Prolific and sometimes controversial author Brian McLaren invites readers to explore the roots of their faith in his thought-provoking book, FINDING OUR WAY AGAIN, the first of eight installments in “The Ancient Practices Series.”
We give birth to character through exercise --- exercise for the soul, says McLaren. This exercise, or exercises, might be called “life practices” or “spiritual practices,” which develop our character and tune us in to God. The purpose of these practices is not to make us more religious, but to wake us up to life. To help us learn to pay attention. These practices get us through the hard times when we also feel alone and far from God. They help us rediscover our faith as a way of life, shaped and strengthened by ancient practices rather than just a set of beliefs --- an important distinction McLaren makes throughout the book. Churches can then become “schools of practice.”
McLaren writes from a Christian perspective but intends his book for seekers and those from Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He looks specifically at seven ancient practices shared by the three religions: fixed-hour prayer, fasting, Sabbath, the sacred meal, pilgrimage, observance of sacred seasons, and giving. He begins by looking at the genesis of practice, then moves to helping the reader make these concepts a normal and habitual part of life. Each chapter ends with a series of questions, or “spiritual exercises,” designed to help groups or individuals meditate on and apply the concepts in the chapter.
McLaren uses delightful images throughout his book, and his prose is competent and direct. One lovely phrase that struck me was “Contemplative practices, then, are means by which we become prepared for grace to surprise us. They are ways of opening our hands so that we can receive the gifts God wants to give us.” Beautifully said. Contemplative practices might include: Solitude (or Sabbath or Silence), Spiritual Reading and Study, Spiritual Direction, Practicing God’s Presence, Fixed-Hour Prayer, Prayer Journaling, Contemplative Prayer, Service, Simplicity, Fasting, Feasting, Holy Days/Season, Submission, Gratitude, Memorization and Meditation.
One of the best parts of the book is McLaren’s meditation on God as light, our ways of experiencing this, and on the dark night of the soul. He reminds us that “Ones’s enjoyment of the light of God is punctuated with nights and sometimes long, long nights, spiritual storms --- low-pressure systems, atmospheric depressions --- when the clouds are thick and gray for days, weeks, months, even years… One learns about light not just by being in its presence, but also by experiencing its absence.”
Those who have read McLaren’s books tend to find themselves alternately provoked, stimulated, reassured, angry and encouraged by his words. That’s why I enjoy his writing so much --- it’s impossible to read benignly. McLaren doesn’t waste much time regurgitating pat answers; instead, he prompts readers to look at their faith inside out, upside down, and from every possible angle. What he seems to be after is authenticity, and if he sometimes provokes disagreement getting there, so be it.
McLaren encourages us to look at the best practices of faith, without regard to where they traditionally spring from. It’s this ecumenicalism that is so appealing in his writing, a blending of the strongest practices from the Christian traditions, or what he calls Christianity going “open source.” Some more conservative readers may feel that his writing veers toward universalism, which should open up plenty of interesting conversations and makes this a good book for discussion groups.
These practices are not intended to be legalistic rules, McLaren reminds us. Rather, they are intended to be a way of living to bring God’s shalom into the world. When God takes us from being unhealthy (spiritually) to healthier, he is able to work through us to help heal a broken world. “What would happen if we were willing to risk everything so that people could…(be) formed and transformed by spiritual practices (?)” McLaren asks. These practices first change us, then help us to work change in the world.
Readers of FINDING OUR WAY will discover solid tools for an authentic pilgrimage of faith. Fans of McLaren will find this one of his best books to date.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 6, 2008