"Practicing your piety"-A sermon for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
The saying goes: practice makes perfect. I have also heard the idea thrown around that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in just about anything. And though this number feels ginormous, and I really don’t know if there is any science behind it, I would agree that for any practice to become a habit, it indeed, at the very least, takes lots and lots and lots of time…and lots and lots and lots of practice. And even then, my own experience suggests, that habits can be broken, especially good ones, if practicing any particular habit is neglected…even ones that feel well formed. And sometimes it doesn’t take much neglect, much time, for any habit or expertise to be lost…far less than the countless hours, and often much hard work, that was required in forming a habit or expertise in the first place. Moreover, if the habit or expertise was something we wanted to make a permanent part of our life…I am sorry to say that once a habit is broken it may require a similar sort of effort to re-establish it, as it did the first time around. I think about this also in the context of recovery…recovery from addiction in particular. When someone speaks of being in recovery…they don’t say I am recovered…but I am in recovery. The idea is that new habits that are formed that lead one to freedom from addiction and support a person in a life-time of sobriety require ongoing attention and practice. The twelve steps are not just worked once…but are worked for a life-time…until they become written on one’s heart…and working them becomes a way of being…a way of living life.
And I speak about this to you as one who knows a little bit about the power and purpose of practice in habit forming because I have back slid many a time when it comes to caring for myself and being the person I want to be. Just for example, I get into the practice of going to the gym, of eating well…and indeed it becomes easier…almost a part of who I am…starts to be written on my heart…a looked forward to part of life. Caring well for myself makes me feel good…feel good about myself…and feel good about life. And then as I am reveling in all those good vibrations…I begin to get inconsistent with my practice. After going to the gym three times a week for over a year…surely just taking one week off won’t sink the ship…surely I’ll be able to get back to it next week. But that’s not how it works, I am sorry to say, at least for me. Getting back that following week takes an inordinate amount of energy…so much energy that again I have often failed. And the practice, the habit is then so easily lost. And then to get back on the workout wagon, in my case, takes all the struggle I experienced when I first began. Further and perhaps much more importantly than my gym routine, I watched my father struggle with addiction for a life-time…of being in recovery and being out of recovery. I saw up close and very personally how this cycle of forming habits through hard work and practice are so easily lost. I saw and experienced the pain that comes with that loss...and then all the energy that is required to begin again. And in this case, and perhaps in all cases to a lesser or greater degree, our habits are about so much more than weight loss or feeling good…they so often determine who we actually become, how we actually live, and most importantly how we actually love.
And I share these reflections with another Lent blessedly upon us, a season that has become for me really an invitation…an invitation into the work of forming habits…good habits that lead to a wholehearted way of living that then reflect for the world around us, and for those with whom we share our lives, something of the glory and love of God. Now I wish that at something like say Baptism…we would be filled with all habits for Godly and virtuous living…no more work required…just who we now are for all time…no practice needed…you just come out of the water a fully formed little Jesus…but, we all know oh so well, this is not how becoming like Christ in the ways we live and love actually happens. Instead, baptism, said simply, is a place of beginning. It is the point when we begin to articulate the sort of life we want to live…that God calls us to live…and why that particular way of living is important for us and the world. And this is indeed an important and convicting point to begin our practice as Christians…but it is just a beginning. It just inaugurates, in a sense, the 10,000 hours required, which really means a life-time, of becoming…of becoming, through much practice that forms good habits, more and more the people God has made us to be…perhaps not perfect…but more and more the people God has made us to be.
But there is some good and hopeful and helpful news here. The first is that we don’t go it alone. As people trying to walk the way of Jesus, we are promised God’s help, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to supernaturally support us on our journey, our quest of being and becoming, our habit-forming practices that shape us into Christ like people. The key here is to take advantage of that spiritual well-spring and resource, which for me begins in prayer. And we also have each other, the Christian community, which if doing what it is supposed to do provides mentors and spiritual friends that encourage us, tell us the truth in love about ourselves, offer counsel and suggestions and insights and accountability…that listen to us…and perhaps most importantly of all that picks us up when we fail and fall and helps us get back on track…loving us through it all. Secondly, we have rich resources that help us articulate the sort of life we want to lead, the sort of practices we want to begin, the sort of habits we want to form. This begins with the four gospels, which describes for us the life that Jesus lived and the many things he taught…all of which are a treasure for modeling our own lives after. For instance, in our gospel reading today, Jesus mentions several spiritual practices for us to consider…including prayer, almsgiving and fasting. And we have the Baptismal Covenant itself, which describes well the life of the baptized…from loving our neighbors as ourselves…to resisting evil…to being peacemakers…to respecting the dignity of all people…and there is much more there. And at St. Julian’s, we even have our own community Rule of Life…which is all about practices that we commit to live together…that then form habits…that shape our lives in particular ways. These community practices include things like daily prayer, weekly worship, serving those in need, going on pilgrimage, supporting the work of God’s church with our finances…and, again, there is much more there.
So I would suggest that we begin our own habit forming journey well resourced. We have solid support systems and great reference material. And I would say further that it is a tremendous blessing that habits are formed over time…that they take real work and commitment…that they are not easy and require dedication…and even that we fail at them from time to time, needing sometimes to start over. Despite what I said earlier, I really wouldn’t prefer, at least most of the time, that we were zapped into perfect, Christ-like people at the point we confess our own faith…at baptism, confirmation or otherwise. For the journey of being and becoming is a gift in and of itself. I am glad I know what it feels like to be so loved that someone can tell me the truth about myself…even when that’s hard. I am glad I know what it feels like to overcome great obstacles and insecurities and character flaws, for it both makes me more empathetic of others and has taught me what I am actually capable of. The saying goes failure only last until the moment we learn something from it. I am glad that I know what it feels like to walk with and lovingly support another person in their own time of trial, of loss, of getting back up after making a really poor choice. It has increased my capacity to love. I have found strength and wisdom in watching others heal, and, again, it has taught me what I am capable of. I also am glad that this life that God has called me to, this relationship God has called me into, requires me to practice it daily because that means each day I get to choose it…I get to will it each day. And, in doing so each day, being like Jesus has become the most important and meaningful part of my life. Seeking daily, even with moments of weakness and failure, to live deep within the heart of God has become the most important and meaningful part of my life. What a gift this expression of autonomy and free will that God grants us really is…for it makes experiencing love actually possible. For love to be love it must always be freely given and freely received.
So, again, we come once again to Lent…this season of practicing new habits that shape us in the most wonderful and surprising ways into something that reflects the glory and love of God. So what practices do you want to enter into? What habits do you want written on your heart? You might just start with one or two this Lent and go from there. It will not be easy and requires a whole lot of work…a whole lot of practice…a lifetime sort of commitment. But the work matters…for it determines who we actually become, how we actually live, and most importantly how we actually love. We will fail and we will fall, but we have all the support we need and all the resources at our disposal, to begin again. The journey of being and becoming, of practices forming habits that make us more like Jesus, is such a gift...it is indeed such an important and meaningful part of our lives. Amen.