Optional Christianity

Talking to a Sunni Muslim women recently, I was curious about her practice of Ramadan.   She shared that not drinking water all day was the hardest part;  and that the fast in Calgary, is from 3:40 am to 9:40 pm.  She explained that all Muslims are expected, once they reach puberty, to participate, but there are a number of exceptions such as health and pregnancy.   I pointed out that Jesus anticipated that Christians would fast also.  She was curious whether Christian fasting included not drinking water  like Sunnis do.  Oh, I replied Christian fasting is optional, people can do whatever they want.  

This got me thinking about our Christian practices.  Jesus spoke about fasting and prayer often but he also warned against basing our religion on external exercises.  “When you fast Jesus said, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Matt. 6:16)  All traditional spiritual disciplines whether solitude, silence, fasting, bible reading, prayer, worship, giving and others, can become forms that are empty of spiritual reality.  Yet, without them, it is impossible to imagine a person will make much true progress in their Christian faith.  Just as Ignatius had his “Exercises” and St Benedict had his “Rules”, we need our own set of practices tailored to fit the rhythms of our life.

Imagine playing for a sports team where workouts were optional.  Or, suppose a dietician recommends a diet of chips and pop, where vegetables and fruits are non-compulsory.  Picture learning piano from a teacher who said practice is elective. Have we turned the grace of God into freedom to do what I feel like? How often do you feel like taking up your cross daily to follow Christ?

James said, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas 2:17)  

In other words, every person whose life exemplifies what it means to be a follower of Jesus, develops a set of compulsory spiritual practices to follow.

How do you practice your Christian faith?  What “rules” do you live by to give structure to your spirituality?  Do you feel it is helpful to have patterns of daily spiritual practice?

Friendship, Servanthood and Love

Sometimes when I think of obedience, I’m reminded of those schools for training dogs. Their obedience is won with treats and repetition. Who hasn’t at sometime been told not to ask questions, but just do it? Maybe in the military such unquestioned obedience is a virtue, but in all other relationships, it leaves a person feeling alone, even unwanted. So when people talk about obedience to God, I naturally get a bit suspicious.

“Relationships first” is the way many cultures in our world get things done. Western businessmen are known to lose patience at the perceived time wasted in building rapport when travelling abroad. However, it is really mostly our industrial based European cultures that are more task oriented. I believe God is more relational than task oriented. In the stories of the Bible, God seems quite willing to put his plans on hold while working with a prophet like Jonah, or with his stubborn people on the way to the Promised Land.

A servant or employee is often expected to say, ‘Yes sir,’ whether he has an understanding of what the boss is doing or not. I imagine in some factories of the world, people have no clue what they are making or how it will be used.  Friends, on the other hand, talk it over and get on the same page.   When Jesus spoke about obedience and servanthood, it was not a militaristic or industrial age type of command. Rather, He spoke about friendship with God and love in the same sentence.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15

God has invited us into a relationship of understanding that moves us from slavery into a new kind of servanthood. When God was planning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he talked to Abraham, his friend, about it.

“Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

This invitation is given to us to enter into a friendship that will include our whole being; mind, will, emotions, body and soul. God speaks to the listening heart, through many avenues.  Our awareness of  His Spirit’s promptings will mean being more in tune with our emotions and longings.   In this way knowledge of God and awareness of our own feelings are interconnected.  Emotional intelligence enhances our spiritual awareness.

“With honest and open prayer, we come to recognize how our fear, anger, sadness, joy, or longing relate to the promptings of God’s Spirit and how the force of our emotions can be used to further God’s purpose in our own lives and the wider universe.” Kathleen Fischer