Last week Major League Baseball pitchers and catchers started reporting for Spring Training. Spring Training, of course, takes place in Florida and Arizona. Red Sox pitchers and catchers reported last Friday in Fort Myers, Florida, where it will be in the 60s, 70s, and 80s all this week.
On the one hand, Spring Training team standings don’t mean much. How a team does in Spring Training is often not a predictor of how they’ll do in the regular season. Last year, for example, there were 21 teams with better Spring Training records than the Kansas City Royals, who very nearly won the World Series. But this 40-odd day period of preparation, exercise, and deliberate conditioning is essential to summer success in Major League Baseball.
Lent: Spring Training for Christians
We Christians actually invented Spring Training: except we call it Lent. There’s no Cactus League or Grapefruit League for us… more of a Penance League and a Snowstorm League.
Lent is the period of 40 days, plus Sundays, leading up to Easter—Resurrection Sunday—the most important date on the calendar for followers of Jesus, more important, even, than Opening Day.
Lent in 2015 at our church will allow us some opportunities to more deeply cultivate our sense of Christian identity, both as individuals and as a church. We’ll explore five key disciplines for those who walk with Jesus.
We’ll be reading a book—Five Disciplines of Fruitful Living—by Robert Schnase, a Methodist Bishop.
Each Sunday in church I’ll preach on one of the five practices. Then, the week following, we’ll read that corresponding chapter.
Here are the Five Practices:
• Radical Hospitality (“Receiving God’s Love”)
• Passionate Worship (“Loving God in Return”)
• Intentional Faith Development (“Growing in Grace”)
• Risk-Taking Mission and Service (“Loving and Serving Others”)
• Extravagant Generosity (“The Grace of Giving”)
Today’s focus is Radical Hospitality, our hospitality and receptivity to God’s grace toward us. This discipline is all about how we receive God’s love. I think you’ll really appreciate this chapter if you make time to read it this week.
Receiving God’s Love
God is many things, but Love is God’s most fundamental characteristic.
“The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love”—a sort of mantra of the Old Testament that finds expression in books as diverse as Exodus, Nehemiah, Joel, and the Psalms.
“God is love,” John says, multiple times in 1 John 4.
And any love we experience or share is rooted in God’s love for us: “We love because he first loved us.” “God is love.”
God declared his love for Jesus at Jesus’ baptism: “You are my Son, whom I love. With you I am well-pleased.” Through our baptism and faith we are adopted into God’s family. Not only do we call God Father, but we call Jesus brother, and share in his inheritance of the Father’s love and good pleasure.
The love that God declared for Jesus has been bestowed on us, lavished on us, 1 John says. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!”
We are God’s children, whom he loves.
That God is love and that we are loved by God is the most foundational aspect of reality, what philosophers have for thousands of years sought after as “the really real.”
How do we know God loves us? Here’s 1 John again:
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
And so I appreciate that the first of these five disciplines that Robert Schnase suggests is not so much a habit to take on or a practice to engage, but just plain love to receive.
Of course we don’t hoard it or keep it to ourselves, so the other practices of Christian faith include loving God back and serving others in this great love.
But it’s worth stopping just to ask: Am I receiving God’s love? Am I carving out space in my life where I can listen, call to mind, welcome, and accept God’s lavish love for me?
Each year I’m usually pretty consistent about taking on a couple of Lenten disciplines. I especially like pairing the practice of “giving up” something—a distraction that keeps me from awareness of God—with “taking on” something—a new practice or renewed effort to keep God’s presence more top of mind.
This year, however, I’m still catching up on my New Year’s resolutions, so it’s been hard to think about starting a new Lenten discipline.
If you’re in the same boat, or if you didn’t realize until today that we’re already 4 days into Lent, and you want to do something, I encourage you to think just in terms of this coming week, and to carve out some time and space to receive God’s love. Make space to receive God’s love.
One of my New Year’s resolutions I fell behind on the second week of January was reading the Bible all the way through in a year. I’m not giving up, though. This week, as I was supposed to be wrapping up Leviticus, I read Exodus 25. God has raised up Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and led this new covenant people out of miserable slavery in Egypt. They’re on their way to the promised land.
After God gives Moses and the people the 10 Commandments and many other instructions, there comes this beautiful pivot point in Exodus 25 that sets up so much of Israel’s wilderness journey: God says, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”
See, God can dwell wherever and whenever and however he chooses, but he calls his people from the very beginning to carve out a space for him, where they can honor his presence and receive his love. Hospitality toward God is all about making room for God. Hospitality toward God is about receptivity, open hands, a willing heart. As our author will put it, it’s about saying, “Yes” to God.
This “practice of fruitful living,” we’ll see, drives all the other practices and undergirds them.
But how many obstacles are there that stand between us and God’s love?
For one, we have a dizzying array of technological distractions available to us at any moment.
Or maybe we get our viewing and clicking habits under control, only to find out that the real, live human beings we know have a whole host of demands and expectations of us. Whether co-workers, clients, professors, children, bosses, siblings, or students, we often acutely feel that our time is not our own.
Furthermore, we have been shaped, for better or for worse, by hurts imposed upon us by others, by pain past and present, some things resolved, others unresolved. These can make us guarded, and give us pause when it comes to opening the door of our hearts to God.
And then there’s us. We get in the way of our own receiving of God’s love for us. We undermine our own efforts at radical hospitality toward the grace of God. We do this by neglect, out of fear, due to pride, because of overworking, or just sheer lack of putting forth the effort required to make a space where we can commune with God.
As I’ve thought this week about the many barriers that keep us from more fully embracing God’s love, I’ve found some illumination in a somewhat unlikely place: one of my all-time favorite movies, Good Will Hunting.
Will Hunting—played by Matt Damon—is a genius, a mathematical prodigy who proves an impossible theorem on an MIT chalkboard while he’s mopping the floor as janitor.
He gets into trouble for hitting a police officer, and then is assigned therapy as part of his deal to not have to go to prison.
His therapist, Sean, is played by Robin Williams… an amazing performance by both men.
Sean realizes very early with Will that there are two poles, both of which keep Will from opening himself to receiving—and giving—love.
On the one hand, Will undermines deep relationships by his lack of effort, through willful stubbornness and arrogance.
On the other hand, Will is an orphan; he was abused by his foster dad and the foster system itself. One can hardly blame him for wanting to keep distance from all humanity.
Sean points out, “We get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds,” as he watches Will pursue a love interest while also keeping her at bay.
At their first therapy session, Will pompously tries to psychoanalyze his therapist, Sean, based on the books, pictures, and a single painting in his office.
Next session, Sean leads Will out of his office and to a park bench at the Boston Public Garden.
He points out that Will is really just practicing avoidance. As they sit there in that iconic scene, Sean says,
I can’t learn anything from you, [that] I can’t read in some __ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in.
But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.
Your move, chief.
He walks away.
We know what it is to be “terrified of what [we] might say,” if we were truly vulnerable in the presence of God. We can also be scared of what we might hear, what God might ask of us, or of getting a reminder of what God has already asked of us, that we’re not doing.
But if Will Hunting’s avoidance is partly his own doing, there is also a sense in which he has been so malformed by his past, that he really doesn’t know how to love, and how to be loved.
One of the culminating scenes in the movie is where the therapist Sean has to turn in a report on Will to the court. (You can watch it here.)
Will says, “So, uh, what is it, like, Will has an attachment disorder? Is it all that stuff?”
Will goes on, “Fear of abandonment? Is that why I broke up with Skylar?”
Sean says, “I didn’t know you had.”
Sean says, “Hey, Will? I don’t know a lot. You see this? All this [stuff]?
He holds the file up and then drops it down on his desk.
Sean says, “It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah, I know that.”
“Look at me, son,” says Sean. “It’s not your fault.”
Will nods, but Sean just keeps repeating that line, “It’s not your fault; it’s not your fault; it’s not your fault,” till finally Will breaks down, sobbing, and reaches out to hug his therapist.
Make Space This Week to Receive God’s Love
Bishop Schnase in his book talks about these two poles Sean identified in Will. He doesn’t talk about Good Will Hunting, but it’s the same dynamic. Schnase calls them “elements of distance, both inherited and willful,” that keep us from receiving God’s love.
Whether “It’s not your fault,” or whether “It’s your move, chief,” a combination of fear, guilt, neglect, deep pain, and disobedience almost actively seeks to prevent us from carving out spaces where God can dwell, and where we can simply bask in his love.
We need more time, more openings, more gaps, and wider margins where we can slowly churn over God’s words that are for us, too:
“You are my child, whom I love. With you I am well-pleased.”
“You are my child, whom I love.”
“You are my child, whom I love.”
Give yourself permission—starting today and tomorrow—to dedicate time and space to gratefully receive God’s love. If you can’t give yourself permission, you’ve got my permission. Consider it the pastor’s equivalent of a doctor’s note—a pastoral exhortation.
“Listen!” Jesus says, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you, and you will dine with me.”
Give yourself permission to do as God’s first people did, to make little sanctuaries of time and space where you can meditate on God’s lavish love for you, and receive his grace.
Not just so you can run off and give it to someone else—that’s next week’s practice…but so that you can know how deep, how strong, how rich, how unrelenting, how comforting, how amazing, how replenishing, how good, and how perfect is the love of Jesus… for you.
The above is adapted from the sermon I preached at my church last Sunday.