The Barrel by the Rev. John H. Pavelko

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The Disciplined Spiritual Life

Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21



In a few days, the college basketball world will move to the edge of its seat to enjoy its annual March Madness. Sixty-four teams will be paired up and begin the single game elimination tournament that will climax with the National Championship Game. It is an exciting month of college hoops. Fans will hold their collective breaths as some games will go down to the last shot taken in desperation just before the final buzzer. The tournament always holds some surprises when small colleges pull off stunning unsets of heavily favored teams.

Throughout the history of the sport, one coach stands above all the others-John Wooden. During his tenure at UCLA, his teams won 10 national championships. Often they had superior talent but the secret of Wooden's success was not his recruitment skills but the discipline he taught through the attention to details. In his book, They Call Me Coach, Wooden shares his philosophy:

One of the little things I watch closely is a player's socks. No basketball player is better than his feet. If they hurt, if his shoes don't fit, or if he has blisters, he can't play the game. It is amazing how few players know how to put on a pair of socks properly. I don't want blisters, so each year I give in minute detail a step-by-step demonstration as to precisely how I want them to put on their socks-every time. Believe it or not, there's an art to doing it right, and it makes a big difference in the way a player's feet stand the pounding of practice and the game. Wrinkles which cause blisters can be eliminated by just a little attention.1

Wooden's philosophy would be severely tested today by the undisciplined and showboat approach of today's college athletes but many of the successful coaches claim to owe a great debt to the UCLA legend and his methods. Jesus also understood that the successful Christian life requires discipline that begins with an attention to details. Matthew more than any other gospel writer draws this out. His gospel is the longest of the four and is marked by an attention to details. 

Matthew was trained as an accountant, a bean counter. He had been trained to follow the money down to every last token. He shows this by the parables he includes and the length of space he devotes to Jesus' instructional teaching on the Kingdom of God. Matthew understood the value of instructions. If he had worn them, Matthew would have put on his socks the right way because he was concerned about Kingdom living, about putting into concrete action the teaching that he heard Jesus deliver to the people. In his section on the Sermon on the Mount, over one sixth, 15 out of 96 verses is directed at living out the teaching. For Matthew, Kingdom living would not be evident in how much you know but in how much you do. The tax collector therefore records the teaching of Jesus on the three most important topics in Jewish piety-almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. You might say they were the socks of the religious life.

The three worked in tangent with one another. The Jewish rabbis believed that almsgiving delivered the donor from death earned forgiveness of sin. Prayer was the essence of the spiritual life, and fasting strengthened the prayers of the believer by showing God the seriousness of their devotion.2 The followers of Jesus were also to give to the poor, pray and fast but for entirely different reasons. Our acts of piety were not to be performed either to earn our salvation or to publicly showcase our religious enthusiasm. John Calvin understood the inherent dangers of religious piety. In his commentary on Matthew 6:1 he warned, "...there is no work so laudable [praiseworthy], as not to be in many instances corrupted and polluted by it.3 We are constantly tempted to do the right thing for the wrong reason. Therefore, we should keep two guiding principles in mind.

First, the disciplined practice of the spiritual life must always be a goal for which we strive. In its efforts to avoid the public display of piety, church people during the late 20th century got out of the habit of tithing, forgot how to pray in public and gorged their taste buds on Big Macs and pan pizza. Spiritual devotion was abandoned under the fictitious guise of religious modesty. The practice of the spiritual life must become a daily ritual. It is our response of faith and obedience. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Phillipi, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12,13)" The religious life is not a passive drifting from one experience to another but the intentional efforts of disciplined believers.

Secondly, not only must we strive to practice the presence of God, nor should we even worry about hiding our religious practices. There is nothing inherently wrong if someone finds out that we tithe. There is nothing wrong if someone discovers that we pray before we go to work or bed. We should not be concerned if someone recognizes that we are fasting. This issue is did we perform the good deed for recognition from either others or ourselves or did we do the good deed to do the good deed. We should neither be concerned about the lack of public recognition or the possibility of discovery. Our only motive in all that we do is to the glory of God the Father.

The third principle that we should always remember is that we are justified by faith not external works. It is the circumcision of the spiritual heart not that flesh for which God desires. Our good deeds, acts of piety or exercises of spiritual discipline do not in themselves conjure up grace. When a baby is brought to the font, the water is a sign of God's love not the activating event. It is only cold water on the head of a small baby. It does not wash away sin unless the parents, the child, and the gathered community believe. A tiny piece of bread cannot by itself nourish a hungry soul or quench a spiritual thirst. It does not become the body and blood of our Lord unless you believe. They are only gritty, dirty ashes that do nothing unless you are willing to express a contrite heart. 

During a work project at church, a man became frustrated and losing his composure cursed in the presence of his pastor. After a moment of uncomfortable silence the man looked at his pastor and said, "Oh, it's all right, pastor. I cuss a little and you pray a little but neither one of us means anything by it."4 Kingdom living requires us to mean something in everything we do. Without an authentic faith, our good deeds are nothing more than superficial religiosity. Our acts of worship becomes the clang of a noisy gong in God's ears. Both the great hymns of the church and the contemporary songs of praise may contain powerful truths but our insincerity reduces them to silly love songs to an unknown God.

John Calvin refused to celebrate Lent because he believed that the Catholic Church had embellished the feast with a set of superstitious beliefs and rituals. He argued that the Christian life must be lived 24/7-twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. With its special emphasis on fasting and contrition for 40 days, Calvin argued that it reduced Christian obedience to six weeks a year. That may have occurred but in our over reactionary zeal for Calvinist grace, we have forgotten that the Christian life requires disciplined effort. Each day we must put on our socks the right way to protect our souls from the blisters of life. Only the most disciplined will enjoy the moment of victory. Only those who give so freely that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, will see the joy in others from their generosity. Only those who spend hours in pray, will know an intimate friends with the God of Creation. And only will those who fast know that God's power is revealed in their weakness.

1 John Wooden as told to Jack Tobin, They Call Me Coach, (Waco: Word Books, 1972, p. 106 quoted by Glendon Harris, "Something's Missing When Anything Goes," Pulpit Resources, August 24, 1980, Vol. 8, No. 3, p. 28.
2 Robert H. Mounce, Matthew, NIBC, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), pp.53-63.
3 Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries: The Harmony of the Gospels : Calvin's Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke. electronic ed. Logos Library System;Calvin's Commentaries. Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998.
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our hidden life in God, (New York: HarperCollins Publishing, 1998), p.199.


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