One of my church members is a Nutritionist by trade, specializing in diabetes. I asked him to lead a Diabetes awareness seminar for our church and surrounding community. He agreed and many came to attend. The seminar proceeded very well. Our teacher led us not only through the intricacies of the disease, but also walked us through all one could do to prevent and manage the disease.
One of the most important factors he emphasized was diet. He handed out a picture of a plate to each participant illustrating the most heathy ratio of carbs, veggies, and starches for one suffering from diabetes. Naturally, the diet was high in fresh fruits and raw vegetables.
Upon looking at the diet chart, a woman from the community exclaimed for all to hear, “I don’t like any of the foods listed here! I guess it's medication for me!” and swiftly threw the chart in the garbage as she took another swig from her 42 oz tanker of soda. This woman had previously told the group she suffered from type 2 diabetes, which is the most aggressive form of the disease. She was very overweight and ate terribly. She needed to make a change, but it was quite apparent to all who listened that her health didn’t call the shots, her tastebuds did. Not even a nutritionist could convince her to take care of herself.
Our culture prides itself on that sort of perspective. We have developed such a disdain for authority, that nothing and no-one has the right to tell us what to do or how to live our lives, even if it is for our best. We are in charge of our own lives and we will live how we see fit. “Don’t tread on me!”
So, it may not be as popular as we might think to preach this passage from the psalms the way it was intended. “You are righteous, Lord, and your laws are right.” in verse 137, Trouble and distress have come upon me, but your commands give me delight. Your statutes are always righteous; give me understanding that I may live.” verses 143-144. The writer is practically saying, “Lord, thank you for telling me what to do and how to live my life!” The writer even goes as far as to say, “my zeal wears me out, for my enemies ignore your words” in verse 139. Our psalmist is doing all he can to live according to God’s law and zealously so, that it is leading exhaustion because he is doing it on his own.
Do we want God to tell us what to do? Do we want to be apart of a church community where we are told how to live, what is our best, and how to think? Or, do we actually prefer to do our own thing, convinced we know what our best is, and disregard the rest? I believe, what we often neglect to realize, is that we are habitual creatures. We will always be doing something repetitiously. The question is, will those habits be shaping us into the ways of God or into the ways we prefer? Before we are brought into a right relationship with Jesus, our ways and God’s ways are not the same. It takes slow and steady work with the Holy Spirit to be conformed to the ways of Christ. It just doesn’t happen overnight.
I think the notion advocated by our diabetes sufferer has infiltrated Christianity, especially in the United States. We have tv preachers and youtube “spoken word” artists gain massive popularity advocating how religion is evil, but Jesus is good. Perhaps this notion stemmed from a cultural disdain for Catholicism or maybe simply the atrocities humanity has justified in the name of religion. No matter what has made this notion popular, it doesn’t make it any less ignorant. Even Jesus went to synagogue weekly, knew the Torah front and backwards, was a rabbi, and was found worthing in the sight of God and God’s law. Jesus was about as religious as you get. He then calls his followers to take up his yoke, his burden. Even though they are light and easy, they are still something we must take up and by which we form our internal and external lives. This is to be made ready to take up our cross, which is not easy or light. But we follow Jesus accordingly because we declare to God that “your statutes are always righteous; give us understanding that we may live!” (verse 144).
The pastor might do well in pointing out what works of our own we prefer to the ways of God. In contrast to the psalmist, we modern day Christians tend to fall to the other extreme. We emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus to such an extant that we water down any practices and habits as simply optional, rather than essential to survive (verse 144). We tend to rest in our own beliefs of God while disregarding any work for God. The question becomes, how will we expect to gain freedom from that which oppresses us and not fall prey to our enemies if we do not learn the work and ways of God and incorporate them into our own lives?
A common phrase advocating a work-less faith floating around these days is “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” Now, I know what they mean. I get they are implying that Christianity is not about works and habits, rather it is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, I would say such a phrase is to speak beyond what we understand.
Let’s think about that notion for a minute. What relationship can survive without works and rituals? Will our relationship with our job continue if we quite showing up for work? Those of us who are married, how will things fair for us if we stop working on our marriage? What happens when we stop practicing the ritual of our anniversaries, birthdays, first dates, etc.? What sort of parents do we become when we do not teach certain practices and habits in our relationship with our children?
This notion of “it’s not a religion it’s a relationship” is a false dichotomy. It is swinging the pendulum to the other side, claiming that works are optional, but a relationship is mandatory. It is making the internal life much more important than the external life. God wants both the inward and outward of our lives.
When I was a little boy, I really wanted to be a guitar player. Internally, that desire was there. I knew my guitar. Music “lived within in my heart.” I could call myself a guitar player and tell people my passion about playing the guitar all I wanted. But what actually made me a guitar player was when I learned and practiced my guitar. I also wanted to be a good guitar player. So what did I do? I went to weekly lessons, with a teacher who taught me how to read chord charts and play well with other musicians. I practiced everyday for several hours. You could say I was quite religious about my music, which meant going to lessons more than just around Christmas and Easter (pastor joke). I would clean and take care of my guitar constantly. It was a ritual for me. I did this so often that playing a guitar wasn’t just something I did, it became apart of who I am.
What I practiced religiously shaped my being, and what I did flowed out of my being.
Do you see where I am going with this? We Christians gather weekly around a table. We hear a teacher who teaches us how to read scripture, live lives of worship in Christ, and how to play well with other Christians and our world. We are then called to study scripture, pray, fast, and meditate on God religiously, like it is a habit, ritual, a way of life of which we just can’t let go! Until the Christian life isn’t just something we do, it becomes who we are.
What we practice religiously shapes our being and what we do flows out of our being. We practice the presence of our Lord and what we do flows out of our being with the Lord. Our relationship with Christ is our religion. We celebrate His birthday, his funeral, his resurrection, his ascension, and as the bride of Christ, we as the church will never let him forget our wedding anniversary after he returns. We take communion together to remember what He did, what He continues to do, and what He is going to do. We read the scriptures, we baptize one another, we pray together, we sing, we confess our sins, and we recite our creeds. We do these things so that God’s purposes become so much apart of who we are that it is shown through our work. The Lord has shaped these practices, these rituals for us, and these practices shape us into the habits of our Lord. We cannot rest in the Lord without our labor in the Lord.
We are a people who yearn to practice the presence of God so God is present in us. Everything we do then flows out of that presence. A church who labors in God, is a church who also rests in God’s presence. A church who rests in God’s presence is a church who’s labor creates space where healing, liberation, and unbinding is our reality as it was in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
We are not a people who are content with allowing our tastebuds to rule our lives while Type 2 diabetes destroys our bodies. No, we are a people who submit to the righteousness of our Lord, relentlessly and habitually, even if it sometimes hurts and makes us exhausted. We do this because we know our desires do not retain what is best for us. Our Lord does. So we will strive zealously to make His ways, our ways.