Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Ephesians 5:15-16
Our world is splintered. Maybe it has always been that way. The history books tend to tell the stories of a splintered world. Wars, famine, disease, conflicts of all sort, including holy wars, indicate that for centuries our world has been splintered—fractured, cracked, broken. However you understand or see or determine the world’s splinteredness, in part, depends on your generation.
For the Traditionalists or Silent Generation, those born in 1945 or before, the Korean War was a significant splinter in the world you grew up in, along with the financial insecurity of the 1930s. The Baby Boomers, those born from 1946 to 1964, saw a time of optimism economically but would experience the brokenness of the world as race relations intensified and divided the nation. Generation X, the generation spanning the years 1965 to 1976, bear the splinters of several significant economic downturns and the insecurity that goes with those downturns. The Millennials or Gen Y, born 1977 to 1995, is largest generation in the U.S. workforce and yet 40% of unemployed workers are Millennials. To capture the splintered world of Millennials consider this: Millennials are “the first in modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than any other generation at the same stage of life…[They] are reporting the highest levels of clinical anxiety, stress, and depression than any other generation.” (Paul Angone, All Groan Up) We have yet to fully grasp the particulars of how the splintering world is affecting GenZ or as they are sometimes called, Centennials—those born in 1996 and later. For certain, they feel the great political splinters of a nation that seems to no longer know who it is and what it values. Our world is splintered and has been for generations.
The Bible—our sacred text—tells of a splintered world. As soon as you get out of the Garden, the world breaks apart into the sacred and the profane. The one-ness of the Garden, that seamless connection between the divine and the human is torn apart, and from that point forward, splintered-ness, broken-ness, factured-ness, defines humanity and the world. Cain and Abel. Sarah and Hagar. Isaac and Ishmael. The Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. The worlds of good and evil, of blessings and curses, of floods and rainbows. The bible affirms that our world is splintered and has been for centuries. Or, at least, that’s how we have told the story of our faith.
As I was writing this sermon, Karla was working on a project. She was refinishing an old piece of furniture, a buffet. The bottom of the buffet was made of plywood that had gotten wet and buckled somewhere along its journey. The only way to make the piece usable again was to remove the whole bottom. I know some of you know what happens next. Plywood is deceptive. It looks like solid wood, but it’s actually layers of very thin wood that is glued and pressed together in different directions. So, even though it was damaged and looked flimsy and fragile, as Karla began to lift off the plywood, it splintered into dozens of pieces. As I walked about picking up the splintered pieces lying on the ground, it was, for me, a visual of the world I was writing about in the next room. There was a brittleness to the plywood that reminded me of just how brittle our world feels right now. There were sharp pointed ragged edges that resembled the sharp and ragged edges this world we live in. As I pick up one small piece of splinted wood, its sharpness poked my finger and I thought about how the sharpness of this splintered world often pricks my soul. Our world is splintered. Maybe it has always been that way. And maybe that is why our faith, and our brother Jesus, speaks to us so often about how to live a centered life in a splintered world.
Living a centered life requires something of us. At a basic level it requires awareness, attention, focus, and some amount of discipline. But at its deepest and most meaningful level it calls us to live more from intention and less from habit.
Habits can be good and bad. If I have a habit of brushing my teeth three times a day, my dentist would say that is a good habit. But if I have a habit of drinking three sodas a day, my doctor might say (would say and has said) that is a bad habit. Habits, good and bad ones, form our daily routines. We roll out of bed, get that first cup-a-joe, check the local news, browse our emails, and last but not least, check out the top stories in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and HuffPost.
As we discussed living from intention in lectionary this week, one honest brave soul confessed: “I’m not sure I do anything intentionally. I’m always reacting—to emails, hunger, schedules.” “You know,” she concluded, “it is really hard to live intentionally.” And she is right. There are so many things in life and in the world that are working against us living intentionally: stress at work and at home, distractions everywhere, the pulls of the world that say: “I have to be this and do that and have those.” The millennial in the lectionary group talked about hyper-connectivity as a distraction to living more intentionally. He even spoke of it as an addiction—another habit—that distracts us from a life lived with intention. If we are not careful, we can begin to live life from habits—good and bad ones. But habits are a little like plywood. They look simple, like something we just do over and over. But as we live into and from our habits, they actually form into a tight structure in our lives, and though we aren’t aware of it and in many cases haven’t even consciously chosen it, we are very attached to that structure. These little, innocuous habits become rituals that define what is treated as holy in our lives. Think about it. What does it really mean to worship if not to repeat over and over, to prioritize above other things, to make the center of our actions. And so we make these habits holy through our devotion to them, and we live out of holy habits, instead of living life from deliberate, holy intentions.
So what do I mean when I say that living a centered life calls us to live more from intention and less from habit? And what does our faith teach us about living an intentional and centered life? Merriam-Webster defines intention as: “a determination to act in a certain way.” Living intentionally means that we choose how we live in this world rather than letting the world choose how we live our lives. And what does that look like for a life centered in faith? Living from intention may mean slowing down when the world says speed up. Living from intention may mean showing mercy and compassion when the world says seek vengeance and judgment. Living intentionally may mean at times withdrawing from the world when the world shouts keep connecting. Living more from intention may mean practicing civil disobedience and going to jail because your neighbor can’t get medical care because your state legislator’s refused to accept Medicaid expansion. Or because your child’s friend who is Hispanic just found out his father is being deported. Or because the state you live in enacted the worst voter registration laws since the voting rights act of 1965. Living with intention is a decision to act a certain way, whatever the risks may be, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians that means acting as our brother Jesus did.
The biblical writer put intentional living this way: “Today, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” Our brother Jesus said it this way: “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” And Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians writes: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, because the days are evil.” Live wisely. Live with intention.
I want to leave you this morning with a practice that has helped me live more from intention and less from habit in this splintered, fractured, cracked, and broken world. One day, several months ago, feeling intensely the stress of life and the world, I realized that I needed something more in my daily life to help keep me centered and grounded. I was feeling that I was not being the person that I wanted to be in the world. I was reacting to life rather than responding. I seemed to always be in a hurry and frustrated that the cars and people in front of me didn’t realize that I was in a hurry. As I listened daily to the news cycles, I could sense a growing unsettledness and anxiety in my soul that I knew I needed to pay attention to. So I came up with an idea. My idea was this: I decided to try (and I stress try) to see each annoyance, each anxiety I encountered through the day as an opportunity for disrupting my own habits.
It works like this – a car pulls out in front of me on Wade Avenue right there where 440 turns into Wade. Cars do this all the time. It’s vehicular suicide, and it makes me want to commit vehicular homicide. And my normal response to that is to shred some arteries as my blood pressure skyrockets. There is often narration that accompanies that response that shall not be named. So how does my intention work here? The first trick is to catch myself. And that’s saying a lot. But when I can catch myself, I am trying to interrupt the habit of venting and fuming and self-righteously judging that driver. I am trying instead to realize that the bad driver, who might have killed us both, has done me a favor. He has awakened me from that habit. He has given me a moment to rewrite what I make holy. In the end, the moment isn’t so much about the other driver, or what I say or think about him, but about me. Can I take that moment to remember myself, to remember who I want to be in the world, to remember how I want to be in the world.
Here’s another example. And I can’t stress how aspirational this is – trust me when I say this is not yet how I live my life! Now I’m sitting in bed reading the headlines. And honestly, it doesn’t matter which day or which headline. The unconscious holy habit is always the same these days. My chest tightens up, my heart begins to race, my skin gets hot and I just want to scream. But if I can catch myself, the reaction turns from, “This world is going to hell in a handbasket!” to “How can I see this moment as a reminder to live from intention?” In those moments, it is often about reframing my response into actions of social justice – how will I use my energy this day to do something intentional to interrupt oppression and greed in the world? How do I respond from my strength instead of my insecurity, from love instead of fear?
So often, we don’t want to have the difficult conversation with the person we are avoiding the most—ourselves. Yet, there is something incredibly important and profound to asking ourselves intentional questions, and then actually taking the time to answer them. And it is not a one-time conversation. To live more from intention requires a daily conversation with ourselves. It requires us to ask often: who do I want to be in this splintered world, how do I want to love this splintered world, and what do I want to do about the brokenness in this splintered world.
As we face the powers and principalities of our time, those forces that are creating high levels of stress and anxiety and leaving us longing for a more centered life—we will need to shift from our holy habits to holy intentions. Our times, these times, call for intentional living: a determination to live a certain way. A way that draws on the wisdom of our faith that honors the collective memory we carry of a time of oneness with our God, and that empowers us to participate in the daily creation of the kingdom here on earth. What will we choose to make holy, Pullen folks? Our comfortable habits, or conscious intentions that reflect our commitment to being the people of God in a world that desperately needs centering?