Bishop Mark Hanson: Faith Practices in the Making

Faith practices in the making

Shared activities addressing needs form way of life

I recall memories of my childhood with gratitude to God: my dad rising early in the morning to read the Bible and pray; my mom preparing to welcome guests for a night of delicious food, lively conversation and singing; receiving my weekly allowance, knowing 10 cents of that dollar went into my offering envelope; my grandmother spending Mondays making quilts for people in distant lands.

My memories include Sunday school teachers inviting us into the lives and mysterious stories of God's people in a different time and place. I remember my pastors, who not only required us to memorize the catechism, Scripture and hymns, but who brought God's word to life through sermons and Bible studies. I remember learning to ask the Lutheran question, "What does this mean?"

If anyone referred to what they were doing as teaching us faith practices, I don't recall it. In fact, I suspect such a term would have earned a healthy dose of skepticism. For my parents and grandparents, pastors and Sunday school teachers, it was clear that faith comes from hearing God's word and that faith is the fruit of the Spirit working through the gospel. I am grateful that I was the beneficiary of people who practiced their faith and instilled faith practices.

Dorothy Bass of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith describes "practices" as "those shared activities that address fundamental human needs and that, woven together, form a way of life." The way of life embodied by Christian faith practices - prayer, Bible study, worship, hospitality, service, generosity, teaching and mentoring others - is a life lived in community. In this way of life God uses others to plant, nurture, cultivate and bring to maturity a life that is God's life in us. In turn, God uses these same faith practices in us to plant, nurture and cultivate God's life in others. The way of life embodied in these practices is God's handiwork in us for the good of others and for the life of the world.

It is easy to become nostalgic for an earlier time as our lives become more complicated and hurried, as congregations struggle with the consequences of a multitasking and consumer-driven culture, as we recognize a decrease in church attendance, and as we experience a decline in members involved in weekly study.

As social critic Christopher Lasch reminds us such nostalgia may provide only a temporary buffer against cultural upheaval. Nostalgic perspectives "freeze the past," avoiding confrontation with the changing realities of the present. He concludes that memory embraces the past to understand and inform the present.

We in the ELCA are richly blessed by living memories upon which we draw as we engage in evangelical mission in our rapidly changing and often challenging contexts. A vibrant evangelical church engaged in God's mission will be a community through which people are brought to faith and sent to live and practice the faith in daily life.

The commitment to congregations as centers of evangelical mission calls for both imagination and memory and is inseparable from the cultivation of both personal and communal faith practices by every member of this church.

Faith practices nurture God's life in all the networks of relationships through which we live out our daily vocations. Their power is most evident in family life. For example, in many households, families share "highs and lows," followed by Scripture, prayer and a final blessing with the sign of the cross on the child's forehead. In this ritual, several faith practices are woven together into the fabric of the household's way of life.

This way of life serves Christ's life in us when the story of Jesus is the thread that is woven into the fabric of each practice. When prayer is in the name of Jesus, when hospitality and service recognize Jesus "in the least of them," when the story of Jesus flows generously from our lips and lives, then these practices are God's handiwork, Christ's life in us.

[From the Presiding Bishop's monthly column in The Lutheran magazine, May 2009 issue, used with permission.]

For more information about and resources by Bishop Hanson, please visit the ELCA website.