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How to do all the Christian things

A lot of people in my life and in my parish are new to Christianity or the life of the church. It's not unusual to be asked a rather straightforward question: "So, how do I do this thing?"

That's a big, sprawling, epic question ... What do I do now that I'm a Christian?

It's a good question, a very good question, because Christianity is indeed a "way." And if you're new to it, your heart has been warmed and you feel called, but you're still feeling out how to go about doing. The "way" is frequently fraught, sometimes glorious and often even dangerous.

When I get asked this question, I kind of of want to respond, "I have no idea!"

But that's not really accurate. It's simply more like I've spent 45 years finding various ways to attempt life in Christ. Sometimes I fall into good habits. Other times I get lazy. Through it all, I rely on God's faithfulness. And I try really hard to avoid insipid, vacuous or Pollyanna forms of the faith.

• Read a really old book (and a lot of other books).

I recommend everyone treat the life of faith like continuing education and find a way to read good books.

Start by reading the really old book. By which I mean the Bible. You might check out the new Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version (fifth edition). That's a spectacular and meaty study bible that will serve you well for years.

Besides reading the Bible, I recommend reading other books. Some parts of the bible are more neglected in our culture, so you might read something about the forgotten books of the Bible -- books about Song of Songs, Lamentations, Esther, Ruth and Ecclesiastes.

Or you might try to read a book that helps you hear how a community unlike your own reads the bible. Consider Reading the Bible With the Damned by Bob Ekblad. Or read a book that synthesizes information about a character in the Bible who is hard to understand but worth the time -- like N.T Wright's Paul the Apostle: A Biography. I also love reading memoirs that are explorations of the life of faith, like Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk.

It's worth reading a book that really challenges your faith and assumptions. Since he recently died, is originally from Arkansas and is the father of black liberation theology, I recommend The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone.

Basically, just read a lot of books. If you want to keep getting more and more recommendations for good books, subscribe to a magazine like The Christian Century, which is always reviewing them.

• Be with people (but not too much).

Christianity really is about other people. Remember Jesus taught the greatest commandment was to love God, and another commandment was basically identical to it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Bishop Curry preached an amazing sermon on this very topic at the royal wedding.

I love the juxtapositions in the gospels that illustrate how Jesus did this loving. He loved the little place where he lived, that rural community along and around the Sea of Galilee. But then he also set his face towards a city (Jerusalem) and ultimately guided a community of faith who launched from that city to the ends of the earth, always striving toward indigenization so the gospel would find its way lovingly into the cultures it met.

One of the primary ways we do this "love one another" is in worship. There's a good reason so many of us commit to gathering for worship once a week. It works. It focuses on a specific gathered community and imagines Jesus Christ walking among them -- not exclusively there, as if only that community could experience the presence of Christ and the love of God, but most definitely there.

In such community, we practice the main Christian practices. We give thanks. We forgive one another. We rejoice.

So find a church, commit to weekly worship among those people, love those people and ideally find a couple of ways to contribute to that community so it is strengthened and vital.

• Say and do good things.

Trust that you live out your Christianity in your daily existence, not through special exertions. Christianity is not much about supererogation. So, if you're currently attending the university, then the way you can do good as a Christian is to study, attend class, treat your classmates with respect and earn your degree. If you work at a corporation, perform your role well and ethically, and you're living as a Christian.

The one way you are called to be different from those who are not people of faith is in your intention to do good in spite of the consequences. There are many ways we are tempted (especially in an economic system like neoliberalism) to pursue ends that are not themselves "good." But to fight against these things is not supererogation. It's simply integrity in the face of temptation.

And we're supposed to share the faith. Many Christians aren't very good at this -- and those who are sometimes do it more for show than anything else. But authentic sharing of the faith is much like sharing about anything that brings you joy and gives you life. If you're telling people about your faith because it makes you happy, inspires you and makes you a better person, then you're probably doing it right.

Don't do it to convert anyone. Nobody wants you to relate to them just so you can convert them. But everyone who relates to you wants to know the real you, and if your connection to God in Christ is part of what makes you you, then sharing about it is as natural as anything else.

• Justice is what love looks like in public (Cornel West).

When Christians in our tradition make vows at their baptism, the last thing they promise is to work for justice and peace in all the world. It is this final vow of baptism that is especially squashed by our culture. First, much of Christianity has emphasized a kind of quietism that fails to live love in public. It's focused on simply getting along and not making much of a fuss.

But much of contemporary Christianity is also simply fragile. In my own tradition, this is co-optation by white fragility, in particular. Because for so long Christianity -- and in particular white Christianity -- has been the dominant mode, many have assumed their way is the only and right way. So in the face of challenge, the fragile retreat, Christians get defensive and close down. In doing so, they fail to seek ways forward in the way of Jesus that challenge them and their own fragility for the sake of their neighbor (whom we are called, remember, to love).

If justice is what love looks like in public, then in addition to the private familial love we are called to practice in our families and places of worship, we are called at the civic level and in the polis to works of justice, which is the form of love in public life.

This will be the most difficult answer to the question, "How do I do this Christian thing?" Because to do the Christian thing in public, you'll have to be committed -- together with others -- to the slow and arduous work of justice. For that work, I can suggest nothing better than to connect to networks committed to such justice. You might start with the social justice networks in your own denomination, and then expand out to ecumenical networks like the Poor Peoples' Campaign or Sojourners.

NAN Religion on 06/02/2018

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