Practicing my faith

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As part of my Master of Theological Studies program at McMaster Divinity College I’m doing an online course this semester on Spiritual Discernment. Of course, I am loving it; without exception, I’ve devoured every course that’s been part of my program. But a couple of weeks ago, our prof delivered a lecture on practicing the Christian faith that captured my imagination in a way that made me ravenous for more.

Using the book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (edited by Dorothy C. Bass, published by Jossey-Bass) as one of her primary sources for the lecture, our professor mentioned that this book, which was first published in 1997, “spawned practically an entire discipline in itself of people—pastoral theologians, academics—who are contributing to this discussion of practices of faith.”

Practices are simply a means of connecting our faith with our living. I may be a late comer to the discussion, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued.

I’ve learned through my studies that Christianity is always shaped by its surrounding culture, but there have been times when I’ve wondered if my culture shapes me more than it should. “How is it,” observes author David Dark in his book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, “that we’ve come to expect so little of people who call themselves Christian?” And twang goes my conscience.

As a person who like rules and boundaries—because they help to make life simple and clear—I’ve sometimes wondered if the way I live my faith, which seems to lack such rules with its emphasis on the grace of God, is “Christian enough.”

I know Muslims, who pray a prescribed number of times each day in a prescribed way. I know Jews who eat kosher and who faithfully honour the Sabbath and the high holidays. Such things are easily observed by someone outside of those faith groups like me. But what practices set apart the Christian life? My Christian life?

I’m not seeking a whole new “to do” or “to don’t” list. But sometimes, particularly as I ride the train en route to my part-time job, ear buds in, listening to the latest podcast, or scrolling news headlines on my phone surrounded by a sea of other commuters all doing precisely the same thing, I can’t help but wonder at the differences that exist in how I choose to lead my life from how my non-Christian friends and neighbours lead theirs. Outside of the hidden things—my prayer life, habits of Bible reading and study, personal moral choices, customs of church-going and charitable giving for example—would anyone who didn’t know me, be able to tell that I try to follow Jesus Christ just by observing the externals, that is, the practices of my life?

And again, Dark challenges me: “Will it turn out that you belonged mostly uncritically and unthinkingly to a particular cultural context? Did you wrestle with it or was your life one of automatic obedience, a series of unfortunate events in which you carefully ascertained what values you were expected to appear to have from one moment to the next and dutifully did so, aping along as it were along the path of least resistance?”

According to Bass (and the 12 authors who contributed to Practicing Our Faith) there are 12 “time-honored practices of faith, shaped by the Christian community over the centuries, yet richly relevant to contemporary experience.” The 12 practices are:

  1. Honouring the body
  2. Hospitality
  3. Household economics
  4. Saying yes and saying no
  5. Keeping sabbath
  6. Discernment
  7. Testimony
  8. Shaping communities
  9. Forgiveness
  10. Healing
  11. Dying well
  12. Singing our lives to God

What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be? After a few days of pondering such questions, I ordered Practicing Our Faith and have begun immersing myself in its pages. Like sinking into a delicious tub filled with warm water at the end of a tiring day, it feels like I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time.

In a recorded lecture delivered at Yale Divinity School, Bass observed that, “What people are searching for is a way of life that adds up to something in the midst of the fragmentation and the multiple pulls that we experience as contemporary people.”

A way of life that adds up to something; this is my yearning, my deep desire. I suspect if you’ve read this far, that the same is true for you.

I hope to write about my learnings here on this blog as I deepen my understanding of the 12 practices in the weeks and months ahead. “Discerning the contours of a way of life abundant proceeds best,” writes Dorothy Bass, “when we give analytical, imaginative, critical, constructive, theological, prayerful attention to one practice at a time.” So that is what I plan to do. And I’d love for you to journey with me by reading along.

*

When a desk is more than a desk

It may sit in my office, but it will always be “Wendy’s desk.”

It is only a desk, a piece of furniture, an inanimate object. And yet, this desk—which came into my possession over the holidays, and which my husband, our son, and I set up in my office on New Year’s Day—feels like so much more.

It belonged to a friend who passed away in July. Wendy was 63 when the cancer she’d fought for four years finally claimed her.

When I visited Wendy’s mom, Lois, one afternoon just before Christmas, she offered the desk to me, saying it was one of the few furnishings remaining from those that had once filled her daughter’s artfully decorated condo in midtown Toronto. Lois expressed gratitude that family had been able to absorb most of Wendy’s possessions—many of which were, like this desk, antiques that had been in their family for generations. “But no one could use her desk,” she explained.

Wendy was a writer and editor who cared passionately about writing from a Christian perspective. Committed to excellence in all she did, she spent untold thousands of hours at this desk, carefully crafting written pieces for publication. She and I became colleagues and then friends over our mutual passions for words and family, and our shared Christian faith. 

As I looked at the lovely little desk, empty and gathering dust against a wall in the large garage on her family’s farm, I yearned for my friend. I thought about all the time she had spent working on its flat surface. I ran my fingers over its scratches and wondered to myself if somehow, the very grain of the wood of which it is composed might have absorbed some of the essence of who she was. 

Wendy was a woman of strong character and of equally strong opinions, and both of those things came through in her writer’s voice. Since her cancer diagnosis, we had emailed each other almost daily, sharing news of our lives, our hopes and fears, and our prayers. After four years of that kind of contact, her death left a significant hole in my life. I miss her vibrancy, her friendship, her voice. I miss her

More times than I can tell you I’ve thought since she died, “I should write to Wendy about this!” or, “I wonder what Wendy would say about that?” My thrice-weekly commutes in to Toronto for work have felt lonelier; I used to use my commuting time to compose lengthy emails to her or to read her replies. The city is emptier without her in it.

The last six weeks of Wendy’s life, she was in hospital, and I was privileged to be a part of a circle of her close friends who helped to provide care for her there. We took turns visiting—all coordinated through a spreadsheet in Google docs—in order to feed her tiny bits of home cooked food, comb her hair, fetch her ice chips and warm blankets, read to her, sing hymns, and pray. And in the process of caring for Wendy, that circle of her friends became friends with one another. 

It was as if in allowing us to care for her, she completed her life’s work by giving us all one final gift of friendship, through making it possible for us to connect with each another. 

My life is richer for having known and loved my friend, in her living and in her dying. 

So, on that December afternoon, I told Lois I would love to have her daughter’s desk as a remembrance of the friendship we had shared. 

I like to think that Wendy would be pleased to know that her little desk now graces my own office, and that I will be using it to continue the kind of work to which she devoted her own life: writing and editing for various markets from a Christian perspective.

Later, on the evening of our visit, I called Lois to tell her that we had arrived home safely, and to thank her again for Wendy’s desk. I told her that there was nothing of Wendy’s that could possibly mean more to me, to which she replied, “It’s almost as if it was passed over by everyone else because it was just meant to be yours.” 

A new day

Photo by Cristina Gottardi

The poet Luci Shaw has observed that “There’s immense power in small things. An atom. A seed. A word.”

I would add, “A realization.”

You can live a lifetime with one understanding of a thing, and then in a moment, that understanding changes. And the power and potential for transformation is almost unlimited.

I have a person in my life I have found difficult to love. Years of offences both large and small, of hurts and wounds I felt as a result of that individual’s words or actions towards me, the necessity of having to forgive again and again; it all added up to a certain hardening of my heart, and to my expressions of love toward that person being done out of duty.

I have had to exercise deliberate—rather than spontaneous—acts of care for them, because I knew I was supposed to love. And I confess that I long ago concluded that my heart would never follow.

In church on Sunday, our pastor preached a sermon in which he spoke about the new commandment that Jesus gave to his friends as his life was nearing its end. “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. (John 15:12)

But what does such love look like? In defining it, our pastor turned to the Bible’s famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and its words appeared on the large screen at the front of our church. Although I have read and reflected on that chapter so many times I could almost recite it from memory, as our pastor read its verses aloud, one sentence jumped out at me. And it was as if I was seeing and hearing the words for the very first time.

“Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

In an instant, I realized that the record of wrongs I have been keeping against this person is years long. And I understood that love, real love, would let that record go, would tear it up into tiny pieces, burn it to ashes, and scatter those ashes to the wind, never to be thought of again.

I woke up this morning sensing a new beginning, and a new feeling of love (yes, a feeling!) in my heart for that person. And while the sun has not yet started to peek over the horizon as I write these words, I know that a new day has dawned.

 

 

Some truths. About truth.

Truth. We teach children to tell it. Courts depend on it. Relationships suffer for want of it. Science and religion both claim to provide us with access to it.

Truth is absolutely essential for freedom, according to author and social critic Os Guinness, who describes truth as a “precious” and “fundamental human gift, without which we cannot negotiate reality and handle life.”

And yet, ours is a culture that plays fast and loose with truth. Disturbing evidence for that reality came to light in the March 9, 2018 edition of the journal Science, when M.I.T. researchers published the results of an exhaustive study looking at how English language stories—verified as either true or false—spread on Twitter. The data comprised some 126,000 stories tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times. Their findings? “Falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth.”

Bots are not to blame. “False news spreads farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth,” write the study’s authors, “because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

It all adds up to increasing cynicism and scepticism. Can anything be trusted as true? Indeed, scholars say that the notion of any kind of metaphysical truth is collapsing. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary says that when people no longer believe that there is a truth to be known, a crisis of meaning occurs. The emerging generation wonders, he says, whether there can be “a reliable revelation from God.”

Young people, it seems, are choosing to put their faith in the truths that can be known through science instead. Recent research by the Barna group into “Gen Z”—those born between 1999 and 2015—confirms it. Exploring some of the major barriers to faith for non-Christian teens, Barna reports 20% of nonbelievers polled cited their belief that “Science refutes too much of the Bible” as a barrier to faith. Barna further relates that “the perceived conflict between science and Christianity is also a factor for Christian teens. More than one third of engaged Christian teens (37%) and more than half of churchgoing teens (53%) say that the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.”

But it is a fallacy that science and faith conflict at the level of observable facts, says M.I.T. chemistry professor, Troy Van Voorhuis in a video lecture. “Science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence,” he explains.

In other words, when asked, “Why is the sky blue?” a scientist might expound on light waves and the Earth’s atmosphere. But a theologian might respond, “because God, the Creator, delights in beauty.” Two different interpretations, but both would be true.

That science and faith are both in the business of interpreting evidence is a truth that the Church can and ought to proclaim.

After all, Jesus described himself as “the truth,” said he came into the world to testify to the truth, and that truth would set us free. Those of us who try to follow him need to pursue, uphold and defend truth—wherever and however it may be found.

 

 

 

A small gesture, with great meaning

“No, no, no! I’m fine,” she insisted when he stood up to offer her his seat. But he had already vacated it, and was moving out into the aisle of the lurching commuter train to make way for the pretty young woman.

He gestured to it. But she hesitated. He was old; what was left of his hair was thin and grey. And he was stooped. He held his left hand aloft, his left elbow bent at a 90 degree angle as if it was hurt. Maybe it had been – in an accident or as the result of a stroke at some point in his past. She must have noticed.

But he was also dapper – if ever the word applied to a man it applied to him – dressed in a tidy, if mildly ill-fitting (ever so slightly over-sized) jacket, button down shirt and tie that looked like they might have fit him 20 years ago. When they would have been fashionable. When he wouldn’t have been stooped. When he wouldn’t have favoured that arm.

“I insist,” he said gently, but firmly. And even as he swayed with the rocking of the train, his voice was steady, solid, resolute.

And so, she weakened. “Are you sure?” she asked, probing, inviting, no – willing him to renege on the offer. But he merely nodded, and reached out for something to grasp, steadying himself.

So she sat.

It was the simplest of exchanges, the smallest of gestures, all over in the span of less than a minute of measured time. But I watched it happen.

And I marvelled. Was it my imagination, or was he standing just a little bit taller and straighter than he had been a moment earlier – before she had accepted his modest act of chivalry?

Or was it just that all of the other men on that train, the younger men than the one now standing solo in the aisle gripping the handle on the seat back for support, seemed to get a little bit smaller? To shrink down in their seats. To stare straight ahead, or out the windows, or at their phones. Anywhere but at the man who, through a kind gesture, had reminded us all of another time. A time when self-sacrifice was valued above self-interest, and when things like manners and gentility mattered.

***

“Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” – Frederick Buechner

Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.

“To love and to be loved”

A former colleague appealed to his Facebook friends yesterday to offer their thoughts about an important question. Diagnosed with stage four cancer some months ago, he has transparently shared the highs and lows of his life since then through social media, with good humour, courage, and characteristic sass. Yesterday’s comments though, were uncharacteristically solemn.

He recently learned his cancer is dormant. “I got to thinking about what all this means,” he wrote, “and I believe it means that I have been given more time.” He went on to invite his friends to share their views on how he might make the best use of that gift. “Is it solely for me to carry on with all the things I hold dear? … Or is there something greater that I should do with the added time?”

I thought about whether I should respond – we were not, after all, intimates – and I wondered if I even had the right to speak into his life on such an intimate question. But he was the best boss I ever had. What made him so were simple things: his obvious love and enthusiasm for what he did, his approachability, his genuine trust in and care for the people who reported to him, and an ever-present twinkle in his eyes that said no matter what kind of chaos was erupting, everything would be alright.

So when some words came to mind that seemed fitting, I shared them. I’d read them recently while studying the life of Mother Teresa as part of the requirements for a course I’m taking.

The diminutive nun taught: “You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world … [to] make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved.” 

To love and to be loved. The words resonated when I came across them, so much so that I wrote them down in a journal I keep of favourite quotations. But they make life’s aim and purpose sound so simple. Could loving and being loved really be the greatest thing? After sharing the quotation in response to my former boss’s query, I pondered that question for the rest of the day.

*

I was still thinking about it last night, when my 84-year-old mother came for dinner. I’d promised to help her hem a pair of pants she’d recently purchased. I admit I almost called her to reschedule, because there was a paper I needed to research for school, and I knew she’d understand. But thinking about that question prevented me from picking up the phone.

Our meal over and cleared away, my mother asked, “Am I keeping you from anything you need to do?”

I thought about that other question, the big one, before answering hers. “No mom. Not a thing.”

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen, working with our needles and thread, each stitching one leg. For a while we chatted. For a while we stitched in silence.

As we worked, I thought about how my mother taught me to sew when I was just a girl. For a year, we both had part-time jobs doing piecework for the same company, sewing patchwork aprons, placemats, oven mitts and things. We must have spent hours back then, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on projects together. But I hit high school and developed other interests. Mom continued to sew, but it’s been years, decades even, since we’ve done anything like that together. Throughout my entire adult life (until five months ago when she sold her house and moved to town) mom lived in another city. During all those years, our times together had focussed on visiting, not projects.

So working alongside her last night felt special. The complete task lasted less than an hour, but I felt my entire spirit expand during those minutes, the way your lungs do when taking a long deep breath of fresh, cool, mountain air. I sensed it was a gift.

Pausing to re-thread her needle at one point, mom told me how much she was enjoying her evening and asked, “How long has it been since we worked side-by-side like this?”

“It’s nice for me too, mom,” I said. And it was. Really, really nice.

And in that moment I realized I’d found the answer to the question that had been rolling over in my mind all afternoon.