Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2013

LET’S GET SPIRITUAL!

In a dimly lit room, candles are lit in preparation, and an atmosphere of calm is cultivated. Music is readied and begins to play as the participants begin to gather, dressed in their best outfits.

The participants move in and assemble in neat rows. The music builds as the members get into the rhythm, becoming louder and more energetic.

One member says that when they gather on Sunday mornings she really appreciates the togetherness – the sense of community – because this journey would be hard to sustain on her own. Another speaks of loving the fact that she knows that, every Sunday morning, people all over America are doing the same thing at the same time. She loves the feeling of solidarity, of being part of something much larger than herself. It gives her strength.

If you don’t get there early, you don’t get a seat. A woman who describes herself as a “recent convert” tells of her need to come out and participate in terms of obsession and addiction. Another describes it as “an emotional outlet. I have a great husband, a great life, but this is my happy place.” “It’s a way of life,” says another devotee.

Their leaders are taught to be both entertaining and inspiring. “Your heart should be pounding!” one of the leaders says to his group. It’s meant to be “a total mind-body experience.”

So what exciting new church are we talking about here, that has such motivated and dedicated leaders and members? I am not talking about any church, actually – I am describing the new fitness phenomenon called “Soul Cycle,” or soul spinning, which involves riding a stationary bike. It’s an intense workout accompanied by what they call “inspirational coaching.” “Change your body. Find your soul” the ad for the New York branch says.

Journalist Alex Morris quotes 27 year old soul spinner Jaime: “’I would do anything that I could to afford these rides.’ Jaime often takes thirteen classes a week (estimated cost: $21,632 per year). She’s arranged her schedule to have Mondays off work so that she can always be at her computer the moment classes are released. She counts her instructors among her closest friends. Her social life revolves around people she’s met at SoulCycle.”

It sounds a lot like the way people used to describe their church experience. An ABC TV report said “they’ve turned cardio into a cult; riding into a religion.” They call the phenomenon “a sign of the times” What does that mean? A sign of what? And how is it particular to our time?

A Salvation Army ad of many years ago, noticing the trend toward physical fitness, showed a number of people working out, lifting weights, etc., and the ad concluded by saying: “So much for the physical you; now what about the spiritual you?” But some modern fitness gurus believe they are melding soul and body as they shout encouragements and inspirational (and sometimes confrontational) words at their frantically pedaling disciples – they believe they are dealing with people on the level of soul, which is why they call this new fad “soul spinning.”

To say the least, this represents something of a shift in the way we define spirituality and the means by which we connect with and cultivate our inner self.

I don’t think it’s wise or appropriate to dismiss this new phenomenon, or merely lament the fact that this sort of thing for many people has replaced religion in our world. I think we need to ask why are people congregating in places like that? What is the focus? What are they gaining from it? Why is this kind of thing such a priority for people?

Soul spinning is a frantic ride and it is called “soulful” because of the way it challenges people – it promises to transform people.

Alex Morris reports about one Soul Cycle participant who was invited to the front to ride the instructor’s bike, and called it “the scariest, most thrilling experience of my life!”

You have to admire the zeal and commitment, the desire for self-improvement and even the basic value of being in shape and discovering your own strengths and abilities. It’s great that in a world where many are extremely unhealthy and addicted to sugar and alcohol and caffeine, many are making a choice to find a healthier lifestyle.

Studies prove without a doubt the connection between poor fitness and depression, paranoia and fearfulness, sleep disorders and general lack of energy and confidence. That can’t be conducive to being a faithful servant of God.

I have to acknowledge that I always meditate better after a session of yoga gets my blood flowing, my lungs breathing deeply and my mind cleared and centered. I was always much sharper and had more positive energy and stamina for ministry when I was in shape by virtue of playing hockey, cycling, running or swimming regularly. Golf for me over the years has become as much a form of spiritual practice as physical exercise, but in fact it is both because of the intention I bring to it.

Despite our individualistic tendencies, it is still in people to become committed. There is a dedication here that is impressive. Soul spinners are apparently so highly motivated – even fanatic — that the movement has been called a cult. The cyclist who said “It’s a way of life,” reminds Christians of something fundamental to their faith. But what is the motivation? Is it just an effort to feel good, or is it an attempt to become part of some elite element in society – an attempt to distance oneself, make oneself superior?

One of my problems with the fitness industry is that the focus is entirely on the self – really, what are you doing to make the world a better place when you are spending that much time and money sitting on a stationary bike?

People familiar with body builders and fitness fanatics realize how they become preoccupied with taking care of themselves to the exclusion of all else – there’s a reason why people call them “health nuts.” Like anorexia, there is a preoccupation with the body – with the desire to look a certain way — that becomes morbid. Encouraging narcissism – becoming self-absorbed — is not the way to grow spiritually.

Describing spirituality as something that can be arrived at via physical exertion, that reaching your soul is a function of endorphins, and equating soul with cardio-vascular health or a certain level of physical fitness, is misleading, a false and empty promise. This is not what the great mystics are talking about! Though they may get their endorphins revved up and their bodies working like a well-tuned BMW, modern “soul spinners” are still nowhere near the kind of visionary and spiritual experience being described in our readings from Acts and Revelation this morning.

Frankly, I think it’s kind of pathetic that someone would say that the “the scariest, most thrilling experience of my life,” had taken place on a stationary bicycle – I mean, really, get a grip! I think of experiences like white water canoeing or seeing my first child born or even preaching my first sermon. It makes me wonder how empty some people’s lives truly are, and how lacking in perspective, if their best experiences are happening on a stationary bike.

Part of what I see in the fitness movement is that it is often rooted in anxiety and desperation – anxiety about not being acceptable because of poor appearance, fear of rejection motivating conformity and convention (everyone’s doing it so I should too), fear about aging and becoming vulnerable, and finally a fear of death, in the absence of a genuine spirituality which might enable people to integrate youth and age, strength and weakness, life and death. There is more of an attitude of trying to take charge of our own destiny, and not operating on faith.

We’ve come a long way from St Francis of Assisi, who dismissively called his body “Brother Ass,” and ignored its demands to the point that he literally died of malnutrition. And maybe that’s the point.

At one time there was so much focus on the spiritual that many Christians became almost oblivious to issues of social justice and physical health and well-being – the focus instead was upon how to get out of this material world and into heaven. It is not surprising that we have swung heavily in the direction of the material and the physical, and are now rather careless about spiritual matters.

Clearly part of the appeal in activities like soul spinning is the motivation of doing something together – being part of a community or fellowship. The motivation is to become a better person and to have a more positive outlook on oneself and on life in general. There is a sense of stewardship – of the need to take care of this one body we get, and not take it for granted.

St Francis’ neglect of his bodily needs didn’t exactly honour the biblical concept that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, any more than telling homeless or hungry people: “Blessed are the poor” or “Blessed are those who hunger now …” Maybe soul spinning as a “sign of the times” is simply a movement toward integration – overcoming the old soul vs. body, sacred vs. secular dualism of earlier times, an approach which encouraged Christians to be dismissive of anything physical or earthly, including our sexuality.

Anglicans, while not the most emotionally effusive of religious types, do offer a certain gentle type of aerobics, with our standing, sitting, kneeling, passing the peace and coming forward for communion routine.

And we do encourage people to get more physically involved by mowing the church lawn or putting the chairs away after coffee hour or or joining the Altar Guild (now there’s a rigourous workout!).

Not to worry — I don’t envision St John’s with rows of stationary bikes instead of pews, although it might be fun to imagine ourselves coming to church in spandex and shouting encouragements at each other as we worship!

Soul spinning and things like it make us aware that spirituality and physical life are connected. It is not either/or. St Peter’s great vision taught him to see the great variety of life in the world and to see God at work in all of it. St John the Divine’s great vision in Revelation reveals to us the integration – the connection — between the heavenly and the earthly.

Does our motivation come from above or from within? Is it physical or spiritual? The answer is that it is both – the scriptures remind us that life is not just about perspiration but inspiration, and we are not to lose ourselves in either direction.

My hope is that fitness trends like soul spinning will eventually lead people in the direction of a more integrated lifestyle, in which body and soul work together for a greater good, and appreciation of our own strength is accompanied by a genuine belief in God.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+

RCL appointed readings:

Acts 11:1-18 Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Psalm 148

Revelation 21:1-6 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

John 13:31-35 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”