"Going through the motions--kills"
The high school Spanish teacher in her late fifties, just a few years from retirement, hauls the same old worn out lesson plans out of her file cabinet for the next year of classes. She figures, "Why make new ones?"
The married couple, together for fourteen years, in the midst of raising two kids and caring for their own parents. Pressure at work. Financial strain. They haven't had a real conversation for days, haven't had a private dinner for weeks, and haven't laughed together for almost a year. Who has the energy?
The church member, who sits in the same pew, complains about the same issues, gripes with the same few friends at fellowship hour. Why change?
The minister who, instead of writing a new sermon, goes to the files for one she preached three years ago. Add a few cheesy stories from the internet and no one will be the wiser. What difference does it make?
The student, who gets up, goes to practice before school, classes, practice afterschool, homework, and bed. Then he gets up to do the same tomorrow, wondering why bother?
Does any of that sound familiar? I'll bet it does to each and every one of us. Much of life is so routine; we can do it with our eyes closed. In fact, I am not sure that I don't. Sometimes I find myself showered, dressed, and ready to walk out the door before my eyes open and my brain engages for the day. You know what I mean? It is so automatic to do all those routine chores that we don't think about them.
Have you ever driven somewhere, especially when it is the same route you have taken 1,000 times; and when you get there, you can't remember driving down a certain street? Or more frighteningly, stopping at that stop sign? It's frightening isn't it?
Let's be honest with each other. Sometimes we live our faith the same way. Same old devotions, same old prayers, same old pew, in the same old church, with the same old friends, and the same old preacher, listening to the same old stories, visiting with the same old friends, same old complaints, same old problems, serving on the same old committee because no matter what they are called, they're all the same.
You know the rage right now is the campaigns against distracted driving. How about distracted "faithing"? Doing faith when our attention is really on 20 things OTHER than Jesus.
Sometimes, as a pastor, you know I feel like people expect me to have my act together. Sometimes it just is not there. I can be honest about that. There are times when being candid about my dry spells, however, is not appropriate. You know, for instance, when I visit you in the hospital or in the middle of leading worship-- no one wants to see the preacher stop to say, "Sorry, it just isn't happening for me today." Sometimes- just like you- I go through the motions because it is the right thing to do.
That is exactly what Matthew West was experiencing when he wrote the song "Motions".
When asked about the story behind his song he said, "I don't always feel it. Sometimes my faith seems stale. Numb. Sometimes I pray, but I don't feel connected. I sing, but my song sounds empty. I write, but my words sound cliché. I ask God questions, but I don't hear answers. I could try to act like I am always so spiritually refreshed and thriving in my relationship with God. But that wouldn't be honest. That wouldn't be me."[i]
Another song writer wrote experiencing distracted "faithing" in the 103rd Psalm.
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.[ii]
The poet who wrote Ecclesiastes wrote;
Everything is boring, utterly boring—
no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye,
boring to the ear.
What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There's nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it's the same old thing. [iii]
We are not the first people to walk through life like robots not seeing or hearing, not feeling or thinking, not hating-- but not loving either.
There is no life in that. Going through the motions in marriage kills marriages.
· Going through the motions in life kills joy.
· Going through the motions at work leads to unemployment.
· Going through the motions at school kills learning
· Going through the motions in faith--- just plain kills.
We are not the first people to walk through faith like automatons, sitting glassy eyed, not really listening, not really connecting, not really feeling, not really caring, not really devoted. There is no life in a faith like that.
· Going through the motions in prayer is like praying into a tin can.
· Going through the motions in worship is empty ritual.
· Going through the motions in our relationship with God--- kills faith.
· Jesus said, "'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."[iv]
· Again he said, "You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said, "This people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me."[v]
Jesus had nothing good to say about the Pharisees or anyone else who just went through the motions of religion without a real relationship with God.
· Paul writes, "So these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone."[vi]
· In Revelation John writes, "'And to the angel of the church in Sardis …'I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains. [vii]
In fact the Bible in general condemns empty faith, lifeless faith, vacant religion, comatose conviction over and over.
In today's passage, Paul gives us some advice. "This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. [viii]
Paul is very clear. To avoid going through the motions or empty faith He "presses onward." He "Strains forward". He makes a conscious decision to press on and reach for that prize which is connection with God.
Matthew West makes the same point in the song.
This might hurt, it's not safe
But I KNOW that I've gotta make a change
I don't care if I break,
At least I'll be feeling something
'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life
Sometimes when you aren't feeling it you just have to decide to go for it. Sometimes when the feeling wanes, we have to fall back on the commitment we made at baptism and confirmation. A commitment is a conscious decision. Sometimes we just have to decide we are going to push through the "nothingness of this life" instead of going through the motions.
We might not feel like it. We might not want to. We might not have the energy, but we do it anyway.
Like a runner who hits the wall. Every fiber in their body ready to collapse, every muscle ready to give up. Somehow, by an act of the will-- by an act of commitment-- they push past that to reach the end of the race.
If you're not feeling faith, sometimes we have to will ourselves forward, push past the nothingness, push through the wall of meaninglessness, push past the utter hopelessness. When you do--- When I do --- sometimes I find God waiting just on the other side.
The truth is that sometimes faith is an act of the will. Sometimes faith is a conscious and intentional decision. Sometimes in order to feel the faith, we have to break through the wall we have built. Sometimes when we have been running like the prodigal son, we have to come to ourselves, and decide to be open to God. But when we do, God is waiting just on the other side with the ring for our finger, his best robe to put on our shoulders, and the fatted calf on the spit.
For eight of you, today is your confirmation. I don't know if you really feel the faith today or not. I have done my best to teach you the principles and values of the faith. Angie and I have done our best to show you how we live the faith, and we have tried to give you the tools to do that for yourself. The next step is up to you.
You can come up here, go through the service, go through the motions as we have rehearsed them, and walk out of here the same person who walked in. You can decide that the only thing you are getting out of confirmation is a certificate and keeping mom and dad off your back. You can decide that…
I hope you don't.
· I know it is easier- but it is easier to buy a ticket to the basketball game than it is to train and practice to be the star player. DON'T.
· It is easier to squeak by with c's than it is to really study and get an education. DON'T.
· It is easier to just keep doing the same old meaningless things, day after day. DON'T.
When I am down and discouraged. When I am having one of those dry spells in my faith and I wonder why I am here, when I am convinced that I don't make any difference at all I try to remember the feeling of Bishop Reuben Job's hands on my head during my ordination . I'll never forget how heavy they were, but sometimes I have to remember on purpose. To me it was like the hand of God. I could never forget the way those hands changed my life. I might try, but the weight of those hands always comes back to me.
Ordination is fundamentally a special type of confirmation.
Today, I want you to feel the weight of my hands upon your head, even more -- the weight of God's hand upon your life… feel that, and then decide -- DECIDE IN YOUR HEAD-- to commit yourself to NOT SETTLE for going through the motions.
In the coming days and years as you walk with God. You will sometimes walk nearer, and sometimes you will be tempted to go through the motions (or maybe not even that.) But DON'T SETTLE.
don't you spend your whole life asking,
"What if I had given everything,
instead of going through the motions?"
Too many of us settle for an easy faith.
· It is easy to show up for church for an hour a week, but don't ask anything else.
· It is easy to write a check, but don't ask me to come to a retreat.
· It is easy to dust my Bible, but you don't really expect me to read it do you?
· It is easy to say that more people should go to church, but don't ask me to invite anyone.
· It is easy to say families need to go to church, but don't ask me to make a batch of cookies for Wednesday night.
· It is easy to criticize the way things are done in the church, but you had better not ask me to be on a committee.
Don't get me wrong, people don't really say those things… with their mouths. But some of you say them loud and clear without ever speaking a word.
So I challenge you. DON'T SETTLE!
DON'T SETTLE for the trappings of faith without any real depth.
DON'T SETTLE for tipping God and missing the blessing of generous sacrificial giving.
DON'T SETTLE for attending church rather than being the church.
DON'T SETTLE for saying you care about child abuse, or hunger or homelessness; and then retreat to your nice safe home and your overflowing refrigerator.
DON'T SETTLE for patting the youth on the back when they do something nice, but fail to provide the means for life-changing ministry.
DON'T SETTLE for prayer that is anything less than life changing communion with the almighty God.
DON'T SETTLE for a faith that is lifeless- like a whitewashed tomb-- Jesus called it. Pretty on the outside, but filled with death on the inside.
DON'T SETTLE for going through the motions.
don't you spend your whole life asking,
"What if I had given everything,
instead of going through the motions?"
[i]STORY BEHIND THE SONG: Matthew West's "The Motions". (January 2009). Rebeccah Midkiff.
[ii] Psalm 103:15-16 (All Scriptures are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted)
[iii] Ecclesiastes 1:8-10 (The Message Bible)
[iv] Matthew 23:27-28
[v] Matthew 15:7-8
[vi] 2 Tim 3:8-9
[vii] Revelation 3:1-2
[viii] Philippians 3:12-14