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.

Reflections

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.

Reflections

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.


Reflections

  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?