By Kathy Staudt
I recently helped to facilitate one of the diocesan-wide discussions of Brian McLaren’s Finding our Way Again — part of a diocese-wide initiative that Bishop Mariann Budde initiated, called “People of the Way.” McLaren and Bishop Budde will be leading a plenary program on March 26 as part of this initiative — the first of many such initiatives, we hope. My experience leading one of the one-day diocesan-wide study group convinced me of the value of having these kinds of conversation about the lived experience of our faith with other Episcopalians beyond our parishes.
McLaren’s book is about spiritual practices as part of how we grow into a living relationship with God, and how we are formed and transformed into disciples. His book introduces a series that invites a “return to the ancient practices” that have shaped Christian life over centuries — practices like daily prayer, Scripture study, Sabbath-keeping, Fasting, even Tithing. As soon as we begin to make a list of spiritual practices, we begin to risk losing an important distinction between practices and “programs” or “to do lists.” A spiritual practice is an activity we choose because we want to grow in our relationship with God — it is about experience and connection rather than about self-improvement. This is a distinction that is quickly lost on many of us “Type A” folks who would like to be able to see results. “Practice makes perfect,” in this discussion, gives way to McLaren’s phrase “Practice makes possible”: having a personal rule of life that fits our temperament and desire helps make us open to the possibility of transformation and deepened relationship with God that is always on offer, if we are willing to receive it.
In our discussion I was very aware of a longing, expressed in various ways, for an enlivening of faith. Some people were fearful about the apparent “to do list” that they at first saw in the setup of McLaren’s book, but the discussion in small groups seemed to go where most people wanted to go — to the question: how do I — and how do you — live our faith so that it becomes deeper and more authentic, more connected to the mystery that we call “God.” What do we do to open ourselves to that? What happens when we do? Many had stories to share, showing that we can indeed see ourselves as “companions on the way”.
McLaren helpfully divides spiritual practices into “Contemplative,” “Corporate” and “Missional” practices. Contemplative practices are perhaps most familiar: practices like daily Scripture study, centering prayer, journaling or walking-prayers. Many people had regular personal practices they could add to this list. Contemplative practices are what I call “showing up” practices — We try to do them regularly, the way that someone studying a musical instrument practices scales, or an athlete works out — because they make us more able to live faithfully, day to day. Corporate practices are those we do together — worship is the most familiar, and McLaren helpfully breaks out the different components of the liturgy, calling the liturgy the “workout of the people.” Other corporate practices include spiritual direction, small group faith sharing, and intercessory prayer — all the ways that we practice our faith in awareness that others are practicing with us. Out of these come missional practices: practices that turn us outward toward the world — these include hospitality, practices that help us to encounter those we perceive as “other,” feeding the hungry, working for justice. Missional practices are not political programs though they may lead us to political action, whether individual or corporate. But their primary purpose is to form us for Christian discipleship. Indeed, for Christians, all of these kinds of practice have as their purpose to make us more alert, faithful and engaged disciples/followers of Jesus.
For some in the group the sense of spiritual practice as “one more thing to add to the list” did not subside, but for others there was an excitement about what they were hearing about what a living faith looks like, among other people who are also members of churches in our diocese. There was something energizing, all agreed, about bringing together people from different parishes, coming out of our “silos” of local family issues and issues of institutional survival, and reminding ourselves of the deeper purpose that drew many of us to our churches to begin with and that is now calling us, perhaps, to a revival, or to what Diana Butler Bass in her new book (Christianity After Religion) has called an “awakening.”
Diana’s book also sees this longing among many Christians — both those who have stayed with their churches and the large number of people who have left church, disillusioned with our preoccupation with institutional survival and bickering over who’s in and who’s out. She points to a resurgence of people who long to be both “spiritual AND religious” — to find a community that practices a living faith. Can this happen in churches, which have become so bogged down over the past few decades in institutional and doctrinal issues? What would the Church look like (not just the Episcopal Church, but the wider “Church, the People of God” (to use Verna Dozier’s term) — if more of us found ways to name and claim a faith that demands something of us, that calls us to grow and deepen in a living relationship with the living God, individually, corporately and “missionally.” A faith where “practice” makes new things, new life, possible?
The longing for something real, something genuine, in our individual and corporate relationship to God and in our life choices, was palpable in the discussion I led, and I hear it everywhere these days, among church people as well as those who have left church or are unchurched. I hear it in people who grew up without a religion and are wondering if they can find what they are seeking among people who still value church. I hope we can continue to listen to this longing in one another other, and I think one way to do this is indeed, as the McLaren book study project invites, to focus on this matter of practice, perhaps to find and reclaim “new-old” ways of gathering and sharing faith that stretch and blur boundaries between parishes and even denominations. If we do, I think we may well begin to discern a new spiritual liveliness that is inviting us, in this time, to claim in new ways a living tradition that is in harmony with the ancient roots of our faith, and that will help us to live more faithfully into the call to discipleship which is at the heart of Christian life.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a householder who takes from his treasure what is old and what is new.” That seems to be an important word for us in this time of change, renewal, awakening and “emergence” in the life of the church.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps two blogs: poetproph and David Jones, artist and poet. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.