What does forgiveness taste like? How does grace sound? These are the kinds of questions Brent Bill and Beth Booram invite readers to consider in Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God (IVP 2011).
Bill and Booram don’t downplay the importance of more traditional, verbal sorts of communication. But they do lament that the majority of our spiritual education comes from “sermons, books, Bible studies and other spiritual resources that instruct our thinking” but often “miss our souls.” This gives us a spirituality informed by half our brain—the left half, which interprets our experiences—and largely ignores experience itself, which is why the right half of our brain is important: it “does the experiencing through our senses.” The authors want us to use both sides of our brains and our five senses to gain an experiential knowledge of God. They want to “help more of you [singular] experience more of God.”
To do that we must each learn how to interpret our daily experiences as sacraments, means of God’s grace in our lives. So, after a brief introduction, the book is divided into five sections, one for each of the senses: tasting, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling. The bulk of each section is given to practical spiritual exercises related to a specific sense.
The introduction to the section on taste, for example, points to the Jewish Passover Seder meal as an example, with biblical origins, of how taste can teach. Every flavor on the Seder plate represents something of spiritual significance. The bitter herbs symbolize the bitterness of slavery. The charoset, a sort of chutney made of fruit and nuts, represents the bricks and mortar the Hebrew slaves made during their enslavement. The saltwater represents the tears of the people. And so on.
In the spirit of the Seder, Brent Bill suggests making a menu on which each food is representative of some aspect of your personal spiritual journey. The intrepid can prepare the menu and eat it as a spiritual experiment (if you don’t have the time to actually cook everything, he invites you to imagine the meal). While eating, think about what each food represents. Savor the flavors. Meditate on the experiences they represent. Let the meal serve as a means of connecting to the grace of God in your life.
Full disclosure, I haven’t tried this yet; not exactly. But my wife and I have done something like this. When we decided, after several years of deliberation and setbacks, to begin the adoption process, we ate dinner at a favorite special-occasion restaurant. Almost two years later, a possible adoption fell through. At the last moment a birth mother chose a different couple to raise her baby. And we went back to the same restaurant, this time to mourn. I still remember what I ordered: peppered steak and mashed potatoes. I believe that meal will always bring to mind the profound grief we experienced that week. We would have celebrated at that restaurant the day we got news of our new baby boy. But we didn’t have time. We got the call on Friday afternoon and brought him home on Monday morning! Even so, today the eatery serves as something of a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Sounds strange. But because we marked the beginning of our journey there, commemorated the lowest point of it there, and one day—Lord willing—will celebrate our journey’s end there, that menu is likely to always have spiritual significance for us.
Oh, and lest you worry that the opening question of this review (“What does forgiveness taste like?”) is rhetorical, Booram suggests a practice involving vinegar and peppermint that might give you some idea.
The authors’ language of “sacrament” might bother some readers. Are they proposing new “works” by which to earn God’s favor? No. They define “sacrament” broadly as anything that helps us experience and internalize God’s grace. And they never give the impression that these exercises will put you in God’s good graces. Instead, they remind us of our profound creatureliness. That is to say that God doesn’t need us to observe this sort of spiritual exercise. But we need them, or something like them, because we’re not as smart as we think we are. We can’t just think and will our way into godliness. The more of our body and minds we engage in the process of spiritual formation, the more likely we are to truly be transformed into the image of Christ.