I’ve never been much good at pull ups. I find this true with lots of folks, especially women. We don’t have much upper body strength – or at least not enough to hoist our girth all the way up to pull our chins up and over that bar – so we wiggle and wriggle. Stress and strain. Struggling against ourselves and gravity.
We may jump up or have someone lift us, and then we see how long we can hold on. (That was standard for elementary PE for girls when I was young-er :)) This always felt kind of demoralizing – not that I needed a lift but that I just hung there, waiting to lose my grip and give in to the fall.
One solution was the low bar. I could easily pull myself up to that. Not much effort required. I started with arms mostly bent, muscles engaged, and simply finished the job. Somehow, staying there was easier, too, because I knew the ground was right there under me. Not a fall away.
But if your objective was a real pull up performed from the hanging position, the low bar didn’t help you. It didn’t strengthen you. It simply gave you the false impression you were stronger, until the high bar humbled you. That’s the thing about real life. It often pulls the firmament right out from under us and we’re left hanging on for dear life.
God has set us a very high bar. He has commanded us to love Him above all else with our whole selves: heart, strength and mind. But he has commanded one more thing: to love our neighbors as ourselves. The law and the prophets hang from these commandments. (Matthew 22: 34-40)
We hang from that very high bar if we seek to love God that way. We may feel the weight of the law pulling us to earth. But God does not leave us hanging. He gives us a strength training program. The exercise prescription: love your neighbor.
That’s hard work. We leap up and plummet. Leap up again. This time, lowering a bit more gracefully. Leap again and hold, hold, hold it there…as long as we can until our grip slips and we can’t hold on any more. Over and over we grab hold of the high bar and resist the pull of gravity with all our might. Each time we can hold on just a bit longer and resist a bit more. Gradually, we grow stronger.
This leaping and lowering, that’s what loving our neighbors does for us. God insists. It’s the simplest of personal training programs. The home version only requires one piece of equipment. God’s pull up bar, set to its proper height. His command:
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”~ Exodus 20: 3-6
Don’t ever lower that bar. God has plans to love a thousand generations through the love He grows in you. Thus, the second command. The one that has us engaging a personal trainer to give us just enough boost to reach the bar because that requires more strength than we now have. But we will, if we just keep at it.
I’m out on a hot soccer field with a young man who wants to make his high school team in the spring. It is September and he (with his father) has engaged my services to help him in this pursuit. At our first meeting, I run him through a few drills. About mid-way, I have him jog, then sprint. We, that means he, does this several times. I watch as he slows, his face dripping in sweat as he completes the final sprint.
I congratulate him as he comes into the shade for some water. Suddenly, he looks at his dad and says, “I don’t feel so good.” He dismisses himself to be sick.
I am sick with him, not literally but figuratively. What have I done? I am not meant to harm but to help. Not to break down but to build up. I’m in the business of preventing injury! His Dad just shakes his head. “He’s so out of shape. This will be a good wake up call.”
I imagine this happens on training fields and race courses across the country and around the world. But not MY training field. That’s a place where people play and laugh and have fun and do a little exercise. Not toss their cookies!
Well, this kid means business, and he wants a chance to make that soccer team. He knows he needs to make some changes and train hard. He comes back for another session. Same field. It’s hot and humid. I don’t know what he’s done since last week. We, that means he, begin. He is breathing hard, sweating, shaking his head in disappointment. I am doing all these same things, only on the inside.
I immediately have a mountain of respect for the personal trainers I know who do this, day in and day out. Push people past what they think they can do in pursuit of the better they have in them. But how do I know how much is just enough and not too much?
I line up the cones. At the same distance as a week ago. Some halfway. Some all the way. “Do you want me to jog and then sprint?” he asks.
“I want you to run them in a way you can finish,” I tell him. Wow. Where have I heard those words before? Thank you St. Paul for your words to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:24) and to Timothy (2 Tim 4:7).
He nods his head and readies at the first cone. Now, the pace is up to him. Finishing is his goal. He is not performing for me. He is setting himself on course to complete the race. I can’t do this for him. I can set up the path and stand by him. “When you’re ready, go,” I tell him. He does.
It’s excruciating to watch. He struggles, but pushes on. Bends, breathes, grimaces. Stretches, walks, then jogs again. At the last few meters, he leans forward toward the finish. And he does. He is not sick. He is not elated. He’s done. He has accomplished today’s goal. He moves to the shade and gets water.
He doesn’t know what anguish this has caused in me. I wonder if God feels this way as he watches us struggle? As we suffer through hardship and pain, even that of our own doing? He could step in, but that would negate all our work. It would remove our goal and preclude our progress. He has chosen not to defeat us. What wise words he has given us for these moments. “Run in such a way that you might win” … “Fight the good fight”… “Finish the race”… “Keep the faith”…
It’s hard to keep running when we don’t see the finish line. Sometimes we need a personal trainer to help us discover that we have what the day’s challenge demands, enough to cross the finish line.
Taking it at Godspeed, rather than full steam ahead, is what I am showing this young man he can do for himself.