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?

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