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Loving and serving

10 August 2012

Peter McGeary reads a quest for a more dynamic spirituality

A Practical Christianity: Working on transforming our lives
Jane Shaw
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I FIND that the most valuable Lent books are those that can be read outside Lent. This book, by the Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, began life as a series of lectures, was revised into a Lenten series, and now reaches its final form here. Each chapter begins with a passage of scripture for reflection, and ends with a series of questions for the reader, which will be helpful if the book is to be used by groups for discussion. The text is peppered with contemporary literary and artistic illustrations.

I suppose that, in essence, Jane Shaw is discussing the oldest "chicken-and-egg" question in Christianity: do we believe certain things and then change our lives accordingly? Or do we do certain things, and in the doing come to a deeper understanding of what we believe? The earliest Christians drew others to them because the way they spoke and behaved was attractive, subversive, and transformative.

Shaw knows her patristics, and reminds us that the theology of this early Christian period grew slowly from the lived experience of Christian men and women. Doctrine was not a set of ideas thought up from nowhere; rather, the articulation of belief grew out of the practice of the worshipping community. And this process was just that: a process, sometimes hesitant, sometimes getting it wrong, but, nevertheless, grounded in firm convictions about God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Shaw wants us in some way to recover this rather more dynamic way of growing in faith and service, the one constantly feeding and informing the other. The pattern of the book is a Lenten one, beginning in the desert, where illusions and impediments can be stripped away, leading on to a more conscious turning of the self to God, and from there to a looking outward to the world in love and service. The reader is invited to shake off those things ("dust") that impede growth and clarity. Then the focus shifts to God and what we can know of the divine nature. Finally, the focus turns outwards, on how the reader might begin to share that love revealed in God to others.

This book will be of great use to both groups and individuals. I can find only one error: at the beginning of the last chapter, it is suggested that at the end of the eucharist we are sent out to "love and serve the world" (surely we are sent out to love and serve the Lord in the world, a crucial distinction). I presume that this is a typographical error, and will be corrected in later editions.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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