Practicing my faith

IMG_3190

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.

 

 

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

Gratuitous and intentional insult

I am not a political animal. But there are some things that happen on the political stage that just cannot be ignored. Donald Trump’s self-described “locker room” talk is one of those things.

I am a Canadian. And U.S. politics have, typically, engaged me even less than the politics of my home and native land.

But I am a woman. And I have two daughters. And if writing about my experiences can in some way contribute to a wider conversation about the need for human beings to treat one another with courtesy and respect – regardless of gender – and for our political leaders to be people of integrity who model that kind of respect, then they will be words well written.

I was 16 the first time a man “moved on” me (to use the words of the U.S. presidential candidate). The man was in his 40s, and in a position of authority. He had offered to give me a ride home and while en route, he reached over and took my hand. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t pull away. I was confused; why would he want to hold my hand? He was married. I didn’t understand. But I didn’t pull my hand away. I remember being afraid I might offend him.

At the end of the ride he leaned over and kissed me. On the mouth. I remember getting out of that car as fast as I could, and wiping my hand across my mouth as I walked away. I remember feeling like I’d been covered in slime. But I told no one. I doubted myself, wondering if I was just misinterpreting his actions. I blamed myself for not pulling my hand away. But I tried to avoid being alone with him after that.

I was 18 the next time it happened. Just walking down the street in Toronto. A busy street. A teenaged boy walking with his friends approached from the opposite direction. I remember he was obviously younger than me. Maybe 14, 15. But as he passed he reached out and grabbed my crotch. I remember hearing his laughter. We were just two people, passing each other on the street. It was all over in a heartbeat. But I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Horrified. What made him think he had the right?

The next time I was 23. A colleague at work – another married man (also well up into his 40s), made a pass at me. Shocked and revolted, I lashed out. I pushed him off of me. But I remember feeling betrayed. I had liked the man, trusted him. I avoided him after that. I doubted my own judgement. I wondered if I was too trusting.

Three separate incidents, each of which I’ve told myself over the years, was not a big deal.

And yet each one of those incidents is stamped on my mind, because each one left me feeling just a little bit violated. Those men (and that boy) deliberately “moved on” me, taking something from me – even if it was only a little bit of innocence – that they had no right to take. Apparently, your mind doesn’t let you forget things like that.

It causes me to believe every single one of the women who are coming forward now, saying that Donald Trump once made a “move on” them.

If he did what he is alleged to have done to each of these women, he may have long since forgotten about it. But they haven’t.

*

“The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli. … Because we have this instinctive sense, we feel elevated when we see behavior that fuses the physical and spiritual. … We feel repulsed — a little or a lot — when the body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted.” – David Brooks

 

 

 

 

Reality … augmenting not required

Geese

It was Saturday, and a beautiful day for a drive and a picnic, so we packed some sandwiches, loaded Percy (our border collie) into the car, and found a small town park located on the bank of a meandering river.

Scoring a table under the canopy of a large maple tree, we settled in to visit and nibble our lunch. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves. We had to hush Percy repeatedly for not-so-gently barking his excitement at the passing dogs, geese and people strolling by. The geese and the people seemed to be out in droves, but were, for the most part, ignoring one another.

Nearby, 15 or 20 young men and women stood clustered under an ancient oak. To a person, they stared intently at cell phones. Throughout our visit, others approached them – walking alone or in small groups of twos and threes – but each in a similar posture: cell phone raised, head tilted down, eyes focussed intently on the tiny screen.

It didn’t take us long to realize we were witnessing the Pokemon Go game in action, and like amateur anthropologists, amused ourselves watching those who’d come to the same park that day seeking to capture mythical creatures rather than a picnic spot.

Soon a young mother approached, arms outstretched pushing not a cell phone’s buttons but a stroller. Her baby wore a white bonnet and sunsuit, tied at the shoulders, the colour of the sky. The baby kicked her legs in that happy way that babies do when they’re anticipating something lovely, then leaned forward, straining, yearning to escape the confines of her seat.

The mother parked the stroller not far from us, spread a blanket on the grass, then set her little one down on it with a sippy cup. Later, the mother carried her daughter in arms over to see the river, pointing out the ducks, geese and seagulls. They stayed there as long as we did.

When it was time to leave, I walked over to admire the baby and say “hello.” The little girl looked up at me as I greeted her and responded instantly with a broad smile. My heart melted.

She was a beautiful baby, 9 months old, her mother said. Pudgy and soft looking, with chubby thigh rolls, long eye-lashes framing big blue eyes, and white fuzz from now absent socks clinging to the underside of her toes, she positively sparkled with delight at my hello. Her mother seemed equally happy to engage, and told me her little girl loved being out-of-doors; that was clear, for she had seemed entirely happy and content the entire time.

I felt captivated: by the baby’s delight at my cooing, and by her innocence.

Packing up our picnic and walking past all of those people staring at all of those tiny screens, it occurred to me that maybe I had found the most precious of all the treasures hiding in the park that day.

*

“Our unwillingness to silence our phones often amounts to an effective silencing of our own insight as we edge out of our imaginations the time required to actually experience it.”

– David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

 

A much-needed thing

Cave Quest VBS Logo

 

I admit I had mixed, somewhat ambivalent feelings going into this week. Feelings that combined thoughts of:

I know I need to do this,

with

but it will be hard, 

with

but it will also be fun,

with

but I’m getting too old for this.

It was Kidz Kamp at our wee little church – that five-day period that rolls around each summer during which scores of community kids descend on our church property for a fun-filled, day-camp-in-the-suburbs-in-their-own-neighbourhood kind of experience.

Our church has been staging Kidz Kamp for years. Known to an earlier generation as “VBS” (or Vacation Bible School) the week always includes songs (led by an energetic youth band) with lots of dancing in the aisles, games, crafts, videos, enough cheering and hollering to give even the most devoted leader a headache, and Bible stories told in thoroughly dramatic fashion. The planning, work and preparation required to pull it all off are enormous.

This year, 115 campers attended the camp which followed the Cave Quest curriculum. Offering oversight were some 60 leaders – including adults (“Senior Leaders”), teens (“Junior Leaders”) and pre-teens (“Leaders-In-Training” or LITs). An army of other volunteers (featuring many of our church’s most senior citizens) worked behind-the-scenes to provide everything from security to first aid, drinks and snacks.

Kidz Kamp today is a well-oiled machine; it is a wonder to behold and to participate in. The sheer organizational efficiency required to pull it all off in a way that keeps everyone happy and safe is breath-taking. From pre-planned traffic routes – moving the various groups of kids from station-to-station and activity-to-activity inside and outside the church at 25 minute intervals (from 9 a.m. to noon each day) – to the creative crafts that were pre-planned, pre-cut and sorted into bins.

Our group was the “Rubies” – six lovely girls ages 8 to 11 plus a Junior Leader, an LIT and me.

I realized on Day One that I was not the only adult who went into Kidz Kamp feeling tired, a bit overwhelmed, wondering what I’d gotten myself into, praying for the mental capacity to be able to remember all my campers’ names, and for the energy, good cheer and patience to get through it all.

And I realized today on Day Five – as I felt a surge of genuine affection for each of my young campers and co-leaders, along with a teensy bit of regret that the week’s end had come – that God had answered our prayers.

Ours is a challenging world, and these are trying times. Growing up cannot be easy.

Teaching kids that God loves them, and that He will be there for them through good times and bad is not just a good thing; it is a much-needed thing.

At the start of the day today, my LIT presented me with a hand-made card, thanking me for being her senior leader and saying she hoped we would work together again next year.

Hand made note card

Hand made note card to me!

I have to say: I hope we do too.

Here’s a link to one of my favourite songs of the week, “My Hope Is In the Lord.”