Practising our Faith 4

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 16 July 2006

This is the final instalment in the practicing faith series of sermons I’ve been doing over the past month or so. I’m going to dispense with my usual preamble explaining the rationale behind this topic, and just launch into briefly exploring the last three practices. Hopefully this will leave enough time at the end to paint a bit of a picture about some possibilities for how this stuff could be made more concrete in our community, if people felt like pursuing the ideas further.

So, here’s the list of 12 practices that I’ve been talking about. I’ve spent time with all of these except Shaping Communities, Honouring the Body, and Dying Well. So, without further ado…

Shaping Communities

In some ways, this practice goes before most of the others, because it creates the conditions where patterns of communal practice can be carried out. A community where people have committed to support each other and nurture each others’ gifts, and where people see their life as intertwined with others, on a journey of learning and growing, is an environment where people can try out the different things that it means for them to follow Jesus.

So, how does one go about shaping a community? ‘Community’ is a buzz word for our times, and I know that some people are heartily sick of the word. It seems to promise so much, and often deliver so little. I think that often people mean quite different things when they use the word ‘community’. For some people, it has to involve physical proximity, for others, a specific social goal, for others, it’s enough just to have a phone list of people whose company they enjoy, and who they interact with socially from time to time.

For me, community as a Christian practice involves a network of relationships where people gather together in formal and informal ways, where we break bread, both ritually in worship, and in each other’s homes, and where we tell the stories of our life and faith, encouraging one another on the path of faith, and nurturing each others’ diverse gifts. A Christian community, as I see it, offers support to its members as they seek to live their lives in accordance with the gospel, particularly when this brings them into conflict with the values of their wider society. And a Christian community is an agent of the presence of God in the world, witnessing by the manner of its existence to the reality of God, and the love of God.

I personally believe that to shape a community of more than about 10 people, you need a degree of structure, a degree of leadership, and a degree of core commitment from some people for a period of time. For me, the word ‘reliable’ is part of the meaning of community. This includes people being able to rely on each other, but also being able to rely on some ongoing core of organisation that maintains the community even when individuals are moving in and out of commitment, or up and down in their own personal life and faith. When this core is in place, it’s possible to be flexible. Without it, I believe, flexibility turns into fragmentation.

Having said that, the way a community functions in its structure, the way power operates, the way communication happens and the way conflict is dealt with, all of these need to testify to the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached, rather than being carbon copies of existing social organisations.

We live in a culture and an era that is characterised more by change and choice, than by commitment. I think that all the talk about ‘community’ in our culture is a recognition of what we are losing, or have lost, in the midst of this shift of values. Perhaps partly the drive to community comes from fear…who will look after me, when my family, my neighbour, my friends disappear down the road of personal fulfilment?  I think that in shaping Christian community as a spiritual practice we speak to this fear, even as we practice it only in limited and halting ways.

Honouring the Body

Lots of people hate their bodies. Some people feel too fat or too thin, or despise particular body parts that don’t fit the unblemished, and airbrushed ideals of bodies in magazines and on movies. Other people struggle with bodies that have been damaged by accident or disease, and daily experience pain, difficulty or embarrassment as they move physically through the world. Our bodies are vulnerable, and almost none of us has a body that fits the narrow definition of what’s considered beautiful, or athletic.

A Christian practice of honouring our bodies is rooted in the conviction that God values bodies, that being embodied is part of how we have been deliberately created, and that all bodies are wonderfully and fearfully made, even as parts of them can experience harm or damage. A Christian practice of honouring the body also comes from the belief that God was willing to enter the state of being embodied, to live as a human, and in that body he touched the untouchable, healed the sick, washed feet, broke bread and experienced great suffering.

Honouring the body means caring for ourselves, both physically, and in the way we feel and think about our physicality. It means delighting in and blessing our bodies through bathing, and adornment, enjoying food and physical activity. It means not punishing our body by refusing it sleep, by ignoring signs of illness, and by subordinating its needs to the demands of overwork. 

Honouring the body also encompasses an understanding and practice of sexuality that honours and respects our selves, other people, and our vulnerability and complexity. This means refusing to accept personally or culturally any attempt to validate transactional, impersonal, or exploitative sex. I think that the church’s messages to people about sex, rather than being a simple ‘don’t, unless you’re married’, needs to be tied into this practice of honouring our bodies. This is the ‘yes’ that goes with the ‘no’, and addresses the neediness, and low personal esteem that is a sad, but strong dimension of much sexuality, especially in teenagers.

Honouring the body also means honouring other human bodies…through care for others’ physical needs, and through therapeutic touch. It means resisting the inflated role in our culture of the body beautiful, instead valuing the bodies of those who are sick, wounded, and disabled. And advocating for justice in situations where people’s bodies are dishonoured, such as discrimination against disabled people, or work conditions where the labour is damaging to the body: factory situations where people don’t get proper breaks, where people are forced to work with hazardous materials, and so on. 

And finally, Dying Well.

I want to say at the outset, that Dying Well isn’t the same as dying gracefully, or with dignity. It can include those things, but sadly, the nature of some illnesses mean that some people die after prolonged suffering and humiliation, and it’s a ridiculous burden to place on these situations some requirement to ‘make a good end.’

No, Dying Well as a spiritual practice is a whole life process. Dying well involves cultivating in life a hope of resurrection, a grounded hope that my life is in God, and will not cease to be in God when I die. I have no idea what form this might take, and I am pretty unconvinced about the existence of heaven and hell as literal physical places. But I take the apostle Paul’s words seriously, that neither death nor life can separate me from God’s love. If my real self is hidden with Christ in God, then death is the pathway to emerging more fully into Christ, and emerging into my truest self. Dying Well involves moving beyond the fear of death, a fear which governs more of our behaviour personally and culturally, than we might imagine.

Dying Well means practising for death by taking up my cross now, and learning each day to die the little deaths of resisting my ego’s demands and habits. One of the things I have learned through reading about, and learning to practice Centering prayer, is that meditative prayer is training for death. At the point of death, I will have to relinquish all I have and am in this world, be reduced to the person I am when I close my eyes, enter silence, lose thought, and come face to face with God. In meditation, I practice that relinquishing over and over again.

Dying Well means accepting the limits of medical care, not seeking to stay alive at all costs, through magic cures and life-prolonging medicine. While I celebrate the advances of medicine, and what it has achieved for us, I wonder whether as consumers of medicine we have invested it with special powers, which will ultimately help us to avoid our deaths. Of course, where treatment and cure are available, it’s great to be able to take advantage of that. But where medicine reaches its end, I think it’s better to learn to accept that, and prepare for death, rather than continue in a search for a miracle. I think that the Hospice movement has contributed enormously to the sense that there comes a point in some illness where treatment ends, and the process of dying begins, and that it’s better to be there for it, than in denial.

Dying Well means making peace with God and with others. Ideally, this is a regular process of keeping short accounts, making reconciliation a part of daily life, not a massive project at the end of life.

And Dying Well means learning how to grieve and remember those who have died, as well as how to support illness and the experience of the bereaved in the context of our community. Part of this could involve noticing where we use euphemisms and other forms of denial when talking and thinking about death. It could include regular memorial occasions, rituals of remembrance such as those linked to All Saints and All Souls days. It can include writing and preparing prayers and songs to share with the dying, and with the bereaved in a funeral context. And it could include practical support of those who are ill and who are bereaved…learning how not to avoid those who are suffering.

On a broader societal level, the practice could be extended to noticing what laws or customs in our society prevent people from Dying Well and being properly mourned? How can we work for change in this area? One example could be the issues around organ donation, and also protocols around the treatment of a dead body, and how and when it’s returned to a family.

So, that’s Shaping Communities, Honouring the Body and Dying Well.  And that’s the end of the 12 practices.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of these practices, and I think there are probably other practices that could be explored and included in any framework of practice. But, drawing a line at the moment with these…

I’ve been wondering what it would look like for a community such as ours to be intentional about developing Christian Practice, and how that might happen. As I’ve worked through the practices, I’ve noticed ways that our worship together already supports these practices, and how it could do so more fully.

I’ve also started to wonder about ways that we could develop and resource initiatives that are aligned with these ideas…if people are interested…a Centre for Christian Practice perhaps?

In the short term, there’s a book on these practices, and I’d be keen, once the Heart of Christianity series finishes, to meet with others to explore that book together, and to be part of a small group that wanted to develop some ways of supporting one another to live a more intentional life of Christian practice.

I’d like to hear from people who share this interest, and want to put some legs on it in the company of others.