Essential keys to a winning season

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The University of Alabama football has just won 26 games in a row and plays (again) for the National Championship Monday evening. When does a team and coaching staff begin thinking about and planning for an undefeated season, a conference championship, and a shot at the national title? My guess is, in the case of teams with a winning history, well before the season starts.

If we wish to have a “good season,” that is, if we wish to have a good year ahead, and I am speaking about a spiritual life, we cannot assume that it will just happen. In fact, life will happen and our “season” will either be a winning one, a losing one, or a mediocre one.

How does one prepare to have a successful spiritual season? How does one have a balanced Christian spirituality? Ronald Rolheiser, author of “The Holy Longing,” states that there are four areas of essential Christian discipleship and that, if even one is missing, one’s spiritual life will be unbalanced and unfulfilled. The four areas are:

• Private prayer and personal integrity. In the Gospel of John one of the major themes is intimacy with Jesus and the primary way this is achieved is through private prayer.

One cannot achieve intimacy with anybody if there is little or no contact. An anemic prayer life will result in an anemic spirituality.

But equally important is personal integrity, also known as personal morality. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me he (or she) will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Integrity is doing the right and moral thing even when no one is watching.

• Charity and justice. One of the failures of much of evangelical and conservative Christianity is the neglect — even disdain — for the poor. In both Testaments, believers are held accountable for their treatment of the poor. The Jewish prophets made it clear that God even favored the poor. Then Jesus takes it further.

He says that God is in the poor and that how we treat the poor is how we treat Him (Matt. 25:31-46). Certainly, we are to be charitable and generous. After all, the KJV says that “he that giveth to the poor lendeth to God.”

I once had several restaurant servers tell me that the day they dreaded most was Sunday. Why? Because they said that the “church crowd” was the least generous with tips. We need to do better.

But what about justice? What’s that about? In the biblical sense, justice seeks to correct the structures that help create poverty or oppression.

In the past, it was the Church in Europe and America that founded universities, that fueled the abolition movement, that sustains the current pro-life efforts. Sunday schools were first established to teach poor children to read, write, and do math because they worked in the factories and didn’t go to school.

My father-in-law, John Douglas, a devout Southern Baptist, is, at the age of 86, involved in his community with kids who are a high risk to drop out of high school. Hoping to save them from a life of poverty, he works with businesses, schools, and high school students to keep them in school with the promise of a guaranteed job when they graduate. That is justice. The civil rights movement was about changing structures and the church was right there.

• Involvement with an ecclesial community. This is about church. As messy as church can be, one cannot say, “I love God but hate my brother or sister.” Christianity is communal and always has been. The Christian faith is not a private quest. You cannot love Christ and reject His bride.

Some people say, “I can be a Christian and not go to church.” No, biblically, you cannot. “Just me, my Bible, and Jesus,” is not Christianity. It is a narcissistic, deluded spirituality that denies the very message of Jesus who came to “Build His Church.” Church life can be hard. Get over it.

• Forgiveness and mellowness of heart. In all the things we are called to do, it is essential that we do them with a forgiving and mellow heart. If our hearts are not tender, even toward those with whom we are offended, then we become the older brother in the story of the prodigal son who placed himself outside of his father’s house, seething in anger and bitterness.

I have heard scores of people over the years say, “I just can’t (or won’t) forgive him/her.” Unforgiveness is the poison that we drink in the expectation that someone else will die.

An athlete has to make choices on what kind of season he/she wishes to have and what one is willing to do. And then they have to follow through. Because, prepared or unprepared, diligent or slothful, we will have a season.

At the end of this year, and especially in matters spiritual, we will either have a winning, losing, or mediocre season. Choose wisely and carefully. And then, “Just do it.”

[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]