We put a new bird feeder out in our yard recently. It replaces a feeder we’ve had for years that’s mounted on a pole set in concrete. After all these years, the squirrels have discovered they can jump to the feeder from the fence. Since both the feeder and the fence are not easily moved, we decided to abandon that feeder completely and replace it with a feeder that will exclude squirrels by closing when a squirrel (or a heavy bird) sits on it.
Because we haven’t taken the old feeder down (remember, it’s set in concrete), the birds are not moving to the new feeder. I have watched for several days as birds continue to land on the old, empty feeder, looking for seeds where there aren’t any. I have watched nuthatches go around and around the feeder, checking every opening over and over again, looking for a seed, when a feeder full of seed is only a few feet away. They are having a hard time breaking their habit, and the result is they are not getting the food they want. They can see the new feeder from the old, but have not explored it because they are fixated on the old feeder.
A friend of mine often speaks of the insidiousness of habits. We get into certain patterns of life and end up going through them mindlessly. Certain habits are good, such as tooth-brushing, but often our habits numb us to possibilities for something different and better. Often, whatever discipline we take on for Lent, whether it is giving something up or taking on a new behavior, reminds us how habits can define us and control our lives. Sometimes, our Lenten discipline becomes a new habit, replacing a current habit with a more beneficial practice.
Isaiah 42:20 is a verse that speaks to the numbness that can come with habits:
You have seen many things, but don’t keep watch.
With ears open, you don’t hear.
Even spiritual habits can become ineffective. We may go through the motions of morning devotions or Bible reading and find that Isaiah’s description fits us. We read but do not comprehend what we read, or we listen without absorbing what we are listening to. James describes this so well as he warns his readers not to simply go through the motions of discipleship: You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t so the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. (James 1:22-24)
Our habits can be the stumbling blocks to our growth in discipleship. Habits can strangle Christ right out of our lives if we fail to take stock of their influence over us. We can miss the ways Christ is at work in the world and prevent Christ from working in us when we are so committed to certain habits.
If Lent can be a time to break habits, we may discover new ways to experience God. God can only enter us through our broken places, and broken habits can open us to new ways of paying attention to God. We can shake off the numbness that habits can bring and see and hear how God is at work in the world and in our own lives in new and fresh ways. I don’t want to be like the nuthatch that keeps going around and around a place where there is no food. I want to be aware of God’s Spirit speaking to me. I want to see the opportunities for discipleship open all around me. Come Holy Spirit! Blow away the numbness of mindless habits and fill the space with You!