by Layton Friesen
An old bit of Christian wisdom that is being sorely tested in this pandemic says, you become what you make a habit of. If you want to become a compassionate person, for example, get into the habit of doing compassionate things, and as that habit takes deeper and deeper hold of you, you will become a compassionate person. To become a compassionate person, body, soul and spirit, you need to develop a long pattern of compassionate actions.
The same goes for becoming a worshipful person. To become someone who worships God wholeheartedly and truthfully as second nature, develop regular habits of worshipping. Becoming more deeply Christian as the years go by takes practicing.
We can see how this works in other areas. A good pianist puts so much practice into a piece that the music becomes an instinct, almost a natural impulse. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2 is so fast and furious there is no way a pianist can think about what note to play next. After years of practice the music enters her muscle memory and the notes spill out of her fingers.
That’s also how we become more deeply Christian in our daily life.
But it’s exactly the practice of our faith that to, some extent, has been restricted by COVID. Some things that we did we can no longer do and we worry about this: If we don’t “go to church”, or sing, or eat at potlucks, or invite one and all to our worship, will we remain Christian for long? Will our children become Christian?
When I was a child, Sunday had a rhythm that set it apart from the other six days. We all had a bath the night before. In the morning I put on my Sunday pants. (Try going to Walmart today and asking for Sunday pants). My mother put on a beautiful Sunday dress she had sewn herself. The rest of the week it was porridge for breakfast, on Sunday it was Cornflakes. My dad would come to breakfast and not eat anything, since he would often fast on the Sundays he preached.
When we got to church the rhythm continued. When the singing started all us boys with wet hair and Sunday pants marched up in a line to one pew on the boy’s side of the church. We took out the hymnal and stood to sing—always three hymns to start. One boy held one side of the book and the other held the other side and we sang. We put the hymnal away as the last refrain started because we knew the routine. We sat down and listened (sort of) to a sermon. The practices of Sunday continued with Sunday dinner, visiting, naps, Sunday supper or faspa, shortened chores and so on.
Looking back now I can see how this was all training me to think in certain ways about God, the church, the Bible, and my Christian life. Marking the time each week by wearing Sunday pants convinced me, unconsciously, that God must be great. Eating Sunday dinner with church people each week showed me, unconsciously, not only what Christian fellowship meant intellectually, but also how fellowship feels, and tastes. Memorizing a verse every week proved to me, unconsciously, what the Bible was worth.
There is no need to be nostalgic about this. Our practices can also teach us the wrong things about God. The church needs to be constantly evaluating its practices to ensure that they really do embody what we believe to be true about God. This time of interruption is a good time to do that.
But the old wisdom remains: truths are taught, caught and passed on when they are translated into our calendars, bank accounts, reading diets, and even into customs that tell us when to wear this and when to eat that. Another way of saying this is to say, if you want to know what I really believe, look at my daily, weekly, monthly and yearly habits.
And its not just worship that involves habitual practices. Becoming compassionate Christians involves practicing annual MCC relief sales or monthly food banks. Becoming evangelistic Christians involve practices of regular hospitality and conversation. Becoming biblical Christians involves daily practices of reading and study.
During this time of pandemic restrictions, our practices of attending worship services, eating together, singing, listening to sermons, attending Sunday School classes and taking the Lord’s Supper have been disrupted. This is a huge challenge for those concerned about being Christian and passing our faith to our children.
There are several wrong responses to this interruption. One is to say that the true Christian life was never supposed to be about practices anyway—faith is an interior thing of the soul, not an exterior habit of doing things. Biblical prophets denounced hollow or corrupted practices, but Christianity can never be a purely interior thing.
The opposite response might say, those old practices were sacred and cannot be changed. We must ignore restrictions and do things exactly how we always did them and denounce the government for trying to tell the church what to do. This too cannot be a Christian response.
Christianity must be practiced, but the shape of those practices has shifted and changed over time. Even within the Bible we see different practices. For example, in Acts 2 we are told that it was the practice of the church in Jerusalem to hold all things in common. But we don’t have evidence that the church in Rome or Colossae carried out exactly that practice.
My challenge to the church today in this time of restriction is to find new ways to practice the Christian life. We still need routines, rhythms and habits that mark out this time and this place as set aside for worship. New practices might have to happen in a home, in a small house group, or in sanctuaries with small groups present. But we still need holy routines that over time train our bodies and minds about God. Christians need habits of gathering, singing, study, dress, and marking the time. If the old practices don’t work now, lets revise or find new ones.
Around us we can see other pretend “churches” clamouring for the allegiance of their followers and quickly developing new pandemic practices. Shopping malls are scrambling to create new practices that will continue forming us as “shoppers”. Pro sports leagues are scrambling to find new ways for fans to practice their loyalty to their teams. You still become a “Raptors fan” by wearing certain clothing, attending certain events, and going through certain rituals. Someone will say, “I put on a jersey and I barbeque ribs before every Vikings game”. These alternate “churches” realize what the Church has always known intuitively. Allegiance is formed by habit and ritual.
What weekly habits can we choose that will practice reverence for God? What daily ritual might remind us over time that God accepts us just as we are? What annual tradition will show that God cares for the poor? Could I dress in a certain way when I worship Jesus (even in my living room) that will teach my children that worship is the most important thing a person does? Is there an offering ritual that I could do with my money every week that will train me and my children that my life belongs to the Lord?
We can be Christians, soul-deep Christians, even in a pandemic, by developing new habits that show the world, and train our bodies in the way being a Christian.
Layton Friesen, PhD, is the EMC’s conference pastor. He has served as a youth pastor at Crestview Fellowship and as senior pastor at Fort Garry EMC.