Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.
-1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (New Living Translation)
So maybe you don’t know this unless you live in Chicago, but the Cubs are in the World Series this year for the first time since, oh, about the time man was discovering fire.
The Cubs have an outfielder named Kyle Schwarber. He was already something of a Windy City folk hero for some key homers he hit in last year’s postseason. But, this year, in the third game of the season, he tore two ligaments in his left knee in a collision with center fielder Dexter Fowler. Schwarber underwent surgery a few days later and missed the rest of the season.
Until last week, when the Cubs won the National League pennant, and the news broke that Schwarber was playing in a couple of minor league games, partially to ascertain his fitness to play in the World Series. And when game one of the Series rolled around this past Tuesday, Schwarber was in the lineup as designated hitter.
That’s pretty good, but what happened next was even better. In game one, he doubled and walked. In game 2, he collected two hits, a walk, and two RBI. Just an amazing performance for a guy who hasn’t played major league baseball since April.
A radio guy said this after his game one performance: “It’s amazing how hitters can roll out of bed and hit.” Except that isn’t what happened.
When Schwarber was cleared by his doctors, he asked the Cubs to assign him to the Arizona Fall League so he could see some live pitching. He played two games there while the Cubs won the National League championship. Then, over the weekend, he set the pitching machine to throw its most difficult breaking balls. And then he started swinging. In fact, he swung at over 1,300 pitches, trying to get his timing back and get ready to see Major League pitching. Blisters broke out on his hands and fingers. He taped them up and kept swinging.
You get the point: to say he rolled out of bed and got a hit in the World Series is to miss the hard work he put in. Not to mention the months of hard work he put in rehabbing that surgically repaired left knee.
I sometimes think we believe that we can just roll out of bed and be spiritual people, that spiritual growth shouldn’t require hard work. Maybe we get that idea because we know that we’re saved only through God’s grace, and that he sends his Spirit to us through Jesus, and not because of anything we’ve done. That’s truth, of course. God loved us “while we were still sinners.” Whatever level of spirituality we might attain, it will still be God’s love and mercy and not out own accomplishment that saves us.
Or maybe we've come to believe that it’s the job of the people who plan and lead our worship services to make us grow spiritually, that it depends on them discovering the right mix of songs, prayers, and sermon to make us appropriately teary, shivery, and goose-bumpy. That feeling “good” (however that’s defined) when you leave church is spirituality.
If we think that it’s supposed to be easy, that we should just be able to roll out of bed as spiritual people, then we’re not living in reality. It’s like thinking you can binge on cheeseburgers and birthday cake and then wake up the next morning to hit a Corey Kluber 2-seamer. Almost every aspect of the world we live in pushes against a spiritual life. Our preoccupation with image, our worship of the things that we can build and earn and own and experience, our elevation of sensation and the immediate gratification of our every whim over sober-mindedness and taking a long-term view of things — there’s not much room for spirit there. There isn't much space to walk by the Spirit when the flesh has commandeered the bass drum and is enthusiastically pounding out the beat to which we move.
If we think spirituality should be easy, then what do we do with Paul, who talked about it in terms familiar to anyone who’s ever sweated in a gym to lose a few pounds or to get ready for a game. “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should,” he wrote. And if he did, why do we think we shouldn’t have to?
Interesting, isn’t it, that to Paul the world spiritual didn’t mean not physical. Maybe that’s part of our problem. We think spirituality has to do with the non-physical part of ourselves. Spirituality is very physical, though. It has to do with where we go and what we say and what we do. If service is spiritual, then spirituality is physical. If worship is spiritual, then spirituality is physical. Spirituality isn’t just about what we think about or believe, or how we feel at a given moment. It’s also about what we train ourselves to do.
Being spiritual means being led by the Spirit of God. That’s where training comes in. Our first impulses, the words that fly most easily off the tongue, the most intense feelings we have, the drives that want to tell us exactly what we need to do: they might not be of the Spirit. Prayer isn’t physically easy for most of us. Serving others when we’d rather be comfortable at home doesn’t come easily. And so, we too have to discipline our bodies to do what they should.
So don’t kid yourself: spirituality won’t come easy all the time. It didn’t for Paul. It didn’t even for Jesus. Don’t be surprised or discouraged when it doesn’t for you. Most of the time, if you’re in Scripture and in prayer and with the church, you’ll know what you should do. The challenge is to make yourself do it, especially when you don’t want to. That’s how you train yourself for spirituality.
The church isn’t the place where we go to be spiritual. It’s the gym where we train ourselves to be spiritual in our offices, our homes, our neighborhoods. Where we help each other train. Spirituality can he hard, but we aren’t left to pursue it alone. The church is there to help us. And our Lord is too.
Do you find being spiritual is hard work. Sometimes seems harder than it should? Welcome to the club.
Let’s tape up our blisters and keep swinging.