IV. Your upper body constitutes one of your primary means of extending yourself into your world. It’s one of the most basic ways you engage your surroundings, and an upper body workout consists largely of variations on the two basic options the upper body has: of pushing (think push-ups) and of pulling (think pull-ups).
So it is in our faith conditioning that you work with and through the resistance of that which is part of you that is nonetheless uncomfortable with who God is (inconsistent with who God is) that you must push away from your core (it is incompatible with love), and that which (or who) is comfortably distinct from you that you must pull in toward your core—that or whom you must bring in close to love.
This two-fold activity constitutes, in part, simply the cultivation of the discipline of loving God and loving self. This is the discipline of making concrete choices about being (if this is who I am or want to be, what do I have to push away from my being?), but it also constitutes, in part, the challenge of loving your neighbor.
As a general rule, it’s more often behaviors that need to be pushed away from your core and people that need to be pulled into your core. Obviously, there are exceptions to this general rule. Equally obviously, there are behaviors easier to push away than others, just as there are people easier to pull into than others. If you’re serious about your conditioning, you intentionally alternate imagining what’s actually easier to imagine with what’s harder (this is equivalent to lower weight/higher repetitions and higher weight/lower reps).
The trick is to identify what you most resist. What do you most resist pushing away from yourself? What do you want to hold close that, if you stop to think about it, is inconsistent with your faith claims—your belief in God and God with you in your living? Conversely, what or whom is it easy to keep away (the enemy, the stranger, the Other)?
Here you continue processing how your lived story lines up with your believed story as you imagine pushing away what’s important to pull in what’s ultimate—as you imagine initiatives of reconciliation—pulling someone toward love—into love—into God—your core—working to create distance from your core (from God and from love), or working to minimize the distance from your core (from God and from love).
Again, as with the lower body work out, coordinating all upper body training with your core is essential. Most health and conditioning experts maintain, in fact, that the best exercises (even within a rotating focus on your basic muscle groups) do not isolate those muscle groups, but make use of them working together to achieve your greatest strength and health. And while most experts do still recommend alternating between upper and lower body workouts, constant attention is given to your core.
Throughout our resistance training, you are consistently being forced to move beyond the significant but basic affirmations (God is love, God loves you, you are blessed, who isn’t your neighbor?) to the implications of those affirmations and then to the implementation of those implications in your own living.
And so it is that upper body work, perfectly centered over your core, aligned with your lower body, allows your whole body to use its full strength, and focuses that strength in and through the great commandments, reminding us always, of the priority of loving God, of loving self, and of loving other (Mark 12:28-31; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28; Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).
As we move through our conditioning, the question may well be raised, “But don’t we need to be doing something? Shouldn’t we be out serving? Volunteering?” Well, yes, certainly, but please don’t make the mistake of assuming you’re not doing something in and through this workout. Adding service to your conditioning constitutes cross training—a vitally important component of any serious conditioning! But it doesn’t—it can’t—undermine what we’re doing here. The wise leaders of the civil rights movement trained young people in imagined situations before ever sending them into actual situations. They worked to reshape imaginations before ever attempting to reshape the world.
We, as those who seek to follow in the ways of God, sometimes wonder why we haven’t accomplished more in the way of transformation, but we really haven’t cultivated a re-imagined world and a re-imagined self—as if we were waiting for something (do we call it God?) that would just change us—make us healthy, fit, and strong without our having to work our way into a new reality—as if there were something (God?) that would just change the world without our having to work our way into that new reality.
There are acts of imagination that tilt the world—that begin the work of turning the world upside down. If you’re going to live into a different way of being, you have to practice. You have to imagine being that way first. You have to re-imagine being—recreate your world—envision recreation. You have to put yourself in real situations, ones you remember or anticipate, but then you have to imagine being in them in God’s way.
It’s like those so very important conversations you rehearse in your head. You know, those important conversations you’re going to have about clarifying the relationship, conversations with your spouse, your kids, a personnel committee. And what do you do? You imagine responses and turns in the conversation, practicing phrases and intonation. And it’s precisely because you know how important that conversation is going to be, that you imagine it—rehearse it—prepare yourself.
And you strain your imagination—feeling yourself—knowing yourself to be pushed to the limit in this recreation of creation. You keep pushing—going even further into possibility. You push yourself in comparison to who you’ve not yet managed to be … not content with who you’ve been—who you are. Isn’t that the point? You repeat to failure. But what is failure—in the context of our faith affirmations? Part of the affirmation of this story is that faithful failure is not reckoned as failure at all! And so, in your conversation with yourself you push beyond the simple realization that I don’t do this, to the almost panicked I don’t know that I can do this.
It’s so important for the health of your faith to regularly shock your imagination—not to let it it get so used to a particular way of seeing and understanding the world or yourself that it can settle for what it knows—settle into what is. You have to surprise your presuppositions, shift the ground underneath your assumptions. The very story we tell shocks our system every time we allow it to sink in beneath the assumptions and presuppositions of our world. You need to allow God’s story its full confronting, surprising, ongoing power.