Sometimes when I am baptizing a child, I wonder what the parents will teach the children about the ways we are identified as “Christian.” It’s easy to think that our daily work is a set of rules, such as being nice, or generally wet-blanket, or severe, pious, and stiff-lipped.
During a baptism, one of the first questions is Will people follow in the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. It’s a pretty good breakdown of how we work in a Christian community. It merits explanation.
The “apostles teaching” is, firstly, scripture – the bible and the early church readings. I suggest, however, that it is not only scripture, because the congregation is the primary place where should be scripture read. At the very heart of the apostle’s teaching, especially as an essential part of the Anglican teaching, is the practice of reading, which is fundamentally an act of listening. It is in listening we learn the minds and existence of other people.
This may seem frivolous, a low bar for the believer. But as we enter into a primarily visual culture, we become removed from the interiority that reading encourages, the learning of how other minds work. The viable options around us now become the outrage machine that is our cable news, which are a mix of profiteering and cynicism; and the images that frame our understanding of the world, often narratives that are selected to increase anxiety and dissatisfaction for the sake of captivating our attention. Reading more effectively teaches us how other people think and deepens our empathy. A reading habit is a spiritual habit.
I do not want to burden this with a demand that we encourage children to read at 3, or to advocate for any particular canon. Whether it be Harry Potter or Stephen King or Annie Dillard or Octavia Butler or Dostoyevsky or Archie Comics, it’s the habit that matters, and through the habit we learn to read more complex work.
The second is fellowship. Too often I hear that the church should not be a country club or a social organization like a sailing club or the Knights of Columbus. Certainly it should not ONLY be a club or a social organization – and what a really weird club that would be. It must be more. But it cannot ignore that sociability is important. Jesus went to parties, and parties are often where we learn to just deal with each other. The image for fellowship is a wedding feast, and it behooves Christians to experience fellowship with each other. And if you are a fancy-pants club member, you should at least be seeking to offer an equal portion to your church community.
The third is the breaking of the bread. This symbolic act is at the heart, even if we’re carb free. This is an image of being together and recognizing each others’ broken humanity. We allocate god’s love equally in communion; we recognize each other as present in the image of God, regardless of class or caste or gender. We are not merged into one another, but we are together.
Last: we pray. Prayer is the habit of opening of our minds, fostering a resilience that allows us to have time to discover meaning in the lives we are already leading. Prayer, as a practice, is about listening, letting go, and also learning to think differently. It’s preparation for learning to be transformed. In our daily work, having time to focus, to pay attention, to be open is what will give us the strength to handle the vicissitudes of our precarious world. Prayer, remember, is not “wishing” but much more: wonder, plea and forgiveness. Without prayer, the world can overwhelm, flatten or diminish us in our daily work. Certainly there are many ways to pray, but without the ability to reflect, to wonder, to listen to God, the world becomes a far more impossible place.