Practising Our Faith 1

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 11 June 2006

Practising our Faith

A short while ago, the Anglican church in some part of Australia hired a PR consultant to help them improve their communication of the Christian message in their cultural context. The PR man set about doing research into the Christian faith, to try to establish the core role of his client, the church. What he came up with, as the message that the church should promote to the world, is this: ‘That 2000 years ago, the founder Jesus taught and demonstrated how his followers should live. If Christians followed his example and did what he taught they would have better lives, and this would also improve the lives of people around them.’ Notice how he hasn’t latched on to what people ought to believe about Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and the meaning of his death and resurrection. Instead it’s a practice-based definition. We may feel that it is incomplete as a message of salvation.  But this is what someone from outside the faith identified as the core message the church should be communicating beyond its boundaries.

I’m really interested in this story because it confirms something to me that I have suspected for a while. That is, that Christianity as a religion needs to move on from defining itself primarily in terms of the content of its beliefs. Christianity is known by most non-Christians as a religion of assent. You become part of it by agreeing to certain statements about God and the world. And when you’re an insider, you spend a lot of time talking together, and arguing together, about these statements, these beliefs. And then, when some threat to these beliefs comes along, in the form of a scientific discovery, or a new document that has been buried underground for a thousand years, the very basis of Christianity is threatened, and the church gets all defensive.

I read on the cover of a recent Herald ‘Canvas’ magazine, that Michael Baigent, of ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ fame, has written a new book that claims that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. The headline ran: Baigent attacks another Christian belief.  For many Christians, and for many non-Christians, such ‘attacks’ are fatal to the core of faith. For them, doctrinal statements are all that Christianity consists of.

One reason that Buddhism is so attractive to our culture, is that it is primarily a religion of practice. There are beliefs, assumptions and metaphysical ideas that underpin the various traditions within Buddhism, but mostly, westerners are exposed only to the most basic of these, and only after they’ve begun the practice of meditation which is at the core of the religion.  I think that what many people in our world are looking for is not a set of ideas…whether the ideas are true, is neither here nor there. What people are looking for is a cluster of practices that will make a difference to their lives, and to our world, where they can experience the presence and power of God in the midst of their ordinary day. It is this desire that has given rise to the various divination and ritual practices of the New Age. I think it’s also this desire that has given rise to the Charismatic movement in the Christian church, where people seek direct intervention from God in their lives in the form of healing, answered prayer, words of knowledge and prophecy etc.

I identify strongly with this want…this want for faith to interact with my physical world, for faith to make a difference…to get things out of my head and into the life I’m living. But I think that the church has largely failed to offer training and teaching and examples of specific practices that we can explore and grow in. We lack guidance in the ‘mechanics’ of faith - the actions and processes that connect up what we believe to our real lives, and bring change. We’ve got the theology…the system of understandings, and then we’ve got morality…the behaviours that are meant to result from having the right belief. There’s a missing layer…and that missing layer is practice…what are the things I can learn to do that will connect up my theology with my lifestyle.

I’m not suggesting throwing out doctrine, doing away with the creeds, or having no statements that we want to affirm about our faith. But I’m suggesting that we need to make practice the main focus of our spirituality, when we gather together, and when we live out our faith in the world. This will affect what we do when we worship, and what we teach our children, how we choose to live and work, and also our understanding of Christian mission…which might come to involve welcoming people to participate in our practice prior to taking on board our beliefs.

There’s an ecumenical network in the States, which is generating a number of books and resources, and funding initiatives under the umbrella of ‘Practicing our Faith’. Their website is definitely worth a look, and I’ve put the address in the newsletter. I am very impressed by what they have done so far, and what they are doing in the way of enabling this shift toward practice. I’m so impressed, in fact, that I’m embarking on a sermon series today, that will work through the 12 faith practices that they have named as the core of their approach. Three today, and then probably another two weeks to whiz through the rest.

So, anyway, without further ado and preamble, here is the list of 12 practices that this particular group have come to…

Honouring the Body, Hospitality, Household Economics,
Saying Yes and Saying No, Keeping Sabbath, Testimony, Discernment,
Shaping Communities, Forgiveness, Healing, Dying Well, Singing our Lives

You might immediately think of things that you consider to be important Christian practices that aren’t on that list. Prayer for example, or engagement with the Bible, or meeting for worship. These three things, I understand, are assumed as the basis for all the other practices, and run through each of them.  You might not feel satisfied with this, and might wish to have 15 practices instead. Or you might find that there are things missing from this list that are really important to your understanding of how Christianity needs to be worked out in practice. I don’t think anyone’s claiming this as a definitive list. But each of the practices named here has a strong continuity with strands of the Christian faith through the ages. They’ve been included in the list because of their enduring presence in a range of different cultures and through history.

Here’s a quote from Craig Dykstra, which explains what the practices are and are not:

"Christian practices are not activities we do to make something spiritual happen in our lives. Nor are they duties we undertake to be obedient to God. Rather, they are patterns of communal action that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy, and presence of God may be made known to us. They are places where the power of God is experienced. In the end, these are not ultimately our practices but forms of participation in the practice of God."

In an article on the website that addresses the thinking behind the practices, it says: ‘awareness of Christian practices helps us to reflect theologically on who people really are and what we really need’. This is important in the midst of a world where the notion of being human, and our ‘needs’ are constantly being re-constructed and redefined by the market.

The practices are small enough to be discussed as an aspect of a person’s lifestyle, but large enough that they can embrace areas of public policy. Think for example, of the relationship of Hospitality to immigration, or the relationship of Testimony to the legal system, or the relationship of Keeping Sabbath to the way our workplaces are structured. So the practices are a way of letting what we know and experience of God become part of every strand of our living, and our influence on the world around us.

Today I want to take a brief look at the three practices of Hospitality, Testimony and Healing, and a lot of what I have to say, especially the examples, is drawn from the articles on the website.

First, Hospitality.
This practice is based on the basic human need for shelter. The first thing most of us consider when working out how much money we need in our lives, is what we need to cover our rent or mortgage payments. It is a horrifying thought to most of us, the idea of being uprooted, with nowhere to live, and having to rely on others to take us in. Beyond that, our need for a place not only to live, but to call home, with all the sense of belonging and welcome that ‘home’ implies, is fundamental to our sense of wellbeing.  The Christian practice of hospitality is the practice of welcoming…welcoming others into our places of belonging, and into our hearts.

Throughout the Bible, offering hospitality is a value that comes up again and again. It’s present on a national scale, as the Israelites remember their previous status as aliens and slaves in the land of Egypt, and are thus reminded in Leviticus: ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.’ And then it’s a significant part of Jesus’ ministry…being a guest and a host. The New Testament word for hospitality is ‘philoxenia’…. love of the guest, or stranger. Notice how the opposite of this value is xenophobia, something that it is so easy for people and nations to slip into when there is prejudice, or pressure for resources.

Here are some ideas about how this Christian practice of hospitality can become part of our lives:

- choose one night a week where you regularly invite someone else to share your evening meal, or a weekend lunch and invite people you don’t already know well.

- make use of our involvement in a Christian community to share the load of hospitality…such as group events, shared meals, shared activities. How can these events be made open invitation to those outside our circle of contacts?

- educate ourselves on immigration issues in our country, or local area…look for ways to shape public policy on immigration, or to help with resettling migrants or refugees in our local area.

- Establish a house or space where people passing through can spend a night or two. It used to be that the church manse had that role…in the absence of such a centre for hospitality, how might we have a network of spare rooms that we can call on when we know someone needs a place to stay, but we can’t house them ourselves?

 Secondly, Testimony.
Testimony is about speaking the truth. It’s about telling the stories that matter, stories that edify, and nurture faith, that challenge, that guide and build community.

Testimony requires freedom…it’s about the freedom to speak words that might be difficult, or challenging to power structures, without being oppressed or silenced. And it’s about the freedom to speak from an internal space that is in touch with God, rather than being wholly conditioned or dictated to by internal confusion, personal ego issues, or the norms of public discourse that have been shaped by advertising or propaganda.

In a Christian community, it’s important to be particularly aware of the testimony of those who struggle: the marginal, the oppressed, the suffering. These voices from the edge of ‘normal’ experience have a wisdom to bring that’s often the wisdom of Christ.

Telling the truth involves each of us telling the truth to God about ourselves and our lives, moving beyond masks and denial. And it involves telling others the truth about God and God’s activity in the world. This might be in the form of preaching the gospel, but also involves words of truth spoken in the public arena about issues of justice and compassion.

Testimony involves words, and goes beyond words. Preaching is a form of testimony…as are the songs we write and sing, and the art works we create. Actions of service, martyrdom, and compassion are forms of testimony.

Hear the words of the apostle Paul:
‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you.’

What are some practical ways that we might speak out of the grace that has been given us, and strengthen the testimony of Christ within ourselves, and the world?

- invite people to meet with a small group or to speak here at Cityside who could give testimony from a place of marginality in our society…an ex-prisoner, someone from a minority culture, someone who is homeless…what are these people’s stories of God?

- participate in the storytelling slot in our service. Do you have a story you want to tell from your life? Let me know, and I’ll schedule it in. Or, write a song for us to learn and sing.

- create a worship experience built out of the stories of faithful people whose lives give testimony to God’s involvement with them.

- participate in public events where people are attempting to tell the truth, whether these be protests, art exhibitions, festivals, public meetings and so on. Lend our voices to testimony that shares the values of the gospel.

- consider our own everyday speech. How much of what we say is truthful or gracious? How do we story the events of our day…do we include God in our descriptions of what happened? Does our way of interpreting events testify to God’s presence in our lives?

And finally today, Healing.
Healing is about wholeness and wellbeing…both of which are signs of the kind of world God intends for all creation. Jesus was a healer. A significant portion of his time, as we have it recorded in the gospels, was spent healing the sick. However, it’s worth noticing the fullness of some of those encounters we read about. Jesus healed people’s minds, he healed their hope, he healed their sin, he healed their social status, he healed their faith…as well as healing their physical bodies. The Christian practice of healing needs to be understood in this broad context.

The practice of healing also needs to take into account the nature of suffering, and the role of suffering to bring healing in some cases, to people’s lives. In this era of environmental crises, we also need to consider the healing of the earth, as part of God’s reconciling activity in the world.

In the times of the early church, healing was considered to be a vital sign of the presence of God and the mission of God through the congregation. The laying on of hands, anointing with oil, and prayer were part of the church’s central activities, and healing was part of its identity. This dimension of the church’s self understanding has largely fizzled in this age of medical advancement, except for the brief resurgence of the signs and wonders movement. Healing has become the province of ‘professionals’, and we perhaps need to ask how we can support and enable those who heal in a professional capacity, as well as retain our sense of the congregation as a legitimate place where healing can be offered and experienced.

Ill health, broadly defined, continues to be the place where we are most rawly confronted with our vulnerability as humans, and our need for others to care for us. When we name our prayer needs here at Cityside, it’s often to do with ill health and suffering. And it’s appropriate that we respond in prayer and in other practical ways.  Confession is also another important dimension of healing prayer that is part of our congregational life…as we notice the ways in which our attitudes or behaviours are ‘unwell’ and in need of forgiveness and healing.

We perhaps need to move away from a ‘cure’ model of prayer for healing, and consider instead how we participate in all the processes by which God is making us and others well, which includes but is not limited to fixing specific medical problems.

So the question is: how can we as a community, and in our daily lives as Christians in the world, practice Healing, as part of our participation in God’s vision of wholeness?

Here are a few suggestions…

- care for one another by visiting, rather than avoiding, those who are sick, taking meals to people, praying with and for those who suffer, and so on

- joining and supporting organisations that promote wholeness and healing for people or the environment

- making our physical church space available for groups that offer healing, such as recovery programmes, meditation and relaxation therapy and so on…

- risk having the occasional time in our worship services where we anoint and pray for those who are sick

So that’s just scratching the surface of what it might mean to be people who practice Hospitality, Testimony and Healing.

I suspect that with these practices there are particular ones that connect strongly with individual people’s natural talents and spiritual gifts. Within the body we will no doubt have people for whom hospitality is both a passion and a natural ability, and those whose call is to devote their professional lives to healing, and so on. That’s why these practices need to be understood communally, as well as on the level of each of us going about our daily lives.