Saturday, May 19, 2018

How to do all the Christian things

A lot of people in my life and in my parish are new to Christianity or the life of the church. It's not unusual to be asked a rather straightforward question: "So, how do I do this thing?"

That's a big, sprawling, epic question... what do I do now that I'm a Christian?

It's a good question, a very good question, because Christianity is indeed a "way." And if you're new to it, your heart has been warmed and you feel called but you're still feeling out how to go about doing. The "way" is frequently fraught, sometimes glorious, and often even dangerous.

When I get asked this question, I kind of of want to respond, "I have no idea!"

But that's not really accurate. It's simply more like I've spent 45 years finding various ways to attempt life in Christ. Sometimes I fall into good habits. Other times I get lazy. Through it all, I rely on God's faithfulness. And I try really hard to avoid insipid, vacuous, or pollyanna forms of the faith.

Many people are seeking simple resources and practices they can engage that will help them deepen their faith. They've seen the faith modeled in all kinds of ways, and some of those ways are less than helpful. Much of pop Christianity is just about as edifying as pablum.

So on this particular point, I really do have a few recommendations. Four, to be exact.

But these are not going to be completely straightforward. I'm not going to point readers to the first thing they might grab if they go to the Christian bookstore, or pull up on television. I'd like this list to be idiosyncratic, and therefore a bit more helpful and sustaining. Think of these as various quirky ways to live our baptismal covenant.

Read a really old book (and a lot of other books)

I don't really have devotionals or workbooks to recommend, although I have nothing against them. I just find that reading books has been THE way that I come to a deeper understanding of Scripture. So, I recommend that everyone treat Christianity like continuing education, and find a way to read good books.

Start by reading the really old book. By which I mean the Bible. You might check out the new Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version (5th edition). That's a spectacular and meaty study bible that will serve you well for years. Or read the Lutheran Study Bible, and use the wide margins to write your notes.

Where should you start? Well, it doesn't hurt to start at the beginning, and go from there. Or use a reading plan for daily readings. Or if you've never read the bible much at all, you might just start by reading one gospel, like the gospel of Mark, and then keep reading that gospel over and over for a time, to become very familiar with it.

Besides reading the Bible, I recommend reading other books. Some parts of the bible are more neglected in our culture, so you might read something about The Forgotten Books of the Bible.

Or you might try to read a book that helps you hear how a community unlike your own reads the bible. Consider Reading the Bible With the Damned. Or read a book that synthesizes information about a character in the bible who is hard to understand but worth the time. Like N.T Wright's Paul the Apostle: A Biography.

It's also worthwhile to read book length treatments of how inspiring people attempt to live as Christians. I really like Kathleen Norris's A Cloister Walk, or Shane Claiborne's The Irresistible Revolution.

Finally, it's worth reading a book that really challenges your faith and assumptions. Since he recently died, and is the father of black liberation theology, I might recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree, by James Cone.

Basically, just read a lot of books. If you want to keep getting more and more recommendations for good books, subscribe to a magazine like The Christian Century, which is always reviewing them.

Be with people (but not too much)

Christianity really is about other people. Remember that Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God, and another commandment was basically identical to it: love your neighbor as yourself. Bishop Curry preached an amazing sermon today on this very topic at the royal wedding.

I love the juxtapositions in the gospels that illustrate how Jesus did this loving. He loved the little place where he lived, that rural community along and around the Sea of Galilee. But then he also set his face towards a city (Jerusalem) and ultimately guided a community of faith who launched from that city to the ends of the earth, always striving towards indigenization so the gospel would find its way lovingly into the cultures it met.

One of the primary ways we do this "love one another" is in worship. There's a good reason so many of us commit to gathering for worship once a week. It works. It focuses on a specific gathered community, and imagines Jesus Christ walking among them. Not exclusively there, as if only that community could experience the presence of Christ and the love of God. But most definitely there.

In such community, we practice the main Christian practices. We give thanks. We forgive one another. We rejoice.

Bonhoeffer, in his doctoral dissertation on the holy community, had this to say: "The Spirit is only in the church-community, and the church-community is only in the Spirit" (144). And, "`To be in Christ' is synonymous with `to be in the church-community'" (Sanctorum Communio, 140). It takes some work to unpack that, but it's really true.

So find a church, commit to weekly worship among those people, love those people, and ideally find a couple of ways to contribute to that community so it is strengthened and vital.

Then also make sure to rest and pray on your own. Find time, even if brief moments, to do things that feed your soul and offer space for self-work. There are so many ways to do this, it's almost impossible to list them all, but at the very least you might pray the Jesus Prayer, or pray the Lord's Prayer, or practice silent meditation, or just go for a walk. Personally, I like to go on runs, and sometimes sit in the evening and just listen to jazz.

You might like to use a tool for daily prayer, like this one from Hawaii, or this one from Philadelphia.  

Say and do good things

Christianity is about sharing the faith that is within you and living that faith in your daily life. There's no one-size-fits-all formula for the way of this, and so much of it is about your own vocation and the work of connecting faith to your specific daily life.

But there is one thing I can recommend here of utmost importance, and it's this: trust that you live out your Christianity in your daily existence, not through special exertions. Christianity is not much about supererogation. So, if you're currently attending university, then the way you can do good as a Christian is to study, attend class, treat your classmates with respect, and earn your degree. If you work at a corporation, perform your role well and ethically, and you're living as a Christian.

The one way you are called to be different from those who are not people of faith is in your intention to do good in spite of the consequences. There are many ways we are tempted (especially in an economic system like neoliberalism) to pursue ends that are not themselves "good." But to fight against these things is not supererogation. It's simply integrity in the face of temptation.

And we're supposed to share the faith. Many Christians aren't very good at this, and those who are sometimes do it more for show than anything else. But authentic sharing of the faith is much like sharing about anything that brings you joy and gives you life. If you're telling people about your faith because it makes you happy, inspires you, and makes you a better person, then you're probably doing it right.

Don't do it to convert anyone. Nobody wants you to relate to them just so you can convert them. But everyone who relates to you wants to know the real you, and if your connection to God in Christ is part of what makes you you, then sharing about it is as natural as anything else.

Justice is what love looks like in public (Cornel West)

When Christians in our tradition make vows at their baptism, the last thing they promise is to work for justice and peace in all the world. It is this final vow of baptism that is especially squashed by our culture. First, much of Christianity has emphasized a kind of quietism that fails to live love in public. It's focused on simply getting along, and not making much of a fuss.

But much of contemporary Christianity is also simply fragile. In my own tradition, this is co-optation by white fragility in particular. Because for so long Christianity, and in particular white Christianity, has been the dominant mode, many have assumed their way is the only and right way. So in the face of challenge, the fragile retreat, get defensive, and close down. In doing so, they fail to seek ways forward in the way of Jesus that challenge themselves and their own fragility for the sake of their neighbor (which we are called, remember, to love).

If justice is what love looks like in public, then in addition to the private familial love we are called to practice in our families and places of worship, we are called at the civic level and in the polis to works of justice, which is the form of love in public life.

This will be the most difficult answer to the question, How do I do this Christian thing? Because to do the Christian thing in public, you'll have to be committed, together with others, to the slow and arduous work of justice. For that work, I can suggest nothing better than to connect to networks committed to such justice. You might start with the social justice networks in your own denomination, and then expand out to ecumenical networks like the Poor Peoples' Campaign, or Sojourners.

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