Practising Our Faith 2
Last week I started a sermon series on the idea of ‘practising our faith.’ I’m not going to spend much time now going back over the ground of what that concept means, or why I think it’s important. Except just to say that often in the church we have majored on belief…in the form of doctrine, or on morality…in the form of rules. But there’s an alternative way to engage with the Christian faith, which is at the level of practice…learning to live as a Christian in the world. And these forms of practice are not a set of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’…rather, they are patterns of communal living that we can grow in as individuals and as a community, patterns through which God’s presence is made manifest among us. Christian practices together make up a Way…a Way of following Jesus, a Way of living and participating in the world, that help us to live with meaning and purpose, and in connection with God in the midst of things.
I plan to work through the 12 practices of faith set out in the website www.practicingourfaith.org These 12 practices aren’t the be all and end all, but they do have a resonance through time, as practices that have been considered important throughout Christian history, and also across different cultures. Last week I talked about Hospitality, Testimony, and Healing. This week I want to look at Keeping Sabbath, Discernment, and Singing our Lives.
Keeping Sabbath is something that’s central to the Jewish religion, and a distinctive aspect of their life rhythms, and their rituals. It’s something that I think many Christians have moved to the edge of our thinking about how to live our faith. We live in a culture now that’s 24/7. Shops are open almost all the time, and many of us work in jobs where feel we need to work at least some of every day. Some of us don’t have enough work, and so might find the idea of keeping Sabbath as a day without work to be meaningless. Some of us work as parents, and the idea of a ‘day off’ each week from the task of parenting is totally unrealistic. And some of us have memories of highly legalistic Sabbath observance, where Sunday was the most boring day of the week, with enforced religious activity, no fun play, and none of the usual entertainments. And we have the example of Jesus, who when presented with a human need on the Sabbath, made a point of continuing his work of healing and compassion, declaring that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, and not the other way round.
However, Keeping Sabbath as a Christian practice goes right back into the heart of our religious inheritance, as foundational as ‘thou shalt not kill’ and ‘you shall have no other Gods before me’. And Sabbath was originally linked in to rest, and God’s example of working to create the world, and then resting from labour. The Sabbath was also linked to worship…time spent in renewing our connectedness to God. I think that we need to receive the Sabbath as a gift from God, a day that is for our blessing: a time to step aside from the normal patterns of life, whatever they may be, and renew our perspective, renew our physical wellbeing, and engage in activities that bring us rest and joy. As it says on the practicing our faith website, keeping Sabbath “helps us to resist the tyranny of either too much, or too little, work”. And Sabbath is a reminder that our journey with God is something that needs to be intentionally nurtured, and regular time set aside for that purpose is important.
I don’t think we need any rules about this…we don’t need to dictate to anyone else what day of the week they practice their Sabbath time…although it’s often helpful and supportive to observe time in a similar way to others in our community. And we don’t need to say what activities are and are not appropriate for the Sabbath. But I think it is worth being intentional about what we hope to gain from that time, and to seek to protect it. Sabbath, like Lent, can be defined positively rather than negatively…as a time to renew, as well as a time to refrain. One key to Sabbath keeping, is, I think to notice what ‘normal’ is for us, to notice our patterns…what is something I do every day, that if I didn’t do one day a week, might actually have the effect of freeing my life from habit or drudgery? Or what is something that I love to do, but I never seem to find the time?
Keeping Sabbath also relates to the question: how does what we require from others – either in society or in our private lives – prevent them from having a fully human experience of living? The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. When they were released from that space, and getting ready to live their own national life, they received this good law of the Sabbath, a teaching that reminded them that being a slave is no way to live, that having the freedom to live a work/rest rhythm, is a humanising thing, as well as being good for animals and land. This ought to make us protective not only of our own Sabbath time, but concerned for others, whether they’re our employees, our partners, workers in shops, or those people who we rely on for their availability and care for us. Part of Keeping Sabbath is to notice the ways in which our social fabric supports, or undermines, people’s need for rest and recreation.
Some practical examples of keeping Sabbath could include:
- doing like the Jews and start Sabbath the night before…at sundown. See the evening time as the relaxing beginning to the Sabbath, and then sleep itself becomes part of the Sabbath experience, where we allow for God’s restorative work in our bodies even while we do nothing.
- consider refraining from commerce for a day…how much is buying and selling a part of our habit, rather than our genuine intention?
- consider what tasks we do other than our paid work, that drain our energy, or feel like work…like household chores, or relating to particular people, or the voluntary activities we’re committed to. Can we keep our Sabbath free of these things, as well as our paid work?
- identify what things we do that cause us to feel angry, or anxious, and decide to have a day each week where we don’t have to do those things…whether that’s paying bills, or thinking about irritating or depressing things.
- instead, choose what things we want to say ‘yes’ to on a Sabbath day… prayer and worship, time with particular family members or friends, a walk in the park, time reading a book, a special meal (prepared in advance, unless cooking is something you love to do!)
- consider having a day when we don’t check emails or listen to phone messages. For many of us, keeping up with email has become a job all on its own.
These are just a few suggestions.
The second practice I want to explore today is Discernment. This is both an individual and a communal practice. Discernment is basically about making choices, and pursuing directions, that are aligned with God’s deeper purposes for us, our community, and the world in which we live.
The assumptions that underlie the practice of discernment are that God’s Spirit is present to the decision making process, has an interest in the outcome, and will invite us towards particular choices that are best for us and the world around us, if we are open to that. Discernment, therefore, is a process of prayer, seeking to engage with the way God’s Spirit is moving in any given situation, and to shape our choices accordingly.
I think that this is really hard for many of us to do, for two reasons. The first reason is that many of us find it hard to trust that God will engage with us meaningfully, in a way we can recognise, to guide our decision making. Many of us have a deep distrust towards people who say ‘God told me that…’ or ‘I think it’s God’s will that…’ We suspect these people of being manipulative or deluded, or seeking power. Or we say ‘well that’s nice for you, but God has never told me anything in that way.’ I think it’s good to be reasonably sceptical… I think people often claim that their personal opinions or needs have a divine mandate. But I think it would be sad if, as a Christian community, we let go completely of a sense that God can guide our decisions and our direction. In order to practice discernment, some of us might need to do some exploring around how we understand God’s relationship to ourselves, and to the world. We also might need to do some learning around different ways that God can engage with us, and explore different discernment models, learning to see the presence or the nudge of God in a whole range of experiences.
The second reason I think that many of us find it hard to enter into a spiritual discernment process, is that we’re so sociologically and intellectually aware. We’re good talkers, many of us know how to hold our own in a group process, to make our views understood, and we are aware of group dynamics, politics, and power plays. And we’re pretty capable of running our lives. Many of us have to make lots of decisions, efficiently, in our work and we’ve got good at weighing up pros and cons, and coming to rational solutions. The idea of discernment adds something else into that mix, the will of God and the presence of God. And that’s a lot vaguer, often more creative, intuitive, and feelings oriented, than our usual methods of thinking about things. It’s also often inefficient, because group discernment, in particular, requires that everyone be heard, that our own will and preferences are yielded to the process in favour of seeking God’s leading, and that sometimes silence, or a creative activity will take us further forward in the process than talking.
I think that sometimes at Cityside, because of these two reasons, and probably others, we sideline God and God’s will when we meet together to plan, to discuss ideas and decisions that we need to make. I wonder what our church meetings could look like if we came to them with a sense that we gather to discern God’s will for us as a church, rather than gathering as a collection of individual, sometimes competing, personalities and perspectives, to make decisions.
There are a number of different discernment models out there. One is the Ignatian model, which is set out on the ‘practicing our faith’ website. It has a number of steps that you can follow when you have a decision to make. It certainly doesn’t bypass common sense, or rational faculties. One part of the process is to work through the pros and cons, and to seek others’ input and advice. But the main thing about it is the challenging idea of letting go of what turn up immediately as one’s strongest inclinations, shelving those for a while, and allowing God to bring to our hearts and minds a sense of the best decision…which may or may not be what we were instantly attracted to.
Here’s a small example. I’ve been really conflicted this year about whether or not to attend Baptist Assembly in November, for a number of reasons. And I’m gradually coming to the realisation that the decision I warmed to most quickly…which is to not go…may not have been so good. Realising my own unease about the earlier decision is forcing me back into a discernment process, which I didn’t really follow the first time round. Now, I find it hard to credit the idea that God cares very much whether I go to Baptist Assembly or not, and I don’t have the sense that my decision is important in the grand scheme of things. But I’m realising that actually, the main thing here is to learn to engage in a better process around how I make decisions, and including God is part of that for me at this time. And I’m learning some things along the way about what mindsets have been informing my decision…such as a scarcity mindset about money, which maybe isn’t the best starting place in a discernment process.
I’d encourage us to consider how a practice of spiritual discernment plays a role in our own individual life choices, and in our processes when we meet together as a community.
Finally today, the Christian practice of Singing our Lives. This is possibly the practice that seems the least obvious, or perhaps for some of us, the least attractive of the 12. Some people hate singing! I don’t think that this practice assumes that everyone loves to sing. But it is probably one of the practices that we can identify as seemingly innate or core to almost every world culture…there’s something about living in human society that’s given rise universally to singing, chanting and making music as part of the cultural package. People sing and make music when they’re glad, when they’re grieving, when working, when travelling, when protesting, and when trying to capture something of the wonder of the beauty, power, and dangerousness, of creation, and the creator. Children are a lot freer in their expression of joy and abandon through dance and music…and maybe the power of song and music is to release in adults something of that memory of feeling thrilled, stirred, delighted, and alive.
One of our books of the Bible is actually a book of songs, meant to be sung, chanted, breathed through the body, not just read off the page…that’s the book of psalms. And in the Scriptures we also have the encouragements:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. — Colossians 3:16
Sing to the Lord a new song, God's praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel be glad in its Maker... Let them praise God's name with dancing, making melody to God with tambourine and lyre. — Psalm 149:1-3
There’s something about music, and singing in particular, that locates the content of our song in our bodies, and in our hearts, not just in our heads. When we sing our faith, and sing our stories of testimony, what we believe becomes connected to our breath, and becomes part of us, in a way that just talking doesn’t do.
Singing our lives also draws on the creativity of a community to take its experiences, and its stories, and re-tell them, re-live them, so affirming our connectedness to something larger than our individual lives, and affirming the place of our stories in the larger story of God’s involvement in the world through time. For many of us, that’s why more traditional hymns still have a strong resonance, because there’s a sense of depth and continuity in them. I think that part of our struggle here at Cityside with singing over the years, is that we have found that many of our favourite choruses from our recent Christian past no longer fit our lives. Their lyrics and their musical style belong to a story we used to tell, not the one we’re living now. It’s been great to have Citysiders write songs for us from time to time, and I’d like to encourage more of that. I see no reason why we couldn’t create a song book equally as strong as the Iona resources, from within our experience of faith and life.
Another problem we have faced is that singing, while being a big part of a church experience we may have left behind, isn’t really all that normal in modern day pakeha culture, unless you’re drunk and singing ‘loyal’ or doing a haka at the Olympics. And being people who value our culture, and seek to avoid the division between sacred and secular, between the music we connect with during the week, and what we do on a Sunday, singing and playing music in church for some of us may have come to feel increasingly weird. I’d like to suggest that in this area, we might like to consider being counter-cultural. We might say that the absence of song from our contemporary NZ culture actually reflects an impoverishment of soul, one that we might want to step out from, by embracing song as a Christian faith practice.
Some specific ways of consciously allowing our spirituality to be shaped by music and song could be: to sing grace before meals, as a family, to gather with others to write and sing new songs, to devote small group time to sharing with one another our favourite music, and talk together about how that music sustains our faith, to invite people to our homes for singing evenings…such as the one Michelle and Chris host each advent, to bring and teach a song to the congregation that you’ve heard and enjoyed elsewhere, to support music in the community by sponsoring music lessons for young people, or offering our space to groups that make and perform music…and so on. The thread running through all this is the sense that engaging with music is a way of practicing faith, and is a vital part of testimony, the shaping of community, and worship of God.