I went to the doctor a few weeks ago for a check up. As we were talking, he patted me on the belly and said, “how’s your diet lately?” I laughed and said, “the holidays were good to me.” He was not amused as he asked me, “are you sure about that?”
I knew I’d put on some weight over the holidays. I thoroughly enjoyed myself! Times were good with the parties we attended, the people we visited, the food we ate, the times of relaxation and rest. I was less active, ate more, drank more, and thus thoroughly enjoyed myself.
The end result: weight gain. My disciplines around diet and exercise slipped, and kept slipping, as I was busy with parties and people visiting. Such is the case with the holidays. So I told my doctor, “I have a plan.”
My health, besides needing to lose some weight, is excellent. But he reminded me that weight complicates health and, should I not lose weight, and especially if I gained some more, it could complicate my health and my body would find it harder to fend off disease.
So, while times are good and I’m healthy, it’s time to lose weight. And that’s what I’m doing. For my long-term health, with resolve that next holiday season, I’ll be more careful.
When times are good, it’s easy to let disciplines slip. Many of us, myself included when it comes to diet and exercise, need something to motivate us to maintain our disciplines. My guess is, when we think of our spiritual discipline, the same is even more true. When life is good, it’s easy to let our disciplines of faith slip or simply be nonexistent. But then, when the storms come and we are shaken, we rush back to the disciplines, expecting them to help.
All too often, that fails. It’s no different than experiencing illness caused or complicated by weight and then deciding, while sick, that it’s time to lose weight. By then, it can’t do as much good as if we’d been disciplined while healthy.
Today, we continue our series on the Psalms and the life of faith. We’ve been through one revolution of the cycle: from orientation, to disorientation, to reorientation. This morning, we embark back through the cycle for a final time. Now that we know what the cycle is like, we will see orientation, disorientation, and reorientation, differently, more deeply. For the cycle of faith, the one revealed by the Psalms, speaks to our life together as the church and as neighbors.
Let’s continue our exploration of the cycle of faith by hearing together Psalm 15:
Right after September 11, 2001, churches filled to the brim. In the midst of unimaginable tragedy, people packed church pews. I remember hearing commentators and clergy persons alike stating that this was the renewal moment for the church, this was when we’d reverse the decline in worship attendance and church membership.
But, after about three weeks, the gains evaporated. Many said modern churches were to blame: they were ill-equipped to convince people to stay, they were not seeker-sensitive, they were full of cliques and thus not welcoming. There were all the reasons to think that the church was to blame. And some of that feedback makes sense.
The people themselves, however, offer some explanation, too. They came to church, either found answers they sought, comfort they needed, or didn’t find it and thus left. Regardless, life went back to usual, stability returned to their lives, and they no longer felt the need for church. They used church to feel better, the way we use aspirin to dull pain.
If we’re honest this morning, this is true for some of us, too. When life is good, we don’t go to church as often because we just don’t think we need it. Things are great, so it’s less necessary. Or even if we’re convinced it’s still necessary, the motivation isn’t there like it is when things are hard. And so discipline slips; we don’t come to church as much.
Until we’re shaken by the next tragedy, the next downturn, the next stressor. When it comes, we rush back to church thinking that church has magic powers to return us to stability. Sometimes, we find comfort in that habit, but most of the time, church fails to magically restore us to stability in life.
In that habit, we use church like we use Tylenol: I have a pain in my life, so I take some medicine. But when I don’t have the pain, I don’t need it, so it sits on the shelf in the cabinet unused. But church isn’t like that. Our faith isn’t like that.
We all want the promise of the end of this psalm, “those who do these things shall never be moved.” The word moved there can be translated as shaken or terrorized, with the verse thus reading, “those who do these things shall never be shaken” or “never be terrorized.” That sounds like a great life, so what are the things we need to do?
The Psalm reads like a checklist of things to do, things to be disciplined about. In fact, there are eleven items we are to check off, for if we accomplish these things on a regular basis, if we’re faithful in these eleven things, we will “never be moved/shaken/terrorized.”
First, walk blamelessly
Second, do what’s right
Third, speak the truth from your heart
Fourth, don’t slander with your tongue
Fifth, do no evil to your friends
Sixth, don’t rebuke your neighbors
Seventh, despise the wicked
Eighth, honor those who respect God
Ninth, stand by your oath even if it hurts you
Tenth, mindful that scripture has no concept of modern-day capitalism, don’t lend money at interest
Eleventh, don’t accept a bribe if the person is innocent.
Stay true to all those things and you will “never be moved/shaken/terrorized.” There’s your key to stability. And, according to verse 1, if you’re perfect at all these things, you will be welcomed into worship and into church. Otherwise, you’re not welcomed because you’re not disciplined enough. Work harder to uphold all these items.
For all those achievement-oriented folks in the room, here’s your checklist for living life with God. If you accomplish these things, you’ll be in great shape, for you’ll ““never be moved/shaken/terrorized.”
Except, who can keep all this? If these are the conditions for gaining entry to worship and church, none of us should be here. This week, I spoke impatiently to others. I didn’t lend money at interest, but I paid money against an interest-bearing loan, which means that I didn’t do what’s right. I’m pretty sure, however, that I’ve never taken a bribe against an innocent person, so I’m clear on one of the eleven.
This cannot be a checklist, and yet there’s truth here for us. So what is that truth? How do we gain access to God’s presence, what the author means by verse 1, “who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” How do we live a life where we are “never…moved/shaken/terrorized?”
At twenty-one years old, I was at my heaviest. I also had a brand-new iPod, back when iPods were the hip new thing. It was loaded up with all the music I had and a fancy pair of those earbuds. I was ready to do something with the iPod, but what? I was also really starting to feel guilty about being twenty-one and out of shape. I would get winded going up two flights of stairs to attend class. That just seemed ridiculous.
I was also experiencing emotional stress. Life had challenged long-held assumptions and I felt an instability in my sense of self. That instability created stress and that stress yelled, “Move!” So that’s what I did.
Long before couch to 5k was a thing, I made up my own. I grabbed my iPod, put in the ear buds, and started running one night. I got about ten yards and was out of breath. But I kept moving. I had picked out a loop, one a little less than two miles, and I did the loop. At first, I walked most of it. But as I went out night after night, I did a little more and a little more.
Soon, I was losing weight. My body was craving foods that were better for me, although my diet still needed work. I was able to run more and more of the loop, with some set backs, but it was generally two steps forward, one step back, so there was always forward progress. And I discovered, much to my joy and amazement, that my stress was relieved and my brain used the time to ponder on the deep questions of life and existence that were shaking my identity. Running helped me tremendously.
Once I had lost the weight and my identity crisis was over, it was tempting to stop running. And for a brief moment, I did. But stress built back up, my brain needed the time to ponder and think on things, and so I went back out. Ever since then, for almost fifteen years now, I’ve maintained the habit of running.
When life has been hard, running has often been the answer. My brain still uses that time to think through things, ponder questions, or sit with hard emotions. When life is good, running is no longer the answer but rather a discipline I maintain so that, when life gets hard, it can be the answer, the solution, the respite, to my problems again.
That’s what discipline in life and faith is all about. Discipline means to be regular about our good habits, whatever they are. It’s the root of the word disciple, what we all are to Christ. To be a disciple requires discipline, spiritual habits, that form us and keep us grounded in Christ. Then, when the storms of life come, those habits cause us to “never be moved/shaken/terrorized.”
And that discipline isn’t a checklist of behaviors or morals. Even for those under the Old Testament law, it wasn’t a checklist of behaviors or morals. This list of eleven items is evidence of a disciplined life lived with God.
We cannot exhibit these kinds of behaviors unless we are dwelling with Christ on a regular basis. We need God’s grace to empower us to be kind, to do no evil, to not harm our neighbor, not take advantage of others (what’s meant by not lending money at interest), and to stand by our oath even when it hurts us. We need that grace on a regular basis.
But even more than that, when times are good and we’re disciplined, we continue to go deeper into relationship with God. And it’s that depth, of making consistent habit to dwell with God, that causes us to “never be moved/shaken/terrorized.”
Which all begins here, in community with others, as a church. We cannot be fully alive in Christ if we are not in community with others on a regular basis. We cannot expect to experience the depth God has to offer us unless we make a regular habit of church attendance, even when life is good.
If we’re not regular in our spiritual habits, we’re not a disciple. Rather, we use Christ, like we use Tylenol or church, for our own benefit. Which means we take advantage of God; the God to whom we owe everything, the God who created all things. Such is dishonoring of God, shows God no respect, and turns God into a divine medicine cabinet for all our aches and pains in life.
And then, when we are moved/shaken/terrorized, God somehow doesn’t seem present. God seems far away. God doesn’t seem to deliver. But why should we have that immediate experience of God’s presence if we’ve spent the good times of orientation not present with God, far away from God, paying little attention to God? If that’s been the case, when the darkness comes, we have to find our way back to God and that takes time. But if we’ve been with God all along, we already know how to find our way to God, how to take solace in God; discipline pays off in the darkness.
I say that less out of theological conviction, and certainly not because I’m a pastor and I’m supposed to say that. I say it because it’s true in my life. Used to be that I was like a yo-yo: disciplined with God when times were hard and undisciplined when times were good. I was even that way when I first became a pastor. But a sermon like this one convinced me of the necessity of regular habit. And so I began one. And so I have found that, in my life, even the gravest of difficulties have not left me moved, shaken, or terrorized. I have known times of insecurity, but I’ve always been able to experience God’s presence, God’s provision, and God’s abundant love, because I stayed disciplined in the good times.
It’s like when the power went out one night at our house. A storm raged such that the only light in the house was when a flash of lighting struck. But in the laundry room, where I thought the flashlight was stored, there was absolutely no light because there were no windows. I grasped around the cabinet, trying to find the flashlight, but to no avail.
Jack, however, knew just where the flashlight was. He’d been playing with it, but had always put it back where I’d left it: in the pantry. He went into the pitch black pantry and came back out with the flash light, knowing exactly where it was.
That’s what life is like in the darkness when we’re disciplined during the good times. We know just where the flashlight is because we’ve been going to it over and over again before the darkness settled in. God is our light in the dark times. If we’re good about going back to the light over and over again when times are good, if we maintain discipline, it’s very easy to find the light when the darkness settles into our lives. And finding the light means we’re safe, secure, unmoved, unshaken, unterrorized. But if we’re not disciplined during the good times, we’re like me in the laundry room: grasping blindly in the darkness for a light that turned out not to be there.
It’s more important during times of orientation to maintain your discipline than it is during times of disorientation. It’s more important because then we know our way to the light when disorientation comes. And then we experience the goodness and grace that God has for us, empowering us to be more like this list of eleven traits. For the people of God are a wonderful, good, people, when disciplined in their relationship.
So today, commit yourself to be disciplined. If you don’t know where to start, or if you look back on your life at a string of failed attempts to be spiritually disciplined, I have two pointers for you. First, you may be choosing the wrong disciplines for your personality. I’d love to have that conversation with you, or talk to anyone who’s been through one of my confirmation classes. They can help you, too. Second, come to church on a regular basis. There’s no replacement for encountering God in community. It helps us stay focused and disciplined in a way that I can’t fully explain.
If you made a new year’s resolution to be more disciplined and have already failed, or if you committed to be more disciplined during the covenant renewal service and your discipline has already waned, that’s okay. Try again. Let’s talk.
For discipline is more important when times are good than when times are bad. Maintain your disciplines to know the way to the light. Then you “shall never be moved.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.