Life abundant

gift

Honoring the body. Hospitality. Household economics. Keeping Sabbath. Saying yes and saying no. Testimony. Discernment. Shaping communities. Forgiveness. Healing. Dying well. Singing our lives. To explore the full range and depth of any one of these would take not a single chapter but an entire library, not a single life but many lives joined together in a community that spans generations.”

So begins the fourteenth chapter of the book, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  And so, too, ends a month-long blogging project for credit towards my Master of Theological Studies at McMaster Divinity College, which was also something of a hopeful experiment for me. “Could I,” I wondered, “intensify and strengthen my own faith practices by reading, reflecting on, and writing about 12 Christian practicesand thus arrive at a new place in my journey with Christ?”

It has been an intense time of thinking deeply, of wrestling with the implications of what it means to practice my Christian faith, and of reflecting on how and why it’s worth taking the time to do both. It has also been a time of vulnerability; I’ve shared things about my life even as I’ve wondered about the wisdom of disclosing them, but trusted that American writer Frederick Buechner is correct when he writes, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

My only regrets as I look back on this experiment? That it’s over, and that due to class deadlines, I didn’t have more time to put into embracing each practice, one by one.

And yet, my learning has been profound.

I mean that. I actually think I’ve been changed in some important ways. I’ve realized among other things the need: to do a better job of caring for our planet and for my body, to live my life in an attitude of greater openness to strangers, and to more fully receive God’s gift of the Sabbath, to continue to sing my faith with confidence and boldness, and to turn to God with prayers for healing as a first—rather than last—resort.

Looking back, I realize that I began this project, somewhat naively, and with some incorrect assumptions. The first idea I had wrong was that Christian practices can ever be “practiced” in isolation. I know that there are many people today who live out their spiritual lives as lone wolves. But that was not the way of Christ, and it was not his intention for his church. That is why the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a body to describe the community that Christ called into being. I’ve been reminded again and again over the past month that to really live in Christ and to grow and thrive and be healthy it is important to remain connected to a community of believers.

I had imagined at the outset gathering together a community of readers who might also share their experiences with practicing faith. That did not occur to the extent I had hoped; whether the timeline was too short, my musings too personal, my writing too weak, or my topic of too narrow interest, I don’t know. But I am grateful for every person who did read, comment, or tell me that you, too, were learning and thinking about what it means to live out your faith in such a way that it really seizes your life. You encouraged and energized me throughout this experiment and I thank you for giving me your time, attention, and feedback.

Necessarily and essentially communal

Part-way through this project, I interviewed the man whose leadership initiated Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Craig Dykstra. He told me, emphatically, that Christian practices are not individual, but “necessarily and essentially communal. They’re not just devotional. They’re about a way of life—about everything we do.”

That also corrected another faulty notion I had at the start—that there were a limited number of Christian practices, and if I could somehow manage to just get them right, then I would become the sort of Christian I long to be. I learned that there are hundreds, if not thousands of practices, and that two of them, according to Practicing Our Faith, “run through all the others, fostering attention to God, who grounds this whole way of life. These practices are prayer and Bible study.”

This fact helps me understand why I’ve seen my prayer life take on new and meaningful rhythms and dimensions over the past month, and why my times spent reading or listening to my Bible have yielded good and important fruit.

Jesus taught that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). As I’ve focussed on practicing my faith to a deeper degree over the past month, I know that I have tasted life more abundantly. I’ve relished that taste; it’s made me hunger for more. So much so that I end this project with a determination to continue to intentionally practice the practices of my faith.

And yet

I also know that this past month has challenged me in some ways that feel somewhat unsustainable; it may not be realistic to expect to keep thinking so deeply, daily, about my behaviours, actions, and reactions in the midst of life’s routine busyness, its ups and downs.

“What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be?” These were the questions that provoked me to embark on this journey. I’ve learned that there is room for improvement in every one of the 12 practices on which I’ve been focusing, even though I also know that practice will never make perfect. But that’s okay, for I’ve been reminded of the truths of Romans 5, beginning with the fact that I already have “peace with God,” through Jesus Christ.

Living the Christian life for me in 2019, then, has to begin with the recognition of God’s grace to me, which is always present. With that thought, the yearning with which I began this exercise has quieted. Because, ultimately, that’s what the Christian life comes down to for every one of us: God’s amazing grace.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

I remembered Eliot’s words this morning and looked them up as I thought of the irony of where I’ve landed. “At the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At the end of this first phase of deliberate exploration of practices of my faith, here is what I know: Jesus loves me, in spite of my faults and failures, just as He loves you in spite of yours. And he wants us to experience life in all its fullness. The more we embrace him and the wisdom he offers, the more we receive that gift of life abundant. It’s there for the taking. The degree to which we accept it—just as the degree to which we practice the practices of our faith—is up to us.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 15 – This is the final post in a 15-part 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 and part 2.

Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth 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 and part 2.

Healing

Hand reaches toward light

Just as I was sitting down to write about the Christian practice of healing—the theme of the eleventh chapter in Practicing Our Faith—I got a call from someone I love, telling me that someone they love is in the midst of a serious health scare. The someone I love is, as a result, clearly frightened.

And suddenly, I realized, I was too. Because as we chatted, I felt my heart sink, crashing into my diaphragm. A lump developed in my throat. I remained outwardly calm, but inwardly, I heard my brain hollering,“Nooooooooooooo!”

By the time the conversation was over, my adrenaline was pumping, so much so that I had to get up and take a little walk. If you’ve ever received word of a scary diagnosis for yourself or for a loved one, you no doubt know the feeling.

“Illness, injury, and psychological distress dog virtually every step of our daily walk through life,” observes John Koenig in his essay on “Healing.” Were truer words ever written?

Maybe it’s my age and stage of life

I seem to be hearing such news more and more frequently. I know of several people who are battling disease or dis-ease of one sort or another. Fortunately, we live in a culture that makes excellent medical care widely available. I’ve visited places in the world where hospitals go days or even weeks, unable to perform life-saving or life-giving surgeries for lack of such basics as clean water, sutures, and bandages. That is an injustice, a global inequity that cries out for change.

Here in our culture, it’s easy to take good health for granted. We have access to plenty of clean water and a wide variety of nutritious foods. When we get a cold we can take over-the-counter medicines to ease our symptoms. When we get an infection, we can take antibiotics to make us well again. Got a crick in your neck? Visit a chiropractor. Sore muscles? Find a massage therapist. Dealing with anxiety or depression? See a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counsellor. As a result, we tend to define healing “as an activity that takes place largely between patients and their physicians or nurses,” Koenig writes.

But, he goes on, “Christians understand the practice of healing as something much larger than this. The central image for us is not cure but wholeness.

If I ever knew that thought—that my Christian faith points towards wholeness instead of simple cure—I’d forgotten it. But I liked it when I read it in Koenig’s essay. It made sense to me and called to mind a conversation I had with a friend several years ago, at a dinner party. Sometime between the main course and dessert, my friend who, I think, had been doing some reading on eastern religions, asked me, “Do you consider yourself a spiritual being with a physical body? Or a physical being with a spirit?”

I remember having to hide my surprise, because the answer struck me as obvious; it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would ever think otherwise. “I consider myself a spiritual, physical, and emotional being,” I remember saying. “You can’t separate any one out from the others.”

Healing towards wholeness

Koenig concurs, explaining that the Christian idea of healing towards wholeness involves “the whole person—spiritual, physical, and emotional.” It is an idea we can trace to the very beginnings of our faith, because the gospels reveal a Jesus who devoted a large part of his ministry to healing people from physical, spiritual, and emotional ailments.

It’s also an idea that the early Church embraced. “In early Christian communities and for roughly the first three centuries of the church’s life, Christians regarded healing by prayer and the laying on of hands as a normal part of the church’s mission,” Koenig writes.

The Bible spells it out:

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”  (James 5:14–16)

James is clearly talking about more than just physical healing. And Koenig makes a compelling argument for this kind of prayer, saying that “Particularly in this time of anxiety and distress … the diverse healing ministries of the church need to become a more integrated, more normal, and more public feature of our mission.”

My aching heart—that worries for the one who is loved by my loved one—tells me he’s right. I believe deeply that God uses good doctors and medicines to heal people. But maybe actually looking to God in prayer can provide a kind of healing and wholeness that doctors can’t. And maybe that’s important too.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 12 – This post is twelfth 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 and part 2.