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A Religious Observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you’re in a receptive state of mind. The word “observance” itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A couple are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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[T]he Lord can redeem your impulse for self-preservation by easing you toward love, which is never about self. But if you’re scared, there’s no rush. First you have to do something. You have to climb out from under the bushel and share your light with those around you. You have to believe that you’re precious to the King of Creation, and not just a waste of space.

You and I are anything but irrelevant. Don’t let the Enemy tell you any different. We holy fools all bear God’s image. We’re walking temples of the Spirit, the bashful bride of Christ, living stones in what is going to be a grand house, as holy and precious as anything else in the universe, if not more so. God is making us into a Kingdom, a lovely, peaceful one, lit by his love for us flowing toward one another. That’s the best gift you have to give.

— Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark

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The nave is the central part of the church from the main front to the chancel. It’s the part where the laity sit, and in great Gothic churches it’s sometimes separated from the choir and clergy by a screen. It takes its name from the Latin navis, meaning “ship,” one reason being that the vaulted roof looks rather like an inverted keel. A more interesting reason is that the church itself is thought of as a ship or Noah’s ark. It’s a resemblance worth thinking about.

In one as in the other, just about everything imaginable is aboard, the clean and the unclean both. They are all piled in together helter-skelter, the predators and the prey, the wild and the tame, the sleek and beautiful ones and the ones that are ugly as sin. There are sly young foxes and impossible old cows. There are the catty and the piggish and the peacock-proud. There are hawks and there are doves. Some are wise as owls, some silly as geese; some meek as lambs and others ravening wolves. There are times when they all cackle and grunt and roar and sing together, and there are times when you could hear a pin drop. Most of them have no clear idea just where they’re supposed to be heading or how they’re supposed to get there or what they’ll find if and when they finally do, but they figure the people in charge must know and in the meanwhile sit back on their haunches and try to enjoy the ride.

It’s not all enjoyable. There’s backbiting just like everywhere else. There’s a pecking order. There’s jostling at the trough. There’s growling and grousing, bitching and whining. There are dogs in the manger and old goats and black widows. It’s a regular menagerie in there, and sometimes it smells to high heaven like one.

But even at its worst, there’s at least one thing that makes it bearable within, and that is the storm without-the wild winds and terrible waves and in all the watery waste, no help in sight.

And if there is never clear sailing, there is at least shelter from the blast, a sense of somehow heading in the right direction in spite of everything, a ship to keep afloat, and, like a beacon in the dark, the hope of finding safe harbor at last.

— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words

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Art isn’t art until it’s experienced by another.

— Walter Wangerin Jr. as quoted by Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark

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The appeal here is not to the greater good or the free choice of the will or constitutive nothingness of creation that corrodes the good. Augustine the pastor and preacher avoids such abstractions and instead appeals to the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith: a humble God who endured evil in order to overcome. The point isn’t that God has a plan; the point is that God wins. We shall overcome because of what the Son has undergone in our stead. This isn’t an answer to evil; it is a response. Hope is found not in intellectual mastery but in divine solidarity.

Sometimes his body, the church, will display the same compassionate solidarity in the face of evil, a cruciform being-with that is not an intellectual dodge but rather an embodied epiphany. I have seen this close up. Several years ago, our niece died suddenly and tragically of an unexplained illness. She was seventeen months old. This is surely not the way it’s supposed to be. Her parents had drifted from any connection to a faith community back in our hometown. But our own faith family back there wanted to reach out and minister to them. So we called our pastor, a dear friend and a model of Christ’s servant love.

When Pastor Charlie arrived at the house, the grieving mother was rightly inconsolable. In fact, she was sprawled on the floor of her daughter’s bedroom, tangled in her blankets and stuffed animals, variously sobbing and numb, not willing to emerge from the room. After waiting for a time, Pastor Charlie went into the room. She didn’t even acknowledge his presence. And so Charlie did the only thing he could think of: he laid down on the floor beside her. He cried out for her and with her and longed with Spirit-filled groanings. He was Christ to her simply by being present to her in her lament.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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Why should we care about Augustine’s story? Why listen? This is a question he wrestled with explicitly. And his only appeal—his only claim to authority—is witness authority. Augustine recognizes that he can’t prove anything: “I can’t prove to them that what I confess is the truth.” He’s not offering a demonstration that marshals evidence to prove a conclusion. He’s not trying to argue anyone into his story. Instead, he shares a story that he invites his readers to “try on” and see if it might perhaps fit their own experience. Why write these confessions to God “in such a way that other people can hear?” he muses. If I’m just confessing to God, why not keep a journal, work all of this out in private? Well, for the same reason that addicts share their story at a meeting: maybe someone will see themselves in my story, Augustine says. Maybe someone will hear this prodigal tale, with all its dead ends and heartbreak, and whisper, “That’s me.” And maybe if they can see themselves in my story, they might be able to imagine finding themselves in God’s story as the one making their way home, being gathered up by a father who runs out to meet them and throws a feast. Augustine’s story is only of interest if it is unoriginal, a story that’s been told a million times, one that rehearses the prodigal adventures of the human condition.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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Our cerebral struggles are often intertwined with other anxieties. What we identify as intellectual barriers are sometimes manifestations of emotional blocks. We pride ourselves on being rational but then miss the biases and blind spots that constitute our rationality (a feature of the human condition confirmed by recent developments in behavioral economics). We decide that something “doesn’t make any sense” when we no longer want to be associated with the people who believe it, or a “light goes on” and we “see” something after we’ve spent time hanging around people who believe it. Rationality turns out to be more malleable than we’d guess.

Sometimes plausibility is pegged to a person. The turning point for Augustine was not an argument; it was Ambrose. What Ambrose said, what he taught and preached, was not insignificant. But what made a dent on Augustine’s imagination was Ambrose’s very being—what he represented in his way of life. Ambrose was a living icon of someone who integrated assiduous learning with ardent Christian faith. If to that point, based on his childhood experience, Augustine had concluded that Christians were simple, backward, and naive, the encounter with Ambrose was the destabilizing experience of meeting someone with intellectual firepower who was also following Jesus. Even more than that, it was Ambrose’s hospitality that prompted Augustine to reconsider the faith he’d rejected as unenlightened. What ultimately shifted Augustine’s plausibility structures? Love. His recollection is warm and speaks to a hunger even more fundamental than the intellectual: “That man of God took me up as a father takes a newborn baby in his arms, and in the best tradition of bishops, he prized me as a foreign sojourner.” More than arguments or proofs, Ambrose offered the seeker Augustine something he’d been hungering for: a home, sanctuary, rest.

— James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

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