After coming to evangelical faith in 1972, and anticipating a life filled with wonder and mystery and joy, FaithfulReader.com reviewer Marcia Ford settled for what she calls "a good but restless life with God." But when she began to explore what she calls "the attic" --- the ancient treasures of church life hidden away --- she discovered a diversity of belief and practice that became her entrée into unexpected beauty and surprises.
The question she took for her own, and offers readers, is this: "What can Christians in the third millennium learn from ancient examples of faith?" Ford invites readers to move out of their spiritual comfort zones and discover for themselves what the old traditions of Christianity have to offer to us today. Her reasoning is threefold: these traditions will add depth and richness to our life with God; they provide a solid foundation for us as we explore different ways to express our faith; and they unite us with believers in the past as well as our contemporaries.
The practices are as varied as the drinks at Starbucks. Practice healthy grieving. Pray for the gift of tears (for Ford, closely aligned with giving up a controlling nature). Silence as transformation. ("Silence is not an escape. It's a doorway into God's presence.") Sensible asceticism. Meditation and solitude. Knit a prayer shawl, or wear one. Memorize the Psalms. Discover sacred reading. Ford writes eloquently about prayer, from trying new prayer postures, praying the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), knitting or wearing a prayer shawl, or even praying poetry (including Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver).
In an interesting section on Spiritual Mentoring, she writes of the downside of the availability of good books that "makes it all too easy for us to try and go it alone." And as a backpacker who loves the outdoors, I found Ford's accounts of Egeria in "Pilgrimage" fascinating.
Ford has a delightful sense of humor and the gift of good storytelling. Her images are engaging, drawing the reader into the practices. She smatters quotes from a diversity of sources: Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, and scripture. I was especially intrigued by her chapter on "memorial meals," something Ford confesses she hasn't tried for herself but sounded like something I want to experience. When you've lost a loved one, this is a great way to remember and offer tribute to them as well as bring an extended family or community together in a shared purpose. And I enjoyed discovering that Ford and I both have a penchant for Susan Howatch's Church of England/Starbridge series of novels.
Ford has a healthy amount of skepticism; she acknowledges that if you look long enough and hard enough you'll find ancient traditions both bizarre and strange and not worth emulating. Even when a practice might be a good one, she's not afraid to offer her own two cents. (On praying the Jesus Prayer a prescribed number of times she notes "Frankly, I don't want anyone but God telling me I have to say a prescribed number of repetitive prayers….") Ford is also not adverse to doing a little customizing on the side, as when she adds for herself at the end of the Jesus Prayer, "Have mercy on me, a sinner saved by grace."
Her pithy, straightforward attitude will help alleviate some concerns that evangelicals new to the practices might have, and encourage them to press forward. The 28 practices she offers are a tempting smorgasbord for any Christian, but especially those who feel disappointed in a faith that may have seemed to promise much more than it delivered.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on April 1, 2006