As I was driving in to church yesterday morning, I was listening to an interview of religious historian Elaine Pagels, talking about her new book, a memoir and a philosophical and theological meditation entitled Why Religion? A Personal Story, in which she discusses the loss of her young son, followed by the tragic, accidental death of her husband a year later, and why she is drawn to religious activities such as meditation even though she doesn’t express a belief in God. She spoke of her discomfort with the idea of ”belief,” and talked more about her spiritual practices.
I have long found the word “practice” to be an interesting one. It’s funny—we talk about “belief” as if it is the goal of Christianity, or at least of American civil religion, in which seekers often profess their belief in a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. When Dr. Pagels spoke about the importance of practice, however, it brought to mind the different ways we can use such a simple word in everyday life.
We talk about lawyers “opening a practice,” or “practicing the law.” The same goes for medical doctors. Here “practice” describes a way of life, a melding of vocation and intention into a quest for completion and excellence. For several years, I studied martial arts, and I practiced forms and throws and blocks and kicks hundreds of times as part of the discipline of the system I honored through my determination to attain a certain level of fluency and mastery.
It is possible to have faith without practice. It is possible to have practice without faith. But the disciple seeking true enlightenment knows that these are not binary systems. In the best conditions, faith and practice are complementary, mutually supportive.
All of us, at one time or another, have experienced the flickering of our faith, sometimes due to some tragedy or episode of suffering, or maybe just because disbelief has risen unbidden within us. Perhaps it is at those moments the depend on “practice” to help propel us though the becalmed sea we find ourselves trapped within after the wind has died down, just before or after a storm.
This last Sunday, our parish remembered the saints and the faithful departed who have guided us through love and example. As part of our observance, in place of the creed, we remembered together our baptismal covenant. And I suddenly realized that our baptismal covenant is founded upon a marriage of faith and practice, honoring both the believing and the doing of the Way of Jesus. The baptismal covenant starts with stating one’s belief in a series of three sections, each pertaining to a person within the Trinity. This is about belief.
Yet after the restatement of the Apostles’ Creed, our baptismal covenant moves directly into the practice portion of discipleship, asking those who are re-membering their baptism to grow in the commitment of practice within the life of discipleship. In a series of questions, we commit ourselves to the practice of the Way of Jesus, to engaging in certain actions and guiding parameters that seek to mold and shape us, redeem us and remake us into new creations in Christ:
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
To each of these questions, we answer, I will, with God’s help. No doubt, for many of us, the promises represented by those questions are simply beliefs in action.
But at the times when faith wavers, those five practices form the foundation of an ethic. As we celebrated All Saints’ Day, there were some losses that were still painfully fresh among the gathered congregation. In times of sorrow, faith can falter under the weight of grief. It is in situations such as that that practice can lead us forward even in the darkest valley. The disciple of Jesus starts with faith, faith which calls us to see how each of us is beloved by the One who is making the heavens and the earth and stars, even now.
Now more than ever, we are called to embody a practical faith, brave testimony in a hurting world. We are called to bring to life the gospel message through transformation of our own lives in service to God and to other living beings. Practice accompanies us when we falter, building us up when we fall under the shadow of fear or doubt.
Image – Nexus: Light and Prayer