VIEW VIDEO I came across a video clip of our granddaughter Madeline this week, taken when she was first learning to talk and had a functioning vocabulary of a dozen or so words—mommy, daddy, Hank (their dog), Nanna, Poppa, kitty, puppy, play. Simple, basic words that allowed her to navigate her somewhat limited life. Now that she’s in kindergarten, her vocabulary has exploded. New words every day. We were playing a word game the other day, Word Jumble, where you look at this hodge-podge of letters and try to figure the word they spell and she look at this collection of letters and said, “stoic,” which I thought was rather good for a six year-old. Her language skills will serve her well in the two vocations she’s expressed interest in—dolphin trainer and mermaid.
What she hasn’t yet learned are the ways in which the very same word can evoke both positive and negative feelings. For example, the word club. I was talking with someone not long ago and he was describing a church and said, “They’re really not a church, they’re more a club.” He didn’t mean that in a positive way. You could hear the sneer in his voice. It was clear the church he was referring to didn’t meet his theological criteria for what a church should be. But Mike Goss, Ned Steele, and I belong to a motorcycle club, the Quaker Oatlaws, and whenever we talk about our club, it evokes feelings of warm fellowship. So the word club can elicit both positive and negative responses.
We’ve been discussing the habits of wholeness, those behaviors conducive to our wholeness and well-being. Let’s go over them again because repetition is a good teacher. We began with balance, giving each aspect of life its proper weight, place and priority, lest we lose our sense of equilibrium and fall. Then we talked about patience, the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind. After that, we thought about forgiveness, which we defined as the conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your pardon. Then we discussed empathy, which we defined as our ability to be aware of the sorrows and joys of another being. You’ll remember we said that empathy enables “them” or “they” to become an “us” or a “we.” And just last week, we added generosity to our list and defined it as our decision to enter the lives of others as a gift.
Today, our habit of wholeness is a world that has both a negative and positive connotation, and that word is discipline. When I was a kid, I didn’t like the word discipline, because it usually meant I was in the principal’s office in trouble. It had a negative connotation, discipline as punishment to correct disobedience. Years later, I met with my high school guidance counselor, who asked me what discipline I wanted to pursue and that’s when I learned that discipline could also mean a branch of knowledge, like someone studying the discipline of medicine or sociology.
Around the same time, I learned a third definition of discipline, which meant training yourself to do something in a controlled and habitual way. So we might say of someone, “She is a very disciplined writer,” or “He is a disciplined athlete.” It is this third meaning I want to talk about this morning as another habit of wholeness. Whole and happy people tend to be disciplined. They have trained themselves to do something in a controlled and habitual way. Indeed, we realize that wholeness and happiness are usually not the result of who we know or random good luck, but of discipline, doing something over and over in a controlled and habitual way.
It’s no surprise that when we talk about the cultivation of faith, we use the term spiritual disciplines. These might include prayer, study, meditation, fasting, journaling, confession, solitude, service, and self-examination. Our practice of these disciplines is no different than the violinist who practices for 10,000 hours to achieve the rank of expert. No different than Larry Bird, already exhausted after a long day and wanting to stop, imagining Magic Johnson still practicing, so would shoot another 200 free throws. I don’t think luck had anything to do with their accomplishments, do you?
There’s no doubt that who we know, random good luck, race, and gender open doors closed to others, but they will only open doors. It is discipline that keeps the doors open. It is our determination to do something over and over in a controlled and habitual way that makes our well-being possible.
There’s a man I’ve known my entire life, we grew up together. When he was young, he was an arrogant bully, so I avoided him whenever possible. Then I moved away and forgot about him, but when I moved back to town some 20 years ago, there he was. I still made it a point to keep him at arm’s length, and did for probably 10 years, but then I saw him at a restaurant, and talking to him was unavoidable. We exchanged greetings, then he surprised me by paying me a complement. This was so unlike him, it caught me off guard and for perhaps the only time in my life, I was speechless.
A while later, I saw him again, and he was genuinely nice to me, and asked me about my family and told me he appreciated something I had written. This went on for several years until I felt comfortable enough to comment on his change in temperament. I said, “You’ve changed.” He said, “That’s what therapy can do for you.” It turns out he’d had a marriage end in divorce, was estranged from his family, and realized he needed to change, so began therapy and at his therapist’s suggestion became what I’ll call an “intentional complimentor.” His therapist recommended he compliment five people a day just to see what happened, so he did. He took his job as an intentional complimentor very seriously. Every day, he found five things to compliment other people about. It was his new religion. It turned out that the discipline of complimenting people instead of condemning people began to change him, and he is no longer the person I knew as a child.
The idea was the therapist’s, but the discipline was his. His determination to do something constructive over and over in a controlled and habitual way changed his life and made him whole. I asked him if it had been hard, and he laughed and said how some days it took him until 9 or 10 at night to make that fifth compliment, but he always kept at it, as hard as it was.
You know, friends, a lot of times in life when things get difficult or painful, we want to give up. I can’t remember who said this, though I know it’s true, that in life we all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret and disappointment. The difference being that the pain of discipline offers such kind rewards, while the pain of regret and disappointment festers and rankles and gnaws. Today, I wish you the pain of discipline, confident of its kind reward.