Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Who's Counting?

This post is also found in the newsletter for St. John's, Decatur, this week. To read the rest of the newsletter, click here.

A few months ago, I had my annual physical. As a child, I feared getting a shot. Now, as an adult, I fear the wrath of my physician, whose job it is to chastise me about my weight, my cholesterol, my blood pressure, or my something. After a short wait, I was called back by the nurse, and she asked me to stand on the dreaded scale. Hoping to shave off every possible ounce, I took off my shoes and removed my cell phone and keys from my pockets. When I stepped on the scale, however, my heart sank. The digital display bore devastating news. I knew that I had gained some weight, but I had no idea how much it was. The number I was given was terrifying. “How could it be that bad?” I asked myself. “How could I have taken such poor care of myself?”

That morning, I was the doctor’s second appointment, but the nurse told me that he had been delayed at the hospital and could be a while. For thirty minutes, I sat in the examining room, pondering the significance of that terrible number. I had never been on a diet in my life. A few times, I had decided to cut back a little bit or exercise a little bit more because my clothes had gotten too snug, but, for the first time, I was seriously considering some major changes in my life. Everything was on the table. While I waited, I had time to call Elizabeth and share the bad news with her. “I have to do something,” I told her. “This is terrible.” I hung up and had more time to sit and think. This surprise had really shaken me. I was forlorn.

Eventually, I heard the doctor come into the office and enter the patient’s room adjacent to mine. I heard a muffled exchange that went on for a while. I rehearsed in my head the conversation that I knew would take place when it was my turn. Then, I heard the doctor and the patient come out of the room and say something to each other in the hall—something about needing to try that again. “Hmmm,” I heard the physician say, “that can’t be right.” A few minutes later, the doctor came into my room and told me that the scale had malfunctioned and may have given me an incorrect reading. He asked me to weigh myself again, and this time I weighed thirty pounds less. Thirty pounds! In the span of half an hour, I had gained and lost thirty pounds, and, in the intervening time, I had agonized over every ounce.

When the doctor told me that I had actually gained two pounds since my last appointment, I brushed them aside as if they were nothing. “Yeah,” I said, “but what’s two pounds when you’ve been sweating over thirty?” Even though it was unintentional, the doctor had accomplished a considerable feat. By effectively lying to me about my weight, he had scared me into considering seriously what I could do to take better care of myself. Although two pounds did not have much of an effect on me, the thought of gaining thirty pounds really did. “If you want to get through to your patients,” I told him, “you should make them think that they have gained thirty pounds and then leave them alone in a room for half an hour.” It worked for me. Even though it was an illusion, I am still haunted by that moment.

What is the church’s equivalent of an annual physical? How do you measure your spiritual health? How do you know whether you are taking good care of your spiritual life or letting it go to pot? Do you tally the number of times you come to church? Do you count the hours you spend each month in prayer? When you keep track of the money that you give to charity, do you do so only for tax purposes or do you also think of it as a measure of your spirituality? Are there other ways that you attempt to quantify your relationship with God and your participation in the life of the Christian community? Do you really know how things are going? As a church, we keep those numbers for the aggregate congregation, but it is up to you to keep them for yourself.

Sometimes life catches us with us in a big way, and we find ourselves confronted by the reality that we do not possess the spiritual wherewithal we need to make it through a crisis. A parent dies. A job is lost. A diagnosis is received. Circumstances beyond our control have the power to bring us to our knees. What will we do? How will we make it? Why is this so hard? Why didn’t we take care of ourselves when things were going well?

A spiritual checkup can do us a lot of good. Imagine how your life might change if you came face to face with the reality of your spiritual health. What impact would a moment worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dreams have on your relationship with God? Might a careful, thoughtful, and honest analysis of your spiritual life give you a fresh start? Could it help you regain the capacity to weather whatever squalls wait for you down the road?
Take thirty minutes of quiet to think about your relationship with God. Write down all the ways that you nourish your faith. Look back at your calendar and see how you have been spending your time. Flip through your checkbook register or browse your online bank account and take stock of the priorities in your life. My experience has taught me that guilt won’t work. A doctor yelling at you about your weight won’t help you lose a pound, and a clergyperson shaking his finger at you won’t help you make God a priority in your life. But an eye-opening encounter with yourself has the power to change everything. What does your relationship with God look like? What do you want from that relationship? The first step to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God is as easy as asking those questions and answering them honestly.

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