Tag Archives: Practicing Our Faith

online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 6

Standard

In this chapter, Dorothy Bass (editor of this whole volume) leads us through an exploration of the practice of Sabbath. This is one of my favorite practices. We live such incredibly busy lives, some of us rarely have time to breathe or catch up on the DVR let alone take a day of rest. But practicing Sabbath can be freeing and life giving, so don’t write it off just yet! Bass says, though, that in order to receive the gift of Sabbath many of us will first have to discard “our image of Sabbath as a time of negative rules and restrictions, as a day of obligation (for Catholics) or a day without play (in memories of strict Protestant childhoods).” It will also require us remembering and supporting underworked people–what does Sabbath look like in a community where some are so overworked they forget what their own living room looks like and some are so underworked that they spend all their time wondering how to make ends meet? Sabbath as a biblical concept rights this injustice as well, because it reminds us that we are ALL dependent on God (and on one another), not solely on ourselves–how can we make that a reality in a “sabbath-keeping community”?

Sabbath is a gift–at first, we see God practicing Sabbath in the creation story, where God works for 6 days and then, rather than start on a new project or make improvements to the previous day’s work, God rests and enjoys. I like to think that God played in the garden, watched that new grass grow, and enjoyed the sunset. Later in the story, we find that God tells the Israelites, newly liberated from slavery in Egypt, that the reason they are to rest for one day out of each seven is because it reminds them they are not  slaves–slaves don’t get to rest, but they do. No matter how much work there is to be done, we are not to submit again to slavery and we are not to think ourselves more important than God, who rested. “But what does it mean to keep a day holy, to refrain from work, to honor God’s creativity and imitate GOd’s rest, to experience the end of bondage?”

Good question. One people have wrestled with for millennia, which is how we ended up with blue laws and debates over what day of the week it should be.

Jews observe Shabbat from sundown to sundown, Friday-Saturday (aka, the 7th day of the week). Some in the Adventist Christian tradition do as well. We know our Muslim friends observe a similar practice on Fridays. Christians have traditionally observed Sunday, the first day of the week, because it is the day of Resurrection. Each Sunday is like a mini-Easter, a reminder of God’s re-creation (some call it “the 8th day of creation” in fact…). (aside: this is actually why Sundays are not included in Lent. Go ahead and count..you’ll find 40 days not including Sundays. interesting, eh?) On this day, we let go of the idea that we are in control, we gather together to worship, and we spend time simply letting things be. “All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, we let it be. We celebrate it as it is and live in it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all.” So we literally let go and let God, in the words of the old cliche. We refrain from trying to control the world, and from all that is related to that–which may include commerce as well.

Having said all of that–who actually does that? Who stays away from restaurants and shopping, email and housework, the next week’s to-do-list, and all the other endless things that crop up on weekends? Sundays are often just as busy as every other day of the week, sometimes even more so. Gone are the days when the law promoted Christian Sabbath keeping. Now many of us barely have time to be at church for an hour, much less an hour of worship AND an hour of Sunday school. Add youth group or a family dinner and the whole day is out of control. Yes, we can limit things like meetings, and we might be able to avoid our work email another day, but how do we spend the whole day focusing on God and rest and re-creation?

And right here is where I think this chapter falls down. There is a great opportunity here for exploration of a variety of Sabbath practices, ranging from starting with a few Sabbath hours one day a week (not necessarily Sunday, either–maybe it’s Thursday afternoon or Saturday morning or Monday night). Maybe we start by not bringing work home with us on Wednesdays, and instead we gather with the church for a meal and time to learn and pray together. Insisting that we jump right into a full day with no work is unrealistic for many of us–though there may be something to be said for the sort of cold-turkey all-in approach–and makes even me, the proponent of the pajama days, want to shut the book and give up. How can we incorporate Sabbath into our way of life in small ways, working up to a whole day? In order for the practice of Sabbath to be liberating, to give us freedom, we have to also be liberated from Sabbath as a simplistic concept.

So: yes, come to worship. Gathering with a community is crucial in reminding us who we are and whose we are–we do not belong to ourselves, nor does the world belong to us. Worship is the time when we are re-oriented toward who God is and who God calls us to be, and we are reminded that the earth is the Lord’s, and if God can rest one day, so can we. We confess our pride and arrogance in thinking that the world will fall apart if we take a day off, and we hear God’s word for our lives today–21st century today, when things move quickly and strangely and we need new ways of being God’s faithful people in this world. We are reminded of the freedom God has given us and we are inspired to participate in God’s re-creation of the world each day.

Find a time when you commit to rest and play. It may be Sunday, it may not. It probably won’t involve shopping or working in any of the traditional senses, but it might involve spending time with friends, cooking a wonderful meal, watching a movie, or taking a nap. It might involve sitting in your pajamas for half a day (or a whole day, or even just an hour or two)–for some reason, that feels more restful than not-working-while-wearing-work-clothes. Try not to worry about things or think ahead–when to-do list items come up just note them and go back to enjoying the time. Maybe you read the Bible, maybe you read a novel. What’s important is to remember that God is the source of every good thing, and this gift is for you, not just for others. The work will still be there when you return to it in 2 hours or 2 days.

“Overworked people need rest, and they need to be reminded that they do not cause the grain to grow and that their greatest fulfillment does not come through the acquisition of material things. Moreover, the planet needs a rest of human plucking and burning and buying and selling. Perhaps, as Sabbath keepers, we will come to live and know these truths more fully, and thus to bring their wisdom to the common solution of humanity’s problems.”

In this Sabbath time, we can find an anchor for a way of life that embraces God’s vision for a just world with plenty for all–a way of life that makes a difference every day, not just the one day a week.

What do you think about Sabbath practice? How do you engage in a practice of rest and re-creation? What ideas do you have for beginning a Sabbath practice? If you already take a day a week, what do you do on that day? Can you imagine carving out two hours one week, three hours the next week, four after that, and so on, until you have a whole day, or at least two half-days, to rest, and to enjoy God and God’s creation? How might you do that?

Advertisements

online book group: practicing our faith, chapter 5

Standard

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?

online book group: Practicing our Faith, chapter 4

Standard

In this chapter we join Sharon Parks in considering practices of economics–remembering that the word “economics” (like ecology and ecumenism) comes from the Greek word “oikos” meaning household. SO economics is about how we arrange our household for the well-being of the whole.

There’s a lot to consider in this practice, because what we do in our own households is not confined within our individual private homes. The choices we make affect others and the planet, both near and far, now and future. The global economy seems designed to profit some and use others. The realities of the Global North and Global South (or “developed” and “developing” nations/economies) can be uncomfortable, but they nonetheless intrude on the choices we make every day, whether about what kind of coffee or chocolate to consume or where our clothes are made or what kind of environment we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. Add in the latest statistics on slavery (there are more slaves today than at any time in human history, and they produce everything from chocolate to jewelry to makeup to electronics) and we have a complex issue–how might we arrange our individual households for the good of the whole–both our house and the global oikumene?

Many of us have heard the statement “show me your checkbook (or credit card statement) and I will show you what you believe in”–ie, we tend to put our money where our faith is, despite what our mouth might say. It’s a modern way of saying “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6.21) In a culture where having things is equated with happiness, it’s even more true. We are constantly torn between the idea that there won’t be enough so we have to work harder and make more so we can get more and be more secure … and the fact that our lives are so full of stuff already. Parks quotes Douglas Meeks who calls this the sense of simultaneous scarcity and satiety.

Parks also talks about a concept the early Quakers called “cumber.” It used to be that we went to the market, but now the market comes to us, advertising is everywhere (including on us), and it has worked miracles–“Americans now spend more time shopping than citizens of any other nation, and we spend a higher fraction of the money we earn.” That means we’re out accumulating stuff–stuff that requires energy and attention to “secure, maintain, and finally discard” and also, often, stuff that has advertising on or built in, which takes more of our subconscious and conscious attention and shapes us in ways we don’t even notice.

All of this is not pointed out to make us feel guilty–most of us have plenty of that already. It’s to make us aware. Parks says that “for Christians, the move that is faithful is not from the material to the spiritual but rather from materialism to incarnation.” There’s no divide between material and spiritual–all is created by God and called good. How we use it is the heart of the issue. Incarnation is about Spirit being IN matter (made-flesh), not being separated from it. Parks puts it beautifully: “Every being participates in the household of God and is included in the economic imagination of God. The great gulfs we have created between the spiritual and the material, between religion and commerce, between businesspeople and environmentalists, are products of a false consciousness, an unexamined and inadequate economic faith.”

An adequate economic faith is not only to participate in charity–though that has been the church’s response most of the time, taking “you’ll always have the poor with you” to mean that it’s inevitable so we should just help where we can, piecemeal. But looking at our history there HAVE been things we’ve done that created structural change in various systems. “For example, the call to the desert, the development of religious orders, their subsequent renewals, the Protestant Reformation–all were fe-formations of life that gave rise to new economic patterns and structures. Likewise, in the 20th century, from the establishment of settlement houses in Chicago tot eh bus boycott in Montgomery, religious insight prompted changes in economic arrangements.”

So what can we do–in our own households and in our participation in the global household? What practices might help us align more closely with God’s vision and bring us more fully into God’s house?

Simplicity: a practice that re-orients our lives to foster a sense of right proportion. Of course, this practice isn’t as simple (ha!) as it seems. It’s not only about “streamlining” or “doing without.” How might you simplify your life and bring it into right proportion with the rest of the world? With God’s call to aid others? Can simplicity be both about material goods and behaviors? What would it be like to practice simplicity in speech? In eating? In travel?

Right Labor: a practice that allows us to participate in creating a more just world through our purchasing decisions. Where do the things you buy come from? Who gathers the material, makes them, transports them, sells them? What kind of working conditions are those people laboring in? Try creating a map of where all the elements of your favorite meal come from, and learning something about the work and people who bring it to you. Or do the same for your favorite outfit or favorite item in your home. How can you help create a more just working environment for people and the planet?

Asking yourself questions: many Mennonites (most of whom have given up the agrarian way of life but still maintain their spiritual understandings) ask themselves “what does it mean to live as a sign of the kingdom of God?” What does it mean, in your life, to live as a sign of God’s kingdom? How does that kind of living affect what choices you make?

Joining with others: It’s hard to change something in the global system or even in your own household all on your own. People are created to be in community, and economics is, by definition, relational. What group (family, church, social, business, etc) are you a part of that can also join in these kinds of practices of just economics?

What did you think of this chapter? Does it make you uncomfortable to think about your faith and money at the same time? What do you think God asks of us in relation to our economic lives? How can we work toward using our money and time in a way that brings glory to God?

online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 3

Standard

There are many who say that hospitality is the key Christian practice–the purpose of all we do is to learn hospitality. Stories such as Abraham “entertaining angels unawares,” Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, the wedding at Cana, Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha, the feeding of the 5,000, and the walk to Emmaus give us a glimpse of the kind of hospitality God asks us to practice. Worship practices such as communion offer us the opportunity to receive God’s hospitality so we can share it with others. And, of course, being Presbyterians we can’t forget about our ever popular fellowship opportunities like potlucks and dinners in our homes that help us practice too!

Hospitality is a hard practice in our world today–so often people are excluded and isolated, and we treat one another as strangers rather than brothers and sisters. We have learned to fear our neighbors and have lost the art of welcoming people (friend or stranger) into our spaces. Our understanding of relationship has come to be based on power rather than mutuality, independence rather than interdependence. The Christian practice of Hospitality seeks to address our fears, right our injustices, and bring harmony to our relationships with each other, the world, ourselves, and God. If each person is a child of God, made in the image of God, then our task is to find ways to welcome the Christ in whatever form he may take.

Ana Maria Pineda, who wrote this chapter, notes that “no one is strange except in relation to someone else; we make one another guests and hosts by how we treat one another.” In the New Testament the word philoxenia, love of guest/stranger, is often used to talk about hospitality. Notice how it’s basically the opposite of xenophobia, fear of stranger? Practicing philoxenia is part of the path of transformation into Christlikeness–we love because God first loved us.

The early church met in homes–what we now call “house churches.” It was part of their understanding of Christian practice–to gather together, in each other’s homes, to seek God together and to practice the way of grace. This practice led them also to care for strangers, for widows and orphans and the destitute and the alien (as commanded repeatedly in the Old Testament and the New, “for you were once aliens in the land.”). Through practice, we not only welcome “strangers” but also recognize their holiness, we see the image of God in them as in those we already know and love. Pineda says “To welcome the stranger is to acknowledge him as a human being made in God’s image; it is to treat her as one of equal worth with ourselves–indeed, as one who may teach us something out of the richness of experiences different from our own.”

How do we practice hospitality in a culture that is so often inhospitable? How can we create spaces where we learn to give and receive? How do we look for the image of God in people so different from us, from different places, different backgrounds, different walks of life…or even in people close to us, for that matter? “Within the biblical story, it is clear that all God’s people are spiritually descended from migrants and wanderers, and that all are called to hospitality.”

At a basic level, we can resist the unjust treatment of other human beings. It seems obvious, but it is harder than it sounds!

We can make an effort to open our home more frequently–have potlucks with our friends, or host dinner parties or movie nights. Once we get into that habit, perhaps start a practice of having each friend take a turn inviting someone new–so there’s one or two new people to meet each time you gather for a meal. A way to extend our networks of friendship as well as to open our doors to strangers.

We can find the needs in our neighborhoods and find ways to address them–are there people with nowhere to go for a holiday? Can they come to your house for the holiday meal or the big game? Are there people struggling for food? Perhaps a weekend lunch for several families, some in need and some not, would be a way to ensure kids get a meal outside of the school week as well as a way to build connections across the socio-economic divide. Are there people in need of shelter? Can we get together and create a safe space for them during the season when most shelters are closed?

What ideas do you have for how we might practice hospitality, and so potentially entertain angels unawares?

online book group: Practicing Our Faith, chapter 2

Standard

In this chapter we consider practices of Honoring The Body. How can our bodies help our spiritual lives?

Western cultures since, oh, Plato has created a dichotomy between body and spirit, separating the two in an artificial way that makes the body evil and the spirit good, or the body “base” and the spirit elevated, or secular and sacred, etc. We’ve all experienced this in various ways, whether we’ve been taught (or somehow absorbed) the idea that the body is repugnant, ugly, scandalous, or sinful. The false dichotomy has created all kinds of problems for us, as we seek then to subjugate our bodies, to keep them under control, and often see them as sources of temptation and evil. But God created these bodies, and called them ‘very good.’ God took on a body in what we consider to be the most important act…if bodies were bad, why would God become flesh to share our lives with us? So it’s possible, and even good, to find ways to experience our Selves as an integrated whole–not a body that houses what’s really important (the spirit), and not a spirit that just happens to have a body, but a body-spirit created in the image of God and designed to bring glory to God, to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (which implies loving ourselves), to work for the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven…with our bodies and minds and spirits.

A few of the practices Stephanie Paulsell writes about are: bathing, dressing, and touching.

She begins with a story about being present for a birth, and that leading to her contemplation of bodies as vulnerable things. It’s easy to abuse with the same practices that honor, so finding ways to love ourselves and others that are appropriate, honoring, and sacred is important. We can learn and practice these things on ourselves and our loved ones, and ultimately we will find that these practices help us consider the justice issues of the world as well–because we cannot honor our own bodies while at the same time degrading the bodies of others, and we cannot be aware of the sacredness of the body God created and simultaneously ignore or be apathetic about the created bodies who suffer.

Thinking of bathing as a spiritual practice may seem odd, but Paulsell describes it as a time of vulnerability, of intimacy with our selves, and of opportunity to “bless and honor the body and to perceive the sacredness at the heart of its vulnerability.” She reminds us of the story of the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. It’s embarrassing for the host of the dinner, but important for both Jesus and the woman. And again there is the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet–a shocking moment for everyone, disciple and reader alike. There is also the ritual of baptism, a form of “bathing.” Bathing is a way of taking part in well being, whether of ourselves or of another. Martin Luther used to remember his baptism in the bath, placing a hand on his forehead and repeating to himself under the cascade of water, “I am a child of God, baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit, and I belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ forever.” What would happen if we reminded ourselves of that every morning in the shower?

Clothing as a spiritual practice is even stranger than bath time, but there it is! Clothes have often been used in the wrong ways–either to hide a body we deemed sinful or imperfect, or to create an image contrary to that God made us to be. But it is possible to think of the ways we dress ourselves as a spiritual practice. First, the obvious–special occasions (Paulsell mentions weddings and graduation–special occasions requiring special clothes). The practice of wearing “church clothes” comes from this same idea–of wanting to dress in a way that honors the occasion of meeting God in a particular place. While that may not be the experience of many of us on Sunday morning (at least in terms of clothes), we can ask ourselves: does our clothing honor our bodies as made in the image of God? Does it honor our creator? How might our clothes or accessories shape our identity as children of God, or heighten our experience of worshipping God? Paulsell talks about families where the children choose an item that reminds them of who they are, or an item that makes them feel particularly good, and they wear that each Sunday as a way of “dressing up” for church. The practice of adornment is not about having the right appearance or about being fashionable, it’s not about taking attention away from the gospel–which is why one special item might be more important to getting “dressed for worship” than whether the outfit is “dressy enough” (whatever that means!). Part of this is about resisting the consumer culture, the drive to always look perfect and acquire more. Instead we seek to express who God calls us to be.

Practices of touching can be so important–we are created for relationship, and one of the difficult things in our modern world is how isolated we often are, bodily. Sometimes the only time we might encounter the touch of another person is during the passing of the peace at church! Learning to touch with love and care, and not in exploitative or abusive ways, is difficult. Rituals like passing the peace and foot washing provide a framework in which to practice. Paulsell also talks about how often those who are most vulnerable–people who are ill, or homeless, etc–are the most touch-isolated. People whose bodies are ill often feel betrayed by their very being, and the touch they experience is usually invasive, at the hands of medical professionals. Having someone to hold hands, or rub arms and legs, can be a life-giving experience for the receiver and the giver. Even just a handshake or a hug can remind a homeless person that they have bodies that can be seen–they are not invisible, and they are worthwhile beings created by God.

The practice of touch also extends into our sexuality, of course. When we honor our own and our partner’s body, we also remind ourselves and others of healthy, loving, and life-giving touch. And that offers an alternative to a world where, for many, their bodies are not their own. To remind teens that they do not have to participate in the over-sexualized culture is a part of honoring their bodies. To offer an alternative form of touch to those who have been abused by a partner is a part of honoring the body. To model reverence and delight in our bodies helps those who struggle with their bodies. Even just to acknowledge the changes in our bodies as we age can be a way of modeling this practice.

Once we have learned to honor our own bodies and those of the people we love, we will not be able to help ourselves–we’ll need to honor the bodies of others created in the image of God. We’ll be more aware of practices that exploit the bodies of others–of children working in factories, of slaves processing cocoa, of AIDS victims, of rape victims, of bodies ravaged by war and famine and disease. How do we honor their bodies as well as our own?

What do you think of these practices of honoring the body? What other ways might you imagine you can nurture your relationship with God through your physical body?