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Monday, September 28, 2009

RevGalBookPals: An Altar in the World

I first read Barbara Brown Taylor's book An Altar In The World back at the beginning of Lent, and quickly. I read it quickly not because I was trying to get through it, but because I was devouring it. It seemed, at the time, one of the most deeply true books that I had ever read. At its heart, its thesis is that all of life is holy, and that every activity harbors an opportunity to meet God. In that way, it is a deeply incarnational book.

Brown Taylor divides the book into 12 chapters of twelve ordinary and everyday practices, practices for which, she says, we do not need special equipment. Some of the chapters draw on common Christian practices, such as prayer, sabbath, blessing, pilgrimage, but look at them in a new way. Back in Lent the most intriguing of the chapters to me was: "The Practice of Getting Lost/Wilderness." I remember reading the chapter on "The Practice of Feeling Pain/Breakthrough" in an academic way and then have a long argument in my head with her while I suffered with a migraine that did not respond to medication. And finally, I found the chapter "The Practice of Wearing Skin/Incarnation" poignant as my conflicting feelings about my own body.

Here are her chapter headings:

1 The Practice of Waking Up to God/Vision

2 The Practice of Paying Attention/Reverence

3 The Practice of Wearing Skin/Incarnation

4 The Practice of Walking the Earth/Groundedness

5 The Practice of Getting Lost/Wilderness

6 The Practice of Encountering Others/Community

7 The Practice of Living with Purpose/Vocation

8 The Practice of Saying No/Sabbath

9 The Practice of Carrying Water/Physical Labor

10 The Practice of Feeling Pain/Breakthrough

11 The Practice of Being Present to God/Prayer

12 The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings/Benediction

A few questions/things to ponder or discuss:

1. Which of the practices draws you the most? Which seems least compelling?

2. In what ordinary activities do you most encounter God?

3. It seems to me that she is often talking about the practice of mindfulness. What contributes to mindful living for you, and what detracts from it?

4. She writes as a Christian, from her own faith tradition, but this is not a book exclusively for Christians. It is a book for those desiring More, The Divine, etc. Does this appeal to you or was it off-putting?

5. If you were to write your own chapter, "The Practice of....." what would you write about?

Looking forward to the conversation! Please feel free to add and share your own most thoughtful quotations.


  1. just wanted to let everyone know that I'm here....

  2. Oh dear, I don't have the book, can't afford to buy it, and our library system has 4 (well, 5 now) holds on 7 copies in total. So I won't be able to discuss, but thanks for prodding me to get hold of the book eventually. It sounds like a good one.

  3. thanks for responding, Auntie Knickers. I'm sorry I didn't put up some quote; it was so hard to pick out something.

  4. wonder if you find God in your everyday activities, and if so, which ones?

  5. hi diane! our small group just started this book 2 weeks ago - talk about coincidence :) we too are devouring it...we just finished ch.1 last thursday and this quote sums up the essence of where i hope she is going!

    "Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish - separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder that we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars." p. 15

    i've invited "The Church of the Living Room" members to visit here and leave their own comments....

    looking forward to the discussion,

  6. The Practice of walking the Earth/Groundedness spoke the most clearly to me. It has, in fact, been a theme of my life for the last several years. I have been doing body work, energy work, with the goal of living inside my body and not floating above myself in some ethereal thought bubble! Deep and intentional breathing, and walking meditation, have made a great difference to me. On the desk in front of me there is a post-it note that says, "I live in my body. I walk on my feet." It might seem silly and obvious, but it's amazing how frequently I need to be reminded of these things!

    I loved this book and regret that I haven't a copy of it here to refer to. Thanks for leading this discussion, Diane!

  7. pg. 99 From the book "Exclusion and Embrace" by Miroslav Volf..."It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference." BBT continues, "Citizens of the United States, which is presently the most religiously diverse nation on the face of the earth, would do well to pay attention to that claim. As children of the covenant and inheritors of the gospel, we might also understand that we have the resources to do so.

    1. I resonated with much of this book. Waking up to God and Encountering Others were my favorites (hard choice). Wearing Your Skin challenged me the live in my body, to be aware of what my body is telling me about myself, and to let my body be joyful.

    3. Awareness is the key for me. Aware of what is going on inside of me (what is triggering responses etc), awareness of what may be going on in other peoples lives.

    4. I like having multiple metaphors to describe the reality of something bigger in this life...something of the deep Mystery (in the best sense of the word)...for me it enlarges my worldview and keeps me from thinking "I am right".

    Thanks, Diane for hosting and providing such rich questions.

  8. Roberta, thanks for joining and offering that great quotation! yes, the way God smashes our holy/not holy categories is a recurring theme for her.

    Mary Beth -- I've often thought about one of the problems with our faith as it is often stated is that it doesn't appear to have much to do with things like, doing the dishes, etc. But it does. thanks!

  9. the practice of practicing sabbath... was a difficult chapter for me. i am especially naughty at having a day off... time off sort of gets cobbled into my schedule... but to take a full day?
    somehow cobbling in the time off between meetings, writing, reading, visiting etc. isn't "good enough" b/c it's cramped... and sabbath should be holy if anything, not cramped.

    God in everyday you ask? in the mornings when i walk the doggie at the lake, watch geese, ponder the changing colors... or when i'm sipping morning coffee & doggie, all 100 lbs of him, makes his way onto the footstool, just to stare at me as i read the devotion... something's goin' on in that canine brain that's for sure! kinda like he wants in on the good stuff...

  10. Wow, I stopped by to comment and leave a quote that I read last night, only to find it was the exact same line that Roberta quoted! Must be a line that we women pastors love!

    I will try to stop by later and respond to some of the questions. For now, though, sometimes when I read this book, I am thinking, WHY are we in church buildings then? Sometimes I get so caught up in my head about whether or not the way we currently do church is relevant to the world, and I get upset! If anyone has any words of wisdom regarding that, I certainly wouldn't mind....

  11. Hotcup, I love what you say! about getting a whole day off -- it's difficult, really speaks to our need to "keep busy," and respond to everyone (at least my need). As with you, doing stuff with my dog is one of the ways I keep grounded.

    Sarah -- this is a great question. sometimes I think "we need to get the church out of the church." not permanently, but... just to recognize that our mission is out here, and God is out here, too...

  12. I'll be really interested in responses to Sarah's question.

  13. a pastor who is a mentor of mine, aged and wise over time... said that people will always understand the physical more than the spiritual and gravitate toward the physical.

    i think it's true. i think that is WHY we are in church buildings... it is easier to discuss repainting, or getting a new furnace and taking care of that which we can see so readily.

    at least in a rural setting, folks are used to working with their hands to produce something... so painting, repairing, taking care of physical becomes easier than trying to "see" blessedness in ordinary things...

    BBT writes about blessing a house, and having communion in the home, with an altar there, and bread, wine from the home... that resonates to me more than the 'formality' which has become church... how radical would it be to invite members to have 'home churches' during say advent or lent... instead of meeting all together for midweeks?

  14. Reading this book became a practice of sorts for me. I read only one chapter at a time, though I longed to devour the goodness of the whole thing in one sitting.

    But I read it one chapter at a time, on my back deck, in the late afternoon, in the warmth of the sun. It was a practice for me to slow down and savor words that spoke to my heart and also challenged me.

  15. I also read it one chapter at a time, which was not typical for me. It seemed important to let each practice sink in on its own. I definitely felt discomfort with the body chapter, in the same measure that I feel discomfort with mine!

    I loved her story of walking in the woods in the dark with her husband, and the chapter about getting lost. Probably my favorite sequence in the book takes her to the top of a fire escape to pray, hoping to discern her calling. She concludes that God tells her to "do anything that pleases you and belong to me." I love that and roll my eyes at it almost at the same time. I love it, I want it; I crave the freedom to do just that and believe it's possible to be faithful that way. But my life continues to be one of compromising what I might like to do with meeting the needs of family. And so I roll my eyes, self-protectively, because this is my continuing struggle.

    If I were to add a practice it would be the Practice of Making Things. I find the act of creation, whether it's knitting a sock or choosing the words for a poem or other writing, to be profoundly spiritual.

    Thanks, Diane, for leading such a good discussion! Auntie Knickers, if you don't get that copy from the library soon, let me know and you may borrow mine.

  16. Thanks Diane for your leadership here!

    I read the book several months ago and I borrowed it, so I don't have a copy nearby to pick out particular quotes. I did enjoy it, but in a much different way than most of BBT's books.

    The chapters on Saying No and Feeling Pain hit closest to home for me.

    If I had to add my own chapter - great question. I think it would be the Practice of Bravery. I think that sometimes women clergy (and possibly women in general) forget that we have the capacity for great bravery in the face of life's trials. For me at least, the Practice of Bravery is about standing your ground, not backing down to appease the powers and principalities that would "put us in our place" as our patriarchal history has so often done.

    thank you again Diane!

  17. Hi,
    I have been reading this books since mid-August, and have been reflecting on it on my own blog, each week.

    I don't know if I could pick one quote as I have tabbed about 4-5 each chapter, and have written long blogs about several of the chapters.

    Just finished the chapter on the Practice of Saying No which BBT makes into a chapter on Sabbath keeping. Ironically, a friend of mine just posted a question on Facebook: "when is sabbath for a pastor-mom?" That would be the first problem: how do we keep the sabbath if we don't even know when it is? My partner is Jewish and keeps the Sabbath, although not by going to temple, and I learn a lot by osmosis, but I have to say I cannot quite wrap my mind around not doing anything that looks like work for a day. But I am a mom, recent seminary grad, working full time at a secular job and active in my church in a number of roles while seeking ordination. When is Sabbath is really the question.

  18. To respond to Sarah's question about WHY are we in church buildings: just heard a story from a woman in Atlanta area who started a new church start in her home--something she learned from some partner churches in Cuba where that is what they do to start a church. She had been worrying about finding a building, etc.

    There is a church meeting in a bar in the Boston area--last I heard I don't know if they've settled on one bar, but maybe in this day of cellphones and twitter you can just arrange that at the last minute and then round up your congregation that way. I think that poses a few problems though.

    I also think that BBT is burned out on church--clear from reading "Leaving Church."

    But which of these practices could we NOT do in a church building or on Sunday morning?

    To Diane's question: The Practice that I would add? Perhaps the Practice of De-Cluttering? :-) I'm not sure of the scriptural warrant for that.

    So, really: the Practice of Hospitality and Welcome. Taylor seems a bit isolated in these practices--even just "encountering others" by saying how are you in the grocery store line seems a bit shy in the community department.

    Okay, that's my two bits for the evening. It's a school night...

  19. I have the book, but alas haven't given it a good reading yet.

    I wanted to throw my two cents in on Sarah's question of why we are in church buildings. My congregation worships in a century-old, beautiful sanctuary. But we haven't been worshiping in the sanctuary since Easter and have been in fellowship hall, due to some foundation problems that are in the process of being repaired. Over these months, I've grown weary of the comments of "I miss worshiping in the sanctuary" and "when are we going to be back in the sanctuary?" Good grief, I've thought, is this all that church is to you all, the sanctuary? After all, my home church in California, which was a new church development, didn't have a "proper" sanctuary for ten years.

    When I lamented this to a wise mentor and colleague he said, "Remember, the sanctuary is sacred space to them. This is where they were married, and their kids were baptized and were married, and where they had funerals for their loved ones." It helped to put a different perspective on it for me. Not that we shouldn't be out in the world, too, but I think the balance is important.

  20. thank you everyone! I love the added practices:

    the practice of making things (it reminds me of a workshop with Carrie Newcomer; she said when her mother asked her what she was doing, she would say, "makin' stuff")

    The practice of de-cluttering -- oh no, even without a suitably "spiritual-sounding" name, I think there is something to that. It's a physical counterpart to the practice of "saying no".... discernment with objects.

    I had the same thoughts as you did on vocation, Songbird. It reminds me a little of what Frederick Buechner said about vocation: "Where your joy and the world's deep gladness meet". I liked that, then I read an essay by a Lutheran woman bringing a theology of the cross perspective to it, and rolling her eyes a little. If I find the essay, I'll post something from it.

  21. I'm having issues with BBT lately--I loved 'alter,' but I love most of what she writes. I appreciate what she helps me to notice--in scripture (through her sermons) and in 'alter' about the sacredness of everyday/quotidian living...BUT I don't understand why it has to be either/or with her. I read 'leaving church' and I didn't understand her choice, but respected and learned from her story. But then I read the interview she gave for 'A Life of Meaning' where she talked about how she had to leave the church because in the end it felt like she was being 'paid to love people...and you know what we call people who are paid to love.'
    And I felt like she'd punched me in the stomach.
    I appreciate that for far too long the church has denied God's presence in the world and discounted the holiness of everyday living--but we don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And seriously--of all the trends in 21st century America...the mainline church and its underpaid/overworked pastors are the ones you want to label whores?
    I mean, obviously she, I, most of us learned to love God and see God through the church--but it seems we're in such a hurry to grow beyond it and kick it as we leave.
    I don't mean to make this comment about her--but while I loved 'Alter' and learned a lot from it, I was frustrated that the subtle (and not-so-subtle) message was anti-church. Like why can't the practice of keeping sabbath include gathering with God's people to worship? And isn't there some spiritual value to that especially when what you'd rather do is sit on your back porch and eat blueberries?

  22. Wow. She said that? I guess it's the logical extension of her other expressed thoughts about church. But I can see why it would feel like a gut punch. I'm going to say that is *her* issue.

  23. wow, Kate. I had not heard that either. Though I love bbt's writing, I never read Leaving Church; just didn't want to go there.

    "paid to love people" -- that's what she thought? no wonder she burned out.

    Songbird is right; this is her issue.

  24. Wow - so many great comments! I too loved the book, although realize that I was also distracted and there are a few chapters I missed (that's what happens when you're a mom of 2 under 4 and a pastor too!) I found that Altar seeped into my preaching quite a lot over the summer. I had the most fun when I suggested, like BBT does in "wearing skin" that we should pray standing naked in front of a mirror. (Got the older women talking a bit!) I took my title from that passage - and while I left the book at the church so I can't quote perfectly, I remember she suggested that we pray words close to: 'Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that God has given me. This is my soul's address." She points to a moment of acceptance that I need to remind myself of every morning. (If you'd like to read the sermon - it's posted on my blog here:

    In regards to BBT's love/hate relationship with the church - (which is what it seems it is) - I can relate in some ways. I find I have to take her for what she is, a good and poetic critic of the church, and recognize that unlike her, I have chosen to remain within the church to try and work within the structure as a force for change or a voice of hope. It seems to me that both choices are valid (leaving church or staying and continuing the conversation within).

    Also - to add to the practices - I think I might add "the practice of forgiving the self" as I tend to need to do that again and again and again - as a parent, a pastor, a wife, a friend, a believer.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

  25. Hey- RevGalBlogPals, Barbara did not leave the church for heaven's sake. She discontinued being a priest.
    I think I missed some of what you are finding as anti-church because I know she builds on a life-long involvement with the church and a love of it- all of it. An Altar seems like Celtic Christianity or Benedictine awareness that God is in everything. In the book that came before the YaYa book Little Altars Everywhere was a wonderful piece I want you all to read "We are swinging high flying way up, higher than in real life. And when I look down, I see all the ordinary stuff--our brick house, the porch the tool shed, the oil drum barbecue pit, the clothesline, the chinaberry tree. But they are all lit up from inside so their everyday selves have holy sparks in them, and if only people could see those sparks, they’d go and kneel in front of them and pray and just feel good. Somehow the whole world looks like little altars everywhere."

  26. Whoops- I meant to say whe discontinued serving as a parish priest.

  27. Hi, Anonymous~
    I think we're responding to her last book as well, which you will remember was entitled "Leaving Church." As a clergywoman, hearing the story of another clergywoman who left parish ministry raises questions for me about the nature of call (both mine and in general) and of what the church is.
    We do allow anonymous comments, but feel free to identify yourselves in some way when you join our discussions.

  28. I am beginning a new Sunday School class that will read and discuss "Altar." I have appreciated reading all the comments and they will definitely help me address some issues that I am sure will come up.

    I also want to say it was nice to find comments from other women in ministry!

    Pastor Karen


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