A Personal Reformation: Duane W.H. Arnold
A Personal Reformation
I don’t think we can solve the issues that are confronting the Church. It seems to me that the most we can do is consider our lives as individuals and the intersection of our faith with our lives. We can opine and make grandiose statements about the state of the Church in America or, indeed, the world, but lacking a reformation in our lives as individuals, such statements run the risk of being disingenuous at best, or, at worst hyperbolic. Few of us, if any, have the unique charisma required to don the camel hair and leather belt of one crying in the wilderness. If, however, we cannot presage a new age for the worldwide Church, we might be able, with grace, to make some changes in our own lives that will not only be of benefit to us, but to the Church as well.
With this in mind, I have four suggestions for a “personal reformation”.
Firstly, pray. If you are part of a liturgical tradition, you likely have set forms of prayer. In the Anglican tradition, for instance, there is a set structure for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. Such forms are often modeled on the daily prayer offices of the western monastic tradition and include not only set prayers, but also the recitation of psalms and the reading of portions of scripture. If you are not a part of such a tradition, you can easily construct your own discipline of daily prayer. It can be as simple as saying the Lord’s Prayer, reading a chapter from the Gospels, reciting a psalm, and then having a time of silent or extemporaneous prayer in which you remember and pray for those in need. Regardless of the form you choose, set aside a time and a place for daily prayer… It will change your life and your outlook on life.
Secondly, go to church. I know that this is a tough proposition. You most likely will not find exactly what you are looking for in terms of a church. I wrote the following, five years ago. “Friends, church is hard. Firstly, you’ll not find a perfect church, and if you do, it won’t be perfect after you join it. That’s just the way it is. Secondly, you’ll never find a perfect pastor. Setting aside those who are in ministry for all the wrong reasons – narcissists, abusive personalities, etc. – generally you’ll find a person who is really trying to do a good job. Not only are they trying to do a good job, they are generally sacrificing a great deal to do that job, especially in terms of family and financial security. Even the small perk of the respect that was once automatically given to clergy by the outside community is pretty much a thing of the past. It’s a tough job to do well. Moreover, they will make mistakes – some big, some small – and it will be up to you to extend grace to them as you would wish for grace to be extended to yourself. Church is a place to know and be known. Church is the first place in which we are called to live out the precepts of Christ in a common life with others.” I still believe that the Church is essential.
Thirdly, set your own ethical boundaries and markers based upon your faith rather than the commentary and opinions of media pundits and politicians. A good place to start are the words of Christ as reported in the four Gospels. Yes, you can haul yourself through the entirety of the Old and New Testaments finding “proof texts” (regardless of context) to address all sorts of social and cultural maladies. I would ask, however, how this measures up to the remarkably clear and contextualized words of the Sermon on the Mount or the parables of Matthew 25? Yet, it should be noted that much in terms of Christian ethics is personal. That is, it is about how we as individuals ethically navigate personal and inter-personal relationships as well as how we function in society as a whole. The shaping, or attempted shaping, of societal or cultural norms on the basis of our personal ethical views of any given issue carries little weight if we have not already embodied that ethic within our own lives or the community of faith to which we belong.
Fourthly, read… and read broadly. For myself, I always have two or three books going that I’m reading. Usually these will include something historical, perhaps one that has a theological theme and, quite often, another one dealing with art, architecture, or popular music. I don’t read to reinforce my own prejudices and/or presuppositions. In fact, I often read books that are a challenge to what I hold to be true. Apart from reading the stone tablets coming down from Mount Sinai, just because something is written and published does not make it true. In the best case, reading allows you to engage in a conversation with the author. One can agree, disagree or decide to look for more information. You can wrestle with the thinking of legendary writers such as Athanasius or Aquinas, or engage with marginalized voices whose life experiences and thought are radically different from your own. The point of the exercise is not agreement or walking in lock step, but learning.
Others may have additional suggestions which may be helpful. I offer these, however, in the interest of “starting small”. We may not live to see the Church reformed in root and branch, but we might begin to see a personal reformation that can change the smaller corner of the Church, which consists of our lives.