Friday, February 3, 2017

Season of Spiritual Training

New Year's resolutions abound among those hoping to improve themselves. And why shouldn't they? The turning of the calendar is a fitting milestone for setting new goals. Many of these goals, however, typically revolve around health and wellness, fueled by a desire to look or feel better in the next year than in the last. Again, legitimate motives all, that manifest themselves in new memberships to gyms, clubs and CrossFit "boxes" across the landscape. Yes, there is a percentage of these resolutions that will not survive beyond January, but that does not negate the value of setting new goals and striving to be stronger, healthier, better. Will that gym or warehouse be a little less crowded on February 15th than it was on January 5th? Perhaps, but those resolute to train themselves for a better life are not among the attrition numbers. They endured through initial struggles to develop healthier habits. 

A time is quickly approaching in the Christian calendar, however, that affords us the opportunity to focus on an even deeper type of training that the new gyms and workout regimens should point us toward; a time of training the soul and spiritual for the various ebbs and flows of life. 

The Apostle Paul suggests to his readers in Corinth a parallel between physical and spiritual training...

Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified. - 1 Cor 9:24-27

And then hints to his apprentice that an analogy can be drawn between physical and spiritual exercise...

But reject those myths fit only for the godless and gullible, and train yourself for godliness. For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come.” This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance. In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers. - 1 Timothy 4:7-9 (NET)

The time of Lent, the penitential season leading up to Holy Week and Easter (the highest point in the Christian year), is an opportunity to make "new year's resolutions" concerning our spiritual training regimen. For many, the assumption that physical improvements would require intentional effort is a given, but then assume that spiritual improvements will somehow evolve naturally. Do we really expect that spiritual "fitness" requires any less volition and effort? On the contrary, while some seem to have a natural metabolism for health and fitness, requiring less effort than others to be slim and trim, no such equivalent exists for the human soul. Everyone must be purposeful regarding spiritual fitness that grows with discipline. 

Means of spiritual discipline have been well celebrated over the whole of Church history. The most obvious of these is fasting: the self-denial of food (the most basic of human needs) for the sake of prayer, and training the physical appetites to be subordinate to our "appetite" for the message and presence of God. It's a good practice when customized to each person's ability and readiness. The main regulation from Scripture about it is secrecy. The conversation topic of "what are you giving up for Lent" needs to be abandoned. Consider Jesus' own words concerning this...

When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. -Matthew 6:16-18

Don't tell anybody! Just train on your own. This is not the time to brag about spiritual disciplines the way that many flood social media with "progress pictures" of the muscles they're developing. Physical exercise can be public, but spiritual exercise should not be. 

Fasting is only one of the disciplines that one might pursue though. There are disciplines that take away from one's life (abstaining disciplines like fasting, silence, frugality, secrecy, and solitude), and disciplines that add to it (engaging disciplines like fellowship, study, celebration, service, and sacrifice). The point is to break from the normal pattern and push one's self in ways you haven't before. If you're a bit of a recluse, then engaging disciplines like fellowship and celebration may be your spiritual "CrossFit," straining all your instincts to be around people more when you just want to be alone. On the other hand, if you're a big people person, solitude and silence may be the "weight reps" that truly build your strength of soul. If "retail therapy" is frequent for you, then frugality may be the thing that makes this Lent more meaningful than ever. If you save every penny, then the sacrifice of offering beyond your norm may be what finally helps you "break a healthy sweat" concerning spiritual matters. The point is to know what discipline will specifically develop greater depth for you this Lenten season as you approach it with purpose, wanting the benefits not only for this life, but the next as well. 

I have disciplines that I know will develop the strength I still need (no, I'm not going to tell you what they are), and you must find what those are for you. As the season of Lent quickly approaches (Ash Wednesday is March 1st!), let's give consideration to what disciplines we might engage, just as we did for the New Year's resolutions to start getting fit. We've all heard that "summer bodies are built in the winter," but consider when the soul is built that can withstand the "winters" of life. Let's start thinking now about what "gym" we'll start running to when Lent comes around. 

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