Monday, February 6, 2012

The Super Bowl and Spiritual Disciplines

I've come to realize that one of the reasons I love sports is because it reminds me what marvelously adaptable creatures God has made us human beings to be.

Last night, I joined the other 110 million+ viewers who watched the Super Bowl and as I did I considered what an absurd set of skills it is that these guys have.  I think to myself "Why in the world should any human being have the ability to throw this oddly shaped ball 40 yards down the field to a quickly moving target sometimes through a window of space between defenders that isn't much larger than the ball itself all while a few 300-pound men are trying to clobber him?" Why should any human being be able to do this?

We take it for granted because sports is such a part of our culture that we've come to expect these guys to make plays like this.  But if you really think about it, there is no real purpose, no innate reason why any human being should be able to throw a ball that far and that accurately.  In fact, as any athlete will tell you, there is nothing natural about what they do.  There is no denying some people start out life more physically gifted than others but no one makes it very far without lots and lots and lots of practice.  Eli can make that throw because he has thrown a football literally tens of thousands of times in his young life.  Even for Eli who comes from a football family, this was not a gift with which he was naturally born. It was a skill he practiced until it became natural.  He made throw after throw after throw until all that throwing shaped him into the kind of player who could make this kind of throw.  Adaptability.

I use sports as an example because its something I understand but the same is basically true of most great demonstrations of human skill whether it be in music, art, writing, etc.  In fact, I would argue that its not just a matter of skills we develop but that it is our very selves, whatever you want to call that - our soul, spirit, personality - that are adaptable.  We really are like clay in some ways.  Who we are is shaped by what we do and we will be shaped most by those practices we choose to engage in repeatedly throughout the course of our lives.  God has made us to be truly adaptable creatures.

For me, this is one of the best arguments for why spiritual disciplines are a necessity.  Our goal as Christians is to be a Christ-like people.  But we have to recognize that doesn't just happen.  Yes, we are saved by grace and not our works.  Yes, it is God who works to transform us into his likeness.  But that transformation takes place as we offer ourselves to God over and over again throughout the course of a lifetime.  We pray and read Scripture and serve others and repeat countless times over the course of our lives not because we want to become really good at prayer or reading Scripture or because we believe those things win us any points with God but because we believe those things are opportunities for God to shape us to be more like Christ.

But this isn't just a matter of individual disciplines either.  Its about our disciplines together as a community as well.  Eli Manning has not only thrown a football ten of thousands of times in his life.  He probably has also run that specific play and others like it with his team hundreds or thousands of times.  They have run that play so many times that everyone knows where everyone else is supposed to be.  They have run it so many times that everyone knows how to adjust given different coverages and situations.  They have run it so much that it has become natural for them to work together in this way.

Such is the life of the Church.  We are a people engaging in private prayer and study so that we may be shaped into Christ's likeness.  We are, however, also a people who bring our different gifts and skills together while we worship together, share life together, and love together.  We come together because we can't be fully shaped into the kind of player, the kind of Christian we need to be if we are only practicing by ourselves.  This salvation that we've been delivered into is a sort of team sport and we can only really practice who God wants us to be when we practice together.

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