Thursday, April 2, 2009

"An Altar in the World"

I read an except of Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World in a recent The Christian Century. I bought the book the next day, and it arrived in the mail yesterday. I devoured half of it last night.

These days I am so grateful for any book that can gather my fragmented attention and focus it. I am so grateful for a book that makes me say, "Hmm, I could stay up one hour more and still function tomorrow." These days, it's the rare book that I can't put down.

An Altar in the World is one of those rare books. Barbara Brown Taylor has theological training and served for years as an Episcopal priest, but her latest book focuses on the idea of finding God outside of a church and the sacramental aspect of every day activities.

For example, she talks about hanging up wet laundry, hanging up the clothes and praying for the people who wear them, for the trees that died to make the clothespins, for the company that makes the clothespins. She talks of laundry fluttering like prayer flags.

She gives us wonderful nuggets like this one after she's talked about the reliability of the results of her daily exercise routine on the treadmill: "Spiritual practices are not like this. The only promise they make is to teach those who engage in them what those practitioners need to know--about being human, about being human with other people, about being human in creation, about being human before God" (page 59). She also gives us wonderful quotes by other people, like this one by Thich nhat Hanh: "The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth."

She's remarkably clearheaded about an honest spiritual life. Taylor isn't one of those theologians who will offer you a magical prayer of Jabaz or promise great riches if you follow certain principles. She says, "Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure" (page 78). Finally, someone who is willing to talk about these issues! And someone who writes about them so beautifully.

Just because she's talking about finding God outside of a church building doesn't mean that she's left behind her Christian beliefs. She talks about prayer, Sabbath keeping, and other spiritual practices (like paying attention to one's surroundings). She makes many references to great spiritual thinkers, most of them Christian. Her writing makes clear that she has been shaped by Christian values and that she hasn't abandoned them.

In fact, she's widening the possibilities for experiencing the Divine, which will be of great value to the many folks who aren't going to find God in a church building. What a wonderful accomplishment!

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