Our reading from the Letter of James uses an Olympic word, the Greek word stéphanos, which is a crown of laurel or olive leaves, the most coveted prize for the victor in the ancient Greek games of sport. James writes, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (1) James is here using the metaphor of the victor’s crown to signal three things about living a fulfilled life: life will require training, it will be exceedingly challenging, and it will be equally rewarding. St. Paul also repeatedly uses metaphors of sport – of running the race, competing in contest, setting our eyes on the goal, and pursuing victory with great energy and discipline – to signal how we must train for and vigorously practice our calling to be followers of Jesus Christ. (2) It’s like a relay race where Jesus has handed the baton onto us.Now I must make a personal disclaimer. I’m not much of an athlete and never have been. I find training for sport disheartening, sometimes repelling, quite a trial, so I don’t come by these sport metaphors easily. Some of you may be able to relate. However I do regularly exercise and physically train, not because I enjoy the process or challenge, hardly, but because I greatly value the result. With regular physical exercise I feel so much better – it helps me get my heart, soul, strength, and mind in sync – and I am a more whole person. Now remember that the English words “whole” and “holy” and “health” come from the same etymological root. (3) So I want to give several life-training tips about living a whole, holy life… and these come from me, a resistant but faithful athlete. This is about toning up our souls; it’s about how to cultivate virtue in our lives. (4) Four practices.
1. Cultivate compassion. The heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is compassion. Again and again, why Jesus said what he said and did what he did was about compassion, God’s tender loving mercy. It goes without saying that you are compassionate towards some people, or some types of people. You have all the time in the world for them, you readily extend your hand, open your heart, offer your praise, express your gratitude, regard with admiration or amazement some people or some types of people. Why this is so probably has something to do with how you were formed in earlier life. But you were also probably deformed in life with a certain prejudice against certain people or certain kinds of people, and you easily or automatically judge them poor or poorly. But these “poor” people actually show up in your life to teach you about mercy, because they will expose you like no one else. The glittering image you genuinely project is tarnished in the presence of these people, if the truth be known, and they come to you as emissaries of your reformation.
If you do not easily find compassion, God’s tender loving mercy, for another person, you probably don’t know enough about them. If you did, you would revere them for the miracle they are… if you only knew. So find out. Learn the story of the person or the types of people whom you easily or automatically judge poor or poorly, and let them teach you, let them reform you. They are amazing, you will find out.
Of course, if you do not have a capacity for compassion for yourself, of God’s tender loving mercy for yourself, this won’t work. You will not be whole. Jesus loves us wholly and holy. Jesus is God’s answer for our being such a mixed bag, and sometimes a mess. We need to be rescued, we need to be saved from a living hell now. If your greatest impediment for living life mercifully is your own self, then there’s a wonderful invitation to take Jesus at his word, that he loves you. All of you. And all of from where you’ve come.
If you were to challenge me and say, if the practice of living life wholly and holy is to practice mercy, does that mean that everything that anyone does is okay? That there’s to be no accountability? No, I’m not saying that at all. We are accountable for our actions, absolutely. But I’m distinguishing here between the actions and essence of a person. However virtuous or appalling a person’s actions may be, we are talking about a person – a child of God – whom Jesus has every intention to save. That is what Jesus is up to on the cross. That is how Jesus operates, and we need to co-operate with Jesus: his tender-loving mercy for all, especially bequeathing dignity on those who have lost their dignity. Compassion is a light that will dissolve shadows.
2. Cultivate gratitude. It’s living your life as splendor, opening your heart to wonder, seeing what surrounds you and fills you with eyes of amazement. Being relentlessly thankful for the countless gifts that fill your life will absolutely transform your life’s experience. Being thankful will consecrate your life – it will make you whole and holy – and will get you in sync with God. You have been created in the image of God as a gift from God and a gift for God. Live your life as a gift, one present after another to be unwrapped in life. Gratitude will rescue you from “sort of” living and will make you really present to life. Gratitude will curb your resentments, heal your envy, give you reason for hope. Living gratefully is not virtual living. Living gratefully is the real deal. Remember your life with gratitude. Hum gratitude. Let gratitude sweep the vistas as you navigate life. Express gratitude in every way, to every person you can. Thank God you’ve been given life. Jesus promises he’s come to give us abundant life. What’s the secret to living life abundantly? (5) Gratitude. Cultivate gratitude. It’s amazing, and it will make you and your life amazing.
3. Cultivate surrender. Most every day we are reminded that we are not God. As gifted and powerful as we may individually be, as well trained, insightful, and directive as we may navigate life, we are incessantly reminded of our powerlessness. There are so many things beyond our control. We are powerless in so many ways, which is our salvation. Now we have been created with a will. Life’s challenge, and life’s liberation is to give up our will to God. I’m not speaking of the denial or denigration of our will, but the transformation of our will. It’s not that our will is too big and we want too much. No, it’s the opposite. We’re prone to will too little, and to clutch at tiny things when we’ve been created for greatness, with the great light and life and love of God to simply teem from us. The invitation for surrender is to align our will with God’s will and then to take in return God’s gift of life fearlessly, generously, faithfully, being fully alive. Not being God is our salvation. Surrender to that reality and you will be given back life on new terms. Jesus’ terms. You will be amazed, and you will be amazing.
4. What else? I could name more practices, but I leave that to you. This is for you to fill in the blank. What do you need to cultivate? When you cultivate a garden, sometimes you need to do some weeding. Is there something that needs to go from your life? Is there something in the way from your getting on the way? Is there some weeding or pruning that needs to be done? Do it. Or maybe it’s feeding? What do you know that requires attention, sustenance, encouragement, devotion in your life? It may be some practice in your past that needs to be reclaimed. Or it may be some new practice that you know, absolutely know, you now need to get on with to be whole and holy. Do it. You’re worth it. Do it. Do not live with regret. Get on with cultivating virtue in your life. And don’t wait.
Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey, writes about “virtue” which is about moral strength, valor, excellence, worth. (6) We need to cultivate virtue in our own lives, picking up where the work of formation by our parents left off or broke off. St. Gregory writes, “We are in some measure our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice… with whatever we wish to be, molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.” We are in some measure our own parents. We need to actively participate in our own formation or reformation, to co-operate with Christ’s work in our lives to be set free to be authentically, fearlessly, generously, fully alive. Cultivate virtue. You’re worth it. You’re worth it.
1. St. Paul also uses this word, in 2 Timothy 4:8, writing about winning “the crown of righteousness.” The Olympic games were among the four great PanHellenic games which Paul would have known.
2. In Acts 13:25 St. Paul uses “[race] course” as a metaphor for God’s purpose for the life of John the Baptist. St. Paul uses the same metaphor he bids farewell to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:24): “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the course and complete the ministry which I have received from the Lord Jesus…” In the Letter to the Galatians St. Paul speaks of running race (2:2), and questions, “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (5:7 NIV). He uses the image of both a runner and a boxer in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”
3. The Old English halig “holy, consecrated, sacred, godly,” related to the Old English hal, from which comes the words “health” and “hale.”
4. The English word “virtue” from the Latin virtutem: moral strength, valor, excellence, worth.
5. John 10.10. See also St. Paul’s extolling Jesus’ abundant life in 2 Corinthians 1.5; 2 Corinthians 2.4; 2 Corinthians 8.2; 2 Corinthians 9.8; Ephesians 3.20; Philippians 1.26.
6. St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) was Bishop of Nyssa, a Roman province in Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey.
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