A Practical Christianity

Much of this material is taken from the book by Jane Shaw. We are simply talking about and exploring her ideas. - Fr. Michael

By Jane Shaw

We tend to put belief as a primary part of our Christian faith, but this is a more modern idea about faith than early Christians understood. Rather than ask “What do you believe?”, they would ask “How has your life been transformed?” In the early church sponsors of catechumens, those being prepared for baptism, would be asked, “Have they lived good lives, honoring widows, visiting the sick?” This is putting practice before belief, and it is surprising to us.

The earliest Christians were converted because Christianity transformed their lives, not because they were taught the right thing to believe. Pachomius was treated well and fed by Christians while imprisoned in Egypt for the military, even as a stranger to them, and once he left military service he was baptized and became a leader in monasticism. Early Christians argued about theology and developed it, but it came from practice and prayer, not the other way around. What we pray is what we believe. Ireneus wrote, “Our teaching is consonant with what we do in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist establishes what we teach.” Early theologians urge us to bring practice and theology together, always starting with practice.

Lent is a time of learning and self-examination, and that is what we’ll do with this study. We will use the model of Jesus to examine ourselves and our lives, our relationship to God, and our relationship with one another. The first couple of chapters deal with sin as dust, and our living with it and learning to shake it off and let it go. The next two chapters deal with our faith in God, doubting God, and how much we can know about God. The last chapter will deal with Love and how we use it to reach out to the wider world and deal with one another.

None of this is about hardship or torturing ourselves, but about getting to know ourselves and practicing good things in our lives. Shaw uses Evelyn Underhill and others as teachers of how to treat ourselves, our actions, and our beliefs. Underhill suggests that we practice controlling our tongue and being kind to people who irritate us, something we could do at anytime, but is a great Lenten discipline.


Which is easier to answer, “what do you believe” or “how has your life been transformed”?

Where has practice of Christianity helped you understand doctrine?

Underhill says, “As to your Lent — no physical hardships beyond what normal life provides — but take each of these as serenely as you can and make of them your humble offerings to God.” What do you think?

Chapter 1 — Being Dust

Ezekiel 37:1-10 The valley of dry bones.

The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman, describes dust as particles from another world that cause knowledge in a way that is corrupt and must be overcome. A theological word for dust is original sin. Characters in the story try to overcome the power of dust, sometimes using cruel and hurtful means. Pullman has no love for the church, which comes across in his books, but the meaning in the books can be taken theologically. In The Golden Compass he is working out Genesis 3:19, “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” We say this on Ash Wednesday. We acknowledge our humble beginnings, that we are created from dust.

As Christians we ask, “What does Christianity offer us in this life? What does faith enable us to do and be? Are there guiding principles and ideals that help us with the problems in this life?” Dust speaks to our beginning and ending, our creation and death, and reminds us that even though we were created from dust, we were created in the image of God, who made all things, including dust. 

It is Jesus who helps us to realize the importance of accepting the dust in our lives by washing the dust from his disciples’ feet, even when they didn’t want him to do that. Dust is democratic, says Alain de Botton, because we all get it on us. Jesus turned the world on its head when he washed his disciples’ feet. Only servants were to do that, or slaves, but Jesus did it himself to show the egalitarian nature of the faith he was teaching. There was no longer slave or free, man or woman, Jew or Greek, as Paul notes in Galatians 3:28.

This new faith becomes a very real contrast to the world around it, where everything is delineated by power, wealth and position. Men and women, slaves and owners, Jews and Greeks, would not have sat to eat in the same rooms, not would they have shared many things with one another. Christians did just that. Early pagan philosophers denounced Christianity for allowing men and women to be together, calling women naturally unstable. For pagans, the only people that mattered were educated, wealthy men, and the more of them you had in your group, the better you were. Christians were rejected because of their egalitarianism and saw themselves as aliens in the Roman culture.

Jesus healed on the Sabbath, taught about love, ate with tax collectors, spoke with women who were questionable, touched the dead - even bringing them back to life, washed others feet, and spoke of the equality for all people in the eyes of God. He was radical for his time and Christianity took on that radical nature in a very hierarchical society. Clergy were called for their talent and faith, not their money and place in society.

In The Golden Compass we see characters who try to destroy dust and create a perfect world. The idea of utopia was popular until WWI destroyed our hope that it was possible. If we can’t eradicate sin, how do we deal with it? We confess and are forgiven. To do this we must first recognize our sins and name them. Patricia Williams says that we can’t just imagine a color-blind society, but have to deal with (the sin of) racism as a reality in our lives. It won’t go away until we acknowledge it. We have to know our limits in order for God to help us beyond them. The point of that is to move beyond our sins and limits to a better life that God desires for us, but first we must know ourselves. God helps us shake off the dust as we see in Ezekiel 37:1-10.

Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones and God tells him to prophecy to the bones to gather together and have flesh on them. This is a reversal of Genesis 3, from dust you came and to dust you shall return, showing that God can bring new life even to bones that are dead and dried up. As we struggle with sin, Christianity tells us that we are created from dust, but in the image of God, and will be accompanied in our journey by the love of God, a love greater than our sin, greater than our limits.


What challenges or comforts you in the phrase, “from dust you came and to dust you shall return”?

What is hard about confession, especially in public?

What habits or choices do you need to lose in your life?

Where do you see new life taking place?

Chapter 2 - Letting Go

Mark 6:7-11

Jimmy Scott was a Jazz singer in the early 1960’s who was supposed to become the next big thing in music. He had Kellman’s syndrome, which gave him a boy’s high voice with his man’s body and experience. He was compared to Billie Holiday, the female Jazz singer. Scott had made a record that was to come out in 1963, but it wasn’t ever produced and was pulled from production when he was on his honeymoon. He spent much of his life as an elevator operator and shipping clerk in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Scott made a comeback in the 90’s and in 2003, forty years after it was made, the album Falling in Love Again was released. He was 78 years old at the time, and was asked if he ever thought it would happen. “Well, I always had hope.”

Scott was not defeated or bitter, he didn’t let disappointment rule his life; he moved on, shook the dust off his feet and made a new life. He was grateful. He said, “You know, after you get on, well, what’s the grudge for? What’s the hate for? You live on and on with that anger and that hate in you, and it takes effect. You have to use a little wisdom and a little understanding. And I’m not the only person in the world that’s happened to. What, I’m gonna sit and cry by myself?”

Jesus said, “If any place will not welcome you…as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet.” Mark 6:11 Many commentators have talked about what it meant to “shake the dust off your feet”, with some saying that it had to be something horrific and terrible, that Jesus was suggesting that place be cursed. Anglican scholar C. F. Evans has proposed that it is, “a prophetic sign by which the missionaries disclaim further responsibility.” In other words, Shaw tells us, they have done what they came to do and now the rest is up to God. We leave it in God’s hands and move away.

Jesus is giving advice to disciples based on what has happened to him. Prior to saying this, he had been run out of Nazareth, his home town, and had to shake the dust off his feet. He had to let it go and move on. He’s telling the disciples the same thing; you’ll be ignored or abused and you have to let it go and move on to where people will want to hear what you have to say.

We all experience disappointment and rejection, some huge and some normal, every day kind of things. Loss of a relationship is huge, being ignored by a co-worker or talked over by a family member is small, but still disappointing. We can allow any of those to make us bitter or resentful and damage future relationships, or we can shake the dust off our feet and move on.

When we shake the dust off our feet we give our hurt to God. It takes nothing to do this except willingness and intent. There are no special gifts or talents needed, just willingness to be vulnerable. Shaw says that when we nurse a grievance against someone who we believe hurt us yesterday or ten years ago we grow a little rock of bitterness in our hearts, and it continues to grow until we give away the grievance.

We have to learn to shake the dust off our feet. We live in a society that encourages us to sue one another rather than work out problems. Medical studies tell us that letting go of resentment, anger, thoughts of revenge and grudges, all lead to better spiritual, emotional and physical health. The problem or hurt is given to God and the focus remains on the good that we can do, not on the person who has hurt us or the act that hurt us. We learn to give up by learning to focus on moving on to something good in our lives; something to which God calls us.

Jimmy Scott knew that his affliction, Kellman’s syndrome, made him different and that people talked about him and made fun of him. But he also knew that when he sang, he soared above others with the gift of his voice, and so he sang and soared higher than the hurt could reach. He learned to use his affliction as a gift, to shake the dust off his feet and move on to what he could do.

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman in Congress. She later ran for president in 1972, when George Wallace, the Alabama governor who opposed civil rights, was shot and paralyzed in an assassination attempt. Chisholm went to visit him in the hospital and he asked what her people would think. In a later interview she said that her own community crucified her. “But why shouldn’t I go visit him? Every other presidential candidate was going to see him. He said to me, ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said: I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.”

Later, after recovery and a return to politics, Wallace tried to make some amends for his opposition to civil rights. Years later, Chisholm was working on a bill to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage and Wallace helped gain the votes of enough Southern congressmen to get the legislation through the House of Representatives. Sometimes we must let go of resentment and bitterness and re-engage with those who have caused them in order to allow for transformation in the relationship.

In Luke Jesus tells us to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”, and on the night before Jesus is crucified he kisses Judas, who is about to betray him. He doesn’t try to justify himself before Caiaphas or Pilate, just turning back on Pilate what he has said to Jesus. On the cross he doesn’t curse his enemies, but cares for his mother and beloved disciple, and finally asks God to “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Letting go comes before transformation, healing and resurrection.

James Alison warns us that we can get forgiveness wrong. If it becomes forced or expected it is wrong. It should not be accusatory or coerced. God has already forgiven us, long before we asked for or even realized we needed it. Our forgiveness must be the same; it must start before it is asked for. we experience some vulnerability in this and Alison calls it “the joy of being wrong”. Paul experienced that in his conversion. His joy was in finally serving the God he intended to serve, but he had gotten it wrong. Sometimes when we forgive, we understand how we were perhaps wrong in a situation as well.

We must begin with ourselves as forgiven, then move on from there. This allows us to remember who we are first, and our own need to be forgiven even as we are being forgiving to others. We are not taking the moral high ground, we are in the same moral boat as those we are forgiving. It may seem easier to judge and resent, but is freeing when we don’t have to do that. 

The experience of being forgiven is a physical thing, where we feel ourselves broken and then healed. We are put back together again. We can help put others back together.


  1. What grievance do you wish to forgive, but can’t? What holds you back?

  2. Identify some practical ways that you could give your hurts to God.

  3. Is there any situation in which you believe people should not forgive those who have harmed them? Have you seen forgiveness backfire or not bring about healing?

  4. Have you ever hurt someone and not been forgiven? How did that impact you?

Chapter 3 - Being Uncertain

Mark 15:33-34

The Problem with Certainty. 

Bishop Dub Wolfrum used to tell the story that he was sitting in church on a visit to a parish, listening to the lessons being read, and the first one wasn’t the lesson he remembered. Oh well, he thought, it’s just someone reading the wrong lesson. Then the Psalm and next lesson were not what he thought, and the Gospel was different. He was absolutely, positively, certain that he knew the lessons he was about to preach on. He was also dead wrong, he learned. Both can be true, our certainty and our being incorrect. He told the story on himself, and it got great laughs, but it was also completely true.

Our certainty blinds us sometimes to what might be right in front of us, but we don’t want to see it because it doesn’t fit with what we already know for certain.

Yehuda Amichai was a German born Jew who moved to Israel in 1936 at 11 years old. He knew that certainty could be dangerous and later wrote this poem, The Place Where We Are Right.

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plow,

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

There is a Christian theology that has certainty for some people, the Atonement. In one theory of Atonement, the only right one for some, God’s master plan was to restore the covenant with sinful people and someone had to be sacrificed to pay for the sins. Jesus was sent to die for us, which atoned, or appeased, an austere and unforgiving God. For those who believe this, salvation is the certainty that this and only this can be true. There will always be bad people who are not saved, but the certainty of knowing one is saved is real. It’s refreshing and takes away doubt and worry.

Verna Dozier said that we like certainty in our world. “We resist living with doubt…Living by faith means living by unsureness. We cannot bear the uncertainties with which the gospel message calls us to live…We cannot bear our inability to know absolutely. So we hurry up and create some certainties that will relieve us of that anxiety.”

But where, in a theology of certainty, is there room for the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where is the space for God’s grace and love shown by Jesus? That particular theology of certainty takes away the riskiness of God’s incarnation and ducks the abundance of God’s love.

Christian certainty has led to deep divisions in the Church, and almost led to more. In the early 20th C. the Anglican Church was almost split by the issue of candles on the altar and matters of ritual. Today we are split over sexuality and whom we may love. In 1054 the Church split over issues of monks and clergy having beards, leavened or unleavened bread at communion, and whether the Holy Spirit was from the Father or the Father and the Son. We are sure that we are right and others are wrong, and that makes them not worthy of coming to church with us, because they won’t be saved.

At the Transfiguration the disciples were confused, yet we think that we know exactly what God wants and doesn’t want. We might want to admit some confusion. We lack humility.

Mark’s Gospel ends on a negative note, originally. It ended at 16:8, women had gone to the tomb and, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” This is a particular way of knowing God, the apophatic way, or negative way. It says that we can only say what God is not, not what God is, because we can never really know what God is. Is it because faith resides in the absent, like the no graven images in Judaism, and here Jesus’ body is absent by the testimony of the angels and the open tomb?

Shaw says that we can be a person of fear or a person of faith. Mark seems to say that a person of fear will seek a false certainty and a person of faith is willing to live with bleak unknowing. Mystics tell us that we all experience bleakness. Underhill reminds us that in choosing Christianity we choose a path over Calvary, where we apparently lose God for a bit, but we are the ones who are blind, not the world or God.

Story of woman marrying seven brothers in Luke. Who is she married to in heaven? Jesus says no one, it’s a foolish question. God is God of living, not dead. We are saved by love, and God’s love is the most democratic of all, always there. Story of American Beauty movie, Annette Bening.

Our pride helps us believe that we can control all aspects of our lives and makes us think that faith is about getting it right instead of being in relationship with God that transforms us. If we start the salvation story with sin, we have to deal with the atonement theory as previously explained. If we start salvation with God’s love, then there are other ways to look at it. God is at the center of creation and we are already loved by God. Faith becomes an adventure where we are surprised by God.

Verna Dozier says, “Jesus did not get crucified for singing and praying—or even for doing good works. Jesus was crucified for challenging the powers that be, for offering human beings a new possibility for life. He didn’t get in trouble for healing the sick, but for healing the sick on the Sabbath.” Jesus broke the rules for God’s love. But we were we made for the rules, or the rules made for us? 

We experience faith and hope that it will transform us. But what about bad things? What does our faith say about that? How can God allow bad things? Again, it is Jesus who answers in his suffering. He has suffered all that can be suffered, taking on all our pain and sin, so God is with us in all suffering. There is no suffering that God has not experienced, and yes, horrible things happened to him as well when he was human.

When we believe with this kind of openness to God’s uncertainty, we allow for faith to transform our lives into something better, more of who we want to be. It frees us from certainty and allows us to love God more openly.


  1. Where do you see the dangers of certainty in your own life and faith?

  2. If Jesus’ death is a sacrifice to appease an angry God, what are the implications for our faith and for St. Matthew’s?

  3. Like American Beauty, have you ever needed others but tried to pull your own life together without reaching out to others or revealing your own troubles?

  4. When was a time that you experienced failure, but found yourself drawn closer to God and others?

Chapter 4 - Seeing God

Revelation 4

We see God all around us, when we look. The vision in Revelation 4 is of someone seeing God in all the glory of God, but it doesn’t really describe God. What it describes is all the things around God, the 24 elders, lightning, thunder, the four living creatures with different heads, all wonderful—but not God. God, it seems, is indescribable. Recognizable, but indescribable. 

We often recognize God in moments that are special to us, which we don’t plan or create. Shaw’s sister and brother-in-law, both agnostic, walked into an abbey-church in France and heard one of the monks playing the organ. It began to grow darker outside and inside and was soon completely dark, but they were caught up in the music and didn’t realize any of that. As they left they realized that a number of people had come in to listen to the beautiful music. They could only describe their experience as a sense of God’s presence. We see God when we’re not looking for God, and when we are looking and hoping and praying.

Paintings of Revelation 4 or Ezekiel 1 are almost always disappointing, because they try to portray God and never quite make it. They seem ordinary, not miraculous and awesome. Stories, like Revelation and Ezekiel do better, but never really describe God. They describe our feelings and things that look amazing to us, like colors and objects that are special.

We seek an unseen God, so how do we learn to see God? Our lives are already incredibly busy, how can we try to add more spiritual practice into them? Do you shower or bathe? What about saying the Lord’s Prayer in that time? You’re already there and know what you’re doing; it doesn’t take a lot of concentration to shower, so there is time to pray. There are lots of other times like that, so that’s a way to start. Once we start we long for more, which is what drives us to have more. We long for contact with God once we’ve established it. Coming to church is another great way to see God and spend time with God.

In one of the paintings of Revelation 4 by Grace Cossington Smith the person watching, and the door he is looking through, are in the foreground, and he’s not going to step through the door it seems. But the doorway to God is always open and God wants us to step through. We do that in worship together.

We also need to see Jesus as God, the God who became one of us. Seeing Jesus is easier because he was human like us, no matter whether we see him as looking like an Arab, Egyptian, African, Northern European, or Asian. We see and know Jesus and can describe him well through his actions, if not his appearance. We also see Jesus literally in the bread and wine at Eucharist.

We see Jesus in the Gospel stories, like Martha and Mary in Luke. Martha is busy preparing food and Mary is sitting listening to Jesus. Martha complains and expects Jesus to tell Mary to go help in the kitchen. Jesus says that are many things that need to be done, but Mary has chosen the best one, perhaps implying that taking care of guests is really about paying attention to them. We all need to listen to Jesus, and that’s what Mary does.

It’s easy to get caught up in being a good Christian by feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, but do we listen to God? In all our busyness do we find a way to tune in to God? If we’re not careful, we find ourselves bringing about justice and healing and ignoring God completely.

This is where the Eucharist is helpful. “When we reach our our hands for the bread and wine, we do not just see God, but we also touch and eat God.” As we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ over and over, we have a better chance of becoming more like Christ. Bishop O’Neill says in his invitation to Holy Communion, “Become what you receive.”

The coming to know Christ is an important part of our spirituality, just as coming to know God the Father is important, but they are different. One we can see and know through his actions when he was here on earth, the other we have to get to know by the way God has interacted with human beings over millennia, using the Law and the Prophets to help us understand what God is trying to teach. Part of what we are recognizing when we see the work of the Prophets is the Holy Spirit, and we need to find a way to recognize and see the Holy Spirit in our lives as well. 

We are transformed by God, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we see this transformation in ourselves, and sometimes we see it in others. It is always God working in us in amazing ways that we couldn’t do by ourselves, or wouldn’t do by ourselves. But we ask for it all the time. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say “thy kingdom come”, asking God to change us and the world around us to be more like what God has in mind.

When we make moral choices we are making choices about the kind of world we want to see, want to live in. The Holy Spirit helps us to make those choices if we are open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If all our concentration is on the creator God, the unknowable God, then God becomes too distant. If all our concentration is on Jesus, then God becomes too close and too known. We need both/and, which the Holy Spirit is for us, that intermediary that helps us to know all of God better.

Worship again helps us to do this. Evelyn Underhill said that, “the Church is not a collection of prize specimens, but a flock.” Worship allows the whole Body of Christ, in all our disagreements and differences, to come together with the saints, angels and all other creatures in worshiping God the Trinity, which allows for our transformation. Even though we try to change and transform our lives, we are usually unsuccessful, but God the Holy Spirit is successful.

We often think of the Holy Spirit as the risk taking part of God, the part of God that is willing to make a gamble that we’ll go along and be helpful to make the world a better place. The greatest risk God took is becoming one of us, Jesus Christ, but it was through the Holy Spirit that we see this take place. Remember our Nicene Creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

We see all of God by making time for God is our lives, by praying, worshiping,  working, and giving for the kingdom of God. We make time for the “God of mystery who is out of time, for the incarnate God who came into time, for the ever-present Holy Spirit who is in time.” We do that to be in relationship with God, because being in relationship with the God who loves us and created us is far better than not being relationship with that same God.

We long to be in relationship with God. W. R. Inge wrote, “You have not yet lost the wholesome appetite which makes the soul cry, ‘My soul is athirst for God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?’” Kierkegaard said it differently, we have a God shaped hole in our souls. However we put it, we seek God even when we are sure it is something else that we are seeking. God is the only thing that will fill that void.


  1. When have you most clearly seen God?

  2. What do you do in order to cultivate your own spiritual life?

  3. Evelyn Underhill observed that, “Everyone tends to worship God more under one aspect than another. The Trinity is far too great to be apprehended ‘evenly all around’ by any one consciousness.” With which person of the Trinity do you most strongly connect?

  4. The author asserts that “Christian life is about change” and that the Holy Spirit is the agent of that change. What do you think?

Chapter 5  - Love

Matthew 22:36-40

As the Eucharist ends, we are sent into the world to do God’s work. One of our prayers says, “Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you.” In the Church of England Common Worship it says, “Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory.” We are being sent out to put into practice what we say we have become in the Eucharist, the Body of Christ. Teresa of Avila said that Christ has no hands on earth now but ours, no feet but ours, to reach out and do the work of God.

We are seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves, but need to make sure we ask what that means and what it looks like in our lives. When we ask what it means we have to remember what it meant to God, who became one of us in order to show us His complete and total love. Jesus went around healing people, giving sight to the blind, helping the lame to walk, making people able to be part of their communities again. But he also got into huge trouble with the powers of the world for the work that he did.

Given those realities, Shaw believes that there are four models that the Church can take in dealing with the world, and that we take on in our minds as assumptions when we reach out to love others. 

Model 1: Christians assume the world is a very bad and corrupting place and choose to stay away from it. An example of this is the Amish, descendants of 16th C. Anabaptists who rejected the Church/State relationship that reformers like Luther and Calvin had set up. They try to live in utopian communities.

Model 2: Christians assume the world is a bad place, because it is fallen, but they are committed to making it more Godly by converting more people to Christianity. The practical aspects of this can be seen in converting many people to a Christian faith that opposed slavery, which stopped the slave trade and then slavery in Europe and the U.S.

Model 3: Christians assume the world is a bad place, but we can make it better by building the kingdom of heaven on earth. Christians don’t withdraw or try to grow the faith, but get into the politics and structures of the world and try to change it for the better. Many 19th C. and early 20th C. people used this to create what we call the Social Gospel. Hull House in Chicago is an example of creating that kind of community where well educated would live and be around the poor and offer activities and learning to engage everyone, but particularly women immigrants. 

Model 4: Christians believe the world has some good and some bad. God loved the world enough to become incarnate, so Christ is already in the world and doesn’t have to be brought by us, but we get to love as Christ loved. Christians have to remember that the tension here is the same as it was for Christ, by loving the world we come into conflict with the powers of the world who don’t want things to change.

Shaw believed that she was raised in Model 3, but hopes that she will grow into Model 4. When she was growing up feeding the poor and housing the homeless were simply the work of her family. After ordination she had a review with her Bishop, a normal part of English priesthood, and filled out a questionnaire about her life and ministry. One of the questions was about what she did to get away from the job. She wrote that she spent time with her atheist friends who are skeptical about the church but support her as a priest. She later wondered what the Bishop would think about it, but he said to her, “It’s very good that you’ve got these friends because we must listen to what people are saying outside the church.”

Shaw believes that the Church has rarely listened to the world, but simply told the world what it needed. That’s how we love others, with our ideas of what they need. The emphasis is on what we give to the world, not what the world gives to us. It’s usually not about the wisdom, support or kindness we might receive, but what we give. This can make our relationship to those whom we serve paternalistic, or at least, unequal.

If we believe that God is in the world, that there is good in the world, then we need to listen for the good, we need to listen for God. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury 1942-44, said that because of God coming to earth as a human there could be no separation between the Church and the world, no separation between spiritual and material. We need to listen to personal experience to interpret the Gospel in this and every age. Going to scripture and finding answers doesn’t work. We have to listen to experience, seek facts, and listen to experts to help us change structures in the world, and to better understand our role in the world.

Temple believed we must be the Church Dispersed. We aren’t sitting in pews daily, but are with our families, jobs, and in society. That is where we must be the church. How do we live out our vocations as Christians as teachers, students, parents, children, artists, nurses, pilots, cooks, — all of our daily occupations? We are called to share the love of God where we live and act.

The world and church have changed. Sixty years ago church was still an important place in the lives of people in the U.S. and Britain. Recently in England researchers found that only 6 percent of the population go to church, but more than 50 percent say they believe in God. Church has become something for times of tragedy and crisis. In the U.S. over 90 percent say they believe in God, but fewer and fewer are going to church, especially in the younger generations. Mainline Protestant churches are the ones that are losing the largest numbers of people. 

Our society looks different. In 1940 Europeans were 70 percent of all immigrants in the U.S., in 1990 they were just 15 percent. Many more people have come from the Caribbean, Central America, Africa, and various parts of Asia. If we are going to be the Church Dispersed and love our neighbors, we must know what they are like, and they are sometimes not exactly like us. God’s love is meant for all, but sharing it means we have to know what love looks like to those with whom it is shared. It may not look like we expect and we have to learn new ways to share.

Shaw tells a couple of stories to inspire us to seek to share God’s love. One is about a young woman who is a perfectionist and a priest. She is hard on everyone who is not perfect, but mostly herself. When she falls in love with another priest, who is married, she has an affair with someone she doesn’t love and ends up so ill she can’t even speak. She finds God’s love after her failure, or rather in her failure. Once she has accepted that she can’t “win” God by being perfect, she realizes that God has always loved and accepted her.

The other story is about a parish in California that is radical in the way it feeds people. Every Friday people come into the church and walk around the altar to pick up the fruit, vegetables and other food that is placed there. On Sundays they dance around the altar and take Eucharist. It all started when an Atheist named Sara Miles came in and took the Eucharist and was faced with understanding that it wasn’t just a wafer, but the Body of Christ and literally the Bread of Life. It changed her view of life and she wanted to feed others as she had been fed. She took an engraving on the altar literally: “Did not our Lord share his table with tax collectors and harlots? So do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal for you to love and serve.” David Stancliffe says, “to celebrate the Eucharist together and do nothing about feeding the hungry is an act of blasphemy.”

Anthony Cardovo Campbell was the Dean of Boston University Chapel. He was a black Baptist who had marched with Dr. King and gone to Mecca with Malcolm X. He preached years ago when Shaw was in England and she remembered his sermon on Luke 6 when Jesus brings someone back to life. He explained how taboo touching anything dead was in Jesus’ time. Someone would walk down the road ahead of the dead person being carried saying “dead thing, dead thing” to warn people to flatten themselves against the walls or go down an alley to keep from accidentally coming in contact with a dead body. Jesus walked right up to the body and touched it, raising the man to life, but becoming unclean in the process. We must learn how to touch all the dead things in our world that need to be raised to new life. It is how we will feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and even be kind to ourselves when we are judgmental about our lives.


1. Which of the four models of the church did you grow up with? Which are you now? Which do you hope to be?

2. What are some ways you see Christians compartmentalizing our faith? How do we relate our activity in the church with our life in the world?

3. How do we make Christianity viable and believable in a world that sees it as ineffectual and hypocritical?

4. How are we to live as Christians in a religiously pluralistic world?

5. How will those of us who are not fundamentalist present a different form of Christianity that is not automatically seen as conservative or fundamentalist?

6. Whom do you find it most difficult to love? To whom do you find it hardest to listen? How could you more deeply and lovingly engage this “stranger”?