Saturday, July 25, 2015

No Rules!

Christianity is not like other religions. In fact, it’s completely different. However, many people, including many Christians, think and act as if it were no different from any other rule-based religion. Here is what is so different: there are no rules to achieve the reward of heaven or to earn God’s love. There is nothing that a mortal human can do to earn God’s love or salvation. Heaven – eternal life – is the “reward” for something very simple: believing that Jesus is the Son of God and that His death has made you righteous in God’s eyes. That’s it. Period, end.*

This is the polar opposite of most other religions. Those religions are full of requirements to make sure you are one of the chosen: you have to eat (or avoid) certain foods, you have to pray a certain way or at certain times of the day, you have to do good works, you have to wear (or not wear) certain clothes. Those religions say: if you do enough of these “good” things, then God will love you and let you into heaven. In other words, you have to “earn” your way to eternal life.

Christianity is completely different. You can’t “earn” anything. This is what grace means – we get what we don’t deserve. We cannot ever be “good” enough to earn a place in the kingdom of the most righteous and holy God. It is God’s grace alone that saves us. And once given, there is nothing we can do to have that grace withdrawn. Nothing.

“Well, wait a minute – you mean I can accept Jesus as my savior and keep on sinning and still get to heaven?” Yes, exactly. There are no requirements for entry into heaven except belief. This is why the Gospel is so radical! It is not about what we do, but what God has done through Jesus Christ. You can’t make God love you less, no matter what you do. If you have Christ in you, your actions may change (as you are transformed into His image – 2 Cor. 3:18), but they don’t have to change. Christianity is not about rules, but about belief. And that’s radical!

Other religions are full of “us vs. them” theology – by following the rules a special, chosen group is created and all others are excluded. And human beings love that kind of thinking! You get to feel special, and you get to feel superior to those “other” people who are not pure enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough. But Christianity is fully inclusive: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female.” [Gal. 3:28] And Jesus himself saved his anger for the Pharisees, who had the outward appearance of righteousness (following “the rules”) but inside were dead and rotten. [Matt. 23:27] It was this inclusiveness, and lack of rules, that enraged the Jewish leaders. They were God’s chosen people! They had thousands of rules to prove it! How dare this poor, itinerant preacher (who consorted with SINNERS!) offer salvation to just anyone?

This new way of “achieving” salvation turns rules-based religions upside down. It is not our own efforts that make us worthy – it is God’s grace, and God’s grace alone that does that. But the pure simplicity of this Gospel is so hard for humans to grasp! We want to keep adding rules – rules to keep others out and rules to earn God’s love. It’s just too simple to just believe and be saved. It’s just too inclusive that everyone gets in on this! How can we feel superior to others if even the lowliest low-life gets the same grace as the “pure and righteous” person? I’ve even heard people say, “Then what’s the point of being a Christian?” as if having a relationship with the God of the universe and being able to draw on His power in our lives wasn’t enough! They somehow feel cheated if there aren’t rules!

Sadly, many Christians behave as though the old rules were still in place. However, Jesus himself said there are now only two “rules” we need to follow: love God with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. [Matt. 22:36-40] Jesus also said: “They will know you are my disciples because of your love.” [John 13:35] He didn’t say: “They will know you are my disciples because of what you eat.” Or “how you dress.” Or “the music you listen to.” Or “who you associate with.” Despite this, many Christians still live as though following the rules will earn them something, and, conversely, that not following these rules will earn God’s wrath.

But, again, even if we fail to follow these two “rules” we can still be assured of God’s love and our salvation. Those are the only things we can absolutely be sure of, because we don’t earn them on our own merits – they are gifts from God, and can never be revoked. So stop trying to “earn” God’s love. It has already been given – on the cross. And that can never be undone. And if you feel like you just have to have rules, then the only rule to remember is LOVE.

*Even more radically, some Christians believe that Christ’s death on the cross bought salvation for everyone, regardless of their belief. Talk about inclusiveness!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

On Love

Love people you disagree with. Love Caitlyn Jenner. Love Jeb Bush. Love Barack Obama. Love Dylan Storm. You may think Caitlyn Jenner is despicable, and totally deceiving herself, and full of sin. Tough. Love her. Because God does.  Dylan Storm is a racist murderer. Tough. Love him. Because God does.

We don’t get to decide whom we should love – Jesus told us to love our neighbor as ourselves and then went on to show that everyone is our neighbor. [Luke 10:25-37] And then there is the whole “Love your enemies” thing. [Matt. 5:44] So, even if you believe the people you disagree with are your enemies, guess what? You’re supposed to love them, too!

One of the most famous Bible verses is John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” The key thing here is “the world” – God loves the entire world, and that includes everyone. Similarly, in Romans 5:8 it says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ did not die for righteous people, or for people who believe in God – He died for SINNERS. And we are all sinners. [Romans 3:23] So, God loves everyone – including sinners (which is a good thing, since that’s us) – and commands us to love everyone, too.

If God loves these people so much that He sent Christ to die for them, how can we treat them so badly? We call them names; we publicly shame them – is that how we love? By belittling people? Is that the Gospel? I have to admit I am writing this partly because I don’t always remember this. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but do so without disrespecting them – even if you think they don’t deserve respect. Especially if you don’t think they deserve respect. Calling someone names or bullying them isn’t exactly loving them, is it? It’s not a very good reflection of Christ in our lives, is it? Remember that public figures are people – they are someone’s mother, someone’s father, someone’s child. They are God’s children, for heaven’s sake! If you think they are somehow “lost” or “living in sin” isn’t that even more reason to extend the hand of love, and not a slap in the face?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
[1 Cor. 13:4-8]

They will know you are my disciples because of your love. [John 13:35]

Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. [1 Cor. 13:13]

Friday, July 10, 2015

My Toughest Workout

This is a follow-up to my post of last week (“I’m Still an Athlete – No, Really!”) where I discussed how my life really hasn’t changed, despite my disability – I’m just competing in a new sport called “Living with a Disability” – and  I talked about what my new workouts are. But I forgot the toughest workout, the one I face daily. Before I tell you about it, let me first tell you about what I’d previously thought of as my toughest workout.

Now, anyone who knows anything about running, knows there are lots of grueling workouts: hill repetitions, intervals, stadium stairs, etc. But there was one workout that I did when I was at Flathead Valley Community College that beats all of those. It was called “step-down miles” and it was the toughest workout I ever faced, in any sport. A cross-country race was three miles long, and the coach would use your average mile time to set up this workout. For example, suppose during a race your average time per mile was 6 minutes. Your step-down mile targets would be this: run a mile in 6:30; without stopping, run a second mile in 6 minutes; and again, without stopping, run a third mile in 5:30. This is still your average of 6 minutes, but the goal is to increase your overall average by forcing you to run faster than your average on that last mile. This is brutally hard. You’ve just run two miles at pretty much your usual pace, and now, when you’re most tired, you must run faster than you think and feel you are capable of. It requires reaching down deep inside and denying the pain and pushing through it.

Our coach would post the week’s workouts on Mondays, so we knew when step-downs were coming. On that dreaded day, I’d wake with a sinking feeling in my stomach, and I’d be nervous all day, waiting for the pain that I knew was coming. I’m amazed I learned anything in class on those days! That workout was the ultimate test of mental fortitude. At least I thought it was, until I had the epiphany of my new sport. And I now know that I have a workout that is tougher than step-down miles, and I face that workout every day. That workout is called “Not Giving in to Despair” and it’s even harder than step-down miles.

See, here’s the thing. I wake up every morning tired. No matter how long I sleep, I never wake up feeling refreshed. My muscles are sore and stiff, and it’s a chore just to get out of bed and get dressed. I face a day of trying desperately to conserve energy, and trying to keep myself occupied without doing things that wear me out further. Every day is the same – fatigue and pain. And I just keep getting worse. My condition is deteriorating, and doctors still don’t know what’s wrong. So I look at my future and I see nothing but more of the same: days of pain and fatigue, a life that is reduced to sitting at home in a chair. And it would be SO easy to just give in to the despair, to just give up. “My life sucks. This is not fair. I give up.” It takes all my mental fortitude, all my guts, all my everything to NOT go there.

I have to force myself to look at the good things I still have: a husband who loves me and takes such good care of me, my sister who takes me on wonderful road trips, friends who care about me and help me, the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts that I attend with friends, my book club (and reading in general), my writing, and last but not least, GOD. I know that God is with me, helping me walk this road. “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” [Phil. 4:13] is more than a verse to me – I live it out every day. I have to. If I don’t, then I give up and give into despair.

Now, this is not to say that I never have days where I feel hopeless and sad. There are, most certainly! But when I start feeling that way I have learned to reach out to people who can encourage me and pray for me. And I fight through it. Like little Arya, in The Game of Thrones, who learned a valuable lesson from her fencing instructor: “What do we say when death comes for us? ‘Not today!’” – I say the same thing when despair tries to come for me: Not today!

It's a fight, it's a struggle, but God is with me and He gives me the strength to carry on. If I can do step-down miles, I can do this. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I'm Still an Athlete - No, Really!

From my earliest memories, I knew I was an athlete. I loved to run everywhere, and race any of the kids in our neighborhood, boys or girls, and I nearly always won. I played every sport imaginable, and hated the fact that – in that era of the 60’s – girls couldn't play organized football, and we had to play softball instead of baseball. And, of course, there were no school teams for girls in grade school or junior high. Still, I played with the neighborhood kids, and on the playground, and I considered myself an athlete – in particular, a runner. Finally in 9th grade I got to be on a real school team (track and cross country) and I threw myself into those sports with gusto.  I competed in these sports all through high school, enjoying the feeling of running fast, as well as the camaraderie of being on a team.

I parlayed this love of running into a track scholarship at Flathead Valley Community College, the #1 women’s junior college track team in the country at the time. I ran 6 days a week, usually twice a day, and lifted weights three times a week. My junior year I transferred to Whitworth College (as it was known then) and got the opportunity to add basketball to my cross country and track schedules. I loved every minute of it all! And I kept working out, 6 days a week.

After college, I played softball and soccer in city leagues, and then I got into biking. (Too many injuries from soccer made it so running was no longer an option.) I continued to work out almost daily, lifting weights and biking for hours. I even hired a personal cycling coach, and I raced all around the northwest.

Being an athlete was who I was as a person. I was disciplined. I watched what I ate. I listened to my body, adjusting workouts as needed. I pushed myself to achieve more. It was as natural to me as breathing. I had been doing this my whole life – only the sports would change, the basics never did.

And then, 11 ½ years ago, I got sick, and developed a mysterious muscle disease that has, at this point, left me fully disabled, unable to do even minimal physical exertion (such as standing up for more than 5 minutes) without becoming exhausted. And I thought, “Well, so much for being an athlete.” Through some very good counsel (from Dr. Michelle Estelle at Cornerstone Psychologists), I learned to apply the lessons from sports to living with a disability. But I still felt somewhat bereft, because I was no longer an athlete, and I felt I had to reinvent myself as ‘someone with a disability.’ But recently, in talking things out with Michelle, I realized this most amazing truth: I am still an athlete!

I can hear you say: “Hold on, Kris, how can you be an athlete? Taking a shower exhausts you! You can’t do any sport!”

Well, bear with me here. When I was talking with Michelle, I was saying how I felt that living with a disability made me selfish, because I was always taking stock of my physical condition and focused on my body. She asked how that was any different from when I was biking. Didn't I focus on my body, how I was feeling, what would my workout be, etc? And I laughed and said, I guess it’s the same, but my workouts are different now. And then we both paused, and looked at each other, and I said, “Holy cow! I am still an athlete. I am still an athlete! I do the same things I've always done – it’s just the workouts are different now!”

Let me explain. When I was biking, I would wake up each day and take stock of my body: how tired was I from the previous day? Was I particularly sore anywhere? Should I adjust my scheduled workout, or go with what was planned? Well, it’s no different today. I ask myself the same questions. The exact same questions. The only difference is the nature of my ‘workout.’ (More on that in a bit.)

When I was biking, I had to pay attention to the food I ate. I had to make sure to eat enough to make up for the calories burned, and to eat the right type of fuel. I needed carbs before a workout or a race, and I needed good protein for building muscle. I avoided most plain sugars, except during workouts. I was very aware of what I ate. Again, it’s no different today, except I have to eat fewer calories, because my caloric expenditure is so low. But I still have to focus on eating good food for my body, which now means fewer carbs and lots less sugar. But it’s not new for me to change my food intake depending on the sport I’m doing. In college, I really bulked up for basketball season so I wouldn't get pushed around on the court, eating lots more fats and carbs. But then when track season came, I had to cut out the fats and carbs to drop weight in order to run faster. So, my current sport requires that I watch my total caloric intake, and keep my sugars and fats low. Nothing new – I have modified my diet to best serve my sport.

So now we come to the big difference: workouts. Unfortunately, whatever this disease is, doing any kind of exertion is counter-productive. Because my muscles don’t work right, using them at all causes them to shake, makes them sore, and makes me exhausted. This is any type of exertion. For example, even typing this makes my forearms ache. It's why I have to limit my writing to no more than 30 minutes a day. So, if I can't exercise, what are my workouts? Well, the purpose of a workout is to improve your performance in your sport, right? My new sport is called “living with a disability that makes you tired” so my workouts consist of things like this:
  • Using a shower stool so I don’t have to stand up
  • Sitting down while I get dressed/undressed
  • Sitting down while I brush my teeth
  • Using a stool in the kitchen when I do any food prep
  • Limiting the kind of food prep I do (e.g. stir fry is out – too tiring for my hands/arms)
  • Sitting in my chair and reading
  • Using the handicap shopping cart (the one I used to call the “old lady cart”)
  • Saying ‘no’ to activities when I’m too tired (this is a hard one – I get out for fun so rarely, I hate to miss things, but sometimes I have to!)
  • Asking for help, especially for rides to appointments (this is another hard one – I always feel like I’m inconveniencing people)

These are all things that help me ‘perform’ better at my sport – measuring my performance as my fatigue level. These are my new workouts.

But what about competitions/races? Well, my ‘race-day’ is any day I have to leave the house for one or more appointments or activities. Just like biking, I have to prepare for race-day by moderating my workouts beforehand, and give myself recovery days afterward. In my new sport, this means making sure I’m doing my best workouts to be as rested as possible beforehand, and then giving myself several recovery days to try to regain my strength. Just as I wouldn't schedule bike race days back to back, I need to be wise in my appointment scheduling, giving myself several days between appointments.

So, you see, I really am an athlete still! Everything is just like it always was: listening to my body, eating right, working out, competing. The only thing that has changed is the nature of my workouts. And I have always modified my workouts depending on which sport I'm competing in, so it's no different in my new sport. I just need a better name than “living with a disability that makes you tired” – but I'm working on it!