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    Entries in Spiritual Disciplines (19)


    Ancient Practices and the Porous Self

    In a 2008 article written for First Things, Alan Jacobs turns his attention toward Hugh Halter, Matt Smay, Brian McLaren, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, examining contemporary authors in Christianity that harken back within their published works to an "ancient faith."  In the three books linked above, each author turns the attention of the reader to the past, and in one way or another seeks to reclaim some old facet of the Christian Tradition they believe has been lost.  Having read McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove, I was intrigued.  Like many reformers of old, I too have longed for a re-emergence of Christian faith as it has been expressed and lived in the past, a purer, even "mythic" faith that taps into that same energy discovered and exploding forth from the pages of the New Testament.

    I first encountered this article, entitled "Do-It-Yourself Tradition," in Jacobs' collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.  This selection is an excellent critique of contemporary popular writing that attempts to point us back to the past.  Jacobs exposes critiques of the church that are too simplistic, outlandish, and historically ill-founded (and not exclusive to the authors cited above), while calling the reader to a deeper, more analytic and theologically well grounded attempt to forge a way forward for the contemporary church.  Jacobs calls his reader to be more daring, more brash in their attempts to re-enliven Christianity.  A tweak here, a tweak there, a practice now and again with a dash of spiritual razzmatazz won't do.

    You can read the article here.  As he reaches the end of his argument, Jacobs interjects a small amount of contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis that may be the greatest contribution given therein.  In his concluding remarks, Jacobs states:

    The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa—that can be illuminated by God—may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

    The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we'd rather remain within our buffers—if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies—from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads—may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    While I have spoken often of the spiritual disciplines as "tools," Jacobs posits that they are indeed much more.  I think he is right.  I also think he is right to point to the changing existential dynamic that may be taking place--the reinsertion of the porous self--within history.

    If Jacobs is right, and the current technological conditions are opening avenues for the reestablishment of mystery and deep spirituality alongside the minimization of those "buffers" we place around ourselves to insulate us from transformative spiritual fanaticism, a new day may be dawning before us.  Jacobs is then right to see ancient Christian practices as "an indispensible source of hope" and "the hope of life to those who are perishing."  He is right to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that we may need a new St. Benedict.

    The project of "new creation" is larger than we have imagined.

    As conversations continue regarding the future of the faith, between myself and colleagues and friends across denominations and non-denominations, we are in need of honest historical reflection concerning where we stand, as well as sound, well-informed philosophical and theological reflection that can set us on a truthful trajectory toward the fullness of the Kingdom coming.  Along the way, we'll also need practitioners--pastors and church leaders--for the outcome of our ruminations cannot remain in the abstract, if we are to truly see a renewed and more hopeful Christianity.


    Book Review :: Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)

    Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog.  With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere.  Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia.  The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination.  Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.

    Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important.  That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read.  Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there.  He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone.  His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.

    The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability.  It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one.  However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle.  I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community.  Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race.  Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.

    In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage.  While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage.  This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster.  With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian.  However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way.  There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person."  This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value.  However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.

    I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey.  Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.


    Being Thankful :: Counting Blessings

    From - Lost in Scotland on Flickr!

    Gratitude is a habit that is cultivated.  It is a way of seeing the world.  And one spiritual discipline that can help cultivate a posture of gratitude is counting your blessings.  It is a simple exercise.  Open up a word processor, grab a journal or a piece of paper, and begin jotting down the things you are thankful for.  It can be the most ordinary, common part of your existence.  It can be something that is more of a rare gift.  Anything is fair game.

    I'm thankful for many things.  Here are a few:

    • Coffee.
    • My daughter.
    • My wife.
    • The existence of a people called "church."
    • Jesus.
    • Scripture.
    • Clint Bland.
    • Universities and opportunities for higher learning.
    • Music.
    • Young people.
    • Exercise.
    • Sunlight.
    • Kayli Holloway.
    • Stained glass.
    • Books.
    • Smart phones.
    • Wisdom.
    • Mike Hibit.
    • Family.

    What are you thankful for? 


    Waiting While Walking

    Transformation into the likeness of Christ does not just happen.  But we act like it should.  Upon hearing the good news, once we take a step forward in following after Christ we expect instant holiness.  It is as though the fullness of our salvation, the complete renewal of our heart and life, should magically occur.  Because it doesn't occur instantly, some wrongly think there is little that they can do.  They wait until a moment when they feel they are "good enough" to undertake the practices of the Christian life, rather than diving right in, brokenness and all.

    We mistakenly believe that it is only our justification that is by grace, and not our sanctification also.

    John Wesley, in his sermon "The Means of Grace" writes:

    7. But the main question remains: "We know this salvation is the gift and work of God; but how (may one say who is convinced he hath it not) may I attain thereto?"  If you say, "Believe, and thou shalt be saved!" he answers, "True: but how shall I believe?"  You reply, "Wait upon God."  "Well, but how am I to wait?  In the means of grace, or out of them?  Am I to wait for the grace of God which bringeth salvation, by using these means, or by laying them aside?" [...] III. 1. According to this, according to the decision of holy writ, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.

    Wesley explains that we have been given the practices of "Searching the Scriptures," hearing the Word of God preached, the breaking of bread and the drinking from the cup, and prayer as gifts, and they are means through which God works to bring about holiness of heart and life.  He further argues that such means "never atone for one sin," or gain us any kind of merit.  He states, "It is He alone who, by his own mighty power, worketh in us what is pleasing in his sight; and all outward things, unless He work in them and by them, are mere weak and beggarly elements."  The practices in and of themselves do not automatically result in a certain type of transformation, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, they are powerful avenues by which God can bring about change.  God goes to work where we create space in our lives for God to work.

    We wait for God to transform us, but we walk while we wait.  Such a truth is paradoxical, for we are on the move while expecting to be found.  But it is a beautiful paradox, and, as Wesley states, one to which the Scripture gives witness.  It is just as true today.


    Brief Book Review :: The Ancient Practices Series: Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal

    Now that I've completed Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal, I've read six of the eight titles in Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices Series.  I've enjoyed each volume for different reasons, as the style of each author has brought a unique approach to discussing each of these spiritual practices.  This book, in particular, was very unique stylistically.  From a technical writing standpoint, Gallagher has written a delightful book.  However, from a biblical and theological standpoint, I was left longing for more.  Below you will find a few reasons why.

    Within this series, it has not been uncommon for me to long for greater depth in biblical, historical, and theological reflection concerning each practice.  I recognize that these books have not been written for a scholarly audience, and thus do not contain numerous footnotes or extensive technical discussion common to academic works.  However, for the Christian layperson who might explore these books looking for greater insight into each of these spiritual practices, at least some discussion of the relevant biblical texts and an examination of some of the most critical points of theological debate would be incredibly helpful.  In this particular book, the narrative prose and the critical self reflection of Gallagher is inviting, engaging, and enjoyable, and at one level it is informative for those who might resonate with her experiences, but with regard to how those experiences might engage with the wider breadth of the Christian tradition, Gallagher only scratches the surface.  To summarize this first point of criticism, in reading this volume I hoped for at least a deeper level of historical reflection, but was disappointed.

    Secondly, Gallagher's description of the Lord's Meal itself stresses one particular viewpoint concerning the significance of this ritual over others.  Gallagher continually notes how the Eucharist is an all inclusive meal, which I will not deny.  While stressing the all-inclusiveness of this meal, Gallagher seems to use this practice to lift up and champion a number of social justice causes, and while this interpretation of the meal is no doubt valid and instructive, it is only one particular way in which this meal has been of vital importance for Christian people throughout the ages.  In many other traditions, the celebration of Communion reminds those present of the very real cost of salvation, the depth of their own sin, and the great victory which Jesus won on the cross to bring about deliverance from death and the assurance of eternal life.  At the very least, a nod toward the fact that the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his closest followers appeared to lack one of the traditional elements, that of the lamb, only for it later to be reveal that Jesus himself was the True lamb, would've added a much needed dimension to Gallagher's discussion.

    Lastly, for all of the insight that is to be gained from hearing another person's story, a resource like this one should include some instruction for how the Eucharist should be approached by the reader.  In this respect, Gallagher's contribution in this series differs greatly from Scot McKnight's Fasting in that McKnight quite helpfully gives his readers much to consider in adopting a new spiritual practice.  Gallagher shares her experience as a Communion server, and notes a number of ways that Communion has been deeply meaningful in her Christian journey, but aside from those moments of beauty the reader might see in Gallagher's personal narrative, there is little instruction for someone considering how they might engage in this practice either for the first time, or more deeply after having taken the bread and the cup many times before.

    For these reasons, and for other more specific disagreements concerning Gallagher's treatment (or lack thereof) of relevant biblical and theological material, I do not heartily recommend this book.  While this volume contains a handful of beautifully written stories, the overall thrust of the narrative disappoints, and left me learning more about Nora Gallagher than the Eucharist, or the Lord who gave us the gift of this meal.