Practising Our Faith 3
This is the third sermon in my series on developing practices of faith. For those of you who missed the first two, what I’ve been doing is exploring some practical patterns of personal and community life that together could form a Christian way of living and being in the world. I’ve talked about how the Christian church has majored a lot on belief, on having the right ideas, or, ‘the truth’. Or it has majored on morality, a certain specific code of conduct to do with right and wrong behaviour. But, other than the quiet time, tithing, and church attendance, we haven’t really given much attention to any lifestyle practices that go to make up a Christian life, a Christian way of being in the world. Perhaps in the Protestant tradition, we have avoided talking about Christian practice because of our ‘faith not works’ reformation heritage. We have avoided saying that there are ways of developing a life of deliberate Christian practice, based on the Bible, and on years of Christian tradition. But I think that many of us have felt frustrated with a lack of ‘mechanics’ in our faith. How do I shape a Christian life? Is it really just about getting the right beliefs in place, and then attending to my personal morality, and attending church? How would we describe our community life to those who are currently ‘outside’ it?
Recently I’ve learned that the Zen Buddhist path, which many in our culture favour over Christianity because of its practice-based nature, is structured around a set of eight ‘gates’ or practices: zazen (which is a form of meditation), study with a teacher, academic study, liturgy, right action, art practice, body practice and work practice. The Zen Mountain Monastery refers to them as a ‘spiritual training matrix’, a ‘ceaseless practice that engages the whole body and mind’. What is a comparable matrix within the Christian faith? In this series I’m working through 12 Christian practices that an ecumenical group in the States have identified as having a strong historical continuity within the Christian tradition, and also across many cultures. These practices are not the be all and end all, but they do form a helpful framework. They are intended to be underpinned by prayer, engagement with Scripture, and with community worship. The 12 practices are: (see OHT). I’ve already discussed Hospitality, Keeping Sabbath, Testimony, Discernment, Healing and Singing our Lives. This week, I want to look at Household Economics, Saying Yes and Saying No, and Forgiveness.
The idea behind seeing household economics as a Christian practice is to acknowledge that all that we have comes from God, and that how we spend our money reflects our values about what makes a good life. We have needs, and we have wants. It’s good to be able to meet both of these. But it’s also good to see where our wants are coming from, how they’re shaped and influenced, and whether meeting our wants actually makes us more or less alive as spiritual people.
I learned an interesting thing from the ‘practicing our faith’ website. That is, that the words ecology, economy, and ecumenical, all come from the same root Greek word – oikos, which means ‘household.’ I wonder what it would mean for our sense of global economics if we considered all of our financial systems to exist for the benefit of our global ‘household’, all people and the earth that sustains our life together. What would we think of a family household, where around the dinner table, some members ate a three course dinner, while others sat before an empty plate and died before the meal was through?
Choosing a kind of simplicity of lifestyle for our own personal household might enable us to see more clearly the needs of others, including the planet, and respond to these needs, recognising the broader ecological, economic, and ecumenical household that we are part of, as people who share God’s earth. It might also help us to live more freely and lightly, unencumbered by the wants manufactured for us by our consumer culture.
As a community, many of us are already engaged in exploring Christian household economics, through the living simply group, and those active in fair trade initiatives and so on. Here are some other ways that we could develop this practice:
- For a week, or a month, cut to a minimum the time we spend shopping. This includes looking through catalogues and junk mail, as well as time in shops, in the supermarket, on trade me. Notice what that’s like, what we miss out on, what we can happily do without. Maybe choose not to spend money on the Sabbath, not because spending money is bad, but just to notice our habits and choices around spending a bit more intentionally. Or, be really hard core and join that network of people around the world who have committed to buying no new items for a whole year. Just groceries and underwear. I ask myself…why does that feel like an impossible thing?
- Be part of a group that discusses their personal household economics and chooses to share financial information and planning together.
- Make a list of ads on one evening’s worth of TV, along with the threats and promises that are encoded in the ads. What kinds of things are we being told our wants should consist of?
- Consider a mutual aid support group. Often, people’s choices and potential can be limited by financial anxiety, and we could possibly do more to create back-stops for each other. An example from one church was a group who decided to contribute to a common fund that could be used to help support any one of them who took an economic risk to enhance the quality and contribution of their life. An alternative could be a community hardship fund, for unexpected, and distressing costs that tip a family budget over the edge for a bit.
Saying Yes and Saying No.
When I first read this heading, I thought that it was much the same as giving honest testimony… based on Jesus’ words ‘let your yes be yes, and your no be no.’ But, when I read a bit further, it seems as though the yes and no that they mean are to do with life discipline, a form of asceticism expressed both positively and negatively. Asceticism comes from the word ‘askesis’ – meaning exercise or training. The Christian path is described in the New Testament as being like a race, with the Christian as athlete, needing training and perseverance. In practice, that means saying no to those things that crowd God out of our lives, and yes to those things that actively create space for God. And these choices require discipline both to make, and to keep.
Choosing what things in our lives we say ‘yes’ to, and what things we say ‘no’ to means being intentional with our values, and having the strength of character to live them consistently. As M. Shawn Copeland says: “Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a life long project.” Life-long, and also important, because if we do not learn to give our yes and our no deliberately, it will be done for us. We will become like so many who drift through the world with no values except those inscribed in us by entertainment media, political propaganda, or the values of the social group we happen to be part of.
The early Christian ascetics like the Desert Fathers are often defined in our imaginations as people who said ‘no’: ‘no’ to life in the city, to everyday pleasures, to jobs and wealth, comfort, family, and intimate human relationships. However, every ‘no’ needs to be accompanied by a strong ‘yes’ in order to be sustained. Anything that is given up needs to be released for a reason, because there is something else, stronger, better, and more life-giving, that we want to take hold of. And the converse is true. Every choice we make towards something actually involves a whole lot ‘no’s…to all the alternative options that we didn’t choose. Think of marriage as an example. A life-long ‘yes’ to one person is actually also a life-long ‘no’ to everyone else in terms of that particular level of commitment and intimacy.
In our world of abundant choices, it’s hard to make decisions, because we know how much we’re saying no to each time we say yes to one thing. And because there are so many ‘yeses’ clamouring for our attention. How do we strengthen our yes and our no, so that we can live intentionally, in accordance with the deep and primary ‘yes’ we have said to Jesus, to following him in the world? And what can we do when our initial ‘yes’ becomes faltering, sidetracked, or distracted?
One way is by saying ‘yes’ to prayer. This is a hard yes in itself. For me, saying ‘yes’ to prayer means saying ‘no’ to feeling so busy with my ‘to do’ list that I can’t take the time for prayer. Saying ‘yes’ to prayer means saying ‘no’ to all the other fun things I might rather be doing. But in prayer, if we are honest with God, and able to come without pretence, we can have our ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ aligned with God’s character, and perspective, and also receive what we need to carry out our yes and no in the world. You’ll see how this practice overlaps with the practice of discernment that I talked about last time.
Another way is to deliberately, and regularly identify our core ‘yes’ and ‘no’…the values against which other choices will be measured. We could sit down, with a partner, or a group, and make a list of the things we deeply say ‘yes’ to in this life, and the things that we want to deliberately renounce as having the capacity to undermine the strength of our ‘yes.’ And then we could engage in a regular audit of how our day to day life and work and time management reflects our intentions, to notice whether we’re living in tension between our values and our actions.
Consider a situation in our local area, or world, that we want to say ‘no’ to, because it’s unjust, or cruel, or damaging to life in some way. What is the ‘yes’ that goes along with that ‘no’. What actions does that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ invite from us in practical terms?
Strengthen yes and no through regular examination of conscience…how have my ‘yes’ and ‘no’ throughout the day enhanced or diminished my relationship with God, and with others? Maybe gather with others to engage in this practice.
And finally today, forgiveness.
I have a pet theory, which I partly stole from Rowan Williams, that we have a problem in our world today…a problem of a lack of remorse. It’s not that I think we should all be wandering round feeling bad and guilty all the time. But I think that in our culture, we see very few people with enough identity and enough empathy to be able to acknowledge that their actions have hurt another person, and that they can be sorry for that. Our understanding of ourselves as caught up in a web of systems and pressures that act on us can make us all feel like victims of something. And too often, our response to someone who says ‘you hurt me’ is to simply explain why we did what we did, hoping that the other person will understand that we’re not responsible for our actions. I think that many people feel determined or fatalistic, not free enough to acknowledge their capacity for choosing between good and harm.
This culture undermines the possibility of forgiveness, which is one of the core distinctives of the Christian story. We have replaced the exchange of ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I forgive you’ with ‘I’m more of a victim than you’ which does little to restore relationship and trust. And yet, how much of the world needs a pattern of forgiveness, rather than a pattern of vengeance, and the return of wrong for wrong? On an individual level we see this, with people harbouring hate and bitterness towards those that hurt them. Extrapolate this to a global level and we have wars, the Palestine/Israel cycle of retaliation, and massacres within nations. It seems we need a different paradigm, one that breaks the cycle of retribution and revenge, or internalised bitterness. This paradigm is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, and maybe we need to learn to practice it even in the absence of apologies, in the absence of remorse. At the core of the Christian faith is the premise that all humans cause harm, to ourselves, and to others…and that God, rather than holding that against us, reaches out to us in forgiveness, willing our good, and actively inviting us to transformation, so that we can live lives of healing rather than hurt. Jesus’ prayer –sometimes known as the Lord’s prayer – teaches us not only to ask for forgiveness but also to offer forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap. It’s not about glossing over wrongs, or sweeping violence under the carpet and looking the other way. It’s about looking directly into the face of the worst, and acknowledging it. Forgiveness is not naïve, and it’s not the same as forgetting. We need to remember so that we can learn, and decide how much we want to trust in future. But we need to remember with empathy… refusing to reduce the person who hurt us simply to their crime. Forgiveness means to hope for, and wish for, the well-being of the person who has harmed me. This is a deliberate choice, not about having fond feelings for the other. And forgiveness involves having enough imagination to see the possibilities of how things can be in the future for both parties, the possibility of restored relationship, or of change. This is perhaps why Jesus exhorts us to pray for those who hurt us, as prayer opens up the space for transformation. And it’s hard to pray for someone and wish them harm at the same time.
There’s a great prayer that Andrew taught us at one of the mini retreats at St Lukes. It’s adapted from a Buddhist prayer. It involves visualising a person…in this case perhaps someone we struggle with, and saying out loud, or internally ‘May they be awake, may they be happy, may they be at peace.’ It’s a powerful exercise, and one worth trying with someone that you’re in the process of trying to forgive. Try inserting their name instead of ‘they.’
Forgiveness is not about our responses to one off events, but involves a whole of life orientation toward reconciliation and wholeness, towards God and towards people, rather than towards division and disagreement. How might we be deliberate in our practice?
- we can do this liturgically, by remembering the Lord’s prayer, by the passing of the peace, by the regular engagement with confession and the assurance of God’s forgiveness of us.
- we can be conscious of the hurts and angers that we have absorbed during the day, and choose to have a daily ritual that allows us to let those go and forgive those responsible.
- we could consider those people we are particularly struggling to forgive, and practice praying for them, wishing them well.
- we might choose to get involved with groups that seek to bring reconciliation and wholeness to situations, such as restorative justice initiatives.
- we might choose to engage in acts of deliberate relationship building where there is potential conflict, such as interfaith events or dialogues.
When we engage in acts of forgiveness, we act in harmony with God.
Those are the practices for today…
the last in this series, probably next week, will look at honouring the body, shaping communities, and dying well.