Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Body and the Spirit

Today I passed my physical fitness test for my application to the Navy Chaplain Corps. My push ups, sit ups and run were all within acceptable limits, collectively contributing to a medium score. It was not the best someone could do, nor was it the bare minimums to pass either. While my performance was sufficient to pass the test, it is not where I want to remain. On the contrary, continued development in my fitness is needed as part of my preparation for ministering to warriors.

As I have prepared for this day (getting up early to run, regular calisthenics, etc.), I reflected on the spiritual preparation also necessary for entering into this career. Because of the nature of military occupations, particularly at wartime, the environments in which sailors, marines, airmen or soldiers often work can be considered spiritually "dark." The question of adequate spiritual preparation for ministering in such an environment can make or break the invading chaplain. Therefore, one had better spend time getting ready for such "gritty" ministerial work.

For this reason, I find that the physical preparation and spiritual build up have run parallel with one another. This should not be surprising since I have learned, theologically, of the internal integration of people (mental/emotion, physical and spiritual aspects all being integrated together). However, my build up to a fitness exam developed into a distinctly spiritual enterprise. Consider the mental hurdles that are overcome just in the process of running. If the goal was a three mile run, somewhere around the end of the first mile my body desired to slow and walk the rest of the way. If I was timing myself for a 1.5 mile run, typically I ran it with such speed that half way through my body set about to convince me to walk the rest of the way. The physical exertion was always a mental battle - every time.

Therefore, every workout has contributed to mental fitness along with physical fitness. Now considering how much spiritual health is integrated to mental stamina, running has been of great spiritual benefit. This is not to say that ministers who do not exercise are retarding their spiritual development. However, it does explain why Dallas Theological Seminary enrolls full time students automatically in the local gym. This suggests that the typical trappings of pastoral preparation and spiritual development may include the desk, the journal or the prayer rug; but it also will include the running track, calisthenics and the weight room. The sweat of the brow contributes to the conditioning of the spirit.

According to Richard Foster, one of the classic (though non-standard) Christian disciplines is physical labor. Historically, that labor might have been used in pious service, but I now see that the labor of it had its own value regardless of what was the product of that labor. Was the Christian discipline that one labored to build a shed or a barn? Or hoe a row of radishes? I suggest here that the Christian discipline (activity meant for developing the spiritual life) of labor was meant to simply tie spiritual development to physical exertion. Through preparing for the Navy, I have learned more (and am learning more) about the integration of the body and the spirit. I suspect such lessons will continue to build over the coming months and years.

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