In this chapter we join M. Shawn Copeland in considering the practice of saying yes…and saying no. He opens with a blunt statement that, much as we might prefer it that way, Christianity is not a spectator sport. We don’t get to watch and think “what a great player/dancer/musician” and to wish we had that but then never bother to work out or practice. “Throughout Christian history, it has been clear that spirituality is not a spectator activity. Tough decisions and persistent effort are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intends for us, and we must follow through on our commitments to pray, to be conscientious, and to be in mutually supportive relations with other faithful persons. These acts take self-discipline. We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God.”
He certainly doesn’t mince words, does he? The trouble is, at least for me, that these words hit very close to home. It’s easy to look on and say “what a beautiful piece of music” but much harder to get out my own instrument and practice. It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and say “what peace, what joy” but much harder to make time for God’s Spirit to speak in my own life. It’s easy to look at the descriptions of the way God intends the world to be and say “that’s nice isn’t it” and to go on living my usual way. This is a practice I think many of us really need, but it won’t be easy!
“Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a lifelong project. It is learning to live not merely in dull balance or tedious moderation but in passionate, disciplined choice and action.” It sounds both awesome and terrifying! How do we get there?
“Prayer, examination of conscience, and participation in small communities are three acts that can help us in this practice.” I love when they lay out the plan so clearly.
So first, prayer: conversation with God. “real, demanding, loving, and engaged conversation.” Since each person is unique, each person’s prayer life will be too–in fact, with 7 billion people on the planet I’d be willing to bet we have 8 billion ways of praying! But there are a few things we can learn that will enrich our conversations with God–things that have been part of the prayer lives of millions of people before us. Remember, prayer is a practice–it takes work! Copeland suggests: 1. choose a time to pray each day. Put it in your calendar or appointment book if necessary. 2. Find a place where you won’t be disturbed, and where you can be at least somewhat comfortable. 3. Take several deep breaths. 4. Consciously place yourself in the divine presence. Perhaps imagine yourself resting in God’s hand, or sitting with God in the living room, or some other image that works for you. Talk to God about all kinds of things–the things you talk about in the living room! The needs of people you know, the issues of the world, things for which you are grateful, things going on in your own life. 5. When a distraction comes up in your mind, simply notice it and return to your conversation. 6. Sit in the quiet and simply listen–even if you hear nothing. Listen for “the stirrings of your heart.” 7. Give thanks and prepare to return to the day.
Second, examination. This practice comes from the Ignation practice of examen in which we look back over our day and see where we noticed God, where we felt far from God, what gave us energy and what sapped our energy. Copeland suggests we also review our “decisions, choices, actions, omissions, attitudes, and desires” and determine where we have said “yes” and “no” during the day, and whether those yeses and noes line up with who we want to be. How do the opportunities we take, and the ones we pass up, limit growth or future opportunity? How can we use the energy and time of our lives in the way God calls us to?
Third, small groups. A group of people who can hold us accountable for our yeses and noes, for the ways in which we live our faith, and who can help us grow and nurture our relationship with God and with God’s world is a beautiful thing. These groups often meeting anywhere from once a week to once a month, and are covenanted to keep the schedule–this is not a meeting we skip on a whim or for something better, but a commitment we make to God, to ourselves, and to one another as a group. Some of these groups include Bible study, others have a time for corporate examen, others gather around a particular issue or justice activity. All include the opportunity to get to know each other on a deeper level, to share our faith and doubt, to learn and grow together, and to pray with and for one another.
What are some other ways you can engage in the practice of saying yes to abundant life and no to destruction and despair? How have you used these three ways? What questions do you have? Hopes or fears or doubts? What else do you want to learn about this practice?