A few years ago, I was asked by Inter Varsity Press (IVP) to read and write a blurb for a new book called Sensible Shoes: A Story About the Spiritual Journey (2013) by Sharon Garlough Brown. Sensible Shoes is the story of four very different women who show up at the same retreat and become enduring friends and fellow travelers on the spiritual journey. The retreat they attend is a series of sessions designed to teach new and old Christian prayer practices. The four women are:
Mara––a forty-something mother of two sons in a troubled marriage.
Hannah–a woman pastor on sabbatical from her high–pressure big city church position.
Charissa—a newlywed in her twenties working towards her PhD and a promising career as a college professor.
Meg—a widow with a teenaged daughter.
On the surface these women have little in common. They are in different phases and decades of their lives. What they do have in common is their desire to improve their Christian spiritual lives. This desire leads them to form the Sensible Shoes Club, a continuation of the work they started at the retreat.
Here is what I wrote for IVP. A shortened version appeared on the back of the book.
I don’t usually like didactic fiction. If you want to teach me something, say it directly, not through characters and story, not with four women going on a retreat to learn ancient Christian practices and prayer forms as the plot. That was my response to the first pages of Sensible Shoes. But as I read on, somewhat annoyed with these four flawed women, I started to care about them–even as they provoked me. “Learn to linger with what provokes you. You may just find the Spirit of God moving there,” says professor Nate Allen, a character in the book. I took his advice. And I realized that what provoked me was that these women were women I knew; I have been on retreats with them and I am one of them. Their neediness, arrogance, cluelessness, perfectionism, self-pity, co-dependence… are mine.
By the end of the book I was grateful for author Sharon Garlough Brown’s fresh eyes and voice. She not only gave me re-sharpened tools for my journey with Jesus but also reminded me that I need fellow pilgrims to love me and keep me honest along the way.
Sensible Shoes became the first book in a trilogy. I looked forward to the second book called Two Steps Forward: A Story of Persevering Hope. (2015) The third, Barefoot: A Story of Surrendering to God (2016), was released this November. I have now read all three of the books and I am a fan. What I like about Mara, Hannah, Charissa, and Meg is their no pretense struggles with faith and their flawed efforts to practice some spiritual discipline. Just because they are Christians, their lives are not all smiles and sweetness. Frustration and anger are part of their spiritual vocabulary as well as gratitude and hope. Author Sharon Garlough Brown has done a great job of fleshing out real, twenty-first century women trying to live a Christian life.
Unlike non-fiction books about prayer practices, the reader witnesses the four women actually doing them. In Barefoot, they write letters to Jesus and use the “prayer of imagination” in which they place themselves in a scriptural story. In the earlier books, we see them walk the labyrinth and practice lectio divina—an ancient way to listen to and pray scripture. Mara, Hannah, Charissa, and Meg meet on a regular basis to pray together, support each other, and talk about their lives and their faith. They address the real conflicts and content of their lives–hopes realized, shattered dreams, tough teenagers, broken marriages, blooming romance, home versus work issues, daily life…. Maybe it sounds corny or pious, but it’s not. I would love to be part of an ongoing group like this—one in which we don’t just analyze or theologize, but one where we risk surrendering our egos and also learn how to surrender to God.
Consider giving this series as a Christmas gift. It can appeal to women across the Christian spectrum. If you are from a heady or more liberal denomination like I am, some of the intimate language of talking with God and Jesus might feel uncomfortable. This is a chance to embrace this discomfort and watch as these four believable women live into their faith. If you are more conservative and a little skeptical about some of these new ways to pray, ask God to journey with you into the unfamiliar and scary territory.
I would miss these four women, but I just received word of a fourth book in the series: An Extra Mile: A Story of Embracing God’s Call.
Sensible Shoes Two Steps Forward Barefoot
Sharon Garlough Brown (MDiv, Princeton Theological Seminary), the author, is a spiritual director and co-founder of Abiding Way Ministries, which provides spiritual formation retreats and resources. Sharon and her husband, Jack, have served on the pastoral staff of churches in Scotland, Oklahoma, England, and Michigan.