Wednesday, January 27, 2021

What Are Your Spiritual Practices?

"The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods
 as it is finding a rhythm to walk in."
Dear Friends,

A question being asked these days as we seek to know others better is no longer, “What religion are you?” or “What do you believe?” The question is “What are your spiritual and religious practices?” A few years ago, a woman in her late seventies approached me outside the gate at my house to ask if the foals (baby horses) in my corral would be for sale. I didn’t recognize her but when she introduced herself to me, I remembered she had been one of the most beautiful and popular young actresses in the 70's. 

We had a nice talk about horses and living here in Sylmar and when she mentioned spiritual things, I told her I was a pastor and asked her what religion she was. She immediately replied, “Catholic.” That apparently was the approved answer when you’re talking to a pastor. I asked her where she went to church and it turned out that she had not been to Mass since she was a young teenager. She said that today she actually considers herself to be more of a Buddhist. But when I asked her about her spiritual practices, it turned out she was Wiccian. Baptized as a Catholic, she wasn’t a Christian (follower of Jesus). She liked the Buddhist philosophy but was not a practitioner of Buddhism. The spiritual rituals and prayers she had adopted and practiced told me who she followed and what she believed. It’s not what we “say” but what we “do” that reveals the truth about who we are.

Many label ourselves, as the actress did, by the religious identity that we think would meet the approval of others, but the terms “Christian,” “Jew” or “Muslim” may be meaningless. If you were baptized Catholic, you are considered to be one for life. If you were born to a Jewish woman, you are a Jew for life; if your father was Muslim you are Muslim, and if you want to run for President of the United States, you will need to be a Christian, no matter what your religious background! But religious identity labels tell us nothing about the person. Christians with a “high level involvement” are those who attend church regularly, read their Bible and have regular personal prayer times. They sincerely and faithfully worship God. They continually self-evaluate, confess their sins and make an honest attempt to follow Jesus and become more like Him. 

There are 51 million Catholics in America but only 13% (6.6 million) have “high level involvement.” One third of all Catholics never go to church and 63% attend only a few times a year. There are 13 million Evangelical Protestants and 43% (5.5 million) have high level involvement. There are 7 million Mainline Protestants (ELCA Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians) and only 19% (1.4 million) have high level involvement. A very large majority of those who identify as Christians are “in name only” and have little or no involvement with Christianity. That’s why a person’s self-proclaimed Christian identity tells us nothing about their spirituality or engagement with their faith.

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone but then our Christian growth is up to us. Paul tells us: “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from Him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.” Ephesians 4:21-24 NLT We need to throw off our old sinful nature and we need to put on the new. We can't do it without God, but because He has given us free will, He won't do it without us. 

The New Testament described process of “sanctification” is to become less like us and more like Jesus. To be a “disciple” of Jesus means that we willingly put ourselves under a “spiritual discipline” that becomes the foundation of a rhythm of ritual that sustains and builds our faith. I recently read a quote by a poet, who said, “The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods as it is finding a rhythm to walk in.”  In music, “rhythm” is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of sound and in our spiritual practices, we need the rhythm of a regular and repeated pattern of ritual.

Your morning ritual may be brewing the coffee and sitting down with your Bible. In the evening it may be lighting a candle and praying one of the monastic prayers such as the Prayer of Examen (more on that next week). Your ritual may be filling your home with the sounds of Christian praise and worship CD’s as you sing along while cleaning your house. The rhythm of your day continues as you engage in a time of sustained prayer during your afternoon walk or as you sit quietly in the backyard. Your ritual may be praying those short 10 second “breath prayers” as you go about your day. These I mention are only some of the various pathways to a greater level of participation in the Kingdom of God, and what makes these practices edifying and building up are when you’ve established the rhythm of the rituals and they’ve become a regular and repeated part of your day-to-day lifestyle.

One day we’ll be standing before Jesus. The Son of God is not interested in what church we’ve gone to, our Sunday attendance record or our external spiritual practices. Jesus is interested only in the condition of our heart but it is those faithful spiritual practices that change our heart and grow our faith. Will your Lord look who you’ve become to the glory of God, smile and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?

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