I apologize for not getting out a post last week about our fifth spiritual practice: “Engage in Honest, Authentic Conversations with Other Believers.” Let me say something about the spiritual practices in general. The only way any of these spiritual practices can really work is if we want to do them.
For example, most days I spend a few minutes practicing scales on my guitar. (Don’t worry, that’s not one of the nine practices.) It’s something I enjoy doing because I love the sound of a guitar and because I’d like to improve my playing. What doesn’t work is comparing my guitar skills with Tim Sawicki’s, for example. Then my inevitably small signs of progress can seem like a waste of time.
Likewise, it would be completely off the mark for any of us to compare our spiritual lives with the spiritual lives of other people. Jesus is our teacher, and each of us is his very personal disciple or student. We’re all wired differently — by his design. It’s also not going to work to treat these spiritual practices as obligations or requirements. Like I said earlier, at some level, we have to want them, or at least want the life they point to.
When we gather on Covenant Renewal Sunday (December 4 – potluck included!), I’m hoping that each of us might have one or two spiritual practices that we’ll want to work on over the next year. (You might have another spiritual practice that’s not on the list.) I can’t help but wonder what that might do not only for each of our spiritual lives but for the building up of Christ’s body at BRC.
Both last week’s spiritual practice (spiritual conversations with other Christians) and this week’s spiritual practice (engaging in spiritual conversations with people who aren’t there yet) have to do with what we say. During devotions at our consistory meeting last night we engaged in a discussion about yesterday’s James 3 lectionary reading. James talks about how the tongue can be a great force for good but can also set “the whole course of one’s life on fire.”
So how do we bring our tongues under the lordship of Christ? One way is to include him in our conversations.
Some of us are more comfortable than others with talking about our faith. This can be for any number of reasons, and I’m not interested in piling all sorts of guilt on myself or anyone else for feeling reticent.
But I would like to offer three words to help us think about what it takes to have good spiritual conversations with people – vulnerability, believability and authenticity.
First, having spiritual conversations can make us feel vulnerable. I find myself asking questions like, “What is this person feeling about what I just said? Are they upset? Have I made them feel uncomfortable? Should I have said it differently? Have I just made a fool of myself?”
Could it be that when Jesus said those who followed him would have to take up their cross, he was inviting us to embrace our vulnerability? Jesus entire journey toward the cross was one of increasing vulnerability. For example, how did Jesus keep his heart open to his disciples during that last supper, knowing that in a few hours they would betray, disown and abandon him? What was it like being interrogated, mocked and spat upon, a crown of thorns pressed into his skull, hearing his fellow Jews yelling for him to be crucified, being publicly beaten, and then forced to carry his cross, where he eventually hung stark naked crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus said that those who lose their lives, find them. I wonder how important being vulnerable is to being fully alive. And since we are spiritual beings, it makes sense that talking about spiritual things, as vulnerable as that may make us feel, is part of becoming more human as well as more like Christ.
The second word is believability. Maybe we feel cautious about having spiritual conversations because we feel inadequate when trying to explain or defend our beliefs. Ultimately, the best defense is our lives. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “The essential sermon is one’s own existence.” Christian witness, he says, is more than anything an “existence-communication.” We “redouble” the truth when the truth we speak is also the truth we live.
This past Sunday we talked about hope. In the Greek culture of the first century, there wasn’t anything in the religious environment to encourage people to live with hope. And so when Christians lived hopeful lives in the midst of challenging circumstances, they were asked to give “the reason for the hope that was in them” (1 Peter 3:15). In other words, they had to explain what made them different.
The third word is authenticity. Authentic spiritual conversations don’t just include our successes but our failures. They’re honest not just about where we’ve grown but where we’re still struggling. They include not only answers but ongoing questions. Authenticity allows us to agree with others whenever possible (and even learn from them), without feeling like we’re compromising.
All three words – vulnerability, believability and authenticity – remind us that the Christian life is about becoming more human, not less. Spiritual conversations can be just that – a conversation. We don’t have to make anything happen. We don’t have to convince people to believe what we believe. We leave that to the Holy Spirit. We can be real, and allow the other person to be real.