Given my mini-rant against self-chosen Lenten disciplines, I should probably spend some time doing what will seem like talking out of the other side of my mouth and reflect on practices. They are, after all, both how our communities are created and identified, and also how we are formed and equipped to live in the world. And of course... well... do I really have to type it!?
I've behaved myself thus far on the blog, but it seems to me that a discussion of practices might actually be a good reason to drop a Confessions bomb, especially when the topic includes those distinctive and significant practices--the sacraments.
The opening sentence of Article XIII of the Augsburg Confession states: "Concerning the use of the sacraments it is taught that the sacraments are instituted not only to be signs by which people may recognize Christians outwardly, but also as signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us in order thereby to awaken and strengthen our faith." (AC XIII.1; ed. Kolb, Wengert)
For the Reformers, and still today, the emphasis falls on the sacraments as practices that awaken and strengthen faith. I propose, however, that the more important part of this sentence in today's North American context is the first part--practices that show people we are Christian. Yes, the sacraments have both an outward and an inward effect, but in a culture that raises the individual to the level of being the only meaning-maker, maybe its time to go back to emphasizing the outward signs--those things that we do together to show the world our community of faith.
Practices form communities, and when paired with faith, very particular kinds of communities that Dykstra calls "communities of conviction." "By 'communities of conviction' I mean peoples who are intersubjectively related to one another across time and space by a body of convictions, language patterns, and practices that they hold in common" (Growing in the Life of Faith, p. 133). The words of institution during the celebration of the Lord's supper, in whatever language they are translated into, connect congregations across the globe and across time because of the shared practice with the shared words that carry the message of the gospel to the church from both the past and the future. The invocation of the trinitarian formula with the ritual washing that is baptism ties communities together through shared words and actions, shared hope and faith.
Of course, I need to be careful in thinking about practices that are signs of communities of conviction, because the old person brings up the things that could divide communities through different artistic expressions of a given practice. Chaves, in his book Congregations in America, takes special care to show the importance that develops around such artistic practices. "Religious differences partly manifest themselves in different artistic practices, and these practices in turn become an important part of a religious tradition's identity, probably a more salient marker to most people than doctrines or creeds" (p. 173).
I wonder how much influence such artistic practices have had on issues like the amount of water at baptism, the slew of distribution methods for the bread and wine of the table, or for other less central issues like the attire of worship leaders or music in worship. How many individuals have been separated from practicing communities over issues of artistic expression?
The external practices of Christianity form us as full beings, creating external expectations while also equipping those gathered for faithful response to those expectations. The shared practices of faith form us as individuals as much as they form us as communities. Yet the old person constantly seeks to twist these practices, damaging both individuals and communities.
Atkins' work shows that the rhythms that develop in worship shape both how those present expect to experience God and how they imagine they could respond to God, both in and out of worship (cf. Memory and Worship, p. 11). We are formed as individuals within community. Even in the loneliest of times, no individual ever worships alone. The great cloud of witnesses and the heavenly host worship God constantly, and we join in whenever we worship--be it in the midst of a congregation or in a prayer closet.
It was interesting for me to see some of the commercials that came out this past football season. Many of them, particularly from one label, showed that communities of conviction exist among those who watch professional football with their own denominations indicated by practices shared and different, and even smaller groups with unique or particular practices (and similar could be said for most professional sports). Such communities have visible, outward signs that identify them as belonging to the larger community and also form individuals within the community. Artistic expressions develop as practices within these communities. Generations pass on the practice of participation in the community, and often even practice together.
God knows that we need community. God knows that part of community is shared practices. God knows that the desires of the old person within us are alluring, that Satan's false promises are enticing, that the sin of the world is engaging. God gave us practices that form the new person in us through the death of the old person in us, through promises that are the only truly unconditional promises possible (cf. the works of Jenson). Such practices form us inwardly and are seen by others through our participation in them where people can see us.
Practices done in community birth mutual accountability within the community and exterior accountability towrad those in the community from those watching the community. God knows that we need community, and so God has given us more ways to be in community than we could ever experience in one lifetime so that through some of them the Holy Spirit might call us into relationship with others. And hopefully one of those communities is the particular community that shares the practices of Christian faith, which includes inviting those as yet outside the community of faith to come and see.
Who knows, maybe by doing such practices in public, you might discover more of a community than you knew existed, which God was waiting to show you.