For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
If you are a Christian who loves poems and novels and essays, no event compares to the Festival of Faith and Writing. Calvin College gathers faithful writers from around the country to give readings, lectures, and interviews. Sarah and I took off school last spring to drive to Grand Rapids and hear our beloved poets, Scott Cairns and Christian Wiman, favored novelists, Tobias Wolf and Paul Harding, and admired theologians, Wesley Hill and James K.A. Smith read and discuss their work. The Wurm family raised daughters who live boldly, and Sarah, despite being a Collister, is no exception. Against my protestations and anxieties, she introduced us to each of these writers.
By the second day of the festival, we had heard Smith speak a couple times on the sort of issues explored in his book, Imagining the Kingdom. Smith wants Christians to understand that arguments aren’t enough to make faithful citizens of the Kingdom of God—we need poems and novels and films and songs to transform our desires. God needs to baptize our imaginations. As we spoke to him after one of the panels, we told him about our work at Bloomfield Christian School and Church of the Advent, seeing God change people’s desires and imaginations. Smith was excited to hear about folks from our generation putting these ideas into practice. And he mentioned that he was coming to our hometown in the fall to speak at Rochester College about his new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.
Smith gave us words to explain many of the reasons we are starting a mission parish and teaching at a classical Christian school. He expressed the ways ancient faith and worship prepare us to love God and love our neighbors. He described how classical education recognizes the importance of developing good habits and virtues to form disciples. So we returned home and told our respective Bible studies about this new book coming out that explained the goals of our mission parish. Both the men and women determined to read the book (in addition to our regular study of the scriptures and teachings of the saints).
Smith’s critical insight in You Are What You Love is that we may not love what we think. Many of us assume that Christ is our top priority and we are on the right track. Yet we find ourselves making foolish decisions and wasting our days away doing selfish or unproductive stuff. Saint Paul saw we often do that which we hate. As we study Smith’s book, we are realizing that, believe it or not, our habits shape our loves more so than our arguments and opinions. Smith reminds us that we are not just brains on sticks. When the Church tells us to just memorize and think the right things, she is being too modern and too secular. God has made us to desire and imagine and love. And our habits form our loves. So we need ancient Christian practices to truly become disciples. We need to pray the Daily Office, participate in Holy Communion, and sing Psalms of praise and lamentation and Thanksgiving. Like the first Christians, we need tight knit community and feasts and fasts that point us to Christ. We need the Book of Common Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and alms giving. In short, we need to recover the forgotten riches of our faith.
Smith was set to speak at Rochester College in October at the Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart Conference. Mark Love, head of the theology department at Rochester College, graciously invited me to bring my theology class to hear the lecture. Considering all of us at Advent were reading Smith’s book, Fr. Shaun and I were eager to attend. I arrived with the four seniors from my theology class, and Mark Love kindly permitted us to sit in the front row. My students were impressed by Smith’s insistence that worship is not about self-expression. God changes us when we confess, commune, and receive the commission. At one point, Smith remarked that he is pleased when he sees a moody fourteen year old attend church because God is shaping him through the rituals and practices going on all around him. The students thought he made a good point. More than anything, they were impressed by the claim that we all have hungry hearts. We are never completely detached, neutral, or dispassionate. We are going to worship, going to serve, going to love. The question is not if, but what, we will love. And Smith reminds all of us that we need the practices handed down from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to the Apostolic Fathers, from the Apostolic Fathers to the saints and martyrs, from the Church Catholic to us if we want to love Jesus and love His Kingdom of peace and reconciliation.