Getting in Shape

I Corinthians 9: 24-27

Eugene Peterson, professor at Regent College, British Columbia, has produced a refreshing translation of the New Testament. I commend it to you. Here is his rendering of our text. The Apostle Paul writes to friends in Corinth: “You have all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You are after one that’s gold eternally. I don’t know about you, but I am running hard for the finish line. I am giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me. I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.”

“You have all been to the stadium…” Sounds like a Bear’s fan, doesn’t he. Except that the only bears and lions in his day were real, and gladiators or Christians had to deal with them down on the field. The stadium he is talking about is where the races took place. “You have all been to the stadium and have seen the athletes race.” So clearly with his metaphor he is not talking about a spectator sport. He is talking about something that is to engage us, involve us, taxing and strenuous.

Clearly for Paul and the New Testament, real life, if it is anything at all, is a struggle, a battle. But a battle against what? “I am giving it everything I’ve got. I am staying alert and in top condition.” What does that feel like to you? Is it not true that we all experience life as inner conflict between competing dimensions of our psyche, on the one hand between self-indulgence, safety, comfort, consumption, self-satisfaction, the urge to take it easy and enjoy and on the other hand self-sacrifice, risk and adventure, the hard and bracing, the push to stretch and grow, the urge to struggle and labor.

And if there is a cultural battle in our time, it is over the question as to which of these dimensions of human experience will dominate. Life as race, fight, battle for self-mastery, self-discipline, self-control, or life as satisfaction of desires, enjoyment of all the available pleasures, life as focused on fun and ease. One social critic writes, “Life for too many has become the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of a good time. I have seen the
future and it plays. Fun morality replaces goodness morality which stressed interference with impulses. Not having fun is now an occasion for self-examination: What is wrong with me? Whereas gratification of forbidden impulses traditionally aroused guilt, failure to have fun now lowers self-esteem.”

But there is another older view of life that is still around. The view that whatever be the trial or temptation of the moment, be it momentous or trivial, this inner struggle, this effort at self-control, self-mastery, self-discipline, must restrain, hold in check the temptation to self-indulgence and ease.

In a sense this is what the civilizing process is all about. We are born literally as little savages, creatures thoroughly immersed in bare need, desire, impulse. Growing to be civil and useful human beings involves inner tension, struggle against these in the name of other demands and values. As C. Fitsimmons Allison puts it, “While yet infants we must learn to share toys and take turns. At Christmas our fingers are peeled off the toy car which belongs to a cousin and we painfully and tearfully begin to learn about ownership and property. We must wash our face and hands, set the table, not talk with a full mouth, take out the garbage, do our homework and not beat up on little brother.”

Our entire educational system is built, or at least was, on the premise that learning to be a productive, contributing member of society involves learning to do many things that go against the grain of other impulses and desires. Sitting in one place for even twenty minutes without moving, concentrating on symbols moving across a page to the exclusion of the birds singing outside the window or the chatter of neighbors, is an unnatural act. It is a battle not only between teacher and taught, but within that young body and mind, a battle for self-discipline and mastery. And where the war is not won, education does not happen.

So for Paul and this old faith real life is not rest but race, not fun but fight, not beach but battle. A favorite story pictures this inner and cultural divide today quite eloquently. A. J. Cronin was a busy physician in London, when ill-health forced him to give up his practice and go away for his health. Denied every other form of activity in the little Scottish village where he landed, he set to writing. In the beginning it was fun as the story and characters slowly took shape in his mind. But he never had written before and soon the agony set in. He would struggle for hours over a paragraph. He became deeply depressed. “Why am I wearing myself out with this toil? What’s the use of it? I ought to be resting. Abruptly, furiously, I bundled up the manuscript and threw it in the trash can. Drawing a sullen satisfaction from my surrender, I went for a walk in the drizzling rain.

Half way down the loch shore, I came upon old Angus, the farmer patiently and laborously ditching a patch of the bogged heath which made up the bulk of his land. I drew near and he gazed up at me in some surprise; he knew of my intentions and with that inborn Scottish reverence for letters, had tacitly approved it. When I told him what I had just done, and why, his weathered face slowly changed; his keen blue eyes, beneath misted sandy brows, scanned me with disappointment and a quaint contempt. He was a silent man and it was long before he spoke.

“‘No doubt you’re the one that’s right, doctor, and I’m the one that’s wrong…He seemed to look right to the bottom of me. My father ditched this bog all his days and never made a pasture. I’ve dug it all my days and I’ve never made a pasture. But pasture or no pasture I canna help but dig. For my father knew and I know that if you only dig enough a pasture can be made here.’

Cronin says, “I understood. I watched his dogged working figure, with rising anger and resentment. I was resentful because he had what I had not: a terrible stubbornness to see the job through at all costs, an unquenchable flame of resolution brought to the simplest, the most arid of duties of life. And suddenly my trivial dilemma became magnified, transmuted until it stood as a touchstone of all human conduct. It became the timeless problem of mortality— the comfortable retreat or the arduous advance without prospect of reward. The rest you can imagine. I tramped back to the farm, drenched, furious and picked the soggy bundle from the trash can. I dried it in the kitchen oven. Then I flung it on the table and set to work again with a kind of frantic desperation.

“You may surmise the rest of the story. The novel I had thrown away became a Book Society selection, was translated into nineteen languages, and bought by Hollywood. But the lesson goes deeper still. Today, when the air resounds with shrill defeatist cries, when half our stricken world is wailing in discouragement, the door is wide open to darkness and despair. The way to close that door is to stick to the job that we are doing, no matter how insignificant that job may be, to go on doing it and to finish it. The virtue of all achievement as known to my old Scot farmer is victory over oneself. Those who know this victory can never know defeat.”

So Paul the runner, writes, “I am not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself. Missing out on what? What is he proclaiming that requires such a strenuous approach to life? What is it about his message that demands self-mastery?

Well, the message is quite simple. It is the message we are approaching at Christmas, the message we will celebrate, the message that God has visited this sorry old world to convince us that he loves us, just as we are, with all our warts and bad habits, all our flaws and failures, young or old, male or female, bright or not so bright. Just as you sit there quite unfinished and hardly a model of humanity, he never-the-less dotes on you, affirms you, cares for you with a faithfulness and passion quite beyond belief.

So what has that nice word got to do with struggle and race? On the face of it, it sounds a lot more like an invitation to settle back and let God enjoy us, loveable as we are? Yes, except Paul’s experience is this: It is precisely this message about our infinite worth before God, that challenges us to begin the struggle to be more than we are. It is one big push to join the fight against everything in us that is less than loveable, less than real life. So the gift is demand. Grace leads to race. The struggle to be the love we receive, there in Bethlehem town.

So in a sense getting to Bethlehem, the place where God becomes real in this world, is always a struggle. We were there just over a week ago, thirty of us. Had to wait and wait, to get through the checkpoint that let us through the hideous 24 foot high wall. On the one hand greater security for both sides. On the other hand a symbol and symptom of the hatred and rage on both sides that will never lead to solution.

Love came down at Christmas, love all gentle. But getting to Bethlehem, the place where this love takes hold of us and shapes us is always a struggle. Finding our way through the detours of the details of this season, the presents and parties that organize our days, the clutter of commercial culture, getting to the experience of God come to this sorry world of Bethlehem then and now, leading us to the love that bears and endures, hopes and believes, this takes time and discipline. One of the reasons I like to take friends on such a pilgrimage of faith is that it confronts us with the reality that following the Babe of Bethlehem is no breeze, more battle.

And the word about the love of God in Christ is the word that you don’t have to pull it off, what you have to do is put up a fight; you don’t have to manage perfection, you do have to run in the right direction. It is not critical whether you stumble or fall, it is only important that you pick yourself up and try again. You will never reach the point where you are comfortable with how far you’ve run on this race to Bethlehem, but that’s all right. For God is with you, as the forgiveness and strength, to keep going toward the goal of what he wants you to be. God loves us just as we are not in order to dissolve the inner tension but to enable us to live with it. God loves us just as we are so that we may be led to become more than we are, to become all that in our best moments we know we want to be. For that is where real life lies.

Perhaps we need to hear that especially at the beginning of this season called Advent. It is interesting that the early Church saw this time before the Christmas celebration much in the same way as it saw Lent, as a time of preparation. As a time for practicing the disciplines of quiet and reflection, cutting back on the food and fun, centering a bit more on the things that are eternal, caring and giving, so that the celebration to come might be filled with authentic joy. Perhaps it says something about our time that we do race strenuously toward Christmas, but it is often the wrong race.

Satisfaction in life comes from self-mastery. But that leaves only the question, to what end…just the sense of satisfaction? Self-mastery as an end in itself ? Never in this old faith and story. It is always self-discipline in the name of usefulness, of service. It is self-mastery because possessed of Gods love, we have an incredible gift to give to the world.

Paul writes to friends in Galatia, present day Turkey, that God’s gifts in and through us are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and… self-discipline. Ah, that last one. How critical! For without self-discipline can there be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness? I doubt it. It is self-discipline that makes possible all the rest we have to give.

The late Norman Cousins wrote of his visit to Lambarene and the famous musician, scholar and physician, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. “The biggest impression I had in leaving Lambarene was of the enormous reach of a single human being totally commited to the will of God. Yet such a life was not without the punishment of fatigue. Albert Schweitzer was supposed to be severe in his demands on the people who worked with him. Yet any demands he made on others were as nothing compared to the demands he made on himself. He was not concerned with the attainability of perfection. He was concerned about the pursuit of perfection. He considered the desire to seek the best and work for the best as a vital part of human nature. When he sat down to play the piano or organ, and he was alone, he might stay with it for hours at a time. He might practice a single phrase for two hours or more. He sought his own outermost limits and not just in his music but above all in his service to the outsider, the ill, the unfortunate, as a natural part of purposeful giving and living.”

At the conclusion of his massive work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer wrote this. “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow me” and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience, who He is.”

The reality is that we all have gifts, incredible Christmas gifts, gifts like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, gifts to give to one another in marriage and family, neighborhood and work, church and world, as in his strength and forgiveness we discipline ourselves, fight the good fight, run the right race. So let us race to Bethlehem that we may truly live. .