What we believe about God in Christ Jesus is what we will do with our lives. We will plant seeds and nurture them to fruition by what we practice day to day. Each time we think or do something, we build up habits of mind and muscle that make it easier to think or act that certain way. Choosing to live out spiritual practices that inculcate the ease of repeating the right thoughts and actions is an important part of living and a profound way in which we can strive to move towards the promise of unity with God and each other offered up in the words and deeds of the earthly ministry of Jesus.
There are many spiritual disciplines. Some have time honored places in the life of the Christian church. Some are associated with particular communities within the church. And others are practices that have found significance with specific individuals over time.
Prayer is a central practice of almost all religious traditions. Prayer is both a practical reminder, and an enactment of, our relationship with God and our care for our selves and one another. Prayer orients and focuses the mind. It directs our attention towards God. When we include quiet as part of our prayer life we also open ourselves to God’s reply. It can come to us in feelings, images, and even words — or in the deepest of silences.
Spiritual reading is a familiar practice; reading things that are intended to water the roots of our souls. These could be books that speak in specifically spiritual language. Or these could be pieces of literature that contain profound spiritual insights. Generally, spiritual reading challenges us to grow and nurtures us in growing in particular ways.
Some people have spiritual practices of watching films that inspire their imaginations to see possibilities for themselves, for others, and for the world. Watching films like this is not an idle activity. It is something that encourages us and helps us to be active in our Christian lives.
Here it is helpful to speak of the nature of entertainment. Many people partake of, and even seek out, films, music, things to read — a seemingly endless assortment of things to amuse — that are designed for the person to enjoy passively. Sitting still is the norm of participation. Staring, transfixed, is often part of it as well. While such wonders and spectacles, great and small, may be enjoyable, it is important to note that the pattern that is being cultivated is one of passivity and disengagement from anything not focused upon the self. To test this, observe how long a person can keep from taking a glance at their smart phone or how long they can look at you when the television is on. When we give our attention to something, it will build a habit of attention in us. It may also draw our attention away from other people and creation. That forms another habit as well. One is a habit of paying attention and the other is a habit of not paying attention.
Where are we placing our attention? What habits are we forming and cultivating? Do those habits line up with what we feel called to do as human beings?
One spiritual practice I have is that of getting up at five o’clock in the morning. It is about attention. In my neighborhood, the hours from about five until about seven are the quietest hours each day. I get up, pray and meditate, and then spend an hour and a half to two hours writing. Writing has been a spiritual discipline of mine for most of my life. It is a time I spend with God, utilizing some of the talents God has given me, and working on writing that I hope will be of benefit to my spiritual growth and to the growth of others as well. When I have not had the habit of getting up early, I have found that my time is never so quiet and focused as it is when I do. Those quiet morning hours add a peace even onto those other hours when my neighbors go up and down the street blasting music from their car stereos. The spiritual practice cultivates a state of mind. That state of mind cultivates a way of seeing the world and my life.
A man I know has a spiritual practice of taking a walk around his neighborhood. He makes sure he walks slowly, that he doesn’t listen to music, and that he makes a point of noticing things. When he sees a new building being built, he pauses to observe the changes since the last time he walked by. He pays attention to his neighbors. He nods his head and says hello. He takes time to have short conversations or to pet a dog that comes up to greet him. “God is the father of all of us,” he says. If I want to care for our family, I need to keep my eyes and ears open.” He means that. In addition to his paying attention to the people in his neighborhood, he also takes time to notice the squirrels and their efforts to prepare for the coming winter or the health of the trees as they come to the end of summer. “If I stay inside the house watching television, or just go back and forth to work with earbuds in my ears, how connected am I with everyone else?” His walks are part of his living into unity with God and God’s creation; placing his attention on the relationships at the center of his life.
Similarly, a woman goes out on her porch most evenings to watch the sun go down. “It is my time with myself. Everyone around me is busy doing other things. It is a time I can go off and listen to the sounds of my own heart. When I don’t do this, I feel like I do when I don’t hear from a friend for a while. I start to wonder how things are and what is going on.”
The spiritual practice I have had as a part of my life for the longest, other than prayer, is that of journaling. I have journaled regularly since I was a teenager — almost daily since I was in my twenties. It is a time of reflecting upon the day before and making note of things I’ve observed around me, or, of things I’ve observed inside of me. It is my way of noticing what is going on in my relationships and what is rising up from the depths of my heart.
The spiritual practices chosen can be those with solid anchors in tradition. Or they may be completely unique to the individual. What matters are the sorts of effects they have on the one whose spiritual practices they are. What do practices cultivate? That is what matters in the choice.
Choosing spiritual practices is a practical matter for me. Over the years, I have tried many things. Some of them have been formal practices of prayer or meditation. Sometimes I have gone regularly to mid-week gatherings. Or I have been a participant in small groups. Some practices have helped me for years. Others were helpful for only a short while. A spiritual practice is a means to an end; it is not an end in itself. So long as that is understood, it is a healthy component of life.
Building spiritual practices in our lives that cultivate our sense of connection with God, each other, and all of creation is important to building up unity in God and with each other. Communities engage in spiritual practices as well as individuals. One of these practices that I have observed in many Christian communities is that of sharing news of other Christians and Christian communities with their own. When there are prayer concerns for members of other congregations, sharing those in worship and small group settings is a living out of Jesus’s teaching that we bear one another’s burdens. It is a way of affirming that we are all related to one another and all share in the joys and sorrows of life.
Sharing meals and time together across boundaries within a community is also way of building up the sense and reality of unity with other people. This gives us the opportunity to move our attention away from a focus solely upon the familiar and enriches us with getting to know others around us who see the world in profoundly different ways. It works the other way, too. It gives others the chance to know us and to build up genuine connections and relationship with one another.
Sharing time with one another, placing our attention on one another and the relationships we share, is a spiritual discipline that includes challenges. Those moments sometimes bring us into awareness of ways in which we assume we know one another but we do not. There are risks for everyone involved. One of those risks is that of embarrassment. Can we, as individuals and communities, be bold in making ourselves vulnerable? Can we work to open up our lives to welcome others in? Can we venture into other people’s spaces and participate in their lives when that means we must become strangers?
Recently, I had the experience of traveling to Berlin, Germany for a meeting of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church. At previous meetings of the Council, bishops from places other than the USA had been guests in the American context. It had been the practice, one might say, of making non-US bishops the outsiders and the American bishops the insiders. In Berlin, the situation was reversed. And this had a strong effect upon how things were said and how things were heard. The Americans were now the guests to the European members of the church. What stood as “normal” shifted with the shift in context.
It is no surprise, I think, that the church has had the practice of visiting and being visited. The act of receiving guests — and that of going as guests — are spiritual practices that shape us in humility and the grace and love that are expressed in these kinds of encounters. When different communities within the church engage in this practice, the connections between parts of the church are built up.
Spiritual practices shape and refine who we are. Over time, they also make possible the easier practice of virtues that, not practiced are difficult to maintain. Spiritual practices build habits of discipleship. And, when carefully cultivated, they can help us move closer in unity with one another.