So here’s a bit of a pop quiz for you. You’re in a restaurant. You’re looking at the menu. Toward the bottom corner you see a list of beverages including Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, root beer. What’s the generic name for this type of beverage? And don’t say “soft drink” because no one says that any more than anyone refers to “Kleenex” as “facial tissue.”
How many of you say “soda?” How many of you say “pop?” If you’re from Texas, you might call all of them “coke,” which means if you order a “coke” in a restaurant, don’t be surprised when the wait staff asks you “what kind?”
This isn’t the only example, of course. We can name several other examples of words that get pronounced differently depending on where you’re from:
- Is “aunt” pronounced like “ant” or like “ahnt?”
- Is “caramel” two syllables (“CAR-mel”) or three (“CARE-ah-mel”)?
- Is “coupon” pronounced more like “coop” or more like the word “cute?”
- Is “route” pronounced like “root” or should it rhyme with “out?”
- Do you call the symbol (*) as “asterisk” or an “asteriks”?
And of course there’s more. In 1999 Harvard surveyed folks from across the country to catalog the many ways we pronounce things differently depending on our region of origin. More recently, The New York Times used the same data to create a quiz that claims it can determine where you’re from based on your pronunciation and regional vocabulary (I’ve actually given this to you before, but if you’re bored you can click here to take the quiz).
Here’s the point: if our environment shapes our speech and our accent, what else might our environment be shaping?
LEARNING AND ABIDING
Christian learning, as we’ve said, is about the formation of our character. None of us are immune to this process. I think of the repeated theme from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow about how we sink into a place, and how that place sinks into us. We cannot reduce ourselves to mere products of our environment, but we can hardly deny the incredible power our environment has on our learning and our character.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus so often used the metaphor of “abiding” or “remaining.” The word most literally has the idea of “dwelling,” the way we might “abide” in a house or region. But used by Jesus, the word refers to the way that discipleship is an immersion process, and that our “fruitfulness” depends on the way that we unite with Christ and his teachings by “sinking into” them, and allowing them to sink into us:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)
The thing is, everybody “abides” in something. We “sink into” something. And we will learn from what we abide in—it will shape us and mold us so that we speak the “regional dialect” of whoever’s kingdom we choose to “abide” in.
If you sink into social media, social media will sink into you. If you sink into your smart phone, your smart phone will sink into you. That is, if you sink into convenience, then it is convenience—and not vibrant relationship—that will sink into you. So if you sink into career, sex, money, you name it—these things will sink into you. No one “dabbles” in these things like they were some sort of hobby. They will shape you, mold you until you may not like the outcome.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON WORSHIP
We’re talking, then, about the radical unity between worship and learning. Worship is about the formation and expression of our loves. And what we love, we look at, and what we look at, we become. Paul had something of this in mind when he turned his focus to Christ’s followers in the final portion of his letter to the Romans. In the previous sections of his letter (what we know as chapters 1-11), Paul address topics ranging from sin (Romans 1-3), salvation (Romans 4-6), sanctification (Romans 7-8) and God’s sovereignty (Romans 9-11). Now Paul starts his address on service by saying:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
In a recent song by the band Mumford and Sons, the singer intones that “in these bodies we live, in these bodies we will die. Where you invest your love, you invest your life.” For years I never quite understood the connection between the two verses above—they seemed so disconnected to my mind. But I think Paul was trying to tell us that our lives are about worship—about our loves—and only through total surrender to God can we be expect to be molded and shaped into someone that resembles God’s Son (Romans 8:29).
So in verse 2 Paul contrasts these two ideas of being “conformed to this world” and being “transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Make no mistake: Paul was way ahead of his time. It’s only been recently that research has begun to challenge the former assumptions that the human brain doesn’t change. It does—sometimes drastically. The learning process is about forming new connections between parts of the brain to improve communication and literally change the way you think. Positively, this helps explain why it’s better for children to learn new languages when they’re young—because then this new vocabulary becomes better integrated into the developing network of brain cells. Negatively, this explains why pornography can be so devastating—because it literally alters the wiring of the user’s brains until genuine intimacy becomes impossible.
We are either transformed or conformed. Sometimes I think we tend to get wrapped up in the question of whether certain behaviors or certain media choices are sinful or not. Because the answer isn’t always immediately obvious. But maybe we can ask a better question. Maybe we should be asking: Which way is my heart slanted? In other words, will this behavior “slant” my heart more toward God and my neighbor, or will this behavior “slant” my heart more toward myself?
So, for instance:
- When I use my smart phone as the sole means of communicating with others, does this slant my heart toward genuine love for them, or does it slant my heart toward relating to people only when it is convenient?
- Do my choices of music and media slant my heart toward loving God’s kingdom and its values, or slant my heart toward loving values that only serve the self?
- Does my attitude toward my job—my work ethic, my treatment of my co-workers, etc.—slant my heart toward living out God’s mission in the everyday, or does it slant my heart toward using my career to make myself feel good or look good in the eyes of others?
- Do the quick meals we have with our kids slant them toward finding God’s presence even in the mundane lulls before soccer practice, or do they slant their hearts toward seeing life as an endless rush to “the next thing?”
All of these things activities (and others) are part of a larger learning process. Just as our environment can shape our speech, so too can our surroundings and our habits shape our hearts.
The gospel isn’t about earning God’s approval through righteous behavior. God’s approval comes only through the righteousness of Jesus applied to your account through his finished work on the cross. But God is determined to engage us in an ongoing work of personal transformation. This transformation comes about not merely by conforming to a set of moral standards, but by re-aligning our loves—the things we “abide” in—such that they reflect Christ and his kingdom more than our worldly empires.
So what about you? What are you doing today? What will it teach you? How will it shape you? Which way is your heart slanted?