When I first picked up Sensible Shoes, on a whim at the library, I had no idea what to expect. It’s a novel, yes, but it’s also a sort of spiritual retreat. This is like no Christian fiction I’d ever read, and it tied into my interests in contemplative spirituality. This was a book that read me. As I walked with the characters, I was thinking about my life differently, asking questions about my emotions and responses to the people and situations around me. The series has continued to challenge, move, and encourage me, and today the third book in the series, Barefoot, releases into the world. I caught up with author Sharon Garlough Brown to talk about it. Read the interview below or listen to it here.
Cara Strickland: Hi Sharon, it’s so good to talk with you today.
Sharon Garlough Brown: It’s wonderful to be with you, Cara.
CS: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the Sensible Shoes series?
SGB: At the moment, it’s a series of three books. The series starts with a book called Sensible Shoes. Sensible Shoes is a kind of a hybrid genre. It’s fiction, it’s a novel, but it tracks four characters as they meet at a retreat center to learn some ancient practices of the church, some spiritual disciplines, and as they are going through the retreat there are six sessions. Those handouts are available in the book, so a reader has an opportunity whether or not to just read it as story and track the characters on their journey deeper into the heart of God, and as they’re experiencing transformation, and healing, and freedom, or to also participate in the retreat. So that’s the first book in the series, Sensible Shoes. The second book in the series is Two Steps Forward. It picks up right where Sensible Shoes leaves off, actually on the same day, and tracks the characters forward through the season of Advent. What I’m hoping, in Two Steps Forward, is that people won’t just see it as an Advent book that they read at that season of the year, but that we really discover that Advent is an opportunity, is a posture, year-round, this season where we are preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ, where we’re practicing waiting, where we’re looking at themes like light shining into the darkness and how is Christ Emmanuel, God with us, making Himself known to us in the middle of the mess of life. So the characters are no longer in retreat in the second book, but their lives are unraveling, and the question becomes: what will they remember of what they’ve learned and what they’ve experienced and practiced together? Barefoot is the third in the series and that’s on its way out into the world at the moment. It’s the same characters, again life getting messy, and how are they connecting in community and with God?
CS: What made you choose fiction as a way to express some of these ideas about spiritual formation and spiritual practices?
SGB: Fiction is so invitational. Jesus knew the power of story and told stories so well. We read story in a different way than we read nonfiction. We read it with our guard down we read it with our defenses down, and story has this potential and power to hit us and linger with us. Story is stealthy. I knew I wanted to tell a story about the power of the Spirit to transform us in this process of spiritual formation, this process of being conformed to the image of Christ, to becoming more like Him, and I sensed that the best way to do that, given that there are already so many wonderful nonfiction books out about spiritual formation and spiritual practices, was to try a story form where I created four characters and introduced them to these spiritual practices and just then let’s see what God does with them, where do they go in this journey?
CS: Will you tell me a little about your journey with some of the practices in the book?
SGB: I was in pastoral ministry for a number of years before I was introduced to the notion of spiritual disciplines and the contemplative way of life. I lived a very driven, very busy [life]. I had my socially acceptable idolatries in terms of trying to perform well in ministry, trying to be enough and do enough for God and for others. That really meant living on the edge of burnout. About 10 years ago, I began meeting with a spiritual director, someone who’s just prayerfully attentive to listening to my life and asking good questions about how I’m noticing and naming the presence of God, how I’m resisting in fear, how I’m longing for God. Even that first meeting it began a paradigm shift in ministry, for me, from working really really hard for what God had already freely given, and that was His love. So it was a paradigm shift even in understanding what spiritual disciplines are. I grew up with this notion that spiritual disciplines are the things that we are supposed to do in order to be faithful Christians and now I see spiritual practice as a way of practicing receiving the love of God and resting in the love of God and then responding to that love in the world. So practices that have become life-giving for me are things like a slow meditating on scripture maybe just a short passage, Lectio Divina, which goes back way into the early centuries of the church. How are we letting the word read us, how are we letting the word come to life as we slowly chew on a passage, listening for a word or phrase that’s catching our attention, kind of shimmering for us, and then we begin to to chew it and ponder it and pray it and ask God what is it about this particular word or phrase that’s catching my attention and inviting me to linger with it? So that sort of practice has become very important. The practice of Sabbath has become really important in my rhythm of life, where Sabbath is a weekly way to declare that the world can run without my vigilance and without me having to be responsible for anything, but it’s this gracious command and gracious invitation from the God who generously works the rhythm of rest into our lives and reminds us in Scripture that we are no longer slaves and that we practice the Sabbath not only to remember the image of the one in whom we’re created, God who rests, but also to remember with the Israelites that we were once slaves. They were slaves in Egypt, we were slaves to our sin, and we’re no longer enslaved people. Sabbath is a radical declaration to say that we are free. That means free to rest, free to play, free to enjoy God’s gracious provision. So those are just a couple of the disciplines that have been radically life changing for me as I’ve practiced those.
CS: How has writing these books enhanced your spiritual life?
SGB: That’s such a great question. The only way I know how to write is by praying my way through it. I never know plot points in advance, or rarely know them in advance, anyway, and have to just kind of pray my way day by day with the characters. I hope that that has made me more attentive not only to my own life with God and what I’m noticing about God’s invitations from day to day, but also to the presence of God in other people’s lives. Each of the characters is distinct from one another, they have different struggles, they have different joys, they have different baggage that they bring from the past. There are certain spiritual practices that might be really really life giving to, say, Hannah in her circumstances, that might mean nothing for Charissa, and vice versa. So I’m experiencing the presence of God as I write and I hope that makes me even more attentive to the presence of God in the lives of others.
CS: As you prepare to send this new entry into the world today, what is your hope for the readers of the Sensible Shoes series?
SGB: I had two hopes when I started writing Sensible Shoes and those hopes have continued as the series has developed. The first is that readers will catch a glimpse, a vision, of what it means to be loved by God. And I know we can give a lot of lip service that ‘oh yes we know that God loves us.’ But to truly truly know that the most important thing that can be said about us is not information about what our jobs are, what we’ve achieved, what other people think about us, but that we, like the Apostle John, are able to say that we are the disciples that Jesus loves, that we are the ones Jesus loves. It’s catching a fresh glimpse of our identity in Christ as the Beloved. The second longing that I had is that readers would connect with one another in community. We’re not meant to travel alone. The only thing that God said was not good in creation was that Adam was alone, and it’s not good for us to be alone. Sometimes it can be very hard to find trustworthy companions to walk with us, but I’m hoping that the books in the Sensible Shoes series invite community, and not superficial community, but deep, maskless authentic, like ‘this is where life is hard for me.’ I think that sometimes the gift that fiction and characters can give us is they can give us mirrors to seeing our own struggle and then windows into seeing God’s presence in the midst of those struggles. So my longing is that people say yes to the invitation to walk together. I’ve made available a companion guide on my website sensibleshoesclub.com. There’s a free companion guide, it’s available for Sensible Shoes. It’s intense. It’s 12 weeks, 5 days a week, of scripture and then questions about the characters, because it’s often easier to see the truth in someone else’s life before we necessarily recognize it in our own. So: what are the characters struggling with? What are they processing right now? And then the mirror turns around to the reader: what am I seeing in my life with God? And then some ideas for prayer and for spiritual practice. I hear from lots of individuals and groups that are using that as a way to walk together and that’s gratifying to me.