Authentically Strong

It’s been sold to us that in order to be a strong, athletic and healthy person, one must have a gym membership and show up several times a week for an hour or so: cardio, weights, and other strength training. In fact, it might be best to get a personal trainer.

The strongest, most athletic person I know is my father. At 72, he can out-do me in almost any physical capacity. I walk two miles on my lunch break; he walks at least six a day. The last time we went on a twenty mile bicycle ride, I was out of breath, but he shrugged. This was a warm up for him who easily covers about 80 miles a day.

He’s never set foot in a gym in his life.

His career was spent as a team member of a publicly traded company, so his working days were in a windowless cubicle. He was outside every moment he could be. He spent the summers roller blading, biking, kayaking, and canoeing. In the winter, he cross-country skied or went on hikes with snowshoes with a group of other like-minded individuals. In between, he did all the house yard maintenance for himself and a few elderly neighbors. Consequently, he’s in great shape, so agile, that he outweighs me only by thirty pounds. Sure, he’s battled frost bite, dog bites, heat stroke, and pulled more than a few muscles over the years, but it hasn’t stopped him, it’s only made him stronger, more resilient. He has no interest in gyms or repetitions of strength exercises. I once asked if he’d ever join a gym and he made a face and said, “Why? I get a much better workout in the great outdoors and it’s free.”

I think a lot of about this in terms of the Christian life.

Like working out a gym, many Christians believe living the Christian life and becoming strong in the Lord centers around church: serving in a role on Sunday morning worship and attending traditional church events: bible study, choir practice, and business meetings. To me, so much of this is like working out a gym. You’ve got your weights, your treadmill, and circuit training. Yes, you’ll break a sweat. Sure, you will get strong. And yet, it is all so sterile, like wiping down the gym equipment after you use it.

All those miles logged on the treadmill got you no where. You were probably listening to music or watching TV as you ran – not even using your full muscle strength because the machine propels you forward. You never feel the sun on your face. You never notice the trees changing, as you go along your route. There’s no turning back for a warmer jacket as the winter chill rushes in a few weeks early. There’s no amazing sunsets or cloud formations to see. But it’s safe, which is paramount in our culture.

“I go to a place to keep my fitness.” We’ve put everything in its box: spiritually, that place is church. Physically, that place is a gym.

It never occurs to us that we don’t need a building to accomplish these things.

When I think of the strongest Christians I know – the ones who are the real deal – they’re more along the lines of my dad. They’re not in a temperature controlled environment that encourages their comfort. They’re not limited to a room with equipment they need to succeed in their endeavors. They don’t have a laundry list of things they do at church for church people. They’re not on half a dozen committees or design crafts for elementary school children (which I think is a huge waste of time, resources, and energy). They’re the ones that show the love of Christ not only to fellow believers, but outside the church too. They don’t wear suits and carry a Bible around everywhere they go; they demonstrate their love for Jesus with their words and actions. They often host people in their homes, sharing their bounty with others. They’re the ones you can call at 3am. They’re the ones who reach out to the poor – in the moment – without peddling capitalist bootstrap mentalities, white washing them as “ministries.” They’re the ones that really listen and provide basic needs without statements of faith, an often thankless job. They’re also the ones who hurt the most, who’s heart gets crushed when someone they’ve been walking with decides to leave the faith or overdose or doesn’t “stick with the program.”

And the Lord calls us to so much more. The Bible doesn’t mention any of these churchy things. The Bible does speak often about showing the love of the Lord in community.

I want that. While I am far from wise, the older I get, the more I lean into the nuance, the more I look to live in the tension of living the Christian life.