As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
I was nodding along enthusiastically from the first page in of James K. A. Smith’s new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. The resounding “yes” erupted when Smith tackled the topic of worship. He unmasks the common erroneous assumption that worship is meant to be self-expressive—about us and for us. Such me-centered worship, he explains, is rooted in consumerism and emotional self-fulfillment. He carefully guides us back to historic liturgical understandings and practices.
God, the prime mover, demonstrates his love for us and sculpts us as a kingdom people through a repeated narrative arc—gathering, listening, communing and sending. He invites us into his presence, gathering us together on the Sabbath. Prompted by his holiness, we confess our sins. Pardoned, we’re ready for listening to his nourishing Word. We’re further fed by communing with one another at the reconciling Table of Jesus Christ. Finally, the Holy Spirit re-commissions us, sending us out to do our creational tasks. This weekly “habit” of worship is what our hearts require to re-set the gospel alignment of our lives. Smith summarizes: “The church—the body of Christ—is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites.” Yes!
Such a God-driven liturgy, says Smith, like a live current, will conduct energetic faith into our families, schools and workplaces, not by some magical osmosis, but by conscious replication within our daily activities. He writes winsomely about changing habits within his own life. He offers an array of tactile approaches to “incarnate” the good news, strategies calculated to thwart our tendency to reduce faith to a facile cerebral consent.
If I could sit down with Jamie (having read his book, we’re friends now), I’d say: “Jamie, this is all so familiar. It’s the story of the CRC! The three-legged stool—church, home, school. It’s the story of my life!” I’d recount (in more passionate detail than he probably has time for) all the intentional and sacrificial ways my parents tried to “habituate” their children into the faith and all the aggregate ways I tried to do the same with my kids. I’d describe how deliberately my Christian school teacher colleagues and I sought to wallpaper our classrooms with tangible piety, attending to the liturgical year, originating dramas, musicals, artwork, and service projects to “enflesh” the gospel for our students. My guess is he’d concede that we did exactly what he’s recommending.
Jamie’s smart. He knows what I’m going to say next. It just doesn’t always catch. And his book, engaging and persuasive as it is, doesn’t really grapple with that outcome. That sorrow. I found myself longing for a counterweight to his optimism, a measure of pastoral balance, an expression of comfort. What I sense in the older “builder” generation in my church, and what I know viscerally from my own life, is a mostly invisible but devastating mantle of failure. We are the ghostly survivors haunting our empty sanctuary, silently weeping for our missing children and grandchildren, wrung out by their indifference to the faith life we modeled, a faith life, I’d argue, that was as purposefully “rehearsed and practiced” as Smith suggests it ought to be.
Right after I read Smith’s book, I picked up Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. His nuanced and comprehensive examination of pain and heartache in the Christian life is one of the most helpful I’ve ever read. Perhaps what Smith’s book needs is something comparable, a consoling afterword, a humble acknowledgment that, in the end, salvation is simply and indisputably of the Lord. The God who reaches out to enfold us and mold us through the church’s liturgy is the same God whose sovereign purposes are often perfectly inscrutable. Loving that God—just ask Job—is not for the faint of heart.
Keller notes, “The book of Job rightly points to human unworthiness and finitude, and calls for complete surrender to the sovereignty of God. But taken by itself the call might seem more than a sufferer could bear. Then the New Testament comes filled with an unimaginable comfort for those who are trusting in God’s sovereignty.” God’s “coming in the flesh,” his incarnation, is the preposterous “other side” of his sovereignty. Jesus Christ suffers human physical pain, betrayal, abandonment, desolation. This “God with wounds” is a God to whom we can safely entrust all of our own hurts. Such a God is worthy of conscientious worship, worthy of continued unflagging effort to engrain spiritual habits in ourselves and our children, as Smith advocates.