Friday Forum: On “Pious Practices”
author’s note: the Friday Forum is a place for readers to ask for my thoughts on just about any topic. Feel free to propose some ideas in the comments!
Lately I find myself talking a lot about my faith. Getting ready to do something like celebrate the wonderful third day Resurrection of Christ invites me to turn things up a notch spirituality.
I particularly resonate with a sense of faith enacted, a life with Christ that can be truly lived rather than simply discussed. Different acts come to mark one’s faith journey. But they are not the end of the story.
Generally, there seems to be roughly three ways pious practices come into a person’s life: naturally, invitationally, and forcibly. At the simplest level, we do things because we already do them, because someone asks us to consider doing them, or because someone forces us to do them. I think the second category is the hardest for which to create space.
I think we get hung up on how we already do things [or more commonly, on our ideal system of how things should be done]. When people have practices that exist outside of our “accepted” system, well… I’ve learned to duck because invariably it seems that things fly.
Well, I think we generally avoid questions of doctrine and community-formative practice in favor of the flavor of the week. To say it another way, we tend to focus on our personal practices [and preferences] while in community. It can be terribly difficult to find ourselves in situations where we would rather not do what everyone else is doing.
Well, can we make start from the place where we create a safe place for people to differ from the so-called norms to enable the invitational sense? The first thing that I have come to tell people I invite to my church is “Do not do anything that you are uncomfortable doing.” Since I am Orthodox in a part of the world that is definitely NOT Orthodox, most of my friends get entirely weirded out by their first visit. I have gotten to the point where I am more impressed by someone who isn’t totally scandalized by what occurs in any of our services. But really, if you think about it, I would hope you would see some of the wisdom in creating a space for visitors to figure out what it means for them to be in the space. It’s not something I’ve done exclusively as an Orthodox Christian. In college, we often started meetings with “We invite you to stand because we consider standing as our sort-of ‘default’ position but feel free to sit, kneel, raise your hands, dance, or stand in the back of the room looking too cool for school as you wish.” I have found it to be a relief to be told not to do something because that something is a practice distinct to people who consider themselves members of that community. It is interesting to invite people to consider what Jesus may have for them in adopting a particular practice of the community, even if some of the adoption looks a little different… my Easter basket looks distinctly less bunny, distinctly less Russian, and distinctly more like a person [from Wisconsin, mind you!] really excited to receive the gift of dairy products after a long fast.
Particularly when you create space for different forms of people to occupy the same zone, rather amazing things happen.
One thing that I have noted is that presence becomes extremely important. Another thing I notice is that I struggle to pray myself so that I do not distract other people from praying next to me. Over time, it seems that my “pious” lexicon has grown but sometimes practices only last for a season. It seems that I have space to decide what I want to adopt and why I want to adopt it. Sometimes I adopt a practice before I am “ready” to adopt it. I’m more apt to be open to the sense that I’m doing something wrong and that I am the one in need of correction.
And then I remember that all of my pious practices contain nothing in them that can impress God, that they come from my desire to enact something, and that it’s much easier to lift my hands when I pray or take off my shoes when I enter a church than it is to love. So I rejoice in those friends in my life who remind me that no amount of activity can excuse me from the call to be present, bearing love to those around me. Let’s face it: sometimes it’s just more important to pick up the baby [and for those who know me, you know what a comedy of errors can result when I get anywhere near the smallest people].