Toorak Uniting Church

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Habits of the Heart

Colossians 3
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 11
4 August 2013

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ~Henry David Thoreau

Some researchers have concluded that if you practise an activity for one hundred days (others have said forty days) then it will become a habit and you will have it for the rest of your life. It is I suppose something to do with the neural pathways in the brain; which I know absolutely nothing about. Nevertheless it does seem that we reinforce those pathways by repeating actions that eventually become habits.

Of course, we well know that there are good habits; that is, those that are life-giving, and there are also bad habits that we could say are life-denying; or at least, just unhelpful. Okay, so here is your assignment this morning. I would like you to make a mental list of your good habits – going to bed early; being punctual; showing kindness to people…. And the list, I hope is very long. Now that’s done, make a list of your bad habits… I’m not going to speak these out aloud; for fear that I may incriminate myself. But we know that we do have habitual practices that do not get us to where we would like to be.

Habits are in fact a thing of the heart. That is to say they go to the very centre of our being. They are not really connected that much with our thinking or even with our ability to make choices. They are in fact habitual and woven somehow or other into the fabric of our being and let me say, they are not easy to change. I remember someone describing giving up smoking cigarettes. He said that when he didn’t smoke he felt inauthentic because the habit of smoking was woven into his identity. He was a smoker and he was not a non-smoker. So it took some time, one hundred days perhaps, of non-smoking to alter his identity; his perception of himself.

Habits of the Heart
Faith and religion are fundamentally habits of the heart. They are not just belief systems, nor are they just places to belong. That’s the point the author of the letter to the community in Colossia is trying to make. It’s about changing their habits. But most importantly it is about changing their hearts:

These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things - anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.

Now interestingly, habits seldom change by someone telling you that they should change. Nor do habits change just by believing new and different beliefs. Habits are woven too deeply into our lives to change that easily. In fact it is not the habit that one must focus on, it is the heart; the centre of our being that must be transformed.

The story is told of a young soldier who in the 18th century decided he wanted to become a Quaker. Now as you may know the Quakers are pacifist and therefor they are committed to living a life of non-violence. The young soldier asked the Quaker leader William Penn. "Sir" he says, "When I become a member of the Quaker community, what should I do with my sword?" William Penn replies "Carry it for as long as you can!" You see for Penn and for the writer of this letter, it is not primarily the habit that must be changed, rather it is the heart. And when the heart of the young soldier is changed, only then can he authentically lay down his sword.

Too much of our religion has been about the habits and not enough about the heart. Again the community at Colossia is encouraged:

Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have changed your old ways and practices and have now clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its Creator.

True, it is good to be honest and truthful, well in most cases. But the language used here in this letter is an expression of changing that which is at the centre of our being. "Now that you are clothed in the new self……renewed in knowing the image of the Creator…" This is the language of the heart. The language of the essences of our being.

I find it amusing and at times irritating that people will say, "Oh that’s not a very Christian thing to do." Of course what they are saying is that Christianity is a code of conduct and that to be a good Christian one should be nice, kind, thoughtful and probably compliant. Now there is nothing wrong with being kind and thoughtful, but nice should only ever be used in reference to a cup of tea, "Oh this is a nice cup of tea." People are not to be nice. They are to be authentically human and growing daily into maturity and spiritual depth and being nice I suspect, will get in the way of that process.

Cultivating the Habits of the Heart
I am sure that the onus is on each of us to cultivate in our lives the Habits of the Heart. Here is my arbitrary list of habits that should be integrated into each of our lives. There are five of them, but I know there are many many more. Some come from the Biblical narrative; some come from modern thought and exploration and some come from my own lived experience. But I think they are all relevant to the world in which we live to today:

  1. The first is the most challenging to those of us who have been nurtured in the Christian faith from childhood and that is, Love and forgive yourself. I meet too many people who almost have a self-loathing. Some live lives feeling guilty because they do not measure up to an imaginary standard of what they think they should be like. Let me say clearly, there are no shoulds in our Christian life. And let me say, there is no normal when it comes to being a human being or being a Christian. We are who we are. And that has to be one of the most wonderful things in the world. The only gift I truly give to others, to you and to this world is myself in all its glorious imperfection.

  2. Secondly, Practice is Important. Let me be paradoxical here. The heart cultivates the habits we live by and the habits we live by cultivate our heart. I hope that makes sense. To have a generous heart, one needs to practice generosity every day and then the heart becomes a place of generosity and the habit, the inclination, the tendency is woven into our being. And I would say that’s the growth of the Christ-consciousness in each of us.

  3. Thirdly, Let go of Blaming Others. Blaming others, our parents, our spouses, our friends, our enemies for the struggles and predicaments we find ourselves in is corrosive to the health of the human heart, both literally and metaphorically. I recall some years ago a wise woman saying to me, "Chris, the day you realise that life is not fair is the day you grow up." I’m not saying that people aren’t responsible for the pain and havoc they cause others. Of course they are. What I am trying to say is that we do have the power, even in a frail and diminished sense, to choose how we respond to it.

  4. Fourthly, to cultivate the best habits of the heart is to Welcome the Stranger. I am astounded at how often God comes to an individual in the Biblical text as a stranger. As one who is incognito. He comes in a burning bush… very strange. As one who wrestles with Jacob by the brook and sends him off with a limp. He comes as a big fish to rescue Jonah from drowning. He comes to Mary as a spirit of new life. The spiritual writer Paula D’Arcy says, "God comes to you disguised as your life." Welcoming the stranger means practising hospitality to those we may be fearful of; those who are different from us; those who challenge us to be different. Again from the author of Colossians:
    In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

  5. Finally, the fundamental need for each of us is to Value Community. I think it is essential to find your own voice. To speak from the heart and to speak what is on our hearts. But it is best spoken into a responsive and reflecting community. And that community can take many forms and shapes. But it is not just a gathering of friends, although friendship is a value. It is a place where I can speak my truth; a place where I can practice these habits of the heart; a place where I can let go of the blame and the unfairness of this world; a place that is open to the stranger and the strangeness of life. Community at its best is a place where I can breathe freely and at times fiercely, without fear of judgement and condemnation.

And I will finish with a poem from Shamaan Ochaum Climbing Eagle, that I think is relevant while somewhat tangential to this reflection:

Keep your passion alive -
it will warm you when the
world around you grows cold.
It will not allow comfortable
familiarity to rob you of that
special glow that comes with
loving deeply. It can lift
you over the stone walls of anger
and carry you across vast
deserts of alienation. But its
greatest gift is that of touch -
for passion cannot dwell in
solitude, it thrives best in
loving embrace. So keep your
passion alive - hold one
another as a tree holds the
Earth and your love will
bear the fruit of many,
many seasons.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2013

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.