1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Spiritual Aerobics

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1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Spiritual Aerobics

Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

A friend left a new book on my desk recently. Jesus in Beijing, an account of the growth of Christianity in modern China, by David Aikman, former Beijing Bureau Chief for Time magazine.

It begins this way. The eighteen American tourists visiting China weren’t expecting much from the evening’s scheduled lecture. They were already exhausted from a day of touring in Beijing. But what the speaker had to say astonished them. “One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

This was not coming from some ultra-conservative from a think tank in Orange County, California, or from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. This was a scholar from one of China’s premier academic research institutes, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

And a week ago, one of you handed me an article from the New York Times about research by Harvard Professors, Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro, which concludes that “religion affects economic outcomes mainly by fostering religious beliefs that influence individual traits such as honesty, work ethic, thrift and openness to strangers. And by creating perceived rewards and punishments that relate to good and bad lifetime behavior.

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It is obvious that many cultures and places around the world do not enjoy what we do. Poverty beyond anything we know, even in pockets of deprivation within our borders, is the more common human condition. And we need and ought to be concerned because we are not unaffected when hundreds of millions look over the fence and see our privileged way of life. But poverty is and has always been the more universal human situation. So perhaps the more important question is: why in certain countries has such wealth arisen. It may well be, at least in part, because of a particular kind of religious culture.

Now there is danger here. If it is true that our economic success, our standard of living is the result of our religious heritage, a heritage bequeathed to us from the Biblical faith through our ancestors, there is no ground for self-congratulation in these discoveries. Indeed, if the financial means, the comforts, the conveniences, the medicine, we enjoy are the result of attitudes and values bred by the past, we might better ask how those attitudes are holding up in our time. Whether we are still gripped by the disciplines and motivations that made it all possible.

But it does seem in a large measure true that the life we enjoy goes back to the words of the Apostle Paul, rediscovered by Luther and Calvin, which insisted that every human being has a calling from God. Not just the Cardinal and the Monk, but the peasant and shopkeeper are called to labor, and to produce beyond the immediate needs of family, but for the common good. The product of the Reformation was a people motivated to earn, and save, and give.

When you can develop a people convinced that God has work for everyone, and that finds real meaning in labor, you have the basis for a thriving society. W.E. B. DuBois caught this view of life when he wrote, ” The return from your work must be the satisfaction that work brings you and the world’s need of that work. With this, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get. The moral mission of business is to exercise all the imagination and initiative it can muster for the purpose of producing goods, services, and occasions for human achievement which make the world better.”

This means, of course, a society that expends great effort to provide everyone with opportunity to contribute. And it also means the maintenance of a real work ethic among the population at large. When we speak of ethic here, we are underlining the moral obligation of all, as they are able, to contribute. I think most of us older grew up influenced by this ethic. Ever feel guilty about doing nothing. Of course, it can be obsessive to the point of idolatry, where we equate productivity with worth. And there are other goals beyond work to which we are also called. But Paul’s picture of the life of faith broadly speaking is a picture of strenuous activity, of discipline on behalf of meaningful goals, including interestingly the good life here.

And when we speak of ethic, we also point to the reality that such an attitude towards our labor must be grounded in the disciplines associated with moral integrity. The ambitions which thrive in a market economy must function within the framework of strong moral code and values or they easily run aground in greed and dishonesty destructive of that very market economy. Someone has said that the problem with communism was the communist system. The problem with capitalism is some of the capitalists. We have had too many examples recently of loss of character.

Whether as a people we are less moral than preceding generations is difficult to quantify. One thing I think we can say is that we have lost a sense that there are absolutes that we violate at our peril, as individuals and as a society. We have lost the courage of convictions that former generations possessed. I observe young parents, conscientious and loving, who seem nevertheless unsure of themselves, their authority, their right to make demands.

A teacher by the name of Nancy Harvey writes, “A while back, while standing in a grocery checkout line, I saw a five-year-old climb up inside a frozen food case to reach a treat on the top shelf, near the ceiling. The mother, a well-dressed, obviously well-educated woman, had tried to coax the girl gently back to the checkout line, but when the child climbed up inside the case, the mother said nothing, and paid for the treat without comment. A child who can ignore requests or commands without consequences, who takes what she likes and does what she pleases, is not going to adapt very well to school or the larger world, which will never be attractive enough to offset the unpleasantness of submitting to authority and the demands of reality.

Behind what we are calling “responsibility skills” lies the need for self-discipline, and learning the discipline of the self is painful. This is a truth our society chooses to ignore. Everything from diet pills to Willow Creek testifies to our desire to avoid the discomfort of self-discipline. Considering how we spend thousands of dollars trying to lose weight without diet or exercise and how we try to depict church as an amusing place so the audience won’t be too upset with demands to deny oneself, it is not surprising that we would also try to cajole our children into self-discipline by making it somehow “fun.”

And certainly in vast reaches of the academic world, the idea that there are moral absolutes is dismissed out of hand. One professor attempting to alert his students to the reality of absolutes, asked whether they were at least willing to say that Hitler was wrong, immoral, only to discover that most of the class was really not ready to make that judgment. They thought they should know more about the social and cultural situation behind his attitudes and actions.

Another professor tells of a class discussion on ethics. A student proceeded to lecture the class. “Well, we are learning that there is a certain genetic disposition to certain kinds of adaptively beneficial behavior. What you call ‘ethics’ is simply that sum of behavior which has been genetically programmed into the human race.” And the professor writes, “I thought it sad, that on some spring night in the Duke gardens, a young man might look into the eyes of a woman and say sweetly, ‘I have a genetic propensity for you and feel that our mating would strengthen the gene pool of the race.'”

So the productivity of our economic and social system is grounded in the respect for something like the ten commandments. You shall not steal, lie, cheat. The creativity and contributions of our life together, depend upon the reign of moral integrity among us.

And, finally, for Christians our moral integrity as individuals and as a people, is grounded in the piety, the habits, the practices of our religion, our faith. Which is to say our relationship with God. Productivity, creativity requires integrity. Integrity is sustained by piety.

Now, in one sense, relationship with God in Christ is a gracious gift. We certainly do not earn or deserve it. But from another perspective it cannot take on reality in our lives, unless however haltingly and imperfectly, we manage to sustain certain habits and disciplines. Let me use the analogy of marriage. An analogy, by the way, that the scriptures turn to again and again.

Marriage is a gift two people give to one another. We need to remember that. If it is not a commitment freely given, it is fraudulent at the very outset. But implied in that gift are a number of activities, habits, practices. This is so obvious, we often overlook it. Relationship means what. It means time together, for one another. We shut down our activities. We turn off the TV. We sit and listen. And speak. We enjoy one another’s presence. So do we nurture the relationship.

Now religion, from the human side, involves these very same activities, habits, practices if the relationship with God is to be real, shaping and correcting conscience, recovering and reconciling after failure, offering strength and courage and hope at our labor or in time of trouble. But we seem to have designed life in our time so as to avoid real relationship, with one another and no less with God. In C. S. Lewis’s little volume, Screwtape Letters, letters from the Devil to Wormwood, the Devil suggests that he convince his assigned victim, to “Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health, and above all on your own grievances. Keep the radio or television on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the newspapers and magazines. You’ll find the advertisements helpful, especially those with sexy or snob appeal. All of space and time should be occupied with noise; Noise, the great dynamism, the audible expressions of all that is ruthless and virile.

The Apostle writes, “Train yourself for religion. Physical exercise is useful.” That is why Marlene and I go to the fitness center, to get fit for the day, the stress, the labor, the creativity required. But says Paul, how about training for religion, spiritual aerobics. Why? Because the usefulness of religion is unlimited, since it holds out the promise both for life here and now, and for the life to come. God offers himself to us in the time, thought, talk and above all quiet discipline that we bring to the relationship.

I always admired the late Senator Paul Tsongas, for the honesty of his journey toward God in the years he battled cancer. He was a native of Lowell, Massachusetts, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, in 1974 was elected to the Congress and in 1978 to the Senate. At the age of forty-two, planning his campaign for a second term in the Senate, he contracted lymphoma. It was to change not only his attitude toward his calling in life but also the discipline and routine, the pieties by which he would live it.”The illness made me face up to the fact that I will die someday. It make me think about wanting to look back without regret whenever that happened. It made me appreciate Niki’s strengths as I had never quite done before. I am blessed with a marriage that provides meaning. I would now look at my wife and “see” her in a way one does not in the rush of everyday pursuits.

The lymphoma caused me to realize the preciousness of the moments of a child’s development. I would have spent too much time away from my daughters had I continued my present career. But I would not have helped Ashley on her science project or accompanied Katrina on her Brownie weekend camping trip or had Molly fall asleep in my arms in the hammock.

Finally, my illness has forced me to understand that I have true spiritual needs whether I am healthy or unhealthy. It’s hard to write about this. But I find I must attend church services and spend time in quiet and prayer, in order to renew and refresh my sense of a higher being. God was always there for me, but always in a more removed way. Now, the entire matter of belief is central to me and gives me a truer sense of direction. The road is a long one, and I intend to continue on it.

So far, I’m off to a good start. I notice if the sky is blue now. I see that God has given us the flowers and the rivers and the sunshine. I realize that life is wondrous in its natural and human dimensions.

There is darkness as well. Every morning I know the fragility of life and I am aware of my mortality. Every day something hurts somewhere, so I never can forget. There are new fears and new hobgoblins to come to grips with.

But, in truth, my great worry is that I will lose my current sense of values and perspective. I pray not. I want always to feel as I do now. I am here. I am alive, and I will partake of God’s blessings. I have learned that those blessings must be truly appreciated if they are to have meaning. Let me, dear Lord, spend my life filled with the capacity to see what is before me and to be fulfilled in that sight.”

Train yourself for religion. Its usefulness is unlimited, since it holds out promise both for life here and now and for the life to come. On that you can rely. I mean that the point of all our toiling and struggle is that we have put our trust in God.

Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.