So what is the point of practice? We have a sense of our objective when practicing a musical instrument--we want to become more proficient at playing. But what about spiritual practices like prayer, scripture study, service, fasting? These aren't activities which we really set out to master. In fact, the more we do them, more we become aware of how little we actually know and how much more we have to learn. We may start doing these things regularly with the intention of becoming better at doing them. But the experience of doing them regularly eventually changes the intention with which we do them.
At least that's how it's worked for me. I start of doing things for one reason--but the reason to continue doing them, the real value of the practice, is revealed to me only over time.
The cover story of the March 9, 2010 issue of The Christian Century was written by William H. Willimon, currently a United Methodist Bishop and formerly the Dean of the Chapel of Duke University. It got my attention because on the cover was this quotation: "The focus on religious practices is deflecting our attention from God."
Willimon's article is a re-consideration of some of the statements he and co-writer Stanley Hauerwas made in their 1989 book, Resident Aliens. I know the book well, as the year it came out I wrote my senior thesis in college on Hauerwas. My thesis adviser was Alasdair MacIntyre who is quoted with disapproval in Willimon's article. I don't think it's a stretch to say that my 16 years in pastoral ministry have more deeply shaped by the conversation about the value and role of practices in the life a of a Christian than by any other theological movement. And now I serve a congregation which requires its members to agree to practice five basic disciplines: prayer, worship, service, scripture study and giving.
At the heart of the conversation about practices is the assertion (or really, the reminder) that being a Christian is not just a matter of professing faith in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not just a set of ideas or beliefs or feelings--it is a way of living, a way of relating to other people, a way of relating to the future, and so on. Jesus asks us not simply to believe in him, but to follow him. (If you've been listening to me preach for a while, these comments will sound familiar!)
Willimon has no argument here. What bothers him is that sometimes, people adopt spiritual practices, or even argue for spiritual practices, for other reasons beside their desire to follow Jesus. He doesn't want to separate a practice from "the God who makes Christian practice interesting in the first place." This is especially problematic, according to Willimon, when we use the conversation about practices to make connections with other religions. So for example, when Christians and Jews talk together about observing the Sabbath or Christians and Muslims talk together about fasting without discussing the distinctive faith commitments that are expressed in these similar practices.
I do see Willimon's point, but I think it's so important that Jews and Muslims and Christians talk together that I'm willing to forgive a lot about the nature of the conversation. Any common ground is better than none. We can move to talking about differences later.
But more importantly, I haven't experienced the problems he describes as common. We talk an awful lot about practices (or disciplines) at KC, but we ALWAYS describe these activities as preparing the ground in which God will plant the seed of a call. That's an important distinction for us--we are not a practice-based church. We are a call-based church, committed to hearing and responding to God's call to each and all of us. Because of that, we are committed to faith practices, because they help us to become receptive to God's call.
So what if someone observes these practices for the wrong reason? What if someone comes to worship to see their friends? What if someone reads scripture in order to be able to argue with his fundamentalist neighbor better? What if someone prays because it passes the time? Well, I don't expect that these people will see significant change in their life. Like Brother Lawrence, I think the spirit with which you enter into a practice is significant. That's the reason why washing pots can be a prayer--you can enter into that activity with an intention to be in the presence of God.
But I also know there is a lot of mystery to these things. I know that you can start reading scripture to argue with it and end up being surprised by its grace and beauty. You can start off praying for God to heal your sick mother and somewhere down the line you realize that its you who has been healed. Alasdair MacIntyre taught me this--many of the goods, the virtues of a practice are only accessible to those engaged with it. It is hard to describe what prayer does to someone who does not pray. The nature of prayer is, in part, revealed only to those who undertake it.
So I for one don't care if someone undertakes a faith practice for the wrong reason. I think we all find that our reasons change as the practice deepens.