The autumn of my 4th grade year I had the sudden desire, much to the surprise of my parents, to play football. I say my parents were surprised because I had never even shown the slightest interest in watching a football game much less playing football. Maybe it had more to do with the fact that my friends were not around to hang out with after to school because they were at football practice, after which they’d come home to eat supper with their families before doing their studies and going to bed. Whatever the reason, I remember begging my folks to let me play, even against their counsel. Finally, my Dad said to me, “If we let you play, you’re in until the banquet at the end of the season.” I was overjoyed and after I had agreed to the stipulation, we were off to pay the fee, get weighed in, and get my football pads.
Now, it only took one practice of getting hit and knocked into the dirt for me to appreciate my parents’ wisdom, and I came home and told them as much. My father graciously thanked me before reiterating, to my dismay, that I would play Center for the East Pee Wee football team until the banquet. Even a trip to the ER to treat a laceration to the elbow which required stitches did not change his mind. The solution: elbow pads. I played through the season and you may be surprised to know that I did not get MVP nor most improved; just a participation trophy and a scar on my elbow. This story came to mind when praying with our lesson from Ecclesiasticus: My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set you hear right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity. Cling to him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous. Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.
As you know, we are in the wake of the beginning of Lent next week, and I’ve been thinking a lot about discipline. The word discipline is likely to invoke a wide array of feelings, most of which are not positive. When looking up ‘discipline’ in the dictionary I found six different definitions. The first one listed is probably why we have an adverse reaction: punishment. Conversely, the meanings I found myself drawn to were the third and fourth:
- a field of study
- training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties of moral character.[i]
On Ash Wednesday, the Prayer Book invites us to the observance of a Holy Lent which it defines as: self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.[ii] It is with this in mind that people traditionally discern to take upa discipline during the season of Lent. For instance, you may be in the middle of deciding what you might ‘give up’ for Lent. This exercise in self-discipline is intended to be sacrificial in nature and a means to realize our dependence on God rather than the creature comforts that society claims we need to be happy. And so we give up chocolate, soda, or our favorite TV show. On several occasions during college, in my young Anglo-Catholic zeal, I tried giving up beer for Lent. I remember feeling deprived and left out of the fun when gathering with my friends and every year without fail I would cave to peer pressure and imbibe in drinking my favorite Stout. I always felt bad about myself afterwards and I kept thinking, I’ve got to be more careful about my choices! One year I will pick just the right thing to give up and be successful. I think I was missing the point.
A couple of years ago I found a book in our library by one of the early members of our Society, Arthur Hall, who you may know went on later to serve as the much beloved bishop of the Diocese of Vermont. In the book, which is a collection of Lenten addresses entitled Self Discipline, Fr. Hall begins by reinforcing the more positive notions of discipline. He says that we must keep in mind two things regarding this subject. First, self-discipline is the sacrifice of the lower for the sake of the higher self. It must always have a purpose. Jesus says in the gospel of John that: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” We are not called to a pointless starving of the body, to the aimless denial of natural desires, or whimsical withdrawal from social interaction. Throughout the gospels, we will note that Jesus enjoyed eating and drinking with friends. On occasion, he would withdraw with his disciples to spend a time of respite, quiet prayer, and discernment, perhaps processing all they were seeing and doing in their ministry and offering it in thanksgiving to God.[iii]
In the Rule of Life of our Society we read: Both our feasts and fasts have a part to play in achieving a wise balance in our daily eating and drinking. In our feasting we learn to savor and appreciate what we eat and drink, in thankfulness to the Creator who gives them. Fasting can help us to become more attentive to what our bodies really need so that we can moderate our appetites and be liberated from greed.[iv] We must realize that our call to observe a Holy Lent is about stepping back and looking at the bigger picture. What pieces of the puzzle are missing? What can we do with God’s help to bring the picture more into focus?
The second point Fr. Hall makes is that the purpose of self-discipline is for training, not for destruction. The grace of God is for the restoration and perfection of the true self, the true you as God in His infinite wisdom has created you. Our Lenten discipline is not to be used to denigrate ourselves, but rather to rescue the elements of our true selves: our body, mind, heart, will and to reclaim them for their higher purpose.[v] For this discipline is needed: to study our strategy in order to hone the skills we need. Or even more to the point, to exercise.If we are going to grow stronger in our vocations, we must commit to exercising the muscles we are trying to use.
In my youth I probably viewed my parent’s disciplinary admonition to playing football through the entire season until the banquet as punishment. Looking back I now realize that they were trying to teach me the value of making a commitment, resilience through success and adversity, and that you don’t have to be the best at everything. I still have my Pee Wee football participation trophy. It is one of my most prized possessions.
So, what is important to remember as we begin our Lenten pilgrimage next week? I would say first, that this journey is toward life abundant, not a life diminished. We must remember that God’s biggest desire for us is to become more fully who he has created us to be. Second, abundant life is one that permeates the whole of life, not just the ways we win, but also in adversity that challenges us. We will from time to time get knocked down when life plays rough. But we must not quit in the face of our failures. There is a story I once heard about a monk being asked by a visitor, “Just what is it that you do all day?” The monk replied, “We fall down, we get up. We fall down again, we get up. We fall down, we get up.” And last I would say, work for progress not perfection. It may be that there is a laundry list you have prayerfully assembled to tackle this Lent. You are not going to get to everything. Pick one or two and then stick with those. Hold these intentions as a focus of your prayer with Jesus and ask him to heal and transfigure them. It is in this way that we can turn a season of discipline into a lifetime of discipleship. And whether we get MVP, most improved, or simply a participation trophy, we are all in until the banquet. And knowing how Jesus liked to celebrate with his friends, I’ll bet trophies will be irrelevant.
[i]“Discipline.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2017. Web. 18 Feb. 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline>.
[ii] Book of Common Prayer, p. 265
[iii]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.
[v]Hall, A. C. A. Self-discipline: Six Addresses. New York: J. Pott, 1894. Print.