Friday, October 3, 2014

Practice: Not a Spectator Sport

Brady's first time pitching.
I like to go to Brady’s baseball practices.  (Which is a good, since they account for many hours of a parent’s life during the season.)  I watch intently as the coaches lead the players through pitching, hitting, and fielding drills for about two hours.  At one practice recently, the kids were warming up their arms.  I was standing near the dugout, and the coach asked me to throw him a ball.  It wasn’t pretty—a wounded duck if ever there was one.   

After my stupendous throw, it occurred to me that while watching many hours practice may have taught me a thing or two about baseball, it has obviously not “taught” my body how to throw a baseball correctly.  No, for that to happen, I would have to actually get out on the field with the kids and participate in the practice.  It would be pretty humbling to get out there as a nearly 44-year-old man and practice with kids, but since I didn’t play baseball growing up, that’s really where I would need to begin.

There’s no getting around the fact that if I want my ability to play baseball to improve, I would have to put in the practice.  No one can do it for me.

Just like baseball, church is not intended to be a spectator sport.  While we can gain something simply by showing up on Sunday and “watching” the worship service, there’s a limit to how far that can take us.   Unless we actively participate in worship and in prayer, fasting, service, etc., on a regular basis, we shouldn’t expect to see tremendous transformation in our lives.  Just as in baseball, even if we do practice, our progress will be slow, which may not seem all that encouraging. 

But then life unexpectedly “throws you a curveball” and all you can do is “react to the pitch”.  There isn’t time to think about your response, you can only let whatever is in you flow out of you.  When, in that moment, you “step to the plate” and “smack it out of the park” spiritually, you start to realize the value of all those hours of practice.  The drills seemed pointless at the time, but they actually served a purpose!   They trained you to respond “as you should,” almost without conscious thought.

Animate: Practices
This fall, the Adult Sunday School at my church is doing a study called Animate: Practices.  Essentially it’s an opportunity for us to practice seven different spiritual activities: Prayer, food, worship, sacraments, money, service, and community.  There is an accompanying DVD and journal.  The DVD speakers are well-known Christian pastors, authors, activists, etc., so we can think of these as “coaches” who share what they’ve learned on their journey in hopes that it helps us as we seek to practice.  

Just as my baseball game hasn’t improved that much sitting watching my son’s practices, our ability to pray, worship, serve, and so forth, won’t substantially improve just by watching a DVD.  We have roll up our sleeves and practice what we’ve discussed and seen demonstrated on Sunday.
God’s grace is free but our growth requires effort (practice)
So while the class gatherings are important and the fellowship and discussion is great, I would say the journal is the most critical part.  Each week, there are six exercises related to the activity being studied.  These provide opportunities to practice what we talked about on Sunday during the week. Of course, the exercises are optional, but it’s been said that, “we get out of something what we put in”.  I can’t say I do them all, but I’ll share a few of my experiences in the next few posts.


Next: My experience Practicing Prayer.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals—Part II: Practicing Life With God

Spiritual growth has a lot in common with baseball—or any other activity we do involving our bodies. While we may learn something about an activity by watching others and taking notes, we only truly learn how to do something when we do it ourselves.   We need to find “coaches” who can come alongside us and provide guidance for us on our spiritual journey.  We can also learn reliable and repeatable patterns and practices (sometimes called spiritual disciplines) that help create space for God to work in our lives on a regular basis.   We could think of these activities as batting practice for the spiritual life.  Just like the baseball players, we need to practice these activities over and over again until they become routine to us—until doing it the wrong way is what feels unnatural.  My son attended a baseball clinic recently, and a couple times while demonstrating to the group, I heard the coach say, “I have a hard time doing this the wrong way.”  In other words, he has practiced the right way to swing so much that he finds it hard to demonstrate incorrectly. Could we imagine our spiritual life reaching that point? 
These are practices we can do with our bodies
that help create space for God to act in our lives.

In the life of Jesus we see a perfect example of living a divine life through a human body.  Like Coach Nick at Brady's clinic, Jesus had passion, but in his case, it wasn’t just for the game of baseball, but for the human race and all of creation.  Ultimately it was that passionate desire for you, me, and all of creation to be “put right” and set free to become all that God intended us to be that led him to give his life on the cross.  If Christ had that kind of passion and love for the world, we can too. 

Over and over again in his letters, Paul asserts that Christ is in us and we are in Christ, which implies that what Jesus did as a human being is possible for us.

Practically speaking, however, it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to do even a fraction of what Jesus did. To walk in the way of Jesus’s unconditional love and grace for all people seems completely counter to what comes naturally to us as human beings.  It’s hard to practice this way of living day after day when the world seems to war against it—sometimes literally.   

Ultimately we have to choose in which school we wish to enroll: the School of the World or the School of Jesus?   Many of us try to straddle the fence and dabble in both schools, but that usually doesn’t work well. The techniques each school teaches will inevitably contradict each other and we will become confused and frustrated at our lack of progress.  Once we intentionally choose to focus on the School of Jesus, however, we can begin to make progress in our spiritual growth. 

Like Coach Nick, Jesus has a well-earned reputation as a good ”coach”.  In fact, he is the best instructor for living life with God that I know. His school teaches the rigorous Kingdom-life curriculum—a counter-cultural way not for the feint of heart.  Also like Coach Nick with his players during practice, Jesus demands our utmost concentration and effort when we are in class.  Anything that distracts us must be put aside; we must be committed to the training we have started—Luke 14:25-33.  His is a hard teaching, and it’s not for everyone—John 6:60.  However, former students, such as Peter, Paul, and so many others that have set at his feet through the centuries, swear by him.   They promise us that if we stick with him, even when the going gets tough, he will show how we ought to live.  

Just as a change to how we swing a baseball bat seems strange at first, it won’t seem natural to respond as Jesus would at the beginning.  Our body (including our mind and spirit) has not yet been trained to do it, so we will feel awkward and clumsy trying to do what Jesus did. With practice, however, responding, as Jesus would if he were me, becomes easier—more natural. 

Imagine what a difference it might make if more of us committed to the School of Jesus—not just for a week, a semester, or even a four-year degree, but for a lifetime.  Every follower of Jesus must continue to learn; every day is an opportunity to practice living life with God—a Kingdom-living clinic if you will.  Imagine the burdens that could be lifted and the power that could be released if more of us had our eyes and ears opened to see life that way.  Everything we live through—the good, the bad, and all the ordinary days in between—trains us for reigning in God’s Kingdom both now and eternally.  Surely, learning to see life that way could make a difference in some of the seemingly intractable personal and global crises we face in our families, churches, communities, and world.  Who knows, it might even literally transform the world.

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals — Part I: Practicing Our Swing

Coach Nick's nephews coaching Brady on his swing.
Nick called them the "Wonder Twins".
Brady participated in a baseball clinic recently. Coach Nick Mammano, who is well known in our league, led the clinic.  He has a passion and love both for the game of baseball and the kids he coaches that runs in his family—and is contagious.  This was a great opportunity for Brady to work on the fundamentals of his game in preparation for moving up to the next level of competition. 

The key to success in baseball, or any other endeavor involving our body, is learning to control the body so it does what we need it to do when we need to do it.   

During the clinic, Nick and his assistant coaches taught the students the fundamentals of hitting, catching, fielding, etc.  Power for a baseball swing comes from the hips and mid-torso, so Nick broke it down into three repeatable steps.  The drills helped the kids focus on rotating their hips when swinging, while keeping the rest of the body fairly still.  As the students focused on repeating the steps one, two, and three, their bodies were slowly learning to hold the bat properly and move the way they needed to.  The idea is that over time, those movements will be impressed upon their muscle memory, which will improve the mechanics of their swing and make them better hitters. 

Brady with Coach Gary at the tee [background].  
The older gentlemen is Nick's dad—Pops—who also had much
baseball wisdom to impart to the students.
Of course the kids don’t always get that at first. Some of them got frustrated at having to constantly repeat all the steps over and over, instead of just “swinging for the fences”.  They have to practice movements that seem uncomfortable and unnatural—even unnecessary.  (Think of Daniel-san training under Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie.) Brady and the other participants got many chances to practice what Nick had preached to them—soft toss, live pitching, hitting drills.  

As shown in the photos, over and over again, the students swung, and each time a coach was there to offer input, suggestions, and, as needed, corrections.






Coach Nick teaching proper batting technique.
I think part what makes Nick such a good coach is that he has the ability to teach his players what he would do if he were them.  (Many are skilled but not as many can impart that skill to others.)  At the end of the evening, after the kids had worked hard for two hours, Nick thanked them for hanging in there, commended them for the progress they made, and then he made a statement that stuck with me.  He said to them, “I am not trying to teach you to hit like me.  You will never hit just like me.  I want to teach you to hit like you.”  In other words, he wants them to be the best hitter they are capable of becoming.

During the clinic, I watched Nick (and the other coaches) work with Brady and the other kids, patiently explaining and demonstrating the steps, sometimes literally guiding their bodies to help them understand the proper mechanics, and exhorting them to go through the same motion every single time they swing the bat.  However, Nick told the kids at the end of the clinic that even the best coach can only take them so far.  If really want to be able do what Nick would do if he were them, they are going to have to practice—a lot!  The mechanics he is teaching them have to become as familiar to the students as they are to the coaches—and that only happens after hours and hours of practice. 

When the hitter steps to the plate during a game, they are pretty much on their own.   The coach cannot and should not say much at that point.  As they enter the batter’s box to face the opposing pitcher, the spotlight is squarely on them.  As the ball races toward them, they do not have time to think about the mechanics of their swing.  No, in that moment the batter simply reacts to the pitch, drawing upon what is already embodied in them—from all those hours of practice—and swings... Contact!  A base hit!  Maybe even two?!  Standing at first or second base, brushing the dirt off, with just a moment ot reflect, perhaps they will realize the value of all those hitting drills Coach Nick did with them during the clinic.  One can always hope… J

In Part II, we'll look at what baseball and spiritual life have in common.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Wonderful Concepts

Last week was Trinity Sunday on our liturgical calendar. Today, we pretty much take the concept of God in Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as a given.  It is something most Christians agree on.  There was a time, however, when this was not the case.  In the first few hundred years after Jesus lived, a number of competing concepts of God emerged and there were disputes—and sometimes bitter conflict—over which concept was orthodox—or “correct”.  In the end, the concept of Trinity came to be widely accepted.

For the most part we no longer debate Trinity today.  However, we certainly continue to have intense disputes over what the orthodox position on other issues should be—e.g., homosexuality.  Sadly, clashes over concepts of God still lead to bitter and divisive conflicts in our churches.  When facing such disputes, we should always remember that, when it comes to finite creatures describing an infinite Creator, concepts carry us only so far. 

While we can and should have a firm sense of who we are and what we stand for, we must always maintain an openness to others whose concept of God may differ from our own.

At the end of the day concepts must always leave room for wonder; certainty about God must always yield to mystery in God’s presence.  We must never be so arrogant as to think we’ve got God “figured out”.   Like a Child on Christmas morning, we must always come eager to receive new gifts and new wisdom from God.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth century theologian who is credited with helping to develop the doctrine of Trinity that we now accept as given.  He spoke some wise words that I think we would do well to remember today as we try to faithfully wrestle with our position on today’s divisive doctrinal issues:


Concepts create idols, only wonder understands anything.  People kill one another over idols.  Wonder makes us fall to our knees.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Listening for the Dove's Call

A mourning dove
Occasionally I spot a mourning dove fluttering around my yard, usually flying low to the ground looking for cover.  Much more often, I don’t see them at all but rather hear their distinctive call: oo-ooo-hoo-oo in the trees around my house.  (It sounds kind of like a distant owl—especially since I often hear them early in the morning and late in the evening.). 


When I hear the dove’s call, I usually don’t know exactly where it is, but I know it is near.  So it is with the Holy Spirit—God’s invisible, but real Presence in our lives.  After Jesus ascended, God could not be confined to a precise location.  As the old hymn says, in the rustling grass, we hear God pass; God speaks to us every day.  Our job is to develop eyes that see and ears to hear, so we can recognize God’s call and respond.

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit is symbolized as descending like a dove—see Matthew 3:13-17.  The Scripture is cited as one of the stronger images we have for the theological concept of Trinitythree Persons (Father, Son, and Spirit) combined in one Being (God).  There are three distinct Persons present in this passage: Jesus is being baptized; a voice speaks; a dove-like Presence descends. In artwork depicting this scene, the dove is often depicted as pure white.

Two turtle doves…
I don't know if they are perched on a pair tree or not. :)
Chances are, the doves flying in the skies of Palestine when Jesus was alive were probably not pure white. An example, cited several times in Scripture, is the turtle dove (see photo), which is still common in that region today.  It was given as sacrificial offering by Jesus’ parents (Luke 2:24), used to symbolize true love (Song of Songs 2:12), and offered as an example of faithfulness by the prophets (Jeremiah 8:7). 

In a time long before custom bred white pigeons (a.k.a., rock doves) used in release ceremonies today, a white dove would have been fairly distinctive as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

While on one hand, the Holy Spirit's manifestation seems worthy of a more rare and exotic bird, on the other hand, the dove is the perfect choice. There are more than three hundred species of dove flying over the Earth’s surface; chances are we are never far from a dove.  Likewise, the Heavenly Dove is always nearby, ready to descend into our lives and show us the Way.  The dove image has become a universally known symbol of peace and love.


So the next time we hear a dove's call in the distance or the flutter of wings as they pass, let it be a reminder to us to open ourselves more fully to the Holy Sprit's presence and to listen for God’s call in our lives.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Living Between Ascension and Pentecost

The Ascension of Jesus kind of leaves us in the middle hanging.  Part of it has to do with the fact that it literally is in the middle: 40 days after Easter, and 10 days prior to Pentecost on the Liturgical Calendar.  However I think it also has to do with what happens on that day.  According to Luke (Luke 24:44-53/Acts 1:1-11) the risen Jesus is taken from the disciple’s midst and they are given instructions to wait in Jerusalem for further instruction (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4, 8).  Jesus has told them that something or someone else is coming after he departs (e.g., John 14:15-31, 16:4-15) but they don’t really didn’t know exactly when or where, and only have a vague sense of what is coming.

That kind of ambiguity is disheartening to me.  (I like a more clearly defined plan.) Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus hung around long enough to make things more clear?  Couldn’t he at least wait for the promised Holy Spirit to arrive before leaving his poor disciples again? (Okay, it only ended up being ten days; but they didn’t know that at the time.)  That would make for an easier transition.  A modern analogy would be the “old employee” staying around until the “new employee” is in place, trained, and ready to assume authority.

But then again, I suspect the way Luke’s story actually unfolds is true to reality. More often than not, despite our best efforts, human life has a tendency not to unfold on the schedule we set up. 

Often in life, Ascension and Pentecost don’t line up.  

Sometimes new life comes rushing in before old can fade away; other times old life holds on to the bitter end, holding back the emergence of something new.  Usually, before something new can come, we must be willing to let the old pass, yet we have no guarantee how fast that birth will take place after the letting go.  Sometimes it takes much longer than we would have preferred. 

There can sometimes be a chasm between now and not yet that seems impossible to cross.

I am a writer.  I believe it is a gift God has given me and calls me to pursue.  Many have affirmed this talent of mine over the years and encouraged me to pursue it.  I partially live out my call through my vocation as a writer/editor for NASA.  I realize that not everyone does that, and try to remember that and be thankful.  However, I also admit a frustration.  You see, there is a dimension of my writing I can’t explore fully at work—namely, the faith dimension.

For a several years, I explored the faith dimension of my writing by contributing articles on a monthly basis for my church’s newsletter reflecting on issues of theology and spiritual formation.  I also had articles published on other on-line or print journals.  Recently, however, the church newsletter changed format, and other venues that I used to post material either no longer exist or no longer publish my work for one reason or another. 

Even beyond changes in publications, the type of writing I feel led to pursue has evolved.  In the past year or so, I have taken a couple courses in Creative Nonfiction, which is much more about using stories from our own lives to connect to larger Stories as opposed to simply presenting facts. The result of all this is that I am not writing as much as I did (outside of work) and, since I call myself a writer, I find that a bit disconcerting at times.  Sometimes I just don’t seem to feel much motivation to write. 

My writing seems to be in that uncomfortable middle between Ascension and Pentecost.  The old has withdrawn; it seems stale and no longer fits who I am.  The new, on the other hand, is not fully formed yet, but I feel it pushing me out my familiar patterns of writing to explore new possibilities.  This feels risky, but in a good way.  Still, I naturally hesitate to give it full expression.  I don’t want to rush it but I also don’t want to hold back for the wrong reasons.

What I long for is for the two halves of my writing persona, that have been so long divided, to be joined.  I want to find a place where science and faith can freely come together on a regular basis.  That would seem to offer the possibility of a Pentecost for my writing life.