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A Coward in the Spinning Class

Are you sometimes a coward? I know I am…

And because I’m quite familiar with the visceral mechanics of cowardice in myself, it’s not that hard to spot it in others, even when we do our best to camouflage it…

Every Friday I go to a lunchtime spinning class at my health club—same instructor every week, with mostly the same people pedaling away around me. Last week I saw someone new in the class—a very fit-looking guy wearing all the right gear. He had the look of an athlete. But as the class progressed and the instructor barked at us to push harder, I noticed this guy actually relaxed his pace. Because the rest of the class was heads-down, grinding up an imaginary hill in an imaginary race, it was easy enough to slack off with no one the wiser.

But I saw him, and therefore I saw myself. I didn’t like the reflection…

In the subtle way this guy backed off when everyone else was ramping up, he capitulated to laziness and fear and indifference—the smell of cowardice, no matter how you sniff it. Of course, he might have an injury or a medical condition that caused his restraint, but I don’t think so. I think, just like me, this guy loved the idea of doing a hard thing more than the demands of actually doing a hard thing. The class ended with everyone mopping up their sweaty mess, except for this guy, who sat back and preened—laughing and chatting with the guy next to him…

We most often associate courage with epic acts of valor, but its “natural habitat” is in the subtle, nearly unrecognizable choices we make in everyday life. On the razor’s edge of our life, we face a countless number of micro-decisions to either lean into hard things or back away from them. And every choice we make determines the “background music” of our life—will it be the “rock and roll” of courage or the “smooth jazz” of cowardice? Nowhere is this lean-in/lean-out choice more vital than the way we pay attention to the kids and adults we lead, and the God we serve…

The great English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

The difference between appreciating the “fire of God” around us—in the stories and challenges and triumphs of the people we engage every day—and spending our days “plucking blackberries” hinges on our courage. It’s the courage to pay eccentric attention to the nuances of those stories and to the nudges of the Spirit, then do something as a result. Another way of describing what I mean is “mindfulness”—a New Agey word that I despised, before I really understood what it meant.

But then I heard Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist and author of the book Mindfulness, interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She advocates a way of living that has a direct connection to courageous ministry: “When you’re being mindful, you’re simply noticing new things. Mindfulness is what you’re doing when you’re at leisure. If you are on a vacation, you’re looking for new things. You’ve paid a lot of money to be [there]. It’s enjoyable rather than taxing. It’s mostly energy-begetting, not energy-consuming.”

Mindfulness in ministry, as opposed to the subtle practices of cowardice, is the determination to engage when disengagement would be easier. It might look like this…

  • Listening to understand rather than listening to build ammo for a defense when an angry or frustrated or disappointed parent wants to speak to you.
  • When it comes to the choices kids are making with their “entertainment options,” asking far more “why” questions than you typically would do.
  • When you pray with or for a teenager, stopping first to ask the Spirit how to pray before you open your mouth, then waiting until you feel nudged in a particular direction. (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
 And do not lean on your own understanding”—Proverbs 3:5.)
  • When students struggle to understand a spiritual truth, resisting the urge to be their “answer-person” and asking questions that force them to wrestle it out themselves first, instead.
  • Stopping long enough to consider how you’re experiencing the kids or adult leaders in your ministry, then describing the reflections of God’s glory you see in them.

When we are ruined by and ruined for Jesus, courage is the air we breathe.

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A Coward in the Spinning Class

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