It's not heavy lifting to love the children at church (unless they're yours, squirming next to you in the pew). Everybody's charmed by them as they scamper up to the altar for story time in worship.
But often it is heavy lifting to love the adults, particularly the prickly ones. The church can't be the church without difficult people. They are among us - they are us - to remind us that we all have fallen short of the glory.
You go to the physical fitness center expecting sweat and strain. So why would you expect the church of Jesus to be an exercise-free zone? It is, after all, a fitness center for love.
It's not heavy lifting to raise the chalice of wine and the loaf of bread in the eucharist. We don't ordinarily get much aerobic exercise walking down the aisle in church to take the elements of communion. But true communion with God and true communion with each other are breathtaking exercises. It's not easy to let go of dead dogma and get past our egos and encounter divine Love face-to-face in contemplative prayer and in attentive encounter with each other. It is not easy to sit through those mind-numbing church committee meetings. It is not easy to sit silently with the grieving and listen to those in despair. It takes practice and effort to build up the muscles for mindful Christian prayer and service. Going to church is not a spectator sport. It is a gymnasium where we work up a spiritual sweat so that we can get good at love.
Now more than ever we need to be strong lovers, as our public life coarsens, as the poor and vulnerable get further marginalized, as relations between cultures and countries are further strained. At church, we don't just work out our love muscles in prayer and in relationships with our fellow members and friends. We get involved in the heavy lifting of service to our communities, and the even heavier lifting of engagement in politics for the sake of promoting the common good. Advocating actively for justice and peace in the public arena can be fun, but a lot of the time it is more like the weight room in the fitness center, where the body odors are strongest and the strain is the hardest. But, no pain, no gain! The church is where we bulk up for the great social struggles of our time.
At church, we get a workout that primes us for loving our mates, our kids, our families, our co-workers and our neighbors near and far. It takes spiritual muscle to refrain from snapping back at people when they push our anger buttons. It takes an oxygenated soul to listen to things that are hard to hear from people from whom we'd rather not hear them.
Love is deep attention and profound curiosity. Love is non-judgmental and unattached to outcomes. Love is present in the moment, not lost in the past or future. Love is mindfulness. Love is divine. But for most of us, much of the time, love is hard work. And that's why we go to the fitness center on Sunday.