Author’s Note: My editor, a.k.a. my sweet husband, commented that people might not get past the treatise on theology that kicks off this post. He thought I should ask you to PLEASE stick with it and watch the video at the end. It’s worth it. Thanks!

I woke early this morning, like 4 a.m. early, and decided to tackle one of my theology chapters for the Living School. I find it much easier to get through this type of work with a well-rested mind. What looks like gibberish at 10 p.m. somehow becomes intelligible after seven hours of sleep. This particular chapter was from a book called Christophany by Raimon Pannikar. Here is a sample:

Here we see clearly delineated a twofold dimension of Christianity that a dualistic vision of reality has difficulty keeping in harmony, despite the fact that nonduality is the quintessence of Christ’s mystery – totus Deus et totus homo (“The whole God and the whole man”) according to the classical expression. An inevitable consequence of this “panhistorical” vision of Christianity would be that the eucharist cannot be Christ’s real and true presence, but only an anamnesis (“memory”) of a past fact. In other words, without a mystical vision, the Eucharistic reality disappears.

After reading it the first time, there was nothing “clearly delineated,” and no “inevitable consequence” was obvious to me. However, after several passes a modicum of understanding emerged. If his meaning is crystal clear to you, leave a comment below and we will discuss.

However, if that paragraph of theology leaves you cold, read on.

I will confess, there is some part of me that loves academic work. I love the puzzle, the working things out, the “Aha” moment when I finally grasp the author’s point. It’s even better when I have not just comprehension, but also an opinion on their argument. That is a true victory!

But as I find myself being intellectually and egoically seduced by the power of knowledge, I also know, in the pit of my stomach, that it’s “nothing but straw,” as Thomas Aquinas infamously said in the final days of his life. Ultimately, on a cold day, in the concrete reality of our lives, most of what has been written about God would be most useful as fuel for a fire to keep us warm. Theology simply falls short of experiential knowledge. Simply put, our study of the Divine has far less of an impact on us than our experience of it.

The only theology we truly need to know is that God is Love with a capital L. Jesus gave us only two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. Like Hillel, he thought the rest would take care of itself. St. Augustine said simply, “Love God and do as you please.” But even this simple theology is worthless if we are not Loved in real life, in real ways, by real people, intentionally, compassionately, fiercely and unconditionally. Without the lived experience of deeply committed Love, by parent, spouse, friend or community, even this theology can be twisted and misunderstood.

I know academic studies of theology, philosophy and the like are crucially important disciplines. They elevate and animate conversations at the highest levels and shape our educational system and our vision of the world. They record the evolution of our collective consciousness. Without Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, without Descartes and Voltaire, Locke and Hobbes, and countless others, we would not be where we are today. But these subjects are not for everyone and I am grateful for the “1%ers” who study them responsibly and have an opportunity to influence our world.

I know what they’ve done is good, but I read a story about Tamika Brown today, who is the embodiment of a lived theology of Love and

I am convinced that if all the theology in the world from every culture and religion, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and every other, ceased to exist tomorrow and instead we all Loved like this, the world would be a better place.

Two years ago, Tamika’s son, Richie Knight, was stabbed to death when he was 19 years old. His killer was Ian Lorne Ellis, a 17-year-old young man from the neighborhood, who Richie had been in confrontations with in the months before the murder. Ellis pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and will serve twenty-one years in prison. This is what Tamika had to say to him in the courtroom on the day of his sentencing.

“Only God knows why I’m not angry, or why I don’t hate you. Would it shock you to hear that I love you? I thought to myself one day a while back, ‘Don’t lock him up. Sentence him to my home. Let him be my son that he took away from me.’”

Can you imagine if we all sought justice this way? If loss opened us up and allowed us to give birth to something new and miraculous, instead of hardening our hearts, seeking retribution?

Tamika sang to her son’s killer about the source of her Love, starting with the song, “He Cares,” but changing a few words on the spot:

“So you think that you can’t make it through,/ Just remember that my God cares for you…/Don’t give up, don’t give in/ Today make Jesus Christ your number one friend.”

In suffering, Tamika knew Love, but instead of sharing it only with her friends and family, she extended it to the other, her enemy. No one can say this is soft, or easy, or wishy-washy theology. This is Love from its the deepest source, in any culture and by any name. She changed the equation. We are accused and we get defensive; we are Loved and we can be transformed.

Theology is all well and good, but it should never trump the embodied reality of Love. Think of France and Nigeria. Think of Israel and Palestine, ISIS and Iraq. Think of Leelah Alcorn. All these tragedies were based on mistaken theologies, ones that said there was a something greater than Love. We have to do better.

I may study theology, but I choose Love.

If you want to read the local news story, click here.

As most of you know, I love to find intersections between the head and the heart, the moment and the infinite, the spiritual and the secular. The sacred is everywhere if we allow the possibility and so today, I offer you “The Spirituality of Spin.”

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.”

These are words of wisdom a friend shared with me recently when I was in a lot of pain. At the time, I wanted to haul off and hit him, but he was just out of reach and I was locked into my pedals anyway. The pain was real and physical, but he also was the one putting me through it. His name is Rich and he is my spin instructor, but I secretly think he was a Zen master in a former life. You’ve got to love a guy who can seamlessly bring Buddhist philosophy, 50s doo-wop music and prodigious amounts of sweat into the same moment.

spin

For many years, I avoided the spin room at my local YMCA. People who “spun” were intense. Whenever I walked by, the lights were dim; the music was pumping; the instructor was yelling, and the cyclists were staring at a glowing LED-display, mounted between their handlebars. They appeared transfixed, as if on ecstasy in a techno-fueled nightclub. Not my scene, thank you very much. I also happened to cherish sitting normally after a work out. Spin will never win, I thought smugly.

But about a year ago, one of my good friends defected to the dark side of the gym. She didn’t become an addict exactly, but two days a week, I’d see her in there, huffing and puffing and pedaling away. She invited me to come with her; I demurred. She told me what a good work out it was; I scoffed. She promised me my butt would adapt; I doubted it. But I couldn’t completely dismiss her perspective; I trust her. She’s a fit, successful, serene, 50-year-old woman who would never tolerate bad music, or macho bullshit. If she chose to spend an hour in a spin class, there must be something to it after all.

So I gave it a try and after a couple misses with bad music (the dreaded techno music) and worse instructors (pompous donkeys who sat up on their bikes and played air guitar while talking about how high a gear they were pushing), I finally made it to Steph’s cherished, Friday morning class and found my “spin” home.

Like any new exercise routine, or spiritual practice, spinning felt a little awkward at first. It was Catholic calisthenics all over again. We sat; we stood; we did a strange hover over the seat for 20 seconds at a time. I was always looking at my neighbor to gauge my posture and proficiency. I couldn’t tell if I was trying too hard, or not hard enough. I couldn’t seem to find the rhythm, when everyone else moved like an old pro. But the instructor Rich began that first class, and every class since with a gentle reminder: For the next sixty minutes, we simply need to be present to ourselves, to acknowledge what we feel and do what we can do. For the next hour, there are no problems to solve, or people to fix, so we can focus on why we are there: to transform our bodies and our selves. His stated goal as our teacher is to push us beyond our comfort zones, which is where all genuine improvement lies.

Though my ego and body didn’t love my first spin class with Rich, my soul immediately responded to his coaching style: creative and engaging, humble, but tough. It took only a few classes for me to begin to see how I could take his words into my spiritual life. Can you imagine a priest, pastor, or rabbi beginning every service that way? Asking us to breathe deeply, to center ourselves and let go of outside concerns? To be fully present to the Presence within us and open to the (sometimes painful) transformation that can take place if we allow it? Though they don’t usually ask, since I began spinning, I try to do it anyway.

Rich reminds us that if we wanted easy, we would be on a treadmill next door and I often think of that as I walk, sometimes reluctantly, into church. If I wanted easy, I’d be back in bed, munching on a donut and sipping my latte. I’m at church for a reason. Walking through life at a comfortable pace isn’t going to change me.

When our lungs and legs are burning, Rich calls out, “This is the feeling of improvement!” In all my years, during the many times I have been on my knees in prayer, in frustration, in desperation for things to be different, I had never thought of it that way. Our hearts and souls are no different than our bodies. Positive change never comes easily. Each step is just beyond our reach and the only way to get there is to do the very thing we don’t think we can do. In those moments in the classroom, Rich reminds us, “Somewhere inside of you is the person who can do this hard thing.” I want to believe he’s right, so I keep pedaling and push on, whether I’m on a bike, or in the midst of my life.

Finishing up a tough hill, Rich asks us to imagine our 80-year-old selves, thanking us for what we are doing right now at the age of 30, 40, or 50 and as I hold Tim’s hand at night, apologize for an unkind word, or let go of a petty grudge, I imagine the same thing. I am doing it for us now, but I’m also doing it for our 80-year-old selves. We plan to be together for another forty years at least, but that’s not going to happen if I don’t take care of business today.

One day when the hills were extra long and the incline steep, it seemed like the hour would never end. No matter how good the music, or how fine the company, I just didn’t have it in me to finish hard. I wanted to back off and quit, but sensing the mood of the room, Rich tried another tactic. He made sure we knew we were in this together. “Every one is feeling what you are feeling,” he likes to say and you can tell by the effort in his voice that he is no exception. He reminded me that solidarity is the key to enduring any difficult experience. Knowing we are not alone in our pain allows us to transform it. Great leaders, spiritual or otherwise, embrace the trials of their people and the burdens of their community. A great Leader is with you on your journey, in your effort and pain. She isn’t standing in the Promised Land, waiting for you to hurry up and get there. He doesn’t pretend that the journey didn’t cost him something as well.

Great leaders aren’t impatient. They don’t shame and blame, judge, compare and compete. They meet people where they are. They care and then they cure. I don’t know if Rich does all that in two, sixty-minute spin classes each week, but I do know I leave there better prepared to face my day, more sound in body and mind.

Pain

The most Zen of Rich’s words are where I began. Though they were spoken in the sanctuary of the spin class, they have resonated with me every day since. When I encounter frustrations, big, or small, I am reminded that the choice is mine. The pain may be inevitable, but the suffering is not. I still choose to suffer more than I’d like, but because I signed up for improvement, I’m willing to work on it. I breathe deeply, relax my hands, and drop my shoulders. I feel what I am feeling and then I move on. I know I will be glad I did it today and perhaps even more grateful down the road. And ultimately and perhaps most importantly, I know I’m not alone. I have a great Leader.