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.

And so I begin. Again. (Practicing my faith, part 2)

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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.”

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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.