Part 3 of our 3 part sermon series, Three Simple Rules inspired by Bishop Job’s book of the same name.
Practice makes perfect.
It’s a familiar saying to most of us and at least according to one poll it is the most influential saying of our lives. That’s not to belittle things like natural talent, skill, or motivation, but even the most talented and skillful people cannot succeed without practice. I should know. Not that I’m the most talented or skillful. But when I entered UCLA, I declared pre-med as my major which meant I had to take Chem 11A, B, and C. They’re called “weeder” classes for a reason because they’re meant to weed out people and thin the herd. Boy, was that the case for me. I had always done really well in high school and good grades came kind of easy for me. I wasn’t prepared for the kind of competition I would face at UCLA. I graduated in the top 5% of my class, but now I was at a school where everyone was at the top 5% of their class. I barely passed Chem 11A so I knew 11B would be a challenge. I had done alright on my first midterm and thought I had studied for the second pretty well, but when the professor passed out the test, I looked at the pages and couldn’t answer one single question. It was the worst feeling in the world. I must have studied the wrong material or just didn’t study hard enough. I looked at each page at least three times and realized there was no way I would pass this test. Thankfully, we were able to drop our worst grade so that was some slight consolation. But I just sat there feeling awful. The class was an hour and fifteen minutes long and I didn’t want to just leave right away, so I waited for half an hour, wrote my name on each page as instructed, and walked up to the front to turn it in. When I did, the super-smart kids in the front row who broke the bell curve in grades all looked up at me with a mixture of panic and envy in their eyes. One of them even said, “Oh no!” or something like that, and I walked out smiling. It was the only joyful part of the day. But it was clear that I was not prepared for that experience. When I went to grad school (both times) I did much better, realizing from the beginning that if I didn’t maintain the kind of discipline and rigor that was necessary, I wouldn’t do well. Practice makes perfect.
It is important when you’re trying to do well at anything.
Whether it’s chemistry or basketball or playing music you need to practice over and over to improve on your skills. That probably comes as no surprise to you since the saying, “Practice makes perfect” was voted the most influential idiom of our lives. But the same is true for our faith. We’re going to read this morning from a passage in Colossians 2:6-8. Colossians 2:6-8. So if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, if you would find this passage we’ll read from that this morning. Colossians 2:6-8. Paul was writing to the church because he was worried that they might drift away from their faith, that they might be tricked or duped to follow someone else or go another way. If you remember, Christianity at the time was still in its infancy and it’s not like they could Skype with Paul and hear what he had to say. They couldn’t record his sermons and digitally project them on a screen for the church at Colossae. It was much harder to guide each church with the distance between them, so Paul wrote this letter to encourage them to keep the faith and to be wary of those preaching a different Gospel. This is what he shares with the church in our passage this morning.
6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Sometimes it’s amazing to me how similar our problems are to those of Paul’s time.
Paul had to battle many of the same kinds of concerns we do today and this topic is no different. He was worried people would drift away from Jesus. That they would be “oohed” and “aahed” by something fancier or something that fit their lifestyle better and would turn away from everything they were taught. Paul wasn’t there to help them stay in line or correct them if they went astray so instead he encouraged them to remember the teachings, to be “rooted” in Christ, to build each other up and strengthen each other’s faith, to remind one another that it is from God they have received their blessings. In essence to “stay in love with God.” As you know, we’ve been talking about the Three Simple Rules of Methodism – do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. And two weeks ago we talked about how doing no harm involves being thoughtful. We talked last week how doing good involved being proactive. And today we’re talking about how staying in love with God requires practice. Staying in love with God requires practice. Like Paul was telling the Colossian church to stay rooted in Christ and to remember their teachings, John Wesley taught the same basic principles. He told those who became part of the Methodist societies they needed to regularly attend to all the ordinances of God. By that he meant they needed to do those everyday things, those regular things, over and over again to really make God a part of their lives. They needed to pray. They needed to read their Bibles. They needed to be in small groups together. They needed to take communion. They needed to go to worship. It’s those everyday routines Wesley felt were most important to keep us connected to God, and Paul in this passage stresses the same thing. Paul encourages the church to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
Science proves Wesley and Paul correct.
Their assumption that maintaining these patterns of behavior would help to make God a part of our everyday lives is true. In different studies and experiments it has been shown that through consistency and repetition over a period of time we can form new ways of doing things. But it does take time. You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but the truth is it takes much longer. Studies show it takes an average of 66 days. 66 days and that’s just an average. It can take as long as 8 or 9 months. But it can be done. If you want to get in the habit of relying on God, if you want to learn to put your faith and trust in him, it takes time and discipline, but it can be done. The cynic would say all we are doing is convincing ourselves that God cares or that God exists, that changing our pattern of behavior doesn’t actually bring us closer to God but just fools our minds into thinking he is there for us. But that’s not what’s happening. What we are doing is training our mind to be deprogrammed from all the lies and junk the world keeps throwing at us. We’re learning to stop relying on ourselves and realize we are part of a bigger community. We’re learning to trust in one another instead of being wary or suspicious all the time. We are opening ourselves up to the possibilities that life has to offer instead of being narrow-minded and closed off. Staying in love with God, or as Wesley put it, “attending to all the ordinances of God,” isn’t some trick to fool ourselves into believing in something that isn’t there. It’s an opportunity for us to break free of the chains of thought the world puts on us and free us for something bigger.
It’s hard to stay in love with God.
God seems so Pollyanna at times, a wish too good to be true. And our world tells us over and over to be wary of that which is too good to be true and for good reason. Human beings are flawed, selfish people who look out for themselves. Some are twisted enough to prey upon the weak, the gullible, and the naïve to take advantage of them and gain whatever they can. Think about all the scams that we constantly have to be aware of. Viruses on our computers, fake emails trying to trick us to give away personal information, schemes to steal our money. The list seems to go on forever. And then there’s God. A loving God who says, believe in me and I will take you to a place where there is no pain, no sorrow, and only joy. What’s the catch, right? And God says, “Love me, love each other, and that’s pretty much it.” But when we fall sick or a loved one dies or we lose our job or our marriage, we look for somebody to blame because we can’t bear to blame ourselves or the way we live or the fact that we don’t love each other very well. We don’t want to admit that smoking a pack a day despite the warning labels might in fact shorten our lives. Or eating too much. Or drinking too much. But it goes both ways. I can understand that before we realized that smoking was bad for you or that processed foods could be harmful and cause disease or cancer or that alcohol could cause you to have impaired judgment, I can understand that before we became aware of these things why we did them. But now that we know? Companies are still out there making stuff which will kill us and justify it by saying that it’s what we choose when in fact they spend billions of dollars convincing us we have to have it. We live in a world where we prey on one another and blame one another for what goes wrong. So to develop a mindset for God isn’t easy. Not when we live in a world that programs us to be just the opposite. That’s why these things are so important. That’s why it’s important to develop a heart for God by going to worship, reading the Bible, praying daily. That’s why we need to discipline ourselves to stay in love with God, because the deck is stacked against us.
When I first started praying in groups or with others, I hated it.
Not because I didn’t think it was important and not because I didn’t think it was helpful. But because I felt so inadequate about it. It seemed everyone I knew could pray better than I could. But I prayed together with a men’s group for a while and that really helped. Even though they were all better at it than me, they gave me encouragement and support and I got more confident in doing it. And as I prayed more and more for others, in worship, at communion, in hospitals, I didn’t become quite so self-conscious. I still know it’s not one of my strongest gifts – there are some people who just seem naturally gifted for prayer. But I do alright. And the best part is I don’t worry as much as I used to about it. Getting in the habit of routinely praying has really helped enrich my prayer life and made me realize that it’s not about how fancy my words were or how articulate I was or whether or not I repeated myself a dozen times. It was all about my heart for the Lord. That’s all God really cares about. And at least in that, I am confident. To do anything well takes practice. To change our behavior takes practice. To become the kind of people we want to be takes practice. In our marriages, in our work lives, as parents – even in our faith. All of it takes practice. Don’t wait to start tomorrow. Start today. But don’t stop trying to stay in love with God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.