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Faith & Worship: Spiritual strength training

I’ve been running, biking, and swimming for many years and I love doing those things, but last December I got a strange pain in my knee. I could walk on my knee, but couldn’t run. Very frustrating. So, I went to a physical therapist at PRO Therapy. After some evaluation, the physical therapist said that I needed to work on my “core.” I didn’t even know that I had a core. But I soon found out.

I discovered that there was a whole part of my body that I wasn’t really using too well, and that weakness was showing up as knee pain. In fact, later the physical therapist told me that without the strength training, I was headed to some serious leg problems and difficulty in walking, much less running, in the years ahead.

At the same time Mary, my spouse, unexpectedly hurt her Achilles tendon and couldn’t go for her personal training at PRO Therapy. She suggested that I go instead.

“It will be good for you,” she said. At that time, I didn’t even know what personal training was and had never done strength training, especially with a personal trainer. I almost didn’t go. But we had already paid for the time, so I relented and went.

To my amazement I discovered that the training was not only challenging and made me sore, but it was also incredibly helpful. So, as hard as it has been, I am incredibly grateful for my experience in strength training.

What I’ve learned though, is not only that physical strength training is good. The experience has also led to some reflection on a different, spiritual kind of strength training. Just like I didn’t know I needed physical strength training, it is possible not to realize that you might also need spiritual strength training. Like our physical bodies, our hearts and souls only become stronger through exercise and training.

There are lots of ways to do “spiritual strength training.” For me learning and education have been key, and that learning has taken many different forms. The process of working my way through two doctoral degrees, though not easy, was like a catalyst for changes that continue to be deeply fulfilling and very helpful. In truth, I cannot imagine being where I am today apart from those experiences.

A lot of my spiritual learning also happened outside the classroom. It happened, for example, as I went to a weeklong retreat in 1976 that stretched me and helped me to see the Bible in a wonderfully inspiring way. And a prayer retreat in 1983 at a Catholic monastery. And an online Bible program that helped me master Bible interpretation using the original languages. And my own reading and study of Celtic Christianity, a lifelong interest of mine. It happened through more than one series of conversations with a really good spiritual counselor. These were not formal classes, but things that I chose to do because of a longing in my heart, and an almost magnetic pull to participate.

Other learning experiences in my life happened almost accidentally. Well of course, for a closet Calvinist nothing is accidental, but some accidents are more apparent than others. Experiences of loss, painful mistakes, bruised and broken relationships, all these things have led me to think, reflect, study, and reach out to others to try to figure out what they mean.

Life events also led me to prayer, which continues to be a learning experience. Years ago, I thought I understood prayer pretty well, but over time I have realized that prayer is so much more than I ever imagined. At times prayer has been a struggle, but it has also given me strength of spirit. In many ways learning is the core of my spiritual strength training.

I love the quote from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 183), a tale about the mythical King Arthur of Britain. The quote is from Merlyn, a wise and whacky wizard-like figure in the story:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow [on his pipe], “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then–to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing, which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

It’s a great story with lessons that extend far beyond its characters and plot.

So what might spiritual strength training look like for you? Unfortunately, I can’t tell you. And no one else can either, in spite of all the people who may try to do so.

Oh, I could say that prayer is important, but what kind of prayer? That will depend on you.

I could say that learning the Bible matters, but the parts of the Biblical message that will spark your renewal of heart and soul will be different for you than they are for me. Same for your acts of service.

As humans, we are similar, but not identical. And just as each of our physical bodies is unique, so also are our souls and spirits. The best ways for each of us to gain strength of spirit will be uniquely our own.

So how do we discover our own unique God-given path for spiritual strength training? By walking that path. Like exercise we have to try to do it, consistently, sometimes courageously, sometimes with fear and trembling, often learning from others on the way. And like physical exercise and wellness, there’s no better time to start your own spiritual strength training than today.

Pastor Dent Davis, Tryon Presbyterian Church