Each morning, the first thing I do is reach for my phone. I look at how good of a sleep I got according to my watch data, I read my emails, and check the breaking news. This habit is not neutral. This is a practice that is forming me.
Like a sponge, I wake up parched and immediately soak up the world’s tension and division announced to me in breathless headlines. I let the urgency, self-judgment, and need for productivity course through my veins and get my blood pumping. Little do I realize this going to my heart. I am shaping my desire by adrenaline and upheaval, I am being trained to chase competence, proficiency and efficiency, and sooth anxiety with data points and accomplishments. And, I’m told I’m not fun to be around in the morning.
What is this daily practice telling me about what a good life is and how to live it? What does it reveal about what I actually love, over against what I think I love?
James Finley shares a story of interning in a VA hospital on the treatment unit for alcoholism in the 1970s. The men on the floor, mostly Vietnam vets, had developed an initiation rite that was passed down. In order to be admitted to the unit, you had to pass through this rite.
Finley describes being in a large room, with chairs all pushed against the four walls and the center empty, except for two chairs facing each other. Nearly 100 men are sitting silently along the walls, heads down, eyes to the floor.
In comes the person at the end of his rope, with alcohol destroying his life. He’s nervous, glancing around the room, knowing he will need to pass this initiation to get in. Those around the walls keep their eyes lowered, and remain completely still and silent. Finley says, “It’s serious as death, which it is.”
The interviewer invites the man to a center chair and sits down across from him.
The questioner then asks, “What do you love the most?”
“The alcoholic, not know what to say, stammers something out like, “My wife.” at which point everyone in the room yells as loud as they can, “Bull----!” and then goes silent, staring at the floor.
The rattled man looks back at his questioner, who asks again,
“What do you love the most?”
“My children,” he tentatively answers.
“Bull---!”, hollers loudly back from all sides.
“What do you love the most?”
Finally, finally, the person says, “Alcohol.”
Immediately all the men rise to their feet and give the man a standing ovation. Then in complete silence they line up and hug him, one at a time, as tears stream down his face.
He is ready to begin his journey.
We can know a lot, believe a lot, have the best intentions and the loftiest goals, but our hearts are shaped by our habits. Like a compass: our love is directed toward what we put our attention on, what we practice every day.
Were someone to observe us from afar and describe who we are, they could not see inside us, read our thoughts or intentions, or deduce our motivations, they could only witness and describe what they see us doing with our lives, what direction we are moving. And the conclusions they draw about us would, in some ways, be more accurate than the conclusions we often draw about ourselves.
Generations before Christ, when the Israelites were delivered from bondage in Egypt, they were sent into the wilderness, for 40 years. All the lifegiving liturgies and practices of their faith that sustained them behind closed doors as the people of God during their 400 years of slavery came with them. But other patterns and habits, the “liturgies” of the empire had been shaping them day after day, telling them their lives were worthless except for what they could produce. The way of fear dominated their waking hours, forming them in daily doses toward self-preservation, guarded competition and on-edge dread.
But in the barrenness of the wilderness this liturgy was extinguished, and new patterns and practices took their place, shaping them toward a different way of being. Every single day, God, who claimed them as beloved children, miraculously provided them food and water, protection and care. Little by little, day by day, through habits of trust and dependence on their Creator, they were remade from fear to trust, from degradation to dignity Instead of relentless, competitive striving, they were rooted and grounded in the belonging, generosity and rest of a loving God in whose image they were made for a life of giving and receiving ministry, to bear God’s love to the world.
Today we read that Jesus’ own ministry begins when he is plunged under the waters of baptism, and hears God’s claim on him, You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well-pleased. And then, immediately, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the habit-disrupting, trust-teaching wilderness of his ancestors for 40 days of vulnerability to be cared for by God.
Lent is the 40 days before the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Easter. It has always been seen as a kind of spiritual wilderness, a time of stripping away of our idols, isolation and captivity, and reorienting us back to God, who loves us and claims us for ministry.
Lent turns the compass of our hearts back toward God, by first asking us, what is your compass pointing toward, that you may not realize? and then, like an initiation into recovery, disrupting our patterns of self-sufficiency and sin and recalibrating our loves.
Because when we see ourselves and our lives as they really are, and not just as we wish them to be: this is where God meets us, where transformation happens, where discipleship begins again, and again. In the wilderness of Lent, we too are tested by satan and waited on by angels, which is to say, we recognize how deeply seductive are the messages the world gives us about what a good life is, and how strongly they pull on us, but, there, in our most vulnerable and true selves, we are welcomed with ovation and open arms into the care of the one who calls us Beloved child in whom I delight.
My Lenten “liturgical inventory” began this week when I recognized how my waking up, (and for that matter, going to bed) rituals are mis-directing my heart. So I made the choice that I will not look at my phone for the first two hours of being awake.
Each morning, I greeted the day in front of my eyes instead of on a screen. I was present to those around me instead of barking orders at them, and I felt myself inside my body, instead of racing through emails and giving my attention to whatever felt loudest or most urgent. I managed to do this 5 of the 7 days. It is uncomfortable and hard. But how hard it is shows me how necessary it is– like resting on sabbath Sundays reveals my dependance on doing.
A week in, I’ve already discovered that when I come later in my day to the pressing news and to-do lists, first having awakened to God’s presence and been present myself with a different heart-orientation, it shapes my perspective, and I am noticeably less anxious the whole rest of my day.
God is God, always here, always holding my life and this world in love, always moving both through and despite humans to bring redemption. I want to trust this, not just with my head, but with my heart, and so, then, also with my habits.
May it be so. Amen.