This is the text of a sermon preached at Evensong on Sunday evening - as the Rio 2016 Olympics drew to a close. In part it is a meditation on Psalm119 (or at least the portion set for that day, verses 49-64) in relation to Isaiah 30:8:21 and 2 Corinthians 9. When we think of 'putting in the hours' as disciples, what does that really mean? Perhaps, if it's taking inspiration from athletes, it's about habits of attention to God: in worship, personal prayer, reading the scriptures, fostering relationships... allowing space and time for God's Spirit to be at work in us. It doesn't make us 'busier' but it might equip us to respond to others in obedience to God's commandments of love. Praying the psalms is at the heart of daily prayer - in paying attention to God in them and through them, our lives our shaped with honesty and hope.
O Lord... teach me thy statutes.
As we worship this evening, TeamGB has claimed second place in the final Rio16 medal table.
Some names are well known - Mo Farah, Laura Trott and Bradley Wiggens; others are unfamiliar - including Hollie Webb, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Maddie Hinch in the women's hockey team.
And perhaps, out of the 1000s of people who participate week by week in sporting activities as diverse as archery, badminton and fencing, we wonder what makes an Olympic athlete?
The Director of the Science Gallery at King's,Dr Daniel Glaser, has a succinct answer, based on neuroscience: he says that motivation and innate ability make little difference. 'It's all about the hours your put in.' Hours and hours of repetitive practice changes brain structure - reflected in the excellence of the 58 year old equestrian Nick Skelton and the 16 year old gymnast Amy Tinkler.
Few of us will dedicate our lives to one such discipline: yet we understand the effort needed to reach a point that a skill looks effortless. In music, languages and sewing, as well as sport, for most of us it's getting to the point where we can enjoy something for fun, make a gift or be understood travelling overseas.
What about our lives of faith: what sort of repetition shapes our lives and deepens our response to God?
Psalm 119 offers wisdom in the form of personal practice. It's made up of 22 eight verse stanzas - bite size pieces which we could read/pray over the course of coming weeks. Psalms form and transform us.
This prayer is addressed to God: it expresses personal faith and encourages others. The psalmist rejoices in God's faithfulness and ponders how we can live more faithfully. We hear of troubles, derision and fear. The quest isn't for the good, lofty or noble ideal in the abstract, but the day by day working out of God's love for us.
Such love is revealed in word, judgments, ordinances, statutes, testimony and commandments. These are ways of describing God's concern for what is just, peaceable, compassionate and merciful. The faithfulness of God is communicated in such a way that we might be guided; that we might practice ways of kindness; that our dealings with one another might be consistent.
The earth, O Lord, is full of thy mercy. It is full of your steadfast love.
At times of uncertainty and sleeplessness, in weakness and growing older, the young psalmist seeks to learn observe, read, obey, sing about and practice this love. There is joy, delight and freedom.
Likewise, we are called to put in the hours! Paradoxically, rather than meaning more human effort, this allows space for God's grace to act on us, in us and through us. We are to practice putting God at the centre; to be mindful of how that love seeps out into the minutia of our life. In acts of tenderness to a child; in courtesy to a colleague; in patience in the face of indignation; in good judgement amidst things which trouble us.
This is the pattern of life Isaiah calls God's people back to: a way which is purposeful and disciplined by the ways of God. Our hope is not in human strength or schemes; our trust is not based on our capacity to manipulate, oppress or deceive others. Instead, we are to return to and rest in God: to abide in his grace, mercy, justice and blessing.
Like the psalmist, Isaiah acknowledges affliction and adversity: but assures us that cries are heard; God's word is spoken. We are to listen and then practice - one step at a time.
This is the way; walk in it.
Both prophet and psalmist weave together thought and action; praise and service. It is a pattern of live lived under the compulsion of love. God's way of love is made manifest in Jesus Christ; it is costly and generous. It's a love that enables Paul to nudge the Corinthians beyond duty and pride in their giving. It is God's Spirit which awakens in us the capacity to act with such a generous love.
What we hear from Paul is an example of how formation our lives before God opens up transformed lives. It enhances the welfare of others, restores their dignity, enables them to trust others and praise God. It is an act of witness as love divine finds expression in human lives; it's authentic, compelling and live-giving. It glorifies God in expressions of praise, joy and thanksgiving.
Let's weave psalm 119 into our lives: a stanza at a time, perhaps. Let's meditate on God's love; on the commandment to love others. Let's listen, learn, act and sing.
The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statues.
© Julie Gittoes 2016