Sometimes spiritual discipline requires a 'thumbs up'

Following Jesus is hard. An encouraging word may be what keeps us at it.

By Amy Butler

I recently read an article about “running ministries” which opened with a story about a ministry called “Sweaty Sheep,” a Kentucky group that sees running as church.

I try to be open to alternative perspectives, diversity in the body of Christ and all that, but I can say for sure that I do not feel called to such a ministry. In fact, up until now I’ve maintained a position I assumed the rest of the world shared: run only when chased, express at least disapproval, if not derision, toward folks who regularly post workout details on Facebook, and sweat in church only if the heater is over-functioning.

Still, it is the new year, so like every other consumer in American culture this month I’ve decided to try to mint a new habit, get healthy, exercise a little more. It’s a dream so many of us revisit every January only to find our good intentions dashed by approximately Feb. 3. Still, hope springs eternal, etc., which is why I’ve lately found myself in a large room at the local recreation center getting yelled at by an intimidatingly fit man named Tyrone.

Because everyone in the boot camp class is scared of Tyrone, we all do as instructed (rigorously) while he’s watching us, but ease up when his back is turned. He doesn’t put up with people who don’t work hard. The other day when one of my classmates complained that his weight was too heavy to hold up anymore, Tyrone snapped in response: “No, it ain’t. Get with it or go home!”

At a recent class, while trying to get my mind off the searing pain in my non-fit biceps, I got to thinking about church. (Not a running church.)

Every January during the weeks following Epiphany we talk in worship around here about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and a member of a community of faith. I don’t like to pull punches; I think the gospel message is strident, uncomfortable, counter-cultural. “Gospel is hard. Faith community is hard,” I say. I’ve always even thought that if people don’t leave church a bit uncomfortable then I haven’t done my job — you know, afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted and all that. I don’t recall ever saying, “Get with it or go home!,” but sometimes I think it.

In other words, as a pastor I’m more like Tyrone than, say, my yoga teacher, who ends our class walking around spritzing lavender water and whispering affirmations. Fluffy, feel-good, consumer church is not my thing.

Still, as I hoisted those weights one more time just because I was afraid Tyrone would yell at me, I wondered if sometimes my affliction of the comfortable goes a little too far. Do my constant challenges of commitment, presence, generosity, spiritual practice make people’s spiritual biceps spasm in response?

I’d like to boldly proclaim that Tyrone and I have a long and fit relationship ahead of us, but based on the last 20 or so Januarys of my life, I’m not sure I’m ready to make that prediction. And, knowing my own cycle of inspiration->aspiration->expiration when it comes to new year fitness resolutions, I wondered about the folks who have come and gone from the pews at church, all good intentioned but not good intentioned enough to stick around when it’s not as fun as it was at first. Is the tough love approach to pastoring really the best way to talk about discipleship?

I was still wondering about all of this when, after 60 excruciating minutes of boot camp, I gathered my water bottle and keys and stood there trying to decide whether I could actually walk all the way to the car. Right then Tyrone came up to me, slapped me on the back, and said almost grudgingly: “Good job today, Amy,” before he turned to yell at someone about putting their weights away properly.

Tyrone’s comment made me almost giddy. And even the next day, when getting from my desk to staff meeting down the hall required herculean breathing through the pain, I could hear that affirmation in my head and it’s what made me show up at the next class.

Last week as we began our annual discussion at church about what discipleship in this place at this time means for us, I decided that maybe it would be best to try erring on the side of grace. So as we remembered Jesus’ baptism, the moment he was called “Beloved” as he began a new chapter in his life, we touched the water and heard our names, then, “beloved child of God.”

Because while gospel is rigorous, it never hurts to hear again that our striving is honored and that God thinks we are amazing, no matter what shape our spiritual selves are in. It never hurts, and it might even help.

Following Jesus is hard. Gospel community is hard. I probably won’t ease up on that message anytime soon. Still, I think it helps every now and then to hear that God thinks there’s hope for us yet.

In fact, those words of affirmation might just be what keep us coming back. I don’t know, but I’ll be watching to see. Check in with me around, say, Feb. 3.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.