spiritual fitness centres?

I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.

fitness Series 1It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.

When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.

I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.

I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.

Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.

I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?

And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?

I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)

I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.

I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?

Or maybe not.

Be blessed, be a blessing

 

punctured

Hello dear Bloggists, did you miss me? Did you even notice the lack of bloggages? A lot has happened in the past couple of weeks and some of those things may form the basis for some blogging in due course. In fact, the most recent incident got my blog juices flowing…

We were driving back from Devon (where we had been on a week’s holiday) yesterday, happily pootling along the motorway at 70mph (yes, I do stick to the speed limit). I had overtaken a vehicle and was pulling back into the inside lane when, as I went over a cat’s eye*, there was a loud bump. I wondered whether the cat’s eye was coming loose, and then a car that was coming past me beeped and the passenger pointed to my front tyre.

I pulled off the motorway and discovered that my tyre was completely flat. There had been no warning and my car’s steering didn’t feel any different. If the car had not beeped I may have carried on for a while longer. We called out a rescue truck because my car does not carry a spare tyre and waited on the hard shoulder of the motorway for an hour – even resorting to playing ‘I spy’.

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the view from behind the safety barrier

The truck arrived eventually and took us to a well-known speedy car tyre replacement emporium nearby. They had a bit of a queue so we went to get some lunch while we waited and eventually I got a call to say that actually both front tyres needed replacing and the tracking needed correcting on the car to get all the wheels pointing in the right direction.

When I got back to the tyre replacement emporium I asked if I could see the old tyres and was alarmed to see that the ‘puncture’ had been caused by the car tyre having worn out on the inside and the rubber had actually given way! The other tyre was similarly worn.

I do check my car tyres relatively regularly as I do a lot of driving and had no idea that this was happening. There looked like there was adequate tread on the tyre when I looked at it. However, because the wear was on the inside of the tyre it was not easy to spot unless the wheel was turned and (with hindsight) I realised that I used to check when the wheels were pointing straight ahead.

Do we cruise through life assuming that everything is okay when actually there is something important that needs attention? Do we think that everything is okay when actually our tyres are wearing dangerously thin on the inside? What about that neglected relationship? What about neglect of our own spirituality? What about that secret ‘sin’ that has stopped bothering us?

UK Cars have an annual Ministry of Transport Test (unless, like mine, they are less than 3 years old) that looks at all of the major (and minor) safety issues to ensure that the car is roadworthy which should pick up issues before they become serious problems: what’s the equivalent for us?

  • Going on a retreat can be a valuable experience to stop, pause, reflect and consider.
  • Of course it’s much better to be carrying out regular maintenance rather than leaving it to once a year: going to church can provide moments when we are more open to what God is saying to us.
  • Meeting with friends with whom we can be honest and whose wise counsel we trust is helpful.
  • Reading the Bible regularly is another way in which we make ourselves open to what God may be saying to us.
  • Not squashing that nagging little voice that is telling us that something’s not right is a good thing to do – it’s often God trying to get our attention.

I’m going to be checking my tyres all over much more regularly in future (personal and on my car). What about you?

Be blessed, be a blessing

*the guides embedded in the road, not a genuine feline eye attached to a moggy

prying not praying

(This is the ‘thought for the week’ that I shared yesterday with Ministers of the Eastern Baptist Association and I share it with you in the hope that it may bless you this summer. While it refers to Ministers I think it applies to us all!)

It’s the start of the holiday season. It’s the time of year when most church activities close down, people in the congregation go away and numbers diminish temporarily (unless you are in a resort town), and God chooses to work mainly through Holiday Clubs and visiting preachers (I am not denigrating either of those two, God really does use them!).

It’s the less pressured time of year when Ministers slow down slightly and seek re-creation and renovation through rest and relaxation. I do hope that you will find time and space to do that this summer. If you haven’t already carved out space for that in your diary, do it now! Remember that God commanded Sabbath rest, and indeed is still ‘sabbathing’ (not sunbathing) according to Genesis 1 because there has been no end to the seventh day.

The Old Testament reading set for this Sunday in the Lectionary is 2 Samuel 11:1-15, and as I reflected on the passage it seemed appropriate… It begins: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.”

It was war season (who knew there was such a thing?!). It seems that it was the time of year when kings would lead their armies against other kings and their armies in order to expand or secure their borders, acquire assets or just flex their strategic muscles. Hmmm.

I Spy“David sent Joab out.” Perhaps David wanted a rest. Perhaps he had been told to delegate more. Maybe he thought he had achieved enough. Maybe he was fed up with all of the bloodshed. The reason is not given. But we are told that he did not lead “the king’s men and the whole Israelite army” in the manner that was expected. Not only did he not lead the army (who seemed to cope well without him) he remained in his fortified city: Jerusalem. And, as we know, while his army was busy destroying the Ammonites and besieging Rabbah, David got somewhat distracted when he was on his rooftop surveying the city. Bathsheba was bathing and David was peeping. One thing led to another and that led to pregnancy, subterfuge, lies, betrayal and ultimately murder.

Samuel had described David (to Saul when he told him that God had plans for a new king (1 Sam 13:14)) as ‘a man after [God’s] own heart’. He had walked closely with the Lord. He had been a good servant and a good king, in fact he was a great king. Never before or since David’s reign had Israel’s territory been as large, the nation as prosperous or as feared.

The period of his reign were the ‘good old days’ that everyone harked back to in Jesus’ day. Yet this one time he let his guard down (when he was on holiday?) and the consequences were terrible for him, for Bathsheba, for her husband Uriah (especially), for the baby and for the nation.

I want to encourage you to take the opportunity in the summer to rest, to relax, to be refreshed. But don’t limit that to physical refreshment and don’t let your spiritual guard down. Take the opportunity to (re)focus your attention on God. You’re not a professional Christian, you’re a follower of Jesus who has been called to a specific ministry. You’re not exempt from the ability to neglect your relationship with Jesus. You’re not free from the temptation to be distracted from him.

A suggestion you might like to consider is to set yourself the challenge to read through one (or more) of the gospels during the summer. Read it to be refreshed not to come up with your next sermon. Read it to encounter the Jesus who asks, “What would you like me to do for you?” and simply says, “Follow me.” David could have used his time on the rooftop to pray over his people rather than pry and peep. Don’t neglect to pray over your people and your town, even as you are on holiday. Whatever you do this summer may you be blessed by the Lord in order to bless others with him and through him and for him.