On Dec. 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white man riding the Montgomery AL city bus, a sea change occurred. It was not the first time an African American had refused to give up their seat on the bus. It had happened at least a dozen times in the last year. The difference this time was that Rosa Parks was a highly respected member of the African American community. She had close friends in the white community. She habited many civic organizations. So when word of her arrest became public, civil rights leaders such as J.D. Nixon and Ralph Abernathy saw an opportunity. They would, over the next year launch the most successful civil rights boycott in American history. And they would do so by changing the habits of ordinary people. In 1955 as now, poor people, and most people of color, ride city buses to work. The system of segregation in the South depended on black workers riding city buses to work; maids to white homes, store clerks to downtown stores, manual workers to factories in shops, all from their segregated neighborhoods. When Nixon, Abernathy and later Dr. King convinced Rosa Parks to let this case be a test for African American rights, she agreed. She was, of course, convicted of violating the segregation laws of the city. The NAACP in her defense would mount an appeal process that would finally be decided by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, black leaders urged their community to boycott the buses. It wasn’t easy to do. The threat of violence by the white authorities, the threat of losing their jobs and the financial and practical hardship it placed on the African American community was increasingly hard to bear. But as a one day boycott turned into a week and a week turned into a month and a month turned into a year, African Americans created new social habits to sustain the boycott. Car pools, reduced fares in black taxis and a general spirit of hope prevailed despite yet more persecution by the authorities. Even when Dr. King’s home was bombed and a riot threatened to destroy the discipline of this habitual movement, the habits held. MLK in an impassioned speech on his fire bombed porch introduced yet another habit, that of non-violence and the faith that a new day was coming. (See The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg)
We are creatures of habit. Habits allow us to move about our days with skill and efficiency. How many of us have driven home deep in thought and suddenly aware that we didn’t remember even driving? Habits. Habits, which may very well be an evolutionary adaptation, are not conscious. They reside rather in our basel ganglya, that reptilian part of our brain that regulates our breathing and our heartbeats. Eugene Pulley, a sixty year old data programmer, lost most of his short term memory after encephalitis destroyed that part of his brain in which most memory resides. While he could never remember one day from the next, he had made a habit out of kissing his wife each morning, listening to his daughter on the phone and watching the History Channel, which of course, was always new to him, no matter how often the re-run. When he wandered out of the house and search was underway, he managed to walk through his own front door six hours later. When asked if he remembered how to get home, he said “No. I just knew this was my door.” (Ibid, Duhigg)
Habits make us who we are. Which is why it so important for us to cultivate better habits. Seven weeks to a habit goes the old adage. And that seems about right to me. Even when we strongly tempted, we can create new habits. It is incredibly difficult at times and it almost always takes help; from support groups, loved ones, friends, even the apps on your phone. And even then it will take years and years of trying.
I think of dieting, an issue I know all too well. Try as I might, I seem to always have trouble keeping these thirty pounds off. I have tried them all. Tried to make a habit out of eating vegetables, fruit, no carbs and little to no alcohol. And still I struggle. When someone asked me if I have always struggled with food, I answer, “no, that just problem, I love food.” Couple all this with advancing age, slowing metabolism and all the temptations of ministry and well, here I am….
In the words of Isiah Pagner:
“A habit is a sticky thing; Much good or evil it can bring; It binds a victim, holds him fast, And keeps him in a vise-like grasp. … Good habits are a little slow; They need a lot of care to grow; If tended well, they grow more fair Than any bloom a plant can bear.”
There is a dark side to habits. Just as habits can change our lives, so too can they bring us ruin. Habits run counter to our free will. Oh, it takes our free will to make a habit to be certain, but until then, we crave the normalcy of our routine. This is the dark side of addictions. As our Addiction and Recovery Ministry will be presenting after the 11 am service, addiction is rooted in our chemistry and our desire to experience pleasure over pain, ironically leading only to new pains. It is not so much a failure of will as it is a struggle of being. And we cannot win that struggle alone. We must have help. And we must have a spiritual grounding.
By spiritual, I mean a vision, a faith in that something greater than we presently are. This is why we are here my friends. This is why we are Unitarian Universalists. Not just because going to church can add seven years to your life. It is not just our habit to come because we get something out of being here. We are here habitually because we are creating something new from our collective lives. A co created theology that believes in saving lives, bringing faith to reason, embracing the questions and the mystery of life and working for a better tomorrow, it not for ourselves than for our children. This is the habit of faith and whether we are conscious of it or not we are by habit creating a new world.
And when you are facing your own dark habits, it will take a sense of spiritual grounding, a faith in the power greater than you to help you along the way. We UUs don’t often talk of surrender but we might. We might let go of our seeming control and turn our lives over to something greater than ourselves and we will find ourselves freerer than we have ever been. I know this has worked for me. When I struggled with alcohol as a young man, it was that American Baptist church in Storm Lake Iowa that saved me. They taught me to let go and let God. They encouraged me to see God in all things and to serve the higher vision of what our world could become. They gave me a spiritual habit to love again.
When Rick Warren first left seminary with his wife Kay and their new baby, he decided to start a church in Saddleback Valley CA. Rick knocked door to door asking people why they don’t go to church. He learned a lot. He learned to make his dress code casual which is why he almost always wears a Hawaiian shirt, he preaches on helpful topics, How to Live With Stress, all biblically based. Most important he learned to instill the habit of small groups. That is how his church has grown to 40,000 people on seven sites. He realized that only by providing a curriculum and asking his people to meet weekly and do the same thing in each small group could he instill a sacred spiritual practice. It worked. (Ibid, Duhigg) And we have copied it here. Our SGM is based on these same habitual principles; meet often, light a chalice, share a reading, check in on the personal lives of the group and discuss a spiritual topic, such as our topic of intention this month. Watch how this spiritual habit has transformed lives. Sunday is the tip of our iceberg, it is what we do all week long that makes us a faith whether in small groups or social justice practice or in classes.
My beloveds, it is our spiritual habits of attending and offering our time, talent and treasure (yes , giving money is a habit that can change your life, more on that when I preach the sermon on the amount). We are becoming faithful UUs striving for our principles, and creating as Julio dreams for us, the Beloved Community. And learning along the way. We are a church of learning and liberation that will become what we dream through our habits. This is why we are a teaching church, learning alongside our intern ministers, this is why we a growing church working alongside groups not like ourselves, and this is why we are leading church, cultivating the habits of leadership.
Our LDT is here to make the habit of leading and following a part of our culture, indeed part of our faith. Workshops, seminars, our Leadership Academy. We are committed to learning how to follow and lead. I dream of a future in which we stop seeing ourselves as consumers of this religion and become disciples of our faith. Denny Davidoff was a disciple of our faith as a Unitarian Universalist. In fact, she was a leader because she was a disciple, because studied and followed our principles. Leaders are not born, they are formed by their faith in a vision beyond their own lives. Discipleship is the habit of learning a faith, and joined with the idea of servant leadership, which you will hear more of, it is how we change our lives and our world. Remember all this just may not be about is you; all this is about what we can become. At the end of life I want every one of us to say, I learned to serve and follow in the path of my faith as a Unitarian Universalist. That is the dream I see our habits leading us to.
On Dec. 12th 1956 the Supreme Court struck down the segregation laws of Southern Buses. In the following decade, separate but equal would be dismantled in our country. And while racial injustice still exists, we would not be here today if it hadn’t been for those brave women and men, Rosa Parks, our own Theodore Parker who stood against slavery, 18th century Unitarian Judith Sargent Murray, who blazed a trail for women writers into our modern age. We would not be here today but for those visionaries who have built and sustained this church. It was their habits of faith that have led us to this moment and our opportunity to change the world and by so doing our lives. This is our time, my friends, and I invite you to join me as we instill new habits of the heart to guide us along our way. So may it be.