Last night, Emily and I hosted our last 9 to Dine gathering in our back yard, where we discussed the film Of Gods and Men, a French film based on the true story of a group of monks who must decide whether or not to flee Algeria amidst the threat of violence. (Shout out to Jason and Justin for putting these film discussions together; they led to some really great conversations.)
One of the questions our conversation focused on was: how did this group of men determine what course of action they were called to take? God willing, none of us will face the prospect of martyrdom, but the question of how we know what following Jesus looks like in uncertain circumstances is relevant to us almost daily.
How do we make our choices? What prompts our moral behavior?
This week and next, I’ll endure the yearly ritual of professional development sessions before the start of school. If you work in a professional context, you’ve probably attended plenty of continuing education or similar meetings populated with slide decks and object lessons. Just yesterday, I was shown a flowchart extolling the philosophy: belief leads to action leads to outcomes.
Reflexively, I think we buy into that. It seems reasonable enough. What starts as a conviction we hold will inform the actions that we take. However, this idea is far from a confirmed law of nature or even a rigorously-tested hypothesis. It’s just something we say that makes something really complicated and messy feel simple and linear.
The monks’ dilemma in Of Gods and Men presents this messiness. The monks convene to discuss their thoughts on the choice they face. They express their personal beliefs and debate how their faith should inform their decision. Then they decide to wait for a period of time before coming back together to make a determination. In between, the filmmakers meticulously present the worshipping rhythm of this community—they pray, they farm, they sing, they serve the poor, they eat meals around a table, they treat the sick, they build fences, they take communion, they study books, they go to the market. The movie moves painstakingly slow, as the viewer falls into the daily habits of these monks.
The point: our actions tell us how to believe at least as much as our beliefs tell us how to act.
When these monks were under threat, when they were afraid and uncertain, they didn’t cling to their beliefs—frankly, for many of them, their faith was crumbling in the face of fear. But they clung to their habits. When they weren’t sure what to do, they sang. They farmed. They washed the dishes. Their simple habits helped guide them back to the faith they couldn’t find.
On Sunday, we saw how in Ephesians, Paul commends to this young church the difficult task of walking a holy path in a secular world. And as Paul lays out just how tough it is to discern what is right, to find our way to wisdom, he offers this advice: sing songs of praise and thanksgiving.
In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed my thoughts getting bogged down in ceaseless worry—about the school year, about the church, about my family, about friends. I find myself mulling a thousand decisions and playing out a hundred imaginary conversations, trying to understand my own convictions and find the wise and faithful course.
You’ll be shocked to learn this hasn’t been healthy or productive.
So I’ve determined to take Paul’s advice. As I write this post, I’m listening to Aubrey Assad’s album Inheritance. I found it because her beautiful rendition of “New Every Morning” is featured on the Ordinary Time Spotify playlist that Amy curated for us. I’m making a little wager with myself that curating this small habit of worship will help me find my way better than all my blustering thought. If you find yourself stuck—anxious and uncertain—I invite you to make the same wager this week.