What aquacise teaches me about church

Sometimes I learn about faith and the church in the oddest places.  Several times each week I attend a water aerobics, or aquacise, class.  I have always loved swimming so this form of exercise never feels like “I have to” but instead like “I get to” work out.

Lately as I engage in “deep water runs” or endless rounds of “water crunches, it occurs to me that my fellow classmates form a community much like the best aspects of a congregation.

There is great diversity in the aquacize participants. We come to class, all of us – the lame and that biblical description, the “halt” (defined in my dictionary as “one who limps”), the old and the young, men and women of every size and description.  Some people walk briskly from the locker room to the pool; for others, it is more challenging.

  • One woman rolls to the water’s edge in a wheelchair, her bright pink hair and cheery smile drawing attention away from her legs that struggle to support her and which barely move enough to allow her to get to the stairs into the water.
  • There is a man who calls himself “One-legged Dave,” who arrives promptly each morning. “I lost the leg below the knee to cancer, but that’s all that sucker got – the rest of me is still here!” He sits on a bench to remove his prosthetic leg with the molded plastic foot and replaces it with a rubber flipper. “I’ll be the fastest one in class – the only problem is, I’ll go in circles!”
  • An older woman wears thick black gloves in the water. I thought this was very odd until someone explained that she had been in a serious car accident. She was severely burned, leaving her skin sensitive to the pool chemicals.

I am in awe of the courage on display here. It would be easier for each one of them to stay home. They choose to come because they find something there that nourishes their spirits. I hope the same can be said for the church.

When this unlikely collection of people is brought together on land, one can hardly imagine that they could ever comprise an exercise group.  But then – they enter the water.

In that moment, they are transformed. All the differences and physical challenges disappear in the water.  Water, it turns out, is a great equalizer.  Suddenly everyone is the same height; all we can see of one another is our heads bobbing out of the water.  Creaky knees relax as they are lifted by the forgiving buoyancy, aching muscles ease as they are massaged by the gentle warmth that surrounds us.  People who can barely walk on land suddenly experience the freedom of graceful movement in the water.

The pool provides a release that we share with joy.  In my mind’s eye, I imagine the Holy Spirit moving in and through our class, anointing each of these individuals and binding us together as a group.

I hope people experience that kind of delight when they come to church. I hope the sanctuary is a place where all kinds of people can come together and experience renewed hope and welcome. People who are weighed down by challenges in life and those who are confronted with numerous limitations in other venues can hear the Good News – you belong here. The problems that we carry with us may not be forgotten but they will not be allowed to define us.

The pool –and the church – can be a place of encouragement where members are invited to stretch their wings and find a new definition for themselves.

Everyone, of course, has a story to tell and a reason why they show up for an 8:15 a.m. aquacise class. Some people arrive yearning for some serious exercise and look forward to the workout. Others clearly come primarily for fellowship, barely pausing in their conversations to listen to our enthusiastic instructor, who guides and encourages us with great patience and creativity.

People come to worship for lots of different reasons, as well. I hope the church makes them feel as welcome as the pool does. Church can be – should be – that place where all of God’s people are on equal footing, where all of us are enveloped by the loving grace of God’s Holy Spirit.  Church can be – should be – a place where we discover new possibilities, where we are told not what we can’t do, but instead are encouraged to be amazed by what God can do in and through us.

If you see me in class, you might think I am only trying to increase my core muscle strength, but in reality, I am learning again about how God teaches me about grace and welcome and the church in very surprising places.

 

A meeting like no other – the annual meeting of the church

 Luke 4: 21-30 (NRSV)

Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ‘ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The annual meeting is an important Congregational tradition.  However, I hope our annual meeting (coming up this Sunday) will not resemble Jesus’ experience preaching in the temple. What a testy, ornery lot his congregation was that day!

Even assuming that you never had the experience of an angry mob to toss you over a cliff after your sermon, it can nevertheless be challenging to encourage a congregation with words of renewal and hope. Sometimes our congregations seem content to wax poetic about the way things “used to be,” without any vision about new possibilities if we dared to imagine beyond the box, the usual, or the ordinary.

The multitude threatened to kill Jesus that day. They crowded around him to block any possibility of escape. Yet Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way (v. 30).” So my prayer for our annual meetings and for the year to come is this:

PRAYER

God of our congregations, large and tiny, urban and out in the sticks, vibrant and near-comatose…

May we overcome obstacles that hinder our path to faithfulness.
May we be willing to listen to surprising voices and attentive to those who say the unexpected.
May we have eyes that allow us to take a second look at those whom we are too eager to dismiss or ignore.
May we be open to the surprising direction in which the Spirit may be leading us. Let us not be too hasty to “recalculate” to the overly-familiar or revert to the too well-known. Instead help us dare to strike out in a new, perhaps untried, ventures.
May we do more than talk about what we “wish” our church would do and instead dare to act, in faith, and break through apparent boundaries and restrictions.
May we, like Jesus, speak words of new life that celebrate Good News for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and sight for the blind.

Please bless our congregation (and congregations across the globe) today and in the future. Amen