Review: Finding Our Way Again

Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices
Author: Brian McLaren
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, 2008
214 pages
Reviewer: Leonard Hjalmarson

Brian McLaren is becoming a prolific author. I don't have every volume he has written, but my shelf boasts five of his books, and this marks number six. On the whole they have been helpful, inspiring, thoughtful, and occasionally convicting.

Finding our Way Again is the first in a series of eight books that will be called The Ancient Practices Series. The books will be written by eight different authors, reflecting on the practice and application of spiritual disciplines. The series is timely, representing a growing desire for depth in our quick fix culture, and in particular, a desire to reconnect with the broader wisdom of faithful communities through the centuries. The next in the series is In Constant Prayer (to be released in May), followed by Sabbath; Fasting; Sacred Meal; Sacred Journey; The Liturgical Year; and wrapping up with Tithing, in February, 2010.

Brian McLaren kicks off the series by assessing our current need, and then explaining the role of spiritual practices from ancient days to now. This introductory volume paves the way for the next seven. We’ll consider Brian’s work and also assess his approach, which is a little unusual.

McLaren presents his argument in three parts: Way, Practices, and Ancient. Each chapter along the way closes with a list of questions intended to help the reader engage the text. The list often includes suggestions for personal and spiritual engagement.

Part One "Way"

Finding Our Way AgainPart One (chapters 2-8) examines how we have lost our way, and then argues for the necessity of spiritual disciplines in the Christian life. Brian says that we must rediscover our faith as a way of life, not simply as a system of beliefs. Brian recalls an engagement with Peter Senge. Brian was asked to interview him, and during the conversation Senge responded with a question: “Why are books on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?” He suggested his own answer: “I think it’s because Buddhism represents a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief…” (3).

In a variety of faith communities and networks (ALLELON) there is discussion around missional orders and a rule of life. Brian seems familiar with the conversation and the potential. He rightly stresses the idea that spiritual disciplines are not rigid rules but rather catalysts through which believers may become more in tune with the world, both physical and spiritual. He makes an argument elsewhere encapsulated by Henri Nouwen:

"A Rule offers 'creative boundaries within which God's loving presence can be recognised and celebrated.' It does not prescribe but invite, it does not force but guide, it does not threaten but warn, it does not instil fear but points to love. In this it is a call to freedom, freedom to love."

Nouwen is drawing on a rich spiritual stream here, reaching all the way back to St. Gregory. In his Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory warns that there is a danger in transforming “supplies for the journey into hindrances to arrival at the journey’s end.” He understood from experience that monasteries, habits, prayer books, liturgical practices and the like are never to be the end of our worship, but a means only. Like the Scriptures themselves, they should add light to our path and strength to our walk. If they don't draw us closer to Jesus and empower us in mission, then they are of little value.

Rediscovering our faith as a way of life is a more profound shift than we might think on first glance. Brian notes that the word "disciple" (or "learner") is found 250 times in the New Testament, the term "Christian" only three times. The verb we translate "to follow" occurs 90 times. African Bishop David Zac Niringiye was quoted last year in Christianity Today noting that in the West we prefer the Great Commission.

“We need to begin to read the Bible differently. Americans have been preoccupied with the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission: “Go and make.” I call them go-and-make missionaries. These are the go-and-fix-it people. The go-and-make people are those who act like it’s all in our power, and all we have to do is “finish the task.” They love that passage! But when read from the center of power, that passage simply reinforces the illusion that it’s about us, that we are in charge.

“I would like to suggest a new favorite passage, the Great Invitation. It’s what we find if we read from the beginning of the Gospels rather than the end. Jesus says, “Come, follow me. I will make you fishers of men.” Not “Go and make,” but “I will make you.” It’s all about Jesus. And do you know the last words of Jesus to Peter, in John 21? “Follow me.” The last words of Simon Peter’s encounter are the same as the first words…” (Andy Crouch, “Experiencing Life at the Margins.” Christianity Today. July 2006, Vol. 50, No. 7, 32)

The first section closes with a summary of the classical dualism of spiritual life: the division into contemplative and active modes of being. There are numerous problems with this division and Brian points to some of the basic ones. The contemplative way is too easily privatized, and practices become commodified into something we consume as a means toward personal peace. The activist way, divorced from a rich inner life, leads to burnout and descends into ideology. Years ago Jim Wallis characterized the dangers of this spiritual monism like this:

"Both [vision and nurture] are key to community. Without nurture, a community will exhaust itself in pursuit of a vision. Without vision, a community will become stuck in self-preoccupation and will travel in circles. With only vision a community soon loses any real quality of love. With only nurture the community soon forgets what its love is for." (Call to Conversion, 128)

In our day the greater danger is activism. As we recover a more holistic perspective on the spiritual life, and especially as we recover the practice of justice, apart from a growing inner life, the danger is burnout. Other spiritual writers, like Bernard of Clairvaux, spoke to this danger. In one of his many sermons on the Song of songs he writes on v1:2, “Your name is oil poured out..”

“The man who is wise will see his life more as a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water til it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself…. Today there are many in the church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare…”

“You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”

Part Two "Practices"

In Part two Brian introduces the practices and explains how to incorporate them into our lives. He is aware of the danger of creating a new law, with new demands. He writes, “It would be tragic for you to read this book and walk away with a longer to-do list.” Instead, the disciplines are an opportunity and a means of creating space for God. I am reminded of Brueggemann's argument:

"Our problem today: the space for imagination to expand and take shape is inversely proportional to the speed at which we live. Driven hard and fast, we lack the time to allow alternate worlds and possibilities to form, careening past small turnings and exits, bound to follow the obvious straight paths of the present arrangement. Yet if we stop and wait, and close our eyes to the "buy now, take me now" images, we will begin to remember, new worlds will form and new exits will become apparent." (Hopeful Imagination, 56-57)

Brian uses the analogies of art and sport. In the end, all disciplines are composed of practices that take us to places we can’t reach directly. We do the scales so that one day we can play Bach or Mozart; we lift weights and run so that one day we can compete in a marathon.

But these represent individual means and the kingdom is a place we must reach as communities of faith. This is one reason that I think a missional order and a rule of life are ancient places we must recover. They move us beyond individual measures and practices and beyond individualist, or inward-looking lenses, for discovering leadership. And they provide a context, a covenant community, which is the soil that must exist in order for any practice to help us toward an authentic expression of kingdom life.

Brian's argument is that "practices make possible." He writes, "They say that practice makes perfect, but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that practice makes possible some things that otherwise would have been impossible.” (87)

Brian lists about twenty different contemplative practices. Some will be familiar, others, like journalling, may be less familiar to some. Under "journalling" some of us would include blogging, so there are variations possible on many of these themes.

I was encouraged to see a separate chapter on "communal practices" (11). Brian discusses a whole set of gathering practices:

Arrival Practices

Inconvenience- Showing up is inherently inconvenient.

Self Preparation - Our daily self preparation typically involves, showering, brushing our teeth, getting dressed. Preparation for the gathering of the faith community would have practices such as prayer, study, or discussion on the way to the meeting

Hospitality - As one arrives --in the parking lot --on the sidewalk – others are also arriving too. How we treat one another at this stage is a significant communal practice.

Engagement Practices

Stillness - As we enter our meeting space we can practice stillness. Really this is another level of hospitality - this time to God. It is a practice that enables attention.

Invocation - Brian notes that many of our invocations ask ridiculous things: they ask God to be present as if God wasn’t present already. Beneath this clumsy expression is the reality that we are often oblivious to God’s presence, "asleep at the wheel."

Singing - Brian states that singing is so familiar in our churches that he is afraid we are missing the miracle that it is.

Listening Practices

Attentiveness - In this section he takes on the sermon and details specific sets of practices around gathering. It's interesting to see our (primarily Sunday) gatherings through this lens. But it also raises other issues.

Brian sees the preparing and listening to a sermon as a communal practice of attentiveness. So far so good. The frame is this: the speaker or preacher begins with their own practice of attention: listening for the Spirit in the Scriptures, in the faith community, his or her own soul, and in the world around us. The problem is this: too often our preachers don't have time for this kind of attention. As a result, they speak from a shallow place and hope against hope that some kind of God encounter will happen when we gather. When it does not, we are all discouraged, and the next time we gather our expectation is lower than before.

This is the reality. The challenge for our communities is to bring change (and Brian will get to this later). This is the kind of issue addressed by Pagitt in Reimagining Spiritual Formation and Preaching Reimagined. We need to develop communities of practice around the Word and regard the Word anew as a third partner in dialogue.

Interpretation and Discernment - We don't receive sermons or hear prayers passively; we are all constantly in dialogue with tradition, our personal history, theology. Brian makes a comment on the hermeneutic of suspicion. Many questions could and should be raised here. We do need to rediscover in shared practices the hermeneutical community. In echoes of Bellah's Habits of the Heart, William Cavanaugh phrased it, "Others from outside the self — the ultimate Other being God — are necessary to break through the bonds that enclose the self in itself. Humans need a community of virtue in which to learn to desire rightly." (Being Consumed, 9).

Confession and Assurance of Pardon - Brian includes confession as a listening practice because it involves what Parker Palmer describes as "listening to your life" (See in particular A Hidden Wholeness). All spiritual writers point to self-knowledge as critical to growth. Communal confession is somewhat rare, though there is substantial recovery of the practice in the recovery of liturgical practice in set hours of prayer.

Brian mentions other practices: response practices, reentry practices, and even announcements as a spiritual practice (all this begs a question we will ask later). Then we are on to chapter 12, which details "Missional Practices." In this chapter Brian asks the question: "Does God's mission work from the individual to the world, or from the world to the individual?" He describes his own journey from one position to the other. In earlier years, he subscribed to the view that "God wants to heal individuals." If there are more and healthier individuals, the world becomes a better place. Today, however, he subscribes to an alternate view. He writes,

"God wants to heal the world. In order to so so, he recruits coworkers who must be healthy so they don't spread more sickness." But since there are no perfectly healthy people, God starts with ordinary people and first helps them become healthier, so they can be enlisted in bringing health to others." (115)

Shades of Henri Nouwen in The Wounded Healer. Essentially an "ecological" view, Brian sees the parts through the whole rather than vice versa. In terms of mission he comments that God calls disciples so that he can send them out as apostles. A well-formed disciple is interested in both personal transformation as well as global transformation. Brian quotes Micah 6:8 :

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with God?

Brian separates "missional practice" out into the next chapter. I could make an argument for including it in communal practices, but there is also good reason to assign a separate chapter. The best reason to include it, or at least to include a paragraph on mission under the heading of communal practices, is the one that underlies so much discussion around renewed ecclesiology: incarnation. Apart from communities of practice, the Gospel is cut loose from its anchor as a transformative movement. As George Hunsberger framed it, "The daily lived performance by vibrant communities of Christ is the most fundamental testament of the Gospel's force and power." (Stormfront)

On reflection, I am also surprised that Brian did not include a paragraph or two on set hours of prayer in this chapter (He mentions it in passing in chapter 7 page 63). The omission of this practice here leaves me with the sense that the important communal practices are built around Sunday gatherings. I doubt this is Brian's intention, since far too large a proportion of community energy has been invested in Sunday gatherings, fueling our "consumption" of religious goods and services and reinforcing a leader-centric culture.

* * *


* What do you think of Brian moving from classical spiritual practices to defining a set of contemporary practices around the gathering? Does this help reframe practices within the context of daily life, or does it "complexify" or distract? Through an alternate lens: if everything is sacred, is anything sacred?
* What do you make of our classical dualism that separates contemplative and active ways of knowing God (72ff)? Do you lean one way or the other? Do the lists help connect you with your own journey in faith and mission?

Chapters 13 and 14 mark the transition ...Part 2

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• © 2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on August 17, 2008