HABITS OF THE HEART
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Paul and his companions have arrived in Thessalonica this morning. They are eager to preach in the synagogue and continue sharing the gospel with their Jewish and God-fearing brothers and sisters. Remember Paul had a vision that he should go to Macedonia and preach so he started in Philippi and has now moved on to another city. As Paul proclaims those powerful words “Jesus is Messiah” a new church body is formed. Maybe these names sound familiar to you? The church in Philippi is who the book of Philippians was written for and 1 and 2 Thessalonians for the church in Thessalonica. When you read the epistles of Paul it’s clear that the early churches had problems; there were arguments and inappropriate relationships and Paul having to hand someone over to Satan… but the church in Thessalonica actually seemed to have their act together. Paul had a peculiar affection for this church and wrote about how he longed to return to them. We read in 1 Thessalonians that Paul sent Timothy to check up on them and expected to hear that they had given in to temptation. But he is pleasantly surprised when he learns that they are living in order to please God. They are living sanctified lives; avoiding sexual immorality, not taking advantage of one another and loving each other well. They are imitating Christ and they are imitating him because they love him. He is their King.
When we hear that Jesus is King, this concept might be harder for us to grasp than for someone who is used to living directly under a monarchy. In Canada, we are somewhat distanced from the monarchy. We don’t regularly engage in the ritualistic practices that acknowledge the headship of the Queen over our lives. We don’t sing God Save the Queen in our schools the way my father did when he was growing up in Jamaica. We all love Victoria day but how many of us actually celebrate Queen Victoria on May two-four?
The early church knew what it meant to have a king. They would have known what it meant to devote your life to the service of a king. They would have known how to respond in the presence of the king. It would have been very different from how we’d respond if Justin Trudeau walked by. So hearing that Jesus is King meant a shift in how they lived their daily lives. We read last week about God opening Lydia’s heart to the gospel and the transformation that took place in her household. We see that these early Christians experienced transformations of the heart that fueled and sustained their core practices and these practices affected their homes.
James K. Smith in his book You are What you Love talks about our hearts being a like a compass and how we need to regularly calibrate our hearts, tuning them to be directed to the Creator. Sometimes knowing something, isn’t enough. Knowing how to eat well and knowing we need to exercise are all well and fine, but unless we actually develop the practices of eating well and exercise, then the knowledge isn’t helpful and our hearts remain unaffected. How do we tune our hearts to God? How do we orient our lives so that everything we do is pointing to Christ? Smith writes that our habits are the key.
Our habits tell us what we love. Think about it, when you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? When you come home at the end of the day? Before you get in bed? When I think about Miles’ day, he definitely has a morning routine that speaks to what he loves. When he wakes up in the morning, he’ll babble in his crib waiting patiently for one of his parents to come get him. As soon as I open the door, turn on the light and say good morning, he stands up. Then he stretches out his little arm and points to where his soother landed at some point in the night. After he has his soother on hand, he yells “Oooo” which is his way of calling the dog and he will crouch down as Colin comes in and licks his hand through the crib. Once that ritual is finished, he raises his arms for me to pick him up. Soother, dog, and mama or dada are the things he needs to start his day and they definitely speak to what he loves.
We all have habits that structure our day. It is these habits that form who we are so we need to be sure to pay attention to them. We do this because as humans, we are teleological creatures, meaning we are oriented to something. We were made to love and so we all look for that which we can orient ourselves to. We all look for something or someone to love. This is true of us as individuals but it also plays out in our communities. It plays out in the way we do church.
Now, way back in acts chapter two, we talked about the four practices of the early church; Teaching, prayer, fellowship, and breaking bread. And we see in these later chapters of Acts, that those four practices were all centered around confessing Jesus as Lord, mission and the formation of community. This was how the early believers honoured Jesus as King with their lives. Central to Paul’s message was the claim that Jesus was King. Jesus was God’s revelation, not only to the Jews, but to Gentiles as well. And as he suffered and died, he proved his great love for us. As people heard this message throughout Acts, they changed their internal orientation. Often, their whole household was changed as they welcomed other believers into their homes and sought to live out this new love that had penetrated their hearts.
As Paul preaches that Jesus is King, some of those listening to Paul get jealous and they decided to start a riot. This ends up with a mob trying to find Paul and Silas at Jason’s house but they manage to escape. Jason does not, and he is dragged before the magistrates and accused of defying Caesar by saying there is another king. One version puts the accusation as “they are turning the world upside down”. What they don’t realize is the world is already upside down. When sin entered the world at the Fall, it reversed the order of things. Jesus came to put the world right-side up. And Paul and Silas sharing the gospel, are part of that righting of the order of things.
As we consider the Fall, we can understand why our own habits are disordered. Part of the sin stain that affects us all is we try to orient ourselves to the wrong things. We love that which hurts us and we make kings and queens of people that are indifferent to our wellbeing. Our desire for beauty becomes an obsession with youth and celebrity that causes us to dismiss the beauty of God and his image that he has stamped on us. Our desire to be known becomes distorted as an isolating desire to impress others rather than live in intimate and authentic community. And our longing to be loved leads us to, as the song says, look for love in all the wrong places. This leads us to our habits.
As we evaluate our own habits and what they say about what and who we love, it’s also important to look at our communal habits, both as families and as churches. I’m not going to spend time talking about individual habits but I asked some of you what helps you grow spiritually and here are some of the answers I received.
- A regular devotional time, either morning or at night
- Journaling or blogging
- Making coffee 😊
- Reading through the entire Bible in a year
- Waking up and praying for guidance and giving thanks for the day
- Singing praises on the way to work
- Going to church
- A Prayer app that takes you through the offices (prayer at morning, noon and night)
- Listening to worship music
If you don’t have a habit or a discipline that you practice, then I hope that will give you some ideas.
As a church we have several habits we practice that have formed us and are forming us a faith community. We follow the liturgical year and have a specific liturgy in our service every week. A liturgy is simply the story that you tell as you go through the service. If you look in the Sunday folder you’ll notice that our worship is under four different headings – the Gathering, the Word, our Response and the Sending. This shows the story of God in our midst; that he gathers us into his house, he speaks to us through his word, we respond to him with our praise, our prayers and our offerings and then we go out into world having participated in this story and having received his grace. This narrative has been passed down through centuries of Christian worship. As we start a new ministry year, I would like to see this same pattern happening with our kids up in the Orchard and in the nursery so that they know from a young age that they are coming to church to participate in God’s story and to then take that story out into the world.
In our 1 Thessalonians passage we read, Paul uses this language of the family; we were like children… a nursing mother… as a father deals with his own children. I believe he does this because the church is like a family but also family is like a church. Our families have liturgies that we tell, stories we are a part of. When I say ‘family’ I don’t necessarily mean the people that you live with, but the people you do life with. The family is where we first learn love and it’s also where we learn foundational practices. Worship is about more than just music and more than just Sunday morning – it’s a way of life. As such, worship should spill over into our days. Smith, the author I mentioned earlier, offers four areas that families can cultivate liturgy and worship in their homes.
The first is how we eat. Eating together is something that Christians tend to do very well. Eating together is a way of gathering at the beginning or end of the day. It’s a chance to stop and pray and give thanks. It’s also a good way to invite others into your family. Family dinners are very different depending on your family. Where you eat and when and for how long may differ from day to day. I think the important part is that you are coming together at the end of the day. No matter where the day has taken you, you know that at the end of the day you’ll come home to a table where you are reminded of who you are and of whose you are. You come home to a table where you know you are loved.
The second way we can cultivate liturgies of worship in our families is through prayer. Prayers of gratitude in the morning, safety for driving, taking time to stop and pray for others who are sick, or prayer at bedtime. The way we pray and the moments we choose to pray speak volumes about where we are putting our trust and about who we love.
The next habit is singing. I know that for some of you, singing is an important part of your family gatherings. Songs are a great way of internalizing scripture and theological truths. From singing, I learned that I am prone to wander. I learned about assurance that Jesus is mine. I learned that God is good. I learned that God does not change and his compassions do not fail. These are truths that seeped into my heart through singing them at church every week and through listening to my mom play piano as she practiced for Sunday morning. Music has a way of speaking to our hearts and becoming a part of the fabric of who we are. Singing is a way to respond to God.
The last family habit is thinking about and reading the Bible together. It’s good to read the Bible alone, but it’s good to read it together too. It’s good to talk about what it means and how it applies to life. One of the answers I received about cultivating spiritual habits was “we sit down together on Saturdays and talk about where we have seen God’s presence in our lives.” That’s great. Another way we can think together is to discuss how we celebrate the church year in our homes. How do we mark Lent and Advent? How do we want to celebrate Easter and Christmas so that they are about Jesus, our King, rather than chocolate or presents?
The early church provides a great model for how we can cultivate worship in our homes. They did after all meet in homes. We saw with Lydia and with the unnamed jailer last week that the decision to recognize Jesus as Lord directly affected their households. Everyone was baptized and their homes became places of hospitality and they began to engage is transformational practices. They engaged in practices to orient their hearts toward King Jesus. Romans 13 talks about how we are to clothe ourselves with Christ. The word ‘habit’ originally referred to clothing and progressed to mean conduct. Just like a nun’s clothing is called a habit. I wonder if the habits we practice are how we clothe ourselves with Christ. Let’s be intentional about the habits we cultivate in our homes. And may we do this through the power of the Spirit and for the glory of Jesus our King.