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Matthew HamiltonAugust 10, 2012
The Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington DC, hosted a panel which featured author Brian McLaren and Bishop Mariann Budde to discuss McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again: The Return of The Ancient Practices which seeks to explain the ancient spiritual practices in Christianity and how they are important to spiritual growth and maturity even in the 21st century. McLaren is a former non-denominational pastor and a prolific writer from the Emergent church movement, and Bishop Mariann is the spiritual head for the Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland. McLaren wrote this book as part of a series on spiritual practices within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The inspiration came from author Phyllis Tickle who, like McLaren is part of the Emergent church movement who are trying to make Christianity more postmodern so as to be more relevant to the modern zeitgeist. McLaren began writing the book after he had discussed with Tickle the concept of spiritual practices being essential to igniting or maintaining spiritual strength, something he had seen as being crucial in the lives of people in his own congregation, and also himself, during his 24 years of pastoral service. There are three categories of spiritual practices that McLaren identifies in his book: “contemplative practices” which are those that happen in privacy, “communal practices” which are those that build up communal fellowship, and “missional practices” which are those practices that put faith into practical application in everyday life for the purpose of making a difference in the world. McLaren makes the case that spiritual practices have become far too scarce in the postmodern/post-Christian world. To exemplify his point, he explains how in the not so distant past, practically everyone was expected to attend church and that failing to do so brought questions about one’s character. However in today’s world, even the basic spiritual practice of worshipping in fellowship has become abandoned by many Christians. McLaren argues that liturgy is a series of spiritual exercises which can help us learn how to live life and exercise our spiritual muscles so we can be more patient, more loving, more Christ-like, and is an essential spiritual practice for Christians who want to mature.
McLaren spent some time speaking of the importance of spiritually maturity and the importance that spiritual practices have in making Christians more mature. He likened growing in spiritual maturity is a challenge to exercising and how spiritual practices are designed to exercises our spirits to make us more mature by teaching us how to share, to forgive, to love, to be faithful, to be resilient, etc. He also made a point to emphasize that spiritual maturity can take a long time to grow into and that it takes a lot of spiritual exercises to build up that maturity. According to McLaren, what happens to Christians who don’t practice spiritual disciplines is that they learn all the Christian lore and all the Christian doctrine, but they don’t mature and therefore we have Christians in churches who know all their theology but don’t know how to share God’s love with their neighbors and they don’t really know how to love God. Brian McLaren was asked to address the “hows” to a Christian spiritual life such as “how to love God” or “how to love one’s neighbor” since his book only addressed in broad terms what Christians should do. McLaren, perhaps half jokingly, admitted it was an oversight not to include the “hows” in his book and he might have to write a new one. He did give a few examples though, he said that praising God’s artwork in creation would be one way to love God and also that taking the time to learn about people’s differences, such as their personality types, would help one know how to love people better. Bishop Mariann also addressed the “how” question: she emphasized the importance of communal practices and that the “hows” in the Rule of Saint Benedict would be a useful guide for Christian communities even in the postmodern world (the Rule of Saint Benedict was written around 500 A.D. and is a comprehensive guide to communal living and spiritual practices for monastic communities). Mariann spoke of the importance of Christians building a “community of faith” and praised Saint Benedict as an example for Christians to follow in living out the principle of “loving neighbors as ourselves.” Mariann also said that spiritual practices of the ancient world are applicable in the modern world and will inform us on how we can know God because they “have an eternal component, but are also flexible and adaptable.” Bishop Mariann argued that spiritual practices are essential as “the things we can do to live into the gap between the people that we are and the people that we want to become.” Bishop Mariann asserted that McLaren’s book and the spiritual practices that he teaches are important for Christians in the modern world because Christianity has too often presented itself as lacking practical applications as a way of life by summarizing a statement by Dr. Peter Serge who said: “Why did they suppose that the most popular spiritual books being sold today are on Buddhism and not on Christianity?... Buddhism presents itself as a way of life while Christianity tends to present itself as a system of beliefs and what people are looking for right in our culture and in our time is a way of life, we’re looking for ways to teach us how to live.” The Bishop was not arguing that Christianity is not a way of life, merely that it is often made to appear so. She praised McLaren’s work and implied that Christians renewing their focus on spiritual practices could help people, both those in the church and outside, to understand that Christianity is a way of life and not just a set of beliefs.
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