Saturday, March 04, 2017

Holy Habits

When my children were little we had a daily habit of praying two prayers. One was the prayer before meals:

Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts which are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The second one I prayed with each child at bedtime. It comes from the New Zealand Prayerbook: 

Dear God, Thank you for today. I am sorry if I have been unkind to anyone. Help us to forgive each other. Thank you for my family and friends. Please be with me tonight. Amen. 

The bedtime prayer in particular became an opportunity for me to talk with my children about our day, what had gone well, to reflect on occasions to forgive and be forgiven, to consider how we responded to life’s challenges, and how we might respond better the next time. 

As an adult my preferred way of praying is in silence. I spend 30 minutes every day in silent prayer. I give myself over to that liminal space and open myself to the possibility that God may speak into my life. I learned how to pray this way in the 1970’s when meditation was the cool thing to do. For many years I meditated because it made me feel calmer by settling my autonomic nervous system, that part of my brain that regulates breathing, heart rate, and what’s known as the “fight or flight” response. Fight or flight is the automatic trigger that surfaces when one feels threatened. However because its automatic and reactive, its done without thought. Meditating gives one access to those automatic responses deep inside and even some degree of control over them, slowing one’s breathing and heart rate, calming one’s emotional reactivity, and building a reserve so that in truly anxious moments one can be a little less automatic. 

Over the years I’ve transitioned from experiencing this silence as meditation to understanding it as prayer. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century saint advocated for this kind of prayer. She found using words to be distracting and was drawn to silence. Silent prayer is also known as contemplative prayer. Prayer because in the silence one opens one’s self to God and contemplative because it offers a space into which God may speak. 

Not everyone is like Teresa of Avila, able to sit in silence while seeking God. Many people need to do something that engages their mind and body in a more conscious way. Some of us find that we need to walk outside in nature, or listen to music. Some people journal, writing down the random thoughts floating in their head, which can also lead to recognizing where God is active in one’s life.

The point of prayer is that one takes time to slow down and invite God to be present in one’s life. Yes, God comes, bidden or unbidden. However, one is more likely to recognize God when one has made room for God’s presence through prayer. Inviting God into one’s life is an opportunity for one to be transformed, healed from the brokenness of life, restored, and more at peace. 

Lent is a season to focus, intentionally, on the broken places of our lives and to work to repair them, to say we’re sorry, to change our behavior, to turn and return to a right relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. Forty days is long enough for this intentional focus on our behavior to establish some long lasting changes in what we do habitually.
Changing habits is a process. Charles Durhigg wrote about this process in his book, “Habits,” saying this: “Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits…..At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”
The key to changing habits, Charles Durhigg states, is in finding the trigger, particularly the trigger that elicits pleasure in that habit. 
On Ash Wednesday we were invited to observe a Holy Lent by engaging in five spiritual disciplines: prayer, self-examination, fasting, reading scripture, and repentance. Each of these are helpful in understanding the impact of sin in one’s life. These are spiritual practices that can become a discipline, a habit, if one engages in them during the forty days of Lent. These disciplines invite us to contemplate our bad habits, our “sins.”
Each of the scripture readings this morning considers the nature of sin. Genesis reveals the moral dilemma of sin as broken relationship in all its forms: broken with God, broken with other people, and even broken with one’s self. Broken because of anger, denial, lack of self accountability, blame and shame. The point of the Genesis story is that through our brokenness our eyes are opened, we become vulnerable, but as a result we have opportunities to learn, grow, and mature.
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is tempted to sin but he does not fall for the temptations. He stays focused on what he values and believes, stays focused on his love of God, love of self, and love of others which provides him with the strength, stamina, and wisdom to not succumb to the temptations. 
The disciplines that are highlighted in Lent become an opportunity to change the brokenness into healing, to create new habits, new patterns of behavior, and practice them through the season until they become a part of who we are, capable of holding us up when we might otherwise fall. 
I focused today on the spiritual disciple of prayer because prayer is a good place to start. Prayer is practiced both individually and in corporate worship on Sunday morning. In worship prayer can be in silence, through the spoken word, or with music either instrumental or sung.
Our Lenten worship uses Taize for the service music. Taize music was written by a faith community in France, using words from scripture set to simple, easy to sing tunes. The simple words and tune and the repetition of the song, sung over and over, enables Taize to take on a meditative quality, to be sung prayer. The entire Lenten service is intended to offer us an opportunity to slow down, to enter into a liminal space for prayer, self-examination, repentance, and reflection on scripture, allowing us a time to fast from the busyness of life in order to be present to God. 

May this be a season of making holy habits that last a lifetime.

a reflection on the readings for Lent 1A:  Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11

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