WHAT CAN YOU DO ALONE?
A PERSONAL APPROACH
By Robert Doolittle
GEORGE Huntson Williams, the Unitarian scholar, put the matter bluntly:
Without a sense of relatedness to Christendom, without more than a peripheral participation in the affairs of Protestantism striving for a new unity and a larger dimension, the would-be Christians among us will perish for want of that spiritual, sacramental, liturgical and covenantal fellowship which is the essential connective tissue of the larger body, the universal Church.
And the Bible is equally blunt. Jesus worked with two groups of disciples, one small, one large The Gospel events all happened in the midst of people. The transforming power of God seems always to move “where two or more are gathered.”
So I’m skeptical about the title and in full agreement with Williams. “What can you do alone?” Not much, I’d say, except of course if your Christianity is just a kind of intellectual hobby, a preferred set of opinions. There is no problem doing that in isolation. But if your Christianity is a process of spiritual growth, then being with other Christians is pretty crucial.
My strong advice is to go find company, find others who want to worship, are interested in the Bible, are trying to orient their lives to the Master. At gatherings of Unitarian Universalist Christians who get down to talking about how they meet their spiritual needs, people always end up “confessing” to one another about their quiet visits to “other places”: to spiritual directors, retreats, communion, conferences, authors and so on. And it’s a great relief to find that everybody’s doing it. It doesn’t make you less of a Unitarian Universalist, just more of a Christian, and often it seems to strengthen Unitarian Universalist identity as well.
As Christians, especially as liberal Christians, I think we can let ourselves relax about the tensions between all the different denominations. Instead of feeling separated from all of them, we can just a~ readily opt to say we belong to all of them. Being a Christian then becomes my access to the wonderfully rich smorgasbord which is Christianity. It won’t all be to my taste, but some of it will. And if I’m willing I can call it all mine anyway.
So, I’m saying you need other Christians. I’ve heard it put this way: Christian spiritual growth is a work you have to do for yourself but can’t do by yourself.
From here on I want to share an assortment of other “things you can do.” They are Christian spiritual disciplines. The first discipline, though, remains the discipline of community, the discipline of belonging to the larger Christian body. Without it, the other disciplines can’t really be sustained. So if any of these disciplines are of interest, be sure you’ve somehow located yourself in some participation with flesh and blood Christianity or there won’t be much electricity to power your individual efforts.
The list that follows is mostly made up of things to do at home. I shall take the liberty of writing very personally, since this is really a report of what has worked out well in our home.
This one stands along side community as a power source for the other disciplines. It’s a very individual effort, but at the same time very much of a household matter. To respect that closed door, take phone messages, send off and receive back the one that goes to pray, is a discipline of support for everyone in the household. The family has to agree to, and plan around, the absence. It is a sacrifice everyone makes, and warrants constant grateful recognition.
A great literature is available on what to do in the hour of prayer. I will say only that it happens best for me when I go knowing what I am after, that I am seeking my God and have a promise of finding if my seeking is fiercely purposeful. The means vary: centering, journal-prayer, scripture, conversation, devotional reading, and intercession. But the purpose is always to entrust myself to The Way, the Truth and the Life. The days I set aside the time and make this effort are so much better than the others that I can’t imagine why I don’t do it just as faithfully as I eat dinner. But I don’t, not yet.
The Rev. Wallace Robbins has written a book of meditations, For Everything There is a Season, which brings the seasons of the church year into warm tangibility for personal use. And Charles Park’s Beginning The Day, a booklet of prayers, has long been a favorite with liberal Christians.
I have insisted that Christianity is much more than an intellectual posture. That’s a humbling fact for the liberal Christian, who tends always to lead with his head. But having subordinated thought from the first position among Christian disciplines, I must hasten to add: however ecumenical and prayerful we are, we will soon stumble without constant theological stimulation and effort. Study brings contact with the great spiritual adventurers. Study helps us examine and enrich our own practice of prayer. Study illumines the ecumenical dilemma and its solution. Where possible, I am including with each item on this list of Christian disciplines a book or an article or a journal, which further explores the particular discipline.
And to conclude this item, I recommend The New England Way and Vatican II by the Rev. Joseph Bassett. He is a highly disciplined man of study who explores our Unitarian roots in the foundational 17th century councils of New England Congregationalism and compares them to the foundational council of modern Roman Catholicism. He finds numerous and surprising points of harmony in these two seemingly remote corners of Christianity. His study encourages the very ecumenical notion that if we look deeply enough, Christianity already is one. It is available from the UUCF.
Every person I live with is given to me for a reason. If I am willing to pray my way through to that reason, I can approach each relationship with a clear vision of what I am to give and be about the business of giving it. This is my home-ministry. Every Christian has one, especially people who minister in any fashion outside the home. That ministry will ring hollow if the people at home don’t each feel specially loved, feel Christ’s love coming to them through me.
In several of Paul’s letters he gives advice about the selection of bishops and deacons and he says not to pick anyone whose home-life is not peaceful. (1 Tim. 3)
A Polish priest we occasionally visit once looked at our very strong willed 3-year-old and said: “Give him a blessing every day and that strong will will become an asset. Otherwise, he could grow up and be a real problem to himself and others.” So I do it, with all three of our children. Not exactly every day, but often at bed-time or going out the door, I take their little faces and heads in my hands and ask them what blessing they’d like, and then call it down on them along with whatever else I may feel is needed. The children enjoy these moments of closeness and prayer. After three years the little guy remains strong-willed and seems to have a comfortable heart.
Someone said the hardest three words in the English language are “Please forgive me.” They’ve been our family’s peace plan. The struggle toward saying them has been close to the heart of our marriage and our parenting. Self-justification is the impulse which divides, but apology is the discipline that reconciles. I’d almost call it a little sacrament, capable of calming the storms of selfishness that constantly get stirred up in every relationship.
Sojourners is a magazine for Christian peace-makers. It brings the Gospel to bear on every aspect of the practice of peace, from the very intimate dimension to the whole-world dimension. (Box 29272, Washington, D.C.)
It’s a normal gift, not an extraordinary one. And it’s normal use is for people who live together. I’m convinced that any believer can do it, and not to do it is either just ignorance or indifference. The technique is simply to take the hand of the hurting one and express before God the hope for well-being which is already in your heart. The very sound of those words of faith and love begins the healing. If the person wants to be well, and if that is what is best, it will happen. Love always has a healing effect, and this is your love combined with something extra from God. The results can be just a steady progress of the natural healing process or a noticeable speeding of that process. Either way, a peace is introduced that is the deepest need of anyone who suffers. This peace is the real work and purpose of healing prayer, even for those who will not get well and are being brought along the road of pain and death. The peace that comes as gift, the peace that lets us entrust ourselves to God’s goodness is equally much the key to healing and to not being healed.
I was introduced to this very simple and powerful approach to healing by a little book entitled The Healing Light, by Agnes Sanford (Logos, Plainfield, N.J.).
The prayer before meal is a lot of things at once. It is giving thanks, it is a quieting down, it is a celebration of being together, it invokes the unseen participant in all that is said, it rededicates us. The simplest words are best. Excessive eloquence distances people, and prayer is about drawing close. We like to pass the job around, to the children, to a guest, or maybe all take a piece of it. “Let’s each offer thanks for what we’ve been given today.” We always take hands, like the Quakers.
The UUCF publishes a wonderful booklet by the Rev. Carl Scovel, Graces Sung and Spoken, introducing rich and varied possibilities for how to “say grace.”
If Moses made it one of the Ten Commandments and Jesus said, “The Sabbath is made for people”, then there must be something to it. We have figured out that it works for us as a very necessary medicine for our workaholic tendencies. It’s not a house-rule so no one finds it oppressive. Rather it’s something we (adults) kind of help each other with, by example and fore-planning. And it is hard to do. Work produces things we want. And not to work sacrifices those gains. But there’s another kind of gain, a quieting and deepening of the heart. So it turns out to be worth the price.
Going to church is the abiding Sabbath practice. A suggestion: Set up and stock a rack of UUCF pamphlets presenting UU Christianity to your local church.
The Peace Candle
The human family is in trouble. We wanted a way to stay part of that pain and its relief. Everybody loves a candle, especially children. So we set up a tradition of lighting a candle and asking for world peace. We mean to do it daily; we actually do it three or four times a week. What we do keeps changing. At first it was just praying for peace of any sort from sibling rivalries to international ones. Now we’ve added a daily Gospel passage from the Lectionary and we play with retelling the message or the situation in our own terms. Like a lot of these disciplines, there’s a tendency not to do it, but then a pleasure once we get into it.
For more ideas on bringing the Scriptures alive with children, a pair of very usable-at-home Bible curriculums were developed at the UU Church in Weston, Massachusetts. Moses, His Life and Times and The Life and Teachings of Jesusavailable from the UUCF.
The health people say it’s good for us. The Bible says it’s good for others. We use it two ways, either a one-meal fast, usually for world or local hunger collections where the money we save is donated, or a one-day fast for people facing a big personal situation, like a difficult task or a retreat or a decision. In both cases it is a form of prayer. I’m not exactly sure what spiritual laws are at work, but I know a couple of things about it. The results are striking and convincing. And, after the initial stress period while the body clamors for its accustomed pampering, comes a period of unusual clarity and high energy and freedom in prayer. Like the Sabbath discipline, it’s a sacrifice on one level, with a pay-off on a higher level.
The UUCF has published an occasional paper entitled "Lent for Liberal Christians," which explores the purpose of tangible acts of prayer like fasting and then proposes a long and varied list of ways to do it.
The writers of the scriptures all were spiritual giants. Their experience of God was enormous. We don’t have to suspend our critical judgment, but unless we subordinate it to an attitude of some kind of humility before these people nothing can come through. They all wrote so as to reach and assist the reader; they were great lovers, and we can legitimately consider ourselves a target of their love. They want our discipleship to catch fire, and if we are willing to bring our lives to what we read and let the words get at us, great things can happen for us in the encounter. There are lots of more detached and very valuable ways to approach the scriptures, but if they are a way of avoiding this one, then they only amount to a glorified escape from the real power and purpose of the Book.
The UUCF has available a “Common Lectionary” which presents the Sunday scripture readings being used in common by Christian churches worldwide. It is equally valuable as a means of personal scripture study.
If spiritual growth is a conscious objective, it’s crucial, periodically, to talk to someone about how it’s going. Sometimes it can be another Christian or anyone who talks your language and can ask questions and listen and maybe pray with you. But sometimes it’s good to go to a master. By that I mean anybody you look up to for quality of his or her Christian life, anybody you feel a little over-awed by, intimidated by, strangely awkward around. There may be an impulse to avoid that person, but I’d recommend treating your feeling as a call to get next to some qualities you need. And especially here, we should be very ecumenical and step lightly across any denominational lines.
Far flung UU Christians have found membership in the UUCF a way to make contact by mail with other UU Christians. Good News is published about 8 times a year as a forum for letters and articles and sermons by members. And this journal is published quarterly. Often readers write and ask for addresses of various contributors to make personal contact. Ministers in the UUCF often are approached by phone or by mail for counsel.
This is The Christian discipline, the beloved sacrament. A Christianity that steps away from the communion table will soon sicken and wither away. Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Communion unites us with Christ and with each other. It matters what theological setting you celebrate in, but it doesn’t matter greatly. Inevitably we each approach the Master in whatever fashion we know him, and the miracle is that with all our differences we do approach him together. And there is an effect inside each of us. We are strengthened for the cross it is to keep on being together, and strengthened as well for our individual prayer-lives, strengthened in fact for all the disciplines of our Christian life. So the call to communion is the strongest one. Wherever you live, even if you must yourself break the bread and lift the cup, even if it’s with just two people, come to the table. Here we actually gather with every other Christian. And in this one body I rediscover who I am, who God is to me, and how to give myself to living.
The UUCF publishes two communion services which local chapters have used for their celebrations: “A Service of Christian Thanksgiving” and “An Order of Communion for the Table.”
Here my list ends. But the list of “What you can do” does not. Christianity is a vast wealth of disciplines, some of them like communion and scripture and prayer and ministry are essentials, but even these are practiced with boundless variety. Other disciplines have evolved and are available as special resources for the special appetites and aspirations of each person, but all these practices have their common origin in the Gospels and their common purpose in releasing us to “love as Jesus loved” so that God’s kingdom can be made tangible and visible in our lives.
A Handbook for Christians In Non-Christian Unitarian Universalist Churches, Spring/Summer, 198, Volume 8, Nos.1-2,