157. Training Inwardly

I’ve never considered myself much of an athlete, but I try to keep fit. I’ve been a long-time runner, walker, and marathoner, and still log more than 1000 miles each year. Two years ago I turned 50, and during a thorough physical examination the doctor suggested that while I have “Army legs” and do well with walking/running, I really need to focus more attention on upper body work.

“As you reach this age,” he said, “you need to think about muscle mass and how it naturally keeps slipping and deteriorating from year to year.” As you reach this age… slipping…. deteriorating. Thanks!

More than two years later, I finally concluded that perhaps I ought to do something. So I decided to add a little upper body workout to the schedule. I pulled the old steel weight set (dumbbells, we used to call them) out of the basement. I hadn’t used them since I was a teenager (yet we’ve carried them around with us for more than thirty years!).

The new daily workout has felt awkward. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s been hard to find a pattern that feels natural. The workouts leave me a little sore. My arms feel wobbly and I quickly grow tired. I lack the confidence and sense of competence that I enjoy when I run or walk for exercise. Honestly, I feel a little foolish.

That’s the way of new things. Worship, Bible study, serving on a mission team for the first time, tithing. We feel awkward, uncomfortable, self-conscious, and a little foolish. While we may consider ourselves accomplished experts and professionals in others realms of life and work, we become amateurs and beginners when we try something new.

I’m always amazed when I watch world-class athletes during the Olympics. The skaters spin and leap and glide across the ice in ways that defy gravity. They make it look so easy, so natural, so effortless. They make everything appear so graceful. How do they do that? They make it look so easy precisely because they’ve worked so hard. They make it look natural because of the unnatural focus they’ve given to their craft. They make it look effortless because of all the effort and repetition and practice over so many years.

Practice has moved them from the temporary incompetence and awkwardness through the times of repetition and routine to the point of confidence and gracefulness, until muscle memory itself helps them make it look so natural. They’ve moved from people trying to skate to becoming skaters, and all their years of practice have formed in them an identity and deep confidence.

This brings me to the notion of Christian practice, the personal spiritual disciplines of opening ourselves to God through worship and prayer, learning in community and serving others, generosity and invitation. Those great-hearted people who have been our models of faith, those folks whom we admire for their graciousness and depth of spirit, those mentors who have encouraged us and invited us and influenced us more than they know—how do they make the Christian life seem so natural? How do they make extraordinary service and incredible generosity appear so effortless? How do they make the spiritual life seem so much a part of their identity?

Perhaps because they have been practicing for a long time. Through their personal practice they have cooperated with the Holy Spirit in their own maturing in faith. They have opened themselves to God’s grace. They have said Yes instead of No to God, and opened the door to the spiritual life instead of slamming it closed. And they’ve done it time and time again, day in and day out, for years. They have practiced following Christ by putting themselves regularly in the most advantageous place to receive God’s forming grace through worship, prayer, service, scripture, community, the sacraments, and generosity. God has used their practice to re-form them and make them anew.

Every person who desires to follow Christ begins by experiencing awkwardness and a sense of incompetence. By grace, they find the strength and persistence to stick with it until following Christ begins to feel more natural and sustaining.

Start anywhere. Stick with it. Take the next step. Say Yes when it’s easier to say No. Do it daily. The Christian journey involves sustained obedience in a consistent direction, a daily honoring and serving God. Daily practice helps us stay in love with God. Daily practice is our way of participating with the Holy Spirit in our own perfecting in God’s love.

Eugene Peterson’s interpretation records Jesus saying, “When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly…. God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well.” (The Message, Matthew 6:16-18)

This Lent, may we go into training inwardly, and may God use our practices to draw us further toward Christ.

Yours in Christ,