May 26, 2015

Workout for the Soul: A Review of Theological Fitness

I hate to exercise. So the irony was not lost on me when I recently found myself sweating on the elliptical at my local Planet Fitness (“The Judgement Free Zone”) reading Aimee Byrd’s new release, Theological Fitness.

Regarding physical fitness, I fall squarely into the fitness faker category—high metabolism, non-competitive, and sweat-avoidant—and I initially wasn’t convinced the 188 pages of Byrd’s book would hold my attention for the length of several trips to the gym. To be sure, for a non-exerciser, Theological Fitness sometimes reads a bit like a science fiction novel; every turn of the page reveals a new world: sit-ups, hammer curls, nun chucks, and something called “weighted-side-plank-T-stand-pushups” (p. 82). I don’t even want to know.

But Byrd is an excellent writer, and her alternate universe of physical fitness is paralleled in the familiar spiritual fitness illustrations used in Scripture, particularly in the book of Hebrews. Byrd’s grand thesis is to encourage her readers to pursue the kind of tough, conditioned, and thorough fitness in their spiritual lives that they might desire in their physical bodies. Byrd writes: “Faith is a gift of God, but faith is a fighting grace. Theological fitness, then, refers to that persistent fight to exercise our faith by actively engaging in the gospel truth revealed in God’s Word.” (p. 16, italics original) And this is going to require some sweat.

Like a good coach, Byrd is not apologetic about the discipline required to exercise faith. She is encouraging, but she doesn’t offer any magic bullets or quick fixes: “[The Christian life] involves struggle and wrestling, unceasing warfare, and many bruises. If we despair under the hard blows, we will not yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness. Like a good martial arts instructor, we need to encourage one another not become weary under the blows.” (p. 68) Her perspective is refreshing in a Christian culture that often lacks true grit, and Theological Fitness would make an excellent basis for a mentoring relationship or a book study.

One of the illustrations I found most compelling was Byrd’s description of a women’s self-defense class she attended. In the session, the students were asked to get out their purses and find whatever items might be useful as weapons if they needed to practice some real-world self-defense. The instructor then taught the women to use their keys, pens, and magazines as tools for a fight. Everyday objects became defensive essentials, but woe to the woman whose purse contained only a used Kleenex or a tube of Chap Stick. The things we carry with us can make the difference between life and death. Refocusing on our life-long spiritual fight, Byrd then asks her readers, “What’s in your theological bag?” (p. 88)

For fitness fanatics, fitness fakers, and everyone in between, the searching questions and robust exegesis of Theological Fitness contain a workout plan for the soul. Writing about 1 Pet. 3:15, Byrd explains: “There are two qualifications of fitness here: knowing God’s truth, and the patient endurance of suffering for the sake of it. This requires conditioning, strengthening, and training. Just as our bodies need continual practice in any kind of physical training, so do our minds in theological growth.” (p. 85)

I guess it’s time to exercise.

May 11, 2015

No Time Left for You

May is such a busy month. It is a time when I want to honor mothers, celebrate graduations, shower gifts on brides-to-be, plan Memorial Day picnics and attend end-of-the-school-year festivities. I have a lot of scheduled events that mirror a Christian view of how to use my time.

But, it is not just May that is full of things to do. My whole life, like that of many others, is made up of personal busyness. This is not always a good thing. The Bible does speak of honest work and avoiding idleness, but it doesn't condone the way I sometimes use self-induced busyness as an excuse for sin.

For example, I try to make the most of each morning.  I get ready for my job, cook and do laundry, read online news, finish ministry tasks and play a few brain games on my tablet. Much of my activity has spiritual value. And yet, sometimes I am so busy with my to-do list that I don't have time to seek God before I leave for work. This isn't good for my soul.  I allow the less worthy pursuits to crowd out life's eternally significant things.

Another result of over-scheduling is that I am overwhelmed, distracted and irritable. "We've gone too far in terms of using 'I'm very busy' as a 'Get Out of Being Polite/Considerate/Attentive Free' card," wrote Gina Barreca* in a Hartford Courant op-ed piece about busyness. When my own standards take precedence over God's will, tasks are more important than people. And, it is hard to love people when you feel they have interrupted your personal agenda for the day.

In addition, I accept the lie that I am a loser if I am not busy accomplishing something the culture deems worthy. Barreca said, "We made ourselves feel significant by believing that the busier we became, the more significant we were." Instead, my standing comes from Christ and His view of what is important. This means that I should not be too busy to serve Him in even the unglamorous ways, like sacrificing my time for an unlovely church member.

Maintaining godly priorities is a challenge. But, I know that if I neglect my relationship with God or am stingy with my love and service to others, I am not glorifying to Him. I need to consider how filling my time with endless tasks crowds out more important things. And, I am not too busy for that.

*Note: As far as I know, Ms. Barreca does not confess faith in Christ. However, she has some insightful things to say from time-to-time.

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