I wrote a blog entry before Philip Turner’s visit, and here, in appreciation, is one in his wake. Christian ethics is about the ‘formation of Christ’ of the Church in the midst of the world, which can result, secondarily, in personal holiness and society’s improvement.
But such formation is hard, for it swims upstream of our assumptions and culture-derived desires. I found myself thinking about what the practices are, rooted in our own tradition, which would foster such formation and at the same time challenge our own predilections. Here are seven. I should hasten to add that they are a challenge for me too. I was a student of Henri Nouwen at Yale, but concluded that silence was not my charism, to say the least. Years later I learned that he was a compulsive talker too, and I was consoled. What he promoted was what he sought, not what he owned. On with the list…
- Sabbath- the fact that our culture has in its commercialism devoured Sunday is proof enough. What if the rest of the day were truly quiet, family, evensong. For work easily becomes an idol. This might include, as folk singer John Prine said, ‘blowing up your TV’, (though the NFL is an exception!)
- The ‘collection for Jerusalem’- it is good if our generosity is set in the context of communion: we are they, we and they limbs of one body…money is good for this, since there our heart is.
- Corporal acts of mercy- the feeding of the poor, the burying of the dead, the tending to the sick. I am impressed by how much of this goes on in our churches. We want to make it visible, and hold it before our eyes. Kairos ministry in prison comes straight out of the Sermon on the Mount, and goes to the heart of our culture’s travail. The parish of the retired bishop of Western Massachusetts had coffee hour served on a pine coffin, made by a parishioner. If someone died, the family came for the parish box and the next was built. Death was part of our common life in the hope of the resurrection, something we bear together…
- Praying for and serving with fellow churches. I am grateful for those who have strong ties, for example, to African-American churches in Dallas. Working together visibly is itself a witness we need, because we are organs of one body. It is so easy for denominations to be insular, and we Episcopalians are no exceptions. This is just the inertia of life.
- Memorization- Our assumptions in religion these days prioritize experience, which is important. But the tradition also emphasized the receiving, internalizing, and proclaiming of our faith, for example in the form of the creed. In Lent new Christians would stand and say the creed as part of the ‘traditio,’ the handing on. I feel similarly about oaths, which are also deeply counter-cultural. We need to make a bigger deal of these before the ecclesia. Taking an oath binding us before God is no small matter.
- Reading Catholic social teaching- Philip talked about this. I am not saying we will agree with everything- I don’t. But it has something to disturb each of us! And it is carefully and theologically worked out. One minute it is opposing abortion, the next it is standing in Juarez, the next it speaks of end-of-life, and it holds these together.
- Praying for the brother and sister we disagree with- this might have to do with wrongs of the past. It might have to do with church politics. Clearly the Gospel tells us that the one who riles us, who is also the one for whom Christ died, is the priority of our praying. For this is the point at which we are reminded that we are not a political or social alliance, but His body, under His Lordship.
Some of these are private disciplines, some public. For all we can think on my late doctor father’s advice, ‘the worst it tastes, the better it is for you.’ As the prophet reminds us, what begins bitter turns sweet in the stomach thanks to the Gospel, for which we are all in equal need.