This article originally appeared in Immerse Journal, Nov/Dec 2011. Reprinted with permission.
I get choked up when I watch marathon races.
As a runner, I find deep connection with people running big miles for long hours and finishing exhausted. It reminds me that some of our best human experiences are captured while we’re in motion. These are not the “to do list” activities that crowd our lives as much as the regular rhythms that help us find a cadence through life’s journey.
Often, calls for rhythm or balance default to practices that require a slower, more contemplative focus. However, I have noticed that for many, a slower pace can spiral into an unhealthy and misinformed inactivity all in the name of spirituality.
Youth Ministry Movement
First, I wonder if youth ministries have bought into the idea that the Christian faith is only truly spiritual when spirituality is practiced in one’s head, on one’s butt. Think about the ways youth workers tell students to connect with God: Read your Bible. Do a Bible Study. Keep a prayer journal. Sit in a circle. Think about your life. Listen to a sermon. Be still. While important, these approaches to soul care situate in the cerebral at the expense of the rest of the body. And, in my estimation, this contributes to a false Platonically-informed dichotomy that pits “secular” motion against “sacred” stillness.
What if we recognized movement as sacred?
What if active expression actually contributes to one’s transformation? Historically, we recognize that the movements of receiving baptism, sharing communion, serving others, walking the labyrinth, or embarking on a pilgrimage have grounded people’s meaning-making for centuries. Movement matters, and maybe it’s time for a little more, not less.
Rethinking movement may require youth workers to consider if or how they promote a movement-less spirituality, unknowingly separating the spiritual from the active. It can happen at youth group when we ask students play the (active) game before everyone sits (still) to listen to the message. It can happen at the retreat, when we wear students out (though activities) at the beginning of the retreat so that they sit (still) around the campfire for the “spiritual” stuff. It can happen when we pit school activities (sports, drama, band, etc) as the arch-enemies of youth group when it is likely that students are not choosing between secular and spiritual but between forms of worship and meaning-making. Hence, school activities and youth group may not be enemies but friends.
Further, look around church this Sunday. When’s the last time you encouraged skipping in the hallway (Maybe kids are on to something)? When’s the last time you allowed running around the sanctuary (Props to middle schoolers!)? The typical reaction of adults is to enforce “sit still” and “be quiet.” Maybe young people are not disturbing the worship service. Maybe we are as we short-circuit their meaning-making in those very moments. In the name of order or program, might we unknowingly be teaching a motionless spirituality?
Youth Worker Movement
Second, (and closer to home), might youth workers believe and perpetuate a sedative spirituality because youth workers, themselves, live sedative lives? We’re not only teaching a motionless spirituality; we’re modeling it.
Barbra Brown Taylor reminds us that, “In a world of too much information about almost everything, bodily practices can provide great relief. […] In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life." 1
Sedative lives affect us, affect our spirituality, and affect our soul care. We are born to run, made to move, created for expression, placed in a world that’s tactile, in need of exploring and involvement. Maybe that’s why I tear up when watching marathons. They’re likely running for something, running from something, running for someone, working something out in their lives. Sweating, straining, pushing, extending, wondering if they’re going to make it. And the only way they’ll know they’ll make it is by doing it, not just thinking about it. I find that the true appreciators of any activity are not the one’s who read about it, but who have been there themselves. Action draws people toward each other, connecting them not merely through cerebral belief systems, but through motion, challenge, and experiences.
So each day, I choose to join in this holy practice of movement. I lace up and hit the road. I commit to sweat; to raise my heart rate; to step out into a bigger world in order to remember who I am and where I live. I hear my breath, I push myself further, I get in touch with my body, I pass people, feel the hills, dodge cars, and avoid dogs. I think, and remember, and pray, and think some more, and work things out. The world often looks different when I return to the spot from where I started.
I’ve discovered that when I run, it is not a form of escape. Rather, it demands all my attention. I leave the headphones at home, resisting the temptation to distract myself from me or my world. Fatigue, pain, sweat, breathing, and an increased heart rate are friends who remind me of the joys and limitations that come with being human and finding solidarity with others.
So put this down. Take a walk. Skip down the hall. Ride your bike up a hill. Dance. Lace up your running shoes. Sweat. Live. Give. Be. Worship.
Be moved by others running their human race. For, as Taylor reminds us with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, “The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth." 2 If we choose, we can experience this miracle each day.
In what ways might you be either subtly or not-so-subtly communicating to students that spirituality only involves being still?
How is your own spirituality connected to stillness? How is it connected to movement? What do you find helpful about both?
What ideas do you have about your life or ministry based on the value of movement? What practice could you try this week to actively engage faith?