I came across some words this week by the 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, that spoke truth to me:
“One can never be a Christian; one can only become one again and again: in the evening of each day rather ashamed of one’s Christianity of that day and on the morning of each new day content that one may again dare to be a Christian.”
I first made a conscious choice to dare to be a Christian in early adolescence, and my life since then has been marked by a series of decisions—one after another—to either affirm or deny that choice. I’ve had moments, periods, even whole stretches of time, when God was unwanted, felt distant, doubted, or not to be trusted, and I’ve considered giving the whole thing up. Like a dieter who falls off the wagon by scarfing down an entire pan of brownies, but who knows she’ll be happier and healthier in the long run if she can just stick with it, when I tried to envision a future without Jesus, I didn’t like where I saw that future leading me.
And so, I would return, daring to “become” a Christian for another day.
We return because we yearn: for something better, to be better, to live more faithful lives. Thus, the title of the first chapter in Practicing Our Faith (edited by Dorothy Bass) jumped out at me: “Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith.”
As I embark on this little project of deepening the practices of my faith to see where it leads me, I wondered why these times of ours are times of such yearning? I spoke to Bass a few days ago and asked her the motivation for the original book (first published in 1997).
“It was an awareness that we live in a time of such rapid social change,” she said. “Many of our basic, fundamental activities—who we eat with, how we use our time—were really starting to change.
“There was a sense of fragmentation,” she added. “What does my religion have to do with my work? What does social justice have to do with my personal life? We were trying to find an approach that would address rampant individualism, and that would heal the fragmentation, help people find the connections between their lives and their faith.”
The “we” she refers to is herself—a former professor, practical theologian and church historian—and her colleague, collaborator, and co-author, Craig Dykstra.
“The community of people gathered around Jesus Christ has explored the contours of a faithful way of life over the centuries, and it continues to do so all around the world today,” the two write. “This community, like everyone in it, is flawed, and there has been much stumbling and sinning along the way. But wisdom and skill have also emerged as members of this community have tried to understand and live in response to the mysterious grace of God in creation, the redemptive presence of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.”
“The need to figure out how to walk aright in each new time and place is one that we all share.”
In the 22 years since the first edition of Practicing Our Faith came out, that need, it seems to me, has become more urgent. Why? It is a widely acknowledged fact among Christian scholars that we live in a post-Christian (or post-Christendom) society. In a talk delivered late last year, historical theologian Ephraim Radner defined a post-Christian society as one that offers no support for Christian life and witness, even though it once did so. “There are threads of Christianity running through post-Christian societies,” he explained, “but they now are visible only as an unravelling, not as a weaving together.”
I’m old enough to perceive this unravelling, and it only contributes to my longing to live my best life in Christ. I yearn that within my own tiny sphere of influence, the fragrance I bring might be the fragrance of Jesus. But even as I type those words, I’m tempted to despair, because I know how far short I fall from that goal.
And yet, I was heartened by Bass’s response, when I asked her what should be the goal of Christian practice. “We’re practicing life in the kingdom of God,” she said, and it seemed so simple when she described it that way.
Often, when people hear the word “practice,” she told me, they might think that our object is to master or control whatever it is we are practicing. “But in Christian practice, we add the spirit of Christ. These practices clear room to become channels of God’s grace.”
“So, we’re not trying to master time,” Bass went on, “we’re trying to receive it. It’s a matter of receptivity, of getting out of the way so God can do his work.”
The Christian life is meant to be lived in community. I believe this, and Bass counselled me to “find companions” as I set out to deepen and document my engagement with the 12 historic Christian practices outlined in Practicing Our Faith.
So that’s where you, dear reading friend, come in. I am buoyed and thankful that you are my companion just by the fact that you are reading this post, but I also want to learn from your thoughts, experiences, and feedback as we go along. Whether you’ve long considered yourself a Christian, or never done so, if you are a person who is intrigued by the idea of deepening your own spiritual practice, I hope that you will join me and the others who have committed to coming along on this journey, and then commenting from time to time so that we can learn from each other.
At the end of our call, Bass encouraged me. “I find it very helpful to get people to think about where they are already practicing,” she said. “Every Christian person is probably already doing these practices in one way or another. It just might be a little bit; it might be pathetic. So, look at where the practice already exists in your life, and ask, ‘what’s the next step?’”
The first of the 12 practices is: “Honouring the Body.” Over the coming week I invite you, reading friend, to think about how you are doing that. What does it mean to you to “honour the body” today, in your life, in your world? And what’s the next step for you to deepen your practice of that? It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on for some time now, and God willing, I will share my thoughts and discoveries with you next week.
I’ll end with another delicious word from Barth, to send us on our way:
“The Christian church is agreed on one thing: that it consists purely of beginners—and that this is truly a good thing: to become small again, to begin from the beginning, and thus at no point to stand still. … It is a question of faith, because all of that depends on Jesus, who alone is now able to make people into such simple, but happy beginners.”
Part 2 – This post is second in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1.