Today I’d like to reflect theologically on sport. Sometimes I look around me at our Western culture and wonder if we overemphasize sports. Let’s face it, we honor and sometimes even idolize athletes more than most in our society. Part of me can understand why, as some athletes can do some pretty amazing things with their bodies. Through their sport they can delight and even amaze us. But then I think of the salary that some of our professional athletes are making, and I wonder what that says about the value of sports in our culture. Now, I’m not saying high paid athletes aren’t gifted, nor am I saying they don’t work hard. But how do we make sense of our dominant sports culture? . . . At any rate, I’d like to think about some of the benefits of sports—especially spiritual benefits. Can we grow spiritually through sport? Two ways come to mind. Through sports we can learn discipline, which can help us to deny ourselves as we’re often called to do as Christians. In order to be an athlete, you must do certain things (i.e., train hard, sleep lots, eat well, etc.), but there also certain things you must refrain from (i.e., eating certain foods, staying up too late, over-training, etc.). As Jesus says in Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Seems to me that the discipline you learn in sport could help you deny yourself as a disciple of Christ. But I’m also thinking of another spiritual benefit of sport: play. We may not often associate play with the Christian life, but humans are not just made to work and worship. We’re also made to play and rest. And I think sport can help us do that too. Mind you, that may not happen if you take your sport too seriously, as some seem to do these days. How do you respond to the loss of a game? That will help you discern how important sport is to you. . . . What do you think? Can we grow spiritually through sport? I’d like to hear from you.
Over the last few weeks in our preaching we’ve reflected on how we grow spiritually through various New Testament (NT) passages that refer to athletic metaphors. Sports are important to many modern people. But apparently they were also important to many ancient people too. Hence Paul’s athletic references. So, as we think about sports, we know that athletes must train hard to be excellent at their sport. In other words, they need to perform certain exercises and drills to help them grow stronger, faster and more able to do what is required to perform. We understand and accept this sort of training for sports, and also in other areas like music or perhaps even for our work. But sometimes we forget that training is also required for the Christian life. In order to grow spiritually, we must perform certain spiritual exercises, like worship, Bible study, solitude and silence, fasting and service. These are traditionally called the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. So, what exactly are these spiritual disciplines and why are they important? As Dallas Willard writes in his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: “The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God’s Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies.” (p. 86) In other words, they are activities that help us gain control over our bodies and minds, so that our souls will grow spiritually as we receive more and more of God’s grace. The result is increased godliness. Sometimes we think that the Christian life is just about being saved by God’s grace and then waiting for heaven. But being saved is only the first part. What am I saved for? To become more and more like Jesus, and to help others become like Jesus. And that requires the application of basic spiritual exercises. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further about the nature and purpose of spiritual exercises. Meanwhile, enjoy the training!
Like some of you, I enjoy watching certain Olympic events. For example, last week we enjoyed watching the swimming, rugby and volleyball. I’m delighted to see gifted athletes use their gifts and abilities. We also enjoyed watching the Opening Ceremonies (OC). But as I did so, I couldn’t help but think I was watching a religious ceremony unfold. The parallels between a Christian worship service and OC were striking. Some churches have some sort of processional (i.e., Anglican). There was a long processional of athletes in the OC. After that an official spoke and welcomed the people and talked about the Olympics movement. It struck me that he acted like a sort of worship leader. Then, after the people in the stadium were good and excited, another Olympic official got up and gave a talk that sounded quite a bit like a sermon. Then various athletes and coaches were invited to make an oath that they would abide by the rules of their sport. This sounded somewhat like a Prayer of Response after the Message. And then the music began, which was probably intended to be entertainment, but it sounded a bit like worship singing. I don’t want to take this too far, but I think you can see the connections. So, what do we make of these sort of religious rituals and words in the OC? Pastor Timothy Keller helpfully explains that as Christians we are called to affirm what we can in our culture, and then expose the idols that exist. Most of us can affirm many positive aspects of the Olympics: exercise, character development, discipline, community-building, etc. But the OCC reminds me that there is a risk of taking a healthy cultural activity like sport and letting it become a potential idol. The Olympic movement preaches their own sort of gospel, which says winning a gold medal in a certain athletic event is the ultimate human achievement. The glorification of the body. There is some good to this movement and message. But it is not the gospel of grace proclaimed in Scripture. As Paul says in 1 Timothy 4: “Physical training has some value, but godliness has value for all things.” The Olympics are enjoyable and inspiring, and I intend to keep watching certain events, but let’s remember to keep first things first: the gospel and the pursuit of godliness.
Most of us have good intentions when January 1 rolls around. “It’s time to get in shape!” “It’s time to lose a few pounds!” “It’s time to read more books!” Did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I asked one person that question recently, and she said, “I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. But I do set goals.” Perhaps she had made a New Year’s Resolution in the past, like many of us have, which lasted until about February. Not that it’s necessarily wrong to make a resolution. Sometimes change is in order. So, we resolve to make things right. To make improvements. This is a good thing! What would happen if we never improved ourselves? If we just stayed the same?
This certainly wasn’t the Apostle Paul’s vision for the Christian life. In his letter to the Philippians he writes, “Therefore, my dear friends . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV) So, what is Paul saying in this passage? That we must earn our salvation? Not at all! Just before this he talks about how Jesus became human for us, and died on a cross for the sins of the world. No, we can’t earn our salvation. God provides it for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thanks be to God! But that doesn’t mean we should stay the same. Out of gratitude to God we “work out our salvation,” which means we live it out. We work hard to grow in character. In other words, we plan for spiritual growth.
Try as we might to change through our own efforts, perhaps even through New Year’s Resolutions, we struggle to do it on our own strength. Happily, as Paul says in the above verses, God works in us to do his purposes. So from beginning to end, it is God who does the work of changing us. Does this mean we sit back and do nothing? Not at all! But because of the Gospel (the good news of what God has done for us through Jesus), we gain the will and power to change.
And happily Paul and the other writers of Scripture guide us in our spiritual growth plan. For example, in the passage that follows he says, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.” (Philippians 2:14a) The other day I was discussing this passage with some people, and we imagined what it would be like to live a life where we didn’t complain or argue. That would be a wonderful life! As you examine yourself, you may wonder if such a life is possible. According to Paul, it is. He says, when we live thankful and peaceful lives, we’ll shine in the world like stars in the sky. In other words, you’ll stand out for God and make a difference in this world. And who doesn’t want to make a difference in this world?
Earlier I asked you about your New Year’s Resolutions. Now I ask you: What is your spiritual growth plan? I invite you to reflect on that, and let me know what you feel called to do in order to become more like Jesus.
This week I visited my spiritual director. And since it was our first meeting of the year, he asked me an interesting question: “What is your spiritual growth plan?” Sometimes in the New Year we make resolutions or set goals. But I like this question better, as it implies that our purpose as Followers of Christ is to grow spiritually. Anyway, here’s how I responded to the question. I said that I felt called to read the Bible through in its entirety, as I wanted to review the Big Story of Redemption. And after each daily reading, I will usually write our a prayer of response, as I seek to discern how the Lord has spoken to me through his word. And at some point during that prayer, I will pray for at least one member/family in our congregation, following the church directory. And then after that prayer of response and intercession, I will read various books for spiritual growth and ministry development. I mentioned other things too, like practicing weekly Sabbath and retreating annually. But perhaps this is enough. The point my spiritual director was trying to make is: spiritual growth takes intentionality. The Holy Spirit is always working in the lives of Jesus’ students, but part of his work is to get us to work, to practice certain holy habits, by which we are shaped into the image of Christ. So, that begs a question: Do you want to become like Jesus? If you do, when how will you get there? What is your spiritual growth plan? I’d love to hear about that.
A Practical Guide to Lectio Divina (Spiritual Reading)
- Choose a text of Scripture to read. It doesn’t have to be long!
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. (Solitude)
- Quiet your heart and mind in the best way you know how. (Silence)
- Then slowly read the passage once.
- Reflect on the passage. What is the Lord saying to you through it? Rest in God’s presence.
- Read the passage again.
- Respond to God’s Word. What would you like to say to God in the light of this passage?
- What do you feel the Lord is calling you to do based on this passage? How and when will you follow-through?
- Go on with your daily tasks, meditating on God’s Word as you go.