Talking About Practical Piety

As part of my Ph D thesis I am having to write about the Reformed tradition, not as a theological tradition but as a social phenomenon. It is a challenge, there is a large quantity of work on Reformed Theology, there are some books on how to be a good church member and some that try to make the Reformed tradition a spiritual tradition in much the same way that Ignatian Spirituality is. None of these address the real question I am asking which is something like; “How does it differ in the day to day living to be a Reformed Christian rather than any other sort of Christian?”

I have chosen to call this ‘Living out the faith’ a piety. Therefore a piety lies somewhere between a morality in the broad sense of how do you make moral decisions in your life and a spirituality that explores how you understand yourself as relating to God. Everyone’s understanding will be different; there is nothing wrong with this; well at least for the Reformed there is nothing wrong with this. This is just my understanding.

I have chosen to call it practical. I think that “practical” is a better term than David Cornick’s choice of “worldly” but I believe we mean similar things. We expect a piety driven by faith to make a difference in the world not just for us as individual but those around and the wider community. In my thesis, I do not use “practical” in the title of the chapter, but I will have to have a section on why I think it is practical or worldly. Maybe the cultural aspect that Max Weber was trying to describe as the “Protestant work ethic” is far more closely allied to this very down to pragmatic approach to faith, than to a Lutheran doctrine but whether either relates to capitalism is anybody’s guess.

However that is for my thesis and I do not think that most of you will want to read my thesis chapter at this stage. Possibly you will wish to see the final version. Rather what I am doing here is to try and write a series of short articles on aspects of practical piety from a Reformed perspective that are aimed at those who are generally  interested rather than academic sociologists.

[Next Blog not until 1st October]

They say that Love is blind

It is a well known saying that “Love is blind” but I say that love is no more blind than I was born in England.

Let me put that in context, I am white British, I have pale skin, blue eyes, and brown hair with a reddish tint. I speak with an educated Northern English accent and I was educated in state school. In other words if you met me, you’d assume that was English born and bred. The fact is you would be wrong although English bred. I was born in East London South Africa. In other words first appearance are misleading.

So why do I think on first acquaintance love appears blind and yet on  closer inspection turns out to be clearer sighted than many more objective standards.

Firstly let me be clear, many things closely associated with love are blind, or blinding. Infatuation blinds one, sexual attraction often leads to one over looking faults and admiration can deceive both the admirer and the person admired, idolisation most definitely does. As far as love is mixed in with these there will always be some blindness.

However to the extent that this blindness is a matter of deliberately or by emotion overlooking something that is part and parcel of the beloved object, then it also fails as love, because there is that in the beloved that is not loved.

Love rather sees clearly. I have a friend, Stephen  who has problems with alcohol. Basically he is capable of not drinking, but once he starts drinking he cannot control it. There are reasons why being this way is difficult for him, he comes from a culture where drinking is part of socialising, it is the way he has always  relaxed and I suspect he does enjoy it to a certain extent. If you add in the idea common in today’s society that if you don’t drink you are a prude, you get a fairly clear picture what sort of a mess he easily gets himself into.

Now Stephen is fussy over his appearance, if there is one thing he is more fond of it is his job. He has a good degree, is affable and a genuine person. In other words for most of the time, he fools most of the people, who don’t think he has a problem. I actually was going out with Stephen when I first realised he had a problem, yes I got him home and safe after that incident. No we did not break up over that, but did a few weeks later at his request. I was becoming a distraction from drinking (he would hate me saying this but I suspect that is the truth).

Do I reject Stephen, no I don’t. Do I pretend he doesn’t have problems with alcohol? no that is not an option either. I do keep some space between us, and probably need to be stronger about that, but that is because we have split up and both of us need that space to get our heads sorted. What is clear is that being close to him, caring about him, far from hiding his problems with alcohol made me have to face up to them.

To some it might appear I am turning a blind eye to those problems. Particularly the weeks when he came around on a Friday night with a bottle of wine to share, and we talked about life, including his drinking patterns. At that stage both me and his doctor were in damage limitation mode. I suspect if I have refused to have a drink with him it would have set me up in a position where he would not have been honest with me about his struggles and as I was supporting him through them, it was a price I paid, and yes I did not enjoy that wine. I knew what I was doing, I knew in many books it was wrong and yet it seemed the only possible way forward.

That is the problem a person from love will often take action which appear to be “blind” when in fact they are very clear sighted. They know the risks and this seems to best path for them and the individual. Their love is not despite the bad things, but including the bad things. I do not like alcoholism, I have lost friends to it, I have seen decent people ruined and that someone I care for is going through it is painful. I will keep trying to help him fight against it, because each small victory is worth it because I care about him.

I struggle equally with being honest, I can’t support him, if he starts to presume our friendship is something other than it is. He can’t substitute me for the alcohol nor expect me to pick up the pieces every time. He has to take responsibility for himself. So there are boundaries on what I can do and in the end if the only way to be fair is to walk away I will but that does not stop me caring.

So at one level I see more clearly than others, on another at times I act in ways that to someone outside would assume I was blind to the reality. At its core love has the acceptance of who someone is for who they are.  It means risking being hurt, when you know there is high chance you will be hurt.

Therefore in some ways I see God’s love shown more in the resurrection than in the crucifixion. In the crucifixion God faces the worst reality of what humanity is; in the resurrection he comes back to stay in relationship with us. No doubt he could have walked away, gone and sat up in heaven away from all the mess that we are making here. He did not, he came back and dwelt once again amongst us.

Rant: Where Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians agree.

So the title is jokey, which actually agree about quite a lot, but the Church of England has given us one more item of common consensus.

Its to do with the way the CofE factions behave.

They quite often pick on another tradition as having something valuable to say. This is not bad, cross pollination  is in my opinion a good thing if only because it can lead to better understandings. The more we explore other traditions and come to some understanding as to how they work the better. If Anglicanism thinks there is something within the Reformed tradition that is worth emulating then by all means emulate it. After all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I am quite sure that Roman Catholicism is also happy for Anglicanism to explore its rich theological and liturgical tradition and to borrow from it. I am even content for these pressure groups to adopt the relevant badges. Nothing is wrong with that


When they decide that they know what we believe better than we do and will tell us so, I object. Especially when they decide it is a stick to beat us with. A bit of humility would go a long way. Anglicans don’t seem to be happy to learn from the Catholic tradition or the Reformed tradition they want to claim they have the essence of it and are more truly it than those who belong to it.

Well I have news, to be Reformed or to be Catholic is not something that is down to purifying the tradition until you have some deified essense. It is about belonging. To be Reformed or to be Roman Catholic is not just to adopt a set of stances, it is a whole way of being. You are formed by the community which you belong to, often in ways to subtle to notice.

Look Reformed Christians disagree about what constitutes a Reformed Christian. We would not be Reformed if we didn’t. We have several hundred years of falling out and making new alliances. Yes we are a dysfunctional family, but we don’t like Anglicans behaving like social workers and telling us exactly how we should be ourselves. Or to put it another way the one thing we will agree on, is whatever Reformed is, it is not what you tell us it is!

I full expect that many Roman Catholics will agree with me on this one point.

The Discipline of Joy

This is a response to Chapter four in John Ortberg’s book “The Life you have Always Wanted“. He does not say that Christian’s should be happy and smiley all the time. That is bad theology but he does suggest we should practice joy but then does not tell us what joy is.

I am going to suggest that what he means be joy is those practices that lead to celebration and I therefore think that a two fold approach is needed

Stage one is a practice which is very close to Buddhist mindfulness, the only difference being that it tends to seek out pleasant experiences rather than just taking any experience. That is when something good happens you take the time to actually experience it, enjoy it, savour it, appreciate it, there is not a good verb in English. John suggests spending a whole day doing this each week. That I would not think possible in modern life, too many commitments but it is possible to have the occasional spoil yourself day and/or to try and have five minutes when you just let yourself savour what you are experience. It might be the warm blankets over you as you lie down to go to sleep. Just feel their weight and the warmth reflecting back from your body. What I find really good for doing this is to write poems. Most of mine start with me just trying to capture some experience in words. I have to experience it first before I can find the words.

Stage two is complimentary and that is to practice gratitude. No I do not mean the idea of thanking God for the cut knee. I mean when you come aware of something as given, whether from God or from another human being, just acknowledging that. It takes all of two seconds to do. Somebody opens a door for you and you say “thanks”, a person serves you in a shop and you say “thanks” even a driver lets you into a flow of traffic and you wave your hand. It makes you aware of how many things you receive each day. Then there are things that are not due to any other human but are not under your control either: it not raining on a wet day when you leave your brolly at home, the flavour of blackberries picked while out walking, having the health you have or a good family and friends even a nuch needed parking space. To acknowledge that much of life is given and as a Christian I see it as given by God so it is natural to thank him.

The thing is that together the two work together to provide a motor out of which celebration naturally happens. A life savouring the generosity of God, can there really be a better basis for joy.

That is not to say nasty things don’t happen they do and it is totally right to be cross when they do but a discipline like this helps so that nasty things don’t overwhelm us. It provides hope in times when hope otherwise seems far away. Sometimes all we can do is savour the pain and offer that to God but God takes even that.

Inward is the direction of Christmas

And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:3-5 (English Standard Version)

 It seems that in this season of Goodwill towards all people there is a deliberate process of withdrawal from people that slowly goes on through Advent. We like Joseph in the passage above end up going back to our home town and family.

The first stage around the start of Advent, early December is the card sending. This is about as close as many of us get to wishing universal goodwill. We send cards to people we know, regardless of whether we have spoken to them, phoned them or been in contact through email or just plain sent a letter. All that matters is that last year they sent you a card, or that you are hoping they will send you one this year. Sending out several hundred Christmas cards is not unknown even in the days before the internet.

Next stage the office party, the Christmas drinks with friends and those you regularly see. Or just wishing people you see a happy Christmas, particularly as it can be quite a busy time  and you end up seeing people you have not seen for a while. Included here is the church carol service, the crib service, the Cristingle service and all the other special services that happen this time of year. Basically the time you spend with people around you.

As you get closer to Christmas you start giving and receiving presents. This diminishes the circle even further, these are people who are special, people who feel close too or people with who you want to share with at this time of year. You are now getting to the people who matter to you.

Finally Christmas arrives and we all go home to our families. At least that is what is supposed to happen and people will travel a long way to be home with their family at Christmas. You are not even really relating to your close friends. Christmas itself is heavily weighted towards spending time with your family and by family people mean blood relatives.

You slowly have been drawing in the only level left is the self.

It really needs some cultural rethinking of Christmas if we are to stop the crises, the rows, the bad practices that mark this time of the year. We have slowly made a focus for the event and the focus is not the Christ child but the individual.

The people who are really being countercultural are those who go an help in the Christmas Shelters, the ones who decide on this date to have some friends around for a meal and the people who open their homes to those beyond their immediate family circle. These people are rebuilding Christmas, they are the light bearers, that give me hope that sometime there will be a celebration of Christmas when there really will be good will towards all people rather than a stress laid on the immediate family and the individual that it cannot really bare.