Living An Intentional Life: A Sermon On Intention

We all wake up every single morning. We all go to bed at night. We all eat. We all breathe. We all live in houses. We all have relationships.

What ends up happening with all of us, is that we take all these things that we all have, and we get into routines. Some of our routines involve going to work. Some of them involve where we live. Some of them involve our families.

Then routines turn into comfort and safety. Our jobs give us money. Our friends remove loneliness and shelter our experiences. Our families give us stability. Our cars give us mobility.

And then comfort and safety turn into what we will call forgetfulness. We forget that everything we have is from God. We forget that we were once completely lost. We forget that others are suffering. We become complacent and content.

This is a regular pattern. It’s not a pattern to feel guilty about, rather it’s a pattern that we should learn to recognize, acknowledge and then work towards avoiding.

Everything is subject to the risk of falling into this pattern. The entire Hebrew Bible is the story of Israel falling in and out of this pattern. They would go from slavery to owning slaves. The prophet’s primary objective was to shake the people of Israel awake to stop this pattern, to do anything it would take to get out of this pattern. One of the major themes throughout is remember where you came from! God would say, “You were once slaves, you were once in need, you were once completely dependent on me, so don’t let your success, your wealth, your power and your comfort right now get to your heads.” And of course. It always would.

In our readings this morning, Jesus is walking around teaching his people and having a good time. And his apostles gathered around him. This is what it says in Mark 6.

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.

I can kind of see the scene. The apostles are just starting to get the hang of it. They are taking on some teaching and sharing what they know. When the students start telling the teacher “all they had done and taught” we all know what that means. It’s start to get to their heads a little bit. That are starting to get comfortable and want to share their accomplishments. Look what I can do. Look what I can do. Maybe I’m reading into this sentence a bit too much. But I feel like this is show off time.

I only show this sentence to point out how quickly we forget. This is only Mark 6! The apostles know nothing yet. They don’t even know that two verses before that John the Baptist got beheaded. There is this sense of forgetfulness that I already see.

There is another reading that speaks to this too. Paul writes a letter to the Ephesian church, and he says this.

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” –a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands–

remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.

One of the main themes of Ephesians is in response to the newly converted Jews who often separated themselves from their Gentile brothers and sisters. This is a massive issue in the the early church because the Christian message came out of a Jewish religion and from a Jewish messiah. So when Gentile’s start showing up and wanting to participate in the salvation of Christ – many of the Jewish folks were having a hard time wrapping their head around the idea that non-Jewish folks could participate.

But this is a call, a call to remember where they came from. Remember you were without these promises, there was no hope – God was non-existent for you. Remember where you came from!

Paul has worked very hard to try and jog the memory of everyone – and his own memory of once persecuting Christians and his perfect ways are strong in his memory. He has to remind them because they forget. They forget because they get into routines and habits that are not formed or shaped by Christ.

Forgetfulness is a common theme in my own life. I forget that I was a cocky self-righteous teenager. I forget that I was a crazy charismatic that let my bad theology hurt people. I forget that I was once dependant on someone else to survive. I forget that I stared into the eyes of poor, dying children and promised I wouldn’t forget. I forget that I’ve been shown grace and forgiveness by so many people over and over again. I forget that my grandpa fought in the war. I forget that my entire life is the result of other people loving me into the person I am today. I forget that I’ve experienced first hand the poverty of the world and have sworn that I would live in such a way that doesn’t mock their situation.

Q: What kind of things do you forget easily?

None of us are immune to forgetfulness. But we’ve talked about this before, we all forget, it’s part of our condition. This morning I want to offer up what I think to be a good way forward in the midst of our forgetful ways.

That is to live an intentional life.

Like I said earlier. So much of our life is wrapped up in routines. We just don’t need to think about most things that we are doing anymore. They just come to us. Sometimes we realize that we are stuck in a bad routine and so then we try to change the routine. But this morning, I’m going to suggest something different. If routines are automatic, then we need to do something that takes effort. Intentional things, not things that just happen to us. Let’s give up focusing on the routine and changing routines altogether. Let’s focus on living intentional lives. This doesn’t mean that we are giving up on our routines. Rather, it means that we are intentionally inserting things into our lives that help recalibrate our lives.

Let’s get scientific here for a second. This comes from my friend James article pretty much word for word.

There is an experimentT that they do with rats where they test their brain activity. Scientists place rats in a T-shaped maze and then put some chocolate at the end of it. The first time they enter it, the rats sniff all the corners and eventually they find the treat. At the beginning, the rats show a lot of brain activity throughout the entire way to the treat. Everything they ran into set the brain activity monitors into a frenzy. However, if the same rat was put into the maze over and over again, there was a significant change in the activity. It got to a point after a while that the rat would just show a repeating pattern, activity only spiked at the beginning of the maze and at the end. All the time in the middle had a significant decrease in activity. As with rats, our brains respond the same way. If a situation is familiar, the automatic part of our brain kicks in and we just do actions that have been rewarded in the past. And while we are in this mode, the prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions, essentially goes into energy conservation mode. Once the goal is achieved, the dopamine is released which rewards the response and then that reinforces the behaviour pattern for next time.

Charles Duhigg (b. 1974) describes this neurological chain reaction as a “habit loop”. There are three parts to the loop: every habit begins with a cue (such as being placed in a maze). Once this trigger is fired, the action itself — the routine — is performed (such as moving through the maze). Finally, the reward at the end of the sequence helps your brain remember that this loop should be remembered when the cue is encountered again. Around and around it goes: cue, routine, and reward. (Duhigg 2012:19)

Understanding routines is really about understanding the cue. Habits are, simply, actions and routines you do without consciously calculating their outcome. When it comes to understanding habits, this is an important thing to keep in mind: the more instinctive and automatic a response is, the less mental activity is going on. The more habitual something is, the less brain power has been expended on the action.

When people try to change their routines, they usually tend to focus on the routine itself. Arguably, this is why most New Yearís resolutions fail so miserably. For example, an individual who wants to get in shape might put “Go to the gym” in his calendar, but unless the brain develops a recognizable cue and reward for exercising, the activity itself will never become habitual. Instead, argues Duhigg, the would-be exerciser needs to focus on establishing new triggers (like putting his gym bag by the front door) and rewards (like a midday treat or recording his workout stats).

If the theory is true, then the most effective way to change a habit is to hijack the reward centres of your brain by creating new triggers and associating them with cool prizes. This theory iterates that you can never extinguish an old, bad habit simply by wishing it away or just by “trying harder” to avoid it. Habit transformation is the result of creating new loops of triggers, routines, and rewards, not just deleting old loops. If you want to change the actions you perform even without consciously premeditating, you need to understand the cues and rewards that presently ‘automate’ your routines. Routines are stimulus-driven responses.

OK. Back out of Science world for a bit. So the routines that I was talking about (of eating, sleeping, going to work) are not necessarily bad things at all. But they are not engaging us and we are susceptible to doing something without thinking and it causing a lot of damage. The longer we do routines, the less likely we are to change them or even question if we should change them.

Starting new routines, say reading every night, or going for prayer walks, or visiting people in the hospital – these are all good and healthy things to do and I think we should be encouraging them as often as possible. Regularity checking in on our current routines is also a healthy and important practice. Asking ourselves, is this routine still giving me life? Is it hurting others? It is helping me grow? Is it selfless or selfish? We need to be constantly holding ourselves and our routines in check to ensure they encompass who we want to be.

Intentionality ensures that we do things outside of our routines on a regular basis. So the next verse in Mark 6, after the apostles are sharing their stories. This is what happens.

He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

I think Jesus understood the act of intentionally breaking a routine. The crowds were following them, the crowds wanted more of the same. The apostles were getting carried away and not reflecting. So Jesus just stops them in their tracks. “Let’s get out of here.” Jesus quickly saw the routine turning into a bad thing – and then ended it.

Or like trying to go to the gym. Putting the gym bad by the door is an intentional move. Or showing up on Sunday to church. Introducing yourself to someone new is an intentional move. Or knowing someone is struggling. Taking them out for coffee and letting them talk to you is an intentional move. Writing down a quote that you heard in a movie. That is an intentional move. Planning a party for your friend. That is an intentional move.

Q: What kind of things are not part of your regular routine that you start making intentional decisions to do? Is it hard to live an intentional life?

We cannot learn and grow unless we are intentional. Intentionality is a strategy to avoid memory loss. It’s a strategy to not let monotony and unhealthy routines be the last word. The lack of intentionality is a sign that one has given up. That they have thrown their cards into the wind of routines and no longer wish to grow and learn and understand. That they have forgotten.

“Those who we consider to be thoughtful and studious are simply those who diligently practice and hone their skills at retaining what they learn.”
Samuel Smiles

It is to easy to show up to church every Sunday and then shut our brains off while we are here since we are participating in a routine. The cue is there to wake up and come, the reward is there making us feel good about our spiritual participation. So many of us show up, and our brains are off and we are just going through the motions.

We are called to be a community of intention. Yes we have routines deeply embedded into the traditions of the church. The routines inform so much of our faith and are responsible for the kinds of people we are becoming. But our intentional movements as a community are the things that make us distinct. They are the things that help us respond to the world around us in relevance and love. Our intentional movements are when we give up our Saturday to help build a house. Or when we speak out against injustice around us. Or when we see a homeless shelter close and ask what we can do to help and then do something.

These are intentional movements of a community. We talked about the intentional movements that we can make as individuals. I pray that we together become people who are intentional with our lives and never get so caught up in our routines and automated tasks that we are unable to see opportunity to make intentional and loving decisions into the future.

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