A Practical Christianity: Introduction

Jane Shaw reminds us that before they were baptized, the earliest Christians were asked not so much “What do you believe?” as “How has your life been transformed by Christ?” Lent is a time to ask ourselves the same central question — “How has my life been transformed by Christ?”

The classical Lenten practices are all about transformation.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are simple, practical ways to invite transformation for ourselves and our faith community.  They’re also worth sharing with others who may have little or no use for religion as a set of theological ideas, but who long for meaning and a new way of living.  As writer Eric Weiner reflected last December in the New York Times, there are many, many people out there who may not believe in God but hope to one day.  At diocesan convention in November I asked every member of the Diocese to have one meaningful conversation with someone about the faith.  Ash Wednesday provides a provocative opportunity to strike up a conversation about Lent and what it means to you.

Do the ashes with which we are marked help to start this conversation or not?  What would you say to kick-start that conversation with someone who may be spiritual but religiously indifferent?

–Bishop Jeff Lee

During Lent, Bishop Lee will lead an online book discussion about A Practical Christianity by Jane Shaw. Learn more, and participate in the conversation on the blog or on Facebook.

37 thoughts on “A Practical Christianity: Introduction

  1. I think I would first want to affirm that being “spiritual” is more important than being “religious.” Some would hold that Christianity is not really about religion at all, but about a relationship, a relationship with God through Jesus. At some point, I’d want to add that Jesus seems to have been both “spiritual” (he prayed, sought healing and wholeness, respected the dignity of other human beings) but also “religious” (he seems to have been a faithful, practicing Jew of his time — although not above criticising his religion where he thought it had gone wrong!).

  2. I think ashes do help. When we offer ashes to another we’re really acknowledging that we are mere mortals too, and we are “in it” together. Our desire to share ashes on our foreheads includes a desire for community. As spiritual beings, we could go through life like bumper cars, protected by our spiritual beliefs. But bumper cars don’t touch each other really. Inviting someone else to consider the joyful way Christians want to connect might start a great conversation. They might see our “religion” as much less lonely.

    • I agree. And, connecting this to the “spiritual but not religious” discussion, it’s interesting to me that people who are not otherwise coming to church on this day, are nonetheless moved by one of our “religious” practices — the imposition of ashes. Sometimes these signs and symbols do indeed connect with something universal.

  3. I must say that the ashes on my forehead today were certainly a conversation starter at the soup counter of my local Mariano’s, when a fellow Christian who also had ashes on her forehead told me (as I ladled beef barley soup into my container) that I was not supposed to eat meat today and that I was going to be punished by God. I was raised in the Lutheran tradition, and attended a Lutheran elementary school, so I have never followed any dietary proscriptions during Lent. I politely told the woman that I was not a Catholic, and I could eat whatever I wanted on this day or any other day. She just wouldn’t let me be. So I told her that she was entitled to her opinion and I pushed my cart in the opposite direction, while she shouted at me across the store! I immediately thought of Jesus and his disciples being chastised by the Pharisees for their food choices, and I decided that even if I was violating some Episcopalian ban on meat eating, i would not feel guilty about it. I wish the conversation had gone differently, and that this woman could have been made to realize that there are many flavors of Christianity, not just hers.

    • Mary, what a wonderful exchange at Mariano’s! While I fast on Ash Wed and Good Friday particularly ut bthat is a choice I make not an ‘obligation of the faith.’ Our freedom in the Gospel on such matters surely hearkens back to Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees on just such an issue.Your “dialogue” partner clearly missed the point of this day…and must not have listened very carefully to the Gospel appointed to be read!

      • Wow – Mary, what an intense experience. And I’m right there with you Bp. Epting – the first thing I thought was the woman criticizing Mary sounds a lot like the Pharisees Jesus’ was commenting on in today’s gospel. I only wish it could have been more of a conversation for Mary…

  4. Experience tells me that some version of a sincere “I’m curious. I hear people use those words a lot. What do they mean for you?” is a great way to begin this conversation. Then, I follow with a lot of listening and open ended questions, followed by more listening and more questions from a heart that is genuinely curious about what these words mean to the speaker.

  5. To me, the ashes are probably one of the best conversation starters. When we receive the ashes, the “ash giver” says “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I think everyone no matter what their faith or non-faith, will acknowledge at least while we are on earth, we really are just dust and our earthly bodies when we die will become dust. I ask people what to they do with all that stuff we call earthly life between birth and death? This is why I believe in faith, because life on this earth would seem to be pretty hollow without faith. And this makes it easy for me as well, because while my faith is as a Christian, I don’t have any reason to try to “convert” someone of another faith. They are just trying to find the same why to steer through a life of purpose and meaning. (That being said, to Mary at Mariano’s, I think maybe Jesus would be ok with the one finger salute in that situation :)-)

  6. As I came into work this morning (after having just come from the Ash Wednesday Mass) I received the initial “You have some dirt on your forehead” comment from one of my students. I said nothing initially as one of the other students in the room chimed in-I.E. answering the question- with the reply “Oh, is it Ash Wednesday already?” So to me the ashes represent an opportunity for “silent” evangelism. The fact that at least one person, in this case a student, remembered a religious practice in which at one time they may have actively participated. As for conversation starters, I often run into those who say they are “spiritual but not religious.” My initial response which usually leads to good conversation is to ask them to define what they perceive “religion” to be.

  7. The ritual and the ashes reminded me that the question isn’t what are you doing/not doing for Lent but reminded me to ask myself “where in my life have I gotten away from god and what are the disciplines that will enable me to find my way back?”

  8. It’s funny, but I have never felt self-conscious about my Ash Wednesday ashes before – in other words I never felt like I would be persecuted for having ashes on my forehead, and if people commented on my “dirt” I was always happy to explain to them that it was Ash Wednesday. I did sometimes wonder if I should wash them off because I did not want to come off as being “holier than thou”. So its funny that I would be scolded for my beef-barley soup heresy. M.E. – I too wish it could have been more of a “conversation” and not a harangue on that woman’s part. It reminded me of the old joke about St. Peter telling the Protestants in heaven to be quiet because the Catholics think they are the only ones there. In hindsight, I wish that I had told her to ask her Priest about it, because I truly think that if she did, he would tell her that Catholics don’t have the lock on Ash Wednesday, and other denominations have other traditions. Maybe that would have been a good thing for her to hear. Actually, she was so incensed about the matter that I would bet she is tweeting the Pope about it right now!

    jim, I have to disagree with you about the one finger salute. I was tempted, but then I would have only had more brimstone raining on my head.

    • In a parish I once served as rector, the mission statement went like this (still does, in fact): Christianity is not a religion … it’s a way of life. I think one of the possibilities of this little bit of public, ashy ritual might be to point to the ordinariness of this way of life we call Christian … especially if we can exercise restraint and charity in the face of the bad behavior of other folks! Practical Christianity. It’s been a good Ash Wednesday in Chicago.

  9. I’m so excited to see my fellow Episcopalians “taking it to the streets.” I tried this last year at a local truck stop but: A. It’s mostly Mormon here so folks don’t know about ashes. B. I didn’t have good signage & C. I wasn’t fully vested–THAT would have brought about some discussion. It’s different in Idaho is all I have to say but later today the Presbyterians & some of our youth are doing a cross-building & ashes ritual. Perhaps next year we can pick out a downtown location to be at.

    • Deb, that is so great that you went to a truck stop! You ate brave and bold for Jesus, my friend! I called the local papers and we had a few folks actually make the drive to DeKalb to receive ashes and ask us to tell them more about the Episcopal church. Plus lots of students walking by, I think a couple remembered us from last year. And some journalism students brought their Niu Tv camera, so someone in a dorm somewhere in town will see Christians practicing their faith today too.

      Its a strange experience taking ashes out to the street, but I’m going to keep doing it. And I think I have a few St Paul’s folks hooked on sharing their faith in ways none of us imagined before. God is good like that!

  10. Do the ashes with which we are marked help to start this conversation or not? What would you say to kick-start that conversation with someone who may be spiritual but religiously indifferent?
    –Bishop Jeff Lee

    Ash Wednesday 7pm, St Marks Barrington lounge our Celtic lenten season begins; parish members ashed each other and then passed on the Holy Mysteries…I turned to a young man on my right who, when handed the cup, turned and said to me, “…I can’t do this…” The cup, wafer, and purificator had been very quickly passed on to him. I just looked at him and said, “you’re doing fine” (he didn’t know I had been an acolyte warden for 13 years) but his eyes of love and his candid words and my reply kick-starts this conversation for me…

  11. My Ash Wednesday this year was too parochial (so to speak) to provoke a conversation about ashes, but I’d like to provoke a conversation about the idea that some people are “spiritual” and not “religious.” Thesis: Show me someone who claims to be spiritual but not religious, and I’ll show you someone who hasn’t yet identified the “outward and visible signs” of her or his “inward and spiritual grace” and who is, for that very reason, likely to follow those unconscious signs “religiously” in a way that makes many “religious” people seem undisciplined, or, as Jesus preceded me in saying, “like the pneuma that blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

  12. Bill, you remind me of Karl Rahner’s (I think) notion of the “anonymous Christian,” people who do not profess the Christian faith but whose lives demonstrate an encounter with the living Christ. I wonder if your observation doesn’t describe one of our greatest evangelsim opportunities, to offer a way for all those folks who identifiy as “none” in the religious affiliation box to put their spiritual longing into practice. To say to them, in effect, religion might not be exactly what you think, and it just might be a way to lead you deeper to your heart’s desire.

  13. Yeah, this is sort of like responding to a self-professed atheist, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in…I probably don’t either!” Hence, “tell me about the religion you don’t practice…I probably don’t either!”

    • “Can’t’ understand those Christians, so
      You type us all in stereo.
      ‘They’re hypocrites, and such a bore’
      Well, come one in, there’s room for one more!”
      — Steve Taylor

      I believe that there is usually a lot of validity to the criticism of the Church, but I think there is also a lot of misunderstanding. Both of which can be blamed on no one other than those of us in the Church. I also, however, think that many outside the Church are not part of it because it’s not convenient enough, or easy enough, or doesn’t just happen by default. However, that’s not to say that we should make it easier, or more convenient, or the default (look where that’s gotten us!), but rather that we need to somehow share with those people, those spiritual people, how to see the mystical and spiritual value of the practice of our faith. It may not be easy (or convenient etc.) but it is worth it.

  14. One day I was talking with my daughter who is studying Anthropology at NIU. She was lamenting the fact that most of the people in her college classes weren’t really serious about their studies. They were there just to party and she really wanted to talk to someone who shared her passion for Anthropology. “Kinda like church,” I said.
    “Huh?” she asked.
    “When you find the right church for you, it’s because you found people who share the same beliefs or passions as you. You have a common goal that you take seriously and you help each other along the way.”
    “Yeah, I guess it is,” she said.
    Well, if anything, it was food for thought for her. She finally found some people that shared her passion for her chosen degree and one young lady in particular was able to give her some good places to check out to help her enrich her studies…Kinda like church.
    ….Just one way I talked to someone who is very spiritual, still trying to find her way religiously

  15. Denise puts her finger on another important point. It’s my impression that those who say they are spiritual rather than religious are usually spiritual in isolation, while those who are spiritual and religious are spiritual in community. Those who are “merely” spiritual may lack community and accountability, while those who are spiritual and religious have both, or at least access to both. I remember my Iowa charismatic renewal days and the analogy of the fire and the fireplace: fire without the fireplace [spiritual] can run wild or blow out; and a fireplace without the fire [religious] is a cold thing without purpose; but fire in the fireplace [spiritual and religious] provides light and warmth.

    • I wonder a lot, about the role of community. Too many, among us, I believe, seek authentic community, but find stilted and rigid institutions. Many, among us have been silenced or politely excluded. Too many, have seen family and friends hurt by the institution. It seems that people will find authentic community, if they seek it, and many are finding it in places other than the church.

      As an Episcopal priest and also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I find it fascinating that some of the deepest conversations and transformations of heart, mind, spirit, individuals, families and couples comes more often in the therapeutic process than it did in the church.

      One of the areas of study for LMFT’s is Cybernetics (a sort of using engineering principles of systems, as applied to family systems). There is first, second and third order change. In first order change, as system, whether mechanical or human, reinforces, changes or adapts it rules of functioning. The purpose of this is usually to restore the level of functioning (or dysfunction) that is familiar, comfortable or generates a needed level of productivity. This is an external change and is generally accepted, as it is the easiest route. Creativity and transformation are not on the table.

      In second order change, a family or other system, adapts its’ understanding and belief about what is happening in the system, why its’ happening, and if it does or does not fit with the current functioning and reality the family or system now finds itself in. There is a level of creativity and open-ness to new ideas and a somewhat increased flexibility in the family or system’s behavior and repertoire of adaptational response. There is a challenge to the comfort level of all involved, but it’s tolerable or the investment in relationship makes it such that compromise is possible or welcomed. There is stretching of self, but not too far.

      Third order change is much less common, but possible. It’s the hardest, riskiest, loneliest and I believe most life-giving. It is transformational change…the kind of change people talk about when they come through an event or challenge and say they are a completely changed person. Have you ever heard a person say, it would be so much easier if they could just to back to the way they used to be, but to do so would be to die. They would rather risk the unknown and the potential of the life it brings, than go back. Something experientially has changed inside and they “have to” respond. This is often a very lonely path.

      It seems that the church is most often engaged in first and second order change. Religion seems to fit best in these systems, with maybe a touch of letting in some of those spirituality ideas/practices. What I think Jesus calls us as individuals and as a people to, is third order, transformational change. In my observation and experience, it seems this is what people deeply hunger for and cannot find (or rarely find) in the church. If we as individuals and as a church, let God transform us, and experience just for a moment the almost unbearable love of God, we could not help but respond to the world around us in a very different way. We could not let injustices stand. We could not be silent. We would not be popular, but we would be the transformed people of God.

      I wonder if people who, with intention, call themselves spiritual, but not religious are struggling to say is that they are hungry for the transformative love of God, the love that encompasses the whole person, body, mind and spirit. The love, that is so big, that even a moment’s experience of it, changes us in way that we can’t risk the cost of going back to the way we were before we experienced LOVE. I think ashes are supposed to be a reminder that third order change is what we are to be about. The church is, I believed called to be the place, we, as community allow ourselves to jump together into third order change, trusting that resurrection is in the process. I wonder, if that is what the intentionally, spiritual, but not religious are trying to tell us. If they can’t find it there, maybe the risk of going it authentically alone is worth it?

  16. Long, but good! I agree with all of what you wrote, and then your last sentence throws me. I wouldn’t say that third order change is impossible “going it authentically alone”; I do think it’s unlikely– it seems to me that third order change almost demands a community of support and accountability. It’s the old saw about no Lone Ranger Christians, or as Paul wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ I would say this applies to secular third order change no less than to spiritual third order change.

    • Bill, I agree with you that it “demands a community of support and accountability.” I have gone through two very difficult times in my life and through the support of my church have come out of those times transformed. I learned a lot about faith in one instance. The other instance I learned about forgiveness. In both instances I was able to see that God was with me through it all. I couldn’t have seen that if not for the community that made it obvious. In the instance of forgiveness, I tried to go it alone for years, and I’m here to tell you, it doesn’t work. To me, church is community, not an institution. Yes, there is an institutional aspect, but that’s not what my soul craves. It’s cravings are answered by the people of the church–my family. If we look at the church as a family, the institution part falls away into the background. We as members of this family, need to take our roles seriously. That, I believe is where the accountability comes in.

      • It’s true and the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you” — but if my right eye offends me, I am advised to pluck it out. So very much hangs on knowing in which circumstances the one principle applies, and in which circumstances, the other!

        I hesitate to speak of the church as “family.” I know a LOT of people for whom that expression makes the church singularly unattractive! But it is true that systems dynamics such as one finds in a family may also be found in a parish.

        It is also true, kinda like you were saying, Denise, that if God shows us Divinity, it is in the context of community, with its support and accountability, that revelation is made and recognized and is transformative or transubstantiative (or- is “metanoical” a word? Is now.) And I am coming to appreciate more and more fully and deeply the Greek “ecclesia” — “Assembly.”

  17. I think the ashes spark conversation, questions and reflection. Different things for different people, perspectives, perceptions, and practices. For me, the conversation about what I am giving up more easily leads to what I am taking on for 40 days to lead me down a stronger, wiser, enlightened path for my next 40 years.

  18. I agree with you that it’s the community, which is why I haven’t used the word “institution” in our conversation. No doubt many institutions fail to support the communities that live within them. I would also say that some institutions, simply by keeping the the doors open and the boilers working and the leaks at bay, keep themselves available for a new or renewed community to bring them to a place of transformation.

    • Lent 02/24 walked in the office this morning and said to irreligious xcatholic, “…Well this biggest snow storm of Winter 2012 had to fall in Lent…she looked at me and said Hallelujah…we both laughed…”

  19. Taking the ashes to the street for the first time this year sparked energy and conversation not only with the 100 or so folks we met and imposed ashes with, but with each other as we saw the hunger and intensity that the sign of the cross, drawn with cold and ashy fingers, inspired in strangers. It was a humbling thing to have someone I did not know walk straight to me and bow their head, waiting for the ashes with such hope and who knows what longing. I hope that those we met had conversations about the ashes. I know several folks snapped our pictures on their cell phones. One earnest young man rushed past and dropped two quarters into the bowl of ashes — talk about a conversation starter! Our team of 5 found that the ashes became something much more for us personally and as a church. The feeling is that we have begun a conversation with a church family (those outside the church) that we simply haven’t met yet. It inspires a new level of care and concern for the community and the world!

  20. The Adult Forum at St. Giles, Northbrook began with the quote from the book, “Jesus shows remarkably little interest in peoples’ spiritual lives.” Why not spiritual? What is remarkable? Jesus was either looking for an integration of body, mind, and spirit or presupposed that there is already such integration. Jesus preaches the coming of the Kingdom. God gives us life in all of its aspects. We need to respond to that offer of life.

  21. I think it may be a bit closer to the truth to way that “Jesus showed remarkablyi little interest in individuals getting into heaven” but rather (as we saw in the conclusion to yesterday’s Gospel) about establishing the Kingdom of God here on earth. “The time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God has drawn near, repent and believe in this good news!”

      • No question but that Jesus believed in life after death, as this promise to the thief next to him on a cross clearly shows. The Pharisees, and other parties in Judaism, shared that belief. My only point was that this was not his central message (even though the church has often spoken as though it was).

  22. I loved Lisa’s idea of bringing the Pet Blessing to the dog parks and streets.

    A comment also about the “hunger and intensity” of Ashes to Go on the street, in contrast to, in my parish at least, a diminishment over the years of attendance at Ashes Right Here in the Church! We had only two teenagers, and no one younger, at our three Ash Wednesday services.

    Next year, I’m going to use the Ash Wednesday liturgy, minus the ashes and references to them, on the First Sunday in Lent, because the Introduction to the Observance of a Holy Lent, and Psalm 51, and the Litany of Penitence are too (ahem!) spiritual and religious to be missed. If we can do something like that for the Sunday after All Saints, why not for Ash Wednesday?

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