Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People

Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People


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Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People by Dorothy C. Bass

An updated edition of the down-to-earth resource that offerstwelve practices to make Christian faith a way of life

Many Christians are looking for ways to deepen theirrelationship with God by practicing their faith in everyday life.This best-selling guide helps take belief out of the realm oftheory and shows how to live it out in a series of twelve centralpractices such as hospitality, forgiveness, healing, testimony, andkeeping Sabbath. Designed to work across a wide range of Christianlaypeople, leaders, denominations, and study groups, this is thesecond edition of the book that Theology called "... astimulating contribution to the work of making explicit theconnection between what Christians do and what they believe."

  • Contains information on the practices discussed in the book andshows how they relate to and intersect with prayer, worship, andBible study
  • Offers a guide for conversation, learning, and growth at theback of the book
  • This updated and expanded new edition includes a newintroduction and two additional chapters that describes newinsights into and experiences with the "practicing our faith"approach

The book includes a variety of prominent contributors, who drawon their rich shared experience as believers, theologians,ethicists, and educators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780470484111
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 01/19/2010
Series: Practices of Faith Series , #24
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 267,245
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dorothy C. Bass is a writer, noted church historian, and director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass

I never thought I'd be living this way," she says. "Somehow I imagined that life would be simpler." She has reached forty, and she thinks she should have her life together by now, but things are just not right. Too few evenings include nourishing suppers shared with loved ones; too many are given over to the demands of paid work or housework, or lost to worry and exhaustion. Her closest friends are spread across several time zones. The old neighbors she entrusted with the house key are gone, and she barely knows the new ones. She finds community here and there, and she volunteers to help out as she can, but she is wary about getting too involved. Showing up at a PTA meeting, she has learned, probably means getting stuck with a fundraising assignment, so increasingly she stays away, in spite of her intense concern about her children and all the others. She does not feel right about this. "This is not how I intended to live my life," she sighs, turning from one task to the next.

    The sighs of this woman and so many of us today come only in part from having too much to do. Even more, these sighs are born of our yearning to understand what the too-much-to-do adds up to. We long to see our lives whole and to know that they matter. We wonder whether our many activities might ever come together in a way of life that is good for ourselves and others. Does all this activity make a difference beyond ourselves? Are we really living in right relation to other people, to the created world, and to God?

    These concerns engulf the unemployed as well as the busy professional, the retiree as well as the young parent, the recent immigrant as well as the lifelong citizen. Lacking a vision of a life-giving way of life, we turn from one task to another, doing as well as we can but increasingly uncertain about what doing things well would look like. All the while, an uneasiness lies just beneath the surface—an uneasiness made of personal restlessness, worry about our loved ones, and apprehension about the well-being of the world.

    With this book, we and eleven other authors who have known this uneasiness invite you to join us in envisioning a way of life that is whole, a way of life that can be lived with integrity in our time. We write because we believe that Christian faith offers hope and help to people who long for such a way. Each author is different; we come from a variety of Christian traditions, regions, races, and backgrounds. But we all perceive that the search for how to live aright at this time in history is an extremely urgent one. In all the communities we know, people yearn for deeper understanding of how to order human life in accord with what is true and good. And beyond this desire, we recognize another reason for urgency: the good of all people, indeed of all creation, may depend on our ability to order our lives well.

Life-Giving Ways of Life

A Catholic priest recently told a gathering of friends about a time when he arrived in Israel late on a Friday afternoon, just as everything was about to shut down for the Sabbath. Public transportation was no longer available, and the house where people were expecting him was fifteen miles away. So he picked up his suitcase and started to walk. He did not get far before a family saw him and invited him to spend the Sabbath with them. He accepted their invitation, and they all had a wonderful time. When Saturday evening came, he found his bus and went on his way.

    After the priest finished his story, a Jewish friend said that he had a similar story to tell. As a long-haired college student in the late 1960s, he was traveling through Spain. One night, he got off a train in a village that was already asleep. A little frightened, he approached the only lighted place. It turned out to be a monastery, and the monks received him gladly. After his departure, he discovered that they had quietly slipped some coins into his pocket as he slept.

    In both of these stories, we get glimpses of ancient traditions sustaining ways of life that shelter and nourish people, ways of life ready to receive strangers who are passing through. The hospitality these two young men received came from communities structured with hospitality in mind. In each of these places, hospitality was more than an individual act of kindness—it was sustained by a way of life.

    What would happen in our society today if young men like these were wandering through? Perhaps they would be fortunate and find a safe place to rest. But they, or others not so different from them, might not. For is there not a crisis of hospitality in our society? It is tragically evident in homelessness and widespread hostility to immigrants. But it affects almost everyone in less noticeable ways as well. A stranger smiles, and we cautiously turn away. In our retreat from hospitality, we find that even friends and relatives sit at our tables less often than they used to.

On Not Going It Alone in a Time of Change

Today, the shared ways of life that sustain hospitality are changing all around us. And change is also affecting the other basic activities we depend on for our well-being. Change touches us in our homes, workplaces, hospitals, and schools; it tests our relationships and shapes our desires, altering our sense of what we can expect from others and what we should expect of ourselves. On the grand scale, change shows up in major technological advances or global shifts in population. But in the end it reaches into the kitchens and bedrooms even of people who rarely travel and never use a computer. The basic activities of life are shifting all around us, and we are being pushed in directions we never intended to go.

    These shifts have set many people on spiritual journeys, in search of solid ground. But here too, change complicates matters, for now a dazzling array of religious and therapeutic options is available. It is hard to know what is of value, and harder still to settle into a steady way. So great is the need for insight that people look for it in many places—sometimes, indeed, in many places all at once. What will it be? Eastern meditation or Western psychotherapy, twelve-step groups or self-help books, spiritual retreats or private prayer? Some of us invest our hopes in spiritual journeys that are private and inward-looking, only to find that the very same forces that prompted the journey also work against finding a nourishment that is rich and enduring. Dislocated and disconnected, we suppose that self-help offers our best hope. Lacking shared beliefs, we conclude that our private preferences are the closest we can come to the truth of matters. When this happens, the solo quest only mimics the disconnectedness that gave it birth.

    The fact is that inward journeys are not enough to meet our need. Our lives are tangled up with everyone else's in ways beyond our knowing, "caught," as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny." The simplest economics teaches this truth about life in the global village. So does the science of clean air and wholesome food. And so do the desires of our hearts: who would wish to eat a feast alone, while others starve? And who will not someday find themselves starving—if not for food, then for health or dearest companion? We need to cooperate if we hope to find not just contented states of mind but ways of living that are good for ourselves and others, nearby and around the world.

Finding Companions

How important it is to have companions as we seek life-giving ways of life! This, after all, is a basic tenet of Christian faith and life: through Christ, we belong to God and become brothers and sisters to one another, sharing Christ's love for all people. Christians know that we are not made to be alone. Yet today we too are uncertain about the shape of our way of life. With the ordinary things we do each day changing all around us, even we who have belonged to the church all our lives wonder how to do these things well—how to do them, in Christian terms, faithfully.

    Many Christian people seem to be unaware of the rich insights and strong help the Christian tradition can bring to today's concerns. Hungry, they look elsewhere without ever exploring and appreciating what their own tradition can offer. We write this book in part to answer this hunger with nourishment drawn from the deep wells of Christian history, belief, and experience.

    The community of people gathered around Jesus Christ has explored the contours of a faithful way of life over the centuries, and it continues to do so all around the world today. This community, like everyone in it, is flawed, and there has been much stumbling and sinning along the way. But the church has also gathered wisdom and skill as this people has tried to understand and live in response to the mysterious grace of God in creation, the redemptive presence of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. There is tremendous diversity within this far-flung community's explorations—and that diversity exists also among the authors and the intended readers of this book. But the search to walk aright in each new time and place is one that unites us all.

    In Practicing Our Faith, we invite you to learn from the wisdom of this community by reflecting on Christian practices. Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God's active presence for the life of the world. Look at the table of contents, and you will see what sorts of things we mean. Honoring the body. Hospitality. Household economics. Saying yes and saying no. Keeping Sabbath. Testimony. Discernment. Shaping communities. Forgiveness. Healing. Dying well. Singing our lives. These are ordinary activities, the stuff of everyday life. Yet all of them, no matter how mundane, can be shaped in response to God's active presence. And all of them, woven together, suggest the patterns of a faithful Christian way of life for our time.

Practices: A Way of Thinking
About a Way of Life

A way of life is a big and often baffling thing. Imagine being set down among a group of people whose way of life is completely unfamiliar to you. It would be nearly impossible to comprehend its meaning all at once, or to see how it all holds together. And so you might try to make sense of it piece by piece: this is how they eat, this is how they trade, this is how they raise their children. Gradually, you would begin to see the patterns of this way of life in the details of how people do a variety of things with and for one another.

    This book follows a similar method. Rather than examining a Christian way of life as a whole, we intend to survey some of the most important activities that compose it. One of our reasons for doing this is the same as yours would be on your arrival in the unfamiliar land: things are confusing, and we want to be clear about what is going on. But we have other reasons as well. First, we want to avoid abstractions as much as possible. The changes that are sweeping the world unsettle life at its most basic levels, and we want to offer help directly at this point of need. Second, we are writing this book not for the idly curious but for people who hope to strengthen their own ways of living. Christian practices provide concrete opportunities to do so.

    Why call these activities "practices" rather than using a more familiar term or no special term at all? In choosing this word, we are drawing on a concept more familiar to philosophers and social scientists than to most other readers. Even those familiar with it will find that it has a special meaning in this book. We know some explaining will be needed to show its usefulness, but we think the effort is worthwhile. Learning a new term often helps us to think in new ways, even when the things we are thinking about are as old as can be.

    Practices address fundamental human needs and conditions through concrete human acts. Young men traveling alone do not need to be greeted with a sermon on hospitality; they need to be beckoned inside, given some supper, and shown where to sleep. The hosts may or may not be able to articulate why they do these things, though in fact they are carrying on long traditions rooted in the Bible. They are simply practicing hospitality. And the other practices are like this; they provide concrete help for human flourishing. Each is the human place where people cooperate with God in doing what needs to be done.

    Practices, therefore, have practical purposes: to heal, to shape communities, to discern. Oddly, however, they are not treasured only for their outcomes. Just taking a full and earnest part in them is somehow good in itself, even when purposes that are visible to the human eye are not achieved. If a patient dies unrelieved in spirit as well as body, do healers abandon the practice the next time? No, they do not, for they understand what they do as part of the practice of God. They are doing it not just because it works (though they hope it does), but because it is good. The observable outcome is, in a sense, beyond them; a different satisfaction comes just from taking part.

    Practices are done together and over time. Enter a Christian practice, and you will find that you are part of a community that has been doing this thing for centuries—not doing it as well as it should, to be sure, but doing it steadily, in conscious continuity with stories of the Bible and in frequent conversation about how to do it better. You join by jumping in where you are: learn the hymns, volunteer to welcome the homeless, seek companions who will support you in prayer as you say yes to God and no to the destructive forces in your life. Once in, you find that a practice has a certain internal feel and momentum. It is ancient, and larger than you are; it weaves you together with other people in doing things none of us could do alone. But each practice is also ever new, taking fresh form each day as it subtly adapts to find expression in every neighborhood and land.

    Moreover, practices possess standards of excellence. The Christian practice of household economics is not just a matter of adding a warm spiritual glow to the work of homemaking. Instead, it is a matter of permitting the light of God to shine on the work we do and the money we spend, so that we can shape them in response to God's activities in creating and providing for the care and redemption of the earth and all its inhabitants. The challenge lies in figuring out what this means with enough specificity to make a difference. Part of the figuring out requires soul-stretching theological conversations with others: say, an eighteenth-century Quaker accountant, a Catholic worker of the 1930s, and an environmental scientist of the 1990s. With these acquaintances and with people closer at hand, we also turn to the Bible for guidance.

    This process is important. Because practices are so spacious and flexible, we need to be prepared to think about what it means to do them well rather than badly. Does our way of life include the Christian practice of honoring the human body? Do we recognize God's image in all of the human bodies we see, or do we pay exaggerated but shallow obeisance to certain bodies while permitting others to be battered and discarded? Thinking about this practice, we discover evidence that what we have been doing violates life and rejects God's magnificent acts on behalf of human bodies in creation, incarnation, and resurrection. Both our own failings and the failings embedded in economic or political structures set obstacles in the way of practices that are good for all people. Thinking about practices can help us to see how destructively the basic activities of human life can be organized—globally, in American society, in our churches, in our homes. Moreover, if we are willing to risk further change, this kind of thinking can guide us into renewed ways of life, which humanity so sorely needs at the present difficult turn in the history of this world we inhabit together.

    Finally, when we see some of our ordinary activities as Christian practices, we come to perceive how our daily lives are all tangled up with the things God is doing in the world. Now we want to figure out how to pattern our practices after God's, and it becomes our deepest hope to become partners in God's reconciling love for the world. We are never able to do this perfectly, at least not for any length of time. Even so, when we set ordinary daily activities in this context, they are transformed, and so are we. A meal becomes a time of forgiveness. A day of leisure becomes a day of contemplation. An illness turns into an experience of solidarity with the poor. An occupation becomes a vocation. Giving becomes an expression of gratitude. A burial becomes a time of thanksgiving.

Practices: Rehearsing a Way of Life

One thing about practices is that they are very down-to-earth. When people engage in a practice, they don't just talk about it, though words often play an important part. People-at-practice do things. They make gestures and touch one another. They raise their voices in song and open their arms in welcome. They recruit the ordinary physical stuff of nature into the practice. Practicing forgiveness, for example, the members of some churches wash one another's feet, remembering how Jesus washed the feet of Peter on the night before his death. They do it tenderly, but with bodies as well as spirits: water ends up on the floor, backs get sore, trousers get soggy, bunions are there for anyone to see, and someone has to launder the towels afterward. Similarly, those who enter the Christian practice of dying well hold the hands of those who face death or bring casseroles to the bereaved. From one practice to another, oil is rubbed in, food is set out, water is splashed, embraces are shared. Every practice is made up of many small gestures like these.

    In public worship, the Christian community takes all these gestures and does them on a grand scale. We use the familiar elements of everyday life—food, water, oil, embrace, word—to proclaim and celebrate what God is doing in the world and in our lives. Worship distills the Christian meaning of the practices and holds them up for the whole community to see. We confess our failure to do them well, receive assurance of God's grace, hear stories and speak words that relate our practices to God's own creative and redemptive work, and go out strengthened to live more faithfully.

    Worship is to daily life, a wise pastor has said, as consommé is to broth. In liturgy at its best—in the common work of the people assembled to hear the Word of God and celebrate the sacraments—the meaning of all the practices appears in a form that is thick and tasty, darker and richer than what we get in most everyday situations. In Holy Communion (or, as it is also called, the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist), every one of the Christian practices finds guidance. The worshipers experience the extravagant hospitality of God at the table and commit themselves to extend God's welcome to others; they collectively say no to what is harmful and yes to what is good; they keep the Sabbath holy in a joyful celebration of Christ's resurrection.

    A Christian community at worship is a community gathered for rehearsal. It is "practicing" the practices in the same way a child practices catching a ball or playing scales. You may not think you need this skill, we tell the child, but stay in the game and the time will probably come when you do. The rhythms of worship—through the hour and through the year—set a common pace, one that worshipers follow even when it doesn't feel like it fits. Lent comes, but you are not feeling somber; or Easter, and you cannot rejoice. But the rhythms of worship must be endured in spite of your moods, and you go along. Later, when a Lenten time comes, whatever the season, you remember the songs of lament you learned and are grateful.

    One of this book's authors told of attending the funeral of his father, a United Methodist minister. This son was too sorrowful to join in the hymns by which this congregation thankfully returned his father to God's care; he could only sit and mourn. Though he was barely sensible of this at the time, in later years he understood that the community had sung not only on its own behalf but also for him, and he was grateful. He had been included in their shared practices of dying well and singing our lives, even when he was too weak to do what he thought was his share of the work.

Weaving the Practices Together

One more thing about practices: they are all interrelated. This is something that needs emphasizing in the present climate, when many people try to cobble together a religious and moral life out of lots of disparate pieces. It also needs emphasizing in a book that has many separate chapters on many apparently separate practices. All are related. Some readers will be attracted to a certain practice while others are drawn to different ones, depending on their experiences of life so far. That is fine. Start where you can.

    In real life, however, it is very difficult to separate the practices. They flow into one another, each one making a space for God's active presence that then ripples out into other parts of life. When simplicity orders the economics of our households, our hospitality can focus on persons rather than display, we can say no more heartily to the appeals of advertising, and we can more readily welcome the quiet joy of the Sabbath. When we more fully honor the physical bodies of our fellow human beings, we can care for them more tenderly in sickness and at the time of death. Decisions made in communities that practice truthful testimony can be more discerning, and participatory communities that are shaped by justice can become places where all of the practices flourish. As we take part in God's activity by joining in all of these practices, we will sing together, grateful that we know forgiveness and are free to live reconciled to God and one another.

    Thus focusing on even a single practice can lead you into a new way of life. Get started on one and you find yourself in the middle of another. This book discusses only twelve; many other practices, tied to other dimensions of human experience, would be part of a finished tapestry. We urge you to name and think about other important practices that are not in this book.

Looking Ahead

The heart of this book lies ahead, in the twelve practices we invite you to consider. The authors have chosen practices that are essential for life on this planet as the twenty-first century begins. These are practices people need, sorely and surely, if fullness of life is to increase. They are also practices that are in trouble, like the practice of hospitality. Change has shaken our ability to help one another in these life-giving practices, and we need to think anew about how faith can shape them.

    The chapters are united by the authors' shared belief that practices find their deepest expression in the activities of God. The Sabbath keeping to which this book invites you began on God's own glad day of rest. Honoring the body expresses humanity's creation in the image of God. Our hope when life ends rests on Christ's victory over death. Christian faith holds the authors, and the book, together in a common venture.

Excerpted from PRACTICING OUR FAITH by . Copyright © 1997 by Jossey-Bass Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Preface to the 1997 edition.

Chapter 1 Times of Yearning, Practices of Faith (Craig Dykstraand Dorothy C. Bass).

Chapter 2 Honoring the Body (Stephanie Paulsell).

Chapter 3 Hospitality (Ana Maria Pineda).

Chapter 4 Household Economics (Sharon Daloz Parks).

Chapter 5 Saying Yes and Saying No (M. Shawn Copeland).

Chapter 6 Keeping Sabbath (Dorothy C. Bass).

Chapter 7 Testimony (Thomas Hoyt Jr.).

Chapter 8 Discernment (Frank Rogers Jr.).

Chapter 9 Shaping Communities (Larry Rasmussen).

Chapter 10 Forgiveness (L. Gregory Jones).

Chapter 11 Healing (John Koenig).

Chapter 12 Dying Well (Amy Plantinga Pauw).

Chapter 13 Singing Our Lives (Don E. Saliers).

Chapter 14 Practicing a Way of Life (Dorothy C. Bass and CraigDykstra).

Chapter 15 A Way of Thinking about a Way of Life (Craig Dykstraand Dorothy C. Bass).


Index of Scripture References.

The Contributors.

Conversation Guide.


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