Breaking with Routine

January 1, 2023 by Lindsay Gray

When I was four years old, my family went on vacation to the beach. We arrived, ate lunch, and then headed out to play in the ocean. That evening, we gathered around the table for dinner. As we finished blessing the food, my mother looked at me only to see tears rolling down my cheeks. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Daddy is sitting in my seat!” I wailed. Sitting in a different chair for dinner was an unwelcome change. Our one previous meal had created a routine that, even as a young child, I expected and craved. There are still times, decades later, that I resonate strongly with my four-year-old self. I want to know what to expect, what is expected of me, and, most important, I want to feel prepared — especially if change is involved.

Creating and following a routine is one way I find security and comfort when parts of life feel out of control. My routines give me a place to start when the day feels overwhelming or the tasks ahead of me appear daunting. Routines can be life-giving. Daily Bible reading, meditation, and prayer connect us with God and provide depth to our spiritual life. And my regular walks around the neighborhood help me care for my body and offer me space to quiet my mind. But even good routines, if we never inspect them or break from them, may lose their purpose. And sometimes when we rely too heavily on a particular routine, we risk losing opportunities for surprise and wonder or we may miss out on the unexpected and unplanned ways that God is working in our lives.

In John 5, Jesus meets a man who has been ill for 38 years and has tried all that time to get to the freshly stirred, healing waters of the pool called Bethesda. Each time the waters are stirred and the man moves toward them, someone else reaches them first. He has tried for nearly four decades, doing the same thing over and over. Finally, Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” (Jn. 5:6, NRSV) The man replies, “I have no one to put me into the pool,” (Jn. 5:7). This suggests to me that perhaps the man’s routine of trying to get to the water had become all-consuming, that he had lost sight of the real goal of being made well. Jesus’ question interrupts his routine and points to the heart of the matter — healing. And at Jesus’ instruction the man takes up his mat and walks.

Like the man in this story, my routines can become all-consuming. Marking items off my to-do list feels comforting and satisfies my need for stability. But following a routine for the sake of a routine offers nothing in the way of healing or life-giving energy. God is always at work — but sometimes not in ways we expect or in ways we have planned for. When Jesus asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?” I imagine him thinking, Of course! Can’t you see how I have spent years trying to get to the healing waters? Instead of helping him to the water, however, Jesus interrupts his routine and tells him to “stand up, take your mat and walk.” And scripture says, “At once the man was made well” (Jn. 5:8-9). The routine was not the answer. Jesus invites the man to break from his routine and to be open to a different path to the miracle that he wanted.

What miracles — large and small — do we miss because we are committed to a routine that numbs our awareness of other possibilities? I pray that Jesus will interrupt our routines when they are stale and no longer life-giving and invite us in a new direction. As we begin a new year, let us step out of the routines that limit our expectations of what God can do in our lives and in the world so that we may live abundantly.

Questions for Reflection:

1. Recall a time when a disruption gave you a clearer awareness of God’s presence. What was the disruption? What did you learn about God from that experience?
2. Which of your routines have become more important than the purpose they were intended to serve?
3. How will you disrupt one of your routines to make room for the Holy Spirit to push you in a new direction?

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