Tuesday, May 05, 2009

fundamentals (1 John 3)

When I was a kid I ate, drank and slept sports. I did not live the liturgical year of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, and then Lent, Easter and Pentecost. I lived the sports year: baseball season, football season, basketball season. Depression set in when those seasons did not overlap (that is no longer the case; now we play football from August to February, basketball from October to June, baseball from April to October). As a kid , in the fall and winter I played basketball in our driveway until it was too dark at night to see, and in the spring and summer, if there was no one else there to play with, I would throw the baseball into the air, hit it, and then run to wherever it had landed. Then I would do the same thing, again. It was a way to pass the hours; I had a low threshold for excitement!

Malcolm Gladwell has written about what he called “the 10,000 hour rule”. When you do something for 10,000 hours, you are likely to become very good at it, and when you do something for 10,000 hours, you are more likely to be “lucky”. He talks about the Beatles, who played 8-10 hours a night in Germany, every night of the week; about Bobby Fisher, who would become the greatest chess player in the world; and about Bill Gates who would sneak out of his house to work in a computer lab, the only one of its kind in the country, which happened to be within walking distance from his house at a nearby university. The 10,000 hour rule is confirmation of an old adage: “practice makes perfect”.

I am sure, as a kid, that I practiced basketball for more than 10,000 hours. It did not make me a perfect player, but it is still a part of me. And this conversation is not limited to sports. When someone plays a musical instrument at an accomplished level, or paints exquisitely, you can be sure they have spent more time than they can recall playing scales, or drawing baskets of fruit. In every endeavor there are fundamentals: swinging a golf club a certain way, positioning your fingers on a keyboard in a certain way, learning to mix the ingredients for a particular dish in a certain way. We practice the fundamentals over and over again, and they add up to a way of life.

Christianity is not so much a set of beliefs, as it is a set of practices. Lauren Winner grew up in Asheville, then her family moved to Charlottesville. Her parents were in an interfaith marriage, Jewish and Christian, and she adopted the Jewish faith. She attended college in New York, in part to be around a high density of other Jewish young adults. She then went to graduate school at Cambridge, where she underwent a conversion to Christianity. She has reflected on what Judaism has meant and continues to mean to her. She says, “practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity.” But in the past few years she often thinks about all the things she misses: Sabbaths and weddings, burials and prayers…paths to the God of Israel that both Jews and Christians travel….but, to be blunt (she says, these are) spiritual practices that Jews do better.”

Why do they do them better? They have repeated these fundamental acts over and over again, the same practices, for thousands of years. The Passover meal that Jesus shared with the disciples, all of whom were Jewish, would be very similar to the meal a family would have partaken of this spring in Jerusalem. The two scripture passages for this morning take us back to fundamentals. Jesus is the good shepherd, he is our guide along this way. While most of us do not live in pastures, making sure that animals get from one place to another, we get the idea. We are, all of us, on a path from point a to point b. Sometimes the road is straight and the direction is clear. At other times we are lost, and then, miraculously, we find our way. Sometimes “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

Jesus guides us toward life, abundant life. This gift of life has come at some sacrifice: he lays down his life for us. This sacrifice does not imply that he is a victim; “no one takes my life from me, he says; I lay it down of my own accord”. The good shepherd is in contrast to the thief and the wolf. The thief steals and destroys, the wolf scatters and devours. If you have experienced personal theft, you understood the sense of violation and emptiness. The message to the disciples is simple: watch out for the forces that will leave you empty; give your life to a purpose that will lead to abundance.

It is true that we can do some things for 10,000 hours and this will lead us down the wrong path. Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. One of the desert fathers put it this way: “Do not give your heart to that which cannot satisfy your heart.”


And so the right fundamentals are important. In John’s first letter, the fundamentals are clear: God and love. Eugene Peterson has written: “The basic and biblical conviction is that the two subjects, God and love, are intricately related. If we want to deal with God the right way, we have to learn to love the right way. If we want to love the right way, we have to deal with God the right way. God and love can’t be separated. “

“There are always people around who don’t want to be pinned down to the God Jesus reveals, to the love Jesus reveals. They want to make up their own idea of God, make up their own style of love. John was pastor to a church disrupted by some of these people. In his letters we see him establishing the original and organic unity of God and love that comes to focus and becomes available to us in Jesus Christ.”

And so the wisdom of I John is simple and clear: This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another. In this brief verse we are given the essential connection between truth and goodness, what we know and what we do, our speech and our actions. Believe and love, love and believe. Practice what you preach. I have enjoyed getting to know the young people in our confirmation class this year. Some are artists, some are musicians, some are athletes, they have a variety of interests and pursuits. They are becoming teenagers and that is a time in life to test out what we want to do, what we are good at, what fits naturally with our skills, Christians would say what matches our gifts. And along this path, in the years to come, you will make decisions about where you will spend your time, and what will be most important to you.

I was visiting Brenda in her home. This was maybe 15 years ago. We were good friends, we had worked together on a few spiritual retreats, Pam and I were close to Brenda an her husband Al. Brenda was also a very good tennis player, and we occasionally played tennis. She usually prevailed, so I don’t think we played too often. At the same time she had ongoing back problems, and finally she had a very intricate lower back fusion surgical procedure, very complicated.

Her rehabilitation would be about six months: two months laying flat in a bed and then sitting, two months of gradual walking and movement, two months of more demanding walking and exercise. Six months. Brenda was demoralized. I was listening; it was all sinking in. Then Brenda’s facial appearance changed. She remembered something her daughter had said earlier that day, I think to cheer her up. Her daughter Ashley had said, “you know mom, about the six months, look on the bright side, this will give you time to get really good at Nintendo…most adults are not willing to put in the time it takes to become really good at Nintendo”.

That conversation became a parable for me, and takes me back to a question: what do we give our time to? What actions do we repeat over and over again? What are our practices? For a basketball player, the fundamentals are rebounding and shooting free throws. For a vocalist, the fundamentals are pitch and tone.

For a Christian, the fundamentals are believing in God, the God who is revealed to us by Jesus Christ and loving one another. Once we get them straight, we practice these fundamentals throughout our lives. To believe God is to want to know more about him, it is to study the scriptures, it is to pray. To believe is to trust in a power that you cannot see. To believe God is want to worship God and sing to God. It is reflect, and to integrate who God is with your own life experience. And so our faith does not remain static, because our lives change.

To love one another is to look beyond ourselves, it is to honor our fathers and mothers, it is to make sacrifices for our children, it is to forgive those who have harmed us and to ask forgiveness from those we have harmed. To love one another is to think about the resources God has placed in our hands and to know these are not only for us, but they are given to us to share: our money, our food, our talents, our lives. To love one another is to make intercession for them, to enter into their darkness, their struggles. To love one another, and here Jesus voices the ultimate implications of radical hospitality, is to love our enemies---those who do not love us. To love one another is to imitate the good shepherd.

The good news is that we have the rest of our lives, as my friend’s daughter said, “to become really good at this”. And when we are good at this, by God’s grace, the world begins to experience abundant life: a person is loved, a child is fed, a stranger is welcomed, an opportunity is made possible, a dream comes true, a sin is forgiven, a burden is lifted. Maybe we have 10,000 hours to do all of this.


This morning, we have maybe an hour of worship. The longer I live the more I appreciate the particular days of the year that we worship together. This year I have connected Confirmation Sunday with All Saints Sunday, a day in November when we remember those who have died in the past year. On Confirmation Sunday we are really just getting started. On All Saints, it is about being finished, at least from an earthly perspective. The athlete stretches, conditions, practices, runs the race and crosses the finish line. On All Saints, at least from an earthly perspective, the race is finished. Over the past few weeks a number of folks in our church, and friends in other places have been running races for Multiple Sclerosis, for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, for Brain Tumor Research, for a cure for Breast Cancer. Folks of all ages are preparing, then running the race, and then crossing the finish line.

On Confirmation Sunday, we are just getting started, and so it helps to be clear about the fundamentals: believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and loving one another. On All Saints we see the end result, how a man or woman took the baton, maybe from a parent or a mentor and carried it to the end, and then laid it down. And then someone else picks it up. Maybe a young person picks up the baton, and carries it for a time. To pick up the baton is to take up this practice, to keep it going, to pass it to the next generation. In the scripture we move from the statement of Jesus to the questions of the disciples and we have our own questions: what do I do with my life? How can I make the most of my life?

The answers to these questions, in their broadest, most fundamental sense, are there in the scripture: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, love one another. How you work that out is the adventure of your own life. May God give you all the time you need to “become really good at it.” May God give you an abundant life. Amen.

Sources: Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers. Eugene Peterson, The Message. Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath.

1 Comments:

Blogger Anders said...

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Anders Branderud

8:03 AM  

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