FOR CHRISTIAN LIVING:
Daniel L. Prechtel
Copyright (c) 1992 by Daniel L. Prechtel. All rights reserved.
Online version: Permission to reproduce this document is granted by the author. Credit the source and author in the reproduced material, and as a courtesy please send a letter to the address given below or an email to email@example.com notifying the author that the publication is being used and for what purpose.
Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries
2135 Orrington Ave.
Evanston, IL 60201-2936
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Making Choices about Your Life
3. Living into a New Identity
4. Shaping Christian Life
5. Christian Learning
6. "I Believe" and "We Believe"
7. Christian Community
8. Sacramental Life
9. Christian Prayer Life
10. Evil and Sin
11. Sharing the Good News
12. Seeing and Serving Christ in Others
13. Christian Action in the World
14. Thoughts for the Journey
Appendix: Word List
This is a guide that may
help you get oriented to some dimensions of life being lived with intentionality
as a Christian. There are other methods, forms of orientation, and
ways of approaching Christian life that will connect for many people.
Christian living is much bigger than any particular attempt to describe
it and I hope that you will become familiar with several ways of approaching
and developing your spiritual life. There are many spiritual paths,
many varying traditions within this great religion. If this provides
you with some new ideas and perspectives on your life as a Christian, or
further supports and validates some things you already are aware of that
strengthen your life, then its modest purpose has been fulfilled.
This guide has a word list as an appendix. Words that are covered in the word list will be marked in the text with an asterisk (*).
People who are preparing for Holy Baptism, or are sponsoring someone for baptism or confirmation, may wish to supplement this guide with a companion work in this Guidelines Series entitled, Guidelines for Christian Living: Baptismal Preparation. Others of you are going back to the basics of Christian life for any number of purposes. This guide is designed with you in mind.
2. Making Choices about Your Life
The title of this guide speaks
of *"conscious beginnings." I am assuming that you are desiring to
enter into more deliberate decision-making about how your life will be
shaped. St. Augustine would remind us that all of Christian life
is a life of *grace (through the activity of God). Before you began
or doing anything consciously about your life, God was already at work
in and with your life, leading you to this desire for more intentional
participation with Christ.
Although God brings you to this mindfulness of your life in the light of what Christianity might offer (this particular mindfulness or consciousness is the threshold of what is traditionally called *"recollection," an awareness or remembering that you are in a spiritual relationship to God), God does not act with you as if you were a puppet but rather gives you the freedom to make choices about your life. You are invited by God into a free, non-compulsory, relationship. Like any other unforced relationship, you are perfectly free to consciously develop this relationship, or to unconsciously drift along and take the relationship for granted, or even to act against the growth of the relationship. "How can I respond to God's invitation for our relationship to grow?" is a valid and important question marking the conscious beginnings (and ongoing life) of a Christian who takes their life with God seriously. You are claiming your freedom and ability to begin making conscious choices about the development of your spiritual life.
3. Living into a New Identity
I want to say a little more
about "recollection." An *Anglican priest, teacher, and spiritual
director, the late Martin Thornton, wrote that living a recollected life
is the goal of all our Christian spiritual practices. When St. Paul
encouraged the Christian believers in Thessalonica to "rejoice always,
pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:16ff.)
I think that he was calling those people into a continuous awareness of
their new life and relationship to God through Jesus Christ, in the power
of the Holy Spirit. This is the recollected life: to be ever
mindful that you are Christ's! You became Christ's through the baptismal
waters and nothing can separate you from God's love. Every time that
you remember your relationship to God through Christ you are practicing
recollection. The recollection/remembering "gathers you together"
in the presence and power and love of God.
There is a delightful anecdote about Martin Luther that whenever he was besieged by the devil (fairly frequently for poor Martin) he would remember that he was a baptized child of God and that nothing could separate him from the love of God. This was a practice of recollection...a claiming of his *identity as inseparably connected to God's love--no matter how forcefully the Accuser might try to defeat him.
Many of us find various aids helpful to remembering who we are as Christians. One of the aids to being recollected that some find helpful (connecting to Luther's remembering his baptism) is simply to use water to lead us to remembering that we are baptized. I let taking a shower in the morning, or drinking a glass of water, or washing my hands, or getting caught in the rain, be a little memory jogger that I am baptized. There are many other aids to recollection. We will explore some of them a little later. The purpose of the practices is not for themselves, but as tools to help us remember who we are and to help us grow more fully into our life in Christ. Since these are aids and not ends in themselves, you are free to decide what is helpful to you and what is not, and to change those decisions as you change in your life.
4. Shaping Christian Life
In the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer there is an outline
of a way of life that is dynamic and formational. The outline is
given in question form in "The Baptismal *Covenant" found on pages 293-294
of the Easter Vigil and again on pages 304-305 of Holy Baptism. The
questions call us to consider a Christian life that is shaped by: ongoing
learning and encounter with Christian teachings; regular participation
in the life of the community of faith; regular *sacramental participation;
ongoing participation in the prayers; spiritual self-examination and reconciliation;
personal *evangelism; loving servanthood shaped by Christ; and social concern
for justice and peace.
The outline of a way of life proposed by the (renewal of) baptismal vows shows a life being continuously shaped by appropriate attention to spiritual self-care and inner growth in relationship to God, involvement in the faith community, and serving in Christ's name in the larger world. Undergirding all of this is our free consent, "I will,..." while trusting in God's continued empowering grace, "...with God's help." This outline forms the basis of what traditionally has been called a Rule of Life. The outline is fairly comprehensive in scope, and a number of particular practices can be considered under each discipline (focus of Christian life development). Let's look at the disciplines as outlined in the Baptismal Covenant and some possible aids/practices related to them.
5. Christian Learning
"Will you continue in the apostles' teaching...?"
The question calls us to consider ways in which we will be open to being shaped by the Holy Scriptures, Christian traditions and beliefs, the creeds of the Church, and the vast body of teaching and formational material available to us on many levels and spanning many centuries. Where to start, given this great abundance of possibilities for ongoing learning and encounters with Christian teachings?
It seems to me that the primary
resource for ongoing Christian formation that is universally recognized
is Holy Scripture. The Bible is the foundation for reflection on
how God has acted in human history, and how we humans have responded.
It is the great divine love story that points to our personal and *corporate
ongoing relationship with God. But the Bible is composed of many
different kinds of writings, from many different composers, over many different
centuries, addressing many different circumstances in life. It is
properly subject to interpretation using the best information you have
available to you concerning the particular context of the scripture set
in its historical circumstances. To get started looking at the Bible
I don't want you to get lost in scholarship--just have a few tools available
The first tool is to get a version of the Bible that is readable. Or, better yet, get a couple different versions that are readable to you. Look for versions that give you a clear sense of the meaning of verses. I do not think that Shakespearian English has the clear sense of meaning for us that a newer version has. We just don't talk like that anymore, even if we think that the language is particularly beautiful. We are looking for clarity of meaning when engaging holy scripture.
If you have several versions of the Bible handy, you can compare the text and become aware of the shades of meaning that vary between versions. Remember that these are translations out of ancient languages rendered into English. Often there are variations of meaning.
A number of Bibles are available that are "study editions." These particular editions give you helpful information on the historical and literary background related to the different books and letters in the Bible. They also will give additional notations on alternative translations of words and phrases, and some commentary and cross-referencing to help you understand passages.
Some people will get other aids for Bible study. Commentaries, dictionaries, and atlases are available. It is a good idea to check with your parish priest or some other person that is knowledgeable about good scholarship to guide you as to what is out on the market. The quality varies radically in the biblical aids market.
There are basically two ways of reading holy scripture--one is for information and knowledge (study) and the other is for spiritual formation (devotional use). These are not mutually excludable ways of approaching scripture, but it is good to know that the one approach may not directly lead to the other. We probably need to develop both ways of letting scripture inform us over time, but you don't have to start out thinking that you have to know all about holy scripture for it to be beneficial to you.
In getting started with scripture, I would suggest that you get a basic overview. Your church may give a class in "introductions to the Bible" from time to time. That's a good way to get oriented. You could check with your priest or adult education teacher and ask for some guidance in what order to read scripture to get an overview. People make a mistake in thinking that they should read the Bible from the beginning to end, cover to cover, in sequence. Genesis is great, Exodus is pretty interesting...by the time you get a few chapters into Leviticus, the third book of the Bible, most people put the Bible away on a shelf somewhere with a nagging sense of guilt that they aren't "spiritual" enough to enjoy ancient Jewish legal codes. This is generally self-defeating behavior.
Get a flavor of the Old Testament instead of trying to gulp the whole thing down right away. Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy establish many of the themes of the Bible. The books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel provide epic narrative. Job is a drama leading to the unfathomable God behind the little masks of god. The Psalms are wonderful devotional material, spanning the whole spectrum of human emotions in the presence (and sometimes felt absence) of the Holy One. Reading a shorter book like Hosea or Micah gives you a taste of themes and style of the Old Testament's prophetic literature rather than starting off with a longer (and more complex) work like Isaiah.
The same holds true for the New Testament. The first four books, are called Gospels (Good News) and deal with stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The first three books share some common material and add their own particular versions. The four gospels come out of different communities and address different questions and have different shades of meaning attached to Jesus--yet all proclaim the Christ-event's unparalleled significance in human history: out of compassion for creation, God has become human and overcome for us the powers of evil and death through the cross and resurrection. It would be a good idea to read through one or two gospels to get started in an orientation to the New Testament.
The author of Luke is also the author of The Acts of the Apostles and is actually a continuation of the former work. Acts gives a condensed, action-packed version of how the Church began and spread in the world. Acts is probably a good book to read after a gospel or two.
Then there are a number of letters (epistles) that address particular concerns of various early church communities by various authors. I would suggest that good commentaries are very helpful as aids to understanding the letters.
Finally, the Revelation to John is a special kind of visionary literature, called apocalyptic, that has parallels in some of the Old Testament books, such as portCOURIER Daniel and Ezekiel. This kind of literature is written to strengthen faith communities under persecution or travail, proclaiming that God will vindicate them in the last days. Do not get caught up in seeing them as code books for our time, but as proclamations that God will triumph over evil in a fullness of time that we cannot predict but can entrust to God. We, in turn, are called upon to look with the eyes of faith at God's grace and the things of goodness, and to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and all evil powers of this world.
Another thought about reading scripture for knowledge and orientation to our religious heritage is to get acquainted with some of the major passages in the Bible. Here are a few. In the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and Micah 6:6-8 is often thought of as a summary of the prophetic tradition. In the New Testament you will find the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-11 and another version in Luke 6:20-22. The Beatitudes are part of a larger collection of sayings attributed to Jesus called "The Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew, and "The Sermon on the Plain" in Luke. The Lord's Prayer has several versions: Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. The Great Commandments, also know as The Summary of the Law, are found in Matthew 22:34-40 and Mark 12:28-34. The New Commandment is found in John 13:34. Certainly the Passion (Suffering) and Resurrection Narratives in the gospels are central to the Christian sacred story and are found in the last chapters of the gospels. The "gospel in a nutshell" is John 3:16--probably one of those verses you will want to commit to memory. The experience of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, is in Acts 2. One discussion of spiritual gifts and their right use within the Church is found beginning in 1 Corinthians 12 and there follows several chapters discussing resurrection, beginning in chapter 15. Much more could be listed, obviously. But these are fairly significant passages in scripture.
One of your major tasks in a beginning stage in mature Christian formation is learning the sacred story. Once you begin to know the story you can begin to let it make connections with your own life, your own sacred story. But you first need to learn the story. All the nifty religious movies won't do it as thoroughly as getting into holy scripture yourself. Then you will find that it is the living Word, indeed. Bible study group participation can be very helpful. Some groups are more devotional, some more study oriented. (Watch out for authoritarian "this is the only way it can be interpreted" type groups.) But group participation seems to help get the fertile questions and connections going. It also helps underline the importance of reading the Bible, and connects you with others who are trying to make it a regular discipline in their lives.
We'll look at some specific ways to use scripture devotionally when we get to prayer.
We've already considered
Bible study groups. Keep aware of other educational possibilities
through the church. There may be some ecumenical study possibilities
in the area. Your parish church may have a group or two doing studies.
Often the parish will offer special studies during the season of Lent,
if at no other time of the year.
The clergy or religious education leader may know of other opportunities available to you beyond the local church, and are often very willing to give you some individual directed attention with books, tapes or other materials that (s)he has access to if you will state your interest in some directed learning. The clergy or religious education leader may also be able to introduce you to someone else who shares a common interest with you in a field of study. What are you curious about? Chances are that God is nudging you to learn and grow in that direction and that there are some interesting study opportunities awaiting you if you only ask the people who know about the resources.
6. "I Believe..." and "We Believe..."
(Continuation on Christian Learning)
When we are considering ways
in which we allow ourselves to be shaped into more mature Christians, one
of the major frameworks of Christian understanding is the Creeds of the
Church. From the early centuries, the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene
Creed have given Christians a sense of coherence and roots to their expression
The earliest statements of belief were simple statements such as are reflected in scriptures: "Jesus is Lord" (1 Corinthians 12:3); and "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." (Acts 8:37). Candidates for baptism were required to profess their faith in the presence of the gathered community, and these "I believe" statements eventually formed what later became known as the Apostles' Creed. It is the baptismal creed of the Church, and is part of the "Baptismal Covenant" that is renewed by the whole faith community in Episcopal churches at baptisms and on days particularly associated and set aside for baptisms (see Prayer Book pp. 292-293; and 304). It is also used in the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer as a daily reaffirmation of the faith (see pp. 53-54; 66; 96; and 120). In its association with baptismal profession of faith, the admission of the individual into the Church, the language is in the first person singular, "I believe..."
The creed that we call the Nicene Creed came out of the struggles of the fourth and fifth centuries to arrive at a common conciliar understanding of the faith. Since this creed was an attempt by the Church to articulate its corporate beliefs, the creed is often professed in the first person plural, "We believe..." In the Episcopal Church the Nicene Creed is recited at Eucharist on Sundays and all major feast days (see Prayer Book pp. 326-328; and 358-359).
If you were asked, "Since you are a Christian, tell me what you believe?" it would be perfectly appropriate to respond with one of these two historic statements of belief. Both express the Christian understanding of salvation history by God's involvement with creation and humanity in personal terms, framed around a proclamation of God as Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For the basic questions of doctrine that are expressed in the creeds, a good source to read is the Catechism (Outline of the Faith), in the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 845-862). This catechism is intended as a brief summary of the teaching of the Church for an inquirer, structured as a commentary on the creeds. In light of the resource of the Catechism, we won't be dealing with an extensive commentary on the creeds here, but there are a few things I'd like to point out as opinions of my own which are certainly subject to debate and other viewpoints.
HOLY TRINITY & IMAGES OF GOD
First, both creeds name God
in trinitarian terms: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is good
and important reasons to do this. It is also, in my opinion, helpful
to mention that these are primary metaphors for the Christian experience
of God, but not the only ones.
Scripture shows Jesus' relationship to God as that of Father to Son--a parent/child relationship of care and love and closeness of identity. We are also made "adopted children of God" through our baptism in Christ. But it is very arguable that Jesus did not limit God to being male: for he is clear that God is spirit. Other scriptural images of God are metaphors such as midwife (Psalm 22.9); winged bird providing shelter (Ps. 36:8); nesting place for sparrows and their young (Ps. 84:4); compared to both a master and mistress (Ps. 123:2); giver of motherly compassion (Ps. 51.1)--the word for "compassion" is related to the word "womb." Exodus 34:6 also uses the same word for "compassion" that suggests a trembling womb of a mother. There are other images that attempt to convey characteristics of God in holy scripture. In the history of Christian spirituality there are many more from orthodox teachers and spiritual guides that use feminine images as well as masculine images of God: such as Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Anselm, and Julian of Norwich.
I once had a class exercise that asked an adult church group to brainstorm various images for God. They quickly came up with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (as well they should), but then moved to Judge, Redeemer, Sanctifier, Creator, Lover, Rock, Mother, Warrior, Wonderful, Counselor...to about 35 different images. Many more could have been offered had there been time. The trinitarian understanding that Christianity offers relates to the salvation history, but I would argue that this understanding should not be used in such a way as to place some masculine imagery limitation on God. (For more thorough treatment of this issue I recommend Kenneth Leech's book, Experiencing God, pp. 350-378.)
INCARNATION & RESURRECTION
Arguments occasionally come
up over questions of the historical basis for the virgin birth of Jesus.
The same holds for notions of what does the ascension of Jesus mean,
and how did it occur. We will not settle any such arguments conclusively
on this side of heaven in those matters. There are good reasons for
taking scripture as it reads, and there are good reasons for questioning
the literal reading of scripture in these matters. What I would like
to emphasize is that we can validly disagree on such matters and still
be faithful Christians together. The more central and vital doctrines
for the Christian faith are not virgin birth or bodily ascension on a cloud:
they are the incarnation and resurrection--the deepest significance of
what we celebrate in the seasons of Christmas and Easter.
To proclaim the incarnation is to say, among other things, that out of God's vast love for creation and humanity, God chose to become a limited human being like you and I. God chose to so identify with us as to become one of us. Such love and blessing of creation is truly mystery, truly beyond our full understanding. In Jesus we have the mystery of a person who is fully a human being, yet fully divine. God becomes flesh and dwells with us in all our limitations and strengths.
The resurrection compliments the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus has a mission of restoring and recreating fallen humanity. His faithfulness to this mission leads him to innocent suffering and brutal crucifixion--but also to the triumph over sin and death of the resurrection, new life. We cannot fully say what this resurrection or this resurrection body is like, but we have this as our hope too. The ascension, whatever occurred, means that Jesus the Christ fully freed from human limitations--including time and space--as an aspect of resurrection life. But in our attempts at faithfulness to our relationship with God in living out our baptismal life, we also get a taste of resurrection life. C.S. Lewis is attributed as saying on his deathbed: "To be a Christian means never having to say goodbye!" In the Episcopal burial *liturgy we make our bold proclamation: "[Yet] even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
It is this radical proclamation
of new and unending life as God's good gift to us, celebrated in our baptism,
that makes it possible for us to recognize that we are connected with people
past, present, and future in the bonds of God's love. The saints
of the Church, the friends of God, are also our friends through our being
members of the body of Christ. Through prayer the boundaries of time
and space can be transcended. Through imaginative learning the saints
of the Church of the past can inform and instruct us as to Christian living
in our day. John the Evangelist, Mary the mother of Jesus, the Desert
Fathers and Mothers of the fourth to sixth centuries, Hilda the Abbess
at Whitby in the seventh century, Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century,
Dame Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart of the fourteenth century can
become spiritual advisors and companions on your journey along The Way.
Through claiming the power of God's love as seen in the deep significance of our baptisms we can pray for and receive the prayers of those who are not with us physically. Does growth and healing stop for a loved one with their death in light of the resurrection power of Jesus Christ?
One of my relatives was what I would agree with Scott Peck in calling "clinically evil." It is not that she was some monster deserving of everlasting hellfire. She was a Christian who was deeply spiritually and emotionally sick. She was a loyal churchgoer, a teacher, and thought of herself as a champion of the faith. But she was also willful to the extreme, abusively manipulative, and probably blind to most of how she misused her personal power with others. Her life was distorted in tragic ways, and the pain she caused others was incalculable. However, in her death I was able to realize a hope that I could not know in her life. Perhaps now, in the nearer presence and unobstructed healing love of God she could find a wholeness that she never knew on this side of the grave. My prayer for her is that this is true. But also, somehow in being able to pray for her in this light of the resurrection love of God I too have received new healing from the wounds that afflicted me from my broken relationship with her. Such can be one of the benefits of being part of the whole communion of the saints.
7. Christian Community
"Will you continue in the...fellowship...?"
Life in Christ is not an isolated experience. God made a people chosen as lights to the world. Jesus gathered individuals into a special community of disciples for the purpose of learning and living out their experience of Christ together. The Holy Spirit descended upon a gathering of people to give birth to the Church. In baptism we join the household of God and share with the other faithful in Christ's eternal priesthood. We are given gifts for the purpose of building up the Church, Christ's visible presence in the world. The Apostles' Creed proclaims that we believe in the "communion of the saints." We are individually known by God and called into relationship, but live that calling out interdependently with other Christians. I would like to suggest to you that there are several levels of "fellowship" available to you in your deepening Christian life and in living your life out in an interdependent relationship with other Christians.
The one most obvious and foundational is the Sunday gathering of the parish church worshiping community. This diverse and sometimes divergent fellowship holds the worship experience in common with you. They represent differences as well as similarities to you in age, sex, race, culture, social standing, occupation, economic standing, health, intelligence, educational background, political persuasions, and their wide diversity of interests--yet they, like you, are called by God into a common God-focussed time together week-by-week.
COFFEE HOUR FELLOWSHIP
Many churches hold a "coffee hour" fellowship time. I've frequently thought of this as the "little communion" that happens between people on a weekly basis. It gives folks a chance to connect outside the formality of the worship service, and get to know each other through the casual visiting opportunity. Church potlucks and other social events provide this chance also, but on a less frequent basis.
Churches often have small
groups that operate within the larger faith community structure.
A choir is a small group, so is an ongoing adult study group, or prayer
group, or guild. You may be able to identify other such groups within
your church. It is within the small group that you get an opportunity
to know a cluster of people with more depth and I would encourage you to
see what is in your parish and seriously consider participation in a small
group. Friendships often form from within the small group setting.
Some groups are more task oriented, such as vestry or mission committees, altar guilds, choir, or the acolyte program. Decisions get made, work gets accomplished, or services get performed and people organize themselves with external goals in mind. Activity is stressed with these groups, and you may clearly see the way that you contribute to the productivity of the group. You have things to do, and there is likely to be a sense of satisfaction in jobs accomplished that contribute to the well-being of the church.
Some groups are more formationally oriented, such as prayer groups, bible study groups, and covenant groups. The focus is on the ongoing process of mutually strengthening, supporting, and forming people in their lives as Christians. It is a group process of being recollected in God. With these groups the central actions are openness to others, inner change and growth, inviting God to be at work within the individual and the group, and claiming the opportunity to "just be" together with companions in the Christian life. Much more personal sharing of our own life story tends to go on in these groups than in task oriented groups.
Both kinds of groups are important and contribute to the spiritual well-being of the participants in different ways: expressing and developing the "doing/being" or "Martha/Mary" (Luke 10:38-42) sides of ourselves. Involvement in one of each kind of group, or a small group that seems to offer a good balance of both, can be a real benefit for you as well as for the faith community of which you are a part.
PASTORAL CARE PROVIDERS
Your parish clergy and, perhaps, some members of the church community are trained in providing pastoral care and help in particular times of special need. This special fellowship of the Church is intended to be done in a way that respects your wishes for confidentiality and need for sensitivity. Most of us have times in our lives where a friendly ear, perhaps an offer of prayer, and maybe a few suggested possibilities can be helpful. Sometimes a pastoral care provider will offer you some guidance as to how to locate particularly skilled people who can help you deal with a problem affecting your life. Pastoral care providers are available in probably every local church community. It is a special ministry of the fellowship of the church.
SPIRITUAL FRIENDS AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTORS
There are also some other
special people to keep in mind, although they may not be so easily identifiable
as the other people that offer fellowship to you. They may be in
your parish, or diocese, or in the broader ecumenical community of which
you are a part. They may be members of the laity, or clergy, or in
religious orders. These folks are particularly interested in sharing
with others about our spiritual lives and desire for growth in our relationship
You may find that someone "clicks" with you in a special way as a Christian; as a gift of God to you, and you to the other person. This may be the beginning of a spiritual friendship centered in mutual sharing of the ups and downs of our lives as Christians, encouraging each other's spiritual growth, listening to each other's inner desires and concerns, and by offering prayer support of each other.
There are also people that are like spiritual "elders." God calls some people to be guides and directors for others' spiritual well-being and growth. Some have undergone special formal training, and most have been receiving spiritual direction for many years. Spiritual direction and guidance is part of a long tradition within the Church for offering ongoing, prayerful listening for the "still, small voice" of God with their companion and helping them *discern their next steps along their spiritual pilgrimage in life. The spiritual director does not, in fact, give "direction" in the sense of ordering people to do things or be a certain way. Rather, the director functions as someone who is interested in and familiar with God's spiritual formation of Christians, and points to the reality of the Holy Spirit's leading in a person's life. The director listens carefully and prayerfully to your individual sacred story as it unfolds, and helps you relate your life to the broader sacred stories of scripture and the life of the Church throughout time.
8. Sacramental Life
"Will you continue in the ...breaking of bread...?
Now let's look at the sacramental
dimension of the Christian life. It was in baptism that you received
full initiation into the Church, Christ's visible body in the world.
What began with Holy Baptism continues to be lived out in the regular sacramental
participation in Christ through Holy Eucharist (The Lord's Supper, Mass,
Holy Communion). Baptism also becomes the entranceway to the other
sacramental benefits of the Church: confirmation (which in turn can initiate
a repeatable rite of renewal of mature faith at various spiritual marker-points
in our life, the reaffirmation of baptismal vows); reconciliation of a
penitent; healing unction; holy matrimony; and ordination as deacon, priest
Eucharist, reconciliation, and the sacramental rite of healing are, among other things, the Church's ongoing way of empowering its members for the task of living free and faithful lives in Christ. These three gifts of God's grace are repeatable. Because these three sacramental rites are available on a regular basis for the nurturance of your ongoing Christian life, let's look at them more closely.
In fact, participation in the weekly celebration of Holy Eucharist is normative for those in the Episcopal Church and other churches that have retained *catholic sacramental liturgical traditions. Many of these churches offer Holy Eucharist on a midweek, holy day, or daily basis. Slowly, mainline Protestant churches are reawakening to their own sacramental roots, and the sacraments of the Church are being offered with increasing frequency to the people in those traditions as well. I expect that you are more familiar with this sacrament than with the sacramental rites that follow. So, just go about spiritually nurturing yourself on a frequent basis. You eat physical food several times a day. Why starve yourself spiritually when the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation is readily available and eagerly offered? Keep that important dimension of yourself strong and vital!
RECONCILIATION OF A PENITENT
If anything troubles your conscience, find a discreet priest (and the tradition always gives you the freedom to ask a priest from outside your own parish church) and confess your sins, receiving absolution from God through the ministry of the priest on behalf of the Church. The purpose of this sacrament is empowerment and freedom to live a life without the burden and misery of guilt. The focus is not so much on "confession" as it is on "reconciliation." The barriers between you and God, you and others, are being bridged with God's love. It is a sacrament for the healing of the spirit from injury caused by our own sinfulness. The Book of Common Prayer allows a lay person or deacon to provide the sacrament of penance (same as reconciliation of a penitent, or private confession), substituting a "declaration of forgiveness" in place of the "absolution" given through a priest. We will discuss this sacrament further in the section on self-examination.
UNCTION OF THE SICK
This is the sacramental rite
of healing that is available to you by requesting it from the priest or
other people in the church authorized to administer the sacrament.
Its purpose is to strengthen and empower you with God's healing grace anytime
you are in need of healing of spirit, mind, and body. It is repeatable
for the same need. Let's say that you are suffering from the emotional
trauma of a death of someone close. You may ask for the sacramental
rite of healing unction on a regular basis, if you so choose, as you face
the long road of grief recovery. Or you are awaiting surgery, or
undergoing therapy, or are struggling with a troubled relationship with
someone, or getting treatment for heart problems, or trying to recover
from the flu, or are seeking new healing from some painful memories of
childhood, or are getting swamped by anxiety over the upcoming decision
you need to make, or are wanting as full a life as possible while living
with the arthritis in your hip and back, or something's wrong but you aren't
sure what it is yet, or....all can be occasions for receiving this sacramental
rite of God's healing grace, and asking for it again and again if you desire.
Many churches offer this sacramental rite to the whole congregation on
a regular basis. It is always available, like reconciliation of a
penitent, upon request.
9. Christian Prayer Life
"Will you continue in the...prayers?"
All prayer is corporate,
is an expression of the Church, and belongs to Christ's prayer through
the work of the Holy Spirit. You see, if we are inseparably linked
to Christ and his Church and the saints in heaven and earth through our
baptism, then our individual prayer is not our own alone but part of the
corporate prayer of the whole community of Christ over the ages.
So what? So...think BIG when you think of prayer, even your own "little"
Your prayer is also a one-of-a-kind expression of you, a completely unique individual. You communicate to God, and listen and respond to God, in a way that only you can do. The challenge I would like to offer you is to recognize ways that you can connect consciously with the broader prayer of the Church, learn about the traditions of prayer that can undergird your own prayer, and claim the freedom to express yourself to God and respond to God in ways in accord with your deepest, fullest understanding of who you are. That's a big challenge...a lifetime challenge.
Now we are looking at "conscious beginnings" about prayer so lets see if we can make things a little more concrete. We will look at some resources for prayer in the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, look at the Church's daily office and the adapted form for individual and family devotions, the prayers of repetition, visualized prayers, and the prayer of silence, and then I will offer a few comments about attitudes of prayer.
THE BIBLE AS A PRAYER RESOURCE
Certainly the single commonly
shared Christian resource about prayer is the Holy Bible. Although
it is not a manual of instruction on how to pray, it does give us examples
of great prayers and important guidance about prayer. But mostly
the Bible gives us a context for understanding prayer--prayer is an expression
of the relationship between a person (and a people) and God. As you
read the Bible, you begin to notice that there is communication going on
between God and human beings. God does not desire to be distant from
humans; and humans, in their fullness, do not desire to be separated from
God. So as you are trying to develop your prayer life be sure to
pay attention to the Bible as the primary resource for building a relationship
Beyond a teaching resource, the Bible is the primary resource for *meditation--which is often the starting-point for personal prayer. Once I ask myself the question "what is God trying to tell me?" through a particular passage in scripture, I have begun to engage the Bible reading as a subject of meditation. The passage of scripture can become an opened doorway through which God may enter and have an impact upon me in some way. Here's a little example (not a rigid formula!) about moving from reading a passage of scripture into my responding in a kind of prayer. First I read a passage of scripture until something gets my attention...then I think about the passage...I wonder what God may be trying to tell me...I ask God for guidance...I notice and feel the feelings that the passage gives me...I reflect upon my life and my world as it is now...I wrestle honestly with/or give thanks for the implications that the passage hints at for me in my life...I respond to the insights that God has given me...and discover that God has used scripture to move me into meditation and prayer.
THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER AS A PRAYER RESOURCE
Many Christian denominations provide a worship book that is a major resource for learning about the prayer experience. However, bear in mind that no book can convey the fullness of prayer--especially your prayer. The Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer, in its various revisions, has been such a resource. It provides ways of ordering corporate worship and gives us valuable teaching about prayer, structures for prayer, and the rich resources of prayers shared by many people (some of ancient origin). Let's get oriented to this book in relation to the topic of prayer.
TEACHINGS ABOUT PRAYER:
A brief outline about prayer
is found in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (1979) in the section
entitled "Prayer and Worship" on pages 856-857. You may wish to familiarize
yourself with the principal kinds of prayer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving,
penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. Does your prayer
life try to reflect those various dimensions of prayer? Is there
a kind of prayer that you are avoiding?
The definition that the prayer book gives on page 856 to prayer is: Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words. That should be an interesting definition, because often people think that prayer is a long series of beautiful words that very few people can compose (and you have to be really holy first) that are said to God to get God to do something for us. But prayer, in its essence, is our response to something that God is graciously doing. You may or may not use words as part of your response--maybe instead of words you will find yourself dancing, or drawing, or creating music, or helping meet the needs of the homeless in your area, or sending a little card to your sick friend, or being deeply silent, or....
COLLECTION OF PRAYERS AND THANKSGIVINGS:
You should be aware that
the prayer book, obviously, contains many prayers for your use. Special
prayers called "collects" are found in both traditional language and contemporary
language from pages 159-261. The collects summarize (collect) the
major focus of a particular day in the Church year and for various special
occasions or themes.
An Index of Special Prayers and Thanksgivings is found on pp. 810-813, and the prayers themselves follow on pp. 814-841. Included in this collection of prayers are four forms of "Grace at Meals," prayers #70, on page 835, which surely will give you (and your family) something to say at mealtimes as a devotional practice.
Not only does the Bible contain the Psalms, so does the prayer book due to its importance as a way of taking the wide range of human emotions and situations into prayer before God. The Psalms can be thought of as the ancient Jewish prayer book/hymnal and their enduring value cannot be overlooked. In the Book of Common Prayer the Psalms are found on pages 585-808. You will notice that the prayer book divides up the psalms in such a way that you can say several every morning and evening on a thirty day cycle. There also is a daily office "lectionary" (meaning schedule of scripture readings) divided up into a two year cycle. Instructions on the lectionary for the daily office is on pp. 913-914. If you follow that schedule of readings each morning and evening, you will normally go through the entire Psalter in a seven-week period. The point is that the prayer book emphasizes regular repetition of the psalms as a part of the prayer life of the Church and its members. We will discuss prayer patterns of repetition in greater detail shortly.
DAILY OFFICE AND DEVOTIONS FOR INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES:
The Church continues to be
faithful to the ongoing offering of prayer on behalf of the world and the
people of God. In the Episcopal Church (and entire worldwide Anglican
Communion of Churches) this regular daily cycle of prayer is called the
Daily Office, with the principal offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.
They can be found, again in traditional language and contemporary language,
from pages 36-102, and pp. 115-126, with some additional directions (called
"rubrics") on pp. 141-143. Officiants of the public conduct of the
Daily Office may be clergy or Lay Readers, lay people specially licensed
by the diocesan bishop to lead public worship. Many lay people and
clergy read one or both of the offices on a daily basis as part of their
Some "minor offices" are also included in the prayer book. On pages 103-107 is found an Order of Service for Noonday. The Order of Worship for the Evening, pp. 108-114, is basically supplemental to Evening Prayer or a Holy Eucharist. An Order for Compline is found beginning on page 127. (Compline means "completion" of the day, so it is the final prayer office of the day.)
What I would encourage beginners to look at particularly is the material on pp. 136-140. This contains four brief orders of prayer based on the daily office pattern but simplified: Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families. The pattern is simple and comes, as does the daily offices, from the ancient monastic pattern of breaking up the day with times of scripture and prayer. Thus the form plays out like this: A portion of a psalm or psalms is read; a brief lesson from scripture is read; silent time for meditation may follow; a response by a hymn or canticle or creed may follow; particular prayers for ourselves and others may be offered; the Lord's Prayer is said; and a collect for the time of day completes the office. This is a good pattern of devotion--it can be further modified, but it is a balanced devotional structure that has endured for over 1500 years!
PRAYERS OF REPETITION
One of the major types of
prayer pattern is often called "prayers of repetition." This can
be broken into two subtypes. One type has already been indicated,
and that is a cyclical pattern of ordering prayer. The Jewish and
early Christian pattern of regular use of the psalms is an example of this
repetitious pattern of ordering prayer. The regular pattern of scripture
and prayers attuned to the time of the day, on a daily, weekly, seasonal,
and yearly basis is part of a repetition pattern. For example, the
Benedictine monasteries and religious communities I am familiar with will
break the day into five or six different times with ordered psalms, short
scripture, brief meditation, collects and hymns attuned to the time of
day and seasonal or special focus. The psalms in that setting will
be said corporately in their entirety on a weekly cycle. So what
does that mean for you? Perhaps at the least you could be encouraged
to establish a modest individual or family devotional pattern on a daily
basis, as well as a weekly "rule" of community worship.
Another subtype of the prayers of repetition is to pray a single, simple prayer on a repetitive basis (like a Hindu mantra, or praying the *Rosary). This is an ancient form of praying, developing out of the fourth-sixth century "Desert Fathers and Mothers" tradition. Some of the earliest practices were to take the Lord's Prayer and say it over and over, or a short verse of scripture or psalm and use it throughout the day (or longer). The "Prayer of the Heart" developed from this practice of a short repetitive prayer, and its most famous prayer in the ancient Orthodox tradition is called the "Jesus Prayer." The longest version of this prayer is: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner." It is repeated mentally with the rhythm of your breathing, phrase by phrase. The prayer can be shortened--even down to the regular repetition of the sacred name alone: "Jesus." St. Francis of Assisi is credited with the repetitious prayer: "My God and my all!" Such simple prayers, said over and over, can have a powerful shaping effect upon the person. You might develop your own simple prayer of the heart, or use one that has been used by countless people through the ages.
There is a form of prayer that was given a strong shape and purpose about 400 years ago by Ignatius Loyola with his "spiritual exercises." This form of prayer uses the power of your imagination to visualize a scene, usually a biblical setting, and encounter your image of Jesus. A dialogue or some other kind of exchange usually occurs between yourself and Jesus, or other image of the Holy One. The point is this: you can enter imaginatively into Holy Scripture and engage your inner world in a meditation that leads to prayer that is dialogic. There are dangers, and I would strongly encourage extensive visualization work to be done only with the guidance, or a least a clear "check-in," of a spiritual director. What we image may, but also may not, be an accurate reflection of God's leading in your life. Is the prayer consistent with mature spiritual understandings of what God is like and desires for us? Does the prayer lead to a deepening of the fruits of the Spirit? Am I just playing a kind of "wish fulfillment" that is self-centered? Such things to discern are best done with a mature spiritual companion and guide, even with those who are more proficient at prayer.
One very common prayer type is the "arrow" prayer. It is a modest little word or phrase that seems to fly from the pray-er to God. We hear them offered in a "God bless you!" after a sneeze! Or a "O God, help!" in a life threatening moment of emergency. This kind of prayer can be intentionally cultivated, so that in whatever circumstance you find yourself, whatever setting, and with whomever you find yourself, you can silently offer an arrow prayer--of blessing, of thanksgiving, of request for help, of whatever seems to leap from within you to God. It is a spontaneous prayer, but also a moment of recollection. Cultivating the use of modest little arrow prayers throughout the day is probably one of the best tools for frequently being in a recollected state before God.
PRAYER OF SILENCE
"Be still, and know that
I am God!" says Psalm 46. There is an important place for silence
in prayer life. This silence is like the empty basket that is ready
to hold new things, or like the lover that awaits the beloved one's presence.
This silence allows us to listen for and to God's "still, small voice."
This silence beholds the mystery of God in simple love beyond any image.
It is the prelude of prayer that helps us to become recollected, and it
is the awful time when a multitude of distractions and worrys and irritations
and great irrelevant ideas come buzzing in on us while trying to get centered
A good spiritual guide can be helpful with this elusive, confusing, sometimes powerful thing called the prayer of silence. Our culture does a terrible job of cultivating silence. We are electronically and mechanically bombarded with noise in our "high tech" society. And yet, the witness of the Bible and the Christian spiritual leaders of the past hold up for us the development of periods of "holy silence." Writes the Psalmist, "For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation." (Psalm 62:1).
Some people (perhaps many) are called by God over time into deep silence as the predominant prayer in their life--but again this can be tricky, filled with unconscious ways of avoiding an honest prayer life that challenges and changes you. So if you are entering into a regular prayer experienced as focused on silence it is important to have a knowledgeable spiritual director to "check-in" with. Perhaps you are being led by God from "active" prayer to a more *"contemplative" prayer. Or you may be misleading yourself into an ineffective prayer life--and you may not be praying at all. I would be especially concerned about someone discerning that they have been led by God into a life of the prayer of silence who hasn't had much experience in regular devotional practices and an active prayer life for some considerable time.
For those who are beginners at prayer (and that applies to all of us at some level), know that your prayer will probably change over time and don't panic. It is a good thing to have a spiritual companion that you can check in with if you have questions or need to clarify some experiences you have in light of the accumulated knowledge of spiritual traditions of Christian prayer. Other people have walked your road before you--why not learn from them?
ATTITUDE AND PRAYER
I want to offer a few comments
about attitude and prayer. Jesus certainly cautioned against a kind
of hypocritical, self-righteous, or self-serving attitude. Humility
(a word coming from "humus," knowing we are earthy people springing from
the dirt and dust) seems to be a watchword. But I would caution that
even "humility" can become a barrier between you and God--if it starts
becoming an attitude that in effect says you shouldn't be in a relationship
with God because you're just no good. Certainly we are in relationship
with a gracious and merciful God, and on our part we are, through Jesus
Christ, forgiven sinners. But humility doesn't mean grovelling.
It means looking at ourselves and others with a level view.
We are redeemed people, who are fortunate enough to be loved unconditionally by God. We are sinners in the process of being made sacred, sanctified. We are more than our sins, and less than what we will be made by God's continuing work within us. We cannot grow in our virtues, or into a greater wholeness, without God's grace. We are also ambassadors for Christ, and heirs of the promise of the fullness of the realm of God. We have high dignity, because we are beloved by God because of God's extraordinary generosity. So for me, I wish to develop an "attitude of gratitude" as they say in the twelve step program language. We are made worthy to stand before God, says one of the eucharistic prayers, because through Jesus we have been delivered from evil. So come boldly before God with the assurance of being called a beloved son or daughter, with loving gratitude and the expectation that God will give us that which is good and will lead us on the path that is right for us.
With this in mind, we develop an attitude of living prayerful lives in the presence of our loving God. Prayerfulness becomes more our focus than simply "saying our prayers." Our lives become prayers as our responses to our active recollected relationship to God unfolds. I think that this attitude is worthy of cultivation right from the start.
10. Evil and Sin
"Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?"
We were discussing looking
at ourselves and others with a level view, and yet with the eyes of faith
in our loving God. Here in this Baptismal Covenant question are the
level eyes of faith. Evil does exist and it does require our being
awake to its existence and resistant to that which distorts, abuses, destroys,
overwhelms, and corrupts. Also, there is a kind of blindness that
catches us and takes us out of our right minds, tempting us to sin--and
we do lose our proper vision.
I remember Fr. Timothy Kelly, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, telling a group of us at the Upper Room's Academy for Spiritual Formation, "I never committed a sin because it was bad, I sinned because it was very good." There is the level eye with a chuckle! We will fall into sin from time to time, because something will appear just too good to us to resist--something will throw off our proper perspective. Yes, I suppose some people do willingly and wantonly enter into evil--but I think that there is a kind of blindness involved in this business of sinning in the normal Christian experience of living. Fortunately, we sooner or later recover our sight enough to recognize that all is not well with us (thank God!).
Our job then is not to wallow in our unwellness and separateness from God and risk getting further incapacitated by a shame complex. We are to stop doing what we are guilty of doing (or not doing), turn around (or away from that behavior), and return to the Lord who is ready and willing to forgive a repentant sinner again and again infinitely. Then, for goodness sakes, quit hitting yourself with the guilt hammer, put it down, and forgive yourself--otherwise you are withholding a love (spiritual healing, reconciliation) from yourself that God is desiring you to have. That puts you in a rather stupid position of distorted pride.
Sometimes you might use a little help in getting on the right track. Remember that you can call on a "discreet priest" or other spiritual guide (and it doesn't have to be your own parish priest) to give you a helping hand. What you think is a sin might not be a sin (a temptation is not a sin, for example). What you might need is some guidance in a healing path, or some good moral support, or further empowerment, or a few ideas on how to direct your attention to what you are really needing. If guilt burdens your conscience it is a good idea to talk to a priest about the sacrament of reconciliation of a penitent. You are not the first person, by far, to use a little help!
One practice that some of the spiritual guides of the past suggest for people who are in a time of consciously beginning to live more intentionally a life in the freedom of God and conformed to Christ is to make a "general life review and confession." The idea is to go over your life history and celebrate your growth and the growth of virtues and empowerments in your life by God's grace. It is also to look for themes of "prevailing sins" and areas in your life where you need God's forgiveness and guidance into further growth and healing. A general life review may lead to sacramental confession and reconciliation, but it should also lead to thanksgiving for God's gifts, virtues, and empowerments that have been developing in your life.
You should be mindful that there are two special seasons every year that encourage self-examination with that level vision that we were discussing: the seasons of Advent and Lent. These are seasons of preparation for celebrating the seasons of Christmas and Easter. You will hear special words of encouragement in those seasons for you to take the time for a spiritual self-examination--a kind of regular spiritual "maintenance check" to see what is strong in you, and what needs a little adjustment and retuning. Some parish priests will maintain special hours during the seasons of Advent and Lent for you to drop by the church for spiritual counsel or for the sacrament of penance.
11. Sharing the Good News
"Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?"
Good question--but for a
newcomer (and some oldsters I know) to the awakened faith it might take
a while to discover what the "Good News of God in Christ" is. Once
you figure that one out, why wouldn't you want to share it? Our high
commissioning as Christians is to spread the gospel (good news).
Compassion, gentleness, and understanding help the message to get heard
or the examples to be received. You don't force love on people (it
needs to be freely given and received), but neither does God wish to withhold
it from people. A gentle meeting of people at their point of need
with the care born of your relationship with God is good evangelism.
Develop your own understanding of the good news of Christ in your own life,
pray for you to share Christ's love with someone God puts in your path,
and be a friend in Christ to that person when he or she comes along.
This is good stuff to talk about in a small group at church. You'll
see how other people want to share the good news, and how they struggle
with how to articulate their relationship with God. Often we can
help each other in this.
One little example of gentle evangelism is risking offering a little prayer at mealtime when nary a word of thanks to God has been uttered for years! This is bearing witness in a simple way to the fact that your relationship with God is subtly changing. If questioned, be gentle, direct and simple in your reason for doing this. No need to argue or defend yourself or God. Just that you are practicing expressing gratitude to God for the good little things in life--like food on the table (and family or friends to share it with).
Your regular presence at Sunday worship is a proclamation by example of what you consider to be important in your life. People tend to take note of things like your Church participation, if you are willing to let people know that you do this on Sundays and other times. After a while folks may ask you about what you do at church, or why you go, or share a little about a concern in their life and give you a chance to respond with love and prayer and perhaps an invitation to go with you to a church service.
Your willingness to commit yourself financially to the support of the Church and the ongoing work of God is a witness by example of the importance you place in seeing that the Good News is available to others as well as yourself. Seeing your resources of time, money, interests and abilities as subject to your Lord Jesus Christ makes you known to others as a willing, committed steward of God. It is an important witness to the Gospel that sets you free to move beyond mere self-interest in life to become truly generous, as God is generous.
These are some ways that you may grow in your ability to be a witness to the gospel. Be awake to other ways that you may be able to share in Christ's good news of wholeness, peace, true salvation. Also, be aware that the people that are most likely to respond to the genuine message of God's love that you bear are the people that are closest to you--your family, friends, neighbors, and work partners who are unchurched and needing this love in their life.
12. Seeing and Serving Christ in Others
"Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?"
St. Benedict's millennium-and-a-half
old monastic rule charges monks to treat all guests as if they were Christ,
for Jesus himself said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew
25:35c). Mother Theresa of Calcutta bears witness that the
socially castoff humans, those dying forgotten ones, are especially to
be treated as Christ himself by members in the religious order of the Sisters
of Charity who minister to them.
I remember hearing a woman religious, a fine artist and eloquent speaker living in Wisconsin, talk about her parochial school days as a child. A particular sister who had taken a vow of silence would nod at each child in the hallway. When she asked about the silent nun who was always nodding, she was told that the nun was greeting the Christ in each child.
To be a Christian does mean to take on a discipline of loving servanthood in the name of Christ. Our leadership is to be exercised in serving others. The greatest among us is to be servant of all. We are called to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves. Such teachings express values that are largely hidden in the world about us, which is so often self-seeking and defensive, and are therefore radically subversive. Our teacher is Jesus Christ, and as a people under his discipline we are called upon to show forth in our lives the kind of radical love that God has showed to us. Benedict of Nursia, Theresa of Calcutta, and the silent nun in an anonymous parochial school learned to show this love and servanthood by consciously seeking Christ in each person encountered. By serving the Christ in the other person, paradoxically, you have the chance to show Christ's presence in you to the other person. For a time, you have the opportunity to "incarnate" Christ through your actions of love.
Again, for a spiritually awakening person one of the best ways to learn about this way of viewing people and gaining some practice in it is to get involved in a stable small group in your parish church or interchurch group where you can share with some intimacy and confidentiality your attempts at this part of Christian living. It isn't easy to maintain this view. Often you will fail. But to be with others who are seeking to grow in the capacity to see Christ in others, and serve Christ in all persons, and love in an expansive way, is going to strengthen you--and you will strengthen them.
13. Christian Action in the World
"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"
We are called to be a people
that bears the message of Christ's reconciliation of humanity to God in
his compassionate life and atoning death on the cross. The work of
reconciliation continues--we share in Christ's great work of building the
realm of God in our own day. Our world still suffers the brokenness
of sin: injustices occur on many levels; hatred and contentiousness between
people, sexes, races, and nations continue. Human beings still are
often denied basic needs, and treated as objects to be manipulated rather
than subjects to be respected.
Are your social practices ethically sound? Does your growing sense of living a "spiritual" life include living in a respectful relationship with others, especially those who are different from you? Do you have a concern for helping build a moral order that focuses on establishing justice in the world around you and bringing about new levels of reconciliation between people? Our spirituality is not to be "otherworldly" in the sense of a kind of quietude or unconcern about what happens in our world. Because God so loved this world as to become Incarnate in it, our own spiritual lives should reflect a love for God's world also. "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." goes the Lord's Prayer.
As you get to know the people in your church and broader Christian community you will be amazed at the amount of people that are socially concerned, compassionate, and active at community and world service in the name of Christ. These people have taken up the challenge to try to make a difference in their world, and respond to God's love for humanity and all of God's creation. Many interchurch and parish projects focus the energy and talents of Christians in this way, creating a dynamic force in the broader community and the world for helping build this realm of God.
This Baptismal Covenant question and the previous one encourage us to move beyond ourselves in generous, loving Christian activity in the world. As God's love heals and builds within us, so does God's love compel us to move beyond ourselves with healing and transforming love as gifts to the world. A balanced spiritual life shows proper care within and without; respect for the dignity that God has given us, and respect for the dignity of all people and creation that God desires to give in loving unity through Christ. You might ask yourself how are you showing this love and concern for people and God's world. Are you a member of any particular organizations (within or outside of the church) that helps build a greater sense of justice and peace in the world? Does some of your money go to organizations that reflect this activity?
14. Thoughts for the Journey
We started this little guide
with the idea that Christian living can be done with intentionality and
direction. When you awaken to the challenge to begin a deeper cooperation
with God in developing your spiritual life in conscious ways, why not draw
upon the teaching, experience, and guidance of those who have gone that
way before you? We have looked at a way of moving deeper into Christian
life that focuses upon the Baptismal Covenant and our response to the relationship
that God initiates in Holy Baptism. Our response to this act of God's
grace is to begin living prayerful, recollected lives that are open and
desirous of God's further shaping and transformation: as individuals, as
members of the Christian community of faith, and as persons called to activity
within God's world.
You have the opportunity to explore various spiritual practices, and determine what is appropriate for you at this time. Learning what is not for you at this time is an important step in learning what God is inviting you to do. So don't get upset if you find that some things are not for you. Start with a very simple set of disciplines that you know are helpful to you and that you can make regular, foundational practices. Check these out with someone who you know is spiritually mature. This becomes the start of a spiritual rule of life. Having a rule of life is the opposite of trying to live with a whole lot of little legalistic oughts. Rule of life means that these are practices you have found to be basic to your spiritual health. Over time the rule may change, but keep it simple and yet honest to the basic Baptismal Covenant.
Although this little guide has been written for those who are undergoing some sense of spiritual (re)awakening, and you may therefore be in a time of a kind of energetic period in your life, I do want to emphasize that it is the experience of many deeply spiritual people throughout Christian history that periods of high energy alternate with periods of low energy.
Traditionally these have been called times of spiritual "consolation" oscillating with spiritual "desolation" or "aridity." The point is to live by faith with constancy, not desiring to live for the spiritual mountaintops and avoiding the valleys but accepting both the ups and downs as part of spiritual life. Much can be learned about faithful Christian living in the times of dryness--often more can be learned and more strength can be gained in living in those times than in the times of high emotion and the perceived nearness of God. Living faithfully from a spiritual rule of life (and it doesn't need to be [shouldn't be!] kept perfectly), having some spiritual companions to share with over the long haul, and knowing that your sustained commitment requires your daily efforts at meeting God's grace will be a great help.
God bless you along your way.
Appendix: WORD LIST
The following definitions
are offered for selected words that have been marked in the text with an
asterisk (*). The sources of the definitions are The American
Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [AHD], the second edition
of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church [ODCC], and the
Catechism of The Book of Common Prayer (1979) [BCP].
ANGLICAN Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of the Church of
England or any of the churches related to it in origin and
communion, such as the Episcopal Church. [AHD]
CATHOLIC 1. Of or pertaining to the universal Christian church.
2. Of or pertaining to the ancient undivided Christian church.
3. a. Of or designating those churches that have claimed to be representatives of the ancient undivided church: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Old Catholic. [AHD]
CONTEMPLATION As used by modern religious writers non-discursive mental prayer, as distinguished from meditation. [ODCC]
CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE The state of life devoted primarily to prayer. [ODCC]
CONSCIOUS Having an awareness of one's own existence, sensations, and thoughts, and of one's environment. [AHD]
CORPORATE United or combined into one body; collective. (third definition) [AHD]
COVENANT A bond entered into voluntarily by two parties by which
each pledges himself [or herself] to do something for the other.
A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith. [BCP]
DISCERN To perceive (something obscure or concealed); detect. To perceive differences; make distinctions. [AHD]
EVANGELISM The zealous preaching and dissemination of the gospel, as through missionary work. [AHD]
GRACE Divine love and protection bestowed freely upon [humanity].
The state of being protected or sanctified by the favor of God. An
excellence or power granted by God; an unmerited gift from God. (seventh
Grace is God's favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills. [BCP]
IDENTITY The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by
which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group.
(second definition) [AHD]
LITURGY 1. The rite of the Eucharist. 2. The system of public worship in the Christian church. [AHD]
MEDITATION As the term is used by exponents of Christian spirituality, mental prayer in its discursive form. Its method is the devout reflection on a chosen (often Biblical) theme, with a view to deepening spiritual insight and stimulating the will and affections. [ODCC]
ROSARY A form of devotion to the Virgin Mary, consisting of three sets of five decades each of the "Hail Mary," and ending with a "Glory Be to the Father." [AHD]
SACRAMENTS The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. [BCP]
RECOLLECTION A term used by spiritual writers to denote the concentration
of the soul on the presence of God. It involves the renunciation of all
avoidable dissipations and its use is habitually recommended to those who
wish to lead an interior life. [ODCC]
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