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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.

Five Images of God

Because we’re just returning from a thankful Thanksgiving together, and because chapter three of my thesis is of the devil and allowed me no time to be prepared, today is a rerun of an old favorite, May you feel God in these images.

Images Speak

Words enthrall me. This is not news. I am a lover of words, and words that paint pictures draw me into their world. They may say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in my experience, the best words are worth far more than a picture. The best words let us feel them and imagine them on our own.

Words and images intertwine for me. As a lover of the imagery words can create, I get excited about images of God. What images does the Bible give us, what pictures does it paint with its words to show us God in ways that sing to our souls?

And–in keeping with the Live Free Thursday prompt–how does pondering images of God offer rest to our souls? It does to mine, when I think of God as these five things.

Father of lights

43160-533652_4624500284437_1219894898_nOr more literally, Father of the heavenly lights. The maker of the sun, stars, and moon. The creator of mist, fog, and filter that never, ever completely block the light of the sun but only amplify its raw power. The one who said, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1.5)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.(James 1.17)

I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life. (John 8.12)

The Lord is my light and my salvation, so why should I be afraid? (Psalm 27.1)

IMG_9266I love light so much that none of my windows has curtains. To know that the Father of lights has called me into His light that, yes, shows all my flaws and errors for what they are, but does so with the healing precision of a laser surgeon? That’s what it feels like to laugh freely in sunshine and turn my face to its warmth. That’s God.

A hen with her chicks

I watch birds all the time outside my window. I see them, tucking their heads inside their wings to fend off the unholy Chicago winter winds. I worry for them, as I notice a hawk sitting in the tree eying my feeder, waiting for one to stray. I hear the tiny peeps of baby robins when spring nest-building inevitably ends up in the eaves of our porch, and I watch the new parents feeding their young. I know how hens shelter their chicks for protection beneath their own bodies, willing anything to harm them before it reaches their helpless, dependent offspring.

I know how I still would if need be for mine, who are by no means helpless and dependent.

IMG_5296God wills so much more than that for us to run to his protection. He loves so much more strongly. The image of Him folding himself around me, keeping me from myself and my own tendency to stray too far from the safety of his words, brings gratitude. The realization that He did, in fact, put His own body between me and death brings awe.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. (Matthew23.37)

An eagle

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At first, this might look like the same thing as a hen. Both are birds. Both care for their young in these images. But the eagle does something different than the hen. She fights. He soars. An eagle will not simply protect her young passively, but she will take on any enemy that comes near. Also, he will not leave those eaglets in the nest but will force them into fearful, vertigo-inducing flying. Eventually, soaring.

The image of God fighting for me I cannot even fathom. The knowledge that I have no knowledge of all the times he has kept harm from me is humbling. The idea of him then ensuring that I can go out and fight my own battles, that I have been equipped to soar and dive and live freely because he takes me on his wings and lets me feel what it is to fly? It makes me brave, because what other response can I make?

As an eagle that stirs up her nest, that flutters over her young, He spread abroad His wings and He took them, He bore them on His pinions. (Deuteronomy 32.11)

A Teaching Parent

Have you ever taught a child to walk? This image is so potent if you have. You watch them getting ready. They pull themselves up, and you hover near, ready to catch their faltering little bodies. They venture one step, fear and excitement both in their tiny eyes. You watch. You wait. You want to jump up and keep them from crashing down. Sometimes you do, but not always. They know your hands are always there, but they also want to try on their own; you have to let them. And when their sense of adventure wins out and they toddle across the floor, you cheer them on. You encourage, you clap, and you envelop them in a hug at the finish line of their first steps across the room. You know this story if you’ve done it. You will always feel it.

IMG_3200Can you imagine God at that finish line for you? Cheering? Clapping? Screaming, “You’ve got this!” God proves in his story of the prodigal son that he is perfectly willing to be undignified for us when he runs to his son, robes flapping in the breeze. So yes, he screams.

He grieves when we walk the other way. He beams the joy of a parent when we take our steps in the direction he sees best laid out for us, however faltering they may be. God as a teaching parent makes me want to try.

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. I led Israel along, with my ropes of kindness and love.” (Hosea 11.3-4)

It’s difficult to choose just one more . . . Rock, bread, shepherd, but I will settle on . . .

Potter

And yet, O Lord, you are our Father, we are the clay, and you are the potter. We are all formed by your hand. (Isaiah64.8)

He is creating masterpieces. Some of them are more difficult to mold than others. (Oh, don’t I know that.) There are streaks of darkness in the clay where hard things happened, layers of color where dreams interwove. Each creation is different, each one handcrafted perfectly. I cannot begin to grasp the significance of God sitting at a potter’s wheel caring enough about the final testament of my life that he folds in the beautiful and out the muck. Individually. By hand. Again, I am awed, humbled, and grateful.

IMG_6897What images of God speak to you? Which one do you need today to know how much he loves you and is surrounding you right now? I’d love to hear.