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How Do We Define Strength?

Photo by Nima Sarram on Unsplash

Can we handle another opinion on Simone Biles? Spoiler—I follow gymnastics, having been a gym mom for years. My daughter follows it in extreme detail. We know all the sides. So I don’t come to this imbroglio as an armchair pundit, and I come with zero tolerance for criticism of this courageous woman. 

I do come, though, with a conviction that Ms. Biles, and the discussion following her decision to withdraw from competition, mirror a debate in our Christian culture over what strength is and who defines it. 

I posted this inquiry on twitter—one I didn’t expect to get so much discussion.

The answer appears to be circular. Boys don’t go into it because our culture holds up football as the ultimate goal for male fame. Basketball is good second option for popularity. 

Sports and Other Things

When boys don’t choose a sport, funds for it go down in the most important arenas of training. As kids don’t see any heroes emerge in those sports, fewer find them interesting. Especially when they’re as difficult as gymnastics with excruciatingly slow gains. And the cycle perpetuates itself. 

Even as we had the mild debate, some declared—“Boys just prefer contact sports. They’re wired for it.” Are they? Or is it that our culture refuses to value the things boys and men can do that don’t fall into the “manly” categories we’ve preassigned? This, obviously, doesn’t only apply to sports.

Is it coincidence that the people decrying Ms. Biles are mostly white men who want to replace her as GOAT with—other white men? Could there possibly be anything else going on there?

The debate rages in the church, most importantly for my, and I’m guessing your, purposes. What makes a person strong? How do we define courage? A large contingent of popular teachers want to answer those questions in a very unhealthy way.

Strength in the Church

Strength, to this demographic, means domineering, winning, ignoring personal pain, and refusing to value compassion. It’s the John Wayne paradigm, as Dr. Kristin DuMez has so perfectly explained. It’s what many of us have been listening to in CT’s podcast about Mars Hill.

Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

This popular mindset in the church doesn’t only devalue a courageous gymnast. It’s more a symptom of a pervasive illness of which, sadly, conservative church men are usually the carriers. It devalues the Christlike perspective that gold medals and power and lack of self-examination don’t make you a whole human being. 

Choosing Whole

Whole, shalom humanity comes from an entirely different kind of strength. 

  • The kind that says “no” to winning when it would destroy your soul (or your body, family, etc)
  • The kind that chooses to walk away, when all of you wants to stay, if staying would violate who you are and what you need
  • The kind of strength that offers the opportunity to shine to someone else, when you could hoard that chance to yourself
  • The kind that chooses the good of the group over the glory for yourself
  • Strength that is willing to take the boos of the crowd rather than violate your conscience 
  • Strength that sends a message to others that you are worth more than what you do

As most overwhelmingly support Ms. Biles, there is that contingent. That group that demands—if you won’t dance to the tune we play, you don’t deserve our praise. If you won’t conform to our definitions, we will replace you with someone who will. (Not surprisingly, a black woman never will be able to meet their definitions.)

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

As so many gratefully praise Simone for her courage, what if we do the same for our leaders in the church? What if we throw off those terrible, unhealthy definitions of strength, power, and courage, and embrace the path she has shown us? The path Christ showed us, long before this. 

What if we begin to value choosing to go small rather than big? Giving away our power? Holding enough of ourselves back for our mental and physical health, our families, and our souls? Declaring that we are more than what we do, and everyone gets a chance to do what they do best?

Being the GOAT, in ministry or in sports, is’t worth as much as we imagine. Choosing whole is where the real strength is.

A Job Well Done

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

I want to banish 2 phrases from my vocabulary:

  • “I don’t have time.”
  • “I didn’t get enough done today.”

Is it funny that, in preaching on the Sabbath the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching to myself?

I started preaching in Exodus in March. Planned a couple weeks on the 10 commandments. Moving right along to other things like golden calves and waterfalls sprouting from rocks.

I spent 4 weeks on the 4th commandment—

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”

I came away absolutely convinced that if we don’t get this rhythm of rest right, we get nothing right. We get nothing right in our relationship with God and with others if we miss this concept and practice.

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Sabbath Rest

Most people, most Americans at least, have no idea how to rest. And we’re dying for it.

The unique time in our history we find ourselves in right now could also be an opportunity to re-learn the fourth commandment. Unintentionally and certainly against our wills, we are poised to reflect on what rest really is, why we need it, and how we’re going to return to whatever is reality on the other side of a global pandemic.

What do we want normal to be, and how does sabbath rest figure into it?

Sabbath and rest are one of the most important themes in the Bible. Rest interweaves throughout all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. In exodus at the 10 Commandments, we get the first absolute mention of Sabbath rest as a command.

Exodus 20.8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

But that doesn’t mean it was unheard of before. We know this, because the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings were told to recognize the Sabbath rest by not collecting manna on the seventh day.

Let’s take this command apart a little.

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Remember—zakar—means to call something to mind in such a way that we act on it in the present.

Sabbath-shabbat = Rest. Stopping. To cease activity.

Holy=set apart—given over for a special purpose, consecrated, dedicated, separate

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So putting this all together, the commandment means:

Remember—in such a way that you do something about it right now—the stopping of everything and the separate, dedicated purpose for this day.

Remember

What are we remembering?

For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.

It’s an intentional echo of Genesis 2.3—“Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

The first reason for the sabbath rest is all tied up in creation. I say first, because there is another, but we’ll get to that next week. This first reason is set right after the first three commandments—and there’s beautiful, intentional order to that.

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The first three commands have to do with loving God. (Have no other gods but me, make and worship no idols, don’t take my name in vain.) These three commands and the creation—relatedness of the fourth one also neatly coincide with Jesus statement of the most important command – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. That’s what the first three are all about. And that’s what the first reason to keep the sabbath rest is about.

The reminder to rest is set there to make us focus on the fact that he keeps the world rolling on a daily basis, and we do not. God created in six days—he did it all. We had zero hands in it. The first reason to keep the Sabbath is to give us a constant reminder, because we do tend to forget, that we are not the ones in charge of the universe. He is the one who created us and gives us breath.

If we don’t stop and keep our regular rhythm of rest, we start to believe the lie that we not only can keep our agenda running smoothly but we must. If we don’t keep working, it will all fall apart. This is a lie, and it’s right there in the heart of our faith.

We tell ourselves that one day it will be done and we will get a rest. If we worked as a little bit harder and a little bit longer, we can take a break. If we create at least a Plan B, and probably a C and a D, we don’t have to keep spinning our wheels quite as much. We all know how that ends. One day never comes.

This thinking leads straight to breaking the first 3 commandments.

  • We have other gods before the one God. Our bank accounts, our jobs, our own daily planners end up getting our real worship in terms of time and priorities.
  • We create idols out of productivity and security—those are the things we really trust in.
  • And we attach his name, taking it in vain, to things like bigger and better and more. We decide that it’s a godly virtue to work harder and make others do the same—and that’s edging quite close breaking all 3 at once.

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Every 7th day we’re reminded to:

  • Renounce dominion over our time and our autonomy
  • Step off throne we think we’re on
  • Recognize God’s dominion over everything
  • Interrupt our time, plan, agenda, and god of productivity
  • Intentionally be inconvenienced.

The Sabbath rest is instituted to teach us a rhythm of meditating and appreciating God’s constant, active creating and sustaining. It is intended for us to sit back and accept our own inability to sustain our world. It keeps us humble. If we allow it to.

And it truly leads to peace and joy.

Learning more about Sabbath rest has changed me. I have come to understand that a rhythm of ending my day, not only my week, with stepping back as God did, looking at my work, and saying “that was a job well done,” changes the day’s schedule from stressful to peaceful. And it doesn’t depend on how much of that agenda gets done. It depends on whether or not it was a day in which I honored God and did good work. The amount of it makes zero difference. The peace and wholeness God offers from this simple rhythm is beautiful.

Losing Time

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Photo by Jaelynn Castillo on Unsplash

In elementary school I had a trick I used to impress friends and others whom I desperately wanted to impress. I would jump into the air and land, on the sidewalk, on my bum, with knees together sideways and feet turned out. It sounds confusing, but it was impressive, trust me. Especially with the sidewalk element—kind of like tightrope walking without a net. I had the shock and awe factor down back in third grade.

In junior high, I won a toe-sucking contest at my best friend’s sleepover. You read that right. I managed to put my big toe in my mouth and keep it there longer than anyone else. Way longer. It wasn’t even difficult.

Do not ask me why we did this. I do not know whose idea it was or why we all complied, like the lemmings most junior high girls are. I only know I won an event that has very few bragging rights, since no one really wants to admit they excelled at a toe-sucking contest. Except, apparently, me. In my defense, it was junior high, and 1) Junior high humans do very, very strange things, plus 2) This was a pretty tame strange thing as far as junior high humans go.

In high school I wanted to be a cheerleader, and I had the required flexibility, obviously, but I lacked the voice. They told me I couldn’t yell loudly enough or project enough energy, and I bristled at that judgment then. Now, I know it was spot on. Who has the energy to yell over trivial things? Not this INFJ/Enneagram 5. Extraverts and 7’s, this is your territory. Be you.

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

My body told me decades before doctors did that it had some unusual qualities; I just thought they were normal.

Learning I have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome) this past year has been one of the biggest jourenys-you-don’t-want-to-go-on of my life. I love traveling—but not this time. Sure, I’ve had it all my life and didn’t know it. Yes, I’ve been quite fortunate that the symptoms have only forced themselves into my life in the past couple years. Definitely, many, many people have it far worse. Nevertheless, those symptoms are a pain. Literally.

For those unfamiliar, I try to describe it this way. It’s like your joints don’t have brakes. When other peoples’ bodies tell them, “Whoa there, elbow, pull back a little. You’re going too far too fast,” mine don’t. They sit back and think, “Hey, can’t wait to see how far this will go without disaster. Hand me the popcorn.”

Everything goes too far; everything stretches too much; everything hurts. Yoga teachers are impressed. My physical therapist is not.

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Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

Most days I fight it. Some days I’m too tired. This is OK.

Often, I struggle because slow is not my groove. I walk fast, work fast, pack my calendar because fast works for me. Except now, walking fast could get my splayed on the ground with an injury, and I walk slowly, watching every sidewalk irregularity and holding on to every stair rail. I have to leave spaces in that datebook, empty whites places where blue ink used to fill, because feet up time is now at least as important as feet on the ground.

It irks me, because it’s not me.

I try to find the grace in the trade-off. And it’s there. This morning, the pink sunrise filtered through the treetops on my way home from dropping my offspring at the train station for work. I got home and wrote a haiku about it. I don’t write poetry. I’m pretty bad at it. Something in the morning told me I could, though, and that something, I think is the time I’ve lost being fast.

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It seems antithetical, losing time by being fast. But I have. I‘ve lost the present. I’ve lost the ability to sit with the now and not make plans for the not yet. I’ve squanderer  the moments in favor of the days. I’ve said “I don’t have time” so much that I believe it, even though who doesn’t have time for loved ones and silent hugs and sparkling eyes that want to tell you everything going on in their universe?

I’ve lived in the “going to” so much I’ve lost touch with the “is”—the pink of sunrise being combed out by tree fingers in the sky. I’m finding that I like the “is,” and perhaps that’s a gift of this inherited disease. It’s certainly a grace.

That’s one of the reasons my word for 2020 is “Listen.” Followed closely by “Observe.” I loathe passivity, in grammar and in life, but perhaps it’s time to embrace a bit of it. To sit, to watch, to hear, to be present.

Unlike everything else, it can’t hurt.