I have four words for you which either should either strike terror in your hearts, or make you laugh. Are you ready? Ok: here they are:
I went axe throwing.
Yes, it’s true. For fun and sport, Lori and I went axe throwing. We were invited by some good friends to join them in an evening of hurling axes at wooden targets. Axe throwing places are popping up all over. It is kind of the new thing to do. And I’ll give away the ending: We still have all our fingers, all our toes, and we had a lot of fun.
But I discovered that throwing an axe is not an easy thing! It’s much harder than I’d anticipated. I think for every axe that I managed to sink into the target, there were probably 4 that bounced and clattered to the floor.
Luckily, the owner of the axe-throwing place was there, and he gave us some coaching. You see, you don’t just toss an axe, all willy-nilly. There is a science to it. You have to keep your arm straight. You must throw with the top of the axe coming a certain distance behind your head…and you must release at the exact right spot…and you cannot follow through with your arm, which seems counter-intuitive. If you do, you cause the axe to over rotate and it bounces. Your throwing arm must stop in the exact right spot.
The owner of the place said “You keep repeating it over and over and over again until you don’t even think about it anymore. It becomes a habit.” He said: “You develop muscle memory.”
Repetition leads to habits. And habits lead to skills. And skills lead to success…well, in my case…sort of success.
This is a formula that works in a lot of areas of our lives, doesn’t it?
- In playing sports
- In health and wellness
- In the arts
- In academics
- And even in relationships
What we repeat becomes a habit. What becomes a habit becomes a skill. And when we practice our skills, we often reach our goals.
You love a certain dinner? You cook it again. You love a game? You play it again. You enjoy running? Ok, I don’t get you people. But you get the idea.
How many jump shots did Lebron James take in practice to become the basketball player that he is? How many backflips did Simone Biles make in practice to become the greatest in the world? How many hours of Bach has Janean practiced on the organ to become our amazing organist? You get it, right?
That’s muscle memory.
But I think that for those of us who follow Jesus, there is another, deeper form of this. I’ll call it: “spiritual muscle memory.”
When your pastors met in early summer to talk about what we hoped the fall would look like, there were a lot of unknowns. Over the last 18 months, we had seen a lot of our regular, daily life habits disrupted, even eliminated.
And now it is fall of 2021, and we are again stepping into a new time. It’s not a full return to pre-pandemic life (the pandemic isn’t over!)…and it’s certainly not what life was like in the midst of the lock-down. This time is new. It is different. And while there are still a lot of unknowns, there are also opportunities.
That is why we decided to focus for these four weeks on habits. Because here’s what we know about spiritual muscle memory: Repetition leads to habits. And habits lead to deeper faith. Repetition, to habits, to deeper faith. This is “spiritual muscle memory.”
In his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verse 2, which we just heard read a few moments ago, the apostle Paul writes: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” Paul is saying that we have these patterns…these habits in our lives…but that our habits should not be shaped by the world…by the external. Instead, our habits should come from our identity as children of God, loved beyond measure. He goes on: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Habits that come from within us, from our identity as children of God, can change us into who God wants us to be.
Paul is saying that we all have a “why.” A reason. A source. There is something inside of us that motivates us. And it is from that source that our actions flow…and as our actions are repeated, they become habits, and then habits become deep faith.
My” why” is simple: To love God with all my heart, and to love my neighbor as myself. That’s it. That’s why I do what I do. It’s why I get up in the morning. It’s why I go to the gym. It’s why I come to work every day. Love God, love my neighbor. That’s my “why.”
What’s your why? Why do you do what you do? What is your underlying motivation to act, to create habits and to grow into who God wants you to be?
I think we are at this unique time in history. Everything has been disrupted. As a result, we have this blank slate in front of us. We get to kind of start from scratch. We’ve got choices: We can go back to what we were before the pandemic; we can return to those habits. Or maybe, just maybe, we can take this opportunity to pause, and pray, and wonder, and dream, and evaluate our “why,” and then maybe…form new habits…we can decide that now is the time to for us to take our faith deeper.
We are journeying through a crisis together. But as crisis often does, it has given us an opportunity to think differently about our lives, about our habits, and about our faith.
And Jesus is saying today, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Renewal comes from God. It is Jesus who makes all things new.
What does this renewal look like? What are the things we need to repeat, so they become habit …so they deepen our faith? Let’s take our worship life as a case study.
We believe that worship is the heartbeat of our faith. Worship is where our relationship with God is lived out fully.
We receive: We receive Word, sacrament, and community. And in response we give: We give thanks, offerings, and praise. I love what it says in Hebrews chapter 10: “Let’s see how creative we can be in encouraging love and supporting each other, not giving up the habit of worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…”
People who follow Jesus, worship. But if the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that maybe we need to have a more expansive understanding of worship.
We have learned so much together in the last 18 months. It’s all been different, right?
- We have worshiped at home…on couches
- We have worshiped while drinking coffee
- We have worshiped on phones, or iPads, or laptops, or TV’s or on the radio
- We have worshiped in our pajamas (come on, admit it…)
- We have received communion in little plastic shrink-wrapped cups at home
- We have worshiped at times other than Sunday mornings, watching the recorded services
It’s all been different. And different has become our new habit. And two years ago, if you had told me this was coming, I would have said that you were crazy.
But we all did what we had to do. And what’s interesting is the feedback we’ve gotten. Worshiping online isn’t always ideal, but it works! People appreciated that the ritual of worship could still be a part of their lives. People appreciated feeling connected. In fact, the number of people worshipping every week online actually went up.
And families told us that they appreciated the opportunity to worship together…they appreciated these new habits.
That’s one of the reasons, in fact, that we have reinvented Sunday School. Trinity Kids now begins with the children being in here for the opening of worship. Because worshiping online reminded us of the value of children and families being in worship together. It is a new habit that we learned during the pandemic, that we want to continue, and grow.
And we want people here, but if there is a Sunday that for whatever reason, you cannot be here, you can still worship together online. That’s not going away.
Remember that worship is really a pretty simple idea. According to Jesus, all you need are 2 or 3 people gathered, and he will show up.
And in a world where it seems like everything is changing…in a world that feels uncertain, we rely on our habits to keep us on track. We worship. We worship again. We worship again. And worship becomes a habit. And worship deepens our faith. We develop spiritual muscle memory. God reminds us that worship, center to our life and faith, needs to be one of our habits. “Do not give up the habit of meeting together…” Paul writes. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Jesus says.
Faith habits are a gift from God that God wants us to grow into. God created this spiritual, muscle memory that draws us deeper in our relationship with God, because God has spiritual muscle memory. God has habits. And God’s habit is always love.
Remember that it is God’s pattern…it is God’s habit…it is God’s nature…to love you completely and totally.
And because of that, we too develop habits of our heart. We worship and we share in God’s Word. We do these things. We repeat. We develop our spiritual muscle memory. We create habits…and our faith is deepened because God draws us near.
- Thanks be to God, for drawing us near.
- Thanks be to God for spiritual muscle memory.
- Thanks be to God, for habits of the heart.
Thanks be to God!