It’s two weeks into the New Year and I wonder what’s new.

Imagine waking up each morning and having to entirely “make up your day.” Nothing really felt in place for you. Your life was absent of meaningful habits, helpful experiences, and dependable organizing routines. In such a scenario, you essentially have no choice but to start from scratch every day. A kind of ad-hoc living becomes your only option. This would be an awful way to live.

Many people make it through life this way, but typically not in a fashion that most of us would choose to imitate. Instead, we create and form habits. Believing that many things in life are too important to leave to ad-hoc living, we learn certain deep habits and take them to heart. This is a good practice. The best habits free us from having to decide whether or not we ought to kiss a loved one whom we haven’t seen for awhile. They liberate us from having to guess whether or not we should hoist and hug a happy toddler who is running toward us with exuberant joy. No wonder Aristotle said that a good life is made up of good habits — not spectacular achievements, just good habits. Absorbing certain fundamentals, and making them a way of life, can open the door to a very good life.

According to neuroscientists who study such things, as much as 90% of what we do in a given day happens because we are carrying out actions delivered by a kind of unconscious behavior. The traffic signal turns red and our foot hits the brake. We speak with a friend and we don’t have to contemplate the grammar that makes our words come together. Good habits do not require deep thought or attention. But over-familiarity with certain habits can lead to indifference.

Remember the Nazareth neighbors of Jesus? These hometown folks could not get excited about his coming around. Jesus seemed to them nothing more than the one they had always known. Their senses had been dulled by the regularity of his presence. He triggered nothing special in them. Their minds and hearts had grown all but indifferent to his company. Indifference bred by over-familiarity carries certain dangers too. Just as a high-voltage utility worker cannot afford to relax too thoroughly into his routine, lest the slightest misstep cost him his life, so too are there dangers in living the habits of the Christian life with a layer of over-familiarity that has turned thick and dull.

Not every day, or every moment of each day, can be filled with the kind of unpredictability that leads to euphoria. Live sporting events are popular, in part because of the way unpredictability is built into their outcome. An unanticipated touchdown scored can trigger a surge of dopamine in the brains of thousands of spectators. Those firing neurons that excite are part of what keep fans coming back. So yes, excitement and learning arise when something unexpected happens. But we need to figure out a way to prosper when predictability and over-familiarity surround us.

One sure way is to avoid a know-it-all behavior. We don’t need more of this from each other. But another way is to view each and every experience as if for the first time. A small child who giggles when thrown up into the air, and says repeatedly, “Do it again,” never sees the activity as monotonous. Each toss happens as if for the first time. This capacity to see vitality and meaning in repetitive acts and habitual behaviors leads me to conclude this thought: All of us who have understood ourselves to be Christian for a long time, and who constantly live on the brink of indifference to the riches of certain faith habits, need to rethink our perspective. We can step outside the boundaries of what we take to be so familiar, and re-enter the world of faith with the wide eyed excitement of a brand new believer. Think of this new perspective the next time you worship, or pray, or show love to someone whom you take for granted.

I’m wondering about beginning my sermons in 2014 with a new prayer I heard back in seminary:

Startle us, O God, with your truth,
and open our hearts and our minds to your word,
that hearing, we may believe, and in believing, we may trust our lives,
this day and all the days that lie ahead,
to your love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

“Startle us,” because religion can become routine even though it is about the stunning ideas that there is a God who created us and everything that is, that the world itself is full of the beauty and glory of its creator, that human beings are created in God’s image, that God came to live among us in the man Jesus and in him has promised to be with us and love us every day of our lives and beyond and to free us from anything that oppresses, confines, threatens, even the fear of death and death itself. Somehow we manage to make that boring. So I pray it because I, too, need the reminder that the world is alive with God, our God is a God of surprises and unlikely grace and blessed intrusions into our lives.

Faithfully and I hope surprisingly,   Ross