Today is the last in our Lenten series of sermons on Episcopal basics. You'll remember that we began by talking about being a Christian, then about choosing the Episcopal community as the one which will support you in your choice to follow Christ, then about some of the special characteristics of this congregation in particular. And this final sermon will talk about putting it into practice.
Practice, what we actually do routinely in real life situations, shows a lot about us. Kathleen Norris, a poet and essayist, has written, "I firmly believe that the way we bathe a child or discuss family matters at the dinner table reveals who our God is." Not only does that reveal who someone’s God is, it reveals it much more honestly than what we might tell a pollster when asked to name our religious affiliation. The easiest way to figure out who you actually worship, is to look at your actual attitudes and priorities, day by day. So we’re talking today about the practices, the habits, that help us treat the God who took flesh in Jesus as the God we actually worship.
And in a sense this fourth sermon comes back to the first one. Because while there is an Episcopal style, all our baseline practices are shared widely with other Christians; the differences are mainly ones of emphasis. Daily prayer, weekly Eucharist, regular service in Christ’s name, regular patterns of giving, regular reading of the Scriptures, regular seeking of God’s guidance – you could make a longer list, but those are practices all Christians engage in.
One thing I could do in a sermon like this is to talk through that list. Why is prioritizing weekly Eucharist so important? Why is following a structure for giving more spiritually effective than making a donations when you’re moved by a need? How do we become familiar enough with the Scriptures that we no longer squeeze little bits of the Bible into what we already think, but deal with them in all their complexity and power? So I could talk through that list, and I am happy to talk through it with any of you and make suggestions for next steps in any of those baseline Christian practices any time.
But what I want to focus on today is a more basic question. Why be a practicing Christian at all? And the reason I want to try and take that tack is that it ties in with the broad way we approach faith as Episcopalians. For us, a Christian spiritual life is your whole life, right? Our intellect, our recreation, our desires, our humor, our pain, our work, our friendships, none of that is outside the spiritual life. And this why we emphasize not just agreeing with religious ideas, but concrete, embodied practice.
I want to borrow here from Jamie Smith, who is a philosophy professor at Calvin College, and who points out that our head-life, our process of "conscious, mental, deliberative, rational choosing" is really like the tip of an iceberg. You know, the majority of an iceberg is underwater. You can't see it. And in the same way, the conscious, rational part of our life turns out to be, he says, "about seven per cent of what [we] do in a given day." By far the majority of our "action and behavior is actually governed by processes under the water of that iceberg," things we might describe as assumptions, habits and patterns that are processed at a level where we don't have to pay attention to them.
Lest this sound spooky, Smith gives a very ordinary example of it: Driving a car. When you just got your permit and driving is new to you, everything has to be conscious; every step of the driving endeavor is intentionally run by that seven percent that is the tip of your iceberg. Nothing can be taken for granted. If you want to merge onto interstate 74 off Prospect up by the mall, you have to be thinking: push the turn signal lever, speed up but not too much, look over your shoulder, look forward, speed up more, look back again, don't drift left too soon…. It's an exhausting conscious process. But after a few years at the wheel, you barely have to give that kind of stuff any thought at all. You can leave work after a difficult meeting, get in your car, and be so absorbed in going over who said what that you arrive home 10 minutes later without even remembering the trip. Most of that process of operating the car has moved down to the parts of your iceberg that are below the surface of the water. It's automated, habitual.
So part of what this means is that you could read books about driving techniques and car design and the history of the automobile, and you could become an expert on all those topics intellectually, but the changes that made in you would nearly all be up in the tip of your iceberg. That conscious seven percent. All that mental information would not guarantee that your body can successfully get a real car to turn left when University Avenue becomes one way out there at State.
And this is why the Episcopal Church tries to encourage us not to confuse Christian information with Christian formation. Good intellectual information for the tip of the iceberg is important, but what we also need is something that will help our imagination and our loves and our unconscious routines and our bodies to habituate to Christian behavior. We need something that invites the Spirit not just into our conscious rational spaces, but down into the other 93% of the iceberg, to shape and form the whole of us and not just our heads.
Because listen to me, if we don't shape that space as Christians, the world is happy to do it for us. It's not like the choice here is the Holy Spirit or benign neutrality. I said I was borrowing from Jamie Smith, and he makes the point that the world of marketing in particular understands all too well how we human beings actually function. Marketers have learned how to shape our imaginations and train us to desire and value certain things in ways that sneak right past our rational processes. In other words (to quote the Great Litany from today), the world the flesh and the devil are very happy to automate our unconscious behaviors for us. They're ready and willing to get down underwater to drive our aspirations and our habits, and as long as they get to do that, they're fine with letting the tip of the iceberg go to all the church services it likes.
And this is where, I think, we can start using the language of practicing spiritually in a more deliberate way. When we conceive of formation like this, you are, every person alive is, completely saturated in spiritual practices and always has been. You and I spend nearly every moment of every day engaged in practices that are shaping us spiritually. The question is, whose practices are they? Do they serve the goals of marketers? Are they the routines of the apostles, or of the world the flesh and the devil? Are they gradually making you more narcissistic and individualistic, or less?
That’s why we have to have myriad ways, all day long, every single day, of reminding the other 93% of our iceberg, down at the preconscious level, that we want to be not just a professing Christian but a practicing Christian, not a tip of the iceberg person but a full-bodied disciple. If you gave something up for Lent, you know what I mean. When you smelled the chocolate chip cookies baking and said no; when the cutting remark came to your lips but you once again substituted a gracious comment on purpose; when your alarm went off not on day 1 of Lent but on day 28, after the novelty had worn off, and you sighed in annoyance but got up 15 minutes early to read a chapter of the Bible anyway. When you do it again tomorrow, even though you’re bored to pieces with it right now. That’s when you start seeing what this is all about. That’s when you’re really giving God something to work with: When you practice. When you let the Spirit into the realm of habit, down below the surface of the water.
The research is in on these kinds of things. We know that the Spirit uses them to change lives. We know that billions of Christians from every culture in every era have benefited from them. They are practices for the long haul, baseline, simple, proactive behaviors you do over and over and whose effects spread out in your life in ways that are barely observable one by one, but over thirty, forty, fifty years change you completely. Of course, some days, you don't want to do them at all. But if you do them anyway, keep practicing, keep training, just like an athlete or a musician or a dancer, your practice ends up making all the difference in the world.
This is a deep, longstanding Episcopal conviction, and some of you here know all about it because you’ve been living that way for decades. But it’s also an aspect of our tradition that happens to be enjoying a real resurgence right now. The latest issue of the Episcopal magazine The Living Church has an article about one example of the growing Episcopal re-commitment to simple Christian practices, called “Return to the Core,” and I’ve left some copies of it out in the Great Hall today if you’re interested. It speaks out of the experience of one parish that is prioritizing giving everybody access to these tools that we know, we can guarantee, work over the long haul.
Christianity offers all kinds of ways to get down below that 7% of the iceberg that is above the water, and to begin letting your imagination and your loves and your habits and your body and your unconscious routines become saturated with the presence of Christ. Christianity offers all kinds of ways over the long haul to form habits that will slowly invite God to shape you into a full bodied disciple. But I can tell you, that doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by practice.
(The brief quotes from James K. A. Smith are from his May 2012 New College lectures at the University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia. They draw on themes from this book Desiring the Kingdom. )