Do Love to Become LovePosted: September 2, 2012
Do Love to Become Love
Martin Luther called the Book of James, the Epistle of Straw, because rather than salvation solely by faith, James insists there are good works the followers of Jesus ought to be doing, like taking care of widows and orphans, feeding the poor, praying for and caring for the sick. Just closing our eyes and repeating I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus, I do believe in Jesus, misses the point of following the WAY of Jesus. Which comes first the chicken or the egg – changing our hearts, changing our minds or changing our behavior?
So how does grace work, changing our hearts, changing our minds or changing our behavior? According to Dr. Phillip Cary who wrote the book, Good News for Anxious Christians, we begin to access grace, when we change our minds by focusing our attention outside of ourselves to the scriptures and liturgy of the church. You may remember our Diaconate and the Monday Bible Study read Dr. Cary’s book. Dr. Cary who really likes Martin Luther writes: “What Luther’s theology has in common with Anglicanism is a tendency to find God in Word and Sacrament – in the external means of grace by which our Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us.”
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
In contrast to Cary’s “external means of grace,” and Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart,” is Christian Educator John Westerhoff who famously asserted, “it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.” This is sometimes referred to as the “living as if” model of transformation. If we desire to exemplify a virtue in our lives, then we live as if we already possess that virtue, and our behavior will then change our lives.
The living as if model coincides with the advice of some neurophysiologists who claim that it takes 21 to 45 days to change a habit. Three to six weeks of conscious effort can rewire the pathways in the brain. The longer the behavior has been ingrained, like maybe a lifetime, the harder the effort will be required to rewire the pathways in our brains.
My daughter Jennifer works in the field of the psychology of exercise adherence exploring the factors that support people making changes in exercise behavior. Those of you who have seen Jennifer’s wilderness pictures on Facebook will not be surprised to learn that she compares making behavior change to being lost in the woods. Her first point is that will power alone won’t get us out of the wilderness. We need a compass and a map. Our compass is our ability to set priorities and values. Our map is our plan.
When we set about making a change in our behavior we have to know why we want to make the change. We want to understand clearly our motivation for making the change, because all change requires some sacrifice – some loss. If we change our diets, there are some foods or amounts of food we won’t be eating. An exercise regimen takes time, so we won’t be spending as much time reading, watching T.V, lying on the couch.
“So when I want to take on a new project, I like to run it by a wise person or two. And if I am filled with enthusiasm for the new thing, the wisest one will ask me this pointed question: “What are you going to give up in order to do that?” Because every time we take on a new project, there will be less time for something else. Every time we say another “Yes,” we should be honest and admit that somewhere else we may end up having to say “No.” We can do this consciously or unconsciously.
“When we do it unconsciously, we end up overwhelmed, late for everything, missing deadlines, letting people down, staying up too late and then sleeping through the morning’s alarm, drowning in a quicksand of over-commitment. But when we do it consciously, it’s an opportunity to prayerfully evaluate how we are spending those precious twenty-four hours a day we have been given. We can say yes to the new thing, but we will need to say no to an old thing. Perhaps in asking that question, the new thing seems less important, or perhaps it feels more important than ever. But at least we’ve been honest and asked the question. Life is too precious to spend it drowning in our own sloppy decisions.”
Once we have made an informed and conscious decision about making a change in our lives, we need a plan. We have to know where we are, and where we want to go. Jennifer also points out, “we can’t broad jump our way out of the wilderness.” The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We need a plan filled with baby steps. If we haven’t been exercising at all, a good baby step in the beginning might be fifteen minutes three days a week. From there we can add days and lengthen the time of our exercise program.
But what inspires us to want to change? In Jennifer’s terms where is the why for making a change in my behavior. In spiritual terms what is the spark of grace that turns us in the direction of God? In the Parable of the Prodigal Son what finally motivates the younger son “to come to his senses” and turn toward home?
Dr. Morris Massey, a behavioral scientist who taught at the University of Colorado, observed that at around age 10, people identify “heroes” around which they model their beliefs and views. These figures don’t necessarily have to be actual people, or even fictional ones. They can be animals, plants, natural or cultural features. By about age 14, Massey contends, this internal process of modeling heroes results in a person establishing a world view or philosophical perspective about what is right/wrong, good/bad, normal/not-normal that becomes very strongly set and resistant to change. People are most susceptible to change, Massey feels, when they experience what he calls a “significant emotional event.” Such traumatically pleasant or unpleasant experiences as getting married, getting divorced, narrowly escaping death, destabilize a person’s world view (for a time) and make him or her much more likely to modify that characteristically rigid mind set.
Most religions have developed rituals around the predictable significant emotional events in our lives: confirmation as adolescents, wedding ceremonies for marriage, baptisms to mark the birth of children, anointing of the sick for illness, last rites for dying, funerals to facilitate the grieving process associated with death.
In addition Hall Mark has developed greeting cards for every life passage: birthdays, graduations, divorces, retirements. We have get well cards to mark illnesses, even encouragement cards now, when the prognosis is not good. There are even generic congratulations, and condolence cards for significant life experiences like losing a job, getting a promotion, moving into a new house, Somehow we understand that major life experiences will open us up to the possibility of change, the possibility of grace.
Morris Massey tells a story about how one college student changed her behavior. At the University of Colorado students were accustomed to bringing their bicycles into the classroom buildings, so they wouldn’t be left out in the weather. This behavior led to a deterioration in the hallways, tire marks on the walls, gouges in the plaster. So the University banned all bicycles from the classroom buildings and posted signs. Many students, however, ignored the signs and continued to bring their bicycles into the classroom buildings. One rainy day Dr. Massey noticed a young lady bring her bike in through the door and proceed to lean it up against the hallway putting a gouge in the wall. Dr. Massey walked over to the student took the bicycle, walked out the door with it, threw it down on the ground and stepped on it. “That,” said Dr. Massey, “was a significant emotional experience that changed the student’s behavior, where the signs had failed.”
Sometimes God has to get our attention, before we begin the effortful work of change. What motivates us to change is usually a major event, a life changing event. It may come to us as an idea, or a feeling in the heart, the experience of “hitting bottom,” or a swift kick in the behind. Grace is a mystery.
And the Letter of James is trying to tell us we have to do love in order to become love. Prayers or good wishes with no deeds attached are very empty comfort. On Wednesday Anil and Teresa Henry reminded me of the power of doing love. In 2004 they took over a rundown non-functioning hospital in Mungeli, India.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” May God unsettle us and so inspire us to do the way of love, the way of Jesus.