Habits of the Heart

It is an age-old question: Which came first, beliefs or practices?  Do our values lead to our behavior, or does our behavior shape our values?  It is a lot like the question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It is a trick question – one with no right answer.  It places two elements of an intertwined relationship in an either/or framework.  Both beliefs and practices – like the chicken and the egg are integral parts of one whole.

Often, when I look at the relationship between beliefs and practices, I start with beliefs.  That was where I began when I first began teaching in churches.  Whether it was confirmation classes, new members gatherings, or framing my sermons, it always started with concept – and then moved to practice.  Who is God?  Who is Jesus Christ?  What do Christians – and Presbyterians specifically – believe about scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the work of God in the world?  Only after exploring beliefs did I move to what Christians actually do – prayer, worship, participatory governance, engaging in the world for justice, etc.

There are shortcomings of this approach.  I learned this when I took up auto mechanics.  The department chair of the automotive technology department at Citrus College, back when I was a student there, said to us, “I am a concept teacher.”  He would first introduce us to ideas like combustion, electricity, and friction.  Only after this would he tell as how to actually fix cars.  Following his lectures, we would go out to turn wrenches on a fleet of “shop” cars.  These were vehicles that had been donated for our educational enlightenment – like corpses a medical student might examine.  We could take them apart and put them back together.  But we had little hope of hurting them – or bringing them back to life.

Then, I got my first job at an auto shop.  And I am amazed to this day that I never killed anyone (at least, to the best of my knowledge, I didn’t…).  I noticed other new hires having far more success than I did early on.  They had fewer “boomerangs” – that is, cars that are sent back to the mechanic because of some error or failure to fix what was wrong.  What did the other mechanics have that I didn’t?  Practice – years and years of hands-on experience fixing cars.  Many a day, I wished I had more of what they had behind me back when I was introduced to concepts like combustion.

How different my experience was in seminary.  With decades of weekly Christian discipleship behind me – as well rich experiences in Christian leadership – the concepts I was presented with had immediate import and application.  When I started a church internship in my third year at Fuller, I was in hog heaven.  Beliefs and practices, practices and beliefs – I couldn’t tell where one side started and the other ended.  They were both part of one meaningful life and vocation.

For the sermon series leading up to and including Lent this year, I thought we would start on the practices side of the beliefs and practices relationship. We will be looking at the practices Jesus exemplified and taught in Luke’s gospel.  This focus will invariably draw us back to beliefs – and to the God whose action in the world calls and empowers our practice of faith. But because we human beings are a complex mix of thoughts and actions, I thought we would try starting on the action side for these months ahead.

Lent is often a time when Christians take up new practices – or recommit themselves to practices they have already been observing.  This tradition goes back to a time when new converts to Christianity observed forty days of preparation before getting baptized on Easter.  I hope this sermon series prompts you to consider new experiments in your habits of the heart – or encourage rededication to practices you already observe. I pray, too, that all of our practices as believers pull us back to God’s grace – and to cherish the life we have been given in Christ.  As 1 John 4:19 famously puts it, “We love because God first loved us.” Wishing you grace and peace in the journey.

~Pastor Matt