Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.

This is the last sermon in a series of 6 sermons about habits and the power of habits. Let’s quickly do a little review. We have seen that:

  • Habits are automatic or semi-automatic behaviors that make up 40% of all that we do. The fact that we live by habit is good. If we had to think about all we do our heads would be as big as melons.
  • Habits are made up of three parts: 1) A Cue—the thing that makes us want to preform a particular behavior; 2) the behavior itself; and 3) the reward we get from performing that particular behavior.
  • Habits can be good or bad. For that reason we ought to think very carefully before starting some behavior that will result in a habit, especially if the habit itself involves some addictive substance. There is a saying on the streets: “First a man takes a hit; then the hit takes a hit; then the hit takes a man.”
  • Once a habit is formed we can never completely eradicate or expunge a habit. There is a reason for this. Neuroscientists say that when we repeat an action, the neurons in the brain involved in that action become wrapped in a substance called “myelin.” This is slippery stuff. Neurons wrapped in myelin become the superhighways of the brain, and brain waves travel 400 times faster over these superhighways than over unwrapped neurons. That means that it is 400 times faster to decide to do something by habit than it is to do the opposite! That is why we have to plan so far in advance to change a habit.
  • Though we cannot eradicate a habit, we can change a habit by keeping the cue and the reward while changing the behavior itself. Those who are most likely to change a habit are those who believe that change is possible, and a great many of those who believe that change is possible believe that change is possible because God makes it so. One of my favorite New Testament phrases is just two words long, “But God…” In Philippians 2:25-27 Paul tells us that Epaphroditus was ill and near to death “…but God had mercy on him.” You may think you are bound to a habit, “but God” can help you change it.
  • We also talked about keystone habits. We saw that the keystone habit of Jesus was serving the Kingdom of God by seeking to discover and do the will of God.

Christians should adopt the same keystone habit that Jesus had. If we fail to seek and do God’s will for our lives all our other pious habits become dead-ends. Take the matter of Bible study: It is possible study the Word (or preach it) without obeying the Word. In James 1:22 we read that we are to be doers of the word and not just hearers of the Word. Likewise, it is possible to pray for the wrong things. In James 4:3 we read that we ask for what we do not receive, because “we ask amiss”, for the wrong reasons and contrary to the will of God. Finally, as important as worship is, it is possible to worship God without pleasing God. In Isaiah 1:13 we read, “God cannot endure iniquity (sin) and solemn assembly.” We can’t cover up sin with a good worship habit.

We must all come to grips with the will of God. In 1st John 2:17 we read:

And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

I myself was converted when I traveled to a new city thinking about all the things I could do in that city to advance my own career. I was brought up short by a verse of scripture from the book of the New Testament that Luther called “an Epistle of Straw.” It hit me like a hammer of iron. In James 4:13-15, I read:

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14 whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.”

For the first time, I considered that my will should take second place to God’s will. It stuck me to the core.

Individual Christians ought to serve the kingdom by seeking to discover and do the will of God. In the same way, Churches certainly ought to seek and do the will of God. At New Philadelphia, we have made an effort. I know that our life before God took a wonderful change when we adopted our Mission Statement. It declares:

New Philadelphia Seeks to be a caring congregation, worshiping God, and encouraging one another to seek a closer relationship with Jesus Christ, as we follow the lead of the Holy Spirit in service and in mission.

Churches ought to seek and do the will of God, yet it is not so easy for a church or a group of people to seek and do the will of God as it is for an individual. Remember, in every situation, when a decision has to be made, there are three possible options: 1) My Way, 2) Your Way (2nd person singular or plural) and 3) God’s Way. Sometimes my way is God’s Way. And sometimes you way is God’s Way. And sometimes when we listen to one another, we find there is a third way that is God’s Way. Of course, sometimes we reach an impasse, and we are both right, for God sometimes works dialectically. First God lays down a thesis, My Way. Then God adds an antithesis, Your Way. Finally God reaches synthesis which was God’s goal all along.

The easy example is found in Acts 15. It concerns Paul and Barnabas. John Mark had been with them on their 1st Missionary Journey but he had bailed out and gone home early. At the start of the 2nd Missionary Journey Barnabas wanted to take John Mark, and Paul did not. He said, “If you take John Mark, you will not be traveling with me.” And Barnabas said, “He is going!” The issue of John Mark drove Paul and Barnabas apart, so that now we sing about that ole’ time religion saying, “It was good for Paul and Silas…” Who was right about John Mark? Was it Paul, or was it Barnabas? Perhaps both were right. Perhaps John Mark needed the stern rebuke of Paul and the second chance offered by Barnabas, aka “the Son of Consolation.” And perhaps God needed John Mark. Tradition says that he was with Peter in Rome, and was the author of the Gospel According to Mark.

I do not think Mark is a particularly rare example. Theology and history abounds with examples. Read the 2nd Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln:

Both (North and South) read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Because God sometimes works through dialectic the church must add another habit to the keystone habit of seeking to discover and do the will of God. The church must add the habit of togetherness, despite our differences.

There is a sense in which we are all together.

We are all together in sin. In Romans 3:10-12 St. Paul says, “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands, no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.”

And we are all together in grace. In Colossians 2:13 the apostle writes, “and you, who were dead in trespasses—God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” We Moravian sing about that saying:

What brought us together, what joined our hearts,
The pardon that Christ our High Priest imparts;
Tis this which cements the disciples of Christ,
Who are into one by the Spirit baptized.

Of course as soon as people start to disagree, especially on matters of scripture and interpretation, or over what is right and what is wrong, the idea of togetherness often goes right out the window.

This is the reason that there are 55,000 denominations and hundreds of thousands of independent churches, and this is the reason why many of those churches are quick to tell anyone who will listen—especially their own members, that they alone have the way of truth. The Moravian Church has never done this. We have always believed that no denomination, our own included has all the truth. We have often declared that God permits many denominations for the same reason that God inspired four gospels, each appeals to a different kind of person. We have always sought to maintain togetherness among our members, and among the denominations, even when there is great disagreement. It is one of the two reasons that “The Ground of the Unity” gives for our being called together as a denomination. 1) The first is to bear witness to the Cross of Christ as the center of all Holy Scripture and the preaching of the gospel. 2) The 2nd is to bear witness to the essential unity of the church in Jesus Christ.

Some people will not like this idea of togetherness. They will say, “There are weeds in the garden of the church, and we ought to pull them out that the church can be pure.” They ignore the fact that Jesus himself told a parable about a man who sowed good seed in his field, and his servants discovered it full of weeds. When his servants told him about it, he said, “An enemy has done this!” His servants offered to pull up all the weeds. But the man ordered his servants not to pull up the weeds, lest in pulling up they weeds, they may also destroy some of the wheat. He told them to let the weeds and wheat grow up together until the harvest, at which time he would tell his reapers to gather the weeds first, and bind them to be burned, and then to gather his wheat into his barn. Nobody wants to be a weed. Nobody wants to be burned. There are serious matters at hand. At the same time, the clear intent of the parable is clear: Sometimes premature judgment does more harm than good. This truth is echoed by St. Paul in Romans 14:4, “Who are (we) to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.”

Let me confess a little of my personal struggle.

Not long ago I spoke with a dear friend. I told him that I have always tried to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is the supreme revelation of God, who died for our sins and rose again to give us a future and a hope. I told him I had nevertheless failed to to take a strong stand on issues that many regard as critical. I said, “My biggest problem is that I am not judgmental enough.” He responded, “Worth, I have always regarded your willingness to suspend judgment on others as your biggest asset, and that of your church and denomination.” When he said that, I remembered how the late Tom Cartee would often say to me, “Worth, whether in business, or in the church, or in any other facet of life, our biggest asset is often our biggest liability.”

I recently spoke to a Moravian bishop. I told him that there was a time when I would have considered leaving the Moravian Church, but had long since reached the point that I would have a hard time being anything other than a Moravian. I then told him that I have long since given up the right to a prophetic ministry, saying things like, “God is doing a new thing, and we must get on board now. We must be early truth tellers.” I told my bishop that though I often held strong opinions on this or that, I had forsaken a prophetic ministry for the sake of preserving unity and peace between those who disagree with me. I was relieved when he said, “Worth, in today’s world, one who seeks the way of reconciliation, peace, convictions, may be exercising a prophetic ministry.” If that is true of an individual, how much more is it true of a church or denomination?

If someone who calls upon the name of the LORD disagrees with me, especially on matters of Scripture and the interpretation of scripture, and I can see how they can disagree with me, on good faith, on their terms, not mine, then though I am responsible for my own actions, I am not responsible for theirs. I can continue to accept them in the name of the LORD on whom they call.

I have been in the ministry for 35 years. Now, in the final decade of my ministry, I am quite sure that one of the great habits of any church is togetherness. The New Testament is filled with talk of togetherness.

  • In 1st Corinthians 1:2 St. Paul says that we are called to be saints ”together” with all those who in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 1st Corinthians 12:26 St. Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
  • In Ephesians 2:19-21 we read how God build the church on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a temple of the Lord, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
  • In Col. 3:14 we are told:

    Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, 13 forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

    The apostle concludes: “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

There are many other texts I could mention, but it is time to close this sermon. I will close it with a question?

What do you think God’s keystone habit is? Perhaps it is the kingdom of God, for what God decrees God gets, but that is a given. There is one sense in which God’s keystone habit is togetherness. In Ephesians 1 we read that God’s purpose for the fullness of time is “to gather together in one all things Christ.”

So, if we are to be the children of God, we are to be a part of the gathering together. This means it is not enough to accept the grace, we must share the grace. It is not enough to hold the hope, we must share the hope. You do that when you go on mission trips in Mississippi, and Honduras, and Nicaragua, and Alaska. You do it when you attend choir practice, or play in the band, or make chicken pies. You do it when you come to worship, and bear witness to your faith to a neighbor. You do it when you invite a neighbor to church with you. God’s eternal purpose is to gather together all things in Christ, and God invites us to share in that purpose and work.


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Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

This morning we are talking about the habits of Jesus. When I first planned this sermon I intended to talk about all those things that Jesus did that we can emulate pretty easily—things like being regular in worship (Luke 4:16) and constant in prayer (Luke 22:39-45). I was going to talk about the Master’s Bible study habit, and point out how Jesus spent so much time studying the Law and the Prophets that by the time he was 12 years old he astounded the religious professionals in the temple with his knowledge of the Jewish Scripture. (Luke 2:42) Well, all these things are true; but none of these habits get at the keystone habit of Jesus.

You remember what a keystone is. A keystone is the wedge-shaped stone in an arch that holds all the other stones in place. A keystone habit is the one great habit in the life of a person or an organization that makes all the other habits effective.

In the days of his flesh, the keystone habit of Jesus was one thing and one thing only- seeking and doing the will of God. In John 4:34, Jesus spoke to his disciples saying, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

Now one might suspect that if seeking and doing the will of God was the keystone habit in the life of Jesus, the New Testament itself will be filled up with the phrase, “the Will of God.” I checked this out. I was surprised to see that Jesus does not talk about seeking and doing “the will of God” as often one might think. In fact, Jesus uses the phrase “will of God” just once (Mark 3:35). In addition, in prayer, Jesus twice speaks the words “thy will,” meaning “the will of God” (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 26:42). So, too, he uses the phrase, “the will of my father” four times, and the phrase, “the will of him who sent me,” as in John 4:34,  four times more. So, by my count, in the gospels, Jesus refers to the will of God eleven times.

That is better, but if the keystone habit of Jesus is seeking and doing the will of God that is still not all that often. I figured there had to be more. I reasoned that there had to be a thought and expression just different enough from the phrase “the will of God” that my Bible search software was not smart enough to find. It turns out there is! As students of scripture, many of you will remember that in the teaching of Jesus the will of God is intimately connected to the kingdom of God. We know this from the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. He taught them to pray saying:

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven;
Hallowed be Thy Name;
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth as it Is in Heaven.

The phrase, “Thy Will Be Done on Earth as it Is in Heaven,” illustrates and explains the phrase, “thy kingdom come.” The coming of the kingdom and the doing of God’s will are one and the same.

Jesus uses the phrase “kingdom of God” more than forty times. He uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” almost thirty times more. You should know that these two phrases are interchangeable. Matthew, arguably the most Jewish of the gospels, uses the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” as a circumlocution to avoid saying the Divine name, as was the habit of the Jews. Yet, in Matthew, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” means exactly the same thing as the phrase “the kingdom of God” means in the other gospels. “The kingdom of heaven” is not reserved for some future time in the sweet-bye-and-bye. It reveals itself today, right now, each and every time we sacrifice our own will to the will of God.

Let me illustrate the importance of the kingdom of God in the life and ministry of Jesus. I will use just two examples, though examples abound.

According to St. Mark chapter 1:14-15 the first sermon that Jesus ever preached was about the kingdom of God. Following his baptism by John, and his time in the wilderness where he was lead by the Holy Spirit and then tempted by Satan, Jesus came back into Galilee, “preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in this good news.’” (Mark 1:1-15)

Or, what about this, according to Matthew the most comprehensive and important sermon Jesus preached was the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples this world was flawed and far from perfect, but that a new world is coming. Jesus taught his disciples to live by faith, to trust God to supply their needs. The keystone phrase in the whole sermon is found in Matthew 6:33 where Jesus says, “Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness, and everything else (that you need) will be added to you.”

Now, according the Charles Duhigg, the keystone habit is supported by what researchers call “small wins.” Small wins are exactly what they sound like. They serve to spread the keystone habit throughout the life of a person or organization. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are put into place that favor other small wins. As small wins increase, people and organizations gain increased confidence in their keystone habit.

A good example is Michael Phelps the Olympic Swimmer who has won more Olympic Gold Medals than any athlete in the history of the games. (Phelps has 19 gold 22 total.) There are many reasons for Michael Phelps’ success as a swimmer. He has big hands, a long, powerful torso, short legs and feet that rotate beyond ninety degrees. Michael Phelps can bend his feet more than most ballerinas. Phelps is also a little bit obsessive compulsive. This is true of most highly successful athletes. He trains hard, harder than anyone else. His one problem was getting nervous. His coach helped him beat that by setting up a series of small wins before every race. He rises on time. He eats his breakfast of eggs, and oatmeal, and 4 high calories shakes on time, and never varies the menu. He starts his warm-ups on time, employing various strokes, and swimming more than a mile. Think about that—before Phelps races for the first time, he has already swum for more than 45 minutes. Then he puts on his racing suit, which is so tight that it takes 20 minutes to do that. Then he puts on his headphones and listens to the same mix of rap-music that he has been training to. As a part of Phelps training routine he puts on imaginary videotape that his coach suggested that helps him visualize every element of every race. Every time Michael Phelps engages in one of these training exercises he experiences a small win that prepares him for a big race, and a big win.

In 2008 in Beijing this paid off big time. When Phelps dove into the water for one race, his goggles were ajar and leaking water. There was nothing he could do. A swimmer can’t afford an extra shoulder shrug, much less the time to adjust goggles. The problem got increasingly worse, and by the time Phelps reached the final turn, he was almost blind. He could not see the black line that marked the bottom of the pool, nor the black tee that signaled the approach at the end of the pool. Phelps did not panic. He had long ago visualized this scenario, and once, in Michigan, his coach had had Phelps swim in a pitch-dark pool, just to prepare him for the race he was now running. As Phelps made the final turn, and entered his sprint, and neared the finish, the crowd was cheering wildly. But Phelps did not know why they were cheering. Was he in the lead? Or had he been overtaken? He had started counting his strokes knowing he had 19, 20, or perhaps 21 strokes to finish. He counted them off 19, 20, and then a big 21. As he reached the end of his 21st stroke his hand touched the edge of the pool. He ripped off his goggles and looked at the scoreboard, beside his name he saw the letters “WR.” It was a World Record—and a Gold Medal. Michael Phelps’ small wins had prepared him for the big race and the big win.

Let me give one more example: weight-loss. People used to think that the only way to loose weight and to keep it off was to change one’s lifestyle completely. Follow a strict diet. Join the gym. Work out every day. The problem with this approach is follow-through. Lots of people start strong, but they can’t keep it up. Then researchers decided to try the small win approach. They asked 1600 people with a desire to loose weight to record what they ate, every day if possible; just one day a week if that is all they could manage. An amazing thing happened, as people wrote down what they ate, and experienced small wins, and they soon altered other aspects of their life. They ate better quality meals. They drank more water. They watched less TV. They took the stairs instead of the elevator. They committed to an exercise routine. They changed their lifestyle, not all at once, but over time, through a series of small wins. In a number of studies, lasting over six months, “dieters” who simply wrote down what ate, every day, shed fifty-percent more weight than people who did not.
So, what were the small wins that reinforced Jesus’ keystone habit of serving the kingdom of God?

They were everywhere. In Matthew 12, people accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus responds:

27 If I cast out demons by Be-elzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Every time Jesus healed someone who was sick, or cast out an evil spirit, it was a small win — the kingdom had come, and the small wins were preparing him for a bigger test and a bigger win.

Let’s talk politics for a moment. During the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Romans were in control of Jerusalem and all the territory of the Jews. Caesar ruled the known world, and it was common for both the Romans and the people they conquered (with the exception of the Jews) to reckon Caesar a God, in effect confessing, “Caesar is Lord.”

Jesus did not accept that. He knew that Caesar was like any other man, and that the kingdom of Rome was like any other kingdom. Someday it would be shaken. Someday it would fall. Only the Kingdom of God cannot be shaken and will abide forever.

The prophet Zechariah has prophesied saying:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. (Zech. 9:9)

Jesus definitive challenge of Caesar came when he mounted the colt, the foal of an ass in direct fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, and rode it into Jerusalem, and those who went before and those who followed cried out:
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:1-10)

Today, a great many scholars believe that as Jesus was entering Jerusalem through one gate of the city, on the other side of the city there was a Roman procession, including long lines of legionaries, bright from head to toe with weapons and armor. Jesus was staking his claim to the kingdom and on the way to the kingdom. The Roman kingdom was established by the sword. When questioned by the high priest Jesus said:

“My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”

Jesus knew long before the hymnist wrote:

For not with swords loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.

Of course you know the rest of that story. By Friday the crowds were no longer shouting, “Hosanna!”, they were shouting, “Crucify him!” At last, rejected by his own people, and abandoned by his disciples, Jesus was put to death on a Roman Cross. In a manner of speaking, he was blinded by the darkness. The crowds who were there around the cross mocked him, saying, “If you are the king of the Jews save yourself.” (Luke 23:37) Even the governor mocked him, causing a sign to be placed over his cross in three languages, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (John 19:19-20) His only throne was a cross. Jesus even felt the absence of God, and cried out saying, “Elo-i, Elo-i, lama sabach-thani?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Even his closest disciples lost hope. His enemies thought his small wins nothing, for they believed they had won the big event. They thought they were done with him. Then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from death; and, as the apostle says, God gave him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus, not Caesar, but Jesus, is Lord! (Philippians 2:5-11)
Let me leave you with this thought: Each of the small wins experienced by Jesus were big wins in the lives of those he touched. He asked us to continue his mission. If we do, we must adopt his keystone habit. It is not prayer, nor Bible Study, nor attendance at worship, though all these things are important, they serve the keystone habit, which is seeking and doing the will of God. When we do God’s will, the kingdom comes, one small victory at a time, and it is an unshakable kingdom ruled by the unchanging Person, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And he guarantees that the day of the Big Win is coming.


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Worth Green,Th.M. D.Min.

Habits are automatic, or semi-automatic behaviors that make up 40% of all that we do. We do hundreds of things by habit everyday. Some habits are more important than others. They are the foundation upon which other habits are built. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and in Life, Charles Duhigg calls these foundational habits keystone habits.

You know what a keystone is. A keystone is the wedge shaped stone in the middle of an arch that keeps all the other stones in place. A keystone habit is the habit that keeps all other habits in place and makes them more effective.

Keystone habits affect individuals and organizations. For instance, most Christians will tell anyone who asks that prayer is a keystone habit. This is true whether we spend large blocks of time in prayer, like members of a monastic community, or whether we pray in groups, or with a partner, or whether we “Pray without ceasing,” (1st Thessalonians 5:17 KJV) and send up dozens of short prayers in the course of a day.

For more than four decades one of my keystone habits was running. I ran to deal with stress, and to stay reasonably fit, and I think running helped me survive and thrive after a typical Green family heart attack. I had that heart attack more than five years ago. I knew when I had the heart attack, though I did not know it was a heart attack. It did affect me physically; the next day I could run only half my normal distance. Because I did not know that it was a heart attack I did not report it to my doctor until it showed up on my EKG during a physical several years later. My GP scolded me soundly, told me to leave off running for the day, and sent me to a cardiologist the very next morning. After putting me through the mill, the cardiologist said my heart showed no damage, and was the heart of a much younger man. She asked what I did for heart health. I told her that I ran. She said, “By all means, keep it up!” I ran for my health, but running was more than that. Running was my time in nature’s cathedral. It was a time of prayer, and reflection, and it was the time I planned my day. This is one of the reasons I seldom ran with an iPod, and it is the reason that I was a morning runner. If did not get in my run before coming into the church office, I rarely got in my run, because my planning (and some of my praying) had already been done and exercise alone was not always a big enough motivation. Not only so, but if I waited until the afternoon, I had often used up my fund of will power. We will speak more about that “fund of willpower” in just a few minutes.

Organizations have keystone habits, too; and wise leaders are able to zero in on the right habits upon which to build an organization. Duhigg talks about Paul O’Neil. When O’Neil took over Alcoa Aluminum it was down, and almost out. At the first shareholders meeting, he shocked everyone. He did not give the standard new CEO speech. He did not talk about improved technologies, or streamlining production. He did not talk about adding profits and building up the bottom line. He talked about employee safety. O’Neil said that Alcoa workers worked with metals that are 1500 degrees and machines that can rip a man’s arm off. He said that his number one goal was to go for zero employee injuries. O’Neil then stopped his presentation and pointed out the safety exits in the room. Eventually someone raised a hand and asked about inventories in one of the divisions, and some one else asked about the company’s capital ratios. O’Neil persisted:

“If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing you need to look in the workplace. If we bring injury rates down, it won’t be because of some kind of cheerleading, ….it will be because the individuals in the company have agreed to become a part of something important. They devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be the indicator that we are changing our habits across the entire institution. That is how we should be judged.”

One investment councilor recalls how, after that meeting, he rushed out and called every one of his investors, telling them to sell Alcoa before everyone else did. He later said that it was the single worst call in his entire financial career. By the time Paul O’Neil left Alcoa in 2000, profits had increased 5 times over, that is 500%! Employees responded to the call for additional safety. They recognized the company cared about them, and they, in turn, cared about the company! Accidents declined, profits soared, and the corporate climate was one of the best in the world. Not only so, but it was safer to work at Alcoa pouring hot metal than it was to work in many software companies designing computer progams!

We have already seek that Moses knew the importance of habits, and that he knew more than a little about habit formation. Moses never used the word, “keystone, ” but I think Moses understood the importance of keystone habits. According to the Talmud Moses laid down 613 laws (mizvot) from the LORD in the Torah that formed Israel into a people, and shaped their life as a community. Then, at God’s prompting, Moses put ten of those laws at the absolute forefront of the people’s thinking, making those ten laws what we might call keystone habits. You know them as the Ten Commandments: 1) You shall have no other gods before me. 2) You shall not make for yourself a graven image. 3) You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. 4) Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 5) Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you. 6) You shall not kill. 7) You shall not commit adultery. 8) You shall not steal. 9) You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 10) You shall not covet. The life of Israel, and many other nations besides are built around these commandments.

The Ten Commandments were never intended to be burdens. Rather, they were intended to protect people from one another, and from themselves. Yet, the Ten Commandments are more than protection: They are keystone habits. Remember, in an arch, the keystone is the stone that supports all the others. Without the keystone, the whole arch will come tumbling down. So it is with the Ten Commandments and the Law!

Many other nations have adopted a code similar to that adopted by the Jews. These laws are written into the fabric of the universe and without the civilization would crumble. Some see this more than others. They represent the keystone habit of many.

Perhaps you recall an incident some years ago in which the Congress of the United States decided to allow the various branches of the military services to drop criminal proceedings against officers and enlisted personnel that committed adultery. The Marines immediately responded, “We will not do that, for our motto, ‘Semper Fidelis,’ or ‘Always Faithful,’ applies in every area of life. “ The Marines said that faithfulness in the bedroom shored up faithfulness on the battlefield. The keystone habit of the Marines is faithfulness, period. That is pretty obvious to all who come into contact with them.

Let me give you another example of a keystone habit. This one works in business. I have a friend who I regard as one of the best salesmen in the world. I asked him his secret.

“It is simple. I tell myself that everyone who walks through the front door of my store has enough money to buy me out from wall to wall. I say this to myself regardless of how a customer dresses, or talks.”

He has the right attitude. It is a moneymaker. Those that lack his secret of sales success not only miss many a sale, but they don’t even know they are missing those sales. I have a friend whom many of you know. He used to be the head usher at Fries Memorial. He stands six feet six inches tall, and though he was a business executive, on his days off, he ordinarily dressed in bib overalls. One day back in the late 1970’s he went to his bank and drew out $10,000 dollars in cash. He put the money into the pockets of his bib overalls and drove his aging Chevy step-side truck to a now defunct Datsun dealership to buy a 280Z. My friend told me that he stood in the center of the showroom for a half-hour, completely ignored by sales people that he watched rush to assist better-dressed patrons. He then got into his old truck and drove to Mt. Airy where he paid cash for his new 280Z.

Now some keystone habits are more important than others. Charles Duhigg says that dozens of studies show that will power (or self-control) is the single most important factor in successful living. This is good because will power is like a muscle that can be developed. The more you use your will power, the more will power you will have.

This is at the core of habit formation and habit change. As a result of this series of sermons I have made a major change in my lifestyle. I have any stopped drinking on a regular basis any drink that contains caffeine. When I started this series I was living on large doses of caffeine, and sleeping four hours a night if I was lucky. At least part of my problem was what some call “adjustment insomnia.” This means that one is under some stress, and one’s brain is running so fast, that one cannot stop it at night. But the other part, the major part of my problem was the “substance insomnia” caused by all the coffee that I was drinking.

So, two weeks ago today, I quit caffeine cold turkey. For the first five days I had mild headaches, but each day without caffeine made the next easier. I was building my will power. After a week, decaf coffee tasted almost as good as caffeinated coffee, and I felt confident enough to use caffeine when I really needed it. For instance, last Sunday I drove to Boone to celebrate my birthday with Edyth and her family. When I arrived, I drank a cafe au lait to wake me up enough to enjoy the family. Then, the next morning, when I started back from Boone at 4:00 a.m., I stopped and drank a small cup of black coffee to ensure I did not fall asleep at the wheel of my car. The next day, I was right back on the decaf. It is not bad. It is better than no coffee at all, and when I really, really, really, need a cup of coffee, it has its old kick. When you are living on coffee, that kick is greatly reduced. The more you exercise the will power the more will power you will have. People argue whether habit change takes three weeks, or 90 days, or longer. I suspect it depends upon how deeply one is invested in the habit, whether substitutes are available, and how severe the withdrawal symptoms are.

Of course, because will power is like a muscle it often shows fatigue. We have a limited amount of will power.

Charles Duhigg calls attention to several studies that support this. I will mention one put on Case Western University. Two groups were involved. The first group of subjects were seated in a room with a plate of radishes and a plate of cookies, and told they could eat all the cookies they wanted. They remained there for unaccompanied for five minutes, and then the researcher returned and told they had one more task to perform. The second group of subjects were seated in the same room with a plate of radishes, and a plate of cookies, and told they could eat all the radishes they wanted. They were asked not to touch the cookies. Some went for the cookies as soon as the researcher left the room. They were written out of the test. This group was also left alone for five minutes. Then both groups in turn were asked to work a geometric puzzle that could not be solved. The group of people that had been permitted to eat all the cookies they wanted, and had not been using their will power, were able to worked an average of 19 minutes, and they were in good humor all the while. The second group of people who had been allowed to eat only the radishes, and had been working their will power muscle, worked an average of 8 minutes, and they gripped and complained as they did so. The first group was 60% more effective than the first. This test has been repeated more than 200 times with similar results.

Let me say it again. Will power is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. However, our will power is not unlimited. This, I believe, is the reason that some people we regard as very disciplined often fall away in dramatic fashion. This is the reason that a highly skilled surgeon, at the end of a too long day, or week, makes a mistake in the operating room that cost a patient dearly. This is the reason that a highly disciplined accountant misreads a spreadsheet and cost his company millions of dollars. This is the reason so many highly disciplined, super successful people walk away from their lives at mid-life, making shipwreck of their families, their businesses, and ultimately their own lives, simply to have an affair with another.

Is there a way to avoid this fatigue of the will power? Yes, and it is built right into the ten keystone habits that Moses set down before the people of Israel. It is the hinge between the habits that taught Israel faithfulness to God, and faithfulness to one another. It is the fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.”

Moses goes on to say:

9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; 11 for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

Some will point out that the man’s wife is not enjoined to refrain from work, but that is because she was seated in the assembly where the Torah was read, albeit in a different location than her husband. The others named were not always present.

I believe that the Sabbath is intended for two things.

First, it provides us with a time of rest. To grow a muscle you have to exercise it and rest it. Perhaps you have heard the story of the Apostle John. One day a noted philosopher and hunter came upon the apostle as he was stroking a tame partridge. The philosopher said he would never have expected to find one so eminent in the faith as John spending his time in so idle a fashion. John responded, “What is that you have in your hand?”

“A bow,” said the Philosopher.

“Do you always carry it everywhere bent, taunt, and at full stretch?”

“No, indeed,” said the philosopher. “It would soon loose its elasticity; and the arrows would fly neither straight nor fast.”

“As the bow that is always bent soon ceases to shoot strait and looses its force, so the man that is always at full stretch soon cease to be efficient.”

Take a Sabbath each week. It should last twenty-four hours. If you do not, you will soon cease to be as efficient.

Second, a Sabbath provides us with an opportunity to find strength in community. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” (Heb. 10:25) Faith grows in an environment of faith. The story is often told of Charles Haddon Spurgeon going to visit a man who had long been absent from church. They sat before a fire as the man explained that his soul was saved, and safe, and he had no need of church. Spurgeon said nothing. Instead he reached down and took a red-hot coal from the fire, placing it on the edge of the hearth. Soon it faded to dark gray. The man said, “I understand, I will be back in church on Sunday.”

I shall never forget John Rainey telling a story to our preschoolers. He passed out single straws that he had taken from a broom and asked them to break the straws. They all did, easily. Then John took out a fist full of straws that he had tied with a string. “Break these,” he said. They all tried, but not one of them could break the straws. “This,” said John, “is the reason that we need Christian fellowship, the church. Alone, we are weak, easy to break. Together we are strong.”

When you are forming a new habit, and trying to develop you rwill power, the best thing you can do is broadcast it. “I am giving up caffeine.” “I am going on a diet.” “I am not going to the mall for a month.” Or, better yet, join a support group like AA or Weight Watchers, or get a partner. I told you I had a forty-year running habit. I had a partner or partners about ten years out of the forty, but I always had a partner when I needed them most, when change was afoot, and left alone, my will power was weak. My partners helped me to develop my will power muscle, and now, though I can no longer run, I still exercise at least 5 days of every week. My will power muscle still works.

Let me close with a question: What are the keystone habits in your own life?


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Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.

Habits are actions that are virtually automatic. This morning we are talking about the habits God gave.

Some habits we are born with. Habits like breathing, and eating, and sleeping immediately come to mind. These habits are hard wired into us for they address the lowest level of human needs, the needs of the body. If you were the only human being on the planet you would still need these habits.

Some habits we develop as a part living with others, in families and communities. Habits like loving and caring, and teaching and learning, and our attraction to beauty. These habits are hard wired into us by the higher needs that grow out of being a part of the human race. Let me lift up one example. Normal human beings have a habit of caring, and God intends this habit be passed from parents to children, and from generation to generation. The habit of caring is the joy of families, and the hope of nations. We ought never to take it for granted.

I am not trying to be all-inclusive, but there is one other habit that God gives each of us, and all of us, that I must mention. In Acts 17, we read how St. Paul, speaking to the citizens of Athens, once declared that God created us to seek Him. The apostle said:

“God made from one blood every nation of men that we might seek after him, and, perhaps find him.”

Human beings in every age have the habit of seeking God. This is true of the very young and the very old. It is true of 1st graders and college professors. I once asked a college professor, a physicists, why he believes in God. He said, “I believe in part because of the wisdom of crowds.” He went on to explain that the wisdom of crowd declares that a large group of people who are willing to wager on the outcome of a thing are often more accurate at predicting that outcome than a panel of experts. More than 90 percent of the people on our planet believe in God. A surprising number of people are willing to pay the price of faith, though it will cost some their lives, or their families. Others pay the price of following God though it cost them a large slice of their time, talent, and treasure.

God made us to seek him, but God did not leave it at that. Christians, like Jews before us, agree that God also seeks us. God’s seeking for us reaches its apex in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who stretches out his arms upon the cross to embrace us all, in order that he might lift us up to God and new life by the power of his Resurrection. But I am going too fast. Consider the early part of God’s history of seeking humankind. First God sought out and called Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Then God used one of Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph, to save his whole family from famine. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, and they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, and made Joseph an important man in Egypt, so that Joseph could make a place for his family. Joseph offered his family sanctuary. At first the Egyptians welcomed the children of Israel, Joseph and his brothers, but eventually, their families increased in number until the Egyptians were threatened by them, and enslaved them. Israel was sorely oppressed, but God saw their suffering, and God called to Moses to lead them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. It was on this journey from slavery to freedom that God used Moses to hand down the Law. The Law protected the children of Israel from false gods, and from one another, and from themselves. Moses gave the people the Law, that portion of it we know as the Ten Commandments, and then he commanded the people to make a habit of that Law. He said:

18 “You shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul (Adopt them! Memorize them! Love them like children!); and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.”

Wow! Moses knows a lot about habit development. Habits are formed in three steps: 1) the cue; 2) then the routine, the habit; 3) then the reward. First Moses lays down the habits he wants the people to form, the Law of God. He wants them to learn it, and live by it. Second, Moses sets up cues to trigger these habits, he has the people bind a reminder of them upon their hands and on their foreheads, and to talk about them with their children, and the reminder on the gates and doorpost of their houses. Third, Moses tells the people that if they keep the Law of God, the LORD will reward them by multiplying their days, and the days of their children, in the land that the LORD swore to give to their fathers as long as the heavens are above the earth. In other words: Long life in a pleasant place, and this promise will never fail!

The Good Habits of the Law protected the people of Israel, but they did a lot more than that. God used the Good Habits of the law to bind Israel into a community of trust and respect, so that they would be able to survive, and make progress, and prosper, not just as individuals, but also as a nation. In the 21st century it is a well-established historical fact that the Law made Israel a nation, and bound them together so effectively that not even nineteen centuries without a homeland could destroy them as a people. Jews were bound together by the habit of keeping the Law.

In point of fact, civilization itself depends upon the willingness of citizens in every age to get in the habit of keeping the law that God has written not just on tablets of stone, but into the matrix of our human nature. God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel through Moses, but God put the law into our hearts. The details of it vary from culture to culture, but the heart of the Law is the foundation of true civilization, things like: 1) Thou shalt not murder, 2) thou shalt not commit adultery, 2) thou shalt not steal, 3) thou shalt not bear false witness, etc. The thin veneer of civilization depends upon these and similar laws. Even a society of outlaws insists upon a code of conduct. That is why we speak of “honor among thieves.”

Now let me add an exciting fact. The good habits of the Law not only have the power to turn a hodge-podge collection of people into a nation, they can result in the preservation and prosperity of individuals and nations.

The Good habits of the Law make successful individuals. In Psalm 1, the Psalmist says that a man who honors the law of the Lord is like a tree planted by a streams of water, that yields fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, and in all that he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1)

Though he never mentions the 1st Psalm, in his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg demonstrates that good habits make successful people, and caring families, and growing churches, and profitable businesses that are great for their customers and their employees, and great nations like our own.

Duhigg even points out that Good habits can make great football teams.

Many of you know the name of Tony Dungy, the coach who turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from the worst team in football to one of the best. The Bucs did not have patience. They fired Dungy because he lost two play-off games in 2001 and 2002 without getting to the Superbowl, but the very next year, 2003, Dungy’s successor continued Dungy’s principles  and won the Super Bowl. Immediately after the Bucs fired Dungy, he got a call from the Indianapolis Colts. They wanted him and they wanted his methods. They had one of the best quarterbacks in football, Peyton Manning, but they could not win the big games. Dungy guided them to 10-6, and then to 12-4, and then to 14-2. In the 2006 season he took them to the Super Bowl where they beat the team that had beaten them in play off games the two years before. The New England Patriots were leading 21-3 at the half. No team in Super Bowl history had ever overcome such a deficit. In one of the most exciting games in history the Colts came back to win 38-34. Dungy had his Super Bowl victory. In the process, he became the only coach in NFL history to make the playoffs ten years in a row!

Dungy’s coaching philosophy was centered in habit formation. His philosophy of winning is a simple one. Dungy said:

Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.

Now this was a novel idea. Football is supposed to be a game that balances brains with brawn, and Tony Dungy said that players with good habits are better than players that think too much. Dungy said that good habits allowed football players to react quicker than their opponents. This is of utmost importance. Football is a game of milliseconds, and those milliseconds separate winners from losers. If you do the right thing by habit, he said, eventually, and most of the time, you come out on top.

Dungy understood habit formation and habit change and he became a winning coach and produced winning teams.

In the same way, Moses taught that God wants us to navigate our lives by habit. The more we do right, the easier it is to do right. God wants us to get so much in the habit of doing right that faced with a choice of doing right or doing wrong we don’t even have to think about it. The best time to resist temptation is the moment that the temptation presents itself. The longer we think about it, the more likely we are to give in. If we want to think, we ought to think about this: The rewards of doing wrong are immediate, and temporary. The rewards of doing right may take longer to achieve, but they are eternal.

Let me finish up with a couple of stories.

Earlier this summer, Elayne and I went downtown to see an afternoon movie at the Aperture Theater. After the movie we decided to walk down 4th Street toward the Reynolds Building. We walked, and we remembered the way things were. Then we turned around and started back. We were just opposite the Aperture when I suddenly noticed a very beautiful young lady walking toward us. I followed her with my eyes until she passed, and my eyes met those of my wife. I said, “She is beautiful!” Then, in a quick recovery, I added, “Of course she is not as beautiful as you.” As an aside let me say that every husband ought to think his wife the most beautiful woman in the world, and he ought to tell her that everyday. If he says it often enough, she will believe it, and if she believes it, he will believe it, and they will both be happier. Anyway, Elayne said, “Yes, she was very beautiful, and did you notice that she was walking with the movie star, Owen Wilson?” With that I turned around, and saw she was indeed with Owen Wilson. Then Elayne and I continued down the street, and she said that the girl was probably camouflage for Owen Wilson. And I said, “Yes, but remember though she is pretty now, you have been pretty to me for twice as long as she is old.” And she has. And it was a nice evening.

Let me tell you a second story. Years ago I was walking across the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary with my friend, Father Donald, who was a Franciscan Priest. Suddenly a very beautiful girl loomed up before us. Father\. Donald raised his hand to his eyes like a salute, punched me in the ribs with his elbow, and said, in a voice only I could hear, “Stewardship of the eyes, brother, stewardship of the eyes.” He was right.

I have mentioned a movie star. Let me mention a line from a movie. It was Hannibal Lector who said, “What does a man covet except that which he sees.” He was right. If you don’t want to spend money, don’t shop. If you want to loose weight, avoid restaurants with all you can eat buffets. If you want to break an addiction to drugs, or alcohol, don’t spend time with people using them. What we see, we think about, and the temptation arises. Let us add a new first line to the verses that have been a running refrain for us over the last several weeks.

Beware your looking, because your looking becomes thought,
Beware your thoughts for you thoughts become words.
Beware your words for your words become actions.
Beware your actions for your actions become habits.
Beware your habits for your habits become character.
Beware your character for your character becomes your destiny.

The way to a good long live in the pleasant place we live is to live according to the habits that God gave.


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Worth Green, Th.M., D. Min.

When we do something for the first time, we have to think about it. You like the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and so does your friend, so the two of you decide to attend a road show of “Cats.” You don’t like hospitals, but a member of your Sunday school class is scheduled to have surgery and you decide to visit.

Actions such as those I have just described require thought.

When we repeat a behavior over and over it becomes automatic. We don’t have to think about it. Your alarm clock goes off at 5:45 a.m. and you drink that first cup of coffee every morning at 6:00. Five days a week, at noon, you stop work to eat lunch. You leave for church every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. so that you can get here before the Band Prelude begins.

Habits are behaviors that have become nearly or completely automatic. We get through our days because we have successfully formed not dozens but hundreds of habits.

Habits can be good or bad, and few of us need someone to point out the difference.

In John 16:8 Jesus said that the Holy Spirit “will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” The Holy Spirit shows us what is right and what is wrong, but the Holy Spirit does not stop there. If we pay attention, the Holy Spirit also seeks to convince us of those habits we need to change, especially when a change will improve our lives.

Sometimes even good habits need to be changed. You know the old saying, “Good, better, best, never let it rest until the good is better, and the better is best!” In point of fact, what was good enough yesterday, may not be good enough for today and tomorrow. I love that line from “Mort ‘de Arthur” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is the dying King Arthur who says:

The old order changeth, giving place to the new;
And God fulfills Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom corrupt the world.

Or, as the hymnist has said:

New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth,
We must onward still and upward
Who would keep abreast of Truth.

Sometimes, we need to change our habits, even when those habits have been good habits in the past. In order to save my knees, I have recently changed a 40 year running habit to a daily workout on an elliptical machine. On a more serious note, in Philippians 3:6, the Apostle Paul said that as to righteousness under the law he was “blameless.” Yet he quickly added

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

Before we can change our habits, we need to know how they are formed in the first place.

According to Charles Duhigg research at institutions like MIT have determined that habits consist of three parts. 1) First there a cue that set us a craving. The craving is the thing that makes us want to engage in a particular behavior. 2) Second there is the behavior itself, the routine we engage in over and over again. 3) Third there is the reward. The reward is the thing that makes us want to repeat the routine.

Habits can be formed very quickly. If you pass Krispy-Kreme on the way to work, see the “Hot and Now” sign, stop for a coffee and eat a donut everyday for a week, and enjoy the rush of sugar and caffeine that makes you an early morning dynamo in your workplace, you are well on your way to forming a habit.

Changing a habit is more difficult. The first thing we have to realize is that it is impossible to extinguish a bad habit. One portion of our brain is dedicated to habit formation, and once the patterns are established they can never be completely eradicated. Even people who have lost their memory, or some other cognitive behavior, often still act according to habit. Charles Duhigg points out that once a piece of paper has been creased and folded, it just naturally folds back into the creases; and, once we have formed a habit, so it is with us. Habits are impossible to extinguish.

Interestingly, more than 2500 years ago, Jeremiah said the same thing. In chapter 13:23, God speaks through his prophet and says:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are (in the habit of doing) evil. (Translation my own. The RSV reads, “accustomed to do evil”).

God then pronounces a terrible judgment upon Israel and sends them into exile. That exile is a warning for God’s people in every age. Bad habits are deadly serious! They separate us from God, from the ones that we love, and from our own best selves. Therefore we must always remember that many of the habits we form begin with a conscious choice, and we must be careful when we make those choices because “we make our choices then our choices make us.” Perhaps you will remember the caution from last week:

Be careful of your thoughts, for they become words.
Be careful of your words, for they become actions.
Be careful of your actions, for they become habits.
Be careful of your habits, for they become character.
Be careful your character, for it becomes your destiny.

Now if you have some bad habits, and most of us do, do not despair. Habits cannot be extinguished, but unlike a leopards spots they can be changed. That change is possible because God wills it so. Remember, though God condemned Israel to exile because of her bad habits, God did not abandon Israel forever. In Jeremiah 30:8-9 we read:

And it shall come to pass, says the Lord of hosts, that I will break the yoke from off their neck, and I will burst their bonds, and strangers shall no more make servants of them. 9 But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them.

Interestingly, King David was long dead when Jeremiah said this. It is a Messianic statement.

Habits yoke us, and bind us, and make us their servants. We can’t extinguish them, but we can change them, for God intends that we should be free to serve Him. There is hope.

As I read Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit,” and noted the examples of those who had successfully changed their habits, I discovered that those who were most successful in changing their habits were those who believed it was possible to change their habits. Likewise, I observed that many of those who believe it was possible to change their habits believed it was so because they thought that God was willing and able to help them.

Let me give you one of the best examples reliance upon God for help in Duhigg’s book: Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. I am telling this story in my own words, but I am trying to be faithful to Duhigg’s emphasis.

Wilson grew up a teetotaler. Then, during World War I, he joined the Army. While training to go to Europe as an officer, he was invited to many different social affairs. At one of these affairs he was given a Bronx Cocktail, a combination of gin, dry and sweet vermouth, and orange juice. Wilson took one sip and thought he had discovered “the elixir of life.” Wilson liked drinking. For the better part of the next two decades he made it a major part of his life. By the mid 1930‘s he was starting to spin out of control. His fortune was gone, he was losing his family, he had lost his job. On a cold winter day, a friend dropped by, an old drinking buddy. Wilson poured his friend a drink. The friend refused. He said that he had been dry for two months. Wilson asked how he had done it. The friend gave credit to his faith. He talked of sin, and hell, and the devil, and of how we are powerless to help ourselves. Then he talked about the deliverance he had found in Jesus Christ. Wilson was not impressed. He thought his friend was drunk on religion the way he had once been drunk on booze. Wilson’s downward spiral continued for another month. Then, desperate, he checked himself into a prestigious New York clinic. They started him on belladonna regiment that was all the rage at the time. Soon Wilson could hardly function. He was hallucinating. He had tremors, and shakes. His pain was unimaginable. He finally reached bottom. Alone in his room, racked with pain, and unable to help himself, he cried out, “If there is a God, let Him show himself. I am ready to do anything, anything!”

What followed that prayer has been told thousands of times in thousands of AA meetings. Bill Wilson had an experience that very few people are privileged to have. I have never had it or anything like it. Nor do I regard it as essential to salvation or to habit change. Perhaps God permitted Bill Wilson this experience because God had so very much for him to do?

Wilson said that a white light filled the room. He said he knew the ecstasy of what he believed was God’s presence, and the desire for drink was taken from him entirely. He never had another. Not only so, he decided to spend the rest of his life helping people change the habit that had ruined his life, and almost killed him. He kept that promise until he died of emphysema in 1972.

The result was the twelve step program we know as Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Now in developing the AA program, Wilson hardly followed a scientific formula. For instance, he chose to make it a twelve steps program because there were twelve apostles. Yet simply by remembering his own experience and by following his instincts he did some things wonderfully right. For instance, Wilson understood that many things could cue a desire for drink including loss, disappointment, stress, and loneliness. So, too, Wilson was smart enough to see that the reward for drinking was just not getting drunk. Though getting drunk can be a hedonistic pleasure, few people drink just for the pleasure of getting drunk. People drink to escape, to forget, to easy their pain. And, ironically, to find community. Often, a big part of the reward for getting drunk was being with people who shared your experience. It was sharing your own story, and believing that someone listened, and identified with you, and cared.

If I may interject a personal opinion, it is my opinion that hard drinkers standing around a bar sharing their problems have invested their drinks with sacramental power. It may be the wrong kind of sacrament, but the fact that they share it may help make change possible. I would also like to interject a question, and I invite anyone who has an informed opinion to tell me about it. I wonder if AA works better for those whose habit is to drink with others, than for those whose habit is to drink alone?

Though Wilson did not approach the founding of AA very scientifically, he succeeded in isolating the three parts of habit formation. He isolated the cue, and the reward, and he kept them both while creating a new routine. Wilson invited people to substitute a AA meeting for time at the bar.

Then Wilson did something brilliant. Wilson asked that those beginning AA commit to attending 90 meetings in their first 90 days of AA membership. Of course, they could attend them three times in one day if they needed too, but they still needed to attend 90 days. Besides that, if no meeting was available when they felt the need for drink, they could call on their sponsor, for everyone who joined AA was assigned a sponsor to help them make it through those difficult times when no meeting was available. Wilson reasoned that if a person can avoid drink 90 days that person was well along the way to changing their habit.

How long does it take to change a habit? Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon and the author of “Psycho-Cybernetics” said that WWII amputees he studied took an average of only 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. That seems very optimistic, and several people who have lost limbs have told me so. This study gave rise to the myth that habit change could be accomplished in three weeks. Again, I find that overly optimistic. Phillippa Lally a psychologist at University College London reported that her subjects who were trying to learn far less traumatic new habits, such as eating fruit daily, or going jogging, took an average of 66 days before the desired behavior had become unchangingly automatic. Some could effect permanent change in as little as 21 days, but some took as long as 245 days.

We don’t know how long habit change takes for every individual, but ninety days is a good start for millions of people every year. It works in AA, chances are it will work for you.

How do we change a habit? We begin by analyzing the habit. We determine what cues it; why do we do what we do. Sometimes the answer is not as obvious as one might think. It may be that you buy that Krispy-Kreme donut every morning not because you want the sugar rush, but because you work in a stress filled office and the person behind the counter who hands it to you shows you the only smiling face you will see all day! Next we determine the routine, the habit itself. It is a good habit or a bad habit? Most of us can answer that question truthfully if we really try. Finally, we determine the reward. Then we keep the cue, and the reward, while we modify the routine.

This little formula opens enormous possibilities. For instance. I recently read that if a person with a stable body weight will substitute a glass or bottle of water for one high calorie soft drink every day for one year, that person can lose 25 lbs. This works even if one does not change one’s existing eating or exercise habits! Of course, here is the hopeful part, the real battle is not waged over the course of a year, it is waged and won in the first 90 days! And, to take a page from my friends at AA, we make those 90 days one day at a time!

Let’s not get fixated on weight loss. There are dozens of examples of habits that need to be changed.

Finally, let us be thankful that as Christians we have a resource that others do not, God.

Bill Wilson was always suspicious of organized religion yet 7 of the 12 steps upon which AA is based mention or assume God. Yet another step, the 1st , recognizes that one is powerless to help one’s self. That is Christian theology! Another step, the 4th, asks us to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of our selves.” That, too, is the language of theology. And two other steps deal with making amends to people we have wronged. Who would have guessed that habit change was dependent upon the quality of our relationships with others? There is a lot of Christ in all of that.

Bishop Spaugh was not an alcoholic. Yet he carried a 40 year chip from AA in his pocket for the work he had done with that organization.

Several times I heard the Bishop address a meeting.  he always said something like this:

If you are here out of need, and you want to get started on sobriety tonight, turn your life over to a higher power. If you want to get started right, call your higher power “God.” If you want to accelerate your progress to health and wholeness, understand that your higher power is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and ask him to take charge of your life. And he always quoted something like 2nd Corinthians 3:18: ‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another…’

You can never totally extinguish a habit. The folds in the paper of the unconscious mind are too deep. However, with the help of God and a few friends, you can change that bad habit for a good one.


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by Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min. based on:
Hebrews 10:24 & Luke 22:39.

Listen to this Message.

This morning I am beginning a series entitled, “The Power of Habit.” This series was inspired, and informed, and will sometimes be illustrated by the content of a book by Charles Duhigg, entitled, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do the Things We Do in Life and in Business.” However, let me quickly point out that this series is not limited by Duhigg’s book. Once I finished the book, I made a study of habit in other relevant sources, especially the Scripture, and I CONVINCED that all I intend to say in this series is in perfect harmony with what I find therein.

Now let us begin with a definition of habit. There are several.

According to one dictionary one’s habit has to do with one’s physical appearance, and the dress that one wears.

A man who is grossly overweight has “a fleshy habit”; a monk, fat or thin, wears a habit, as does a priest, a ballet dancer, or a baseball player. The Geneva gown I am wearing this morning has been my Sunday habit since 1977.

When I was serving the Little Church on the Lane in Charlotte, I wore a more complete clergy habit, in the form of a black shirt and round white collar. I did not wear that habit everyday, but I did wear it often enough to appease my Bishop, Herbert Spaugh, and my Senior Pastor, Herbert Weber.

The low point of my experience of wearing the habit came on a Sunday morning. On that particular Sunday I did not have a clean black shirt, so I showed up at church in a white shirt and tie. Mr. Weber sent me home with instructions to take a black shirt out of the dirty clothes hamper and put it on. I did exactly what he asked. When Herbert asked me to jump, I invariably said, “How high?” It was the last time I pushed that particular button.

The high point of my experience of wearing the habit came on a Sunday afternoon. It was a wet and windy day, and when I got on the elevator at Charlotte Memorial Hospital, my clerical collar was hidden by my trench coat. Two ladies were on the elevator with me. The elevator started its climb. Then it suddenly lurched, and dropped back almost a foot. One of the ladies cried out, “God help us!” I looked right into her face, then keeping my hands in my pocket, I flipped open my coat to reveal my clerical collar, smiled a broad smile, and said, “He will!” The expression on her face was total astonishment! I felt like Superman stepping out of a phone booth!

I think it is important to note that a person’s habit says a lot about that person. John the Baptist, a rough and ready prophet, was said to wear a rough and ready coat made of camel hair. That fits with his character. Jesus was said to wear a robe that was seamless, woven as one piece from top to bottom. That fits with his character. Jesus the Messiah was the seamless integration of God and Man. A policeman wears a vest and caries a weapon. A fireman does his job wearing an oxygen mask, and carrying an ax. In the 1980‘s businessmen and women were told to dress for success by wearing blue and gray. Teachers have to be careful not to dress so as to call attention to themselves.

What we look like or what we wear may rightly be called a habit. Of course, there are other definitions.

According to one dictionary a habit might simply be “one’s usual manner of behavior.”

Suppose you go to the beach for a week, and you do as Elayne and I recently did. You take a walk every morning. You walk Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then Friday you decide to swim instead. Your morning walk was becoming routine but it was not yet automatic.

Yet, according to the same dictionary, a habit also be “an acquired (or chosen) mode of behavior that has become nearly, or completely involuntary (automatic!).”

Perhaps you know the story by Laura Hillenbrand entitled “Unbroken.” It the story of Louie Zamperini, the Olympic Runner who joined the United States Army Air Force, only to be forced down in the South Pacific while on a search mission. Zamperini spent 47 days in an open raft, miraculously survived, and then, finished the war in a Japanese Prison Camp. He survived unbelievable hardships unbroken at least in part because he was an athlete. Zamperini started running when he was 14 years old. His high school was having a competition between the classes, and the girls in Louie’s class thought that of the 4 boys in the class he had the best chance to do well in a 660 yard run. They were wrong. Louie finished last. His coach said a track was the last place Louie needed to be. Louie’s older brother Pete disagreed. A senior, he was a ten letter man and he was determined to make a runner out of Louie. Every day after school Pete mounted a bike and prodded Louie through a long run with a stick. Louie hated training. He briefly ran away from home to avoid it. Then Louie had a change of heart. He had an opportunity to spend the summer in a small cabin on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation. He rose each morning, took up his rifle, and ran the hills, and valleys, and canyons, sometimes chasing herds of wild horses until he was tired. Then he would head for a sulphur spring where he swam, watched over by the Cahuilla women as they did their laundry on the rocks. That evening he would run back to the cabin, shooting a jack rabbit for his supper on the way. Then after supper, Louie would lay on the roof of his cabin reading Zane Grey novels until the last of the light faded from the sky. The next morning he would get up and do it all over again. Hillenbrand said that Louie ran not because he had to, and not because someone else wanted him to, but because “…it was what his body wanted to do.” Louie did not get up in the morning and decide whether or not to run, he just ran. He had the habit and the habit had him. Let me give one more example.

I have a friend who is still smoking a pack of cigarettes everyday. He tells me that three times everyday, following a meal, a cigarette just materializes in his right hand, and, suddenly, he has a cigarette lighter in his left. Of course he is overstating his case. I know he still buys cigarettes by the carton and he keeps his lighter filled. He knows he has a nicotine habit.

Now you may be thinking, “Thank goodness I make decisions for myself.  I would hate the thought of running, or smoking, or doing anything else at all without first thinking about it.”

Well, if you are thinking that, you would be wrong. According to Charles Duhigg, studies have shown that about 40% of all we do everyday is by habit. And that is a good thing, because if we had to consciously choose to do everything that we do on a daily basis, our brains would need to be as big as small melons.

Think about all you do everyday by habit. Consider how you brush your teeth. As late as the First World War very few Americans brushed their teeth. Draftees often had such rotten teeth that the Army considered tooth decay a threat to our national security. That is no longer so. I will bet that each and everyone of you brush your teeth morning and evening, and I will bet you do it without thinking about it. It is automatic. It is a habit.

Or think about this. Most of you men put on your socks and shoes every morning and take them off again every night. Which shoe do you put on and take off first, right or left? Duhigg asked his readers that question, and I determined to answer it. However, more than a month after first considering that question, I still can’t answer it, because once I started thinking about the question, it added an element of thought to a process that was a long standing habit.

Or how do you get to work? I will bet that unless you run into a traffic jam, or an accident, or something of the sort, you drive to work the same way each and everyday. It is automatic, and sometimes frightfully so. I usually visit the hospital in the morning, then  drive into the church office. One night I was called to the hospital for an emergency. When I finished my visit, I had a lot on my mind. I started out of the parking lot at the hospital deep in thought, and did not break my train of thought until I found myself pulling into an empty parking lot here at the church. I had driven here by habit.

I could mention other things, like eating, and drinking, and breathing, all done, more or less, according to habit. Airplanes have automatic pilots, and, in one sense, so do we.

Let me give you just one other definition of habit. Habit is ethos.

Let me explain. After I finished Duhigg’s book, I turned to the New Testament. Much to my chagrin, I found that the word “habit” appears only once in the text of the Revised Standard Version. In Hebrews 10:24-25 we read:

24 Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.

Given the importance of habit, I thought it unusual that the New Testament contained the word habit just one time, so I looked a little deeper. I found that the word in Hebrews 10:25 ordinarily translated by the English word “habit”is the greek word “ethos.”

The Greek word “ethos” and its derivatives appear not 1 time but 23 times in the New Testament. However, with the one exception of Hebrews 10:24 it is not translated with the English word “habit,” but with the English word “custom.” Once I understood that ethos and its derivatives could be translated habit or custom, I was suddenly privy to a gold mine of information. Let me give you a few examples.

  • In Luke 1: 9 Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was serving at the alter in accordance with the custom of the priesthood when the angel appears to him and tells him about John.
  • In Luke 2:42 at the age of twelve, Jesus and his family go up to Jerusalem during passover according to custom. When considered along verse 41—in which the parents of Jesus go up to Jerusalem year after year, it means that the boy Jesus may have visited Jerusalem not just once, but many times.
  • In Luke 4:16 Jesus goes to the synagogue as was his custom, and it is there he stands up to read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…” Jesus closes the book and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” According to Hebrews 10, some people lack a regular church habit. According to Luke 4:16 Jesus had one. It was his custom to be in the synagogue or “the gathering.” If Jesus needed “the gathering,” we certainly need it.
  • According to Luke 22:39, on the night when Jesus was betrayed, “He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mt. of Olives.” His disciples followed him. He went that he might pray. He prayed that he might conform to the Father’s will, and, according to Luke, an angel appeared to him and strengthen him. Prayer was a habit with Jesus. Therefore, when he needed the solace and power of prayer, it was readily available to him. He urged his disciples to form the same habit, and us through them.

Let me say a word about a disciple, my dear friend Ron. Ron died on Friday afternoon after a brief battle with cancer. Ron had a kidney cancer that encased the kidney and spread into the body cavity. The surgery which he had on Wednesday—-which at least one doctor refused even to attempt, was his only chance. I spent 20 minutes alone with Ron on Wednesday morning before his surgery, and I can tell you that I have never met with anyone before so serious a surgery as calm as he. Ron was a lay Franciscan in the Catholic Church and he believed very much in the power of prayer. He told me that morning that about a year ago, before he knew he had cancer, God gave him a centering prayer, “Rest in Me.” He told me on that morning that he had recently been given a new centering prayer. The words of his prayer were, “Here I am.” God says, “Rest in me.” Note:1 Ron responds, “Here I am.” Ron’s family arrived. We prayed. I said good-by. Ron went into surgery. Ron’s six hour surgery turned into 9. Then, that night, he required a second surgery of 6 hours. The next day, Thursday, he required another shorter surgery. That evening, he had a critical heart episode. By Friday morning Ron’s family knew that he was dying, maintained only by the medical machines. Ron’s family decided, in accordance with his living will, to let him have his body back, to decide with God his future.. After that I shared with them the “Daily Text” for Friday, June 22nd, 2012. It was from 2nd Samuel 15:26. Therein David, struggling with Absalom for his kingdom, approaches Jerusalem, sends in the Ark of the Covenant, and says, “Behold, here I am, let Him (the LORD) do to me as seems good to him.” Ron’s centering prayer was, “Here I am.” Expanded it meant, “Let the LORD do to me as seems good to him.”

Ron faced that surgery, and the possibility of death unafraid, because he had thatched his roof before it started to rain. throughout the days of his life he formed the prayer habit, and when the crisis came, he could rely on the strength of prayer, and on the Heavenly Father to  whom he prayed. Prayer was so much a part of him.

The original meaning of the Greek word “ethos” is “character.”

Our habits become our character. Of course, habits do not just drop down upon us from the sky. Habits are formed, and habits can be changed. We are going to talk about that in future sessions. In the meantime, let me leave you with this oft heard exhortation:

Be careful of your thoughts, for they become words.
Be careful of your words, for they become actions. 
Be careful of your actions, for they become habits.
Be careful of your habits, for they become character.
Be careful your character, for it becomes your destiny.


Note 1: In the recorded version of this sermon, I record the first part of Ron’s centering prayer, God’s part, a bit differently. The family gently corrected me. My memory of my time with Ron early on Wednesday was clouded a bit by emotion.

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