I just finished another journey with Barbara Brown Taylor. Through her words, which are done with the skill and care of a craftsman (like Eugene Peterson), I have followed her from When God is Silent (a book every preacher should read at least twice a year) to her transparent transition from the church, Leaving Church (which also is worthy of a regular read for those of us when “we get so immersed in indoor dramas we lose track of the seasons”).
I wasn’t sure where her interests would take her next, but An Altar in the World suggests that with a certain slowing she has become much more sensitive to life around her. The timing for reading her book was perfect, for I was doing much more thinking about how to become fully present to God. The silence of a recent vacation prompted this. Taylor’s work is all about this. She writes twelve chapters underscoring twelve practices she has incorporated into her life, and she challenges us to integrate them into ours as well. Returning to these has the power to save faith that might just be “out of breath,” something she seemed out of by the end of her parish ministry. Some are more predictable—the practice of waking up to God, the practice of paying attention. Here are some others—
-the PRACTICE OF GETTING LOST – I liked this chapter a lot, maybe because I am too inclined to take the shortest distance between two points. Here, Taylor unpacks the value of getting off the trail. We are too inclined to the cow path, walking the same predictable route, riding or driving the same streets. The beaten down path makes all the choices for you. The senses do not need to be on alert—and trust is not so required. In getting occasionally lost, we discover things we would not have found if we stayed on the path. Things happen in the wilderness that do not happen in a manicured garden.
-the PRACTICE OF LIVING WITH PURPOSE – most people work at jobs that are too small for them. I see this in many of the people I know. Most purposes this side of eternity are too small for most human beings. People want to be part of something that really matters. Here Taylor shares more of her own journey, discovering that far bigger than the purposes she has lived out is the larger vocation of loving God and neighbor as oneself. This is finding one’s real purpose, becoming fully human.
-the PRACTICE OF SAYING NO – according to Taylor, this is the essence of Sabbath. It is saying no to work, commerce, internet, car, and that voice in the head forever whispering “more.” Only in saying no do we resist culture’s killing rhythms of drivenness and depletion, compulsion and collapse. This is probably why too few of us take a Sabbath rest each week. We have been conditioned to always say yes.
-the PRACTICE OF FEELING PAIN – this I believe was the most powerful chapter. The insights Taylor finds in the book of Job are stunning. While our obvious tendency is to avoid pain, there’s something important about engaging it, giving full attention to what it can teach us. Pain is “one the fastest routes to a no-frills encounter with the Holy.” Still, most of us, including me, are inclined to avoid it. Job is a textbook on pain, as well as the silence of God. This is what is hardest to work through in pain. Divine silence can feel like “falling through outer space without an oxygen mask on.” Yet, pain remains a “reliable altar” in the world, a place to discover that a life can be just as full of meaning as it is of hurt.
-the PRACTICE OF BEING PRESENT TO GOD – it is here I particularly identify with Taylor and her own admission of being a failure at prayer. When people ask about my prayer life, she writes, “I feel like a bulimic must feel when people ask about her favorite dish. My mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem. As she adds, “I would rather show someone my checkbook stubs. But there is a way forward, and that is to embrace a fuller definition of prayer that goes beyond set times. Real prayer, she notes, is waking up to the presence of God, no matter where we are. Giving ourselves fully to God in that moment, we are in this dialogue. Speaking is going on.