In preparation for a course I’ll be teaching next semester, I’ve just reviewed Tony Jones’ 2005 work The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life. Part travelogue, part journal, and part handbook of Christian spirituality, it represents Tony’s effort to encourage believers to draw on the deep well of spiritual practices and experiential faith. Practices ranging from fasting to solitude as well as the Stations of the Cross, the Jesus Prayer, and the Ignatian Excercises comprise the book’s eighteen chapters.
I was personally moved and inspired as I paged through the book–encouraged to consider the state of my spiritual life and how I ought to practice my faith in a more focused manner. I commend the book along with Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as primers on the hard work and vast depths of Christian spirituality.
Yet as I read through the chapters, I was again reminded of my seminary days…and the emphasis so many mainliners there seemed to newly place on these “ancient-future” practices. I’d never heard of “walking the labyrinth” until I got to Princeton Seminary in the fall of 2002. When I did, I frankly thought it was pretty silly. In short, it is a practice of walking a circular path on the ground in while contemplating God, meditating on God, and prayerfully marking one’s journey. “But seriously,” I thought, “they’re just walking in circles.”
Though I’ve never experienced the labyrinth, Tony’s book has given me a much greater appreciation for it and other practices. But some of what he highlights still seems a bit extraneous to me. Why? Probably because I came to faith and was discipled in the Pentecostal tradition. Experiential faith, deep contemplation and meditation, and intense prayer were all constituent parts of my acclimation to the faith. We just never referred to what we did in those terms.
I think that’s why things like labyrinths seemed silly to me. Helpful? Perhaps. But moreso, I thought, for those from rigid mainline churches, who in their urge to become rational and Reformed had often thrown out the baby with the bathwater. These things were not necessary to Pentecostals, I felt–especially those in whom the revival fires of our movement still burned strong. I looked at their labyrinth and smiled at these apparent Johnny-come-latelys.
I was a bit more cocky in those days.
However, as I consider the youth ministry needs of today’s Pentecostal churches, I note that even there a drift away from the host of experiences which constitute Pentecostalism seems to be taking place. Games, teaching, programs, activities, and music too often take the place of experience. Blame it on secularization, blame it on the evangelical leavening of the Pentecostal movement, blame in on the rain…but for whatever reason we seem to be selling out our birthright. To be sure: we’ve always had our flaws….but we’ve had strengths too. To get rid of the latter in any way makes me worried. Especially at a time when a large portion of American Christianity seems to be grasping for what we’ve always intuitively had.
Am I saying we should walk the labyrinth or start performing the Stations of the Cross? Not necessarily. As a matter of fact, I don’t believe we should start grasping at ancient practices willy-nilly before considering the deep spirituality of the Spirit-filled life that we often ignore out of fear or embarrassment. I think we need to take stock of our own tradition and remember that powerful experiences of God’s Holy Spirit ought not be downplayed or reserved only for summer camp or a particular retreat.
I’m as guilty as any Pentecostal youth pastor in this area…but now, perhaps, it is time to change. “Praying through?” Giving and interpreting words from the Lord? Speaking in tongues? Praying together at the altar for no other reason than to seek God? Weeping in the presence of God’s Spirit or even dancing before God? Silly…but no more silly than walking through a goofy maze for spiritual purposes. And just as important.