For Freedom Christ set us free. Do not submit yourself again to the yoke of slavery. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. God did not give us a spirit of timidity but one of love, power, and self-control.
This week, I was reading articles about violence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Egypt, Afghanistan, Crimea, Libya, Venezuela, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia, Mali… So many places where there is outright civil war or protracted social anarchy because these regions actually possess very little civil society. It brought to mind Edmund Burke, writing at the beginning of the French Revolution, on the excess revenge violence that swept across that country. Said Burke, “Men (and women) are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites.” This will shortly be the challenge of our neighbors near and far as more and more of us simply must live in freedom, even though they are poorly prepared for it.
The bible teaches us that God created us for freedom as spiritual beings. St. Paul taught us that the meaning of Christ’s death is that we would find our freedom and live out of it. When God is present in our lives and we are full of God’s Spirit we live in joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. The Spirit of God fills us with love, power, and self-control.
You may be interested to know that in the Roman Empire, the opposite of self-control is demonic possession. Romans believed that you could put a hex on your enemies and they spent quite a bit of time putting the curses on one another. And when you were cursed you were under the power of a demon. Daimonia actually means ‘to be controlled by another’.
So when you read the gospels, you may notice that in the Gospel of Mark, which was written to Romans by a Roman, some of the stories about Jesus healing people are told a little differently, so that Jesus casts out demons. That is what Romans would expect that Jesus would free us from demons because those were their religious beliefs before Christianity.
Today we think about these things quite differently, but the issue of freedom and self-control is perhaps bigger than it was when Jesus was alive. And we know very well what the difference between driving and being driven, being in control or out of control, particularly those of us who have struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs. You know when these things take you over, a fine line to describe, but you know when your life feels like it is being driven by your habits.
This will surely grow as a challenge for all of us since our marketers are getting so much better at creating cravings in all of us to eat more than we thought we needed and they are getting much more clever at predicting what we will likely buy based on what we’ve previously bought. “People who liked this book, also bought…” We are going to have to be much more intentional about the way that we live and not simply go with the flow.
One study at Duke University suggested that up to 40% of our daily activity is actually controlled by habitual actions. 40% of the day. Wake up, go to the bathroom, put toothpaste on brush, brush teeth, turn on shower, test water temperature… Even quite a range of rather complex functions like starting the car and backing out of the driveway- all on autopilot.
Here is the thing about our habitual life. It is more critical than we realize to our higher functioning. We’ve done a number of studies, for example, that correlate our habits to indirect outcomes. We know that families that regularly eat dinner together also regularly have children with more pronounced emotional control, better confidence in themselves, with better ability to do their homework and they make better grades. It is not like one habit causes the other outcomes but they strongly correlate.
Likewise, making your bed every morning correlates strongly with productivity, sticking to a budget and a feeling of well-being.
My favorite is that attending church correlates strongly with better marriages and a better sex life. Please get the word out. I don’t know what we are doing, but it is helpful.
We aren’t quite sure why good habits in one area correlate with positive outcomes in other areas but it suggests that better understanding of our habits should be crucial and paying more attention to developing good habits is more important that we knew.
This is what Christians have been doing during Lent for 2000 years, breaking bad habits and replacing them with better habits. God gave us the Church that we might be an inspiration for each other, a support as we try to find our place and bring out the best in each of us that we might become. What a powerful thing that can be.
Perhaps you read about the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who won so many medals swimming for the United States. I was interested to learn that his mother actually encouraged him to swim when he was young as a way for him to get rid of some of his excess energy. His swim coach actually knew him as a child and could see greatness in him.
But the greatness was complicated by the fact that Michael was full of a lot of nervous energy, like so many young boys. And he had some background stresses in his life that he wasn’t very good at dealing with, like his parents divorcing. His coach convinced his mother to walk Michael through a series of meditation exercises at night, a routine to get him to shed some of this stress and help him to focus mentally. That dealt with the negative piece.
And the positive piece? His coach got him to envision a perfect race. He got him to envision getting off the blocks, hitting the water, seeing each stroke on the first lap, the turn off the wall, each and every detail. Every day he got Michael to see the perfect race. Every night he got him to play the tape of the perfect race before he went to bed. And just before his races, his coach got him to go through a routine, putting on his suit, what he would eat, putting on his headphones with loud energizing music just when he was at the pool waiting for the race to begin, envisioning the perfect race over and over in his mind. And then boom, it was race time.
What a powerful thing that focus turned out to be. It allowed Michael Phelps to break through and break records and realize his potential. [i] On our best days, that is what we do for each other in the Church, we are an inspiration for each other, a focus so that our nobler side rises rather than our slothful side, each of us realizing our deeper potential. We come together, building in good habits in our life, habits of prayer, habits of worship and gratitude that we are here, even with all of our problems, habits of hearing a noble thought for the week that reminds of what is important in our life and encourages us to think about where we are headed, habits of singing together in adoration, sometimes in great sadness, accessing a deeper emotional part of our being that words alone can’t quite plumb.
In Lent, we may focus on breaking a simple bad habit to strengthen our character and will remembering that God wants us to embody our higher self. And we surround ourselves with good friends who can encourage us to embody our higher selves. St. Paul taught us that this is what God intended for the church, for us to lift one another up in prayer, sharing our lives, a communion of healing that would amplify the love we have known and transcend the limitations deficits they have inflicted. We help give each other a vision.
There is a wonderful segment in the movie Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones go looking for Archie Graham. Archie Graham was a real life minor league baseball player for Charlotte in the old North Carolina baseball league. He got called up to the New York Gians on June 29th, 1905. He got to play one inning as an outfielder but he never actually got to bat in the major leagues.
Archie Graham lived out the res of his lie as a doctor in a small town in the Midwest. In the world of sports writers, his life is considered a tragey of sorts- to get all the way to Ebbets field and not be able to bat. So Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones expect to find a guy that is wistful, perhaps bitter. They finally locate him and he is elderly without much longer to live.
They ask him, looking back on his life, ‘wasn’t it a tragedy that you only got to play the game for 5 minutes?’ He smiles remember the day when he was twenty, reflecting back on the sixty something years that he lived after that and he says, “Son, if I’d only gotten to e a doctor for 5 minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”
Like all kids, he had the hopes and dreams of hitting it big, but at some point it started to dawn on him what his actual ‘vocation’ was, that word literally means ‘his calling’- not just his job, but a sense of calling. Baseball was a love, but he was starting to see what he was becoming, the shape of what he should be about in his one odd and beautiful life. Looking back, he could say that he was meant to become a doctor, a husband, a grandfather, a community leader in a small town. The outlines of becoming started taking shape.
On our better days, that is what we do for each other, help each other to let the calling of our lives start to take shape.
What is it that is impeding you from excellence in your calling to become who you are meant to become? What is it that you need to grow? Patience? Anger? Reconciliation? Confidence? Daring?
We are told that Jesus retreated to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and prayer. Scripture writes the story as though Jesus had a sense of what he needed to do and in the 40 days he honed the spiritual fitness that it would take to fulfill a difficult calling.
I don’t think you needed to be the Son of God to know that Roman authorities were capable of torturing you unto death. No more than Dr. King had a pretty good idea that he might just get shot to death standing for Civil Rights. And I suspect that you don’t need penetrating psychological insight to identify what is keeping you from realizing your potential.
What can you do to bring that one thing to mind, front and center, for the next few weeks leading up to Easter? What can you devise that will help you strengthen your character?
And may you reap the blessing of developing spiritual discipline in one place. And may your family become richer for it. And may all of us grow deeper as a community because of you. Carpe Diem. Amen.
[i] Thank to Charles Duhigg, the Power of Habit, p. 111