Sunday, July 29, 2012

Spiritual Endurance

The 30th Olympiad has been open for two days and already Facebook and Twitter are on fire with both criticism and praise for the opening ceremony and NBC's coverage of the events. I have always loved watching the Olympics and I don't know anyone who doesn't. Whenever I watch any Olympic sport, I always think of some of the Scriptures that use running metaphors. Of course, there's Hebrews 12:1, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..." But St. Paul's admonition to the Corinthians really grabs my attention:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. (I Cor. 9:24-27)
Only one runner receives the prize. Run in such a way that you may win it. That certainly discourages spiritual couch potatoes, doesn't it? Of course, we see in this passage Paul's ubiquitous focus on self-control, particularly with regard to physical discipline. Paul is not encouraging self-control and self-denial for their own sake.  He has a goal in mind. What goal, exactly, is that? Paul's immediate goal was evangelizing his Jewish brethren. But what is our goal? What are the benchmarks that tell us we are living a life of faith and will not be "disqualified"?

I think John Wesley's three general rules for Methodist societies give us excellent benchmarks:

1. First, ...[do] no harm, avoiding evil of every kind.
2. Secondly, ...[do] good, by being in every kind merciful after their power as [you] have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men.
3. Thirdly, ...[attend] on all the ordinances of God; such as:
    The Public Worship of God
    The Ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
    The Supper of the Lord.
    Family and private prayer.
    Searching the Scriptures, and
    Fasting or abstinence.

What I love about Wesley's general rules is that they aren't rigid. Wesley never expected class members to do all of these things all the time. And he doesn't say, "do no evil," or, "if you do evil, you will not be saved." He says, "avoid evil." Wesley knew that we're not perfect, and we can't expect ourselves to be at our best all the time. Sin happens. But he gave us ways to grow in faith through, as he called them, the ordinances of God and doing good in whatever ways we can find. Wesley's goal-setting was a lot more realistic than Paul's, in my opinion. As long as we try our best to do these things, we qualify to compete, so to speak. Maybe one might not have the constitution to fast much, but there are plenty of other ordinances one can practice instead. 

It occurs to me that, at the Olympics, who qualifies for the final and who wins a medal ultimately comes down to how each individual athlete competes on any given day. Sometimes an athlete has a bad day. Even if s/he is the world champion in the sport, that title doesn't matter. It's about what happens now, in this moment. Likewise, we get another chance each day. How we succeeded or failed in the past doesn't matter. It's about how we make our choices in each new situation. Our goal is simply to live in a more Christlike manner every day. It's hard to do, and it requires endurance. Being a Christian isn't a one-time visit to a soup kitchen or a 6-week Lenten Bible study, it's a lifelong practice. It's important to push ourselves and one another spiritually, just like an athlete needs a trainer to push her/him to achieve more. Like being an athlete, continually pushing ourselves spiritually each day is what will make the difference to win the race in the end.

How do Wesley's general rules push you? How do they affirm what you are already doing? Do you have a spiritual friend who can help push you to be more Christlike?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Body Talk: Health, Hatred, and Healing

 Recently a synchroblog captured the attention of the Internet, or at least, my corner of it: "A Love Letter to My Body." Women wrote letters to their bodies, apologizing for hating them. A friend of mine wrote an awesome one. About the same time, I saw this article, "Is Hating My Body A Sin?" on the Sojourners blog. I've long believed that is the case, but I never really put it in those terms before. Rachel Stone writes,
"Hating one’s body is the disrespecting of the body God has given us, which in itself is worthy of respect and honor, being made in God’s image, the fulfilling of desires in ways God not intend, to believe lies about human bodies in general and ours in particular, and to covet for ourselves a body not our own... Hating one’s body usually involves sin: a distortion of the relationship God desires to have with us, and the relationships God desires for us to have with others and with creation. And, like any sin, hating our body means a loss of freedom and liberty that God desires for us."
As Rachel points out, when we hate our bodies, it is a failure of incarnational theology, that is, it does not respect God's good work as the Creator and God's dwelling within us through the Spirit. This mistake is easy to make because we as Christians have a philosophical legacy of dualism, thanks to St. Paul. All throughout his writing, we see a divide between the spiritual and the carnal, or bodily, self. He often sets these two dimensions of self at odd with one another. Thus the "spiritual" has come to represent that which is better, or preferable, to the sinful "flesh." It becomes "of the spirit" vs. "of the flesh." This terminology is just one way of talking about our own good and sinful tendencies, but it has become a dominant mode of thought.

So when marketers try to sell us products to make us look more conventionally attractive in our culture, it's easy to buy into their lies. They convince us that we have to sanitize and starve our bodies in order to make ourselves presentable to the world. The truth is that health has little to do with outward appearance, and a healthy body can look unattractive (again, by conventional cultural standards) as compared to the rail-thin models and ultra-muscular men that appear in our TV, movies, music videos, and magazines. Impossible standards for both women and men can make it easy to fall into the trap of hating our bodies.

Rachel gives several suggestions as antidotes to this sin of self-hatred. I particularly like her suggestions of gratitude to God for one's body and kindness to oneself. Especially when we have such nice weather outside, a good start is to just sit outside and enjoy the sunshine, the breeze, and the sounds of birds or crickets chirping. Noticing our senses can help us learn to be grateful for our bodies. So can singing our favorite songs and dancing to our favorite tunes. Being kind to ourselves can be harder, because we have to reverse bad mental habits of being constantly self-critical. Once we learn to see ourselves through God's eyes, not the world's, it can be easier to give ourselves grace. God wants us to be healthy and happy, and we should strive toward health and happiness, or at least peace, for God's sake.

When is it hardest to respect your body as God's creation? When is it easier?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cleaning House... and Sweating the "Stuff"

Back in late April, when I'd originally planned my Spring Cleaning for 2012, a number of things prevented me from actually doing the cleaning I had planned to do. And once my schedule cleared, I kind of put things off. So Spring Cleaning has become Mid-Summer Cleaning, which certainly makes one sweat a lot more. I scrubbed the entire kitchen and pantry from top to bottom and re-organized most of their contents. My spouse helped me clean the bathroom, though a little bit accidentally, due to a leaky bathtub. And I finally rotated my wardrobe. In a sense, I've been cleaning house mentally and spiritually as well, shaking the cobwebs out of the corners of my brain and shooing dust bunnies from my heart. 

I wouldn't say that I've learned any new spiritual insight, necessarily, or that I've gained special understanding. I've just taken stock of where I've been for the last year and where I'm going in the coming year. Sometimes it's good to get one's thoughts and feelings in order before a time of transition: to remember the good times in the last few years, take an inventory of relationships, and to acknowledge fears about the future.

This weekend, it's been incredibly warm. I was liturgist today at church, and H-EUMC doesn't have air conditioning. My colleague, Pastor Lisa, was preaching. Just before we processed in during the opening hymn, we looked at one another and noticed sweat on each others' brows. Lisa said, "I'm glad you're up there with me today." It was good to be present with her even in the stickiness. As I heaved aside appliances and scrubbed the kitchen floor last week, and as I did the same in the bedroom earlier today, I became very sticky. It was as if I was purging myself of all the "stuff" of the last couple of years. It's good to release some of the mental and emotional clutter, as well as the physical clutter, in preparation for the deluge of new experiences and relationships to come.

Right now, CUMC's Bridge Builders is in North Dakota on mission among the Lakota Tribe. I'm sure that they are sweating through their work as a mission team, and they are probably spiritually taking stock, too. A mission trip will do that to you. It gives you perspective on where you've been and where you're going, and it gives you a new context in which you can come to understand your own identity and spiritually. Sometimes a change of pace and a little hard work is all it takes to spiritually "clean house." I hope that, whatever they're up to right now, they are learning and encouraging and being encouraged. And I hope that they're releasing some of the "stuff" they've accumulated in their hearts to make room for more people and more of God in their lives.

What do you do when you become a little mentally and spiritually "overfull"? How do you find ways to "clean house" in your mind and heart?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Another Potpurri Post

Right now, my spouse is in the thick of his application process to Physician Assistant school (a master's program), and I'm a bit busy helping him. OK, I'm more than a bit busy. More like a bit obsessed. Since I have no thoughts other than making sure it gets done, here's some interesting things to read until I my brain comes back from application-land.

This one's been making the rounds on the Internets recently:
10 Cliches A Christian Should Never Use

An entry from Rachel Held Evans' Women in the Gospels series:
The Widow's Mite

Yet another way in which Catholic Sisters (Nuns) are awesome:
A Catholic Nun, A Teenage Girl, and Climate Justice

Another good one from Sojourners:
Everything You Wanted to Know About Higgs Boson Particles But Were Afraid to Ask