Practicing Our Faith

Today, we have started the journey of Lent, that forty-day trek that takes us from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning, where along the way we prepare ourselves through reflection and repentance for the joy that surprises us on Easter. We share this journey with the Church around the world, where we focus on practicing our faith, but practice has not always been seen as important as performance.

I remember years ago when Allen Iverson, one of the NBA’s greatest shooters in history, was asked about practice. It had been rumored that Iverson, the 76ers’ best player, was missing practice, so sports journalists cornered him at a press conference and asked him about practice. Iverson kept saying, “Are we talking about practice? I mean, are we talking about practice? We are not talking about a game. We are just talking about practice,” as if it was not important.

The conventional wisdom says if we do not keep score at practice, it is not as important as the performance of the game. Faith, though, reverses our understanding of practice. Faith is not about performance. It is not about keeping score. It is not about when everybody is watching. Faith is about when no one is paying attention.

When we compare the Gospel of Mark to MatthewLuke, and John, we see immediately that there are stark differences. For starters, Mark is shorter. It is like Mark has been vacuum-sealed, pulling out different details. Mark does not mention the birth of Jesus, like in Luke or MatthewMark does not reach back to the Word of God at Creation like JohnMark skips forward and starts at baptism.

Since so much has been taken out, Mark is action-packed. It is more about practice. It is why it begins with baptism. Baptism was a dress rehearsal, looking forward to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It is as Paul says, “When we are baptized into Christ Jesus, we are baptized into his death, so just as Christ was raised from the dead, so may we too walk in newness of life.”

Baptism is not about some future moment. It speaks to right now, walking in newness of life. It is about practice. It is the practice of setting aside what is old and taking up what is new. We can set aside old habits to take up new, life-giving practices. We can put down expired assumptions for fresh perspectives. We can disregard old resentment and destructive prejudice for hopeful change!

It happens each and every day in the ups and downs of life, even in the wilderness, because Jesus was baptized out there at the River Jordan in the wilderness, even though the wilderness is a place of uncertainty. It is a place of doubt and temptation. It is a place that can make practices feel rather small. I mean, “Are we talking about practice?” Is that really important out there in the wilderness?

Jesus emerges from the wilderness talking about this expansive vision of the kingdom of God, where all wrongs are made right, all sin is forgiven, and all brokenness is healed. Small practices have a way of leading us to something big.

It is why the psalmist kept praying, “Teach me your ways, O Lord, lead me to your path. Out there in the wilderness, though, the ways of the Lord are not always clear. The path is not always well defined like that path you see on a game board, where all you have to do is roll the dice, move the top hat six spaces, hoping to avoid jail. Out there in the wilderness, we do not always know the next step, much less the destination.

We were traveling a few years ago in San Francisco, a place we had never been before. Often times when we are in a new city, we will rely on public transportation. We just pull up the destination on our phone and look for the nearest bus stop.

We were going to a basketball game that night, so we left in plenty of time to grab a quick bite to eat and to navigate all the different bus routes. We got off the first bus line, and we were transferring to the next one, wandering around like confused tourists and looking for the next bus stop.

We kept looking for that large metal frame they often have with three or four seats and a small overhang where you can wait when it is raining. We looked at the phone, and it said we were standing at the bus stop, but it was nowhere in sight.

We started walking. We did not want to lose time. We just kept walking, looking for the next bus stop, which we never found. It felt like we were wandering in the wilderness! There was this one moment—this one fleeting moment of hope—where we looked up and we saw the bus we needed to get on.  We started waving our arms, and the bus driver just waved back, unable to stop unless we were at a designated bus stop. We walked all the way there!

Later, we learned that the majority of the bus stops are simply marked by this subtle marking on the side of the curb, not even on the sidewalk. If you did not know to lean over and look for that marking, you remained lost. Small practices are like those subtle markings.  When we know to look for them and lean on them, they can navigate us through the wilderness.

The Church, at times, has done us a disservice. When it speaks about faith with such iron clad certainty, and we find ourselves in the wilderness, we think it is our fault. But that is more about performance than it is about practice.

Whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness, we can return to the River Jordan. There is hope found as we gather around those waters. It’s like that powerful spiritual “Deep River,” which says,

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.

Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
That promised land where all is peace?
Oh, deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground.

There is hope found in that current of grace, standing beside those waters, which we find in the wilderness. There is hope enough even to lead people through the wilderness of oppression. It is a place of new beginnings. It is a place that can give us hope in the wilderness.

Years ago, I stumbled upon a small practice that my grandmother would have said, “That feels a little too Catholic.” But like the imposition of ashes, where we make a cross on our foreheads, I have found that old practices that are new to us can be life-giving.

When I found myself in a wilderness, and I did not know the words to pray or what to do next, I would quietly and prayerfully make the mark of the cross over my heart—which I know feels a little odd.

The first time I had the cross made over me was actually in a Baptist church. I was a college student and the interim pastor was Kent Anglin, who also served as an interim here at Auburn First Baptist years ago. As he finished the sermon each week, he would offer a blessing and make the mark of the cross over the congregation, which was met by mixed reviews.

But in the wilderness, when I did not have the words to pray, and I did not know what to do next, I found comfort in that practice. Because it takes us back to where Jesus rehearses the crucifixion and the resurrection. It helped me hold on to that love, which always holds on to us, which is what we see in the cross.

It might not be a practice that is helpful to you, but the good news is that there are countless small practices, whether it is routine prayer, regular silence, gathering for worship, or reading scripture, that remind us to set aside what is old and to embrace what is new. As small as those practices are, they have a way of leading us through the wilderness of our lives.

Amen.

Auburn First Baptist Church