Thursday, February 25, 2010

Faith and Works

Faith and Works:

Watching winter sports is fascinating. I can relate to track and field, soccer, volleyball and other stuff that used to happen in gym class but things like curling, skiing and the luge completely elude me. Besides my brief, tragic experiences on the rink in Savannah I have very little knowledge of what snow and ice are actually like, so the winter Olympics might as well be held on the moon—life in Vancouver is just as foreign.

I didn’t even know that ice hockey was a legit sport (I thought that “The Mighty Ducks” was based on a game made up for the sake of the story, like Quidditch) until spending four years in Ohio where people come from states with actual teams and had opinions about which is best. Like any sport, I usually only express interest if it helps strike up conversation with a cute boy, but last Sunday evening I found myself watching the U.S. vs. Canada hockey game for it’s own sake. It was exciting and violent.

Watching the instant re-play of the final goal for team US, my friend remarked that Canada had removed their goalie to have an extra man on offense. As I’ve said, I know very little about sports and especially nothing about hockey, but I remember from my Island Rec Center soccer days that a goal should not be left un-tended (or no oranges at team snack-time). I understand that this is a last-ditch strategy that occasionally works, but to me it seems foolish to leave a goal completely un-tended.

It did make me think that the balance of defense and offense is an analogy for the spiritual life (I acknowledge that’s a strange way to see a game. I can’t help it.) Soccer, hockey, basketball and all those sports that require attention to both scoring and defending the goal demonstrate the need to balance our faith and our actions. You can’t win a game without scoring points against the other team just like you can’t grow closer to Christ without following him with actions like service and worship. Volunteer work, mission trips and singing hymns are actions that draw us closer to God. However, actions are not enough.

As Canada painfully learned, defense is also critical to winning. A team could score a hundred points and lose if the other team scored a hundred and one. Similarly it’s not enough to be a nice person doing nice things if we want to grow closer to Christ. It’s also necessary to nurture and defend our faith against the influence of evil and doubt. In his letter to Timothy, Paul reminded him “to stir into flame the gift of God you have…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). Faith is nurtured through prayer, scripture and rejecting evil. Those following Christ have a real enemy waiting to step in and score when their defenses are down.

The book of James summarizes this balance, explaining that belief in God is important, but “even the demons believe that” (James 2:19). There must be a balance of both faith in God and action, “see how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone… just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:24, 26). St. Augustine summarized this balance, saying, “pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on us”.

Growing in Christ

There’s few things I dislike more than getting in shape. Sure, after a month of beating your body into submission, training the will and expanding your lungs, running and lifting feels slightly less torturous and you can start appreciating the endorphin high. It’s the initial days of stretching out your joints which have rusted into place after eating cheese and re-watching the first season of “Glee” that are brutal.

Like anyone in their twenties, the last several summers have become completely dedicated to weddings. While I love dressing up, it’s a reality check when you log onto Facebook that Monday to find that you’ve been tagged in multiple pictures which showcase your un-toned arms. One summer with that on your record and the motivation to exercise comes much easier. I do not want my Facebook legacy to be “fat bridesmaid”.

Even though the motivation was there, the thought of a gym left me feeling really unsettled. I put if off for a long time because I had visions of walking in and encountering the cast of “Jersey Shore”— sculpted, tanned, toned and teased. Rather than suffer such comparisons, I made some feeble attempts to get in shape on my own. This quickly left me bored—you can only do so many pilates from youtube before you lose your motivation and it’s hard to push yourself in the comfort of your own home, when no one is watching. Clearly, a gym was my only hope for actually getting in shape.

Much like the kids who are afraid of kindergarten because they don’t know how to read and people who think they are too sick to go to the doctor, it was illogical to think I had to be in shape to join a gym. I finally just went and found that while there are a few who approach Spinning with the intensity of an Olympiad (your bike is NOT MOVING! Calm down, would ya?) many are like me—pasty, average and just hoping to shed a few pounds to look good for the summer. Furthermore, there’s a camaraderie that exists among people working towards a similar goal that you just can’t get from watching “Buns of Steel” alone in your living room. A little competition encourages intensity.

Many approach religion or church with the same hesitancy. Just as I feared encountering a level of fitness that I couldn’t live up to, they expect to encounter sanctity that will make them feel inadequate. They think church is just a place for Mother Teresa and Billy Graham to have coffee and doughnuts and there’s no place for real people with real problems and sin. However, much like I could never have changed my body if if I didn't take that initial plunge and allow myself to be challenged by trainers and those around me, our souls cannot change if we attempt to do it all on our own.

Any Church community will be full of people who are very advanced in their walk with God as well as those who are just starting out. Holiness is not a competition, but we benefit from witnessing how others have handled the same challenges we face, much like I was motivated by those who could run faster and lift more than me.

In the Gospel of John, Christ reminds us, “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.” (John 15:4-5). Taking the steps to be connected can be intimidating, but unless we are connected to Christ we cannot grow.

March for Life

When I waitressed I dreaded tables of teenagers. I would argue with my coworkers about taking the raucous high schoolers who would sit down, run you ragged re-filling their mountain dew and then tip you $1.13 for your troubles. I sympathize with the servers, baristas and counter help that gives me the “oh, why did you come here?” look when I walk into a restaurant or cafe with my youth group. And it’s not just the employees. Guests eating will also eye us with suspicion and start gathering their things ready dash at the first sign of drama.

As much as I love teenagers, I concede that the wary glances they receive when they congregate in public are somewhat rightfully earned. I’ve seen kids at their best—when they’re serving the homeless and helping elderly cross the street—but I’ve also witnessed some pretty inconsiderate and apathetic behavior. For example, once while a speaker was telling the youth group about a project to deliver clean drinking water to the third world, a teen raised their hand and asked, “but they’re like, used to walking miles to get clean water. Why do we have to change that for them?”. I died a little on the inside, convinced somewhere an angel lost its wings and that there was no hope for the future if kids could be this apathetic and insensitive to those in need.

However, these past few weeks have left me pretty inspired and hopeful for this generation. Regardless of how you feel about the issue of Roe vs. Wade and abortion, I’ve been very encouraged that kids aren’t just “waiting on the world to change”.

Each year on the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade people opposed to and in favor of abortion congregate in Washington D.C. As a Catholic youth group (and fans of “Juno”), we have talked about abortion and many of my teens feel strongly that it should not be legal. They believe it’s affected their world, as they say, “like, Miss Alison, there have been over a million abortions each year? That’s probably why there are no cute boys in my class!”. They asked me if I would take them to D.C. to peacefully protest this law with others from around the country.

We went and it was no vacation. We slept on the bus and on the floor of a gym, didn’t shower for three days, ate peanut butter sandwiches and braved the cold weather to take a stand for what we believed in. We prayed for our country, our leaders and for a greater respect of all human life. Through it all they were peaceful, respectful, attentive and never complained about the challenges of the trip.

There were 32 youth and 13 adults from Hilton Head who joined 200,000 others in DC on January 22. What struck me and many others was how many of those gathered were teenagers. Journalist Robert McCartney and Roe vs. Wade supporter observed, “I was especially struck by the large number of young people” who attended. (Washington Post, Sunday, January 24, 2010). I too could not believe that I was not the only adult crazy enough to attempt such a trip, there were high schools, colleges and youth groups (and youth ministers frantically counting heads) everywhere. They were peaceful but passionate, carrying signs that said, “a person’s a person no matter how small” or “I survived Roe vs. Wade”.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul encourages him to “let no one have contempt for your youth, but set an example for those who believe, in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Teenagers aren’t perfect, but our trip to DC reminded me that thousands of teens are setting an example and standing up for what they believe in, including those in our hometown. If it takes a village, we should be proud and hopeful.