Thursday, July 3, 2014

My Most Worthy Pursuit

When I was young, I was devoted to my sport- cheerleading. Before some of you laugh because I called cheerleading a sport, hear me out.  It might not be true in every high school, but the cheerleaders at my high school were truly among the best female athletes at the school. The cheerleading program at my school was rigorous. We had the most amazing coaches who made us condition and train as hard or harder than other athletes participating in team sports at my school.  We cheered at ball games, pep rallies, and community events like regular cheer squads, but we also worked for hours everyday and on weekends to perfect routines for competition.  We competed in regional, state, and national competitions, winning regional competition, winning state, and placing at nationals.  Back then, I had dreams of going on to be a college cheerleader and eventually becoming a professional cheerleader, too.

This is a photo of my junior varsity squad. I think I was a sophomore in high school at the time.  I am in the back on the far right. 

Back then I had an autographed poster of the University of Georgia's cheerleading squad on my bedroom wall. This poster was a real prize to me.  The poster showed all the fit, gorgeous women on their cheerleading team lined up with their arms behind their backs, showing off their rock hard, tanned abs in their mid-drift uniforms. The team was co-ed, so the guys on the team were also in the picture.  They were lined up behind the ladies with their incredibly built arms also crossing behind their backs. I used to admire the people on the poster.  I wanted to be like them and attain the same physical perfection and level of skill in my sport.

But something else was happening in my life around this time.  I had started to ask questions about God, life and death, heaven and hell, eternity, etc.  So, in my free time, I took to reading the Bible to see what it had to say about those topics. Then I started going to church with friends. I started to believe in Jesus. And eventually, I surrendered my life to Him. As soon as I did that, my soul was deeply satisfied and I had a radical shift in my perspective and my priorities pretty much overnight. Just like that, I was a new creation.  "Behold, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come." 2 Corinthians 5:17

There were a lot of changes in my life, but one in particular was in the way I cheered. I found I didn't need to pursue physical accomplishments to find fulfillment anymore. I was already fulfilled in the deepest parts of my being.  Now the most important thing was getting to know Jesus better and better. One verse I found back then and loved immediately was Philippians 3:8. It says, "I count everything as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." That's how I felt about cheerleading (and everything else in my life, really). I still enjoyed cheering.  But I felt that it might as well be nothing when I compared it to my relationship with Jesus. 

I kept cheering, but something was fundamentally different, so I was no longer as desperately driven to excel in it like before.  Therefore, I can't say that I became a better athlete after coming to faith in Jesus if I want to be honest. My coach even admitted once that she felt my faith had "ruined me" for athletic pursuits.  I no longer cheered to find meaning because I had found it. Now I just cheered because I really enjoyed it. I still worked hard at it, but mainly because I knew God would want me to work hard.  I didn't feel like I had to succeed at it like before. I just wanted to do well because God wanted me to do my best at everything.

Many Bible verses were brand new to me back then.  Another verse that I discovered around that time was 1 Timothy 4:8. "Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come." I was probably sixteen at the time and I was thrilled to find words to express what God was doing in my life. My spiritual life was now much, much more important to me than my physical one. 

Time went by. The poster of the UGA cheerleading team still hung on my wall, but I didn't admire it like before. In fact, I hardly even noticed it for a long time. But one day, as I was standing in my room, I saw the poster and I almost decided that it was time to take it down and just throw it away since it didn't represent me anymore.  But then I felt a mischievous joy and I had an idea. I cut out a long, narrow piece of paper and wrote 1 Timothy 4:8 on it.  "Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come."  Then I took some rubber cement and pasted the verse right across all of the cheerleader's faces, directly onto the poster that had been so precious to me for so long. There would be no way to peal the verse off without ruining the picture. The verse was in just the right spot to still see all the cheerleaders' beautiful physiques, rock hard abs, and toned biceps, but now I could also read the words and be reminded of what the Lord had done and was still doing in my life.  He was more important to me now than the physical performance that dominated my life before. Ruining that poster was an act of solidarity. I knew it meant that I was on a different path forever.  I kept the poster like that for several more years until I trashed it.

This is a photo of my cheerleading squad my sophomore year in college. I'm on the bottom right this time.

Fast forwarding through twenty years- I cheered in college for two years then quit cheering, got married, finished college, worked as a teacher, got pregnant, stayed home, had two more babies, started teaching my kids at home.  All the while, I gained a lot of weight. I was still pursuing my relationship with Jesus, but I had no good reason to give time to physical pursuits.  I was doing the other things the Lord called me to.  But then I felt the Lord call me to lose the weight, so I felt I had to obey Him. I started praying about it. I learned about healthy eating and then, finally, I started exercising again.  I thought God just wanted me to be healthy.  But then I felt the joy He had when I exercise. I also realized how much joy I have when I exercise, how much joy it brings me to exercise with others, and how much I love leading others in exercise.  So I started teaching group fitness again, using those gifts that had laid dormant for a long time since I was no longer cheering or training for anything.  After some more time, I realized the Lord was actually calling me into group fitness as a vocation. My job is part time so that I have time to fulfill my other callings, too. The Lord works everything out in detail.
  
This family photo was taken in May 2012.

Interestingly, now I look at my life and find myself pursuing physical excellence with even more fire than I had before I knew the Lord. I never watched what I ate when I was young. Now I take time and effort to really nourish my body well.  I am also performing physically again, even more often than I did back then and I have more muscle than ever.  But something is really different this time.  This time, I feel like I am being called back to it by the same God who called me away from it so I could pursue my relationship with Him and His other purposes for me.  Obviously, I want to pursue the Lord's will for my life and it feels as if I must pursue this to fulfill His perfect will for me. So I am really going for it now!  Maybe I won't always feel this motivated to make such physical gains. But, for some reason, I am convinced His will for me now includes the pursuit of a strong body that can perform really well.

The Lord will often speak to me when I am exercising. I think that is another reason why I enjoy it as much as I do. I find Him in it and He is my great love.  All those dreams I had about becoming a professional athlete died when I died with Christ. I thought they were nothing but mere childish vanity.  I had pretty much forgotten my own story, how much I used to love the hard work of training, how I had dreamed of becoming a professional cheerleader someday, teaching others at camps and events, coaching and leading them in physical pursuits, etc. But, in a moment, when I was lifting weights the other day, He brought all that back to my mind and the memory took my breathe away.  I saw who I used to be, who I used to want to become, and  I saw who I am now, totally different, yet, somehow, the same again.  That's when I think I heard His Spirit say something like, "You see, if had given it to you then, you wouldn't have had me. And that would have been nothing. I am a loving God. Now you can have what you want and you have me- that is everything."  He said all this in the middle of a set of squats! I was already breathless, but then, even more so!

Here's a recent picture of me with that same little baby in my arms! 

So I pursue physical fitness now out of a love for Jesus and in obedience to His calling on my life.  I dedicate my work as a fitness instructor to the Lord and I pray, prepare, and work really hard so that I can be a blessing to the people who come to my classes.  I also hope, pray, and work hard because I want to improve and become better and better at my job as time goes by.  And as I imagine the things God may have in store for me, I am excited about the future. I was a little worried about the fact that God waited as long as He did to solidify His calling to me in this area,  fearful I missed opportunities while I was beginning the other things He wanted done in my life. But I have seen that many women in my profession are reaching their physical and professional peeks well into their fifties. That's thrilling. God's timing is always perfect, so there is plenty of time left for me if the Lord wants to keep me on this path for a while. And I hope He does.  But it is up to Him, truly.   

Everything we do can be worship if we do it for God. I believe I do what I do for God. It also feels as if I do it with Him at times since His Spirit sometimes speaks to me when I exercise.  Like Eric Liddell famously said, "When I run, I feel His pleasure."  Sometimes I can feel the Lord's pleasure when I exercise and it makes me work even harder. But even as I work toward these very physical goals, my relationship with God remains my most worthy pursuit.  And like His Spirit told me during that set of squats, when I have Him, I have everything!    

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