to be reminded of how much God loves me. I thought, “I can do that but I am not going to make it easy. No red, orange, yellow, green or brown. I choose purple.”
I spent all autumn being totally amazed by purple. I would see a flash of purple out of the corner of my eye, like wildflowers on the side of the road, and immediately, my heart would rejoice in celebration. The Lord loves me! The Lord delights in me! It has taken practice but it has been soul-forming for me. I was good at being serious and not good at celebrating. Good at fasting and not good at feasting.
JBU: Why are spiritual disciplines essential for ministry leaders?
Sharon: The best gifts we have to offer others in ministry flow from the abundance of what we ourselves have received from God. So many leaders are running on empty, wearing themselves out in the service of God and others. Spiritual disciplines provide a way to regularly place ourselves in the presence of the One who loves us and sustains us for the work He has given us to do. Spiritual disciplines provide room for God to reveal our weaknesses and sin, stir our longings, and comfort and transform us. If leaders are pursuing this kind of fellowship with God, they're better equipped to shepherd others deeper into God’s heart as well.
JBU: In addition to practicing the disciplines in our own lives, how do we impart the importance of spiritual disciplines to the women we minister to?
Sharon: We need to cast a vision for women that emphasizes the good news of God’s power to heal, transform, and set us free. Spiritual disciplines can play a key role in God's work to make us more like Christ. And this work happens best in community, not in isolation. As leaders, we can model humility by disclosing some of our own fears and struggles. This kind of honesty can give someone else permission to come out from hiding behind a mask of perfection and say, “Me too.” What a beautiful gift to offer to one another.
In addition to reading the Sensible Shoes series, there are many good nonfiction books on spiritual formation and the spiritual disciplines. Consider the following books:
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. Christianity Today listed Celebration of Discipline as one of the top twenty most influential books of the 20th century. Foster gives three categories of spiritual disciplines, and explores their impact on believers. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
Invitation to the Jesus Life by Jan Johnson. Johnson challenges her readers that they must know Christ in order to live like Him. She offers seventeen characteristics displayed in the life of Jesus, and then provides practical ways to use spiritual disciplines to help the reader on their journey toward becoming more like Him.
The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg. A biblical perspective on the ancient practice of the spiritual disciplines, Ortberg explains how these practices can help believers experience spiritual transformation.
Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. A very practical guide to the spiritual disciplines, the handbook contains more than 60 different spiritual discipline practices. Along with a background of each discipline, Calhoun provides reflection questions and exercises to help readers implement the practice into their lives.