Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Remember, Consider, and Imitate Their Faith - One Possibility for Lent


"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. 
Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." Hebrews 13:7

This verse was a part of the readings assigned to the day's prayers, per Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, a resource I regularly utilize and which I wholeheartedly commend. In response to this verse, I am tempted to simply make a list of those folks, pray their names as a litany, and have that be the end of this post. I will probably still make the list and pray it, but not here, at least not today. I am grateful for these "leaders", to which I attach air quotes because they probably would not recognize that title with respect to our relationship together. They were and are mentors, friends, family, colleagues, influencers from a distance - like authors and podcasters, and they are the lives of the saints. 

"Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith." 

One in the litany for me is surely the Rev. Dr. Susan Eastman, who among other things taught a class on Paul and imitation (mimesis). One of the things I remember about imitation is that humans, with many other creatures, don't start imitating through force of effort. Minutes into our earthly lives, we are imitating those who share time and space with us, very much automatically. So when I read this verse from Hebrews, I assume the call is to re-imitate, that is, to return to imitating certain of the saints whose way of life became an open door or window through which we saw brighter colors and truer possibilities with respect to life in Christ than we had previously imagined or seen. Return to imitating these persons.

Of course, there may be aspects of their ways of life I didn't notice at the time or took for granted. Almost certainly I made assumptions along the way, in interpreting their lives, rather than simply asking. I think that is fine. For surely it is the case that we do not always see best what God is doing or how we have been shaped by the Holy Spirit in our own lives. It takes the Body to discern. Still, 1) much of the life of faith is imparted through relationship, and 2) what's more, the verse asks me to heighten my attention, open to the possibility that I might have missed something previously, to consider their lives and the outcomes attached to them, as I go about returning to this work of imitating leaders in the faith.

I love the verse's descriptive clause for leaders. Who are the leaders? The ones who spoke the word of God to you. Not just the preachers, of course, unless you are one of the lucky ones who have managed to been given and carry a generous understanding of the preaching vocation as one that belongs to all of God's people. Lauren Winner has given my favorite description of the task of preaching, which is something like loving the scriptures in public. We can all do that. But, more to the point, there have been particular people who have done that for us. Ordinary saints like Gwen McAllen, who stopped me in the narthex when I was somewhere near the 6th grade. I didn't know her well, apart from what I still remember as her regular use of the most generous smile I have, to this day, ever seen. She didn't wear a smile, exactly. She was a smile, a radiating joy. And one day she aimed that smile and joy at me, she noticed me, and handed me a copy of Mere Christianity. She said it had been helpful to her, and she had a hunch it would the kind of thing I might also enjoy. There are lots of other people with plausible claims to leadership in this world, but my 6th grade self intuited the descriptive clause in Hebrews: leaders are the ones who speak the word of God to you, which word invites us to grow in trust and confidence in the One who does not forsake us, freeing us to live lives freed of fear. Leaders speak this word of God to you. Mutual, reciprocal, yes, but they speak. They open doors of faith and hope and love to you.

Today's Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals ends with a collect that speaks a truth about the difficulty of imitating others, namely it involves lives of discipline we are not sure we need. Sometimes we even perceive imitation as impinging on our imagined duty to live as our claim autonomous lives. Of course, the kind of autonomy we think we are supposed to claim is a lie, but it a lie that dies hard. But here is the prayer which, with the call to consider and imitate, seems to hold great promise for Christians as we make our slow approach to that holy season called Lent:
Lord, convict us of the need for spiritual disciplines that call us to stillness, centeredness, and contemplation. Remind us that your word is living and present to nurture us, grow us, and sustain us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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