The Heart of the Matter: Practice

Week 10 of 12 | The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg

Just like riding a bike… When did you learn to ride a bike?  When was the last time you rode a bike?  Why did you ride a bike?  Why do you now, or why don’t you anymore?  My guess is that most of you reading this are very occasional riders, and do so for pleasure, not transportation.  It’s a relaxing thing to do when it’s not too hot or cold, not too windy, and you are in just the right mood.  You and I are not Danny Macaskill, for instance, who recorded one of his more impressive rides on the Isle of Sky, Scotland (get your mind blown here).  Danny Macaskil didn’t tackle that ride the same week he learned to ride a bike.  He was able to achieve that level of mastery over years of hard work and practice, working through mistakes and the injuries that came with them.  Learning new techniques while unlearning ways that no longer work for the rides he takes.

Faith is like that.  We don’t commit ourselves to God in one moment and discover we’re saints the next day or week.  Those with deep, growing, maturing faith have worked hard to develop it over time.  They have worked through mistakes they’ve made and the injuries that came with them.  They learned new ways of being while letting go of ways that no longer work for the faith they’ve grown into.  In the tenth chapter of The Heart of Christianity, Borg gets down to the nitty gritty: he writes about practices that help faith develop.  He notes a lot of things, including making church attendance a regular part of your life rhythm (for a range of good reasons), and especially encourages getting involved in justice issues that surround us.

I want to get practical as well, but instead of using Borg’s metric, I’d prefer to look at CrossWalk’s.  We designed our belief statement to be a behavior statement as well, a picture of what we’re trying to embody individually and as a community of faith.  Not surprisingly, there is plenty of overlap between the substance of what I am writing and what Borg wrote: we are both trying to get at the same thing.  We are trying to paint a picture of what a well-rounded faith looks like so that we have a clue whether or not we’re on the right track or, if we’re just beginning, a clue where to start and where it’s leading.

Be aware of potential tensions that may emerge as you read and as you strive to live your faith.  First, settle the issue in your mind that your favor with God in no way whatsoever is contingent on how well you develop your faith.  You are loved fully, unconditionally, and eternally by God.  It is impossible for God to be God and not love you.  Therefore, you are not trying to earn your way into anything or any status: you already have it.

Second, be aware of the “tyranny of the shoulds,” a phrase that originated with one of the shaping voices of modern psychology, Karen Horney.  We can easily get into a rut where we do a bunch of practices and actually find ourselves more distanced from God, leading to resentment of God for “making you do all this stuff.”  When we find ourselves with a bad attitude about doing things we normally would love to do, we need to carve time to drill down on what’s happening, because something has taken the life out of something that was supposed to give life.  Find out why.  Get insight from someone you trust.  Seek healing for hurts.

I really like what Borg says about the purpose of practices: they are about paying attention to God; our formation as Christians with a new identity; and our nourishment – they feed us.  Keep these three purposes front of mind so that you are less likely to get off track.  Also, please realize that Jesus did not airdrop from heaven at 30 years old.  He was born into a tradition that formed his thinking.  Much of what he said was not new, but rather a restoration of the core of what Judaism was meant to say all along.  In other words, some of the practices – if not all – were taught him.  Sometimes I get binary with this stuff. I like to think that if our hearts are really pure and our relationship with God is super strong, our behavior will naturally reflect it.  Certainly, our core faith fosters such behavior.  But sometimes – maybe all the time? – we need practical instruction.  Sometimes if we live into a mask we choose to wear, we eventually fit the mask.  That’s not so bad if the mask reflects Jesus.  So, as we look at the practices of Jesus, may you see a mask worth wearing, and may you eventually find your face and life forming into it.

We are resurrection people.  That born again into new life thing is where we start, and also informs our mission in the world: to bring about life where death has claimed victory.  Renewed selves, renewed culture, renewed creation.  Pursuing this resurrected living requires a choice to actually embrace it.  Not one choice for all time, but a choice that is made daily or even more frequently to live our lives in the Way of Jesus in contrast to the way of this world.  The Way leads to life, and is a choice we make to follow or not.  The following are practices that we choose to embrace, as Jesus did, so that we might experience the life Jesus lived.

·       We stretch.  To pursue a relationship with God is a choice to be continually stretched to new ways of thinking and being.  When Jesus was with Nicodemus, John the Baptist, and the Samaritan woman at the well, he stretched their thinking with love and respect, even though it required them to let go of the familiar.  Therefore, we choose to stretch as God grows in us, and we lovingly help others stretch toward God as God works through us.  John 3-4

o   How are you choosing to be stretched?  What inputs are you allowing in to stretch you?

o   How are you being a catalyst to stretch others in their thinking?

·       We kneel.  Jesus served humbly without discrimination.  He served enemies of the state, touched untouchables, healed those who were broken, and fed those who were hungry.  Therefore, we choose to share God’s love by kneeling to serve as Jesus modeled, bringing healing to our world.  John 5-7

o   How are you allowing others to serve you?

o   How are you serving others with your time and presence?  How about financially?

·       We grace.  Jesus was famous for lavishly extending grace to everyone, but especially to those who were feeling condemned.  Be it an adulterous woman caught in the act or a blind man convinced that he was beyond grace, Jesus acted with and spoke grace into their lives in order to free them from condemnation in all its forms.  Therefore, we choose to lift up those who experience shame, to love instead of judge.  John 8-9

o   How are you allowing God’s grace to form you?

o   How are you an agent of God’s grace in an unforgiving world?

·       We incarnate.  God’s love was perhaps most profoundly expressed in the incarnation, when God entered the full human experience with us in the person of Jesus.  He loved deeply by being intimately present with people in their grief, joy, shame, pain, filth, denial, and even their betrayal.  Therefore, we choose to welcome God into our darkest corners, and as those who are being indwelled by God’s Spirit, we choose to live deeply with people in the same intimate places Jesus chose to dwell.  John 10-13

o   How are you making time to really be with people in your sphere?

o   How are you allowing people to be with you?

·       We connect.  Jesus’ Way kept him connected to the heartbeat of God.  Jesus fostered an intimate, personal relationship with God by practicing a variety of disciplines (solitude, prayer; gathering for worship, service, and community life) that allowed God’s presence to guide and direct his steps.  Therefore, we choose to be so connected that the image of God is clearly reflected in our thoughts, passion, and mission.  John 14-17

o   How are you providing space in your life to be more deeply connected to God?

o   How are you encouraging others to connect with God more deeply without sounding like a self-righteous jerk?

How is all of this going for you?

Let’s talk about bikes some more.  For most – if not all – of us, while Danny Macaskill’s riding skills are incredibly impressive and inspiring, they are not especially alluring.  I doubt any of you are going to go to Skyline in response and attempt its technical trails at full speed!  Most of you are fine knowing how to ride a bike, yet are also fine if you never ride one again. I think that’s fine with bike riding.  Take it or leave it.

But faith is not bike riding.  We claim to believe that faith so defines our lives that to not live in our faith is to actually not really live.  When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about our lives.  When we talk about settling in our faith, we’re talking about choosing to not live into resurrection, into renewed life. 

Mostly, we don’t willfully settle.  There’s not a day on our calendar where we look back and say, “That’s the day I decided to blow off God and settle for less of a life.”  It’s much more subtle than that, and usually goes hand in hand with our level of comfort.  Many of us came to faith in response to crisis.  What we didn’t realize was that when the crisis was alleviated – often with the help of faith – our sense of urgency to continue developing our faith diminished.  We slide back into comfortable routines and ruts.  Decades pass and we wake up one day realizing we are the same person we were long ago, with few significant changes.  That’s not the Way of Jesus.  That’s the way of the world, the way of self-preservation, the way of apathy.  That’s the way we insure the world continues on the same trajectory it has been on for as long as anyone can remember.

This isn’t a leisurely bike ride we’re talking about.  This is your life.  This is your role as a change agent of hope in the world.  This is the nourishment of your soul.  This is the source of your hope.  What are you doing with it?