Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Repetitive Behavior

When my daughter, Brittany moved to go to college, we decided to do a very unselfish thing: we didn’t want Brittany to have to carry her luggage upstairs every time she came home, so we took over her much larger bedroom with the bathroom adjacent to it. Understand it was from purely unselfish motives! We moved her full sized bed and mattresses down stairs fairly easily. We moved all of our stuff up to the room, including our clothes and head and footboards. I set the bed up, moved the top mattress upstairs. No problem. Then we tried to move the box spring mattress. It never occurred to me that perhaps a queen sized box spring might not fit on the stair well. For half a day I tried to maneuver my queen size box spring up a stair well that would not give. Now, I am not a total fool. After only two hours it was pretty clear what was going on—I just wanted to make certain. I called in my handy man neighbor and he tried to help maneuver the springs up—it only took him 5 minutes to make the same judgment: there was no way on earth these springs could fit. So we built two new boxes half the size of the original springs.

In an earlier age I might have spent several days trying over and over again to reposition the box springs. But I have learned a valuable lesson—if you continue to do the same thing you will only get the same result you have been getting. Some have suggested the definition of mental illness is to do the same thing repeatedly expecting a different result. You hit yourself in the head with a hammer, it will hurt. If you keep hitting yourself, it won’t get any better! We see this frequently in counseling: parents treating their kids the same way over and again expecting them to react differently. Or kids continually doing the same thing expecting maybe this time they won’t get In School Suspension. Or husbands still badgering their wives—thinking their wives will suddenly, after ten years of this behavior, turn around and say: “Why dear! I can’t believe I’ve never seen this before! You are so right!” Mental illness!

Israel had time and again during the time of the judges rebelled against God. Time and again they tried to keep the land they were given. Time and again they ignored God’s desire, took God for granted, they worshipped false gods, and lived the way they wanted. These people were warned: if you live this way, God will allow the people of the land to enslave you. But the cycle continued. People would start ignoring God’s desire, worship false idols, God would send the Philistines or the Midianites or Amorites to take over and enslave the people—and Israel had the nerve to look surprised! They were doing the same thing over and again, expecting a different result.

In the past few studies we noticed the people had treated God as if he were a tool to be used and manipulated for their purposes. The Philistines conquered them and even captured the Ark of the Covenant. After their own problems with ineffective and repetitive behavior, the Philistines sent the Ark back to Israel. But Philistia was still in control.

In 1 Samuel 7:2 we are told the Ark of the Covenant was kept at Kiriath Jearim for twenty years and “the people of Israel mourned after the LORD.” They realized something wasn’t right. They were in a bad situation. So Samuel gathers the people of Israel and says to them: If you really want to return to the LORD with all your heart then rid yourself of your foreign gods and Ashtoreths and serve him only, and he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines. In other words: commit yourself to God and serve only him with all of your might and trust him with the results. The truth is: you know God’s desire is for Israel to be a blessing to the world—but he will not use you to bless the world as long as you are divided in your desire to serve him.

The people not only threw away their foreign gods, but they fasted and confessed, evidently to Samuel and to each other: “We have sinned against the LORD.” When the Philistines heard Israel had gathered together in one place, they gathered their own army to attack. You can imagine the Israelites’ concern. Here we are trying to get things right with God and now this! But they had changed their hearts. Yes, they were afraid—but they turned to Samuel and said: Keep praying and beg God that he might rescue us! So Samuel offered a sacrifice and cried out to God.

And God heard and responded with thunder upon thunder. Some sort of cataclysmic meteorological event took place and the Philistines fled in a panic. Israel pursued and won the victory. Samuel then set up a memorial stone and called it: Ebenezer which means “Stone of Help” because “thus far the LORD has helped us.” Israel regains lost territory, Samuel is established as a Judge or Leader of Israel, and there is even peace between Israel and the Amorites.

So what was going on here? Was this a case of Israel finally figuring out the formula in which to control God? Not at all. Instead of trying to get God to do their will, they finally decided it was time to get the relationship back in order regardless what might happen.

Did you notice how it happened? They found themselves in the situation of longing after God. Their hearts were broken over God. It was quite clear he was no longer with them, hadn’t been in a long time. They were not accomplishing his purposes. It broke their hearts. Furthermore they recognized it was their fault. They were still trying to control their own lives, call their own shots. Samuel says: Give it up! Serve God with your whole heart.

And then we see the reoccurring theme of Samuel-Kings: They humbled themselves before God. While the word "humble" isn’t used in this text, humility and humbling oneself is closely aligned to fasting. It is a ritual way of recognizing God is in control. It’s not so much for God to notice as it is for the one fasting to recognize who is really in charge. I don’t fast to make God take notice. I fast to make myself notice God! Fasting is a physical way of confessing I am totally dependant on God. Then, they verbalized what they were doing: they confessed their sin. Again, is this so much for God’s sake or theirs? It is a coming to realization I’ve really messed up! I need help!

During the past few lessons we’ve discussed how it seems we are not experiencing God’s victory as a congregational community. It seems we have not been terribly effective in serving God and touching this community. Is it possible we’re still trying to do the same thing over and again expecting a different result? Is it possible I’ve traded God for ritual magic? Is it possible I’ve relied on my own strength instead of his? Is it possible I haven’t listened to God’s call to place his priority to love people, to love the community, to love him as my number one calling? Is it possible my comfort and my preference has become my idol? Have I been more concerned with maintaining comfort, status quo, and my traditions than I have with reaching out to a world that is falling apart? If it is, isn’t it time I turned around? Doing the same thing—even for generations—and expecting different results is really kind of silly when you think about it. This is hard, because we’ve even created a myth about it. We believe for instance in the 60’s we were the fastest growing religious group in America. If we just go back to those methods everything will be fine. The Christian Chronicle recently pointed out how that myth came about. It just wasn’t true. Yet, we think we’ll touch the world if we keep doing those things. Sometimes I think we view these things as magical cures. Or perhaps we’ve made the church of two and three generations ago an idol we worship.

The answer is not new techniques or old models. I don’t have a list of programs or ideas to give you. I only have one step to offer in a series of steps we need to figure out together: humble ourselves before God. Recognize we have not been aligned to his will. We have been more concerned about our comfort and our desires than the hurting of the world. And call out to him. Give up our idols and cry out to him and be willing to do whatever he calls us to do in order to bring healing to this world.

So may you be freed from the tyranny of ineffective, repetitive behavior! May you look to God as the only one who can make you accomplish his will! May you give up all idols that keep you from trusting him. And may you call out to him for deliverance knowing he will answer!

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