There are often, two schools of thought on old ways and new ways of doing things. Some people, drawn to tradition and routine, are often quite happy with the old ways, those comfortable things, for the simple reason that they are just that, comfortable; it’s what we have always done, how we’ve always seen it, and it works fine. There is no reason to change it. Some people drawn to new ways are looking for change, the novelty and excitement of doing something different, something that shakes things up a bit. We need to do and think new things to learn and grow.
Not that either of these is inherently right or wrong, good or bad—in truth, they’re both preferences about the way of doing things—but both are opposite sides of a similar fallacy. The first is the appeal to tradition and the second is the appeal to novelty. Tradition says, “We’ve always done it this way and that makes it right. Otherwise, why would we have been doing it this way?” Novelty says, “We need to do something new because we’re being left behind by the rest of the world if we don’t.” The truth is neither is right under those circumstances; they both appeal to something that has basis in truth. In this case, they are only opinions and preferences.
Christianity though, has a long relationship with traditions and traditional ideas. Most of our theological beliefs come from writers and theologians in the first four centuries of the church that have been refined and rethought over the generations. Our liturgies and elements of worship have long histories though sometimes, longer than or maybe not as long as we think. Even the newest methods of modern worship are based on liturgy that is between 100-200 years old. Our practices, like our worship and beliefs, have evolved over the centuries sometimes in healthy, affirming ways, sometimes not so much. In that time, new ideas, methods, liturgies, and practices have come along. Some of these have been little more than fads, losing momentum and dying away with very little time. Sometimes, these ideas have stuck and became what would eventually be traditions. Change, like tradition, hasn’t always been bad or good, it has simply depended on the element of change.
But what if there was a way to express tradition honestly and embrace change that had real meaning? What if we could bring back the practices of the ancient church, the practices that changed the very course of human history, and set them in a modern context with modern tools? I think we can. This way of Christian practice is called Ancient-Modern and it seeks to find ways of practicing faith in the way of Jesus and the early disciples in the modern world and in a modern context.
Now, you might say, “Isn’t that what we’re already doing?” And I might say, “Is it?” Do you pray the hours? Do you fast certain days of the week? How do you fit in a true Sabbath—which is not, by the way, Sunday worship? Do you consider, not only the Eucharist but meals with others as a sacred time and the table as a sacred place? Do you about pilgrimages or have you taken one? Do you recognize the various seasons of the church and the rhythms of life they represent in the church? How do you approach giving? These are just some of ancient practices that were part of the Jesus Way taught by him to the apostles and practiced in the early church, and these practices have their roots in both Jewish and Greco-Roman ideas and practices that resonated within the fledgling movement during its baby steps.
Studying the ancient way of the church gives us insight and guidance into blending belief and practice together as one. If we only have a set of beliefs, we have little more than a philosophy to think about and quite often, argue about. If we have only a set of practices, we are left with little more than actions that have no meaning behind them. As the writer of James says,
You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do. – James 1:22-25
Consider the words of Jesus that were read a moment ago. These words were meant to comfort a people under an oppressive foreign rule. Why are they comforting? Because these words were a way changing the way you looked at the world. They were a way of thinking about the world around them and seeing it from a more divine perspective, one that values different things than the Roman world valued. It was a way of saying the greater things in this life are the things that we are and how those things change not only how we see the world but how the world sees, too. It was a way of creating new life practices for people to live into.
Spiritual practices may be better understood as life practices. The reason being, they help us practice being alive and in a way that lives into truly loving our neighbor. They are not just things we do to develop character or feel good about ourselves, but they are gateways to aliveness, alertness, wakefulness, and humanity. In his book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren writes,
…spiritual practices are about life, about training ourselves to become the kinds of people who have eyes and actually see, and who have ears and actually hear, and so, experience—with increasing consistency and resiliency—…not just survival but Life, capitalized and modified by sufficient adjectives such as real, abundant, examined, conscious, worth living, and good…spiritual practices are also and truly about the Spirit…[they] are ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God…
We will look at seven major practices were a part of life in the early church. Although there were more than seven, these are the ones most prominently practiced. These practices were a part of the lives of Jesus and his followers as a matter of course. They were: daily, fixed hour prayer; weekly days of fasting; the Sabbath rest; sharing in the sacred meal; holy pilgrimages; observance of the sacred seasons; and giving to care for others and support the mission and work of the church. Each of these has origins in the life Jesus and his disciples lived, the place and time they inhabited.
How to live the Way
Some of you may wonder, “Why this? Why now?”
Honestly, I think this is the perfect time to engage in these practices. With the unrest caused by social issues and the Covid-19 pandemic, we stand on the edge of something unknown. In the face of the unknown, we have the opportunity, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to re-embrace the way that changed the direction of the world and use modern means and technologies to encourage and share this way of life with a world hungry for something deep and meaningful. Consider a life:
- where you had a time of prayer six times a day
- two days a week where you embraced emptying and cleansing yourself spiritually
- a day devoted to nothing but rest and recovery from the work of your week
- a celebration of the Eucharist that was a combination of holy celebration and communal meal as well as intentional fellowship meals with people from your church and neighborhood
- traveling with sacred purpose
- observing the seasons of the year with an eye toward the rhythms of God in those seasons
- giving so that the mission of Kingdom continued as well as giving to alleviate suffering in our community
In many ways, these seem to be familiar practices but make no mistake, there is a greater call to commitment and lifestyle behind them than many would imagine. Yet in these practices lies a way of life and living that has the potential to change our personal lives as well as the lives of those around us. This way of life is powered by the relationship we have with the Holy Spirit and defined by the leadership of the Spirit so that we, as Paul said, are truly the temple or dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, The Christian gospel is a two-way road. On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so the soul will have a chance after it is changed. The Ancient Way seeks to do exactly that, to change us within that we may change the world without.
 McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, © 2008, p.17